– Is Classical Sunni Islam a “Political Ideology”?

(© Zubair Qamar 2013)

Sebastian Gorka of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies says,

“One of the greatest — self-induced — obstacles we have to understanding our enemy is mirror imaging, seeing Islam as just one more religion like the religions we are most familiar with — Christianity and Judaism. However, if one understands that Islam, not just in its extreme forms, but in its mainstream version, sees politics, economics, law and faith as integral to each other and as part of “shari’a” — the way of life, then one understands that even the phrase ‘political Islam’ is a case of the West using its terminology for something that does not reflect Western concepts and categories. It is pointless therefore to use the phrase ‘political Islam’; Islam is political” (p.188 – Fighting the Ideological War).

Gorka oddly describes mainstream Islam as political Islam and understands Islam as a political ideology. Gorka’s lack of understanding of the history of Islam, Christianity, and Judaism will be discussed in a separate post.

However, while Gorka sees mainstream Sunni Islam as a political ideology, his view is more similar to the minority of Islamists than to the majority of Muslims who do not share this view.

Religion and terrorism expert, Mark Juergensmyer, says,

“The assumption of those who hold this ‘Islam is the problem’ position is that the Muslim relationship to politics is peculiar. But this is not true. Most traditional societies have had a close tie between political leadership and religious authority, and religion often plays a role in undergirding the moral authority of public life.”[[1]]

Furthermore, there is no equivalent word for “ideology” in classical Arabic, Persian, or other languages, which proves that classical Muslims never saw their religion as an ideology. Seyyed Hossein Nasr, scholar and professor at George Washington University, says,

“The case of ‘ideology’ is very telling as far as the adaptation of modern notions in the name of religion is concerned. Nearly every Muslim language now uses this term, and many Muslims in fact insist that Islam is an ideology. If this is so, then why was there no word to express it in classical Arabic, Persian, and other languages of the Islamic peoples?”[[2]]

“Traditional Islam,”Nasr says, “refuses ever to accept Islam as an ideology, and it is only when the traditional order succumbs to the modern world that the understanding of religion as ideology comes to the fore […].”[[3]]

Describing Islam as an ideology, whether by Gorka or by Islamists, is a modern notion – not a classical one. While Islam has a political dimension, Hamza Yusuf, author and Sunni scholar at Zaytuna College, says,

“…the focus of Islam has never been on rectifying the state, but rather on rectifying the state of the souls that make up the state.”

Yusuf then says,

“We need an Islamic state of mind more than an Islamic state.”[[4]]

Another author and Sunni scholar, Zaid Shakir, says, that

“…doctrine issuing from a particular ideology is marshaled based on its efficacy in advancing the cause, not on the basis of any preexisting moral or ethical standard. Such a formulation is at complete odds with Islam and, thus, largely alien to its classical tradition.”[[5]]

Islamic knowledge of creed and jurisprudence in almost all of Islamic history had not been the prerogative of politicians, but of religious scholars who taught the masses, and distanced themselves from rulers while largely retaining their independent roles as spiritual guides. When examining the Islamic sources, reference to political authority is scarce, while references to spirituality and belief are abundant. That is why Prophet Muhammad is known as a religious prophet, and not a politician, and Islam is understood to be a religion, and not a political movement by most people.

Moreover, political ideology is not one of the five pillars of Islam or the six Sunni articles of faith. The uncertainty of Muslims on the issue of leadership following Prophet Muhammad’s death illustrates that political leadership was not a high priority to Islam’s Prophet. Otherwise, Muhammad  would have made matters of political leadership clear to his followers as he did many matters before his demise.

While political leadership took on an important role in classical Sunni Islam, it was subservient to and confined within the limits of spirituality. Today, Islamist groups prioritize politics and make spirituality subservient to it.  People who conflate the two misrepresent both and confuse more than clarify.

It is for this reason why many caliphs throughout Islam’s history were not necessarily supported by the masses, but tolerated, even when certain caliphs displayed unIslamic qualities and used religion for political expediency and domination. But anarchy was believed to be worse than poor leadership as it brought more harm than good to society. Therefore, all actions of caliphs over 1,000-plus years should not be seen as representative of Islam’s teachings, and Muslims who lived under their rule should not be described as their wholesale supporters. To do so is to misunderstand and mischaracterize social-power dynamics in those times and to misrepresent Muslims and Islam today.

It is recommended that Gorka and others who hold similar views describe mainstream Islam as most Muslims describe Islam — as a religion and not a political movement or ideology.

[[1]] Mark, Juergensmeyer, “Does Religion Cause Terrorism?” National Policy Forum on Terrorism Security and America’s Purpose, September 6-7, 2005, accessed May 25, 2013, http://demcoalition.org/pdf/Does_Relig_Cause_Terr.pdf

[[2]] Seyyed Hossein Nasr. Islam in the Modern world: Challenged by the West, Threatened by Fundamentalism, Keeping Faith with Tradition. New York, NY: HarperOne, 2010. p.12.

[[3]] S. Hussein Nasr, op. cit.,p.12.

[[4]] Hamza Yusuf, March 26, 2010, “The Importance of Being Ambiguous Or the Sin Tax of Ignoring Syntax,” Sandala Blog, May 24, 2013, http://sandala.org/blog/2011/03/26/the-importance-of-being-ambiguous-or-the-sin-tax-of-ignoring-syntax/

[[5]] Zaid Shakir, “Islam: Religion or Ideology?” New Islamic Directions, accessed May 27, 2013,http://www.newislamicdirections.com/articles/islam_religion_or_ideology/

– “Islamic Law” – A Reality Check.

(© Zubair Qamar 2013)

Does Today’s “Islamic State” Mimic the Early Muslims?

To demonstrate that Islamism today is not rooted in classical Sunni tradition, one can examine the nature of the “Islamic State” today in its various forms. These “Islamic States” are very much unlike the Islamic State in classical Islam. While Islamists today claim to emulate the Prophet Muhammad and the early Muslims of the Salaf, there was no Islamic State like the one Islamists envision today. Scholar and professor, Khalid Blankenship, says,

“The state established by the Prophet Muhammad…in al-Madinah was extremely rudimentary and lacked any of the institutionalization connected with the modern state.”

The Qur’an itself, Blankenship says, “never refers to the Muslim polity as a state, and the only complimentary reference to khalifah, the later title of caliph, is in one verse referring to the Prophet Dawud.” The “Shari’ah-based state,” he says, “as usually envisioned by its modern supporters never really existed before, and especially not as an institutional state.”[[1]]

Similarly, Wael Hallaq, author of The Impossible State: Islam, Politics, and Modernity’s Moral Predicament, says,

“…to resort to such a usage as ‘Islamic state’ – as an entity having existed in history – is not only to indulge in anachronistic thinking but also to misunderstand the structural and qualitative differences between the modern state and its ‘predecessors’” […].[[2]]

Because Islamists imagine they have an Islamic State similar to early times does not make it so. The current “Islamic State” is modeled after the modern nation-state, a foreign “Western” import and product of colonialism alien to classical Islamic tradition.

The Adoption of Islamic Law Today

How about Shari’ah (Islamic Law)? Islamist movements today claim to want Shari’ah Law but without the religious scholars which directly contradicts Shari’ah Law as seen in classical Sunni history in which religious scholars took center stage. But how much is Islamic Law followed today? Do all “Muslim” governments support Islamic Law?

“Of the forty-six countries where Muslims constitute the majority of the population,” Grote and Roder say, “only ten declare themselves to be Islamic states in their constitutions.”[[3]]

This is only about 22 percent of the majority Muslim countries, which means that most of these countries (about 78 percent) do not declare themselves as Islamic States. Furthermore,

“most countries have settled for a more moderate version of Islamic constitutionalism declaring Islam as the official religion of the state, but stopping short of proclaiming the country an Islamic state.”[[4]]

Similarly, Jan Michiel Otto, author of Sharia and National Law in Muslim Countries: Tensions and Opportunities for Dutch and EU Foreign Policy, says,

“[I]n the majority of Muslim countries over the last 150 years, most laws, legal institutions and processes have evolved independently of sharia. The governments of most Muslim countries have for decades” and that “classical sharia has had little noteworthy influence in most areas of law.”[[5]]

Even when described as countries that have “Islamic Law,” secular jurists have outdone religious jurists in the new scheme of the unclassical “Muslim State”:

“States have enacted their sharia as national law, outranking the religious scholars who were the traditional keepers of ‘the’ sharia. Jurists, trained at secular faculties became the new ‘masters of law.’”[[6]]

Classical Sunni jurists did not train at secular facilities.

Islamic Theocracy is Antithetical to Sunni Tradition

While most Islamists have marginalized the role of religious scholars, the roles of religious scholar and ruler were combined in the person of Ayatollah Khomeini when he imposed the Vilayet-e-Faqih, or “Guardianship of the Jurist.” This gave the jurist executive authority analogous to a caliph or sultan of past who was responsible for political – not religious – matters. This is unprecedented in Islamic tradition and is yet another example of how modern manifestations of “Islamic” governance today deviate from the tradition of Muslim governments of the past.

Shari’ah’s Penal Code

Most Muslim countries today that include the Islamic criminal code law within modern criminal codes have, in recent years, “become increasingly hesitant when it comes to actually carrying out the more serious hadd punishments.”[[7]]

The hudūd (sing. hadd) punishments are perhaps the most controversial aspects of Islamic Law and include punishment for theft (sariqa), brigandage (hirabah), illicit sexual intercourse (zina), false accusation of sexual intercourse (qadhf), and drinking alcohol (shurb al-khamr).

The few countries today that frequently implement the hudūd, including Afghanistan (when under the Taliban) and Saudi Arabia, are exceptions to the rarity of its implementation by most Muslim countries today, and also by Muslims in the classical Sunni tradition.

Reformist Muslim scholar, Tariq Ramadan, who has called for a moratorium on corporal punishment, stoning, and death penalty, says,

“The majority of the ulamâ’ – or scholars – “historically and today, are of the opinion that these penalties are on the whole Islamic but that the conditions under which they should be implemented are nearly impossible to reestablish. These penalties, therefore, are ‘almost never applicable.’”[[8]]

Before the toppling of Egypt’s Islamist government in 2013, even Egypt’s Islamists did not appear to take Shari’ah’s penal code seriously. The lack of rigidity and seriousness of applying such punishments was clear when Egypt’s general prosecutor in April 2013 had announced that he had canceled the order to lash Mohamed Ragab who was intoxicated by alcohol, and who had been sentenced to lashing by the village prosecutor. The village prosecutor was suspended and an investigation was launched. Mike Giglio of The Daily Beast says,

“In Ragab’s case, the government acted swiftly to stop Sharia from being applied” and “analysts say that Ragab’s case helps to illustrate Morsi’s difficult balancing act on religion: while he and his allies may push Sharia in their politics, they are wary of seeing it put into practice now.”

Giglio then quotes Shadi Hamid, director of research at the Brookings Doha Center:

“The actual implementation of Islamic law is not on the [government’s] agenda right now,”


“They’re careful not to overreach.”[[9]]

This is a specific example that illustrates how the social and political contexts weaken Islamist ideology, including their purported interest in applying Shari’ah to the masses. Nathan Brown, professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University, says

“Egypt is not following Iran’s path toward theocracy in spite of changes wrought by the infusion of religion into politics,”


Clerics are not gaining positions of political power.”[[10]]

How seriously then was the Muslim Brotherhood about imposing Shari’ah through a supposedly rigid ideology? Not very serious, it seems. The exaggeration of ideology in counter-terrorism studies will be examined in a separate, soon-to-be-published, post.

[[1]] Khalid Blankinship, “Is an Islamic State Just a Form of Muslim Zionism?,” Lamppost Productions, November 1, 2011, accessed May 23, 2013, http://www.lamppostproductions.com/?p=3226

[[2]] W. Hallaq, op. cit.,pp. 48-49.

[[3]] R. Grote and R. Tilmann, op. cit., p 10.  The 46 majority Muslim countries are “Afghanistan, Albania, Algeria, Azerbaijan, Bahrain, Bangladesh, Burkina Faso, Brunei, Chad, Comoros, Djibouti, Egypt, the Gambia, Guinea, Indonesia, Iran, Iraq, Jordan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyztan, Kosovo, Kuwait, Lebanon, Libya, Maldives, Malaysia, Mali, Mauritania, Morocco, Niger, Nigeria, Oman, Pakistan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Senegal, Sierra Leone, Somalia, Syria, Sudan, Tajikistan, Tunisia, Turkey, Turkmenistan, United Arab Emirates, and Yemen. Muslims are also the majority in the Palestinian Territories and Western Sahara.” The ten countries that declare themselves Islamic States are Iran, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan, Bahrain, Brunei, Maldives, Mauritania, Oman, and Yemen.

[[4]] R. Grote and R. Tilmann, op. cit., p 10.  These countries include Algeria, Bangladesh, Comoros, Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Libya, Malaysia, Morocco, Qatar, United Arab Emirates, and Tunisia.

[[5]] Jan Michiel, Otto, Sharia and National Law in Muslim Countries: Tensions and Opportunities for Dutch and EU Foreign Policy (Leiden University Press, 2008.), accessed May 25, 2013,




[[8]] Tariq Ramadan, “An International Call for Moratorium on Corporal Punishment, Stoning and the Death Penalty in the Islamic World,” April 5, 2005, accessed May 25, 2013, http://www.tariqramadan.com/spip.php?article264&lang=fr

[[9]] Mike, Giglio, “Eighty Lashes for Drinking? Egyptian Court Ruling Puts Sharia in the Spotlight,” The Daily Beast, April 25, 2013, accessed May 29, 2013,


[[10]] Nathan, Brown, “Islam and Politics in the New Egypt,” April 23, 2013, accessed June 2, 2013,


– Islam & the Fate of Non-Muslims in the Afterlife: Challenging the Militant Perspective.

(© Zubair Qamar 2013)

Many people, Muslims and non-Muslims, misunderstand Sunni Islam’s teachings on the possibility of salvation for non-Muslims. This, in part, is compounded by the statements of extreme figures, and is normally seen in a bi-polar way: “All Muslims are going to heaven; all non-Muslims are going to hell.” This understanding is simplistic at best and has become the ammunition of less knowing Muslims to eliminate any possibility of salvation for non-Muslims. It is an understanding that contradicts Sunni Islam’s position on the matter. Discussion of this issue is therefore needed to correct and balance this perspective.

Who Received the Message?

Sunni Islam does not reject non-Muslims wholesale as “disbelievers”. Salvation is contingent upon receiving the message of Islam in its pristine form. The Qur’an states: “We do not punish until We send a Messenger” (Qur’an 17:15). Contemporary Sunni scholar Nuh Ha Mim Keller says that Christian groups that did not receive the pristine message of Jesus until the time of Prophet Muhammad fall into this category from a Sunni perspective.[1] Similarly, contemporary Sunni scholar Shaykh Salman from Seeker’s Guidance says:

“While we deem Islam to be the only true religion, it needs to be kept in mind that divine amnesty may apply to even those who were not on the Islamic faith.”[2]

Hamza Yusuf, the Sunni scholar and founder of Zaytuna College in California, quotes the famous Sunni scholar and Sufi, Imam Abu Hamid al-Ghazali:

I would even go as far as to say that most of the Christians among the Europeans and Turks in this time of ours will be embraced by the same mercy, if God most high wills. I mean specifically those who are among the remote inhabitants of Europe and Central Asia whom the call of Islam has not reached [will be embraced by this divine mercy] (Italics added by author).

The “Europeans” and “Turks” not of today, of course, but from the time Imam Ghazali lived. But how about non-Muslims living today?

Salvation for Non-Muslims Living Today

Nuh Keller elaborates on Imam Ghazali’s views by applying his statements to non-Muslims today:

The great Muslim scholar, Imam Ghazali, includes in this category those who have only been reached with a distorted picture of the Messenger of Islam (Allah bless him and give him peace), presumably including many people in the West today who know nothing about Allah’s religion but newspaper stories about Ayatollahs and mad Muslim bombers. Is it within such people’s capacity to believe? In Ghazali’s view, such people are excused until after they have had an opportunity to learn the undistorted truth about Islam (Ghazali: “Faysal al-tafriqa,” Majmu’a rasa’il al-Imam al-Ghazali, 3.96).[3]

It is interesting to note, according to Nuh Keller, the people who have a distorted view of Islam, “presumably including many people in the West today who know nothing about Allah’s religion but newspaper stories about Ayatollahs and mad Muslim bombers” – or those people who have not “had an opportunity to learn the undistorted truth about Islam” are “excused”. One can only wonder how many Americans, Europeans, so-called “polytheists”, and others fit in this category today, especially when receiving much of their information from mainstream media that usually presents a skewed understanding of Islam and Muslims. Sunni scholars of past and present gave non-Muslims the benefit of the doubt when it came to issues of salvation.

In addition, while polytheism, or associating others in worship with God, is an unforgivable sin in Islam, the children of polytheists are still understood to be innocent according to Sunni Islam. Imam Nawawi, a leading jurist of the Shafi’i school of Sunni jurisprudence, said:

The preferred and soundest school of thought about them and the one most of the authoritative scholars have inclined toward is that they are in Paradise based upon God’s word, We do not punish a people until a messenger comes to them [17:15]. So if God does not punish an adult because no message has reached him, obviously, children would be even more secure.[4]

It should be emphasized that according to Sunni Islam, all children who have not reached the age of discernment are considered to be innocent, whether their parents are Hindus, Buddhist, Christian, Jewish, Animist, Darwinist, Agnostic, Atheist, or of any other belief, or of no belief. Should such children die, they are believed to have a one-way ticket to Paradise. Militants who target them are accumulating major sins according to the same tradition they claim to follow.

Extremists of past and present who were and are quick to declare Muslims and non-Muslims heretics, some going as far as maiming or killing them, should think twice. Al-Qa’eda, for example, labels all Americans, non-Muslim and Muslim, as “infidels” worthy of extermination. This understanding reflects ignorance of Sunni tradition. Extremists should ponder over the possibility that certain, and surely many, non-Muslims are not heretics at all, but simply need to learn the pristine message of Islam through peaceful means. The assumption that every non-Muslim is a heretic is just that – an assumption that can lead to wrong and sinful actions, including depriving non-Muslims from having a chance to acquire the uncorrupted knowledge of Islam’s teachings. Imam Ghazali’s view that “kufr is an active denial, not a passive state of ignorance”[5] must not be taken lightly. Extremists should fear Allah whom they claim to worship with unrelenting obedience. They should control their tongues and stop pointing weapons toward non-Muslims and children if they claim to be true to their faith.

Ibn Taymiyah and Universal Salvation?

Militants at this point must be trying to seek refuge in the teachings of Ibn Taymiyah. Unbeknownst to them, however, their favorite role model had an even stronger view in favor of non-Muslim salvation in the Afterlife. I am not referring to non-Muslims who received a distorted understanding of Islam, as described above, but to non-Muslims who heard and learned the correct teachings of Islam and rejected it.

It is documented that Ibn Qayyim al-Jawziyya, Ibn Taymiyah’s closest student, had given Ibn Taymiyah a commentary of the Qur’an by a hadith specialist named `Abd ibn Hamid al-Kissi with a statement attributed to Omer, Islam’s second caliph, that the people dwelling in hell would eventually leave hell. This led Ibn Taymiyah to adopt the position “for temporal punishment and the eventual salvation of all people” from hell, including Muslims and non-Muslims. Mohammad Hassan Khalil, author of Islam and the Fate of Others: The Salvation Question, says the existence of the treatise by Ibn Taymiyah is “well documented” though “its title is disputed.” He says the treatise “was first published in its entirety in 1995 in Saudi Arabia under the somewhat misleading title al-Radd ‘ala man qala bi-fana’ al-janna wa-l-nar (The rejoinder to those who maintain the annihilation of the Garden and the Fire). Khalil refers to it, in short, as Fana’ al-nar (The annihilation of the Fire).[6]

While some of Ibn Taymiyah’s ardent supporters deny that Ibn Taymiyah ever held such a view for various reasons, Khalil, after investigating the evidence, states that the

“available evidence leads only to the conclusion that it was most likely Ibn Taymiyya’s final work.”[7]

He also says,

“we do not have a single report of any of Ibn Taymiyya’s contemporaries claiming that his universalist proclamations were misattributions”[8]


“Whatever the case may be, Ibn Taymiyya was undoubtedly the earliest prominent figure of the post-salaf era to claim that Paradise is for all of humanity.”[9]

Ibn Taymiyah was not alone. Ibn Qayyim, though more cautious on the matter, built “on [Ibn Taymiyah’s] Fana’” and “developed arguments for universal salvation”.[10] Khalil explains:

The latter are laid out not only in the Shifa’ but, most famously, in a work entitled Hadi al-arwah ila bila al-afrah (Spurring souls on to dominions of joys). A more forceful version of these arguments appears in one of his final works, Sawa’iq al-mursala (The dispatched thunderbolts); however, all we have of the relevant discussion in the Sawa’iq survives in an ostensibly reliable abridgment by a certain Muhammad ibn al-Mawsili (d. 774/1372), a contemporary of Ibn Qayyim.[11]

Militants who are keen to use, or rather abuse, Ibn Taymiyah’s statements to declare revolution or terrorism against “infidels” should ponder over his view of eternal salvation for Muslims and non-Muslims in the Afterlife, and, of course the genuine Sunni scholars who spoke of the possibility of non-Muslim salvation.

The possibility of salvation from the Sunni perspective for non-Muslims in the Afterlife must surely be surprising to many Muslims and non-Muslims today. After all, it is not what they are used to hearing daily on their radios and televisions, and even in some of their own mosques and Islamic schools.

A better use of time by militants, and Muslims in general, is if they pondered over their own salvation, and considered the possibility of whether they would be hell-bound or not. It is documented that a man who was resurrected by God on the Day of Resurrection thought he died in battle as a “martyr” only to be told by God:  “You lie. You fought in order to be called a hero, and it has already been said.” The so-called martyr is then “sentenced and dragged away on his face and flung into the fire.”[12]

[1] Nuh Ha Mim Keller (1996). On the validity of all religions in the thought of ibn Al-‘Arabi and Emir ‘Abd al-Qadir: a letter to `Abd al-Matin. Available: http://www.masud.co.uk/ISLAM/nuh/amat.htm

[3] Nuh Ha Mim Keller (1996). On the validity of all religions in the thought of ibn Al-‘Arabi and Emir ‘Abd al-Qadir: a letter to `Abd al-Matin. Available: http://www.masud.co.uk/ISLAM/nuh/amat.htm

[4] Imam Hamza Yusuf. “Who are the Desbelievers?”. Pg. 46. http://www.mujahideenryder.net/pdf/WhoAretheDisbelievers.pdf

[5] Imam Hamza Yusuf article on Who are the Desbelievers?. Pg. 45. http://www.mujahideenryder.net/pdf/WhoAretheDisbelievers.pdf

[6] Mohammad Hassan Khalil. Islam and the Salvation of Others. Pg.80.

[7] Mohammad Hassan Khalil. Islam and the Salvation of Others. Pg.88.

[8] Ibid.pg.87.

[9] Ibid.pg.86.

[10] Ibid.pg.93.

[11] Ibid.pg.93.

[12] Nuh Ha Mim Keller. “The Place of Tasawwuf in Traditional Islam.” Available: http://www.masud.co.uk/ISLAM/nuh/sufitlk.htm. The hadith cited was from Sahih Muslim, 3.1514: hadith 1905.

– Jihad and Terrorism: What is the Difference?

(© Zubair Qamar 2013)

Jihad in Classical Sunni Islam – an Overview

Muslims define jihad in Arabic as “holy struggle/effort.” An often neglected matter is the plurality of meanings of jihad in early Islam, which includes both combative and non-combative jihadJihad takes many forms, including controlling one’s anger, studying at school, supporting one’s family financially, and any other efforts in a Muslim’s life that contributes to good. Almost all manifestations of jihad are non-combative and far more numerous than the combative form, which consists of defensive and offensive jihad.

The first jihad in Islam was non-combative for the first 13 to 14 years, in spite of the oppression endured by Prophet Muhammad and his followers by the Meccans. The Grand Imam Mahmoud Shaltut said,

“The early Muslims spent many years in Mecca suffering the worst kinds of punishment, they were not free to worship, were persecuted for believing in a creed that brought them reassurance and were terrorised with regard to property and personal safety. All this continued until they were forced to emigrate.”

(Source: HRH Prince Ghazi bin Muhammad, Professor Ibrahim Kalim, Mohammad Hashim Kamali. War and Peace in Islam: The Uses and Abuses of Jihad. Chapter: “The Qur’an and Combat.”The Islamic Texts Society, p.9)

Muslims believe that permission to fight was granted after continued oppression by the Meccans after Prophet Muhammad and his followers emigrated to Medina from Mecca.

The Sunni View of Combative Jihad: Defensive and Offensive

Scholars from the four Sunni schools of jurisprudence (Hanafi, Shafi’i, Maliki, Hanbali) differ in their views of combative jihad. According to contemporary author and Al-Azhari professor, Ahmad al-Dawoody, the majority of religious scholars in the four Sunni schools view jihad as a defense against aggression:

“Qur’anic casus belli are restricted to aggression against Muslims and fitnah, that is, persecution of Muslims because of their religious belief (Qur’an 2:190; 2:193; 4:75; 22:39-40). War and coercion are not means by which religion may be propagated because belief in a religion is only a matter of the conviction of the heart (Qur’an 2:256; 10:99; 16:93; 18:29). Fighting non-Muslims solely because they do not believe in Islam contradicts the Qur’anic injunction (Qur’an 2:256).”[[1]]

The above position on combative jihad by classical Sunni scholars should not be taken lightly, especially in view of the distorted understanding that all Sunni scholars embraced the position of offensive jihad. This position illustrates that combat was only to be waged defensively in response to aggression.

To give a specific example of an early Muslim scholar in the time of the Salaf who supported defensive (and not offensive) jihad, author Mairaj Syed of Bard College in the book, Just War in Religion and Politics: Studies in Religion and the Social Order, in the chapter, “Jihad in Classical Islamic Legal and Moral Thought,” said that the eighth century Muslim scholar and ascetic, Sufyan al-Thawri,

“held that the duty of jihad becomes incumbent only in the case of enemy attack. For this reason fighting is a duty only for defensive purposes” (p. 147).

