Islam & Jihad: Is Terrorism an Aberration?

Headlines about suicide bombers killing U.S. and coalition soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan proliferate day by day. Attacks on civilians in non-combat zones, like last month's London subway bombings, however, cross an ethical line for all but the most radical jihadist extremists. American conservative talkshow hosts and others challenge, Where are the spokesmen for Islam, especially when civilians are killed? Muslim clerics have long been accused of hanging back when denuciation and condemnation should have been the order of the day.

The London bombings that killed 53 civilians produced some of the most vocal and public reactions to date from mullahs and imams, Muslim teachers who issue fatwas, regarding Islamic law and practice. Islamic leaders meeting in July in London after attacks there drew careful distinction between "the suicide bombing of those who are trying to defend themselves from occupiers, which is something different from those who kill civilians, which is a big crime," according to Sayed Mohammed Musawi, the head of the World Islamic League in London" (source: Associated Press as accessed via "It is our understanding that those who carried out the bombings in London should in no sense be regarded as martyrs," a joint statement by the London group stated. The Toronto Star Web site ( reported on on July 22, "For the first time, imams from across Canada joined together yesterday to issue a statement denouncing terrorism and calling upon Canadian Muslims to confront extremism."  A May, 2004 posting on www.fatwa-online featured denunciations of the attacks in Saudi Arabia on Western engineers in the city of Yanbu. The pronouncements stated that such attacks are prohibited and play into the hands of their "enemies." (It was unclear just who the enemies they referred to were.) Other fatwas denouncing such violence are found on the site:, providing some answer to critics of supposedly silent Muslim religious leaders.

The pragmatic issue of protection (and in some minds, pre-emption) naturally follows for Western cultures victimized by other fatwas that explicitly declare jihad (holy war) against them. This requires military, law enforcement and political leaders to "get in the heads" of terrorists. Where does one begin to understand an event like the following? A Mogadishu-style mob kills and mutilates American civilians, dragging them through the streets. Crowds chant, "Long live Islam!" and "God is great!" Was this representative of Islam or an insane riot?

Reactions vary, especially among Western Europeans and Americans. Spanish voters removed a pro-Iraq War and pro-U.S. president and catapult into office an anti-Iraq war Socialist mere hours after a devastating terrorist attack of their own on March 11, 2004. This seemed to many to signal a de facto victory for terror, a capitulation to extremist genocide that utterly ignored the aims of radical jihadists. A U.S. commission appointed to investigate the September 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon strenuously probed for "what could have been done" by the Clinton and Bush administrations to respond to terrorist threats, particularly from al Qaeda, the chief focus of the "war on terror" since 9-11. Very recently, Britain and France have changed course and cracked down on terror suspects, even deporting suspected terrorist-sympathizing imams or mullahs. 

Terror victims from Bali to Turkey to Saudi Arabia, the very birthplace of al Qaeda arch-terrorist Osama bin Laden, still grapple with just what possesses religious zealots to snuff out life in such a dramatic, calculated way—all in the name of Allah and their view of Islamic ideals.

Understanding Islam

One common pitfall to understanding is conflating Islam with Islamism, described below. What one soon sees regarding Islam is a huge array of complex and sometimes contradictory layers amidst a religion that permeates all areas of life: political, social and religious. Islam is a “socio-cultural and religio-economic political system” according to Dr. Warren Larson—a concept largely inconceivable to Westerners, even religious ones. Understanding the terrorists requires close examination of the root claims made by the perpetrators of terror: that a purification of Islam legitimately entails a purging of the non-Muslim (infidel) cultures, particularly those of Israel and America but including the entire West. (And obviously, those inside the Dar al-Islam, or region of Islam, are not exempt if considered oppressors.) Nothing new, the doctrine of conquering and subjugating infidels spawned a history of brutal occupation by Muslim peoples, seen as a struggle to purify the earth and guarantee submission to Allah, the ultimate value. In fact according to the Qur’an, those in the Dar al-Harb (non-Muslim world, literally, house of war) were to submit to "Islam" (literally submission), by "choice" of force. Yet, the very latest Qur’anic verse—and thus the most authoritative to most Muslims—speaks of the closeness shared by Muslims and Christians. And until recently, such warfare was always limited in scope and only to true combatants.

The modern-day orientation of terrorist minorities—and they represent a miniscule but influential and growing fraction of the world’s Muslims—seems to spring mainly from later passages in the holiest book of Islam, the Qur’an, and the life story of Islam's Prophet Muhammad, who received direct inspiration for the Qur’an from Allah (the sole deity, it is stressed). However, it’s the definitions that distinguish terrorist jihad from the mainstream Muslim interpretations of holy war. Rutgers Religion professor James Turner Johnson writes, “The radical ideology of jihad...[makes] the use of violent means, indiscriminately and without principled limits, a binding obligation for all Muslims.”

