Jihad

(excerpts from “Why Do they Hate Us?“)

Just after midnight, in the early minutes of the new year of 2017, the lone gunman opens fire as he enters the Reina nightclub in Istanbul, Turkey.  Indiscriminately shooting New Year’s revelers, he lingers for 7 minutes, calmly replacing spent ammunition cartridges, one after the other.  39 people were murdered in cold blood that morning, and dozens more were injured.  Amazingly, the shooter escaped.  ISIS claimed responsibility for the attack, calling it an act of revenge against Turkey, which had participated in bombing raids of ISIS–held areas of Syria.

Horrific acts such as this have become commonplace all over the world, and are often claimed to be acts of holy war, or jihad, by the radicalized militants who commit them.  Uninformed Western journalists all too readily reiterate the classification of such attacks as acts of jihad.  Biblical fundamentalist teachers and preachers chime in, quoting several of the claimed over 100 verses in the Quran which advocate violence for the sake of Islam, such as 4:74, “Let those fight in the way of Allah who sell the life of this world for the other. Whoso fighteth in the way of Allah, be he slain or be he victorious, on him We shall bestow a vast reward.”

As with interpretation of all ancient texts related to application in present-day life, it is crucial to understand the texts first within a contextual focus.  For example, in the Old Testament of the Bible, I Samuel 15:3 says, “Now go and smite Amalek, and utterly destroy all that they have, and spare them not; but slay both man and woman, infant and suckling, oxen and sheep, camel and ass  (emphasis mine).”  Clearly, this passage will not be applied literally by Christians in today’s world, but will be understood within the historical context.  In the same way, what was written by Mohammed in 630 A.D. must be understood and interpreted within the context of the tribal culture of ancient Arabia.  What was going on around Mohammed and what was the nature of warfare in Mohammed’s world when he penned the texts related to “jihad”?


The bulk of the expansion of the Islamic Empire took place in the three decades immediately after Mohammed’s death (peace be upon him).  The first Quran had barely been created, let alone broadly distributed.  Sharia law did not exist and there was very little definition to the observance of the Islamic faith.

The Islamic empire sprung up out of nowhere in the middle of the powerful Byzantine Christian and Iranian Zoroastrian kingdoms, both of which were drastically weakened by their ongoing war between themselves.  The growing group of Mohammed’s followers that looked more and more like a powerful tribal group simply joined the fray, and did what was done during that era – go to war and create an empire.  Islam as a religion just went along for the ride, as Christianity did with the Byzantine kingdom, and Zoroastrianism did with the Iranian kingdom.  Except that Islam had barely been defined.  It mostly existed in the hearts of these followers.


All of the Quranic verses that are claimed to promote violent Islamic conquest were actually written by Mohammed precisely during the time of his defensive struggle against the Quraysh of Mecca.  Going back to chapter 2 of the Quran, which we quoted earlier, in the following verses we find a very representative teaching of Mohammed on violence:


  1. And fight in the cause of God those who fight you, but do not commit aggression; God does not love the aggressors.
  2. And kill them wherever you overtake them, and expel them from where they had expelled you. Oppression is more serious than murder. But do not fight them at the Sacred Mosque, unless they fight you there. If they fight you, then kill them. Such is the retribution of the disbelievers.
  3. But if they cease, then God is Forgiving and Merciful.
  4. And fight them until there is no oppression, and worship becomes devoted to God alone. But if they cease, then let there be no hostility except against the oppressors.

Clearly, when he says to “kill them” in verse 191, since this comes directly after verse 190 and is joined to it by the conjunction “and”, the context of this killing is when fighting someone who has initiated a fight against you.  The statement, “expel them from where they had expelled you”, would seem to indicate that this passage is written in reference to the Quraysh, who had driven Mohammed and his companions from Mecca, and were intent on destroying the community entirely.  Immediately following the directive to kill the oppressor in self-defense, the Quran twice instructs the reader that, if the oppressors should cease, then God is forgiving, and hostilities should cease.

When quoted in isolation, verse 191 would seem to promote the killing of “disbelievers”.  But when one considers that the instruction to kill is sandwiched between an instruction to not commit aggression and two directives to cease hostilities if that aggressor ceases, the actual meaning of the passage is clearly understood.  Only killing in self-defense is allowed, and if the oppressor ceases his attacks, he should be forgiven.

