Making Sense of Islam’s Relation to Terror and Violence

In the past couple of decades the world is being subjected to horrific images of violence and terror in the name of Islam. The Islamic State (IS) is known for its recordings of beheadings. Boko Haram in Nigeria parades hundreds of kidnapped schoolgirls. Al-Shabaab in Somalia attacks shopping malls and boarding schools. These barbaric acts can make us feel helpless, fearful, angry, and even guilty, because there seems to be little we can do to stop them. Meanwhile, commentators traipse from one television channel to the other, presenting their analyses. Some condemn IS and Boko Haram but assure viewers that their acts have nothing to do with true Islam. Others opine that IS and Boko Haram do represent Islam’s true face. Neither perspective is helpful. Both distort the nature of Islam and its relation to terrorism and violence.

Evangelical views on Islam understandably hardened after 9/11. Ted Haggard, past president of the National Evangelical Association, said, “The Christian God encourages freedom, love, forgiveness, prosperity and health. The Muslim god appears to value the opposite. The personalities of each god are evident in the cultures, civilizations and dispositions of the peoples that serve them.” A leading British Evangelical activist, Patrick Sookhdeo, expresses a similar view: “The violence perpetrated by [jihadi] groups is rooted both in the ideology of large contemporary Islamist movements and in the traditional, orthodox and classical version of Islam, especially its doctrines of jihad, da’wa and dhimmitude, and also the law of apostasy, presented in the authoritative Islamic scriptures and commentaries.”[i]

Other right-wing conservative Christians talk of “’unexploded textual bombs’ that lie just beneath the surface of the [Islamic] faith for those who can be bothered to read them.” In other words, for most Evangelicals, Islam is the problem because it warrants the violence of jihadi groups. The claim is not without grounds. Contrary to repeated Muslim denials key aspects of the ideology of radical violent Muslim groups are indeed rooted in Islamic texts and history. Al-Qaeda, ISIS, and Boko Haram have their origins mainly in Wahhabi and Salafi thought. These are traditions of fundamentalist Islamic interpretation that have widespread influence across the Muslim world. Founding leaders of jihadi groups have either been students of leading Wahhabi-Salafi scholars or were inspired by their works. Thus, commenting on the connection between ISIS (known in Arabic as Daesh) and Saudi Arabia, a prominent French Muslim scholar, Kamel Daoud, writes:

Black Daesh, white Daesh. The former slits throats, kills, stones, cuts off hands, destroys humanity’s common heritage and despises archaeology, women and non-Muslims. The latter is better dressed and neater but does the same things. The Islamic State; Saudi Arabia. In its struggle against terrorism, the West wages war on one, but shakes hands with the other… The younger generations of radicals in the so-called Arab world were not born jihadists. They were suckled in the bosom of Fatwa Valley, a kind of Islamist Vatican with a vast industry that produces theologians, religious laws, books, and aggressive editorial policies and media campaigns…Since ISIS is first and foremost a culture, not a militia, how do you prevent future generations from turning to jihadism when the influence of Fatwa Valley and its clerics and its culture and its immense editorial industry remains intact.[ii]

Since the oil boom of the 1970s and ’80s, ­Saudi Arabia, whose official creed is Wahhabi Islam, has exported Wahhabism to parts of Africa, Asia, and the West through scholarships and the funding of radical mosques, preachers, and groups. Saudi’s global reach has been greatly enhanced by it being the custodian of the two holiest sites of Islam in Mecca and Medina. Al-Qaeda is a direct spinoff of Wahhabi Islam, and ISIS an outgrowth from al-Qaeda, while the origins of Boko Haram lie in a network of Wahhabi-Salafi groups in Nigeria. This religious context provides the intellectual framework for justifying violence. Jihadists quote from Islamic scripture, prophetic traditions, and legal opinions to support their claims and activities. Jihad against non-Muslims and the ultimatum to convert to Islam, pay a special tax, or be killed are in fact based on Islamic law. The same is true of the tactic of capturing women and children as war booty and keeping or disposing of them as slaves. Islam also promises rewards and pleasures awaiting the martyr. It is therefore simplistic if not misleading to argue that groups like ISIS and Boko Haram have nothing to do with Islam.

