Ultimately, everyone is sincere, or perceives themselves to be.
Once, a young man who thought himself very sincere lectured me on how terrorists are Muslim. I asked why. He said because they are sincere in their faith and in their desire to be shaheed (martyrs). In the same breath he helpfully informed me that Ahmadis were not Muslim–and he could not come up with a coherent argument as to why. He said that perhaps it was because they reject core orthodox Islamic doctrine regarding Prophethood. So I asked, what of scholars who promote slavery and misogyny? Do they not contradict core Qur’anic doctrine? Why, then, do you think that they are Muslim? Again, the same answer–“They’re sincere.” (Ahmadis of course are no less sincere in their belief that their doctrine is correct, but he ignored this because he enjoyed provoking Ahmadis by pronouncing takfir on them. Typical lapse in unsound circular logic.)
At the time I was furious, and too angry at this boy’s assertion to be able to articulate a proper response. Fortunately, now that I am away from Fury Land and back on my laptop, I think I can construct a reply more effectively.
Firstly: Faith in God is marked by adherence to several specified doctrines: Monotheism, the ontological equality of all individuals, the sanctity of Scripture, the right to dignity given by God, etcetera. One cannot disbelieve in these principles yet still call themselves a Muslim.
Terrorists deny the sanctity of life. They may be sincere in their belief that this denial is approved by God, but this does not alter the fact that they are wrong. Their sincerity means absolutely nothing. They are not believers; they are hypocrites and kuffaar. They really do believe that their deeds are fair in the eyes of God, but they delude themselves:
“…Shaitan made their deeds seem fair in their eyes, for their hearts had been hardened.” Q6:43
Reread that verse a few times and consider the implications. Hypocrites are sincere. They are so delusional that they have managed to deceive themselves. This state of mind is alluded to repeatedly in the Qur’an, and it exists because humans cannot tolerate cognitive dissonance. At first, a terrorist may seem aware that their deeds are evil: They could even admit to this. However, after a while, their minds will catch up with their actions, and their hearts will be cloaked. They will no longer be able to tolerate knowing their actions are bad yet still engaging in those actions; eventually they will convince themselves their actions are good. We humans were not created to suffer cognitive dissonance. We will deceive ourselves in our desperation to avoid it.
Notice the allusion to “hardened hearts” in verse 6:43. The prerequisite to a state of delusional sincerity is described as a heart of stone. (Actually, a heart even harder than stone, for there are some stones that burst into pieces from which water can flow. Q2:74. Think about this. It could mean heartbreak is a good thing.)
Both the terrorist and philanthropist tend to be equally invested in their sincerity. They both probably think that God will reward them. The integral difference between them is that the terrorist possesses a hardened heart due to his own deeds. He is no longer considered human, for he has forfeited his right to humanity by destroying the lives of others.
Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi and bin Laden were as “sincere” in their devotion to a deity if not more sincere than Prophet Musa. The difference between them lies in the fact that the latter had a soft heart and sound knowledge of faith, whereas the former two were not human. When we analyze the results of the actions of terrorists vs. the actions of Prophet Musa, we start to realize the importance of differentiation regardless of perceived sincerity: In the end, the outcome of their actions will show us who was guided.
Herein lies the essence of distinction. And this is why tyrants, no matter how much sincerity in faith they accord themselves, are kuffaar and I will not hesitate to takfir them as such. I rest my case.
(Note: This is unrelated to the above information regarding sincerity, but I might as well clarify my initial mention of Ahmadis. I condemn every act of intolerance towards them, and I abhor their persecution in Pakistan. This is religious apartheid. They are literally jailed for owning copies of the Qur’an. May Allah destroy everyone who does this to them.)
It is possible for an evil person to be sincere. I’ve seen and read much more ISIS propaganda than I would ever have anticipated reading or wanted to read, and what terrifies me most is that above everything else they are sincere. They truly believe that what they say and do is for the good of mankind.
The Qur’an describes people like this in detail. It is actually possible to corrupt your soul such that you perceive inflicting harm on innocents to be morally upright. At this point, faith will have no effect on you.