Syed then says,

“The implication of this view is that fighting for offensive purposes is not a religiously legitimate jihad” (p. 148).

While defensive jihad was a personal obligation, offensive jihad was a communal/collective obligation proclaimed by the ruler. The latter did not always mean perpetual warfare, but also meant, in certain situations, to be in a prepared state of battle. Other Sunni scholars like the Spanish Maliki scholar, Ibn `Abd al-Barr (978-1070), says Syed,

“held that the collective duty of jihad becomes incumbent only in the presence of fear (khawf). In conditions of security (amn), it is only a praiseworthy action (nafila), and not a duty. As such, in Ibn `And al-Barr’s conception, the omission of jihad in conditions of peace and security is not sinful” (p. 148).

According to contemporary author and scholar, Asma Afsaruddin, the plurality of meanings of jihad in Islam’s earlier years gradually narrowed in meaning to the combative form due to geo-political exigencies of the time:

“By the early Abassid period – roughly the mid-to-late eighth-century CE, second century of Islam – the military aspect of jihad began to receive greater emphasis in certain official and juridical circles.”[[2]]

In other words, the pacifist school of combative jihad seems to have been gradually overshadowed by the offensive jihad school when military matters mattered more. This is not to say that defensive jihad was non-existent at a later time. Syed mentions the sixteenth century Hanafi scholar, Ibn Nujaym, who

“seems to articulate an interpretation of jihad, as motivated solely by defensive considerations, that comes close to the view propounded by al-Thawri” (p.148).

Religious jurists who focused on military matters more used the Islamic sources and resorted to abrogation, believing that Qur’anic verses calling for combat abrogated the verses calling for peace. This view, however, was not shared by all scholars, and, contrary to Islamophobes, does not represent the view of the Muslim majority today.

War as Part of the Norm

Were only Muslims prone to war? Combative jihad was adopted through Islam’s history for various reasons, including spreading what Muslims believed was God’s word. War, however, was not unique to Islam and Muslims. The Muslim expansion in early Islam, as well as later wars, is to be understood in the context of the geo-political environment in those times. Professor David Dakake says,

“When Islam spread out of Arabia in the seventh century…warfare and conflict were the normal state of affairs between nations and peoples. The state of nearly constant warfare was simply the ‘way of the world’ and peace was the extraordinary and occasional exception to the rule.”[[3]]

Similarly, Georgetown University Professor, John Esposito, in his book Unholy War: Terror in the Name of Islam, says,

“The world in which Islam emerged in the seventh century was a rough neighborhood where war was the natural state. Arabia and the city of Mecca, in which Muhammad lived and received God’s revelation, were beset by tribal raids and cycles of vengeance and vendetta. The broader Near East, in which Arabia was located, was itself divided between two warring superpowers of the day, the Byzantine (Eastern Roman) and the Persian (Sasanin) Empires. Each had competed against the other for world dominion” (p.29).

Justification for war found religious justification as jihad in Islam, just as “Just War” was formulated to justify war in Christianity. Muslims were not unique in their times when it came to war.

Non-Muslims Under Muslim Rule

The promotion of combative jihad notwithstanding, this did not mean forced conversion. Contemporary scholar, Shaykh Muhammad Hisham Kabbani, said,

“As for forced conversion, no reliable evidence exists that Muslims ever intended or attempted to impose the specific rites and beliefs of Islam. The histories of Central Asia, Spain, India, the Balkans and all of Southeast Asia are concrete proof of this” (p.61).

The norm, therefore, was to let conquered people practice their own religions. There were, however, aberrations from the norm that should not be described as the norm as Islamophobes frequently do. Mustafa Akyol says,

“with the exception of a few cases – such as the fanatic Almohavids in North Africa – forced conversion remained anathema to Islamdom.”[[4]]

Similarly, Youssef Courbage and Philippe Fargues in their book, Christians and Jews Under Islam, say,

“It is known that coercion, although it was occasionally used, was rare in the history of Arab Islam” (p.21).

Courbage and Fargues also say,

“There were some violent episodes, some spectacular explosions of popular fanaticism, but the state was almost never a persecutor” (p.24).

Other authors and historians have similar understandings. For example, historian Ira Lapidus says,

“…the Arab-Muslims did not, contrary to reputation, attempt to convert people to Islam. Muhammad had set the precedent of permitting Jews and Christians in Arabia to keep their religions, if they paid tribute; the Caliphate extended the same privileges to Middle Eastern Jews, Christians, and Zoroastrians, whom they considered ‘People of the Book,’ the adherents of earlier written revelations […].”[[5]]

Author Thomas Arnold says,

“These stupendous conquests which laid the foundations of the Arab empire, were certainly not the outcome of a holy war […].”[[6]]

Similarly, historian Marshall Hodgson says,

“There was no attempt at converting the peoples of the imperial territories, who practically adhered to some form of confessional religion already.”[[7]]

This, however, did not mean that non-Muslims under Muslim rule were living in bliss, but neither did it mean they were living under untold oppression – two extreme views that do not line with historical facts. They were not annihilated but tolerated. Christians and Jews, deemed “People of the Book” by Muslims, were permitted to practice their religion in their places of worship while paying a tax to receive exemption from joining the army and to receive full protection by the Muslim government in the event of an attack. In practice, protection by the Muslim state was not only offered to Christians and Jews, but also to followers of other religions, including Zoroastrians, Buddhists, and Hindus.

“The poll-tax or jizya,” professor David Dakake says, “was required to be paid by the People of the Book to the Islamic state” and “unlike feudal taxation in Europe, did not constitute an economic hardship for non-Muslims living under Muslim rule.” He continues, “The tax was seen as the legitimate right of the Islamic state, given that all peoples – Muslim and non-Muslim – benefited from the military protection of the state, the freedom of the roads, and trade, etc.” Muslims also had to contribute. “Although the jizya was paid by non-Muslims, Muslims were also taxed through the zakat, a required religious tax not levied on other communities.”[[8]]

This, however, does not mean that all non-Muslims had to pay jizya under Muslim rule, as many people incorrectly understand. Mohammad Hashim Kamali in the book War and Peace in Islam: The Uses and Abuses of Jihad, in the chapter “Dhimmi and Musta’min: A Juristic and Historical Perspective,” says, “The contract of dhimmah that Muslim jurists later formalised was neither uniform nor well defined” (p.309). Kamali says on page-310:

“Early Muslim rulers have at times entered dhimmah agreements which eliminated the jizyah altogether — as in the agreement entered during the time of the second caliph `Umar with the Turkish tribe of Jarajimah which welcomed the Muslim forces and declared its dislike of the Romans, but stipulated that its members be allowed to remain Christian; this was agreed”

Kamali continues,

“The tribe also agreed to help the Muslims in the event of any military engagement with the Romans. The Muslim party agreed in return to protect the tribe and also relieved its members from payment of jizyah.”

Kamali then describes a similar situation when Muslims took over Cyprus:

“A similar example of a variant dhimmah arrangement was the peace agreement that the Muslims signed with the people of Cyprus, who did not offer resistance. In return the Muslim party agreed not to levy the jizyah on them.”

The Copts of Egypt were also exempt, according to Kamali:

“Another example of this was the agreement that `Amr b. al-As, Caliph `Umar’s governor, signed with the Copts of Egypt when his forces besieged and eventually conquered Egypt. There was no mention of jizyah in the treaty that was subsequently signed.”

Such nuances are important to understand to avoid simplistic generalizations of how Muslim rulers treated non-Muslims in history.

The Petering Out of Offensive Jihad

Offensive jihad or perpetual warfare was also not the preferred choice for rulers after a certain period. Author and scholar Khalid Blankenship says that wars became unsustainable over time, which  was partially responsible for the demise of the Umayyad state during the reign of Hisham ibn `Abd al-Malik. This led to a “permanent restructuring of Muslim political praxis away from a scheme of permanent warfare against non-Muslims, to one which came, over time, to include protracted truces, formal diplomatic relations, and, in the modern world, membership in the international community of nation-states.”[[9]]. Kamali in the previous section’s source says,

“There is … no dhimmah in the Muslim state of today, as it has to all intents and purposes been replaced by muwatanah (citizenship)…” (p. 311).

Non-Muslims Helped Muslims in Jihad

Islamophobes and “Muslim” terrorists portray a bipolar Muslim versus non-Muslim affair. However, Ian Almond, author of Two Faiths One Banner: When Muslims Marched with Christians Across Europe’s Battlegrounds, discusses the “under-reported phenomenon of Muslim-Christian military alliances,” including

“the thousands of Arabs who fought for medieval Christian emperors outside the walls of Milan and Bologna, the Castilians and Catalans who regularly allied themselves with Muslims to fight their Christian neighbors, the extraordinary level of Turkish co-operation in the last century of the Byzantine empire, the equally extraordinary number of Christian soldiers in the Ottoman armies which occupied the Balkans, and the tens of thousands of Hungarian Protestants, not to mention disaffected Hungarian peasants, who marched with the armies of the Turk on Vienna.”[[10]]

Similarly, Akyol says,

“local Christians…actively helped the Muslim conquests. When Byzantine-ruled Damascus was besieged by the Arab army in 634, the city’s Monophysite bishop secretly informed the Muslim commander, Khalid, that the east gate of the city was weakly defended, and he supplied the Muslim troops with ladders for scaling the walls.”[[11]]

Moreover, “Christian Arabs from tribes such as the Banu Tayyi of Najd, the Banu al-Namir ibn Qasit of the upper Euphrates river valley, and the Banu Lakhm participated in the jihad with the Muslim armies.”[[12]] It is important to note that many wars did not necessarily count as jihad, while many wars waged by Muslims were against other Muslims.

Caliphs Were Tolerated More Than Supported

While reasons for offensive jihad are debated by both Muslim and non-Muslim scholars, it has been established earlier that most of the caliphs who undertook combative jihad were not necessarily supported by the masses, and more than a few were not in line with Islamic teachings.

The collective actions of caliphs, therefore, should not be understood as the genuine expression of Islam. Moreover, the delicate relationship between the caliphs and religious scholars demonstrates more tension than collaboration. The religious scholars had the unenviable role of keeping the ruler in check and risking life and limb in the process. Religious scholars generally did not agree with the power-hungry goals of certain caliphs, but made decisions based on what they believed to be in the collective interests of the wider Muslim community.

Now that an overview of classical Sunni jihad has been provided, this section will compare the understanding and actions of militants today with combative jihad as understood and undertaken by classical Sunni Muslims of the past.

Jihad versus Terrorism

Advocacy of Peace Over War Today as the Norm

The geo-political context in the past hundreds of years has evolved. It is not the same as the time of Prophet Muhammad, or the time of the Crusades. Unlike most of the past 1,000-plus years, peace, not war, is generally the normal state of affairs today.

Even if offensive jihad occurred in Islam’s history, this does not mean most Muslims wish to promote combat today. Contrary to Islamophobes and “Muslim” terrorists, the Muslim majority is not interested in waging combat on others, but living peacefully like most of the world’s people.

“Gallup’s polling of Muslims worldwide determined that the vast majority of respondents (93 percent) belong to the mainstream who believe the 9/11 attacks were not justified.”

(Source: John L. Esposito. The Future of Islam. New York: Oxford University Press, 2010. p.155)

This is not just the opinion of the Muslim masses, but also of prominent contemporary Sunni scholars. Several such scholars in a Peace Conference in Turkey in 2010 discussed how Ibn Taymiyah’s Fatwa of Mardin was misunderstood and misused by militants to wage violence. Among the conclusions of the New Mardin Declaration was a declaration of peace:

“The classification of abodes in Islamic jurisprudence was a classification based on ijtihad (juristic reasoning) that was necessitated by the circumstances of the Muslim world, then and the nature of the international relations prevalent at that time. However, circumstances have changed now: The existence of recognized international treaties, which consider as crimes wars that do not involve repelling aggression or resisting occupation; the emergence of civil states which guarantee, on the whole, religious, ethnic and national rights, have necessitated declaring, instead, the entire world as a place of tolerance and peaceful co-existence between all religions, groups and factions in the context of establishing common good and justice amongst people, and wherein they enjoy safety and security with respect to their wealth, habitations and integrity. This is what the Shari‘ah has been affirming and acknowledging, and to which it has been inviting humanity, ever since the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) migrated to Madina and concluded the first treaty/peace agreement that guaranteed mutual and harmonious co-existence between the factions and various ethnic/race groups in a framework of justice and common/shared interest. Shortcomings and breaches perpetrated by certain states that happen to scar and mar this process cannot and should not be used as a means for denying its validity and creating conflict between it and the Islamic Shari‘ah.”

These scholars did not advocate perpetual warfare against non-Muslims, but peace, in the current world of nation-states. Dakake reaffirms:

Today, in the modern world, the situation is somewhat reversed: we might say that ‘peace’ is generally the norm and warfare, although not exactly extraordinary, is somewhat less of a constant that it was in ancient times. This fact has led the vast majority of Muslim scholars today to declare that continual, offensive jihad is no longer applicable to the contemporary situation and that jihad today is primarily difa’i or defensive, because the world is itself in a different state from what it was in the seventh century.”

(Source: Joseph E. B. Lumbard. (ed.) Islam, Fundamentalism, and the Betrayal of Tradition: Essays by Western Muslim Scholars. Bloomington, Ind.: World Wisdom, 2009. pg.34)

Therefore, most “Muslim” countries today live peacefully with non-Muslim countries, and most casualties by Muslim attacks today – including al-Qa’eda attacks if they are even considered Muslim – are other Muslims.

This is contrary to the views of Islamophobes who allege that classical Sunni Muslims today support violent “jihad” in some form against non-Muslims, which they strangely consider a continuation of centuries of jihad of the past. To do so is to mix geo-political contexts, to fail to distinguish the nuances of both, and is analogous to judging Christians today by the geo-political context of Christians in the times of the Crusades.

Jihad today is not proclaimed by rulers, but by “Muslim” vigilantes

The minority of violent Islamists (“jihadists”) do not follow the rules of combative jihad in classical Islam. A ruler is not necessary for them to declare jihad, and they are not members of armies. There is no leader of a nation-state in the world today calling for an offensive jihad against any government or follower of other religions. 

Contemporary Pakistani scholar, Shaykh Tahir ul-Qadri, author of the most comprehensive Fatwa Against Terrorism and Suicide Bombings, said:

“Power to declare Jihad has been vested in the state and no non-state actor is allowed to do so in Islam. If it does … it would be nothing but massacre of humanity and revolt against the state”.

Shaykh Muhammad al-Afifi al-Akiti, another contemporary Sunni scholar, says the following in rebuttal to al-Muhajiroun, headed by the extremist, Omar Bakri Mohammed, who praised the 9/11 attacks:

“The upshot is, whether one likes it or not, the decision and discretion and right to declare war or jihad for Muslims lie solely with the various authorities as represented today by the respective Muslim states – and not with any individual even if he is a scholar or a soldier (and not just anyone is a soldier or a scholar) – in the same way that an authority (such as the qadi in a court of law: mahkama) is the only one with the right to excommunicate or declare someone an apostate [murtadd]. Otherwise, the killing would be extra-judicial and unauthorized.”
(Source: Aftab Malik (Editor). (2006). The State We Are In. Shaykh Muhammad al-Afifi al-Akiti. Defending the Transgressed by Censuring the Reckless Against the Killing of Civilians. Amal Press. Pg.108)

Egypt’s Mufti, Ali Gomaa, said,

“The principle in war is that it should be launched with the authorization of the Muslim ruler; it is imperative that the decision to declare war be based on his own reasoning and his subjects must obey him. A ruler is authorized to declare war due to his knowledge of evident and hidden matters, the consequences of actions and the interest of his people. For this reason, a ruler is authorized to declare wars and hold domestic or international treaties as soon as he assumes office. In turn, he does not issue decisions based on [personal] whims. He declares a war only after consulting specialists in every relevant field such as techni­cal specialists, military personnel, and political consultants who are indispensable in the military strategy.”

Contemporary Sunni American scholar, Imam Hamza Yusuf, in a 60 Minutes interview by CBS on September 30, 2001, which also included other religious figures, responded to the interviewer’s question on Osama bin Laden’s declaration of jihad in the name of Allah:

“I would say that he has no legitimate authority, that in Islam, Jihad can only be declared by legitimate state authority. And this is accepted by consensus. There is no vigilantism in Islam. Muslims believe in state authority.”

Similarly, contemporary Sunni scholar, Abdal Hakim Murad (Tim Winter), head of the Cambridge Muslim College in England, said:

“A jihad can be proclaimed only by a properly constituted state; anything else is pure vigilantism.”

The fact that militant violence does not fall into the realms of a valid jihad, as they are not in a position to proclaim it, automatically renders all other “justifications” of so-called jihad by them irrelevant and misplaced.

Militants today do not protect places of worship

Militants today do not spare but target places of worship, including churches, Buddha statues, mosques, and even graves and tombs (especially of Muslim saints) that they see as places of “worship” by millions of Muslims worldwide. The Boko Haram in Nigeria, the Afghan Taliban, and radicals in Pakistan’s tribal areas are current examples. Early examples include attacks on shrines by Wahhabi armies.

Barring a few aberrations from the norm, this is in contrast to how Muslims preserved and protected the places of worship of non-Muslims throughout Islam’s history. In this respect, militants are very unlike early Muslims and follow the historical aberration instead of the norm.

For example, when an Umayyad ruler, Walid Abd al-Malik, claimed property that belonged to a church in Damascus and turned it into a mosque, Umar bin Abd al-Aziz instructed that the portion of the mosque be destroyed and returned to Christians.[[13]]

Commenting on the following Qur’anic verse, “And had God not repelled one group of people from another, the cloisters, synagogues, churches, and mosques in which God’s name is mentioned in abundance would have been ruined” (Qur’an 22:40), Imam Abu Bakr al-Jassas quotes the famous Imam al-Hassan al-Basri:

“God uses the believers as a means of preventing the destruction of the places of worship belonging to the non-Muslim citizens.”[[14]]

Regarding non-Muslim places of worship, even Ibn al-Qayyim al-Jawziyah, the loyal student of Ibn Taymiyah, says,

“God uses the believers to defend their places of worship….Moreover, it is obligatory for him [the believer] to defend their objects of worship, even though he detests them.”[[15]]

Militants today not only clash with classical Sunni tradition in this respect, but also oppose the words of controversial scholars whom they deceitfully claim to emulate.

Militants today kill innocent civilians

Militants today target armies and civilians, have described all of their violence as “defensive,” have invented their own rules  – for example, only combatants can speak on rules of combat  – and discard or selectively and deceptively use Sunni tradition to achieve their aims. Al-Dawoody says,

“Several hadiths attributed to the Prophet [Muhammad] prohibit targeting five specific categories of enemy noncombatants, namely, women, children, the aged, the clergy, and al`Asif (any hired man)” (p.111).

The above prohibitions on targeting noncombatants are in a legitimate state of war. The deduction is that human life is even more precious in the absence of war. Prophet Muhammad in his last sermon said,

“O people, just as you regard this month, this day, this city as Sacred, so regard the life and property of every Muslim as a sacred trust.”

Conflicts today involving “Muslims” are usually against other Muslims – not non-Muslims. The majority of al-Qa’eda’s victims have been Muslim, in spite of their rhetoric of attacking the “infidel.” A 2009 study, Deadly Vanguards: A Study of al-Qa’ida’s Violence Against Muslims, by the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point, states:

“The results show that non‐Westerners are much more likely to be killed in an al‐Qa’ida attack. From 2004 to 2008, only 15% percent of the 3,010 victims were Western. During the most recent period studied the numbers skew even further. From 2006 to 2008, only 2% (12 of 661 victims) are from the West, and the remaining 98% are inhabitants of countries with Muslim majorities. During this period, a person of non‐Western origin was 54 times more likely to die in an al‐Qa’ida attack than an individual from the West. The overwhelming majority of al‐Qa’ida victims are Muslims living in Muslim countries, and many are citizens of Iraq, which suffered more al‐Qa’ida attacks than any other country courtesy of the al‐Qa’ida in Iraq (AQI) affiliate.”

In another post, Sunni and other scholars explain how al-Tatarrus, the “law on using human shields,” has been manipulated by al-Qa’eda and their likes to justify their massacres of civilians.

Militants demean and target religious scholars and knowledge

Scholar and author, Joas Wagemakers, says,

“There seems to be a growing trend among jihadis to view fighters as being the most credible Muslims to comment on jihad, in spite of their lack of scholarly credentials.”[[16]]

The lack of respect to religious scholars by militants has been seen by their utmost marginalization by even peaceful Islamists.

The opposition by militants to Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi, well-known for his religious knowledge among extremist circles, illustrates the point. Scoffing at religious scholars, a central part of the militant outlook, elevates combat over belief, and ridicules Prophet Muhammad’s sayings, including:

“Scholars [of religious knowledge] are the inheritors of the Prophets.”[[17]]

He did not say that those who combat are the heirs of the prophets. Prophet Muhammad was also asked,

“`What is the best deed?’ He responded, ‘Belief in Allah and His Messenger […].’”[[18]]

Likewise, Islamists turn their backs on Sunni tradition by prioritizing politics over religion.

Many militants understand combat experience as a prerequisite to speaking about creed and other religious knowledge – a complete reversal of Sunni Islam that requires correct creed as a first priority and prerequisite to other Islamic practices. Prophet Muhammad also forbade targeting religious figures in a legitimate jihad. Abd Allah ibn Abbas said, “When the Messenger of Allah…would dispatch his troops he would say [to them], “Do not act treacherously, do not steal the spoils of war, do not disfigure the dead bodies, and do not kill children and priests.”[[19]]  This partially explains why Pakistani scholars today find it difficult to speak against terrorism waged by the Pakistani Taliban and al-Qa’eda. Their fate would be the same as Barelwi scholar, Sarfraz Na’eemi, and Deobandi scholar, Hassan Jan, who were killed by militants for speaking against terrorism, including suicide bombings.

Militants make combat a pillar of Islam

The first pillar of Islam, the Testification of Faith (“There is no God but Allah and Muhammad is the Messenger of Allah”) is replaced with so-called combative jihad as the first pillar, or is portrayed by militants as being a pillar of Islam. `Abd-al-Salam al-Faraj, for example, in “The Neglected Duty” appeared to see combative jihad as the sixth pillar of Islam.

However, jihad is not a pillar of Sunni Islam and never has been. Asma Afsaruddin says that “the Medinan scholar `Abdallah ibn `Umar, son of the second caliph `Umar ibn al-Khattab, is on record as having challenged those who had wished to elevate combative jihad to the level of a religious obligation. An Iraqi man came to Ibn `Umar and reproached him thus: “What is the matter with you that you perform the hajj and `umra but have abandoned fighting in the path of God (al-ghazu fi sabil allah)?’ To which Ibn `Umar responded, ‘Fie on you! Faith is founded on five pillars: that you worship God, perform the prayer, give zakat, perform the pilgrimage, and fast during Ramadan[…].”[[20]]

Militants kill ambassadors

Militants regularly target diplomatic institutions. This was seen in the recent 2012 attack at the US Consulate in Benghazi, Libya, where US Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens was killed, along with several other diplomatic staff. Similarly, the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania were attacked by militants in 1998. Countless examples abound.

Whereas militants target embassies, consulates, and foreign dignitaries, Abdallah bin Mas’ud, one of the closest Companions of Prophet Muhammad, and one of the first converts to Islam, said:

“It is an established Sunna that ambassadors are not to be killed.”[[21]]

It is also recorded in classical Sunni sources that when representatives of Musaylima, who claimed prophethood, visited the Prophet Muhammad as diplomats, Prophet Muhammad did not kill them or instruct others to kill them.[[22]] Author and scholar, M. Cherif Bassiouni, in his book, The Shari’ah and Islamic Criminal Justice System in Time of War and Peace, gave several other examples of diplomatic immunity granted by early communities of Muslims (p.187). For example, “…so great was the Prophet’s belief in the immunity of envoys that when Abu-Ra’fi, the emissary of Quraish, wanted to convert to Islam, the Prophet admonished him:

“I do not go back on my word and I do not detain envoys [your are an ambassador]. You must, therefore, go back, and if you still feel in your heart as strongly about Islam as you do now, come back [as a Muslim].”

Diplomatic immunity is seen in Prophet Muhammad’s exemplary treatment of a delegation from Ta’if in 9 AH/631 CE, in spite of their disrespect towards him:

“Earlier on, when the Prophet had gone to Taif to propagate Islam, the city’s residents treated him poorly. Despite their previously disrespectful conduct, the Prophet treated the Taif delegation with respect, further affirming that envoys were to be received in accordance with their privileged status, irrespective of their sending country or the nature of past relations with its people.”

Militants today do the opposite of what Prophet Muhammad and his companions did.

As illustrated above, to conflate the jihad of classical Sunni Islam with the violent actions of terrorists today, is to have an erroneous understanding.

Militants have inadequate capacity to fight

The Qur’an states,

“Now Allah has lightened your [task] for He knows that there is weakness among you. So if there are of you a hundred steadfast persons, they shall overcome two hundred, if there are a thousand of you, they shall overcome two thousand with the leave of Allah and Allah is with the patient” (8:66).

Terrorists, while violating many other conditions of a legitimate combative jihad, also ignore the condition of numbers in battle. Contemporary Sunni scholar, Shaykh Muhammad Hisham Kabbani, says in his book, Jihad: Principles of Leadership in War and Peace (p.82):

“Thus Allah declared that if the ratio of Muslim warriors to their opponents is half (1:2) they may fight and they will be given Divine Support in an open fight facing the enemy directly, warrior-to-warrior. This was a reduction from the original ratio, in which the believers were obligated to fight even if the ratio of Muslims to their opponents was one to ten.”

Shaykh Kabbani then says, “The above verse [referring to verse 8:66] also means if…the enemy is twice the Muslim force, then there is no possibility of success and therefore at that time you must not set forth. To do so will create nothing but fitnah — a state of hostility and turmoil” (p.83).

