Islam and Violence
By James Chancellor
Since the tragedy of September 11, 2001, I have been asked any number of
questions regarding Islam and these terrible acts of murder. The two most
common are: Do Bin Laden and the Al Qaeda network represent “true Islam”? And
are such violent attacks on innocent people consistent with the Qur’an?
Answering these questions is not as straightforward a matter as it might
seem. The first question assumes that Islam is some kind of static, monolithic
reality by which the actions of all Muslims can be judged. In fact, Islam is a
dynamic and varied religious tradition. In a real sense, Islam is what Muslims
think, say, and do–as Muslims. And since there are nearly a billion Muslims
spread over much of the globe, Islam is a varied and most complex phenomenon.
Clearly what is “true Islam” to one Muslim is not to another.
The teaching of the Qur’an with regard to violence is also a matter of some
dispute among Muslims. What Muslims believe the Qur’an means varies widely from
community to community and from individual to individual. And certainly a
western Christian is in no more a position to say what it “really” means than
an Arab Muslim is in a position to say what the Bible “really” means.
We are still faced with the fact of “Islamic violence” and we need to come
to terms with it. President Bush has told us on any number of occasions that
Islam is a religion of peace. He has also informed us that we worship the “same
God.” Franklin Graham has told us that Islam is an “evil religion.” Neither of
these men is an expert about Islam, but they do help frame the question. Is
violence more “at home” in the Muslim world? Or more precisely, is Islam
The Nature of Religious Violence
First we must clearly define what we mean by “religious violence.” Virtually
all societies are both violent and religious to one degree or another.
“Religious violence” is not simple violence done by religious people. Millions
upon millions of people perished in the conflicts of the 20th
century that primarily involved the “Christian” nations of the West. While the
men who attacked Pearl Harbor were from Japan, a country dominated at the time
by the Shinto religion, the men who dropped the atomic bombs on Japan, as well
as those responsible for the Holocaust, were from Western nations dominated
historically by Christianity. Yet none of these acts can be described as
“religious violence.” For our purposes, religious violence is characterized as
violent acts done by religious people acting as religious people, informed and
legitimized by a religious vision, and for the purpose of achieving
specifically religious goals.
History offers many examples of religious violence. It is hard to imagine a
more “peaceful” religion than Buddhism, yet the martial arts spring directly
from Zen Buddhism. Christianity has far too many examples of religious
violence: the Crusades, the Inquisitions, the murder of thousands of
Anabaptists, the execution of heretics in Geneva, and the murder of thousands
of “witches” throughout Europe and America. Religious violence is not been
limited to Islam.
The Modern Transition
Beginning in the 17th century, a profound ideological shift began
in the Christian West. Religious institutions and religion itself separated
from the state and thus from the exercise of political power. By the
20th century, religious actors and institutions no longer could
employ the power of the state to achieve their religious goals. Since the state
is the only agent within modern society authorized to employ violence, violence
was eliminated as a legitimate tool of the religious enterprise. The vast
majority of those in the modern West now view religious violence not only as
illegitimate, but abhorrent and irrational.
This position represents the vast majority of Western Christians, but it is
not necessarily the “Christian” perspective. The majority of practicing
Christians no longer reside in the modern West, but rather in Africa, Latin
America and Asia. Many of these Christian communities have not experienced the
ideological transformation of modernity, and on occasion do employ religious
violence. The Naga people of northeast India, the Igbo of southern Nigeria, and
the indigenous Fijians come to mind immediately.
The Case of Islam
Today we face the reality of “Islamic terrorism” and repeated violent acts
against innocent persons in the name of Islam. These acts beg the questions:
“Is Islam more prone to violence?” Or more precisely: “Is religious violence
more at home in Islam than in other religions?” The simple answer to that
question is “yes.”1
President George Bush had noble motives when he declared that Islam was a
religion of peace and that the September 11 terrorists had “hijacked” Islam.
However, right motives do not necessarily lead to right observations. Islam is
not a religion of peace. There are a number of internal dynamics that create
strong predilections toward the use of force and violence. The first and most
obvious is the clear teachings of the sacred literature and subsequent
theological constructs. Jihad, or “striving for Islam,” is a clear and
unambiguous component of the Islamic faith.2
Prescribed for you is fighting, though it be hateful to you. Yet it may
happen that you will hate a thing which is better for you; and it may happen
that you will love a thing which is worse for you: God knows, and you know not.
There is a strong spiritual tradition that teaches that the struggle with
one’s own desires and passions is the “greater Jihad” and that the physical
struggle with an enemy is the “lesser Jihad”. Nonetheless, the Islamic
tradition in both classical and contemporary manifestations not only sanctions
violence, but also clearly establishes religion and religious goals as a
legitimate cause for war. The Qur’an makes abundantly clear that God will base
his judgment of men on their willingness to fight “in the path of God.”
Those believers who sit at home, other than the disabled, are not on equal
level with those who strive in the path of God. … God has promised good to
each, but God distinguished those who strive above those who sit with a great
reward. (Qur’an 4:95).