I was speaking with a Qur’anic exegete the other day, and one thing they pointed out to me was that I often disrespect the “primacy of choice.” In other words, I am so desperate to save people that even though I know certain individuals can’t be saved, I still want to save them, and I try too hard. In some way, this is disrespectful to the Qur’an, which states unambiguously that it will misguide the corrupt. I can’t save those who are destined to misguidance.
“It is eminently possible to know truth from falsehood and good from evil, and it matters.” -Iyad El-Baghdadi
Religious sermons tend to stress sincerity. But sincerity is not always the most important factor in faith. What matters is where your sincerity is rooted. If you are really lost to the point where you can’t differentiate graciousness from harm, your attempts at sincerity in any affair will backfire.
I do believe (to some degree) in the basic principle of universal morality; in other words, independent of Scripture, we can tell the difference between what is beneficial and harmful in most given contexts. This has a bearing on Qur’anic interpretation. As most of you have probably noticed, there are millions of self-proclaimed Muslims who derive millions of conflicting ideologies from the same set of scriptures and they all think they’re right. This is because our dispositions and experiences do affect our readings of the Qur’an. The Qur’an is not opposed to this; it acknowledges the validity of multiple readings. Nevertheless, not every reading is valid–for a reading to have legitimacy, it cannot be in violation of essential Islamic principles.
Another issue Muslims have is the relativization of meaning. “God is just” means absolutely nothing when in practicality, God is supposedly authorizing unprovoked attacks and horrendous infringements on others’ personhood and property. I’ve seen the psychological sabotage that results when Muslim women join neo-traditionalist Islamic cults. “Justice” no longer has meaning; neither does “kindness” nor “mercy.” These words mean nothing, for they are shamelessly applied to sugarcoat deeds that would otherwise be considered crimes. This absurd redefining of language is not limited to Islam. From what I’ve heard, it happens within the FLDS church as well as in other right-wing religious sects.
We are told, repeatedly, that we must ignore all logic and life experience and reason, in favor of clerical guidance. If they say something is good and just, then it must be good and just–and if we disagree, the evil Western mindset is corrupting us! It’s Satanic influence!
(Aaah, the Evil Western Mindset again, with its Evil Secularism and Evil Feminism and Evil LGBTQ Rights and Satanic Whore Women Who Wear Short Skirts whom Muslim women must never copy because astaghfirullah and its Evilly High Divorce Rates [why? because Western women are whores] and its Evil Encouragement of Women to Pursue UnIslamic Activities Like Working in STEM Fields Instead of Staying At Home Pleasing their Husbands.)
Islam used to attract the most oppressed among society. Orphans, slaves, women, children–they would listen to the Qur’an and believe in it, because they saw the Truth in its message. The opposite is happening today. The most vulnerable in our communities are rejecting what they perceive to be Islam, and nobody can blame them. It’s beneath the integrity of Islam to place the blame on “evil Western secular ideologies;” that’s a subversion tactic.
If anyone wants to see an example of misrooted sincerity, here is the ISIS “rulebook” on slavery. It forms the basis of the modern-day genocide occurring against Yazidi women and children.
Content warning: Slavery / Rape / Terrorism
Note that Qur’anic verses are quoted. A few Qur’anic laws are thrown in, such as the hadd punishment for the adultery of a slavegirl being halved (from 100 lashes to 50). It’s not that terrorists don’t read the Qur’an. Obviously, enough of them do that they can come up with these verse references. It’s the fact that they read it through a lens of brutality, which yields a reading of brutality–one that compromises core Islamic principles, yet such violations of core texts do not deter those who are set in their determination to destroy. For exemplification, see Nadia. (More content warnings.)
Do you really think that when people commit these crimes, they don’t register the suffering they’re causing? They do, of course. But they suppress their humanity enough to believe that their deeds are fair and beautiful. A pertinent sentiment: If your Islam is ruining people’s lives and making them detest God, if your Islam is a cult devoted to fostering oppression, you are doing it wrong.