Terrorists violate the Qur’anic verse above by challenging entire armies who not only outnumber them, but who also possess more advanced weapons and technology to win battles. To challenge armies in this manner is foolish and jeopardizes the lives of countless Muslims, directly and indirectly. While the minority of terrorists wage their terrorism, millions of innocent people, Muslim and non-Muslim, suffer death, discrimination, and hatred.

Militants Violate Agreements 

Militants violate sacred agreements as the 9/11 hijackers violated their visas which are seen as agreements from a Sunni perspective.  Contemporary Sunni scholar,  Shaykh Muhammad ibn Adam al-Kawthari, says,

When one lives in a particular country, one agrees verbally, in writing or effectively to adhere to the rules and regulations of that country. This, according to the Shariah, is considered to be a promise, agreement and trust. One is obliged to fulfil the trust regardless of whether it is contracted with a friend, enemy, Muslim, non-Muslim or a government. The Messenger of Allah (Allah bless him & give him peace) and his Companions (Allah be pleased with them all) always stood by their word and did not breach any trust or agreement, as it is clear from the books of Sunnah and history. Thus, to break a promise or breach a trust of even a non-Muslim is absolutely unlawful and considered a sign of being a hypocrite (munafiq).

Shaykh al-Kawthari then supports his views using specific verses from the Qur’an:

“And fulfil (every) engagement (ahd), for (every) engagement will be enquired into (on the day of reckoning)” (Surah al-Isra, v. 34).

“Allah does command you to render back your trusts to those to whom they are due, and when you judge between people that you judge with justice” (Surah al-Nisa, v. 58).

Shaykh al-Kawthari then says, “And regarding the one who breaks an agreement and is guilty of treachery, Allah Almighty says”:

 “Allah loves not the treacherous” (Surah al-Anfal, v. 58).

He then quotes several sayings of Prophet Muhammad, including the following:

Sayyiduna Abu Huraira (Allah be pleased with him) narrates that the Messenger of Allah (Allah bless him & give him peace) said: “The signs of a hypocrite are three: When he speaks he lies, when he makes a promise he breaks it, and when he is given a trust he breaches it” (Sahih al-Bukhari, no. 33).

Sayyiduna Abd Allah ibn Amr (Allah be pleased with him) narrates that the Messenger of Allah (Allah bless him & give him peace) said: “Four traits, if found in an individual, then he will be a complete hypocrite (munafiq), and if an individual possesses one of these four, he will have one portion of nifaq: When he is given a trust he breaches it, when he speaks he lies, when he makes an agreement (ahd) he is guilty of treachery and disloyalty (gadar), and when he disputes he is fouled mouth” (Sahih al-Bukhari, no. 34).

The acts of militants are in direct contradiction to what the Qur’an states and what Prophet Muhammad said.

How Militants Manipulate the Islamic Sources to “Justify” the Killing of non-Muslims

Militants misinterpret and abuse the genuine meaning of evidence from the Islamic sources to justify their violence. Sunni scholar, Shaykh Faraz Khan, explains the context and correct meaning of the following hadith:

“I was ordered to fight people until they bear witness that there is no deity except Allah and that Muhammad is the Messenger of Allah; establish the ritual prayer; and pay almsgiving. So if they do that, their lives and wealth are safe from me, except for a right recognized in Islam. Their accounting, however, will be with Allah.” [Bukhari, Muslim]

Shaykh Faraz says:

“Unfortunately, this text is often grossly misinterpreted as calling for continuous “holy war” against all non-Muslims until and unless they become Muslim. But examination of context and scholarly interpretation reveals that the hadith by no means refers to all people and is not calling for any sort of war, holy or unholy. The key to understanding the hadith, then, is to understand who exactly is meant by the word ‘people’ in the statement, ‘I was ordered to fight people.’

“This same hadith has various narrations as recorded by different hadith scholars. Imam Nasa’i’s narration reads: ‘I was ordered to fight the polytheists’ rather than the word ‘people,’ and it is an established principle in hadith methodology that various narrations of the same hadith serve to clarify its actual meaning. Hence, the narration of Imam Nasa’i indicates that the word ‘people’ in the first narration does not refer to all people, but rather a specific group of people, namely, certain polytheists. This understanding is confirmed by both the Qur’an and the Sunna, as many incidents in the life of the Prophet [peace and blessings be upon him] clearly show that all of humanity was not intended in the hadith.

“This understanding is also confirmed by our codified legal tradition, which is a reflection of the Qur’an and Sunna. Imam Abu Hanifa and his legal school limited this hadith to only the polytheists among the Arabs. And Imam Malik and his legal school limited it to only the Quraysh tribe among them. [Ibn Battal, Sharh al-Bukhari] (bolded by blog’s author)

“That is to say, according to both schools of law, all non-Arabs are excluded from the hadith – whether polytheists, atheists, Jews, Christians, or otherwise. Among the Arabs, any group that does not worship idols are also excluded, whether Jews, Christians, Magians, or otherwise. Only Arab polytheists – or perhaps just the tribe of Quraysh among them – were being addressed by the Messenger [peace and blessings be upon him]. Incidentally, the Hanafi and Maliki schools historically and up to today have constituted the vast majority of the Muslim world.

“Imam Kasani, the eminent 6th-century Hanafi jurist, explains that the reasoning of this position is based on the difference between Arab polytheists and all other peoples, including People of the Book [i.e., Jews and Christians, Arab or non-Arab] and non-Arab polytheists. With respect to peoples other than Arab polytheists, it is hoped that by mutual coexistence between them and Muslims, they will be drawn to Islam after reflecting over the beauty of the religion and its Sacred Law [shari’a]. [f: And that hope is sufficient; whether they become Muslim or not is irrelevant to the Hanafi and Maliki perspective that they are not addressed by the hadith.]

The nature of Arab polytheists, however, was to reject anything that conflicted with their customs and traditions, deeming all else to be madness and worthy of scornful ridicule. They were a people – as repeatedly mentioned in the Qur’an – that refused to reflect over anything but ‘the ways of their forefathers.’ Therefore, because the Messenger of Allah [peace and blessings be upon him] was from their same tribe and knew them intimately, he gave them no option but acceptance of Islam or fighting [f: And this statement, of course, was after years of being oppressed by those Arab polytheists]. [Kasani, Bada’i al-Sana’i].”

Similarly, Shaykh Muhammad al-Akiti says in his Fatwa (p.31),

“As for the meaning of ‘people’ [al-nās] in the above well-related Ḥadīth, it is confirmed by Ijmāʿ that it refers to the same ‘mushrikīn’ as in the Verse of Sūra al-Tawba above, and therefore what is meant there is only the Jāhilī Arabs [mushrikū l-ʿarab] during the closing days of the Final Messenger and the early years of the Righteous Caliphs and not even to any other non-Muslims” (bolded by blogger). 

The “Verse of Sūra al-Tawba” is described by some as the “Verse of the Sword” — 9:5 — discussed in the next section below.

The “Verse of the Sword” (9:5)

Verse 9:5 in the Qur’an states:

“And when the sacred months have passed, then kill the polytheists wherever you find them and capture them and besiege them and sit in wait for them at every place of ambush. But if they should repent, establish prayer, and give zakah, let them [go] on their way. Indeed, Allah is Forgiving and Merciful.”

Some militants use verse 9:5 to ‘justify’ killing non-Muslims and Islamophobes believe them. Shaykh Faraz Khan refutes this understanding from scholars of Sunni tradition and says,

“…the Verse of the Sword deals specifically with the situation of Meccan polytheists breaking peace treaties and openly declaring war on the Muslim polity. The verse, then, commands the Muslim state to take up arms and defend itself against those that breached their covenants and attacked out of treachery.

“This explanation is confirmed by the most reliable Imams of Qur’anic exegesis [tafsir], including Imam Razi, Imam Jamal, Imam Zamakhshari, Imam Baydawi, Imam Nasafi, Imam Biqa`i, and others.

[Razi, Mafatih al-Ghayb; Jamal, Hashiyat al-Jalalayn; Zamakhshari, Kashshaf; Baydawi, Anwar al-Tanzil; Nasafi, Madeira al-Tanzil; Biqa`i, Nadhm al-Durar]

“The verse, therefore, can by no means be generalized to refer to all disbelievers. Such an interpretation is not confirmed by scholars of Qur’anic interpretation. It would be both contrary to the intent of the verses as well as disastrous for the security of both Muslim and non-Muslim citizens and nation-states.”

The defense above must be taken in context. While militants sometimes use verse 9:5 to “justify” their terrorism, a July 2012 study by Jeffry R. Halverson and other authors — “How Extremists Quote the Quran” — by the  Center for Strategic Communication (Arizona State University), states that militants often do not use verse 9:5. This is in spite of frequent Islamophobic assertions against Muslims that this verse is to blame for the actions of terrorists. The study examined the most frequently cited or quoted verses in the Qur’an from over 2,000 extremist texts from 1998 to 2011 in the Center for Strategic Communication’s database, and concluded:

“…verses extremists cite from the Qur’an do not suggest an aggressive offensive foe seeking domination and conquest of unbelievers, as is commonly assumed. Instead they deal with themes of victimization, dishonor, and retribution. This shows close integration with the rhetorical vision of Islamist extremists.”

The study, commenting on the “near absence” of verse 9:5 in the texts of extremists, states:

“Other findings in the report raise questions about the veracity of claims often made by analysts. The most surprising is the near absence of the well-known “Verse of the Sword” (9:5) from the extremist texts. Widely regarded as the most militant or violent passage of the Qur’an, it is treated as a divine call for offensive warfare on a global scale. It is also regarded as a verse which supersedes over one hundred other verses of the Qur’an that counsel patience, tolerance, and forgiveness.”

Based on the analysis, the authors conclude:

“…that verses extremists cite from the Qur’an do not suggest an aggressive offensive foe seeking domination and conquest of unbelievers, as is commonly assumed. Instead they deal with themes of victimization, dishonor, and retribution. This shows close integration with the rhetorical vision of Islamist extremists.

Based on this analysis we recommend that the West abandon claims that Islamist extremists seek world domination, focus on counteracting or addressing claims of victimage, emphasize alternative means of deliverance, and work to undermine the “champion” image sought by extremists”  (bolded by blog’s author)

Militants do not follow Sunni tradition in their understanding of verse 9:5, even if some of them, and many more Islamophobes, claim otherwise.

The Varieties of “Jihad” Today

It is interesting to note how the neo-conservatives and other Islamophobes supported an offensive – pre-emptive – war against Iraq under flawed pretexts, which killed more people than all of the offensive jihads in Islam’s history. Like the militants they condemn, they also bipolarize the world into good and evil. Related to this matter, the issue of the division of the world divided into Dar al-Islam and Dar al-Kufr is important to understand.

The Bipolar View of “Jihadists” and Neo-conservatives

“Muslim” terrorists today do not have a sophisticated understanding of the Sunni categorization of the world and the political and related factors associated with it. Ironically and contrary to Sunni tradition, terrorists dichotomize the world simplistically just as neoconservatives do.

Indeed, the division of the world is not allegedly unique to Islam, or religion, in general.  Price says,

“…the division of the world into an in-group and an out-group…is not unique to religion, as it is also a characteristic of groups involved in ethnic conflict and secular conflicts.”[[23]]

“Religion’s dichotomizing tendency,”he continues, “was certainly present in the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union. However, competing economic systems, capitalism, and communism, not faiths, were the ideological forces that stoked a 45-year global conflict that led to the brink of nuclear war with the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, the division of Europe into competing blocs, and wars by proxy throughout the developing world.”[[24]]  The analogy of Dar al-Islam and Dar al-Kufrcan be applied to both opposing sides in the Cold War.

Similarly, scholar, author, and ex-CIA officer Graham Fuller says,

“Jihad in its more modern usage has been applied to many quite secular tasks, just as the term ‘crusade’ in English is casually applied to fighting crime or a campaign against drugs”[[25]]

Neo-conservative Islamophobes paradoxically counter Islamist ideology from an ideological perspective of their own that, some would argue, is just as extreme, and which has outlived its perceived usefulness. Their view of themselves as “good” and the Soviet Empire as “evil” (and now all Islamists as “evil”) illustrates the division of the world as two opposite extremes, similar to the views of the “jihadis” they claim to oppose.

Summary Overview

As discussed in this section, the Islamophobes and their partners — the “Muslim” terrorists — are oblivious to the differences between classical jihad and today’s terrorism, which is incorrectly described as “jihad.”They fail to note the differences between the geo-political environments in classical Islam’s time and contemporary times, omit the details of jihad and the differences with today’s so-called “jihad” by radicals, and conflate both.

Sunni tradition is not upheld by radicals, but ridiculed, marginalized, and selectively used to deceptively portray loyalty to the tradition. Islamophobes and “Muslim” terrorists are unable to distinguish between the peaceful majority of Muslims and the violent minority that claims to act in Islam’s name. Their understanding also reflects a Muslim-versus-non-Muslim conflict, whereas Muslims have battled each other and allied with non-Muslims in past and present conflicts.

[[1]] Ahmed Al-Dawoody. The Islamic Law of War: Justifications and Regulations. New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011. pg.78.

[[2]] Qamar-ul Huda. Crescent and Dove: Peace and Conflict Resolution in Islam. Washington, D.C.: United States Institute of Peace Press, 2010..p.48

[[3]] Joseph E. B. Lumbard. (ed.) Islam, Fundamentalism, and the Betrayal of Tradition: Essays by Western Muslim Scholars. Bloomington, Ind.: World Wisdom, 2009. pg.34.

[[4]] Mustafa Akyol. Islam Without Extremes: A Muslim Case for Liberty. New York, NY: W.W. Norton, 2011. p.65.

[[5]] Ira M. Lapidus. A History of Islamic Societies. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, 1988. p. 43.

[[6]] Thomas Arnold. The Spread of Islam in the World A History of Peaceful Preaching. S.l.: Goodword Books, 2001. pg.46.

[[7]] Marshall G.S. Hodgson. The Venture of Islam: Conscience and History in a World Civilization The Classical Age of Islam. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1974. pg.199

[[8]] J. Lumbard.  op. cit., p. 33

[[9]] Zaid Shakir, “Jihad is not Perpetual Warfare,” New Islamic Directions, 2008, accessed May 27, 2013, http://www.newislamicdirections.com/nid/notes/jihad_is_not_perpetual_warfare.

The original article can be read in  Shakir, Zaid. Scattered Pictures: Reflections of an American Muslim: An Anthology of Essays. Hayward, Calif.: Zaytuna Institute, 2005. pp.121-141.

[[10]] Ian, Almond. Two Faiths, One Banner: When Muslims Marched with Christians Across Europe’s Battlegrounds. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2009. pp.1-2.

[[11]] M. Akyol, op. cit., p. 67.

[[12]] J. Lumbard.  op. cit., p. 22.

[[13]] Muḥammad Tahir ul-Qadri. Fatwa on Suicide Bombings and Terrorism. London: Minhaj-ul-Quran International, 2010. p. 154.

[[14]] Ibid., p.163.

[[15]] Ibid., p.164.

[[16]] Joas Wagemakers, “Reclaiming Scholarly Authority: Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi’s Critique of Jihadi Practices,” Studies in Conflict & Terrorism 34(7) (2011): 523-539.

[[17]] This is an authentic hadith related by Tirmidhi, Abu Dawud, Nasa’i, Ibn Maja, Ahmad, Ibn Habban, and others. For an explanation of the hadith, see Faraz, Rabbani, “Is the hadith: ‘The scholars are the inheritors of the Prophets’ authentic? If so, what does it mean?” Seeker’s Guidance, March 15, 2011, accessed May 22, 2013,

[[18]] Sahih Bukhari: Vol.2, Book 26, No. 594.

[[19]] M. ul-Qadri, op. cit., pp. 101-102.

[[20]] Q. Huda, op. cit.,p. 47.

[[21]] M. ul-Qadri, op. cit., p.101.

[[22]] Ibid., p.100.

[[23]] Daniel E. Price. Sacred Terror: How Faith Becomes Lethal. Santa Barbara, Calif.: Praeger, 2012. p.29.

[[24]] Ibid., p.28.

[[25]] G. Fuller, op. cit.,p.275.

– Does Classical Sunni Islam Support Terrorism?

(© Zubair Qamar 2013)

Does Islam Teach Terrorism?

There is no specific verse in the Qur’an that supports the basic and commonly understood definition of terrorism, i.e. the threatening or killing of civilians to make a political point. There is no command in the Qur’an to threaten or kill civilians for any reason. Rather, the Qur’an’s verses of “violence” have been historically understood by mainstream Sunni jurists to refer to combative jihad, which is a war of armies against armies with its many conditions and limitations. Combative jihad is very similar to Christian “Just War” and has parallels with today’s laws of war.

Finding “violent” verses in the Qur’an and any scripture is insufficient to support the claim that the specific scriptures support terrorism because all violence is not synonymous with terrorism. For purposes of comparison, while the Old Testament has verses commanding the destruction of entire villages, including civilians, it is still insufficient to conclude from such verses that the Old Testament teaches or supports terrorism. The causes of terrorism go beyond linear relationships of scripture and terrorist acts, and include a combination of political, social, and psychological factors. Any “experts” who simplify the more complex subject of terrorism by solely or mainly attributing terrorism’s cause to any religion, or any single factor, are guilty of ignorance or intentional promotion of personal agendas against honest and sound understanding.

Muslim Jurists Oppose Terrorism

In addition to the fact that the Qur’an does not support terrorism, the views of Muslim jurists against terrorism further substantiate this understanding. Classical religious jurists would not have labeled terrorist actions as violations of Islamic Law, would not have prescribed severe punishments for those crimes, and would have commanded rather than opposed the killing of innocent civilians had they supported terrorism. The following sections discuss the equivalents of modern day terrorism to terms and acts describing such actions in classical and contemporary Sunni tradition. It is imperative to note that those most critical of Islam refuse to discuss Islam’s view of terrorism. For the minority of jurists that support, for example, suicide bombings, they are from modernist-salafi groups that do not represent classical Sunni Islam.

Hirabah, Muharib, and Muharibun/Hirabiyyun  – Terrorism, Terrorist, and Terrorists

Hirabah in classical Sunni tradition is broadly defined as the spreading of corruption and terror in the Islamic community, though the four Sunni schools of jurisprudence (Hanafi, Shafi’i, Maliki, Hanbali) have specific differences in its nuances. Professor and author, Abdul Hakim Jackson, quotes some classical Sunni scholars to provide a more detailed understanding of hirabah:

“The Spanish Maliki jurist Ibn `Abd al-Barr (d.463/1070) defines the agent of hirabah as ‘Anyone who disturbs free passage in the streets and renders them unsafe to travel, striving to spread corruption in the land by taking money, killing people or violating what God has made it unlawful to violate is guilty of hirabah…be he a Muslim or non-Muslim, free or slave, and whether he actually realizes his goal of taking money or killing or not.’”

“The Hanafi jurist, al-Kasani (d.587/1191) defines hirabah (or qat al-tariq) as ‘attacks upon pedestrians for the purpose of taking money by force and in such a way that people are rendered unable to pass freely through the streets…’”

Imam Nawawi (d.676/1277) states that, ‘Whoever brandishes a weapon and terrorizes the streets (akhafa al-sabil) inside or outside a city must be pursued by the authorities (al-Imam), because if they are left unmolested their power will increase and through their killing and taking money and corruption will spread.’”

Ibn Qudamah (d.620/1223) defines hirabah as ‘the act of openly holding people up in the desert with weapons in order to take their money.’ He notes, however, that many of his fellow Hanbalites held that such wanton brigandage constituted hirabah whenever it occurred, ‘because it is even more frightening and detrimental inside cities”[[1]] (names bolded by writer).

Ahmed Al-Dawoody in The Islamic Law of War (p.171) says that Sunni “jurists commonly agree on the following main characteristics of the perpetrators of this crime” as:

“a group of Muslims who under the threat, or use, of arms attack or merely intimidate or terrorize their victims in order to overtly and forcefully rob, kill or merely terrorize their victims.”

Al-Dawoody then explains the differences among the four schools of Sunni jurisprudence in their understanding of hirabah. The Hanafis

“focused on on the taking of money by force as the usual objective of this crime and the fact that it causes people to feel intimidated about using roads where highway men are active. This focus may be the result of Abu Hanifah’s restricting the application of the law of hirabah to certain crimes committed in the desert or in unpopulated areas…”

Regarding jurists from the Shafi’i and Hanbali schools, they

“emphasize the element of the criminals’ use of arms — Hanbalis add even a stick or a stone — mujaharah (overtly, openly, unlike thieves and other criminals). This shows a sort of mukabarah, a determination on the part of the criminals to challenge the state authorities” (pp. 171-172).

The Maliki jurists

“explicitly emphasize the importance of the element of spreading terror among the victims as a principal intention behind this crime, even, these Maliki jurists add, if the criminals do not intend to rob their victims…. Interestingly, the Maliki jurists include under the law of hirabah the crimes of killing by stealth, poisoning, and armed burglary, because the victims are helpless” (p.172).

The Sunni punishment for people who commit the crime of hirabah – who spread disorder and corruption in the land – is severe, as stated in the Qur’an:

“The punishments of those who wage war (yuharibun) against Allah and His Prophet and strive to spread disorder (fasad) in the land are to execute them in an exemplary way or to crucify them or to amputate their hands and feet from opposite sides or to banish them from the land. Such is their disgrace in this world, and in the Hereafter theirs will be an awful doom save those who repent before you overpower them; you should know that Allah is Oft-Forgiving, Ever Merciful.” (5:33-34)

The discussion of terrorism in Sunni Islam is not only confined to hirabah. Rather, Sunni jurists differ on the more precise understanding of terrorism according to Sunni Islam, as explained below.

Irhab, Irhabi, and Irahabiyyun – Terrorism, Terrorist, and Terrorists

While some scholars find hirabah to be the closest in meaning to how terrorism is generally understood today, other scholars recommend other possible terms. For example, analyst Douglas Streusand says, “[A] potentially useful word is irhab, the Arabic word for terrorism,” rendering irhabi “the literal translation of ‘terrorist.’” He says this in the context of rejecting the words jihad, jihadi, and mujahidun to describe terrorism and terrorists:

“[D]escribing [our enemies]…as jihadis or mujahidun not only validates their claim to legitimacy, but also implies that we consider Islam itself our enemy.”[[2]]

Irjaf, Irjafi, and Irajafiyyn/MurjifunA Better Translation of Terrorism, Terrorist, and Terrorists

However, according to Shaykh Ali Goma’a, the Mufti of Egypt, describing terrorism and terrorists as irhab and irhabi are “mistaken translations and a strategic error.”[[3]] The reason why, author Waleed El-Ansary explains, is because

“The classical usages and meanings of the root from which irhabi derives, rahiba, are overwhelmingly positive, for the Qur’an employs this root to refer to the fear of God (‘the beginning of wisdom’ in the Abrahamic traditions) or holding God in awe.”

Osama bin Laden had used the word irhab himself, thus

“exploiting the difference between classical and modern usages to argue for the possibility of commendable rather than reprehensible terrorism.”[[4]]

To separate Bin Laden’s distorted usage of a term rooted in the Qur’an to justify his unIslamic actions, Mufti Goma’a suggests the term irjaf, “which denotes subversion and scaremongering to bring quaking and commotion to society” and “is derived from the root rajafa, which means to quake, tremble, be in violent motion, convulse, or shake.”[[5]]

Mufti Goma’a’s recommendation of using irjaf as a more appropriate translation of the word terrorism is, El-Ansary explains, because

“From a linguistic perspective, he points out that the term unambiguously connotes the cowardice, deceit, and betrayal associated with terrorism in striking from the back, unlike hirabah. The grand mufti’s discussion of the usage of murjifun not only deflates bin Laden’s pompous and grandiose ideology, but reduces him from monk to criminal. Moreover, irjaf is clearly distinguished from conventional warfare, harb, since the murjifun (or irjafiyyun) do not constitute a legal entity, whereas their target does.”[[6]]

El-Ansary continues,

“The legal sanction for irjaf is also much clearer than hirabah, for the punishment – execution – is unambiguous. Finally, from a practical point of view, it is far more difficult for bin Laden and al-Qaeda members to argue that they do not cause commotion within cities, and that their critics attempting to prevent such violence do. The term irjaf thereby effectively eliminates the possibility of extremists turning the tables on their critics.”[[7]]

The Khawarij as Murjifun/Irjafiyyun and Today’s al-Qa’eda

It is interesting to note that Mufti Goma’a describes the early Khawarij in Islam who rebelled against the Companions of Prophet Muhammad as murjifun/irjafiyyun.[[8]]

Pakistani scholar Shaykh Muhammad Tahir ul-Qadri, who authored the well-known Fatwa on Terrorism and Suicide Bombings, also described the Khawarij as the first terrorists in Islam, saying that al-Qaeda and other militants[9] carry the Khawarij banner today. According to Shaykh ul-Qadri in his comprehensive Fatwa, classical Sunni scholars are divided into two groups in their verdict of the Khawarij. The first group of scholars impugns them with disbelief. The second group impugns them with sin, though not with disbelief. Both groups, however, are in general agreement that the Khawarij should be fought for their extreme actions. Of greater interest is the first group to illustrate that the Khawarij, like al-Qa’eda and other militants today, were seen as disbelievers by prominent classical Sunni scholars.

Classical Sunni Scholars Who Accused the Khawarij of Disbelief

Some classical Sunni scholars who accused the Khawarij of disbelief are Imam al-Bukhari,[[10]] Imam Abu Hamid al-Ghazali,[[11]] Imam Ibn Jarir al-Tabari,[[12]]Al-Qadi `Iyad,[[13]] Imam al-Qurtubi,[[14]] Imam Taqi al-Din al-Subki,[[15]] Imam Ibn Ishaq al-Shatibi,[[16]] Imam Badr al-Din al-`Ayni,[[17]] and Mulla `Ali al-Qari.[[18]] Below are examples of the positions of Imam al-Bukhari and Imam al-Ghazali.