To my knowledge, Islam is the only faith that declares fleeing the
battlefield to be a grave sin (Qur’an 8:16). Jihad is indeed the “sixth pillar”
of the Islamic faith, and modern attempts to minimize or evade this reality are
both exegetically and historically imaginative.
However, identifying Jihad as an essential component of Islam merely
describes, it does not explain. There is a reason for Jihad and thus for
religious violence. That reason lies in the very nature of the Islamic vision.
Islam is not merely a religion in the modern Western sense of the word. Islam
is a self-contained program for the complete ordering of human society.
From the very beginning, Islam was directed squarely at the social fabric
and quickly developed a comprehensive program for all of human conduct. This
program includes what we in the West normally consider religious life, but also
the full range of social relationships, business ethics, and most significantly
for our discussion, political life and political structures. Very quickly, this
comprehensive vision was codified into a legal system, known as the
Shari‘a. The Shari‘a provides the context
for Islam as a political force.4
The missionary vision of Islam includes the eventual personal conversion of
individuals, but begins with the establishment of “God’s reign on the earth.”
This can only be accomplished under a Muslim ruler who accepts the advice and
direction of Islamic religious and legal experts. In all times and places,
political structures are established and maintained through force. Violence is
endemic to Islam, but not because Muslim people are more violent by nature—they
are not. It is not so because Muslim people are more “fanatical” or
“fundamentalist.” Nor is it so because Muslims are more irrational or driven by
passions. It is so because Islam, by its very nature, involves the reordering
of human political structures and institutions. And at all times and places,
such reordering involves the use of force. Jesus looked into the eyes of Pilate
and stated: “My kingdom is not of this world.” Muhammad never made such a
The Model of the Prophet
There is a second and closely related reason for the use of force within
Islam, the model of the Prophet. It is difficult to exaggerate the influence of
Muhammad’s life on Muslims. Muslim theology has consistently held to the full
and ideal humanity of Muhammad. He is human, but he is the perfect human.
Muslims all over the globe grow up reading and memorizing the sayings and deeds
of the Prophet. And they rely on this “Sunnah” to shape and direct their
Muhammad has a three-fold title: Prophet, Warrior, and Statesman. As
Prophet, he received the message of God for the “new world order.” As Warrior,
he employed what force was necessary to make that message a reality. As
Statesman, he developed the political structures necessary to maintain the
message. Muhammad was twice wounded in battle. In general, Muslims take this
aspect of the prophet very seriously.
I was once involved in an interfaith dialogue with a number of Muslim
leaders. One seemed particularly obsessed with the Crusades and went on and on
about the savagery and brutality of the “Christian” armies. I finally responded
that while the Crusades were terrible, it was not as if Muslims had not swung a
sword or two as well. In all seriousness, he looked across the table from me
and said, “That is true, but Jesus told you not to.” He was right! And Muhammad
not only employed violence, but also fully validated it as a means to achieve
the religious vision that is Islam.
The Context for Violence
Bin Laden, as well as the Saudi, Egyptian, Indonesian, and other Muslim
participants in the attacks on New York, Washington, and Bali, represent the
most violent and extreme aspects of a broad and popular movement in the Islamic
world. For better or worse, this movement has come to be termed “Islamic
Fundamentalism.” While it is true that only a small percentage of Muslims
condone the attacks of September 11 or October 12, a substantial percentage of
Muslims would support the goals and fully understand the reasoning behind such
extreme action. Understanding this requires some historical context.
Beginning in the late 7th century, Muslims began to spread across
much of the globe, and soon established the most powerful and successful empire
in human history. For almost nine hundred years Islamic civilization was the
most militarily powerful, economically successful, and culturally creative on
earth. God clearly seemed to be on their side. Then, beginning around 1750,
everything began to fall apart. By 1918, virtually the whole Islamic world had
been overrun by Western Christian imperialists, and the Islamic world was in
The response of the vast majority of ruling elites was to become as much
like the West as possible, to emulate the colonial masters in order to be free
of them. They remained Muslim, but adapted to the modern, that is western,
world. By the mid-twentieth century, Western colonial rule was coming to an
end. Independent nation states were formed, with the promise of a brighter
future. But the promise soon faded, and the lives of most Muslim people did not
Beginning about 1950, a new response to Muslim failure and humiliation came
to the fore. The Christian West was not superior, but rather evil. Muslims had
fallen prey to the evil ones because they had abandoned their faith and
religious practice. To take back their rightful place in the world, Muslims
must rid themselves of the social, economic, political, cultural, and religious
oppression of the Christian West and establish an Islamic system for all of
society. Such a goal can only be achieved through a combination of religious
revival and drastic political change. And drastic political change rarely comes
In the early stages of the Islamic Fundamentalist movement, almost all the
violence was directed at corrupt regimes within the Islamic world.5
Several events have redirected some of the violence toward what is now
perceived as the true source of Muslim distress: the 1967 war in which Israel
took control of the holy city of Jerusalem, the Israeli invasion of Lebanon and
the entry of the United States military into that civil war, and the first Gulf
War and subsequent stationing of “infidel” troops in the Muslim holy land of
the Arabian Peninsula.6 These events, coupled with uncritical and
unwavering support of Israel, located the United States as target number one in
the “battle for Islam.”
