A response by the author to a CMSN blog

By Mohammad Hassan Khalil

I truly appreciate James Thieke’s thoughtful review of my book Jihad, Radicalism, and the New Atheism. Following his summary of the book and some personal reflections, Mr. Thieke poses three interesting questions which I shall address. The first question is as follows: Given that ‘Quranic verses feature prominently as evidence both for and against the terrorists’ and New Atheists’ arguments’, is it the case that ‘the plain or literal understandings of scripture need regular qualification from a vast array of historical and contemporary sources in order to avoid misinterpretations’? Or ‘is there something overlooked in that view, and can misinterpretations be avoided while letting scriptures “speak for themselves”, so to speak?’ This is a critical question because most Muslims (like most Christians) ‘do not have volumes of historical interpretations, theologies, and current discourses from religious leaders on their shelves at home’.

To be sure, the Qur’an and hadith corpus—taken on their own—can be invoked to justify all kinds of things. What I seek to stress in my book is that attempts to justify terrorism in the name of Islam typically require the abandonment of both prevailing historical interpretations and strict literalism. With regard to the latter, consider, for instance, violent radical reinterpretations of the ever-popular and widely accepted hadith that explicitly prohibits the killing of women and children. (I present examples of such reinterpretations in chapters 3 and 5.) In other words, simply possessing and affirming scripture is not an adequate explanation for Muslim terrorism as it actually manifests itself today. What is more, when violent Muslim radicals attempt to justify terrorist acts, they typically invoke the Islamic scholarly tradition; however, these justifications are often predicated on objectively inaccurate claims. For instance, as I show in chapter 3 of my book, Osama bin Laden attempted to justify the reciprocal targeting of women and children by pointing to the writings of various influential Muslim scholars including al-Qurtubi (d. 1273 CE). But not only did these scholars never justify the reciprocal targeting of innocents in their extant writings, al-Qurtubi explicitly condemned the practice (in his commentary on Qur’an 5:8). In chapter 5, I present examples of so-called Islamic State (ISIS/ISIL/Daesh) authors making similar mistakes.

Mr. Thieke’s second question is related to the first: When refuting violent Muslim radical interpretations of scripture, Muslim scholars may draw ‘on the historical and socio-political factors surrounding certain verses of the Quran’. But there are ‘many Muslim thinkers who would argue that the Quran, being the Word of God, is also timeless and thus cannot be limited or qualified by situational factors’. So ‘where exactly are the boundaries between theology and context in these kinds of arguments?’

To this I would offer a simple response: in the specific case of contemporary Muslim terrorism, the problem is precisely violent Muslim radical attempts to invoke context to justify their very modern and extremely destructive methods of fighting (after all, there were no planes or explosive devices in the seventh century) and to explain away hadiths that prohibit the killing of various categories of civilians. Now where Mr. Thieke’s question of context becomes more pertinent is when we consider the institution of aggressive jihad, which I shall discuss shortly.

Mr. Thieke’s final question is as follows: If we assume that the ‘particular violence and justifications of Osama Bin Laden, suicide bombers, and ISIS are unacceptable in Islam’, one might nevertheless insist that other forms of violence could be justified ‘wholly through appeals to the Quran and Islamic tradition’. In this case, could Islam justifiably be described as a ‘religion of violence’? If one contends that religions are merely what people make them out to be, are they not sidestepping the fact that ‘one interpretation’ must be closer to ‘the truth’, if truth is ‘essential to a religion’? In short, ‘can a religion be justifiably called violent or peaceful, and what is the appropriate framework for determining such a label?’

In answering this question, one must first clarify what one means by ‘religion of violence’. I would hazard that the overwhelming majority of humanity considers the use of violence to be morally acceptable—and even commendable—in certain cases. Consider, for instance, the use of violence to stop a ruthless mass killer.

Now when writers single out Islam as a ‘religion of violence’, they typically have in mind other things, most notably, contemporary terrorism and the premodern institution of aggressive jihad. I have already touched on the problems with presenting contemporary Muslim terrorists as the faithful representatives of Islamic scripture and tradition. Aggressive jihad—a (highly regulated) preemptive or offensive attack against a neighboring people’s army in the ‘abode of war’ (dar al-harb)—cannot be dismissed nearly as easily.

It is undeniable that numerous premodern Muslim scholars championed this institution. But as Asma Afsaruddin shows in her 2013 book Striving in the Path of God: Jihad and Martyrdom in Islamic Thought,[1] premodern scholars were not unanimous in promoting aggressive jihad. And as Sherman Jackson argues in his 2002 article ‘Jihad and the Modern World’,[2] it would be problematic for Muslim jurists who affirm the historical legitimacy of aggressive jihad to continue justifying it in a modern context—a context in which the assumed (not necessarily actual) global state is one of peace thanks to institutions like the United Nations. As such, Jackson presents aggressive jihad as having been ultimately a protective measure, and one that may have been reasonable in the past but is no longer so. (In presenting his argument, Jackson cites supporting statements by other influential scholars, such as Rashid Rida, Abdul Wahhab Khallaf, and Wahba al-Zuhayli.) Accordingly, even belief in the premodern doctrine of aggressive jihad need not deter a contemporary Muslim from rejecting offensive attacks in our world today and striving for mercy and harmony. All this is to say that, from a strictly academic perspective, Islam may be regarded as a religion of both violence and peace—a religion of complexity.


[1] Published by Oxford University Press.

[2] Journal of Islamic Law and Culture 7 (2002), 1-26.