Contrary to what you may see on the news about religious groups, it should be well established that not all things are as straightforward as they may seem. Before going any further, I must confess that I spent very little time in front of the television watching mainstream news. I get information from different places, but almost never from popular outlets like CNN or Fox. I wouldn’t totally discredit either of these sources—nor am I the right person for that particular job—but I can say with confidence that if you’re looking for truth (in this instance, about religious groups), you’re better off doing your research elsewhere. Having said that, I have been trying to keep up with the popular discourse on the Islamic fundamentalist group, Isis, to better understand the positions of those within the group, against the group, and in the middle of the crossfire between the two former stances. There have been several questions that are continually being thrown around as we attempt to grasp what exactly this group is, and how true to the Islamic faith they actually are. I want to address a couple of points for us to ponder as we examine any fundamentalist or extremist group that operates under the name of (in this instance) a religion.
1: The loudest group is not always the orthodox group.
If every atheist was like Richard Dawkins; If every Muslim was like Bin Laden; if every Christian was like Jerry Falwell; we could safely generalize people into neat little fundamentalist categories. Of course nothing is that simple. This is why the media can be dangerous, because unless you’re well aware of a worldview prior to hearing about these individuals or groups, you might find it tempting to say that all [atheists, Muslims, Christians] are _____________ and believe ______________. Again, we have to be careful, because the more we learn about groups, the more we realize how diverse they actually are. Isis, for instance, is the loudest voice in the Islamic world at the present moment. But are they orthodox?
2: Orthodoxy is difficult to define.
The idea that orthodoxy is difficult to define shouldn’t surprise anyone. I’m going to excuse atheism on this point, because atheism tends to be harder to deal with in regard to what I’m about to say. Orthodoxy can be argued from two particular directions: A) from text, and B) from practice. Some claim that what orthodoxy is, is what is found in the original religious text (if there is one), while others claim that it is found in the original practice (assuming that we all agree on practice, which is a rarity.) When we’re looking at Christian or Islamic groups in particular, we must ask ourselves two questions that correspond to points A and B. Does this group appear to be operating under the law of the text? Or does this group appear to be operating under the convictions of the majority? Notice the presuppositions: I’m assuming a correct interpretation of the text. I’m also assuming that the majority possesses the power of truth. Both of these presuppositions hold little water. This is the difficulty in uncovering orthodoxy. We must know the original intent of the religious group to determine what is truly orthodox. We must also assume that the majority does not posses the power to change the original intent. This makes discovering orthodoxy incredibly difficult in some scenarios.
3: Orthodoxy is a matter of ultimate authority.
What it boils down to is authority. We must ask ourselves these three basic questions: who is the authority? What did he/she/it/they say? Is the group operating under these instructions? Once we answer these questions, we can begin to understand if a group is operating correctly within their religious position. It’s true that the majority of Muslims do not operate like Isis. But before we can write Isis off as a deviant Islamic group, we must first conclude whether or not they are sticking true to the commands issued to them by their source of ultimate authority. If the authority is the Koran, what does the Koran say? If the authority is Muhammad and the life that he lived, what did he do? Is Isis operating in line with the authority? These questions must lead us to examine Islam carefully before we come to conclusions. Is Isis the true face of Islam? We must first establish what is orthodox. We know what is orthodox by looking at the authority. If the authority gives the green light to Isis, then Isis is orthodox. If the authority is against the behavior of Isis, then Isis is not. But regardless, be very careful when you study these groups. Stay away from generalizations. Be hesitant to trust the mainstream media. Think critically. Study the religion, and know the people within it. Get your hands dirty.