Renditions of Muhammad's life and sayings (sunna) are found in the Hadith, deemed nearly as sacred by Muslims as the Qur’an. Another telling biographical source for Muhammad is A. Guillaume's translation of Muhammad's original biography by Ibn Ishaq, written in the second century of the Islamic era and, one century later, edited by Ibn Hisham. All those sources clearly depict Muhammad as a powerful demagogue who increasingly leveraged violence and the growing power that it gave him to endorse or participate in persecution, robbery, pillaging, execution, torture and warring on those outside of Islam—a philosophy and practice both enshrined in and mitigated by holy writ, even alongside texts that emphasize commonalities and good relations with Jews and Christians. Many later Islamic schools of thought seek balance by emphasizing the kinder, gentler writings—which are usually, nonetheless, considered to have been abrogated by the more violent, later texts. Moderates also interpret relevance of his sayings to Muhammad's day and situation; however, the founder of Islam remains a figure who was no stranger to religiously motivated brutality. The conquests of Suleyman the Magnificent and other Muslim rulers were marked by similar treatment of vanquished foes. From the 11th-13th centuries, The Assassins, an Islamic sect, were infamous for murdering as a religious duty.

Christianity Not Above Reproach Historically

In all fairness, Islam’s history of conquering and holding in religious bondage those outside its beliefs is not unlike what other cultures commonly perpetrated from earliest biblical times to recent centuries. In the time of Muhammad and throughout the time of the Ottoman Empire, conquest, mass killing and religious punishment were commonplace in virtually all cultures. Thus, judging Muhammad by post-9-11 standards must be kept in perspective. Moses has controversially been characterized as bloodier than Muhammad (see: for a Muslim perspective) and Muslims invoke Old Testament genocide as harsher than Islam’s vanquishments (which nonetheless was carried out against specific people for a specified time, not as a blanket doctrine). Muslims point out the Crusades, which seem a mirror image in many ways to the conquests of Christian Europe’s arch-enemy, Islam. Spanish and Portuguese Catholic invaders forcibly converted Indian natives across the Americas. The inquisitions of the Catholic Church mark a time of terror compared with today’s pluralistic standards. And Reformers’ internecine doctrinal struggles resulted in executions. Thus, Christians have need to pause before comparing the worst of Islam with their own history and to repent where necessary.

Extreme Islamism or Jihadism

Today's news media constantly invoke the term fundamentalism in reference to militant Islam, or Islamism. However, as Frog and Amy Orr-Ewing write in Holy Warriors: A Fresh Look at the Face of Extreme Islam (Authentic Lifestyle, 2002), "Defining fundamentalism, even within Islam alone, is notoriously difficult." The authors continue, "'Islamism' is...seen as the enemy among more liberal expressions of Islam, for both sides want to win the battle for legitimacy and orthodoxy in the public sphere. This is also true of Islamic discourse within and with the West. Even among emerging 'fundamentalist' groups there is also competition for the right to interpret [sacred texts] afresh, and this can lead to greater radicalism and extremism." Johnson writes, “Bin Laden’s jihad not only pits Islam against America, the West as a whole and ultimately the rest of the non-Islamic world; it also seeks to overthrow the contemporary Muslim states and mainstream views of Islamic tradition among the great majority of contemporary Muslims” (see Jihad and Just War, below).

Western pundits and think tanks busily deconstruct the social, economic and educational struggles of loosely affiliated groups like al Qaeda and their adherents, but as Middle East scholar Daniel Pipes points out, "Islamism has few connections to wealth or poverty; it is not a response to deprivation." Rather, if the West is to understand extremist Islam, it must get one simple fact straight, as World culture commentator Gene Edward Veith states in Conflict of Religions (link below): "A jihad has been declared against Americans. This means that authoritative Muslim clerics have issued a decree that killing Americans is not just a religious duty but an act that merits salvation" based on the single guaranteed method of salvation espoused in the Qur’an, martyrdom.

An important caveat: as stated in Islam and Violence ( and below), "Our point, of course, should not be taken to imply that all faithful and devout Muslims must become violent in order to be true to the teachings of Islam. We will not hesitate to say that the vast majority of the Muslim world condemns acts of terror and violence." Still, as the editors of The Economist wrote in a special survey of Islam and the West, Sept. 13th-19th, 2003), "...The problem for those who want to believe that Islam has nothing to do with Islamic terrorism is not only that the terrorists themselves say otherwise. It is also the existence of a whole body of theory [particularly that of Syed Qutb, highly influential 20th Century Egyptian writer and revolutionary theorist, considered a martyr by followers] that is called upon to justify this activity, and which has zealous adherents." Simply put, we resonate with the writers of Islam and Violence (above) on this point: Though this has not been common practice for millions of Muslims the world over for centuries, given a plain reading, "Muslims who commit acts of violence and terror in the name of God can find ample justification for their actions based on the teachings of the Qur’an and the sayings and examples of prophet Muhammad himself." This is what the radical Islamists are doing, to a growing chorus of approval from Muslims who buy into the doctrine of jihad against the West.