Imam Bukhari

Of the famous scholar of hadith, Imam al-Bukhari, well known Imam Ibn Hajar al-`Asqalani said,

“A large body of scholars said that the Kharijites are to be charged with disbelief, such as al-Bukhari, who compared them to apostates and heretics, and only singled out individuals [amongst them] who were subject to faulty interpretations, mentioning them in a separate chapter: ‘On the One Who Refrains from Fighting the Kharijites for the Sake of Drawing Hearts Near and so People Will Not Flee.”[[19]]

Imam Abu Hamid al-Ghazali

Of the famous Sunni scholar and Sufi, al-Ghazali, Ibn Hajar said:

“In al-Wasit, al-Ghazal said (following others): There are two opinions regarding the judgment on Kharijites: ‘They take the ruling of apostates or the ruling of rebels,’ and al-Rafi’i declared the first view preponderant.”[[20]]

Had those classical Muslim scholars been alive today, they would certainly have opposed al-Qa’eda and similar militant groups and accused them of disbelief due to the similarity of their actions with past actions of the Khawarij. This contradicts the claims of both Islamophobes and “Muslim” militants who claim that militants represent the continuation of the classical Sunni tradition. Rather, classical Sunni scholars repudiate terrorists in the strongest terms possible, with many accusing them of disbelief. As discussed, execution is the punishment of terrorists according to Islamic Law.

Unfortunately extremists of all colors seem unaware of hirabah, irhab, and irjaf, and how they differ with classical Sunni jihad. They erroneously conflate all words as if they mean the same and compromise an accurate understanding of today’s actions by militants and of the understanding of classical Sunni jurists of the past.

Muslims Condemn Terrorism

The above also opposes the erroneous understanding that Muslims do not speak out against terrorism. Muslims have been speaking out against terrorism for the past 1,000-plus years, and their condemnations of terrorism continue. More contemporary views against terrorism by Muslims can be found in A Common Word Between Us and You [[21]], The Amman Message [[22]], the Fatwa Against al-Qa’eda by the Islamic Commission of Spain [[23]], the Fatwa against terrorism by Shaykh Muhammad Afifi al-Akiti [[24]], the Fatwa on Terrorism and Suicide Bombings by Shaykh Muhammad Tahir ul-Qadri (as discussed earlier),[[25]] and many other denunciations of terrorism by influential Muslims (click A, B, C, D, E, F, G, H. [[26]]).

[[1]] Sherman Jackson, “Domestic Terrorism in the Islamic Legal Tradition,” The Muslim World 91 (Fall 2001): 293-310, accessed May 19, 2013, http://www.hartsem.edu/sites/default/files/macdonald/articles/jacksonart1.pdf

[[2]] Qamar-ul Huda. Crescent and Dove: Peace and Conflict Resolution in Islam. Washington, D.C.: United States Institute of Peace Press, 2010. p. 64.

[[3]] Ibid., p. 65.

[[4]] Ibid., p. 65.

[[5]] Ibid., p. 67.

[[6]] Ibid., p. 68.

[[7]] Ibid., p. 68.

[[8]] Ibid., p. 68.

[[10]] Muḥammad Tahir ul-Qadri. Fatwa on Suicide Bombings and Terrorism. London: Minhaj-ul-Quran International, 2010. p. 358.

[[11]] Ibid., p. 360.

[[12]] Ibid., p. 358.

[[13]] Ibid., p. 361.

[[14]] Ibid., p. 363.

[[15]] Ibid., p. 366.

[[16]] Ibid., p. 367.

[[17]] Ibid., p. 370.

[[18]] Ibid., p. 371.

[[19]] Ibid., p. 358.

[[20]] Ibid., p. 360.

[[21]] A Common World Between You and Us, October 13, 2007, accessed May 29, 2013, http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/shared/bsp/hi/pdfs/11_10_07_letter.pdf

[[22]] The Amman Message, July 2005, accessed May 19, 2013, http://www.ammanmessage.com/

[[23]] “Fatua Contra el Terrorismo,” Comision Islamica de Espana, October 3, 2005, accessed May 29, 2013, http://www.webislam.com/noticias/43520-la_comision_islamica_de_espana_emite_una_fatua_condenando_el_terrorismo_y_al_gru.html (English translation available, http://makkah.files.wordpress.com/2007/09/fatwa-against-osama-bin-laden-and-al-qaida.pdf)

[[24]] Shaykh Muhammad Afifi Al-Akiti, Defending the Transgressed by Censuring the Reckless Against the Killing of Civilians (Germany: Warda Publications), accessed May 23, 2013, http://www.warda.info/fatwa.pdf

[[25]] Muhammad Tahir ul-Qadri, Fatwa on Terrorism and Suicide Bombings (London: Minhaj-ul-Quran International), accessed May 22, 2013, http://www.quranandwar.com/FATWA%20on%20Terrorism%20and%20Suicide%20Bombings.pdf.

[[26]] See, for example, the list of denunciations of terrorism by influential Muslims and organizations at Charles, Kurzman, “Islamic Statements Against Terrorism,” accessed June 2, 2013, http://kurzman.unc.edu/islamic-statements-against-terrorism/, Sheila, Musaji, “Muslim Voices – Part I – Fatwas & Statements by Muslim Scholars & Organisations – updated,” The American Muslim, updated January 28, 2012, accessed May 17, 2013,  http://theamericanmuslim.org/tam.php/features/articles/muslim_voices_against_extremism_and_terrorism_part_i_fatwas/0012209, Sheila, Musaji, “Power Point Presentations on Islam and Muslims,” The American Muslim, updated July 1, 2007, accessed May 17, 2013,  http://theamericanmuslim.org/tam.php/features/articles/powerpoint_presentations/,Sheila, Musaji, “Muslim Voices Promoting Islamic Non Violent Solutions,” The American Muslim, updated June 6, 2011, accessed May 17, 2013,  http://theamericanmuslim.org/tam.php/features/articles/promoting_islamic_non_violent_solutions/, Sheila, Musaji, “Muslim Voices Against Extremism and Terrorism – Part IV A few Quotes A-K,” The American Muslim, December 13, 2006, accessed May 17, 2013,  http://theamericanmuslim.org/tam.php/features/articles/muslim_voices_against_extremism_and_terrorism_a_few_quotes/0012273, Sheila, Musaji, “Muslim Voices Against Extremism and Terrorism – A few Quotes L-Z,” The American Muslim, December 7, 2006, accessed May 17, 2013,  http://www.theamericanmuslim.org/tam.php/features/articles/muslim_voices_against_extremism_and_terrorism_a_few_quotes_l_z/0014337, Sheila, Musaji, “Muslims & Arabs in the U.S. Military – article collection,” The American Muslim, updated March 22, 2008, accessed May 17, 2013,  http://theamericanmuslim.org/tam.php/features/articles/muslims_in_the_military/0013612, Sheila, Musaji, “Selective Hearing of Muslim Voices Against Extremism and Terrorism,” The American Muslim, December 9, 2006, accessed May 17, 2013, http://theamericanmuslim.org/tam.php/features/articles/selective_hearing_of_muslim_voices_against_extremism_and_terrorism/0012212

– Critical Book Review: Fighting the Ideological War – Winning Strategies from Communism to Islam (eds. Katharine C. Gorka & Patrick Sookhdeo).

(Condensed Version)


Ideological War

Katharine C. Gorka & Patrick Sookhdeo (eds.). Fighting the Ideological War: Winning Strategies from Communism to Islamism.

McLean: Isaac Publishing 2012, 240 pp; ISBN: 978-0985310905; $15.

Reviewed by Zubair Qamar

(© Zubair Qamar, August 2013)


(NOTE: The longer 100+ page version of the Review in PDF format can be read at:




This is a condensed review of Fighting the Ideological War: Winning Strategies from Communism to Islamism, edited by Katharine C. Gorka and Patrick Sookhdeo, with contributions from the editors and authors Stephen Ulph, John H. Moore, John Lenczowski, Robert R. Reilly, Thomas Joscelyn, and Sebastian L. Gorka. This condensed review is to enable readers to begin examining the views of the book’s editors and authors without being burdened with a longer review that is close to completion and can be read here. The longer review is to be considered a draft in progress. To ensure that readers gain maximally from this condensed review, I have hyperlinked related articles that I have written in this blog, as well as other articles that may be of interest. This is an analytical contribution that responds to distorted understandings of militants and Islamophobes and distinguishes traditional Sunni Islam from the the so-called “Islam” of terrorists. It is important to know the differences to enable a more informed and efficient response to counter them and to strengthen the security of peaceful people around the world.

Katharine Gorka, the Westminster Institute, and Isaac Publishing

Katharine C. Gorka, an editor of the book, leads the Westminster Institute in Virginia.  She is described as the “Executive Director” of Westminster Institute on the book’s back cover and Westminster Institute website,[[1]] which was established fairly recently in March, 2009. The Westminster Institute website states that Katharine Gorka “received her M.Sc. in Economics from the London School of Economics (’87).”  Gorka has “traveled extensively throughout Central and Eastern Europe conducting research on the post-communist transition and working for a number of organizations on democracy assistance projects in the region […].” Ms. Gorka also “co-founded with her husband, Dr. Sebastian Gorka, the Institute for Transitional Democracy and International Security (ITDIS), which focused on issues of economic reform and the problems associated with former communists and secret police in post-communist democracies.” She lived in Hungary for twelve years, returned to the US in 2008, and, as head of the Westminster Institute, is “responsible for helping to define the threat to liberty posed by Islamic terrorism and subversion in the United States.”[[2]]  Gorka is also an “Executive Director” of Barnabas Aid.[[3]]

In addition to Sookhdeo and both Gorkas (Katharine Gorka and Sebastian Gorka), all of the other authors are listed in the events page of the Institute.[[4]] Examples of other past events[[5]] listed in the Institute’s website include:

  • The [Organisation of Islamic Cooperation] and the Islamist Agenda, by Stephen Coughlin,
  • The West is Best: A Muslim Apostate’s Defense of Liberal Democracy, with Ibn Warraq, and
  • Lord Or Many Gods? Can the God of the Bible and the God of the Koran be the Same?, with The Rt. Rev. Julian Dobbs, Convocation of Anglicans in North America

Discussing the above presenters in brief, Stephen Coughlin was allegedly removed from his post at the Joint Chiefs of Staff in 2008 due to his anti-Islam views. The lesson from Coughlin’s presentation by an attendee was that “Islam is out to take over the world and there is no such thing as a loyal American Muslim.”[[6]]  Coughlin’s extreme anti-Islam views were noted by Spencer Ackerman. Ibn Warraq is a well-known anti-Islam polemicist criticized by many scholars and writers, including Fred Donner, Asma Afsaruddin, and Alfons Teipen for his lack of scholarship. Retired Reverend Julian Dobbs is an Anglican preacher who served as an “Executive Director” of Barnabas Aid “where he developed awareness of persecuted Christians and the challenges of a resurgent Islam.”[[7]] It is interesting to note that the examples of events noted in the book (pg. 239, 240) do not list the above events. It appears that the Editors have attempted to conceal the anti-Islam and religious involvement of Westminster Institute in the book. Sookhdeo’s biography in the book also did not mention his ardent religious endeavors, in spite of his heavy involvement in Christian missionary activities, as will be explained below.

Isaac Publishing

The book is published by Isaac Publishing. The addresses of the Westminster Institute, Isaac Publishing, and Barnabas Aid are all located on the same street in McLean, Virginia.[[8]] Isaac Publishing mainly publishes books critical of Islam and in favor of Christianity. The authors listed on the site – which seems to require updating – are Patrick Sookhdeo, Rosemary Sookhdeo (Patrick Sookhdeo’s wife), and Yusufu Taraki. Rosemary Sookhdeo is described as being “involved in pastoral/church planting ministry in the East End of London for 23 years” and “was responsible for training and coordinating the church planting and Muslim ministry and leading the outreach missions.” Yusufu Tarkai is described as “a Professor of Theology and Social Ethics at the Jos ECWA Theological Seminary (JETS) and Director of the Centre for the Study of Religion, Church and Society (CRCS),” and other Christian affiliations.[[9]] Patrick Sookhdeo’s religious credentials and affiliations are noted below in his biography. Before elaborating on Sookhdeo, it is important to note that authors view that battle against terrorism through a Cold War lens.

Battling Islamism Through a Cold War Lens?

Most authors in the book directly state or allude to the “ideological” battle between the United States and Soviet Union. Sookhdeo says, “[T]he reality is that Islamism has replaced communism as the most significant ideological opponent of the Western liberal order” (p.16). Sookhdeo acknowledges that, to him, communism was “the most significant ideological opponent” until Islamism came. Ulph compares twentieth century “totalitarian ideologies,” including Communism, with Islamism. A parallel he sees, for example, between such totalitarian systems and the ideology of Islamism is “the promotion of a single, supreme ideology as a universal explanation and filter, through which all phenomena are interpreted and processed” (p.54). Moore says, “The ideological battles of the Cold War may shed light on our present day conflict” with Islamists (p.79). Lenczowski says, “Ideological warfare was an essential part of Soviet foreign policy….In the international arena, this took the form of a ‘struggle between the two social systems’ – socialism and capitalism – and a consequent struggle between two worldviews […] (p.105).” Lenczowski, however, discusses more than just ideology as a cause of Soviet collapse (p.141-147), while still emphasizing the battle of ideas.  Sebastian Gorka says, “[W]e have forgotten most of the lessons of the last ideological war we fought – the Cold War – including some of the cardinal rules of effective information and psychological operations” (p.186). The authors attribute the US “victory” over the Soviet Union mainly to the “victory” of US ideology over Soviet ideology.

The Cold War: Exaggerating Ideology?

The authors appear to predominantly embrace one of many views without informing readers that the ideological dimension and role of superpowers in the Cold War, and its attribution to a US victory, is an issue of scholarly and diplomatic debate.  Their pro-Reaganite leanings, taken to mythical proportions, gloss over the multifarious views of Soviet ideology and its role and use in the Cold War. Best-selling author, James Mann, describes this simplistic understanding: “Among Mr. Reagan’s most devoted followers, an entire mythology has developed. Theirs is what might be called the triumphal school of interpretation: the president spoke, the Soviets quaked, the wall came down.”[[10]]  These authors have constructed their own understanding of history and its application to current threats, which explains why they have a “preference for using a particular and self-serving configuration of cold war history to inform its arguments about the ‘present danger.’”[[11]] The authors, typical of self-perceived Cold War warriors, “focus almost exclusively on the contours of American leadership – particularly its rhetorical intonations – giving little sense of the social, cultural and political nuances of the broader cold war era.” Their approach to Cold War history is “reductive and dramatic,” they “seek to portray a moral universe cleaved between the forces of light and dark,” and their “nostalgia for the cold war is messianic rather than despairing.”[[12]] This mindset and approach of the authors permeate the entire book, which appears to support the perceived struggle of a noble ideology against an evil ideology.

The issues to others, however, are more complex and transcend ideology. For example, Mark Kramer, Director of the Cold War Studies Program at Harvard University and a Senior Fellow of Harvard’s Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies, says,

“Was the Cold War a contest of two ideologies – liberal democracy and Marxism-Leninism – or was it driven mainly by considerations of power and material interests? No definitive answer to this question has yet emerged. Indeed, deep divisions remain among Western analysts about the precise role of ideology in the making of the Cold War[[13]] (italics added).

Some scholars, like the late Kenneth Waltz who was a senior researcher at Columbia University and described by Leslie H. Gelb, emeritus president of the Council on Foreign Relations, as one of the five “giants” in the discipline of international relations, believed that conflicting ideologies had “little to no relevance” and that “rhetoric” was used to mask real intentions and interests. Rather, “structural features” or the “unequal distribution of capabilities” and “anarchic nature of the international system” were key.[[14]] Lou Cannon who has written five books on President Reagan portrays Reagan’s policies as “more pragmatic than ideological” and “not particularly driven by conservative dogma.” [[15]] Realists with a “neoclassical persuasion” generally agree on structural aspects but emphasize “domestic level factors,” including “perceptions of external threats and relative power” to explain the behavior of superpowers. Other scholars, like historian John Gaddis, believe that structural factors in the absence of “clashing ideologies” would not have allowed the US-Soviet rivalry to continue. Similar to the authors of the book, these scholars believe it was a “contest of ideas” in which ideological considerations took precedence over “balance of power” concerns between superpowers. This view, Kramer says, representing “simple binary opposition,” limits attempts to comprehend “historical complexity.”[[16]]

Because the authors’ confident views of the role of ideology in the Cold War is only one, sanitized view in a spectrum of interpretations as discussed earlier, this brings into question how close or far this view corresponds with reality. If the authors’ understanding of Cold War ideological conflict is exaggerated, then any claimed “lessons” they derive from this understanding may be of questionable value. Carrying the analogy to combating Islamists may then also lead to an exaggeration of Islamist ideology over other critical factors. Indeed, the final review confirms the exaggeration by authors of the role of ideology in Islamism.

Notwithstanding the lengthy discussions by authors of US-Soviet policy, there were hardly any specific, actionable lessons proposed to combat Islamists beyond vague mantras to oppose Islamist ideology just as Soviet ideology was opposed. This renders the analogy irrelevant and impractical to the battle against Islamists. Removing the specific chapters and sections on the Cold War from the book would have made the resulting critique against Islamism and its ideology more relevant, even if the critique is beset with its own set of problems, as will be explained in the final review.

Patrick Sookhdeo: A Biography

Patrick Sookhdeo, an editor and contributor to the book, is described as a “leading expert on jihadist ideology and radical Islam” in the book. Sookhdeo “received his PhD from the School of Oriental and African Studies of the University of London” (p.237). The book notes that currently Sookhdeo is “Visiting Professor at the Defence Academy of the UK, Adjunct Professor at the George C. Marshall European Center for Security Studies, Guest Lecturer at the NATO school, Oberammergau, Germany, and lecturer at ARRC Germany on Islam and Islamic terrorism” (p.237), and has been involved in other related roles.[[17]]

Though curiously unstated in the book, Sookhdeo is described as an “ordained priest in the Church of England,”[[18]] International Director of the Christian charity group, Barnabas Aid, which sends “financial support to projects which help Christians where they suffer discrimination, oppression and persecution as a consequence of their faith,”[[19]] specifically “under Islam,”[[20]] and, according to author Sebastian L. Gorka (husband of Katharine C. Gorka), is the “founder of Westminster Institute” (p.193).

Sookhdeo has authored several books,[[21]] including Global Jihad, which was reviewed by author and freelance journalist, Ben White [[22]], and published on the fulcrum website by a “network of evangelical Anglicans, seeking to renew the centre of the evangelical tradition and the centre of Anglicanism” and “acting as a point of balance within the Church of England.”  Two recent books by Sookhdeo are Islam in Our Midst: The Challenge to Our Christian Heritage (2011), and Is the Muslim Isa the Biblical Jesus? (2012). Sookhdeo in his personal website says he spent some time studying “theology at London Bible College.” After marrying one of his students, they “intended to go to South Asia as missionaries, but their hopes were dashed when they found that no mission society would accept either racially-mixed marriages or national (i.e. non-white) Christians as missionaries.”

In 1970, Sookhdeo was “invited to work for the British Evangelical Alliance,” and was also appointed as the “secretary of one of the first race relations bodies in the British Church.” The book, “All One in Christ, was authored by Sookhdeo and published in 1974. In 1975, the author and his wife, “started a ministry to British inner cities” and in the 1970s and 1980s “taught in various theological institutions including, in the UK, Oak Hill Theological College, Wycliffe Hall, Oxford, and Ridley Hall, Cambridge, as well as others overseas.” Sookhdeo’s website states his “main involvement was to train clergy and missionaries in culture and religion.”

Sookhdeo is affiliated with the International Institute for the Study of Islam and Christianity that aims “to study contemporary Islamic movements and their impact on Christian minorities.” Sookhdeo was a guest speaker at the 2007 Counterjihad Conference in Brussels[[23]] that also hosted Bat Ye’or and Andrew Bostom, well known for their anti-Islam polemics. Pamela Geller, another anti-Islam activist, described Sookhdeo’s presentation as the “most compelling presentation”[[24]] and also interviewed Sookhdeo.[[25]] Geller is on record for saying that Israel should “nuke” Tehran, Mecca, and Medina, and is described as a defender of the Serbian mass-murderer Radovan Karadzic.

Sookhdeo was also “quoted approvingly four times in the 1,500-page ‘manifesto’ of the Norwegian killer Anders Breivik,” [[26]]. Breivik is the right-wing militant who bombed government buildings and massacred 77 people in Norway in 2011.  Moreover, Sookhdeo contributed a section to a book edited by Robert Spencer, another well-known anti-Islam author [[27]] who, with Pamela Geller, was banned from entering the UK in June 2013,  and was criticized by Karen Armstrong, Carl Ernst, Robert Dreyfuss, and other well-known writers and scholars. Sookhdeo is also controversial among leaders of the Church of England. Alex Murashko in an October 2011 article of the Christian Post said a

“complaint…filed by a lay leader from the Church of England…challenged whether Barnabas Aid should be allowed to keep its charitable status when engaged in allegedly ‘divisive’ activity, according to a statement from Barnabas. The accusation included the charge that the material passed out by the group could incite racial hatred.”

Barnabas Aid, however, was exonerated by the United Kingdom’s Charity Commission.[[28]] In stark contrast to peaceful Christians, this has not stopped Sookhdeo from continuing his controversial and divisive activities. Most of Sookhdeo’s life can be described as ‘religious’ though unrepresentative of most of the world’s Christians. His role in advising security and government personnel came later and is superseded by his ‘religious’ involvement.

What is Known About the Editors and Authors

From the biographies and background of the authors, and their institutional affiliations, it is known that the authors have lived during and/or have largely been involved in US efforts related to the Cold War. Several authors served as political officials during the Cold War under President Reagan, all can be described as ‘conservative’ or ‘neoconservative,’ and most authors are sufficiently religious to express themselves religiously in their writings and religious positions. Several of the authors have associated with individuals openly critical of Islam, have worked with some of them, contributed to sections in the same books, participated in the same conferences, and, in at least one case (Patrick Sookhdeo), has been quoted by a Norwegian terrorist in his ‘Manifesto.’ While the Westminster Institute is outwardly described as an independent institute that examines the threat of extremism, it appears to substantially be a pro-Christian organization that primarily aims its attention at extremism that targets only Christians. Focus on, for example, the effects of “Islamic extremism” against Hindus and Jews, or the extremism of minority radical groups in Christianity and other religions is absent. The full review will highlight more details of the authors to substantiate this understanding.

Who is the “Enemy” to Patrick Sookhdeo and Other Authors?

Sookhdeo recognizes two basic types of Islamists as the enemy:

(1) “Radical Islamists,” like al-Qa’eda, and

(2) “Gradualist Islamists,” (p.23) like the Muslim Brotherhood that temporarily use non-violent means to attain power through elections and other non-violent means, but are nevertheless allegedly supportive of violent insurgencies when they feel it is appropriate.

To Sookhdeo, both groups are “jihadists” in their differing forms because they collectively exert a “global jihad” to assumingly establish an Islamic caliphate that would subject populations to Shari’ah (Islamic Law). Sookhdeo says that the “border between mainline, gradualist Islamists and the violent radicals is thus not clear-cut and defined, but flexible and permeable in both directions.” He continues, “While there is agreement on ultimate goals, there is constant argument over how best to achieve those goals.” In spite of differences in means of achieving goals, “they do not differ on matters of core religious doctrine and ultimate goals.” Both, therefore, can be seen as “manifestations of single collective ideology, whose aim is the establishment of the global Islamic State, the Caliphate” (p.24).

While the above views are stated explicitly by Sookhdeo and the Gorkas (Sebastian and Katharine), Lenczowski and Moore are less clear about the “enemy” in the book since they focus primarily on the Cold War. However, as stated in the biographies section from other sources, John Lenczowski is concerned about the “growth of Islamic communities in Europe that threaten to erase the distinctiveness of individual European cultures,” as well as Islamists, domestically and abroad. Therefore, Lenczowski also sees Islamists as the enemy, and likely does not hold most mainstream Muslims in high regard. John Moore says, “The conflict with radical Islam is fundamentally a conflict of ideologies – the set of beliefs that underlie Western civilization on one side” and “the interpretation of Muslim beliefs that Islamists preach on the other” (p.79). Therefore, Islamists or those who follow “radical Islam” are the enemies to Moore.

Thomas Joscelyn is critical of Islamists but seems to understand the nuances among various Islamist groups, and appears to believe that violent Islamists are a greater threat. However, Josceyln is “Senior Fellow and Executive Director” of the “Center for Law and Counterterrorism at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies” (FDD) — a neoconservative think tank and lobbying organization where author Sebastian Gorka also works. Eli Clifton in July 2011 said the “FDD has a 10-year history of engaging in alarmist rhetoric and fear mongering,” including airing ads “conflating Osama bin Laden, Yasser Arafat and Saddam Hussein,” and also helping to “promote the ‘Bush doctrine’ which led to the invasion of Iraq.” Moreover, “In recent years, FDD has become one of the…premiere DC organizations promoting more aggressive actions against Iran.” FDD’s Board of Advisers include Richard Perle, former Chair of the Defense Policy Board and well-known neoconservative, syndicated columnist Charles Krauthammer (quoted by Sebastian Gorka, p.191), and Gary Bauer, President of the neoconservative non-profit, American Values, and Executive Board member of Christians United For Israel. Stephen M. Walt, American Professor of International Affairs at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government, said the FDD is a “fertile source of fear-mongering Islamophobia.”

While Stephen Ulph clearly opposes Islamists and their movements, he is less explicit about his thoughts of Muslims and Islam. However, he does not take issue with the comparison of Islam (not Islamism) with political totalitarianism in his chapter by certain individuals, including Bertrand Russell, Carl Jung, and Karl Barth (pp.45,46). This silence by Ulph may be a sign of precaution by him, though he is content with associating with other authors who are openly critical of Islam.

While openly against Islamists, Robert Reilly is also critical of Muslims and Islam, in general, and blames Islam for the perceived predicament of intellectual stagnancy in the Muslim world today that, he claims, paved the way for extremists like Osama bin Laden. Reilly harbors racist, anti-Islamic, and superior undertones when, in The Closing of the Muslim Mind, he says,

“The Middle East is poor because of a dysfunctional culture based upon a deformed theology […]” (p.198).

Overall, the authors are clearer about who they believe is the enemy – mainly Islamists – while, excluding Sookhdeo, they are less clear about which Muslims, if any, they support. As discussed, a number of authors are critical of mainstream Muslims and see them as accomplices to Islamists, while others are silent, but are likely critical of at least some aspects of mainstream Islam.