Nevertheless, it is equally misleading to argue that the jihadi groups represent the true face of Islam. While the legal and doctrinal edicts that the jihadists cite are integral parts of Islamic law, the jihadists without question violate that law by taking it into their own hands. What the jihadist are doing can be likened to a group of American citizens taking up arms and declaring war against a particular nation claiming that American constitution allows the declaring of war against enemy nations. Of course, the American constitution allows the declaration of war, but it also has clear procedures for doing so and the institutions of state invested with the powers to do so. Their failure to consider the conditions necessary for the declaration of jihad, as well as for its proper conduct, provides an obvious example.

Questions of which groups can be targeted, and of how and toward what end, are enormously complicated and sharply qualified in the authoritative legal texts. For instance, all four Sunni schools of law, including the most conservative Hanbali school, agree that the declaration of jihad can be justified for the sake of preserving or extending the government of an Islamic state. Therefore, as is the case in Christian just-war theory, in which the power to declare war is carefully limited to governments, in Islamic law only legitimate Islamic governments can declare a jihad, not individuals or nonstate actors. An exception is made when a Muslim land comes under attack or occupation by an enemy force, which renders jihad or resistance an individual responsibility. But even then, jihad has to have been formally declared by the legitimate authority properly representing the people of the occupied nation. By declaring and conducting jihad on their own, al-Qaeda, ISIS, Boko Haram, and other such groups act as heretical usurpers.

When it comes to the conduct of jihad, Islamic terrorist groups are also at odds with all the main traditions of Islam. All four orthodox schools of law, again including the most conservative Hanbali school, declare that women, children, the elderly, the disabled, priests, traders, farmers, and all noncombatant civilians should not be targeted and killed in a jihad. Places of economic value, such as farms, markets, and places of worship—mosques, of course, but also churches, monasteries, and convents—are not to be targeted for attack. Islamic law allows that places of worship may be taken as war booty, but they are not to be destroyed. The Hagia Sophia, for example, was a church that was converted to use as a mosque (it is now a museum) after Constantinople, now Istanbul, fell to the Ottoman Turks in 1453. Deliberate assaults on civilians, the murder of religious figures, indiscriminate bombings in markets and buildings, hijacking and ramming planes full of civilians into buildings occupied by civilians, attacks on and destruction of churches and mosques—all carried out by al-Qaeda, ISIS, and Boko Haram—violate the clear limits set in Islamic law for the conduct of a jihad. A tradition attributed to Abu Bakr, the first Caliph or successor to Muhammad, summarizes the limits in conducting a jihad:

You must not mutilate dead bodies. Neither kill a child, nor a woman, nor an aged man. Bring no harm to the trees, nor burn them with fire, especially those which are fruitful. Slay not any of the enemy’s flock, save for your food. You are likely to pass by people who have devoted their lives to monastic services; leave them alone.[iii]

Another key feature of the jihadists’ ideology is their rejection of and often rebellion against established governments of Islamic countries. Al-Qaeda, ISIS, and Boko Haram have declared Muslim governments around the world un-Islamic and illegitimate, vowing to replace them with an Islamic caliphate. To achieve their aim, the groups target and kill Muslim opponents, justifying their actions by invoking takfir, a doctrine, dating back to the seventh century, that specifies conditions under which fellow Muslims can be declared unbelievers who can be killed. A splinter group known as the Kharijites taught that it was acceptable to excommunicate and legitimize jihad against other Muslims, including Muslim rulers, if they were judged guilty of the commission of certain sins. This idea was repudiated by the rest of the Muslim community at the time, and all four orthodox schools of law, including the Hanbali school, continue to reject it. Indeed, the legal tradition of Islam includes explicit rulings against Kharijites, classifying them as unbelievers who should be fought and killed.

Islam’s own tradition, therefore, bears witness against Islamic terrorism today. The four schools of law have clear rulings that on no account should an individual or group of Muslims attempt to change the government of an Islamic state through the use of arms and violence, because to allow such a possibility invites civil strife, private wars, and the abuse of ­Islam by factions who use theology to justify their self-interested rebellions and usurpations. The schools are also unanimous in denouncing the killing of fellow Muslims in the name of jihad. The guiding principle has always been that anarchy and the killing of fellow Muslims are worse than living under an unjust system. The jihadi groups of our time are therefore modern day Kharijites.