Thus, in the spirit of open inquiry we seek a closer, albeit limited, look at Islam:

This collection seeks to allow the texts and history of Islam to speak for themselves as much as possible and is presented through the lens of a biblical worldview. Honest, bright people will disagree, some strenuously, but we trust in a way that can retain civil dialogue.

—Leadership University Editor/Webmaster, Byron Barlowe


Featured Essays

Islam and Terrorism: A Closer Look
Dr. Warren F. Larson
A renowned Islam scholar and former missionary to Pakistan, Dr. Larson traces the life story and global influence of one of Islam's foremost militant idealogues, Syed Qutb. He then sets forth Islam's sources for authority, including the Qur'an and Hadith, Muslim views on peace, war and other religions, its cultural hegemony and global agenda. He ends with an appeal to a humble, hopeful biblical response by Christians.

Terrorism and Islam
Professor Otto Helwig
Dr. Helweg, who studied Islam, classical Arabic, and the Middle Eastern culture while living in the Middle East for more than a decade, writes a straightforward article regarding the mindset of Muslims, particularly the terrorists among them. First, he describes the sharp differences in the worldview and culture of the West and Middle East, then briefly explains the effect that the Qur'an and other sacred writings have on radical Muslims. He disputes the characterization of Islam as a peaceful religion and concludes that attempts to stamp out the evil of terrorism are naive.

Jihad and Just War
James Turner Johnson
Johnson contrasts the mainstream Islamic doctrine of limited war with the radically unlimited jihad of Osama bin Laden, which expands the doctrine of emergency warfare to include the entire West (along with Israel) and makes no distinction as to targets or combatants. Bin Laden's jihad also seeks overthrow of contemporary Muslim states and their mainstream views.

Conflict of Religions
Professor Gene Edward Veith
The Iraq War and occupation serve as a litmus test for an Islamic culture's view of war and terrorism, albeit one that spent decades under repression of a Socialist regime. Veith contrasts Islamic culture and worldview with that of the United States with its Judeo-Christian moorings, especially as they relate to the "war on terror." One thing is clear: jihad, or holy war, has been declared and waged on America and that is something Westerners do not readily understand.

Related Articles & Essays

Lethal 'Gospel'
Professor Gene Edward Veith
Addicted to sin, Islamic terrorists believe that killing "infidels" is the only sure way to make it to heaven. Westerners underestimate the power of this "gospel"-of-martyrdom motivation.

The Nature of Islam
LeaderU Special Focus
(A similar collection of resources published online here on month after the events of 9-11.) Since the murderous terrorism of September 11 and the subsequent wars - seen by many Muslims as war on their religion - many Westerners have sought greater knowledge of Islam. Is it, as claimed, a religion of peace? What do Muslims believe, in general and in particular regarding war and violence? How does it compare with Christianity?

A Christian Response to Islam in America
Dr. Warren F. Larson
Larson, director of Islamic Studies at Columbia International University, examines why Americans convert to Islam, Islam's growing threat to Jews and how Christians can counteract these by gaining optimism, training and understanding, especially regarding Muslims' discovery of real peace through Christ.

Coverage of Islam
Professor Marvin Olasky
Journalism professor Olasky reveals just how extreme Islamist extremists can be in defining infidel combatants in their jihad (holy war), which many other Muslims classify as hirabah (unholy war against society). The American media, Olasky charges, is largely negligent in pointing out the difference, with notable exceptions that portray philosophical-religious rifts even among those attending the same mosque. It is unwise not to ask the hard questions while seeking understanding, he concludes.

Terrorists Behind Bars
Chuck Colson
Imprisoned himself for crimes under President Nixon and a veteran jail minister, Chuck Colson can relate to the anger and bewilderment of those behind bars. Radical Islamist missionaries have exploited the anger and resentment, especially of blacks, converting many to the jaded faith of jihad from within prison walls. Colson alerts readers to the global problem and proposes blocking the propaganda of hate, plus a proven alternative: the life-changing and recidivism-reducing gospel of Jesus Christ.

Related Sites

Answering Islam (the original, not the counter-site with similar name)
Billed as "a Christian-Muslim dialogue," this site is chock-full of articles and other items and is available in ten languages. See especially, Does Islam Promote Peace?

Al-Injil (New Testament)
Includes the Kalimatullah Web site, "This a resource centre for open-minded and inquiring Muslims, containing startling information regarding the holy Tawrat, Zabur, Injil, and other prophetic books," Parables for Muslims ("Ramadan Nights: prophets' stories"), two online books and several articles.