Are the Islamists the only enemies in Sookhdeo’s view?

The Majority of Classical Sunni Muslims as Accomplices to “Islamists”

Commenting on the 9/11 Commission Report, Sookhdeo and Co-editor Katharine.C. Gorka say,

“The report also states, ‘Most Muslims prefer a peaceful and inclusive vision of their faith, not the violent sectarianism of Bin Laden.’ Is that based on researched and documented fact, or on wishful thinking?” (pg. 5, italics added).

Without explaining how this realization was reached, Sookhdeo and Katharine Gorka insinuate that most Muslims may be supporters of the violent sectarianism of Bin Laden.  This insinuation against “most Muslims” is confirmed in other statements of theirs. For example, Sookhdeo says,

“Most Muslims still accept the traditional doctrine of abrogation that justifies the radical interpretation of the Qur’an” (p.38).

The matter of abrogation will be discussed below. For now, note that Sookhdeo makes this claim without providing any evidence.

Sookhdeo’s view of classical (or traditional) Islam – followed by the Muslim majority – is explicitly stated by him in the book’s first chapter, “The West, Islam, and the Counter-Ideological War” (pp.15-44).  Sookhdeo says Islamists “view Islam as a political ideology and are linked to mainline, traditional Islam[…]” (p.16) and radical Islamist movements are “grounded in the authority of religious texts” (p.17).  Sookhdeo says that “Islamism…adopted the expansionist drive of early Islam” (p.19), and “Islamism utilizes a strand of radicalism and violence inherent in much of traditional Muslim theology and history” (p.20). He asserts that “Islamists and Islamist terrorists are authentically Islamic […]” (p.21), and “Islamists have revived the classical doctrine of jihad as a main plank of their ideology” (p.21).

Sookhdeo is saying that Islamists, including terrorists, follow classical Islam, or the Islam espoused by the Sunni majority who follow one of the four classical Sunni schools of jurisprudence (Hanafi, Shafi’i, Maliki, Hanbali). Sookhdeo naively conflates peaceful Muslims and terrorists and impugns the majority of Muslims who follow “traditional Islam” as being silent accomplices or, at least, having dubious or untrustworthy allegiances with both types of Islamists. Sookhdeo has therefore linked violent Islamists (terrorists), non-violent Islamists, and the Muslim majority as promoters, directly or indirectly, willingly or unwillingly, of extremism, including terrorism.  While the majority of Muslims are described as supporters of terrorism by Sookhdeo, he nevertheless claims to support a group of Muslims he describes as “Progressive Reformers.”

Sookhdeo in his article, “The Myth of Moderate Islam,” says,

“While many individual Muslims choose to live their personal lives only by the (now abrogated) peaceable verses of the Qur’an, it is vain to deny the pro-war and pro-terrorism doctrines within their religion. Could it be that the young men who committed suicide were neither on the fringes of Muslim society in Britain, nor following an eccentric and extremist interpretation of their faith, but rather that they came from the very core of the Muslim community motivated by a mainstream interpretation of Islam?”

Sookhdeo’s anti-Muslim bigotry is clear. However, scholar Vincenzo Oliveti — author of Terror’s Source: The Ideology of Wahhabi-Salafism and Its Consequences — takes issue with Sookhdeo’s negative characterization of Muslims and Islam.

Sookhdeo Claims to Support the “Progressive Reformers”

The only Muslims Sookhdeo claims to support is a minority who Sookhdeo describes as “Progressive Reformers” (p.39):

“Progressive reformers aim to liberalize Islamic teaching on jihad, shari’a and the relationship of religion and state. They reject a literal interpretation of the Islamic sources, especially the subjects of jihad, the Caliphate and non-Muslims They weaken the authority of the Hadith, and interpret violent passages in the Qur’an and Hadith as normative only in their immediate historical contexts and therefore not applicable today. They view Muhammad as a fallible human who sinned in the violent episodes of his life, and they reject the classical view that his example is to be emulated in every detail by Muslims in every age. They spiritualize the Islamic teaching on jihad, seeing it as a moral battle against personal sin, and they explicitly deny the validity of military and violent aspects of jihad for today” (p.38).

While Sookhdeo lists examples of “Progressive Reformers” who he claims to support, he nevertheless misrepresents at least a few of them as will be illustrated below.  Before illustrating Sookhdeo’s misrepresentations, is it correct to conclude that Sookhdeo is advocating a war against Islam?

Is Sookhdeo Waging a War on Islam?

Sookhdeo claims that it is “important to clarify that this is not a ‘war on Islam[…]” (p.17), or “Clearly extreme caution should be exercised in order not to give the impression that the West is at war with Islam” (p.29). In view of Sookhdeo’s views above, he means it is not a war against the interpretation of Islam that he believes is the one to support – a minority of “Progressive Reformers.” This means that Sookhdeo’s war is on Muslims worldwide who follow classical Sunni Islam. He oddly conflates Islamists who do not represent the classical Sunni majority in the same group. Sookhdeo’s more explicit statement – “terrorism derives from classical Islam” (p.40) – leaves no uncertainty about his view of Islam, as well as of the majority of Muslims who follow classical Islam. But how true is Sookhdeo’s claim that he supports “Progressive Reformers?”

Sookhdeo Misrepresents “Progressive Reformers” While Claiming to Support Them

Never mind that Sookhdeo gives the wrong year of a terrorism incident in the book: Sookhdeo says that the young Nigerian, Umar Abdulmutallab, “attempted to blow up Northwest Airlines Flight 253 to Detroit in December 2010” (p.27). Actually, the terrorism attempt was made in December 2009, not 2010, as Sookhdeo alleges.  When examining the “Progressive Reformers” listed by Sookhdeo (p.39), he misrepresents at least some of them. For example, Sookhdeo misrepresents Khaled Abou El Fadl,  Asghar Ali Engineer,  and Farish Noor.

Misrepresentation #1: Sookhdeo Misrepresents Khaled Abou El Fadl

Contrary to Sookhdeo, Khaled Abou El Fadl in his commentary, “Terrorism Is at Odds With Islamic Tradition”, does not believe that classical Islamic tradition teaches or promotes terrorism. El Fadl, says,

“Ignoring for the time being that Muslims themselves often have been victims of terrorism, I am sure that there are a number of Muslims who do believe that terrorism, at some level, is justified. It is worth noting, however, that, at a minimum, this belief is at odds with Islamic law. The Islamic juristic tradition, which is similar to the Jewish rabbinical tradition, has exhibited unmitigated hostility toward terror as a means of political resistance.”[[29]]

It is curious why Sookhdeo, who has a completely opposite view from Abou El Fadl’s on classical Islam and terrorism, claims to support Abou El Fadl.

Misrepresentation #2: Sookhdeo Misrepresents Asghar Ali Engineer

While Sookhdeo claims that the understanding of Islam by terrorists like Osama bin Laden is rooted in classical Islamic tradition, Ali Engineer, in his article, “The Jihad Most Needed,” defines jihad as “to strive for anything good, including striving for peace and the welfare of humanity”, and says,

“For the likes of Osama bin Laden jihad means a very different thing. They use it for retaliation against the US, and have given rise to what is the totally unacceptable phenomenon of terrorism.”

Ali Engineer further explains Osama bin Laden’s distorted understanding of jihad:

“It is neither an acceptable approach in the contemporary world nor does he belong to the political or the ruling class. No head of an Islamic state has approved of what bin Laden does, nor has any army of a Muslim country invaded a non-Muslim country at his behest. Bin Laden is neither the head of a country nor does he have the backing of any Muslim state`s army. His misguided jihad has neither scriptural nor political backing (or that of the ulema) (italics added).[[30]]

While Sookhdeo roots “Islamic” terrorism in classical Islamic tradition, Ali Engineer states that Osama bin Laden’s actions do not have Qur’anic scriptural support.

Misrepresentation #3: Sookhdeo Misrepresents Farish Noor

Farish Noor is also listed by Sookhdeo as a “Progressive Reformer,” but Noor’s view of jihad is quite different from Sookhdeo’s. Noor says,

“Muslims…cannot engage in acts of terror and indiscriminate violence where civilians are targeted. (In fact, numerous Muslim leaders like the early Caliphs even warned their troops not to burn the fields of their enemies or kill their livestock). A proper Jihad for the sake of self-defence was therefore a complicated and highly regulated matter – and the rulers had to consult the jurists as well as their own populations before such an enterprise was undertaken.”[[31]]

Noor is clear that Muslims “cannot engage in acts of terror and indiscriminate violence” and such discretion was followed by “numerous Muslim leaders like the early Caliphs.” Sookhdeo, however, claims that “terrorism derives from classical Islam” (p.40).

The above demonstrates that not all “Progressive Reformers” support Sookhdeo’s views of Islam as Sookhdeo incorrectly portrays in the book. Therefore, the views of the other listed “Progressive Reformers” by Sookhdeo should be investigated further before assuming that they represent Sookhdeo’s views. It seems that Sookhdeo will not find many supporters among “Progressive Reformers” – the “best hope,” (p.41) as he says, to counter Islamic radicalism. Unfortunately “Progressive Reformers” are not the only ones Sookhdeo misrepresents.

Sookhdeo Misrepresents Olivier Roy

Sookhdeo, claiming to cite from Olivier Roy’s book, Globalized Islam: The Search for a New Ummah (London: Hurst & Co. 2004), says,

“As Olivier Roy argues, the traditional concepts of the umma, the sovereignty of Islam in the state, and the supremacy of shari’a as revived by Islamists have become a major driving force in contemporary Islam, both in Muslim states and among Muslim minorities elsewhere” (p.27).

Sookhdeo misrepresents Roy who actually said,

“And as I tried to show in Globalized Islam (2004), what is perceived in the West as a return to a traditional and nostalgic Islam is, on the contrary, a profound alteration of traditional Islam, which is now giving way to a more open and diverse religious field.”[[32]]

In addition, In the first page of the Preface of the book, Roy says,

“Globalised Islam refers to the way in which the relationship of Muslims to Islam is reshaped by globalisation, westernisation and the impact of living as a minority. The issue is not the theological content of the Islamic religion, but the way believers refer to this corpus to adapt and explain their behaviors in a context where religion has lost its social authority”[[33]] (italics added).

Contrary to Sookhdeo’s portrayal of contemporary currents as reflections of Sunni tradition, including “the supremacy of shari’a as revived by Islamists,” Roy says these expressions are “a profound alteration of traditional Islam,” and, in his book, says, “The issue is not the theological content of the Islamic religion […].” Sookhdeo says the opposite of what Roy discusses in the same book.

Sookhdeo Misrepresents Bernard Lewis

While using statements of Bernard Lewis in an attempt to support his view that classical Islam promotes violence, including terrorism, Sookhdeo conceals Bernard Lewis’s authentic positions.  Commenting on terrorism and the 9/11 attacks, Lewis says,

“What the classical jurists of Islam never remotely considered is the kind of unprovoked, unannounced mass slaughter of uninvolved civil populations that we saw in New York two weeks ago. For this there is no precedent and no authority in Islam. Indeed it is difficult to find precedents even in the rich annals of human wickedness” (italics included by reviewer).[[34]]

In another article, Lewis comments on suicide bombing:

“Well, a lot of what is being done is certainly a perversion of Islam, simply in the light of their own texts. Take, for example, the suicide bomber. Now, the classical Islamic legal and religious texts are quite clear on the subject of suicide….Even if a man or a woman had lived a life of unremitting virtue, by committing suicide they forfeit paradise and go straight to hell, where, according to the sacred texts, the eternal punishment of the suicide consists of the eternal repetition of the act of suicide. So, if you poison yourself, an eternity of bellyache; if you strangle yourself, an eternity of strangling; and presumably for these people, an eternity of exploding fragments.”

“We ask, well, why do they do it? How does it happen? This is a very recent development.”[[35]]

Contrary to Sookhdeo’s misrepresentation, Lewis is clear in his view that terrorism, including suicide bombing, is not rooted in classical Sunni tradition. Sookhdeo’s method is similar to al-Qa’eda’s: Just as al-Qa’eda cherry-picks from Islamic sources and tradition to support its non-traditional, militant views, Sookhdeo cherry-picks from scholars selectively and misrepresents them to support his anti-Islam views.

Muslims Today and “Abrogation” of Peaceful Qur’anic Verses

Sookhdeo says,

“Most Muslims still accept the traditional doctrine of abrogation that justifies the radical interpretation of the Qur’an” (p.38).

However, Sookhdeo provides no evidence to substantiate this claim, especially when most Muslims in the world today are peaceful and know little more than the basics of religion. The Islamic discipline of abrogation – `Ilm al-nasikh wa al-mansukh, or the Islamic discipline of abrogating and the abrogated – was understood differently by Sunni scholars.

Scholar and author Ahmed Al-Dawoody says, “Muslims disagree over the very existence of abrogation in the Qur’an”[[36]] and “Scholars give considerably different numbers for the occurrences of abrogation in the Qur’an, ranging from 5 to 21, 66, 213, 214, 247, and even 500.”[[37]] Famous Qur’an exegetes are noted to have rejected abrogation of peaceful verses by violent ones. The following are two examples:

Commenting on the Qur’anic verse,

“God does not forbid you, concerning those who have not fought you because of your religion or driven you from your homes that you treat them kindly and justly. God loves those who are just” (60:8),

contemporary Sunni scholar, Zaid Shakir, says, “Imam Qurtubi” – the famous classical Sunni exegete of the Qur’an – “mentions, while explaining this verse, that most of the exegetes consider it to be still operative and reject the idea, posited by some, that it is abrogated.” Shakir further says that “Imam Tabari, the Dean of Sunni exegetes, is much more emphatic than Qurtubi in his rejection of the idea that this verse is abrogated. He states, after mentioning the various interpretations of the verse in question, ‘The most accurate opinion concerning this issue is that of one who says, the people addressed by the verse, “God does not forbid you, concerning those who have not fought you because of your religion…” are members of all ways of life and all religions, that you are kind to them, join relations with them and treat them justly. This is because God, Mighty and Majestic, makes a general statement that includes anyone who fits this description. He does not designate some people to the exclusion of others. The claim that the verse is abrogated is meaningless’”[[38]] (italics added).

Another example, as explained by Shakir, is the following verse:

“If they [your enemies] incline towards peace then you should likewise incline and place your trust in God. Surely, He hears and knows all.” (8:61)

Shakir says,

“This verse is particularly important because it undermines the arguments of those who claim there is no Islamic basis for peaceful relations between Muslims and other communities at a strategic level.”

He continues,

“Again, the vast majority of exegetes consider this latter verse to be operative. Imam Qurtubi, after mentioning the arguments of those who say that this verse is abrogated, engages in a lengthy discussion of his opinion that it is not. Amongst the reasons he gives as the basis for accepting or initiating a treaty of peace with other communities is that it secures benefit for the Muslims. He also mentions an opinion from Imam Malik that the period of any treaty of peace can be indefinite” (italics added).[[39]]

Imams Qurtubi and al-Tabari are luminaries in the field of Sunni exegesis of the Qur’an. It is odd why Sookhdeo failed to mention such scholars and examples in the book, especially when most Muslims today, as explained in recent polls, are peaceful and mirror their understanding over the understanding of scholars who called for abrogation of such verses. Moreover, classical Sunni scholars who called for abrogation of peaceful verses did not condone terrorism, but understood the verses to support combative jihad with its many conditions and limitations in a legitimate war between armies.

Does Islam Teach and Condone Terrorism?

Sookhdeo says,

“[T]raditionalists…are not prepared to tackle the deeper theological legitimacy that terrorism derives from classical Islam” (p.40).

Does Islam provide “theological legitimacy” for terrorism? Citing a scripture to “justify” any action does not necessarily mean the scripture supports the claimed action.  Sookhdeo oddly seem to believe otherwise and ignores the views of scholars who contradict him.  Fred Halliday, the late Irish academic, said, “It is nonsense to seek the causes, as distinct from legitimation, of violence in the texts or traditions of any religion.”[[40]] Similarly, Graham E. Fuller, author of   A World Without Islam, former analyst and operations officer at the CIA, and former RAND political scientist, said, “[T]o examine the vehicle – in this case, Islam – for flaws and problems, as if it were itself somehow the source of the resistance problem, is to utterly miss the point.”[[41]]

When Olivier Roy, the scholar Sookhdeo misrepresented, was asked if the Boston attacks, and other such attacks, were a product of the global spread of Islam, he replied,

“The main motivation is not religious. Most of the guys, they were normal, they were not especially religious…. It is not the process of Islamicization, through going to mosque, through studying the Koran.” Far from being part of the Muslim mainstream, the terrorists “are disconnected…from the Muslim community.”[[42]]

What does the Qur’an say? If one accepts the most basic and commonly understood definition of terrorism to mean the threat or killing of innocent civilians to make a political point, then there is no verse in the Qur’an that supports or agrees with this definition. People who selectively use “violent” verses to wage terrorism are discarding the rich corpus of tradition that explains them in the context of a legitimate war with its limits and conditions, and extracting from scripture to justify what they already believe to be true. In this manner, any meaning can be extracted from the Qur’an, whether the Qur’an teaches it or not. This does not make the scripture at fault, but the person who imaginatively claims to derive support for terrorism from a scripture that does not teach it. Sookhdeo is guilty of agreeing with the distorted interpretations of the Qur’an by militants he claims to speak against. Vincenzo Oliveti rightly says,

“Significantly enough, like extremist interpreters of Islam, Sookhdeo misrepresents Qur’anic verses by citing them out of context.”

Classical Sunni Islam opposes terrorism in all of its forms and combative jihad and terrorism are not synonymous. Contrary to Sookhdeo’s claims, terrorists know very little about Islam.

Al-Qa’eda Recruits Know Little About Islam

Are terrorists knowledgeable and devoted followers of classical Islam? Sunni scholar and author, Abdal-Hakim Murad, says,

“[N]either bin Laden nor his principal associate, Ayman al-Zawahiri, are graduates of Islamic universities or seminaries,” so “their proclamations ignore 14 centuries of Muslim scholarship […].”[[43]]

Explaining Current Myths about Al-Qaeda Recruits, Colonel John M. Matt Venhaus in a 2010 US Institute of Peace Report and study, in which 2,032 foreign fighters were interviewed and/or their personal histories were examined, noted the third myth that “[A]l-Qaeda recruits do not become terrorists because they are Muslim.” Contrary to Sookhdeo, terrorists “actually have an inadequate understanding of their own religion, which makes them vulnerable to misinterpretations of the religious doctrines.” Moreover, Venhaus continues, “In general, they do not come from strong religious backgrounds,” and, “Almost universally, they either had an incomplete religious education or were raised in a household where the faith was routinely practiced but was not a dominating force.” Also, “Their teachers and religious leaders valued memorization of key phrases over rigorous analysis of the texts,” and “They were not exposed to the over 1,400 years of Quranic commentary and scholarship, nor were they invited to question their instructors on finer points.” Venhaus concludes by saying, “History is replete with examples of religious arguments being used to justify the violent redress of grievances. Regardless of the primary religion involved, small groups play up selected passages of religious texts into guiding principles to manipulate the uninformed and justify violent behavior. The same was true in these cases.”

David Schanzer, director of the Triangle Center on Terrorism and Homeland Security, concluded from a study of 188 cases of Muslim Americans connected to terrorism that none had a “traditional, intensive religious training” in their upbringing and that they “adopted fundamentalist views as they radicalized.”[[44]]

A 2008 study of Muslims by Britain’s MI5 concluded,

“Far from being religious zealots, a large number of those involved in terrorism do not practise their faith regularly. Many lack religious literacy and could actually be regarded as religious novices. Very few have been brought up in strongly religious households, and there is a higher than average proportion of converts. Some are involved in drug-taking, drinking alcohol and visiting prostitutes. MI5 says there is evidence that a well-established religious identity actually protects against violent radicalization” (italics added).[[45]]

Instead of blaming the roots of terrorism on Islam, the “sophisticated analysis, based on hundreds of case studies by the security service, says there is no single pathway to violent extremism” (italics added by reviewer).[[46]]

Terrorism expert, Jessica Stern, says,

“Interestingly, terrorists who claim to be motivated by religious ideology are often ignorant about Islam. Our hosts in Riyadh told us the vast majority of ‘beneficiaries,’ as its administrators call participants, did not have much formal education or proper religious instruction and had only a limited and incomplete understanding of Islam.”[[47]]

Contrary to Sookhdeo’s claim, ignorance – not proper knowledge – of Sunni religious tradition, appears to be a hallmark of terrorists. Sookhdeo’s assumptions of a supposed Islam-terrorism connection is an oversimplification of a more complex matter.

Moreover, Sookhdeo completely ignores the lives of well-known terrorists who demonstrated irreligious behavior. For example, when terrorist Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was in the Philippines, “he was a frequent visitor to Manila’s red light district, including its karaoke bars and mirrored go-go clubs, where he introduced himself to women as a wealthy businessman from Qatar.”[[48]] Muhammad Atta, the “leader of the September 11 terrorists and four other hijackers made several trips to Las Vegas over the summer to hold meetings, gamble and be entertained by topless dancers.”[[49]] Pornography was also reportedly found in Osama bin Laden’s compound in Abottabad,[[50]] and also by security forces in Taliban hideouts in Pakistan.[[51]] Militants also embedded coded material in child pornography according to Scotland Yard.[[52]] Nidal Malik Hassan is reported to have had a lap-dance at a strip joint just six days before the Fort Hood massacre.[[53]] How does Sookhdeo reconcile such un-Islamic behavior by terrorists with his claim that terrorist actions are rooted in the religion of Islam?

The “Verse of the Sword”

It is interesting to note the verses of the Qur’an most cited or quoted by extremists. A July 2012 study that examined the most frequently cited or quoted verses in the Qur’an from over 2,000 extremist texts from 1998 to 2011 in the Center for Strategic Communication’s database found that the “analysis revealed only 3 citations of the ‘Verse of the Sword’” – verse 9:5 – “among the over 2,000 coded extremist texts reviewed […].” The authors further say,

“The most frequently cited Qur’anic verses identified in this study suggest that Islamist extremists favor content that falls within three core thematic categories: exhortations (e.g. 12:21, 63:8, 3:102), battle imperatives (9:14, 4:75, 22:39), and affirmations of faith (e.g. 8:17, 4:104, 3:139). These thematic categories correspond with our observation regarding the surprising verse selection from Surat at-Tawbah. Extremists do not favor the “Verse of the Sword,” which encourages all-out war against unbelievers. Instead they appear to invoke specific verses of the Qur’an that support a promise of deliverance”[[54]] (italics added).

The authors of the study conclude that the Verse of ‘the Sword’ “is nearly absent from extremist rhetoric” and

“Members of the target audience, the contested populations of the Muslim world, realize that extremists are not really preaching world conquest. Continued claims to the contrary, by both official and unofficial sources, only play into a ‘clash of civilizations’ narrative that benefits the extremist cause. These claims also undermine the credibility of Western voices, because the audience knows that extremist arguments are really about victimage and deliverance.”

Sookhdeo, the Gorkas, and other authors who spread fear of a world conquest by Islam are not strengthening but undermining counter-terrorism efforts by playing into the terrorist narrative.

Robert Crane, appointed US Ambassador by President Reagan to the United Arab Emirates in 1981, made the distinction well when he said, “There is no such thing as Islamic terrorism, but there have always been Muslim terrorists.”[[55]] The distinction is important, which Sookhdeo needs to be cognizant of.

Division of the World into Dar al-Islam and Dar al-Kufr/Dar al-Harb

Though unstated in the book, Sookhdeo in his website says,

“A basic precept of classical Islamic teaching divides the world into two kinds of territory, Dar al-Islam and Dar al-Harb. Dar al-Islam or “the house of Islam” consists of those areas under Muslim control. The rest of the world, which is under infidel (non-Muslim) control, is significantly known as Dar al-Harb, “the house of war.” This name is given to infidel-controlled areas because Muslims are obliged to subdue Dar al-Harb and turn it into Dar al-Islam.”[[56]]

It is important to discuss this matter because authors have a bipolar, Muslim-versus-non-Muslim understanding of Islam, and portray Islam in this manner.

Sunni scholar Zaid Shakir explains this simplistic understanding. “[T]he often-cited division of the world into Dar al-Islam and Dar al-Harb fits well with attempts to explain the inevitability of a clash between Islam and the West.” “However,” he says, “it does not really give us an idea of the nuances and complexities of those terms, nor the diverse ways in which Muslim thinkers, over an extended period of time, defined and actually applied them.” Shakir then provides examples of the various views of classical Sunni scholars. For example, “Abu Yusuf and Muhammad b. al-Hasan ash-Shaybani, the two companions of Imam Abu Hanifah “viewed a land governed by the laws of the nonbelievers as constituting a land of disbelief, even if populated by Muslims.” However, “Imam ash-Shafi’i viewed a land populated by nonbelievers who are not at war with the Muslims as not constituting Dar al-Harb.” Shakir then says, “Therefore, according to these definitions, most of today’s Muslim countries, which are governed by secular law codes, are not Dar al-Islam.”

Regarding most non-Muslim countries today that have peaceful relations with the Muslim world, they are not considered Dar al-Harb. Sookhdeo omits this from his understanding. Shakir says, “To reinforce this point, let us ask…‘[w]ould Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, two conservative nations that waged war against the Muslim nation of Iraq be considered Dar al-Islam or Dar al-Harb?’ Such questions reveal nuances that clearly weigh against the simplistic arguments being advanced by a growing wave of anti-Islamic polemicists and pundits and their Muslim ideological equivalents.”[[57]]

Moreover, Imam Shawkani believed that land not ruled by Muslims can still be called Dar al-Islam provided that Muslims can practice their faith safely.[[58]] Al-Dawoody also says, “Present-day non-Muslim countries would…be classified as dar al-Islam according to Abu Hanifah’s definition […].”[[59]]  Abu Hanifah’s ijtihad, or understanding of the Islamic sources, is followed by most Muslims today. There are also many other divisions that the authors neglect to mention. For example, Dar al-Sulh, Dar al-`Ahd, Dar al-Muwada’ah (house of peace, house of covenant, house of reconciliation)[[60]]

Of `Abd al-Rahman al-Haj, Al-Dawoody explains his view that “classical jurists coined thirty-four conceptual divisions related the word dar, including dar al-muhajirin, dar al-hijrah, dar al-baghy, dar al-da’wah, dar al-dhimmah, dar al-riddah, dar al-shirk, and dar al-`Arab.”[[61]] Al-Dawoody concludes, “It is…unfortunate that all these juridical political concepts are ignored, so that the Islamic worldview is oversimplified as one of perpetual war between Muslims and so-called infidels.”[[62]] Sookhdeo and others who hold this simplistic understanding are guilty of omitting the details of Sunni jurisprudence and misleading readers.