Given the clear consensus of the Islamic tradition, it is no surprise that Muslim leaders around the world have repeatedly and publicly denounced al-Qaeda, ISIS, and Boko Haram. These include the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, the grand mufti of Saudi Arabia, the Indonesian Ulema Council, Grand Ayatollah Naser Makarem Shirazi of Iran, the grand imam of Al-Azhar University in Cairo, and many others. Two leading Pakistani Muslim scholars, Javed Ahmad Ghamidi and Muhammad Tahir ul-Qadri, both with considerable followings and influence, have written a book and issued a comprehensive legal ruling (fatwa) on the meaning and conduct of jihad. Both the book and the fatwa proscribe terrorism and violent rebellion, citing extensively the Qur’an, prophetic traditions, and a chain of legal and theological luminaries over the centuries and across sectarian divides. They declare jihadi groups such as the Kharijites to be terrorists, rebels, and heretics. We therefore need to take note of how mainstream Muslims today challenge the jihadi interpretations. They point out, for example, that the jihadis completely ignore and bypass the legal texts, which were elaborated by the four schools of law over many centuries and laid down strict regulations about the conduct of jihad.[iv]

In addition to the push back from leading mainline Muslim scholars and clerics, key jihadi ideologues have reviewed and revised their position on the place of violence and terrorism in Islam. Sayyid Imam al-Sharif, aka Dr. Fadl, the former leader of the Egyptian terrorist group Al Jihad and the main intellectual and spiritual brain of al-Qaeda, is one such example.[v] Dr. Fadl wrote, “The Essential Guide for Preparation” in 1988, which quickly became one of the most important manuals in the jihadis’ training. The “Guide” begins with the claim that jihad is the natural state of Islam. Muslims must always be in conflict with nonbelievers, resorting to peace only in moments of abject weakness. As a religious exercise, there are divine rewards to be gained in engaging in jihad. The greatest prize goes to the martyr. Every able-bodied believer is obligated to engage in jihad, since most Muslim countries are ruled by infidels who must be forcibly removed, in order to bring about an Islamic state. “The way to bring an end to the rulers’ unbelief is armed rebellion,” the “Guide” states.

In 1994, Dr. Fadl wrote “The Compendium of the Pursuit of Divine Knowledge” in which he starts by asserting that salvation is available only to the perfect Muslim. Fadl contends that the rulers of Egypt and other Arab countries are apostates of Islam. “The infidel’s rule, his prayers, and the prayers of those who pray behind him are invalid,” and goes on to decree “His blood is legal.” He declares that Muslims have a duty to wage jihad against such leaders; those who submit to an infidel ruler are themselves infidels. The same punishment awaits those who participate in democratic elections. “I say to Muslims in all candor that secular, nationalist democracy opposes your religion and your doctrine, and in submitting to it you leave God’s book behind,” he writes. Those who labor in government, the police, and the courts are infidels, as is anyone who works for peaceful change; religious war, not political reform, is the sole mandate. Anyone who believes otherwise is a heretic and deserves to be slaughtered. Lawrence Wright rightly observes that, “the ‘Compendium’ gave Al Qaeda and its allies a warrant to murder all who stood in their way.” And al-Zawahiri, Bin Laden’s deputy and successor, described the book as “a victory from Almighty God.”

However, in a new book, Rationalizing Jihad, Fadl declares that to engage in jihad, one must first gain permission from one’s parents and creditors. The potential warrior also needs the blessing of a qualified imam or sheikh: “Oh, you young people, do not be deceived by the heroes of the Internet, the leaders of the microphones, who are launching statements inciting the youth while living under the protection of intelligence services, or of a tribe, or in a distant cave or under political asylum in an infidel country,” Fadl warns. “They have thrown many others before you into the infernos, graves, and prisons.” He repeatedly emphasizes that it is forbidden to kill civilians—including Christians and Jews—unless they are actively attacking Muslims. “There is nothing in the Sharia about killing Jews and the Nazarenes, referred to by some as the Crusaders,” Fadl notes. The prohibition against killing applies even to foreigners inside Muslim countries, since many of them may be Muslims. “You cannot decide who is a Muslim or who is an unbeliever or who should be killed based on the color of his skin or hair or the language he speaks or because he wears Western fashion,” Fadl writes.