While the religious affirmation of violence and the cultural, political and
economic depression of Muslims may help explain attacks against Western
targets, something more needs to be said regarding the nature of these attacks.
Suicide attacks aimed at non-combatants are a new development within Islam.
Suicide has no scriptural or historical precedent in Islam. Islamic history
offers no positive models of suicide. Up to very recently, the martyr was one
who fell in battle against an armed enemy. Likewise, the Qur’an clearly
precludes any attack on innocent women and children. Muslim armies have been no
more and no less humane than other armies, but assault on innocent
non-combatants has never been validated as “Islamic.” Suicide attacks—what some
Muslims call “martyrdom operations”—like those occurring in Israel, Russia,
Kenya, Indonesia, and the United States are something new, in a religious
tradition that generally abhors innovation.
The explanation for this innovation lies in the profound sense of
humiliation, despair, and powerlessness that dominates the world of Muslim
extremists. Because of this profound sense of loss, and the overwhelming
economic, military, and strategic superiority of the enemy, some within the
radical Islamic movement produced new interpretations of the sacred literature.
Because of the awesome power of the enemy, any and all methods of fighting are
justified. From their perspective, the Christian West and their proxy Israel
have declared total war on Islam and Muslim people.7 And in total
war, there are no “innocent” civilians. For many extremists Muslims, “martyrdom
operations” are the one method of overcoming despair by striking a meaningful
blow for Islam. And the self-sacrifice inspires others and builds a spirit of
optimism at a time when there is very little reason to be optimistic.
The targeting and killing of civilians is the most problematic aspect of
“martyrdom operations.” That fact alone should invalidate these operations.
Many religious authorities in the Muslim world have issued rulings against
martyrdom operations.8 However, in the eyes of most Muslim radicals,
the official religious bodies no longer carry the moral authority of Islam.
They are seen as corrupt and under the control of apostate political rulers.
This attitude has generally freed up the extremists to come to their own
interpretations and judgments.9
Islamic violence against the West will continue. Israel will continue to be
the primary source of Muslim angst and humiliation. The American and allied
occupation of Afghanistan and Iraq will provoke even greater hatred for the
West, enhance the already strong sense of victimization among radical Muslims,
and more than likely increase their numbers. The more moderate official Islamic
establishments are in no position to influence the extremists, never mind
control them. But there is hope. At some point, the legitimate Islamic
leadership must lead ordinary Muslims to see that these radical interpretations
of the Jihad tradition are not only non-Islamic, but are also ultimately
destructive to the moral fiber of the Muslim community. But I fear many more
will die before that day dawns.
1 For an alternate answer to that question, see Bruce B.
Lawrence. Shattering the Myth: Islam Beyond Violence (Princeton:
Princeton University Press, 1998). In this work, Lawrence makes a case for
Islam as a complex international religious system that cannot be reduced to
simple stereotypes or generalizations.
2“Striving for Islam” and “striving in the path of God” are
common euphemisms for engaging in armed combat to achieve Islamic goals.
3All Quranic quotations are taken from A.J. Arberry, The
Koran Interpreted (New York: Macmillan, 1955).
4See Daniel Pipes, In the Path of God: Islam and Political
Power (New York: Basic Books, 1983), 10–13.
5It is perhaps important to note here that in almost all cases,
Islamicist movements were first the subjects of state violence, and took up
violence themselves in response.
6It is difficult to overstate how this act has angered and
humiliated those on the extreme edge of the Islamicist movement. It is roughly
akin to some Muslim nation stationing troops in Vatican City. To add to the
insult, there are female troops driving tanks, in a country that does not allow
women to drive automobiles.
7It should be noted that this understanding is not drawn from
thin air. While we in the West are made constantly aware of Israeli casualties
from these types of attacks, the body count is at least three to one, with
three times as many Palestinian civilians dying at the hands of Israeli
8The Sheik of Al Azhar University in Cairo, the closest thing to
an Islamic Pope, categorically rejected suicide operations some years ago.
Others have been slower to respond. However, when the operations strike home,
action is taken. After the attacks on Saudi soil, the Saudi government acted to
“re-educate” all the clergy, demanding they teach against suicide operations as
un-Islamic and dismissing any who failed to do so. Indonesia was struck by
attacks in 2002 that have had a very serious negative impact on the economy.
The Indonesian Council of Ulemas issued a binding decree in December of 2003,
citing any form of terrorism as unacceptable under any definition of Jihad and
falling outside the teaching of the Qur’an.
9In general, the radical Islamic movement is a lay led affair.
Most of the leading thinkers are not theologically trained. Though Bin Laden
lays claim to the title of “Sheik,” he is in fact a very successful businessman
with little theological training.