Is Islam a Religion of Violence? Reflecting on Nabeel Qureshi's "Answering Jihad"
In our post-9/11 world, this question has been the sine qua non of questions facing the West: Is Islam a religion of violence? President George W. Bush said it isn’t, as have other Western leaders. And yet perhaps we should ask the same rhetorical question Jordanian cleric Abu-Qatada al-Filistini asked of Bush: Are they some kind of Islamic scholar?
We need a Muslim voice to help us answer our question about violence and Islam. That voice is Nabeel Qureshi, a Pakistani American Muslim and New York Times bestselling author who spent three-quarters of his life seeking Allah before finding Jesus.
In his new book Answering Jihad (releases 3/8/16), Qureshi clarifies both the reality of violent jihad in Islam and a compassionate approach to our Muslim neighbors. He never intended to write this book on jihad. But in the wake of the Paris and San Bernadino attacks and Syrian refugee crisis he felt compelled to offer a way forward.
Below is a brief sketch of his answer to our pressing question. If the answer is "Yes, Islam is a religion of violence," then what does that say about Muslims? Keep reading to find out.
The Meaning and History of Islam
Qureshi frames our discussion by defining Islam itself. Rather than echoing popular views that root it in the experiences of Muslims, he defines it as a worldview that exists beyond its people.
At its core are the teachings of Muhammed and the worship of no other god than the one he proclaimed, Allah. These teachings are contained within the Muslim scripture, the Quran, and in isolated traditions of Muhammad, often referred to collectively as hadith. (26)
When we view Islam through the prism of the Quran and hadith, we must come to a different conclusion than pop-Western sentiments: “no one can honestly deny the presence of violence in both the Quran and the life of the prophet of Islam.” (30) In fact, the name Islam, meaning “surrender,” is derived from a military metaphor where “Islam signifies a peace after violence, or under the threat of it.” (30)
Qureshi goes further, drawing attention to a clear historical trend within the life of Muhammed and the Quran itself: “The proclivity toward violence in the early Muslim community continued to increase from the moment they could fight, through Muhammad’s death, and beyond.” (46)
In fact, the Quran never says “Islam is a religion of peace.” Instead, surah 9 (the last chapter of the Quran to be revealed) explicitly commands violence. Classical Muslim theologians have understood it to function as the final instructions of Allah, even nullifying earlier, peaceful passages.
Qureshi is careful to distinguish between the violence writ large throughout Islam’s history and foundation, and Muslims themselves. “That does not mean our Muslim neighbors are violent. Muslims deserve to be treated with the kindness and respect due to all people.” (33)
So not all Muslims are violent; this doesn’t mean Islam is devoid of violence; Qureshi insists it would be neither thoughtful nor honest to claim Islam is devoid of violence. Such claims are false, especially given the doctrine of jihad.
The Meaning and Teachings of Jihad
While popular definitions of jihad as “Islamic holy war” are misleading, “when it comes to the hadith, far and away the most frequent context of jihad is violent physical struggle.” (35) The canonical hadith collections solidified this term in the direction of violent struggle for spiritual purposes, echoing the Quran itself.
Perhaps this is why jihad is often referred by some Muslim scholars as “this sixth pillar,” giving it a place of prominence alongside The Five Pillars of Islamic spirituality. Surah 9 of the Quran has provided the impetus behind such an exaltation. Qureshi quotes a few Quranic passages to illustrate:
kill the polytheists wherever you find them, lay siege to them, take them captive, and sit in ambush for them everywhere. If they (convert to Islam) leave their way. (9:5)
The Jews say ‘Ezra is the Son of God’ and the Christians say ‘Christ is the Son of God.’ These are the very words of their mouths, they imitate what disbelievers say before them. May Allah destroy them! (9:30)
Surely Allah has bought from the believers their lives and their properties in order that paradise be theirs. They fight in the way of Allah, so they kill and are killed, on which there is a true promise... (9:111)
Likewise, in the Sahih Bukhara hadith there is an entire book dedicated to Muhammad’s teachings on jihad, which is primarily violent (often offensively violent, not just defensive), and launched Muslims into a world of conquest and domination.
But this doesn't mean all Muslims are violent. Qureshi points out, "Muslims can legitimately practice peaceful forms of Islam." (91) And yet, "[they] do not do so consistently, instead simply ignoring some traditions as if they did not exist." (92)
Qureshi acknowledges his book “isn’t the final step in answering jihad, but it is the correct first step, and it offers a better way forward.” (148)
Read and engage Answering Jihad yourself to proactively love your Muslim neighbors and understand the truth about Islam.
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