As for foreigners who are non-Muslims, they may have been invited into the country for work, which is a kind of treaty. What is more, there are many Muslims living in foreign lands considered inimical to Islam, and yet those Muslims are treated fairly; therefore, Muslims should reciprocate in their own countries. To Muslims living in non-Islamic countries, Fadl sternly writes, “I say it is not honorable to reside with people—even if they were nonbelievers and not part of a treaty, if they gave you permission to enter their homes and live with them, and if they gave you security for yourself and your money, and if they gave you the opportunity to work or study, or they granted you political asylum with a decent life and other acts of kindness—and then betray them, through killing and destruction. This was not in the manners and practices of the Prophet.” In Wright’s words, the most original argument in Fadl’s new book is his “assertion that the hijackers of 9/11 ‘betrayed the enemy,’ because they had been given U.S. visas, which are a contract of protection. “The followers of bin Laden entered the United States with his knowledge, and on his orders double-crossed its population, killing and destroying,” Fadl continues. “The Prophet—God’s prayer and peace be upon him—said, ‘On the Day of Judgment, every double-crosser will have a banner up his anus proportionate to his treachery.’

It is clear from Fadl’s about-face, that serious soul-searching and introspection is taking place within jihadi circles not only with regards to strategy and tactics but on Islamic grounds or their actions. This is true with al-Qaeda, ISIS, Boko Haram, al-Shabaab and other jihadi groups.

We need to strongly resist the view that Islam is the problem, that the Qur’an is the problem, that Muhammad is the problem. To denounce Islam as a death-loving religion—or the Qur’an and Muhammad as a constitution and example, respectively, for terrorists—provides excuses for twisted zealots. It reinforces their deluded belief that they and only they are the true Muslims. Moreover, it inspires fear and mistrust among the great majority of Muslims, who are not jihadists. If the Qur’an and Islam are the problems, what is the solution? Drop bombs on the Ka’bah in Mecca? Ban the use of the Qur’an? Some jihadis who have gone from Europe to join ISIS may have known little about Islamic ideology or the Qur’an, and may have seen fighting as a way of escaping from problems at home, finding their identity or proving their manliness. Some from Arab countries may have been motivated by anger directed at autocratic Arab governments and/or the West. Most of the video messages left behind by suicide bombers hardly refer to Islamic scripture or traditions but to existential issues, most of which are political. Trying to understand the many different motives that have driven these people to engage in violence does not mean justifying their murderous actions.

Those who argue that jihadi groups represent the “essence” of Islam actually reflect a very Western way of thinking. Wittingly or unwittingly, they presume a textualist interpretation of Islam, imagining that we can explain Islamic terrorism by drawing a straight line between authoritative texts and the actions of jihadists. To prove their point, these Islam-is-the-problem critics tend to link specific acts of jihadi groups to a string of references from Islamic scripture, traditions, legal texts, and Muslim scholarly opinions. Perversely, this sola scriptura approach is no different from the jihadists’ own “Qur’an and sunna alone” approach.

The truth about religious lives is not so simple. The vast majority of Christians and Muslims do not live by sola scriptura, or by Qur’an and sunna alone—and this is the case even when they claim to do so. A complex, shifting web of sociopolitical, geopolitical, racial, ethnic, cultural, economic, historical, and existential realities inform the way all of us live out our faith. My own view is that Islamic texts contain seeds of violence. In the corruption, illiteracy, poverty, and oppressive governments that plague many Muslim societies, those seeds find fertile ground in which they take root, sprout, and flourish—as well as in historical memories, foreign-policy missteps by Western governments, and alienation felt by Muslim youth in Western societies.

We cannot make sense of the jihadi mindset, let alone work out a credible and sustainable response, without taking such background conditions seriously. Undoubtedly the disorientation caused by modernity and postmodernity is key. Economic development and an increasingly global commerce in movies, TV, and other forms of popular culture weaken traditional Islamic institutions and disturb and disorient many Muslims. It is in this context that heretical groups such as Boko Haram and the Islamic State flourish. They are part zealot, part thug and part political entrepreneur in societies undergoing profound social transformations.

What, then, are we to say about Islam and terrorism? There is no question that the jihadists quote mainstream Islamic texts to justify their actions. But bear in mind that, in itself, quoting Islamic texts does not necessarily make one’s views and actions Islamic. The Lord’s Resistance Army in Uganda quotes the Bible, as did the Branch Davidians of David Koresh, the People’s Temple of Jim Jones, and many other eccentric Christian cults. That does not make their views and ­actions Christian. Throughout the world—and especially in the West—many Christians are very ignorant about Islam. We need to own up to our stereotypes of Muslims and our prejudices, both racial and religious. While not excusing violence, we may need to acknowledge that in some cases Muslims have good reason to be angry. Western Christians might also be much more critical of the policies of their governments that have contributed to conflicts in different countries. We cannot pretend that the rise of IS in Iraq and Syria has nothing to do with the invasion of Iraq in 2003 and the vacuum that followed.