In addition, most Muslims today do not divide the world into two polar opposites. Khaled Abou El Fadl, a “Progressive Reformer” who Sookhdeo deceptively claims to support (p.39), says,

“Many…books written by non-Muslim scholars in the West perpetuate the myth that Islamic law invariably dictates that the world should be divided into two abodes forever locked into conflict. Often the same books falsely assume that most Muslims today adhere to the same bipolar view of the world. This, of course, is not an accurate description of Islamic legal doctrine; moreover, it does not accurately describe the beliefs of the overwhelming majority of Muslims today.”[[63]]

Examples of Errors by Other Authors

Sebastian Gorka’s Misrepresentation of Pakistani General S.K. Malik

Sebastian Gorka, an author of one of the chapters, says,

“If you read only one person to understand the enemy, read S.K. Malik’s book, The Quranic Concept of Power” (p.200).

Curiously, Gorka makes this recommendation in spite of the fact that Malik was an army man, and not a religious scholar. While also recognizing that General Zia ul-Haq wrote the forward of the book, and that the book is clearly a work of political propaganda used to rally the Muslims and Afghan combatants to fight against the Soviets, Gorka nevertheless imagines (without evidence) that Malik’s interpretations of the Qur’an and Sunnah are “a theological strategy of war for Islam.”

Gorka is unable to differentiate theology and Islam from a political propaganda piece relevant to a specific conflict. Seeing Malik as a legitimate interpreter of the Qur’an and Sunnah to explain war is like using a Crusader’s interpretation of the Bible on waging war on Muslims and other ‘infidel’ Christians.

Gorka’s non-sequitur is even more glaring. Gorka says that because Malik believed that “the best weapon in war is terror,” Malik, as well Zia ul-Haq, who endorsed the book,

“thus told the world back in 1979 that 9/11 is the kind of attack one should execute if you want to win a war” (p.201).

It is strange that Gorka concludes that two individuals who lived and died prior to the September 11, 2001 attacks endorsed the attacks. While Malik is not a religious scholar, his own words clearly state that he meant instilling “terror” in the enemy in times of war. Terror in war is different from terrorism perpetrated by al-Qa’eda against civilians. Yet, Gorka seems to believe they are synonymous, and curiously agrees with the 9/11 militants he claims to condemn by describing their terrorism as terror in war.  Illogical extrapolations do not help, but misinform and confuse, and embolden the extremists whom government and military professionals are trying hard to defeat.

Robert Reilly and a Public Diplomacy and Communications Institution and Strategy

A public diplomacy and communications institution and strategy that represents Reilly’s views would be ineffective due to his understanding that morality – and not policy – is the chief concern in the Arab region that would cause positive change as illustrated in recent polls (to be discussed in the full review). While neglecting the bigger concern, little success should be expected in changing hearts and minds in the Arab region. Furthermore, such a strategy would be further undermined by Reilly’s bigoted remarks, as already stated above, “The Middle East is poor because of a dysfunctional culture based upon a deformed theology […].”[[64]]

Reilly also says that “Al-Azhar,” – the famous religious university in Egypt – is an “intellectual backwater retarding Muslims’ ability to enter the modern world […]” (p.154). He also takes issue with John Brennan’s description of jihad as “holy struggle,” and says, “Conceding legitimacy to your enemy in a war of ideas is not a good move” (p.160). Reilly is to be reminded that because most Muslims define jihad as a “holy struggle,” defining the acts of the “enemy” as jihad, as Reilly does, undermines the Arab-Muslim majority while legitimizing the minority of extremists who claim to represent genuine Islam. What is needed is a counter-narrative that distinguishes acts of terrorism from the classical Sunni view of jihad. Reilly’s – and the other authors’ – pejorative words and condescending views about Islam and Arab culture would result in a communications catastrophe, would embolden the extremists, and worsen relations between the United States and the wider Muslim world.

Stephen Ulph Misrepresents Ahmad ibn Hanbal

In explaining the literalist understanding of the Qur’an and hadith by radicals where speculation and metaphor have no place, Ulph says, “Radicals of all stamps seek authority to this priority in the person of Ibn Hanbal who championed the cause of the Text with his claim that

“whoever involves themselves in any theological rhetoric is not to be counted amongst the Ahl us-Sunnah, even if by that he arrives at the Sunnah, until he abandons debating and surrenders to the texts” (p.66).

This is an inaccurate understanding of the literalist approach of radicals, and an incorrect representation of Ahmad Ibn Hanbal, the mujtahid founder of the Hanbali school of Sunni jurisprudence. Not being involved in “theological rhetoric” does not translate to accepting the text literally as Ulph erroneously understands. Ironically, this is the same incorrect understanding of Ibn Hanbal’s words that Wahhabis and other Salafis have. Ibn Hanbal spoke on theology – or creed (`aqida) – the correct understanding of the attributes of God as stated in the Qur’an and Sunnah. Ibn Hanbal said that God’s attributes should be accepted without attributing meaning to them, metaphorically or literally. Contemporary Sunni scholar, Nuh Keller, explains:

“The real (‘aqida) of Imam Ahmad was very simple, and consisted, in the main, of accepting the words of the mutashabihat or ‘unapparent meanings’ of the Qur’an and hadith as they have come without saying how they are meant.”[[65]]

Keller continues,

“It should be appreciated how far this position is from understanding the mutashabihat or ‘unapparent in meaning,’ scriptural expressions about Allah as though they were meant literally (‘ala al-dhahir).”[[66]]

Ibn Hanbal’s understanding of Islamic creed is described as the Athari school of creed in Sunni Islam, and is followed by most Hanbalis. The Athari approach, grounded in Sunni tradition, should be differentiated from and not be conflated with the neo-Athari understanding of creed that demonstrated and still demonstrates, the “tendency…towards excessive literalism in beliefs and even towards anthropomorphism (affirmation of human attributes to Allah).”[[67]]  Wahhabis and Salafis follow a neo-Athari understanding of creed that cannot be called Hanbali.

This example illustrates the importance of counter-terrorism analysts and commentators to learn classical Sunni creed and differentiate it from the understanding of creed by minority groups who claim the “Sunni” mantle. Serious mistakes like Ulph’s could unintentionally demonize non-radical Muslims, mainly of the Hanbali school, and compromise mainstream Sunni arguments against extremists.

Katharine Gorka’s and Sookhdeo’s Dubious Approach and Logic on Intelligence and National Security Reports

Sookhdeo and Katharine Gorka in the Introduction illustrate dubious logic in their analysis of national security documents. They say, “The 9/11 Commission Report, released in July 2004, used the word Islam 322 times, Muslim 145 times, jihad 126 times, and jihadist 32 times,” while the “National Intelligence Strategy of the United States, issued in August 2009, used the term Islam 0 times, Muslim 0 times, jihad 0 times.” They say the same of the FBI’s Counterterrorism Analytical Lexicon, which “makes no reference to Islam, Muslims, or jihad” (p.5).

However, is the number of times a word is stated in a strategy or relevant report necessarily a function of the effectiveness and usefulness of that strategy or report? Also, does the absence of words in such reports necessarily indicate poor quality of the meaning, strategy, or approach the document conveys? Absolutely not to both questions.

When the June 2011 National Strategy for Counterterrorism did state Islam several times, Sookhdeo and Gorka still took issue with the Strategy and said it “states that the preeminent security threat to the United States is ‘al-Qa’ida and its affiliates and adherents,’ not Islamism, radical Islam, or global jihad” (pp.5,6). Actually, al-Qa’eda and its “affiliates and adherents” do represent violent “Islamism,” “radical Islam,” and “global jihad,” as they understand it. It appears that Sookhdeo and Gorka are desperately trying to malign Islam in every manner possible.

John Leczowski’s Anti-Poor and Racist Language

While John Lenczowski’s arguments will be discussed more in the full review, it is important to note what Lenczowski lists as examples of what he believes make civilization “fragile.” Among the examples he notes are “the traditional poor – with its unique and seemingly intractable pathologies” and the “growth of Islamic communities in Europe that threaten to erase the distinctiveness of individual European cultures” (italics added). These, along with other examples he lists, like the rise of “Nazism,” “Communism,” and “Islamic fanaticism,” as well as “welfare states in the West” and “two world wars” were, or are, parts of the “problem” according to Lenczowski.[[68]]


This review focused mainly on Patrick Sookhdeo’s views in the book with some examples of issues by other authors. Contrary to what the editors and authors claim, they do not understand the enemy, conflate peaceful Muslims with violent Islamists, and provide a simplistic view that terrorism is rooted in Islam. The final review will discuss recent polls in the Arab and Muslim world and compare the results with the views of the editors and authors to illustrate their misrepresentation of the Muslim majority. It will be clear, if it is not clear already, that the authors’ views fuel animosity and terrorism and contribute to worsening the security of the American people, the United States, and the world.


[[1]] Westminster Institute, About, accessed May 26, 2013, http://www.westminster-institute.org/about/

[[2]] Ibid.

[[3]] Stoyan, Zaimov, “Christian Families in Syria in Urgent Need of Help, Trapped in Crossfire,“ Christian Post, February 16, 2012, accessed May 26, 2013,

[[4]] Westminster Institute, Past Events, accessed May 26, 2013, http://www.westminster-institute.org/events/past-events/

[[5]] Ibid.

[[6]] Spencer, Ackerman, “New Evidence of Anti-Islam Bias Underscores Deep Challenges for FBI’s Reform Pledge,” Wired, September 23, 2011, accessed May 26, 2013, http://www.wired.com/dangerroom/2011/09/fbi-islam-domination/4/

[[7]] Anglican District of the Northeast, People, accessed May 27, 2013,


[[8]] The Westminster Institute and Isaac Publishing are located at 6729 Curran St  McLean, Virginia,  22101

[[9]] Isaac Publishing, About the Authors, accessed May 28, 2013, http://www.isaac-publishing.us/index.php/authors

[[10]] James, Mann, “Tear Down That Myth,” The New York Times, June 10, 2007, accessed May 24, 2013,http://www.nytimes.com/2007/06/10/opinion/10mann.html?pagewanted=all&_r=1&

[[11]] David Hoogland Noon, “Cold War Revival: Neoconservatives and Historical Memory in the War on Terror,” American Studies 48(3) (Fall 2007).77.

[[12]] Ibid., pp. 76-77.

[[13]] Mark Kramer, “Ideology and the Cold War,” Review of International Studies 25(4) (October 1999), 539-576, accessed May 23, 2013, http://hs-history-ibhl.ism-online.org/files/2011/08/Ideology-and-the-Cold-War.pdf

[[14]] Ibid.

[[15]] Matthew, Dallek, “Not Ready for Mt. Rushmore: Reconciling the Myth of Ronald Reagan with the Reality,” The American Scholar, Summer 2009, accessed May 22, 2013,


[[16]] Mark Kramer, “Ideology and the Cold War,” Review of International Studies 25(4) (October 1999), 539-576, accessed May 23, 2013,


[[17]] A biography of Patrick Sookhdeo can be read at Sookhdeo’s personal website: Patrick Sookhdeo, “Biography.” Accessed May 29, 2013, http://patricksookhdeo.com/biography/

[[18]] Patrick Sookhdeo. “The Myth of Moderate Islam,” August 1, 2005, accessed May 25, 2013, http://www.virtueonline.org/portal/modules/news/article.php?storyid=2831#.Ubo1T6n3C2w

[[19]] Barnabas Aid. “Barnabas Ministries: Practical Aid for the Persecuted Church.” Accessed May 29, 2013, http://barnabasaid.org/US/Our-work/What-we-do/

[[20]] Patrick Sookhdeo, “Biography.” Accessed May 29, 2013, http://patricksookhdeo.com/biography/

[[21]] Patrick Sookhdeo. “Books.” Accessed May 29, 2013, http://patricksookhdeo.com/books/

[[22]] Ben White, Review of Global Jihad: The Future in the Face of Militant Islam, by Patrick Sookhdeo, Fulcrum, January 2009, accessed June 1, 2013, http://www.fulcrum-anglican.org.uk/380

[[23]] CounterJihad Europa: Building Networks and Coalitions Against the Islamisation of Europe. “CounterJihad Brussels 2007 Conference.” Accessed June 2, 2013, http://counterjihadeuropa.wordpress.com/2007/10/23/counterjihad-brussels-2007-conference/

[[24]] Pamela Geller. “Atlas Shrugs.” Accessed June 2, 2013, http://atlasshrugs2000.typepad.com/atlas_shrugs/2007/10/one-for-the-age.html

[[25]] Interview from Atlas Shrugs: Geller, Pamela. Interview with Patrick Sookhdeo, Global Jihad: Interview with Dr. Patrick Sookhdeo, October 18, 2007, accessed May 23, 2013, http://europenews.dk/en/node/4780

[[26]] Mehdi, Hasan, “How the Fear of Being Criminalised has Forced Muslims into Silence,” The Guardian, September 8, 2011, accessed May 23, 2013, http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2011/sep/08/fear-criminalisation-forces-muslim-silence

[[27]] Spencer, Robert. The myth of Islamic tolerance: how Islamic law treats non-Muslims. Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 2005. Sookhdeo’s contributed a section to the book titled, “Christians in the Muslim World.”

[[28]] Alex, Murashko, “Barnabas Aid Not Spreading Islamophobia in UK, Says Director,” Christian Post, October 24, 2011, accessed May 25, 2013, http://www.christianpost.com/news/barnabas-aid-not-spreading-islamophobia-in-uk-says-director-59221/#f9rkCcuIEgpylmeV.99

[[29]] Khaled Abou El Fadl, “Terrorism Is at Odds With Islamic Tradition,” Los Angeles Times, August 22, 2001, accessed May 19, 2013, http://articles.latimes.com/2001/aug/22/local/me-36804

[[30]] Ashgar Ali, Engineer, “The Jihad Most Needed,” Dawn, June 18th, 2010, accessed May 25, 2013,

[[31]] Farish A. Noor, “The Evolution of ‘Jihad’ in the Islamist Political Discourse: How a Plastic Concept Became Harder,” [Ten] Years After September 11, accessed May 23, 2013, http://essays.ssrc.org/10yearsafter911/the-evolution-of-jihad-in-islamist-political-discourse-how-a-plastic-concept-became-harder/

[[32]] Olivier Roy, “Debate: There Will Be No Islamist Revolution,” Journal of Democracy 24:1 (Jan.2013): 14-19, accessed May 23, 2013, http://www.journalofdemocracy.org/sites/default/files/Roy-24-1.pdf

[[33]] Olivier, Roy. Globalized Islam: The Search for a New Ummah. New York: Columbia University Press, 2004. p.ix.

[[34]] Bernard, Lewis, “Jihad vs. Crusade: A historian’s guide to the new war,” Wall Street Journal, September 27, 2001.

[[35]] “Islam and the West: A Conversation with Bernard Lewis,” The Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, April 27, 2006, accessed May 24, 2013, http://www.pewforum.org/politics-and-elections/islam-and-the-west-a-conversation-with-bernard-lewis.aspx

[[36]] A. Al-Dawoody, op. cit., p.52.

[[37]] Ibid., p.53.

[[38]] Zaid, Shakir, “Qur’an Defeats Muslim Barbarism,” Emel 75 (December 2010), accessed May 24, 2013, http://emel.com/article.php?id=79&a_id=2238&c=94&return=imam%20zaid%20shakir

[[39]] Ibid.

[[40]] Halliday, Fred. Two Hours That Shook the World: September 11, 2001: Causes and Consequences. London: Saqi, 2002. p. 78.

[[41]] G. Fuller, op. cit.,p.270

[[42]] John, Judis, “Boston: More Like Sandy Hook Than 9/11 – A Conversation with Olivier Roy on the Nature of the Alleged Marathon Terrorists,” April 22, 2013, accessed May 12, 2013, http://www.newrepublic.com/article/112990/boston-marathon-bombing-2013-olivier-roy-modern-terrorism#

[[43]] Tim Winter. “Bin Laden’s Violence is a Heresy Against Islam,” accessed May 25, 2013, http://www.themodernreligion.com/terror/wtc-heresy.html

[[44]] David, Gibson, “Does Religion Cause Terrorism? It’s Complicated,” The Huffington Post, updated October 31, 2011, accessed May 28, 2013, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/08/31/religion-terrorism_n_944143.html

[[45]] Alan, Travis, “MI5 Report Challenges Views on Terrorism in Britain,” The Guardian, August 20, 2008, accessed June 2, 2013, http://www.guardian.co.uk/uk/2008/aug/20/uksecurity.terrorism1

[[46]] Ibid.

[[47]] Jessica, Stern, “What Motivates Terrorists?” January 21, 2011, accessed May 21, 2013, http://www.hoover.org/publications/defining-ideas/article/58841

[[48]] Rohan, Gunaratna, “Womaniser, Joker, Scuba Diver: The Other Face of al-Qaida’s No 3,” The Guardian, March 2, 2003, accessed May 21, 2013, http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2003/mar/03/alqaida.terrorism1

[[49]] Toby, Harnden, “Seedy Secrets of Hijackers Who Broke Muslim Laws,” The Telegraph, October 6, 2001, accessed May 18, 2013, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/1358665/Seedy-secrets-of-hijackers-who-broke-Muslim-laws.html

[[50]] Scott, Shane. “Pornography Is Found in Bin Laden Compound Files, U.S. Officials Say,” The New York Times, May 13, 2011, accessed May 19, 2013, http://www.nytimes.com/2011/05/14/world/asia/14binladen.html

[[51]] “Porn Seized From Taliban Hideouts, Says Malik,” Daily Times, December 12, 2009, accessed May 20, 2013, http://www.dailytimes.com.pk/default.asp?page=2009\12\12\story_12-12-2009_pg7_8

[[52]] Brian, Flynn. “Al-Qaeda’s Paedo Files,” The Sun, October 18, 2008, accessed May 19, 2013, http://www.thesun.co.uk/sol/homepage/news/article1826858.ece#ixzz1RzU6inXz

[[53]] Nick, Allen. “Fort Hood Killer Nidal Malik Hasan Visited Lapdancing Club,” The Telegraph, November 11, 2009, accessed May 20, 2013, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/northamerica/usa/6546905/Fort-Hood-killer-Nidal-Malik-Hasan-visited-lapdancing-club.html

[[54]] Jeffry R. Halverson et al., “How Extremists Quote the Quran.” Center for Strategic Communication, Arizona State University. http://csc.asu.edu/wp-content/uploads/pdf/csc1202-quran-verses.pdf

[[55]]  Robert Dickson Crane, “‘Creative Destruction’: Exposing the Ideological Roots of Modern Terrorism,” November 20, 2005, accessed June 2, 2013, http://www.theamericanmuslim.org/tam.php/features/articles/creative_destruction_exposing_the_ideological_roots_of_modern_terrorism/

[[56]] “Islam and Christianity: Why Muslims Dominate and Christians Suffer,” Patrick Sookhdeo, October 3, 2012, accessed June 2, 2013, http://patricksookhdeo.com/2012/10/islam-and-christianity-why-muslims-dominate-and-christians-suffer/

[[57]] Zaid Shakir, “Jihad is not Perpetual Warfare,” New Islamic Directions, 2008, accessed May 27, 2013, http://www.newislamicdirections.com/nid/notes/jihad_is_not_perpetual_warfare.

The original article can be read in  Shakir, Zaid. Scattered Pictures: Reflections of an American Muslim: An Anthology of Essays. Hayward, Calif.: Zaytuna Institute, 2005. pp.121-141.

[[58]] A. Al-Dawoody, op. cit.,p.93.

[[59]] Ibid., p.95.

[[60]] Ibid., p.93.

[[61]] Ibid., p.96.

[[62]] Ibid., p.96.

[[63]] Khaled Abou El Fadl. The Great Theft: Wrestling Islam From the Extremists. New York, NY: HarperCollins, 2005. pp. 230-231.

[[64]] Robert R. Reilly. The Closing of the Muslim Mind: How Intellectual Suicide Created the Modern Islamist Crisis. Wilmington, Del.: ISI Books, 2010. p.198.

[[65]] Nuh Ha Mim, Keller, Question 5, The Re-Formers of Islam: The Mas’ud Questions, 1995, accessed May 20, 2013, http://www.masud.co.uk/ISLAM/nuh/masudq5.htm

[[66]] Ibid.

[[67]] Faraz, Rabbani, “The Ash’aris & Maturidis: Standards of Mainstream Sunni Beliefs,” November 19, 2009, accessed May 21, 2013, http://seekersguidance.org/ans-blog/2009/11/19/the-asharis-maturidis-standards-of-mainstream-sunni-beliefs/

[[68]] The Institute of World Politics, Leaving a Legacy for the Defense of Western and American Civilization, accessed May 26, 2013, http://www.iwp.edu/support/page/reasons-to-support-iwp

– Sunni Creed: Strengthening the Sunni Narrative Against al-Qa’eda and Other Extremists.

(© Zubair Qamar 2013)

The Three Fundamentals of Orthodox Sunni Islam

There are three fundamentals of Sunni Islam based on the “hadith of Gabriel”[1]:

(1)   Practice/Jurisprudence[2] (Islam): Knowledge of the requirements of prayer, purification, pilgrimage, combative jihad, etc.

(2)   Creed/Theology (Iman): Knowledge of the Attributes of God, attributes of prophets, six articles of faith, etc.

(3)   Spiritual perfection[3] (Ihsan): Having the right intentions and genuinely loving Allah and Prophet Muhammad, worshipping sincerely and not for ostentation, shunning arrogance and envy, being mindful in prayer, etc.

While issues related to practice/jurisprudence, including jihad/combat and rebellion, have been discussed by many analysts to counter terrorists, there has been little to no discussion of how militants and other extremists contradict the most important fundamental of Islam: Mainstream Sunni creed/theology .[4] While militants prioritize the practice of combat and rebellion over other practices, their extreme marginalization of and differences in creed are bound to create fissures among jihadists, and Muslims in general, because creed is what determines whether one’s Islamic belief is sound or not. This article discusses the importance of creed in Sunni Islam, the Ash’ari, Maturidi, and Athari schools of Sunni creed, Ayman al-Zawahiri’s letter to Abu Mus’ab al-Zarqawi illustrating the divisions due to different creeds and the importance of overlooking them to unite under the umbrella of “jihad,” and how this knowledge can be used to strengthen the Sunni narrative against al-Qa’eda and other extremists.

The Importance of Sunni Creed

Why is correct creed important in Islam? The first pillar of Islam, which is the most important, is the Testification of Faith: “There is no God but Allah and Muhammad is the Messenger of Allah.” Orthodoxy in Islam is mainly represented by correct creed, which is a prerequisite to having all jurisprudential practices, like prayer and jihad, accepted. Knowing about God correctly is personal obligatory knowledge (fard `ayn) that every Muslim must know, and is sinful if one does not know. Sunni scholar Imam Nawawi said, “The first obligation of all who are morally responsible…is to know God[…].”[5]

Lumbard (2008) explains the importance of creed/faith:

“Many would first think of fasting (sawm), praying (salah), or pilgrimage (hajj) when Islam is mentioned, but such practices were not fully instituted until later in the life of the Prophet Muhammad….The first message God gave to the Prophet Muhammad…was one of truth, the human response to which is faith. That is why the first revelations of the Qur’an speak of God, death, and the Last Day rather than fasting, pilgrimage, and zakat (alms tax). First the revelation reestablished the proper relationship between the divine and the human through faith. Then it taught the way of observing and maintaining the relationship through submission.”[6]

Muslims are required to understand and accept Sunni creed with complete conviction.  Moreover, when Prophet Muhammad dispatched his companions to people in far off lands, he did not tell them to fight, but to invite them to Islam and to teach them Islamic belief. Imam Abu Hanifah, an eminent mujtahid scholar of early Islam whose ijtihad is followed by most Muslims today, described knowledge of creed as “Fiqh al-Akbar” (the Supreme Wisdom). While Muslims are not required to understand the details of dialectical theology, a correct understanding of the attributes of God is required. Sunni creed is represented by the Ash’ari, Maturidi, and Athari schools of creed.

The Ash’aris and Maturidis

“Ash’ari” refers to an early Muslim theologian born in Basra named Abul Hassan al-Ash’ari (874-936), while “Maturidi” refers to another early Muslim theologian born in present-day Uzbekistan named Abu Mansur al-Maturidi (853-944). They were contemporary Muslim scholars who taught Sunni creed, and whose explanations of creed have been embraced for more than 1,000 years by the majority of Sunni Muslims from the early days of Islam to this day. While differing in only few respects, and described as virtually the same in most respects, Ash’ari’s and Maturidi’s  explanation of Sunni creed was formulated, systematized, and brought to fruition by them through rational debate with different sects competing for doctrinal truth (particularly the Mu’tazila). The challenges faced by Ash’ari and Maturidi were

(1)     “to define the tenets of faith of Islam and refute innovation;

(2)     to show that this faith was acceptable to the mind and not absurd or inconsistent; and

(3)      to give proofs that personally convinced the believer of it.”[7]

Most Sunni Muslims believe Ash’ari’s and Maturidi’s explanations of creed to be rooted in the Qur’an and Sunnah, and in the understanding of early Muslims who preceded them. The overwhelming majority of religious scholars and followers have followed Ash’ari and Maturidi creeds for more than 1,000 years, and are said to represent Sunni orthodoxy. Al-Zawahiri was aware of this when he said:most of the Umma’s ulema are Ashari or Matridi[…].”[8] In the four schools of Sunni jurisprudence today (Hanafi, Shafi’i, Maliki, and Hanbali schools),[9] “most of the followers of the Sunni Hanafi school of jurisprudence have historically been followers of the Maturidi school of theology. However, one third of them, along with three-quarters of the Shafi’is, all of the Malikis, and some Hanbalis, adhere to the Ash’ari school.”[10]

In line with the Ash’ari and Maturidi creeds, it is obligatory for a Muslim to know what is:

(1)     “necessarily true,

(2)     impossible, or

(3)     possible to affirm of both Allah and the prophets”[11]

Contemporary Sunni scholar, Nuh Keller, says, “These three categories traditionally subsume some fifty tenets of faith.”[12] (See footnote 12 for a description of the 50 tenets of faith)

The Atharis

Unlike the Ash’ari and Maturidi schools of creed, the Athari school – the third school of Sunni creed followed mainly by Hanbalis – did not delve into extensive doctrinal dialectics.[13] However, from a Sunni perspective the Athari school should be differentiated from the neo-Athari school that demonstrated and still demonstrates, the “tendency…towards excessive literalism in beliefs and even towards anthropomorphism (affirmation of human attributes to Allah).”[14] Wahhabis, militants, and other Salafis today follow a manifestation of the neo-Athari creed. While analysts differentiate Wahhabis from other Salafis mainly due to different views of combative “jihad” and rebellion, they nevertheless share the same or similar understanding of neo-Athari creed, which makes both groups very similar to each other. Both groups are, in fact, more similar in what is deemed more important to a Muslim: Creedal matters. Manifestations of neo-Athari creed, however, differentiate Wahhabis, militants, and other Salafis from the majority of Sunnis who are Ash’ari, Maturidi, or Athari in creed.