Mohammed’s example substantiates his teaching.  Even though the Quraysh, intent on his utter destruction, attacked him repeatedly, when they surrendered to Mohammed as he rode into Mecca, he issued a general amnesty.

Images of Mohammed as a fierce conqueror, bringing all into the subjection of Islam under the threat of death, are utterly false.  Had he been a conqueror of similar ilk to his contemporaries, he would not have left a man standing among the Quraysh, having himself suffered a near-mortal wound at their hand.  Instead he placed himself at great risk by forgiving their crimes, showing himself to be the profound spiritual leader that he was, commanding authority by his presence, without the powerful human compulsion to eliminate one’s enemies.

The example of Mohammed (peace be upon him) stands in stark opposition to what we see taking place among the various “jihadist” terror groups, and how they are described by the round–the–clock cable news coverage and analysis that follows their attacks.  We are led to believe that a fundamental teaching of Islam is the clear directive to engage in “jihad” in order to bring all into the subjection of Islam

The Arabic word “jihad”, in its literal sense, simply refers to an intense struggle, or striving.  It has no connotation of holiness or sacredness, and is used in many contexts not referring to war at all.  In fact, according to the teaching of Islam, the internal struggle of living a life that is pleasing to God is considered the greater jihad, while the defense of one’s family and community in battle is the lesser jihad.


The term “holy war” was actually first coined by the Christian crusaders, the warriors of the cross, “to give theological legitimacy to what was in reality a battle for land and trade routes”.  (No God but God, P 81).  In response to the crusaders’ invasion and occupation (A.D. 1095-1291), Islamic scholars adopted their own version of holy war, and it became associated with the Quranic use of the word jihad.  But Mohammed himself never taught or used war as a means of producing conversions to Islam.  In fact, in multiple places the Quran speaks against it: “Had your Lord willed, everyone on earth would have believed.  Will you compel people to become believers?  No soul can believe except by God’s leave” (10:99 – 100), “The truth is from your Lord.  Whoever wills – let him believe.  And whoever wills – let him disbelieve”, (18:29), and in the chapter titled “The Disbelievers”, “O disbelievers.  I do not worship what you worship.  Nor do you worship what I worship.  Nor do I serve what you serve.  Nor do you serve what I serve.  You have your way, and I have my way.”  (109:1 – 6).


What do present day Muslims believe about terrorism and the Quran?

With respect to the issues of jihad and Sharia law, the [Gallup Survey] data continues to be enlightening.  When queried about the meaning of jihad, interestingly, only the island nation of Indonesia produced an outright majority response equating the meaning of jihad with sacrificing one’s life for the sake of Islam.  More common responses were, “a commitment to hard work” and “achieving one’s goals in life”, “struggling to achieve a noble cause”, “promoting peace, harmony, or cooperation and assisting others”, and “living the principles of Islam”.  (Who speaks for Islam, P 21).

Focusing specifically on the the 9/11 attacks, 93% of those surveyed did not agree with the statement that the attacks were “completely justified”.  (Who speaks for Islam, P 69).  When questioned about their devotion to Islam, both the 93% who were against the attacks and the 7% who were for them considered themselves devoted Muslims.  In fact, those who condemn the 9/11 attacks often cited verses from the Quran as their justification.  Additional data that will be expounded upon in the next chapter will show that the primary motivation for virtually all terror attacks is politically-based, and is not driven by religious/idealistic principles.  At the risk of being redundant, I reiterate that 93% of Muslims oppose the 9/11 attacks and many cite Quranic justification in support of this view.

My own experience in conversations with dozens of Muslims absolutely validates the fact that Muslims condemn terrorism on the basis of the teaching of the Quran.  Nearly every Muslim that I’ve spoken with since beginning my research for this book has quoted two Quranic verses to me, with depth of emotion:

2:256 “There shall be no compulsion in religion; the right way has become distinct from the wrong way. Whoever renounces evil and believes in God has grasped the most trustworthy handle; which does not break. God is Hearing and Knowing

5:32 “Because of that We ordained for the Children of Israel: that whoever kills a person—unless it is for murder or corruption on earth—it is as if he killed the whole of mankind; and whoever saves it, it is as if he saved the whole of mankind.”

My close friend, Mohammed, was quick to correct me in a recent conversation in which I misquoted this verse to refer to “all people”.  With deep conviction in his eyes he said, “not all people, all of mankind who has ever lived and ever will live”.  I am moved to tears almost every time I speak with Mohammed.

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