The world is being subjected to horrific images of religious violence. The Islamic State (IS) in Iraq and Syria records its beheadings. Boko Haram in Nigeria parades hundreds of kidnapped schoolgirls. Al-Shabaab in Somalia attacks a shopping mall in Nairobi. 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.”
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, IS, 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.
Islam is similar to Judaism in the importance it gives to legal interpretation. As one Muslim scholar put it, “Shari‘ah instructs man on how he should eat, receive visitors, buy and sell, slaughter animals, clean himself, sleep, go to the toilet, lead a government, practice justice, pray, and perform other acts of [worship].” Unlike Christianity in the West, where divisive debates often have focused on theological doctrines, in Islam the most important schools of thought reflect differences in jurisprudence. There are four main schools of law for Sunnis (Hanafi, Maliki, Shafi’i, and Hanbali schools) and one for Shi’ites (Ja‘fari). The main distinctions between these schools lie in divergent opinions about authoritative sources or roots of law. All accept the Qur’an and the sunnah (Muhammad’s example) as foundational but differ on the importance of consensus in collective scholarly reasoning (ijma) and individual analogical reasoning (qiyas). The most conservative school, Hanbali, tends to emphasize the Qur’an and sunna and is suspicious of ijma and qiyas, while the most liberal, Hanafi, tends to emphasize qiyas and individual opinion.
Wahhabi and Salafi thought in their modern expression derive from Islamic jurist-theologians Ibn Taymiyyah (d. 1328) and Muhammad Abd al-Wahhab (d. 1792). They are both renowned students and teachers of the Hanbali school of law. Salafi teaching upholds the first three generations of Muslim history (salaf) as sacrosanct alongside the prophetic example. Not all Salafis are Wahhabis. The latter brand any practice or teaching later than the third century of Islam (salaf) as satanic innovation (bida‘). Wahhabism is the most literalist and iconoclastic branch of Hanbalism, which itself is the most conservative of the four main schools. For instance, while other Muslims might urge abstention from alcohol, Wahhabis also prohibit stimulants, including tobacco. Not only is modest dress prescribed but also the type of clothing that should be worn, especially by women (a black abaya, covering all but the eyes and hands). Religious education includes training in the use of weapons. Wahhabism emphasizes the importance of avoiding non-Islamic cultural practices and non-Muslim fraternity on the grounds that the sunna and the central importance of Muhammad as exemplar forbid imitating non-Muslims. Wahhabi scholars have warned against taking non-Muslims as friends and against smiling at or even wishing them well on their holidays.
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. Al-Qaeda is a direct spinoff of Wahhabi Islam, and IS 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 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 IS 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. 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 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, IS, 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, including the 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, IS, and Boko Haram—violate the clear limits set in Islamic law for the conduct of a jihad.
Another key feature of the jihadists’ ideology is their rejection of and often rebellion against established governments of Islamic countries. Al-Qaeda, IS, 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.
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, IS, 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. Recently, 126 leading Islamic figures around the world signed and published an open letter challenging the Islamic basis of the ideology of IS.
While these public renunciations and fatwas may have little impact on the leadership of jihadi groups, they play a significant role in delegitimizing jihadi ideology and thereby undermining its appeal to young Muslims. We should take them seriously and do what we can to amplify their influence. Unfortunately, Western critics of jihadi groups overlook these voices and sometimes even discredit Islam as a whole. Too often I’ve 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’?”
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?
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 scripturalist 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 don’t 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’re part zealot, part thug, 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.
I have read and met Evangelical commentators who, regarding any efforts to distinguish jihadi abuses of Islamic traditions from Islam itself, dismiss them as no more than attempts to prevent us from holding Islam accountable for the actions of the jihadi groups. They insist that we would blunt their criticism of Islam and thereby prevent them from helping the victims of jihadism. But I can’t see how judging Islam on the basis of jihadi actions helps their victims. Quite the contrary, in fact. If it is right to judge Islam as a whole on the basis of the barbarism of jihadi groups, how should we explain—and encourage—the actions of Kurdish Muslims and many other Muslims who are standing up to the jihadists and paying with their lives to protect Christian and Yazidi minorities in Iraq? They read the same Qur’an, follow the same Muhammad, and perform the same daily prayers.
When I press this point, some lamely argue that the good deeds of the Kurds are motivated by nationalism whereas the evil deeds of IS are motivated by Islam. But this is little more than a conclusion latching onto a convenient argument. And the argument is unconvincing. It’s absurd to imagine a separation of religious and ethnic identity in the Middle East.
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’s 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’d say we have a duty to do so.
As a Christian scholar of Islam, I offer a short list of questions that require frank discussion with Muslims. First, during the formative stages of nearly all jihadi groups, local Muslim religious and political leaders have either turned a blind eye to them or actively supported their activities, which have been funded by Islamic governments, organizations, and businessmen. How is it that groups so widely condemned as heretical by Islamic authorities receive so much tacit support from the mainstream Muslim world?
Second, 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? Isn’t the orgy of blood we are witnessing today a clear sign of the need for important and thoroughgoing reforms?
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. These are signs that a serious introspection is taking place across the Muslim world. 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!”
As someone who grew up in the Muslim world, I want to conclude by saying that we too need to reform our ways. In recent decades, Evangelicals have contributed to the invisibility of Christian presence and witness in Muslim lands. We have caved in to real and imagined threats from radical groups. Instead of openly challenging the criminalization of Christian missions and evangelism in Muslim contexts, we have engaged in undercover and underhand missions. As Evangelicals, we must remain watchful and prayerful, lest radical Islam radicalize us into redefining our witness and values out of fear and hatred. The fight is not against flesh and blood but against principalities and powers, and we cannot win by resorting to the same weapons the enemy wields. We are called to use superior arms, called to put on the belt of truth, the breastplate of righteousness, the gospel of peace, the shield of faith, and the helmet of salvation and to take up the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God (Eph. 6:14–17).
John A. Azumah is associate professor of World Christianity and Islam at Columbia Theological Seminary.