Al-Zawahiri’s Letter to Abu Mus’ab al-Zarqawi

The tension generated from creedal differences was demonstrated in Ayman al-Zawahiri’s letter to the late Abu Mus’ab al-Zarqawi (July 9, 2005) in which al-Zawahiri expressed concern that religious scholars (`ulema) – and the masses who follow these religious scholars – should not be criticized but supported. Not doing so would jeopardize the “jihad[15] effort. Al-Zawahiri mentions religious scholars in reference to Islamic creed (“Ashari,” “Matridi,” and “Salafi”):

“Striving for the ulema: From the standpoint of not highlighting the doctrinal differences which the masses do not understand, such as this one is Matridi or this one is Ashari or this one is Salafi, and from the standpoint of doing justice to the people, for there may be in the world a heresy or an inadequacy in a side which may have something to give to jihad, fighting, and sacrifice for God. We have seen magnificent examples in the Afghan jihad, and the prince of believers, Mullah Muhammad Omar – may God protect him – himself is of Hanafi adherence, Matridi creed, but he stood in the history of Islam with a stance rarely taken. You are the richer if you know the stances of the authentic ulema on rulers in times of jihad and the defense of the Muslim holy sites” (italics included by author).[16]

Al-Zawahiri’s call was one of unity among combatants to set aside their differences in matters of creed for the greater good: To win broader support from the religious scholars and population at large to strengthen the “jihad.” While al-Zawahiri appears to support Ash’aris and Maturidis, he, in fact, opposes them, as he clarifies below:

“If you take into account the fact that most of the Umma’s ulema are Ashari or Matridi, and if you take into consideration as well the fact that the issue of correcting the mistakes of ideology is an issue that will require generations of the call to Islam and modifying the educational curricula, and that the mujahedeen are not able to undertake this burden, rather they are in need of those who will help them with the difficulties and problems they face; if you take all this into consideration, and add to it the fact that all Muslims are speaking of jihad, whether they are Salafi or non-Salafi, then you would understand that it is a duty of the mujahed movement to include the energies of the Umma and in its wisdom and prudence to fill the role of leader, trailblazer, and exploiter of all the capabilities of the Umma for the sake of achieving our aims: a caliphate along the lines of the Prophet’s, with God’s permission” (italics added by author).[17]

Al-Zarqawi, Al-Zawahiri, and al-Qa’eda as a whole, not only oppose Ash’aris and Maturidis, but deal with them differently. While al-Zarqawi openly opposed and targeted them, al-Zawahiri’s strategic advice was to overlook creedal differences, whether “Salafi or non-Salafi,” to achieve the victory of “jihad” while recognizing that the Ash’aris and Maturidis have “mistakes” that would require “generations of the call to Islam and modifying the educational curricula” to correct them. Their opposition to Ash’aris and Maturidis, and adoption of a neo-Athari (Salafi) creed, is in violation of the three schools of Sunni creed that Sunni tradition represents. Al-Qa’eda and other militants have cited several Ash’ari scholars in their writings in an attempt to portray their support for traditional Sunni Islam. Their opposition to Ash’ari creed, however, renders their citations deceitful and insincere.[18]

The Sunni Narrative: Al-Qa’eda Violates Sunni Creed

To start, Sunni creed can be used to counter al-Qa’eda and other “Sunni” extremists for the following reasons:

(1)     Militants prioritize combat over creed. Militants trivialize the more important knowledge of creed, which is personal obligatory knowledge (fard `ayn) for every Muslim. The so-called jihad is interpreted in a twisted and exaggerated fashion by militants to represent it solely as a personal obligation more important than creed.

(2)     Militants have a non-Sunni creed and oppose creeds espoused by the Sunni majority. Orthodox Islam, as understood by militants, is mainly represented by combat instead of correct creed. Even while rhetorically claiming to support Sunni creed, militants and other extremists normally oppose all three schools of Sunni creed (Ash’ari, Maturidi, and Athari creeds) while superficially opting for a neo-Athari (anthropomorphic) creed, which has never been part of mainstream Sunni Islam. Furthermore, militants and other extremists are mostly against the majority understanding of Sunni creed, and accuse Ash’aris and Maturidis of being reprehensible innovators or infidels to be exterminated, yet deceitfully attempt to use them for support whenever it suits them. If militants claim that dialectical theology is not necessary to understand God, this does not make their neo-Athari creed correct from the standpoint of Sunni tradition. Rather, they adhere to an understanding of Wahhabi-Salafi creed that was invented by Ibn Taymiyah, supported later by Muhammad ibn Abdal-Wahhab[19], and propagated by Salafis of all colors. Namely, Oneness of God (tawheed al-uloohiyya), Unity of God’s Lordship (tawheed al-ruboobiyya), and Unity of God’s Names and Attributes (tawheed al-asmaa’ was-sifaat). Creed has never been categorized and understood by the Sunni majority in this manner.

(3)     Militants demean religious scholars and knowledge. Joas Wagemakers says, “There seems to be a growing trend among jihadis to view fighters as being the most credible Muslims to comment on jihad, in spite of their lack of scholarly credentials.”[20] The opposition by militants to Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi, well-known for his religious knowledge among extremist circles, illustrates the point. Scoffing at religious scholars, a central part of the militant outlook, elevates combat over belief, and ridicules Prophet Muhammad’s sayings, including: “Scholars [of religious knowledge] are the inheritors of the Prophets.”[21]  He did not say that those who combat are the heirs of the prophets. Prophet Muhammad was also asked, “`What is the best deed?’ He responded, ‘Belief in Allah and His Messenger […].’”[22] Many militants understand combat experience as a prerequisite to speaking about creed and other religious knowledge – a complete reversal of Sunni Islam that requires correct creed as a first priority and prerequisite to other Islamic practices. Militants do the opposite of what Prophet Muhammad prioritized.

(4)      Militants make combat a pillar of Islam. The first pillar of Islam, the Testification of Faith (“There is no God but Allah and Muhammad is the Messenger of Allah”) is replaced with so-called combative jihad as the first pillar, or is portrayed by militants as being a pillar of Islam. `Abd-al-Salam al-Faraj, for example, in “The Neglected Duty” saw combative jihad as the sixth pillar of Islam. However, jihad is not a pillar of Sunni Islam and never has been. Asma Afsaruddin says that “the Medinan scholar `Abdallah ibn `Umar, son of the second caliph `Umar ibn al-Khattab, is on record as having challenged those who had wished to elevate combative jihad to the level of a religious obligation. An Iraqi man came to Ibn `Umar and reproached him thus: “What is the matter with you that you perform the hajj and `umra but have abandoned fighting in the path of God (al-ghazu fi sabil allah)?’ To which Ibn `Umar responded, ‘Fie on you! Faith is founded on five pillars: that you worship God, perform the prayer, give zakat, perform the pilgrimage, and fast during Ramadan[…].”[23] If true, and even if militants today were waging genuine jihad, they would still be reprimanded by early Muslims for seeing jihad as a pillar of Islam.

Due to the reasons stated above, militants and other extremists contradict mainstream Sunni Islam because they violate the majority Sunni understanding of correct creed, which is the most critical fundamental of a Muslim’s salvation. Furthermore, those who hold a distorted understanding of Sunni creed as militants do due to prioritizing fighting over understanding God cannot be trusted for religious guidance. If their creed is wrong or uncertain from a Sunni perspective, how can Muslims be sure that their understanding of jurisprudence (including of jihad) is correct? The fissures created by creedal differences among militants should be further examined and exploited to strengthen the Sunni narrative against them.


[1] The three fundamentals of Islam are based on the following hadith, which describes the Angel Gabriel in the form of a man who explains the three fundamentals of Islam to Prophet Muhammad:

‘Umar ibn al-Khattab said:
As we sat one day with the Messenger of Allah (Allah bless him and give him peace), a man in pure white clothing and jet black hair came to us, without a trace of travelling upon him, though none of us knew him.

He sat down before the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) bracing his knees against his, resting his hands on his legs, and said: “Muhammad, tell me about Islam.” The Messenger of Allah (Allah bless him and give him peace) said: “Islam is to testify that there is no god but Allah and that Muhammad is the Messenger of Allah, and to perform the prayer, give zakat, fast in Ramadan, and perform the pilgrimage to the House if you can find a way.”

He said: “You have spoken the truth,” and we were surprised that he should ask and then confirm the answer. Then he said: “Tell me about true faith (iman),” and the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) answered: “It is to believe in Allah, His angels, His inspired Books, His messengers, the Last Day, and in destiny, its good and evil.”

“You have spoken the truth,” he said, “Now tell me about the perfection of faith (ihsan),” and the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) answered: “It is to worship Allah as if you see Him, and if you see Him not, He nevertheless sees you.”

He said: “Now tell me about the Hour.” The Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) answered: “The one who is asked about it does knows no more than the questioner.”

He said: “Then tell me about its signs.” The Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace answered: “That a slave girl shall give birth to her mistress, and that you see barefoot, naked, destitute shepherds vying to build tall buildings.”

Then the visitor left. I waited a long while, and the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) said to me, “Do you know, ‘Umar, who was the questioner?” and I replied, “Allah and His messenger know best.” He said, “It was Gabriel, who came to you to teach you your religion” (Sahih Muslim, 1.37: hadith 8).

(Keller, Nuh Ha Mim. (1995).The Place of Tasawwuf in Traditional Islamic Sciences. Available: http://www.masud.co.uk/ISLAM/nuh/sufitlk.htm)

While the hadith of Gabriel above seems to indicate that Islamic practices are more important than faith in God since the former precedes the latter in the order stated in the hadith, another narration of this hadith begins with an inquiry of faith by Gabriel to Prophet Muhammad. (See, for example, Sahih Bukhari, Vol. 1, Book 2, No. 47). Imam Zaid Shakir, a popular contemporary American Sunni scholar says, “The Hadith of Gabriel (Jibril) is considered by most Muslim scholars to be one of the fundamental texts of our religion. It presents, in a comprehensive way, the foundations of Islam.” (Imam Zaid Shakir, Giving Thanks (2011), Available: http://www.newislamicdirections.com/nid/notes/giving_thanks/ ). Of the three fundamentals of Islam, Lumbard ( 2008) says they “are the three fundamental dimensions of the submitting way; they complement and complete each other. They are envisioned as three partially overlapping circles, and the place where all three circles overlap is the ideal that all Muslims strive to attain. One who embodies all three in their fullest depth and breadth is closer to living as a true human being in what the Qur’an refers to as the true nature (fitrah). This true nature is our original state before God and the innate disposition of all human beings.” (Lumbard, Joseph E.B.(2008). Submission Faith & Beauty: The Religion of Islam. Zaytuna Institute. Berkley, CA. p.xix-xx).

[2] This fundamental of Islam is also described as “submitting or submission.” (Ibid. Lumbard, 2008).

[3] This fundamental of Ihsan is also described as “beautification.” (Ibid. Lumbard, 2008)

[4] This article will mostly use the word creed. Sunni creed is synonymous with Sunni tenets of faith, belief, doctrine, and theology. While Sunni creed relates to knowledge and understanding of God’s attributes, it also includes knowledge of what prophets are and are not attributed with. Traditional or mainstream Sunni Islam refers to the understanding of most scholars in Islam’s history, is followed by most Muslims in Islam since the time of Prophet Muhammad, and comprises three central dimensions: Islamic belief/creed, Islamic practice or jurisprudence, and achievement of states of inner purity.

[5] Nawawi.(2003). Al-Maqasid:. Nawawi’s Manual of Islam. Translation and Notes by Nuh Ha Mim Keller. Amana Publications. Beltsville, MD. pg.6.

[6] Lumbard, Joseph E.B.(2008). Submission Faith & Beauty: The Religion of Islam. Zaytuna Institute. Berkley, CA. pg.1

[7] Keller, Nu Ha Mim. “Kalaam in Islam.” Lecture given at Aal al-Bayt Institute of Islamic Thought on

4 January 2005 in Amman, Jordan. Available: http://www.livingislam.org/k/ki_e.html

[8] The “Umma” is the community of Muslims. The “ulema” are the religious scholars of Islam.

[9] Kamali describes the geographical distribution of the adherents of each of the four Sunni schools of law:

The Hanafi school has the largest following of all the schools, owing to its official adoption by the Ottoman Turks in the early sixteenth century. It is now predominant in Turkey, Syria, Jordan, Lebanon, Pakistan, Afghanistan and among the Muslims of India, and its adherents constitute about one third of the Muslims of the world…(73).

The Maliki school is currently predominant in Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Upper Egypt, the Sudan, Bahrain and Kuwait….(73)

The Shafi’i school is now prevalent in Lower Egypt, southern Arabia, East Africa, Indonesia, Malaysia, Brunei, and has many followers in Palestine, Jordan and Syria….(83)

The Hanbali school is currently predominant in Saudi Arabia and also has followers in Oman, Qatar, Bahrain and Kuwait….(84)
(Kamali, Mohammad H. (2008). Shari’ah Law: An Introduction. Oxford, England: Oneworld Publications, 2008, p.73, 83,84)

[10] Abdur-Rahman ibn Yusuf (compiler, translator, Introduction). (2007). Abu `l-Muntaha al-Maghnisawi, with Selections from `Ali al-Qari’s Commentary, Including Abu Hanifa’s Kitab al-Wasiyya. Imam Abu Hanifa’s Al-Fiqh al-Akbar Explained, Santa Barbara, California: White Thread Press, pg.19. Regarding criticisms, contemporary Sunni scholar Faraz Rabbani, says that “some major Hanbalis held beliefs that smacked of anthropomorphism [‘representation of God as having human form or traits’], this is true but unfair: it is also true that some Shafiis had such beliefs, and some were Mutazili rationalists; the same is also true of the Hanafi school. However, what matters is the general case (al-`ibra li’l ghalib), and the overwhelming majority of Hanbalis had sound beliefs, as is the case in the other schools…It is from the unfortunate attacks against the edifice of Sunni Islam that people pick on minor cases or rare historical incidents (like the occasional periods of inter-madhhab dispute) and try to generalize these into a history of discord whose existence is solely in their creative imaginations. Reality, for those who seek it, is that there was a remarkable unity that was based on a foundation of acceptance of difference of opinion within the limits; and a wisdom and pragmatism that avoided fitna with those whose ways diverged from the sound path of the Messenger of Allah (peace and blessings be upon him) and his inheritors, the scholars of Sunni Islam.” (Rabbani, Faraz. (2008). “Is There an ‘Athari’ Aqidah?” Question 4856. Qibla for the Islamic Sciences. Available: http://spa.qibla.com/issue_view.asp?HD=7&ID=4856&CATE=24)

[11] Ibid. Keller, “Kalaam in Islam.”

[12] Ibid. Keller, “Kalaam in Islam.”
“(a) The twenty attributes necessarily true of Allah are His (1) existence; (2) not beginning; (3) not ending; (4) self-subsistence, meaning not needing any place or determinant to exist; (5) dissimilarity to created things; (6) uniqueness, meaning having no partner (sharik) in His entity, attributes, or actions; (7) omnipotent power; (8) will; (9) knowledge; (10) life; (11) hearing; (12) sight; (13) speech; such that He is (14) al-mighty; (15) all-willing; (16) all-knowing; (17) living; (18) all-hearing; (19) all-seeing; (20) and speaking – through His attributes of power, will, knowledge, life, hearing, sight, and speech, not merely through His being.

(b) The twenty attributes necessarily impossible of Allah (21­40) are the opposites of the previous twenty, such as nonexistence, beginning, ending, and so on.

(c) The one attribute merely possible of Allah (41) is that He may create or destroy any possible thing.

The attributes of the prophets…similarly fall under the three headings:

(a) The four attributes necessarily true of the prophets (42­45) are telling the truth, keeping their trust, conveying to mankind everything they were ordered to, and intelligence.

(b) The four attributes necessarily impossible of them (46­49) are the opposites of the previous four, namely lying, treachery, concealing what they were ordered to reveal, and feeblemindedness.

(c) The one attribute possible of them (50) is any human state that does not detract from their rank, such as eating, sleeping, marrying, and illnesses not repellant to others; although Allah protected them from every offensive physical trait and everything unbecoming them, keeping them from both lesser sins and enormities, before their prophethood and thereafter.” (Ibid, Keller).

[13] Some pseudo-Sunni groups describe themselves as “Athari,” whereas they do not represent authentic Athari creed. Such groups promote anthropomorphism in the name of the “Athari” creed, and are better described as pseudo-Athari anthropomorphists from a Sunni perspective. In addition to many militants, they also include non-violent extremists, including Wahhabis and other Salafis,

[14] Rabbani, Faraz. “The Ash’aris & Maturidis: Standards of Mainstream Sunni Beliefs.” Available: http://seekersguidance.org/ans-blog/2009/11/19/the-asharis-maturidis-standards-of-mainstream-sunni-beliefs/, accessed Jan.12, 2012.

[15] Jihad is in quotes because militants violate the conditions that make combative jihad valid.

[16] Letter from Ayman al-Zawahiri to Abu Mus’ab al-Zarqawi, available: http://www.globalsecurity.org/security/library/report/2005/zawahiri-zarqawi-letter_9jul2005.htm

[17] Ibid. Letter from Al-Zawahiri to al-Zarqawi.

[18] While militants are usually against Ash’aris and Maturidis, they nevertheless use their statements in an attempt to portray support for their perspectives. This is a deceitful attempt to win more recruits from the moderate Sunni majority who espouse Ash’ari and Maturidi creeds. Qurtubi, for example, is a well known Ash’ari scholar who has been cited by Osama bin Laden in his declarations. See, for example: Bruce, Lawrence (2005). Messages to the World: The Statements of Osama bin Laden. Verso. New York, NY. pg..7 (footnote 13). Other Ash’ari scholars, including Abu Hamid al-Ghazali (see Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi’s “Illustrious Points: Observations on the Book al-Jami’” and

Abu Jandal al-Azdi’s “The Scholar’s Ruling on the Killing of Soldiers and Secret Police”), Jalaluddin al-Suyuti (see Harith `Abd al-Salam al-Misri’s “[If] They say…then you say! Revealing the Doubts of the Tremblers and Abandoners Regarding Jihad”), Ibn Hajar al-`Asqalani (see Yusuf al-`Uyayri’s “The Truth About the New Crusader War”), Nawawi (see Ayman al-Zawahiri’s “Response to a Grave Uncertainty from Shaykh al-Albani Regarding Silence in the Face of Apostate Rulers”), al-Qadi `Iyad (see Abu Qatada al-Filistini’s “Characteristics of the Victorious Sect in the Muslim’s Home Land (Greater Syria)”), are also cited. (William McCants (Editor & Project Director), Jarret Brachman (Project Coordinator). (2006).“Militant Ideology Atlas,” Combating Terrorism Center, U.S. Military Academy, West Point, NY. pp. 83, 121, 123, 130, 145, 205, 272. Available: http://www.ctc.usma.edu/wp-content/uploads/2012/04/Atlas-ResearchCompendium1.pdf

[19] Muhammad ibn Abdal-Wahhab is the founder of the Wahhabi movement.

[20] Wagemakers, Joas (2011). “Reclaiming Scholarly Authority: Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi’s Critique of Jihadi Practices.” Studies in Conflict & Terrorism, 34: 7, 523-539.

[21] This is an authentic hadith related by Tirmidhi, Abu Dawud, Nasa’i, Ibn Maja, Ahmad, Ibn Habban, and others. For an explanation of the hadith, see: http://seekersguidance.org/blog/2011/03/is-the-hadith-the-scholars-are-the-inheritors-of-the-prophets-authentic-if-so-what-does-it-mean-faraz-rabbani/

[22] Sahih Bukhari: Vol.2, Book 26, No. 594.

[23] al-Huda, Qamar (Ed.). (2010).Crescent and Dove: Peace and Conflict Resolution in Islam. United States Institute of Peace. Washington, DC. pg.47.

– Critical Book Review: The Myth of Martyrdom (by Adam Lankford).

Book Review: The Myth of Martyrdom

See my book review of Adam Lankford’s “The Myth of Martyrdom: What Really Drives Suicide Bombers, Rampage Shooters, and Other Self-Destructive Killers” in the Perspectives on Terrorism journal (Vol.7; No.1; 2013). Also see my book review summary on Amazon.

The full review is available below.


Adam Lankford. The Myth of Martyrdom: What Really Drives Suicide Bombers, Rampage Shooters, and Other Self-Destructive Killers.

New York: Palgrave Macmillan 2013, 272 pp; ISBN: 978-0-230-34213-2; $27.00.

(Reviewed by Zubair Qamar, 2013)



Introduction and Overview

In his book, Adam Lankford, a criminal justice professor at the University of Alabama, sheds light on an often neglected dimension of suicide terrorists – the psychological/suicidal dimension. He does this by providing specific examples of terrorists who were suicidal and asks for the debate to go beyond religious radicalism and political ideology. Lankford goes through “case studies, suicide notes, love letters, diary entries, and martyrdom videos” (pp. 17, 18) to make his case. The first chapter is an Introduction to the book, which explains how, according to Lankford, the experts did not understand the 9/11 hijackers correctly, and how he embarked on research for his book. Chapter-2 extends the discussion from Chapter-1 on how, according to Lankford, the experts have been wrong on understanding suicide terrorists. Chapter-3 discusses Lankford’s sample of some 130 suicide terrorists and his claim that they exhibit suicidal traits. Chapter-4 illustrates Lankford’s “psychological autopsy” of Mohamed Atta, the alleged ringleader of the 9/11 attacks. Chapter-5 explores Lankford’s thoughts on differences between genuine heroes and suicide terrorists. Chapter-6 compares suicide terrorists with perpetrators of murder-suicide, including workplace killers and rampage shooters. Chapter-7 discusses Lankford’s four categories of suicide terrorists (conventional, coerced, escapist, and indirect). Finally, Chapter-8 presents recommendations to predict where suicide terrorism is more likely to happen. This book review essay touches upon key aspects of the book, including the intentions of suicide terrorists, the suicide traits to suicide connection, Lankford’s psychological autopsy of Mohamed Atta and other 9/11 suicide terrorists, Lankford’s convenience sample, Lankford’s accusation against certain scholars of being incorrect, demonstration of some of Lankford’s subjective and dubious reasoning, followed by the conclusion.

Words that Mask the Truth

Lankford advises the reader not to listen to what comes out of the mouths of suicide terrorists to understand their true motives, adding, “… you can’t believe everything you hear” (p. 20). Indeed, believing everything you hear from a suicide attacker, or his/her family, can lead to incorrect understandings and conclusions. Lankford tells us that because suicide bombers claim to be self-sacrificing for a claimed cause does not necessarily make it so. However, using Lankford’s approach, one can also ask: Why believe that they are suicidal if they may have the capacity to make rational decisions to kill themselves for non-suicidal, perceived noble causes? Intentions behind actions are difficult to ascertain, and words and actions do not always allow one to be absolutely certain about root causes of one’s self-killing. Moreover, Lankford’s assessment is limited to the psychiatric realm without offering an equally substantial treatment of other possible causes of suicide. The “situational” factors are mentioned in passing by Lankford without seriously considering and elaborating on the influences and effects they have on suicide terrorists. (See, for example, pages 13, 32, 116, 131, and 148). It is surprising that the effects of military occupation, befriending of regimes with poor human rights records, and poor economic growth and prosperity in certain majority Muslim regions have little to no consideration in Lankford’s analysis of suicide terrorism. Neither does religion and ideology. A more detailed analysis of social-cultural factors is also missing. According to Lankford, mental illness seems to be the main driving force that makes suicide terrorists do what they do, which makes his analysis incomplete.