If there is a danger of being seduced into imagining that the horrors of jihadism can be explained simply by blaming Islam, there are also temptations of multicultural ideology and of the spirit of “inclusion,” which only too quickly make excuses for jihadist violence. Let us treat Muslims as the mature and intelligent adults they are and engage them in hard conversations. Muslims are not captives of Islamic traditions with no escape or alternatives. There are competing schools and sects among the faithful. We should not be shy about expressing our judgments as to which are the better and which are the worse traditions. If we withhold those judgments, we fail to engage with Muslims as men and women capable of moral agency. They too have religious consciences. They too care about the truth, and not only about God but about their duties to their neighbors as well. The present generation of Muslims has the right to interpret its authoritative traditions in light of twenty-­first-century realities. And we as non-Muslims have a right to interpret them as well, and to speak ­frankly with Muslims about our conclusions. Given the stakes today, I would say we have a duty to do so.

For instance, Muslim leaders around the world have countenanced the largely negative and dehumanizing teaching about non-Muslims that we find in authoritative Islamic texts. The same goes for teaching on jihad, apostasy, blasphemy laws, and the place of non-Muslim citizens in an Islamic society. While jihadi groups are heretical in their claim that they have the authority to interpret and impose these laws, the existence of the teaching alone is an invitation to rebellion and extremism. In other words, while it is neither true nor fair to argue that Islam is the problem, there is no doubt that Islam has a problem. When Jesus said that we will be able to discern the faithfulness of his followers by their fruits, he was speaking a common truth. And so, is it not time for Islamic scholars and leaders to reexamine the doctrines that are so easily abused by extremists? Is it not the orgy of blood we are witnessing today a clear sign of the need for important and thoroughgoing reforms?

As we have demonstrated above, these questions and others are not being ignored. A wind is blowing in the house of Islam, and a battle for the soul of Islam is earnestly underway. Disillusioned young Iranians are leaving Islam in droves and giving up on religion altogether. Other ordinary Muslims are turning away from Islam to other religions, including Christianity. We see also in Islam a growing progressive trend toward a critical rereading of Islamic texts and history. After 9/11, progressive Muslim scholars openly declared their stance against “those whose God is a vengeful monster in the sky issuing death ­decrees against the Muslim and the non-Muslim alike . . . those whose God is too small, too mean, too tribal and too male.” To all of these, they declared, “Not in my name, not in the name of my God will you commit this hatred, this violence!” Too often I have heard people say, “Islam reformed is no Islam!” Not only is that a patronizing claim about what Muslims can and cannot achieve within their own tradition, it is a dead-end position. As a colleague of mine once put it, “When the Muslim tells a Christian, ‘The Qur’an teaches me to love you,’ why should the Christian then tell the Muslim, ‘No, the Qur’an actually teaches you to kill me’?” More so, it is ironic to suggest that the interpretations of Islamic texts given by Abu-Bakr al-Baghdadi of ISIS and Abu-Bakr Shekau of Boko Haram are more representative of ‘true’ Islam than those of the leading Muslim scholars and clerics around the world who condemn and reject such views.

In conclusion, as we try to make sense of violence and terror in the name of Islam as Christians, this is perhaps one example of how the Golden Rule—treating others as we ourselves would like to be treated—should work out in practice. When Muslims challenge us about difficult issues, like the Crusades or same-sex marriage, many of us inevitably want to dissociate ourselves from beliefs or practices of other Christians, which we think are misguided. So in the same way, while we should challenge those who claim that jihadi groups have nothing to do with Islam, we must allow Muslims to dissociate themselves and their faith from the violence of the jihadis.


[i] P. Sookhdeo 2004, Understanding Islamic Terrorism, Pewsey: Isaac Publishing, p. 143.

[ii] Kamel Daoud, 2015, “Saudi Arabia, an ISIS That Has Made It”, in New York Times, Nov. 20th

[iii] Prophetic Tradition attributed to Abu Bakr, 1st Caliph (Successor to Muhammad).

[iv] See the 2014 Open Letter to Al-Baghdadi signed by 126 leading Muslim scholars and figures from around the world.

[v] Lawrence Wright, “The Rebellion Within: An Al Qaeda mastermind questions terrorism”, in THE NEW YORKER, June 2, 2008 Issue.