Suicidal Traits to Suicide

In addressing the issue of words by suicide terrorists that may mask the truth, Lankford expresses confidence in the “suicidal traits-to-suicide” link at the level of mainly soft indicators. Yet these are common to millions, if not more, people. Predicting suicide from such an assessment is highly prone to false positives. Lankford appears to approach these complex matters in a simplistic way. James Christopher Fowler (2012) from the Baylor College of Medicine found that

“…despite decades of research, accurate prediction of suicide and suicide attempts remains elusive. The American Psychiatric Association (APA) Guidelines on Suicidal Behavior (APA, 2003) concluded that predicting suicide appears impossible in large part due to the rarity of suicide, even among high-risk individuals such as psychiatric inpatients. Beyond statistical challenges posed by low base rates, longitudinal prediction using relatively distal variables such as psychiatric diagnoses, demographics, and self reported psychological states consistently yield high false-positive prediction rates, limiting their predictive value (Goldsmith et al., 2002; Rudd et al., 2006; Oquendo, Halberstam, & Mann, 2003). Complicating the assessment strategy is the fact that most studies assess single risk factors, leaving clinicians and expert panels to estimate how risk factors interact to influence outcomes.”[1]

Fowler (2012) also states

“Assessment of psychological vulnerabilities…seemed a logical approach, yet a review of empirical literature yielded mixed results for the most consistently studied psychological constructs of impulsivity/aggression, depression, anxiety, hopelessness, and self consciousness/social disengagement (Conner, Duberstien, Conwell, Seidlitz & Caine, 2001).”[2]

While no assessment is immune to false positives, a less meticulous assessment like Lankford’s is certainly more prone to false positives, especially when emphasis on psychological vulnerabilities has achieved mixed results in other studies. A more careful risk assessment is therefore necessary to differentiate and target those who are at substantial risk of suicide over the masses who possess similar soft traits. For example, past suicide attempt, which is the “[s]trongest consistent predictor for both suicide attempts and completed suicide across many studies”[3] should be examined. When the reviewer asked Lankford how many individuals in his sample of 130 suicide terrorists attempted suicide in the past, he responded: “That’s a good question, but I don’t have the answer on hand.”[4]

Lankford’s “Psychological Autopsy” of Mohamed Atta and other 9/11 Hijackers

Lankford’s “psychological autopsy” of Mohamed Atta demonstrates the weakness described above. Lankford tells us that the

“psychological autopsy has revealed that Atta’s struggles with social isolation, depression, guilt and shame, and hopelessness were very similar to the struggles of those who commit conventional suicide and murder-suicide” (p.83).

What can be concluded from similarities between Atta and those who commit conventional and murder suicides at the level of such indicators? Not much, especially when Atta, according to Lankford himself, never considered “hanging himself, slitting his wrists, or putting a bullet through his brain” (p.75). In other words, Atta had no known past suicide attempts. The implication from Lankford that those traits led Atta to commit suicide is unsubstantiated. Furthermore, Lankford writes that Atta’s individual psychology, and the traits that form it,

“explain why Atta behaved so differently from the millions of Islamic fundamentalists and tens of thousands of terrorists and terrorist leaders who have not carried out suicide attacks – and never will” (p.85).

On the contrary, it is more convincing to believe that many non-suicidal terrorists do possess such traits because the traits are not necessarily factors required for suicide to take effect, and are traits common to millions of people. In addition, Lankford’s “psychological autopsy” is also based on certain misunderstandings and unverified assumptions, which further compromise its quality. For example, in discussing depression, Lankford zeroes in on the symptom of appetite and/or weight changes. He writes that

“…Atta would complain when other members of his group would bring home delicious food, which seems odd considering the lack of a true religious justification for this stance” (p.74).

While Sunni Islam does not prohibit healthy eating, and while Atta exaggerated in expressing displeasure with the act of eating, Islam does teach Muslims to eat in moderation and avoid gluttony. The Qur’an states, “And eat and drink and be not extravagant; surely He does not love the extravagant” (Al-A`raf 7:31). It is probable that Atta had a twisted understanding of Islam, as extremists do, including with the stated verse of the Qur’an and sayings of Prophet Muhammad on eating. If this is true, then contrary to Lankford’s understanding, Atta was displaying extremist religious behavior and was not necessarily depressed. It is odd that Lankford did not entertain this interpretation as a possibility.

Lankford also fails to explain that depression may not always be an important risk factor for suicide according to certain scholars. For example, Matthew Nock, the same 2011 MacArthur Fellow who Lankford uses for support in Chapter-8 when explaining his computer test with “predictive powers”, had a different understanding. Nock says: “But what our data show is depression isn’t a strong predictor of suicide”…[5]. Lankford should mention that suicide scholars have different conclusions from data on predictors of suicide. His book makes it appear as if his explanation is the only way to understand the matter, which is clearly not the case. Similarly, Lankford’s psychological analyses of a few other 9/11 hijackers were based on cursory details, weak suicide risk assessment, and overly ambitious conclusions that they were mentally impaired. Lankford’s “psychological autopsies” lack the required strength to support his opposition to scholars who held the view that the 9/11 hijackers were by and large normal.

Lankford’s Convenience Sample

On pages 49 to 51, Lankford cites the research of Ariel Merari (an Israeli clinical psychologist) on suicide bombings and supports his sample.[6] However, Merari’s sample was a convenience sample that presents a host of problems. Some problems in a convenience sample include sampling bias and the sample being unrepresentative of the population. In other words, there are limits to making inferences and generalizations of the population from such a sample that can be contradicted by results from a more representative sample. The same problems are associated with Lankford’s convenience sample of 130 suicide terrorists (STs). Lankford said,

“The 130 STs described in Ch3 and Appendix A are probably more of an opportunity sample than a geographically representative sample. I just tried to find every case I could.”[7]

Lankford’s sample of 130 suicide terrorists, however, must be taken with a grain of salt. In footnote-61 in Chapter-3, Lankford writes,

“All efforts have been made to reduce the chances of redundancy. However, since some of these individuals are not identified by name, it is possible that a few cases appear on this list more than once” (emphasis added) (pg.208).

In other words, Lankford admits the possibility that his sample could be different in number than the 130 suicide terrorists. When the reviewer read the list of suicide terrorists in Appendix-A, the following was noted:

Unidentified Males: 10
Unidentified Females: 8
Unidentified sixteen-year-old boy: 1
Multiple unidentified attackers: Stated 5 times, each with multiple attackers
Multiple teenage boys: Stated 1 time
(Appendix-A, p.177)

How does one know if the unidentified individuals really existed or not, or if there could be repeats in counting them, as Lankford considered above? While some researchers wish to keep certain names anonymous to protect the identities of attempted suicide terrorists and their families, it also provides leeway to incorporate manufactured “evidence.” Even if the evidence is genuine, the anonymity of the data makes it less convincing to be taken seriously. (As a side note, it is curious why Lankford lists Mir Aimal Kasi as a suicide terrorist. After killing CIA staff in 1993, he fled to Pakistan, was later found, and legally executed in 2002 by the US government. He never attempted suicide, but committed terrorism. After he fled the crime scene, he was in hiding and still did not attempt suicide in any form (Appendix-A, p.180).

An “opportunity” or convenience sample, as explained above, limits inferences and generalizations of the population. Robert Brym, a Canadian political sociologist, expressed this concern with Lankford’s sample as he did with Merari’s sample:

“Are the thousands of suicide attackers who are not in his sample different from those who are included? Could they perhaps have been driven by political conditions and social factors that have nothing to do with their psychological predispositions? We don’t know, and therefore we don’t know whether any of the inferences Dr. Lankford draws from his sample are valid.”[8]

Lankford’s optimism and expectations give him reason to believe that a more representative sample of suicide terrorists would corroborate his findings. Lankford says,

“The broader question is whether or not my findings are representative of what we’d expect to find in STs around the world, and I think they are” (emphasis added).[9]

But to “think” what further research might (or might not) illustrate is not the same as what it would illustrate. While Lankford’s optimism is admirable, it is based on faith rather than hard data. The results of more research need not support Lankford’s expectations. This can only be known once a representative sample is taken and analyzed. Until then, Lankford’s optimism that most suicide terrorists worldwide are suicidal is premature. Lankford is eager to push the cart before the horse, and seems to use evidence to support what he already assumed to be true.

Did Lankford keep an open mind? The discussion so far appears to indicate that he probably had a biased outlook from the outset. This may partially explain why he used a convenience sample. When this reviewer asked Prof. Lankford why he did not use a random sample, he replied that:

“…random sampling could be valuable. But random sampling also inevitably limits the amount of evidence you’re considering, because you’ll be ignoring certain important cases because a random number generator has not selected them. Given the scarcity of evidence currently available, I am hesitant to take any approach which limits the evidence further. In an ideal world, we’d have evidence on thousands of cases, and could then randomly sample and still be analyzing a sample large enough to be valid.”[10]

But random samples address both the known and unknown variables and are likely to give a less biased and more accurate representation of the population. When the reviewer asked Prof. Brym to comment on Lankford’s thoughts, he responded:

“Of course random sampling ignores some cases – the whole point of random sampling is to be able to generalize reliably from some cases to the relevant population. We don’t have to have data on the entire population to make reliable estimates about its characteristics precisely because the sample has been drawn randomly.”[11]

Adam Lankford may have had fewer cases through a random sample, but his research would have been taken more seriously in the view of this reviewer.

Accusing Experts of Being Wrong

Lankford is also critical with studies and statements of many other scholars in the field. He impugns Robert Brym (pp. 5, 35, 50), Scott Atran (pp. 5, 58),[12] Robert Pape (pp. 5, 6, 29, 30, 65), Jerold Post (pp. 5, 35, 66, 109), Ellen Townsend (pp. 5, 27), Riaz Hassan (pp. 5, 29),[13] Adel Sadeq (p. 5), Larry Pastor (pp. 6, 110), and Mohammed Hafez (pp. 6, 109).

For example, he criticizes Ron Paul who used Robert Pape’s research for saying that 95% of suicide attacks are caused by foreign occupation. Lankford writes, “Paul is confusing an indirect cause with a direct cause” (p.161). When the reviewer asked Prof. Lankford what his evidence was that 95% of suicide attacks in the areas/regions Paul referred to refer to suicidal terrorism, he responded:

“As to what I argue is actually going on, I think that’s pretty clear throughout the book. [Zero]/130 who I’ve examined are motivated purely by ideology, including anti-occupation ideology.”[14]

Lankford uses his sample of 130 suicide terrorists to conclude that Pape’s conclusion is incorrect. However, as stated earlier, nobody can confidently use a small convenience sample and speak for the general population of suicide terrorists. A clear limitation of a convenience sample is that it may not at all be representative of the total population of suicide attackers. Also, even if Pape is incorrect in his conclusion, does it make Lankford correct in his conclusion? No. While accusing Pape of not conducting extensive studies of the biographies of suicide attackers in his (Pape’s) study, Lankford did not either. Therefore, how can Lankford know if Pape is wrong or not? He cannot. It is another example of Lankford’s rush to judge a matter without being fully cognizant of the facts.

While portraying Pape as being oblivious of the psychological/suicidal dimension of suicide attackers, Lankford neglects to mention that, according to Pape’s research,

“the data shows less than 5 percent of suicide attackers experience major depression associated with ordinary suicide.”[15]

This is no superficial study. Robert Pape’s groundbreaking study in Cutting the Fuse “surveys and analyzes over 2,200 suicide attacks and 2,500 suicide attackers around the world since 1980, based on over 10,000 documents in English and native languages and nearly every available martyr video in existence.”[16] Lankford either did not understand Pape’s research results or chose to ignore most of it.

Lankford has also been unable to respond to Pape’s excellent point that

“while mental illness and ordinary suicides occur in every country at fairly constant rates, suicide attacks are highly concentrated in specific areas of foreign occupation – typically starting when the occupation begins and sharply declining when it ends – patterns that strongly refute mental illness as a major cause as they confirm the main findings of Cutting the Fuse.”[17]

When Israel left Lebanon in 2000 and suicide attacks by the Lebanese ceased, was it because their “psychological instability” and “suicidal” tendencies also ceased?[18] Lankford’s views are difficult to square with such facts and with common sense.

Subjective Views and Dubious Reasoning

Adam Lankford also forms his own subjective understandings of terms from which he bases his analyses.[19] Regarding heroism, for example, he writes that

“…some suicide terrorists may have legitimately done heroic things during their lives” (p.106)

He then continues,

“But…carrying out a suicide attack wasn’t one of them. Even if you believe in their God, their cause, and their right to fight, the act of killing itself is not heroic – for any reason” (p.106).

However, Lankford’s statement is controversial in light of other definitions of heroism. For example, David Lester, former President of the International Association for Suicide Prevention, said,

“It all depends on your definition of a hero. In my note, I use Zimbardo’s, and I reckon that some suicide bombers could fit his definition” (emphasis added).[20]

Lester further said that

“Restricting the venue to the conflict(s) in the Middle East, it is clear that suicide bombing is part of a war. The acts may, therefore, fit into the military hero category proposed by Zimbardo, but the agents may also be viewed as martyrs since they are working for a clear political and religious cause” (emphasis added).[21]

Lankford fails to mention that being a hero and martyr are not straightforward matters as he portrays. Using the definitions and understandings of other scholars, there would not necessarily be a “myth of martyrdom.” When Lankford is subjective, he sounds more like a propagandist than an objective scholar. Lankford also violates his own approach by using the statements of suicide terrorists arbitrarily. He writes,
“By definition, this…means that their attacks cannot be considered a true ‘sacrifice,’ because the suicide terrorists are not forfeiting ‘something highly valued.’ Even according to their own statements, they are trading something they put low value on (their lives in this transient, unhappy, and corrupt world) for something they value highly (heaven and paradise). There is nothing noble or brave about that kind of bargain” (italics added) (p.8).

Lankford admonishes us not to take the words of suicide terrorists at face value, yet has no problem doing so in their claims of what they attribute high and low value to.  Lankford also classifies “conventional,” “coerced,” “escapist,” and “indirect” people who kill themselves as “suicide terrorists” (p.130). This is a subjective definition of “terrorist” that is not shared by most, or many, terrorism experts who relate such violent acts to mainly political goals. Lankford needs to define these terms before using them. Otherwise, many suicidal people would receive the “terrorist” label.

Lankford’s book includes a discussion of social stigmas associated with suicide, but this is mainly in reference to Arab culture (see, for example, p.26, p.60, p.152, p.160, p.173). However, Lankford exaggerates the link between the social and religious stigmas of suicide with a suicide attack as an escape route. While this is true in some cases, it is not true in most Arab regions. In addition, Lankford fails to consider how family and religion act as social support rather than social pressure. Ziad Kronfol, a psychiatrist at Weill Cornell Medical College in Qatar, says

“I already mentioned stigma and ignorance and their negative impact on mental health. However, factors such as family and religion could have a positive impact. Family ties are strong in the Middle East and this can play a positive role to the extent that they are used as social support rather than social pressure. Similarly, the impact of religion could be positive to the extent that it induces good deeds and protects the person from harm, including self-inflicted harm. In other words, religion can be a protective factor against suicide” (italics added).[22]

By overlooking the positive potential of family and religion in Arab regions as protective factors against suicide, Lankford portrays Arabs in a distorted and negative manner. He also seems to convey that Arabs who do suicide attacks are doing it solely due to negative social stigma without entertaining other possible causes adequately.

Some of Lankford’s statements are, in this reviewer’s opinion, bordering on the absurd. For example, Lankford writes,

“The raw materials for prolonged suicide terrorism campaigns are virtually all here. In the United States, approximately thirty-four thousand people commit suicide each year. So there is plenty of suicidal intent to harness, along with tens of thousands of people who could be coerced into becoming suicidal” (p.166).

This is unrealistic alarmism. Lankford does not provide any evidence to substantiate his claim that “tens of thousands of people…could be coerced into becoming suicidal” in the United States. Furthermore, while explaining that Mohamed Atta was not fully obedient to Osama bin Laden’s orders, as he had prioritized his own preferences instead, Lankford concludes:

“He was not so blindly committed to the cause, so in awe of bin Laden, or so brainwashed by terrorist teachings that he simply did what he was told” (p.66).

Because Atta differed on key matters with bin Laden does not necessarily mean Atta was not committed to the cause. Two or more people can differ in certain respects and still be committed to the same cause. Even more bizarre is Lankford’s allusion that Atta’s cause stemmed from his supposedly psychologically abnormal mind without any convincing evidence to substantiate the claim:

“No – the truth is that Atta had his own agenda. Like many suicidal people, he was not willing to take his own life until he was ready: he wouldn’t be rushed into it, and it needed to be on his terms. In fact, unlike a professional soldier or ideologically committed Green Beret, he was willing to jeopardize the mission’s success in order to meet his own objectives” (p.67).

As discussed earlier, Lankford’s portrayal of Atta as one who had suicidal tendencies is unconvincing. Lankford also misrepresents his sources. For example, he writes,

“Pew Research Center surveys indicate that more than two hundred thousand Americans believe that suicide attacks are “often” or “sometimes” justified” (p.163).

He means Muslim Americans, not “Americans” in general, as his statement appears to imply. Lankford is also unaware of other polls that illustrate what Americans, in general, think about violence against civilians. When Americans were asked if violence against civilian targets, such as bombings, are justified,

“an astounding 24% said they believe that bomb attacks aimed at civilians are ‘often or sometimes justified’ and 6% feel they are ‘completely justified.’ In other words, American Muslims are between four and six times less likely than other Americans to endorse violent acts against civilians” (italics added).[23]

Being fixated on suicide terrorism over terrorism against civilians in general is to prioritize the lesser threat over the greater threat. Mentioning a poll that illustrates the views of Muslim Americans on violence without explaining the polls of Americans in general is to portray Muslim Americans in a skewed manner.


While Lankford’s recommendations in the end of the book are important, most have already been stated by countless scholars before him, and can be included in recommendations to counter terrorism in general. This includes keeping an eye on the Internet and interviewing family members of suicide terrorists. Lankford could have included more recommendations in his last chapter, including Alex Schmid’s recommendations on countering terrorism.[24] Lankford’s recommendation to authorities to monitor psychologically compromised individuals and deduce the probability of suicide terrorism using “every resource they can” (p.167) seems to be a shot in the dark and a terrible waste of valuable resources considering the very low probability of suicide terrorism in the United States, and the difficulties associated with predicting suicide terrorism. Along similar lines, Lankford places too much hope in Matthew Nock’s five-minute computer test, which can detect individuals who have attempted suicide in the past, and predict which individuals are likely to commit suicide within six months (p.171). While praising this technology, Lankford stretches its utility by saying,

“This could be an incredibly powerful security screening tool for identifying anyone who is contemplating a suicide attack” (p.172).

Yet predicting suicide and predicting suicidal attacks is not the same matter, and the link between suicide and a suicide attack is more complex. Furthermore, Lankford acknowledges that “false positives” are still possible:

“Of course, there would be some false positives. Some suicidal individuals who have no terrorist inclinations whatsoever would also be flagged. But encouraging them to get help wouldn’t be a bad thing either.” (p.172).

Lankford is to be reminded that predicting suicidal individuals is already a very difficult task, predicting suicide attackers is even more challenging, and making our security officials turn into mental health specialists may not be such a great idea.

While focusing on the psychological dimension is urgent, Lankford makes the same mistake as those whom he accuses. While he blames suicide terrorism experts of over-emphasizing the political/ideological dimension, Lankford overemphasizes the psychological/behavior dimension over other variables that are just as, if not more, important. While the book makes some interesting points, understanding suicide terrorists as mainly mentally unstable individuals, if followed, may channel the efforts of national security professionals away from more relevant causes and triggers of suicide terrorism, and terrorism in general. This can be dangerous for a country’s national security.

Lankford’s study does allow readers to understand the lives of some terrorists more fully. While useful, extrapolating premature generalizations from an unrepresentative sample can lead to an incorrect understanding of the motivations of most suicide terrorists, as well as of the effective ways to counter them. Moreover, it can also absolve those terrorists who commit premeditated acts of violence to maim and murder by labeling them psychologically unstable. It may be more important to stop the leaders who motivate both psychologically stable and unstable individuals to commit suicide terrorism, and to focus on the nationalist, political, and extremist religious interpretations, motivations, and triggers that Lankford spends only few words discussing in his book.

Martyrdom by suicide terrorists may be a “myth” according to Lankford, but not to many suicide terrorists themselves. Academic scholars too might recall the Thomas theorem (“If men define situations as real, they are real in their consequences” [25]) and define and understand such attacks differently, based on other criteria and contexts. Overall, the book’s conclusions are based on certain unverified assumptions that require further study alongside the many studies that have already been undertaken beyond the psychological/behavior aspects. It is therefore recommended that Lankford’s conclusions not be accepted at this time until further research determines the way forward.

Acknowledgments: The author thanks Adam Lankford, Robert Brym, David Lester, and Riaz Hassan for their correspondence, thoughts, and clarification on issues related to suicide terrorism.

About the author: Zubair Qamar is a staff member with a US Government contractor based in Washington, DC, with most work experience in the United Nations. His research and interests primarily focus on economic development and countering extremism using traditional Sunni Islam.


[1] James Christopher Fowler (2012). ‘Practice Review: Suicide Risk Assessment in Clinical Practice: Pragmatic Guidelines for Imperfect Assessments.’ Psychotherapy. Vol. 49, No. 1, 81–90. Available: http://www.apa.org/pubs/journals/features/pst-49-1-81.pdf

In this paragraph, Fowler (2012) cites:

American Psychiatric Association. (2003). American Psychiatric Association Practice Guideline for the assessment and treatment of suicidal behaviors. Arlington, VA: American Psychiatric Publishing.
Goldsmith, S. K., Pellmar, T. C., Kleinman, A. M., & Bunney, W. E. (2002). Reducing suicide: A national imperative (Committee on Patho- physiology and Prevention of Adolescent and Adult Suicide, Board on Neuroscience and Behavioral Health, Institute of Medicine of the National Academies). Washington, DC: The National Academies Press.
Rudd, M. D., Berman, A. L., Joiner, T. E., Nock MK, Silverman MM, Mandrusiak M, . . . Witte T. (2006). Warning signs for suicide: Theory, research, and clinical applications. Suicide and Life-Threatening Behavior, 36, 255–262. doi:10.1521/suli.2006.36.3.255
Oquendo, M. A., Halberstam, B., & Mann, J. J. (2003). Risk factors for suicidal behavior: Utility and limitations of research instruments. In M. B. First (Ed.), Standardized evaluation in clinical practice (Vol. 22, pp. 103–130). Washington, DC: APPI Press.

[2] Ibid. Fowler. pg. 83. In this paragraph, Fowler (2012) cites:

Conner, K. R., Duberstein, P. R., Conwell, Y., Seidlitz, L., & Caine, E. D. (2001). Psychological vulnerability to completed suicide: A review of empirical studies. Suicide and Life-Threatening Behavior, 31, 367–385. doi:10.1521/suli.31.4.367.22048

[3] Ibid. Fowler. p. 83, Table-2.

[4] Adam Lankford. Personal communication, Feb.15, 2013.

[5] Shari Roan (Sept. 20, 2011). ‘MacArthur fellow will focus on suicide prevention.’ Los Angeles Times. Available: http://articles.latimes.com/2011/sep/20/news/la-heb-macarthur-suicide-20110920

[6] Lankford defends Merari’s sample:

“For instance, sociologists Robert Brym and Bader Araj have claimed that Merari’s sample may not be representative of the larger population of suicide bombers. However, this is a wholly unsubstantiated critique, and Brym and Araj admit that if Merari’s sample is somehow not representative, it is likely in ways that are still ‘unknown’.” (Adam Lankford. The Myth of Martyrdom. pp. 49-50)

Brym comments on Lankford’s criticism of his and Araj’s criticism of Merari’s sample:

“Even Professor Merari acknowledges that he drew a convenience sample (in which cases are chosen based on their accessibility) rather than a representative sample (in which cases are chosen so their characteristics match the characteristics of the population of interest). Our criticism is therefore a matter of fact. To say it is “unsubstantiated” suggests that Dr. Lankford lacks even an elementary understanding of sampling, including the fact that all convenience samples are necessarily unrepresentative in ways that are unknown.’” (Robert Brym. Personal communication, Feb.11, 2013)

Robert Brym says, “Ariel Merari developed the same idea as Lankford in Driven to Death (Oxford University Press, 2010).” (Robert Brym. Personal communication, Feb. 11, 2013)

Even if Merari’s sample was somehow valid, it is interesting to note that Lankford remained silent in his book about the other weaknesses Brym and Bader Araj expressed with regard to Merari’s study:

“First, the interviewers may have sought out signs of depression, leading to overdiagnosis. Overdiagnosis of depression is an increasingly common problem in psychology and psychiatry, and as Merari notes, the view that depression and suicidality lead to suicide bombing in certain contexts has been a pet theory of his for more than 20 years, well before he had any evidence to support the hypothesis….”
“A second potential source of bias resides in the fact that the respondents were political prisoners serving life sentences in Israeli jails. That circumstance may have led them to exhibit a higher rate of depression and suicidality than one would find outside the prison system….”
“Third, it may be relevant that at least six and perhaps more of Merari’s fifteen respondents failed to complete their suicide mission because they lacked the resolve to do so. Some depressive and suicidal tendencies may have resulted not from a preexisting condition so much as the respondents’ failure to execute their plan, thereby disappointing their organizational sponsor, the Palestinian public, and themselves, resulting in a depressed state….”
“Fourth, the interviews and tests were conducted by authority figures who[m] respondents likely viewed as part of the coercive apparatus of an Israeli penal institution. This situation may have led prisoners to respond less than candidly. The present authors find evidence of lack of candour in one of the tests Merari and his associates conducted….” (Robert J. Brym & Bader Araj. (2012). “Are suicide bombers suicidal?” Studies in Conflict & Terrorism, 35:432-443. Available: http://projects.chass.utoronto.ca/brym/suicidal.pdf.
See also: Brym and Araj’s Rejoinder to Merari: Robert J. Brym & Bader Araj. (2012). “Suicidality and suicide bombers: a rejoinder to Merari.” Studies in Conflict & Terrorism, 35:733-739. Available: http://projects.chass.utoronto.ca/brym/merari%20rejoinder.pdf 

[7] Adam Lankford. Personal communication, Feb.13, 2013.

[8] Robert Brym. Personal communication, Feb.11, 2013.

[9] Ibid. Lankford. Personal communication, Feb.13, 2013.

[10] Ibid. Lankford. Personal communication. Feb.13, 2013.

[11] Robert Brym. Personal communication, Feb.17, 2013.

[12] Scott Atran had responded to Lankford in response to his Op-Ed on Dec. 18, 2012:

“Mr. Lankford argues that suicide terrorists like the 9/11 attackers or other jihadis share a triad of psychological peculiarities: mental health problems, sense of personal victimization, desire for glory. I’ve interviewed failed and would-be suicide terrorists, their families, and friends across Eurasia and North Africa. Apart from desire for glory, highly developed among jihadis and their ilk but less so among lone-wolf killers like the Newton murderer, there is little similarity. Field interviews and controlled psychological experiments by my research teams and others indicate that members of violent extremist groups are parochial altruists whose personal identity is fused with that of their primary reference group, often a small network of action-oriented friends. They are motivated by a cause (but so are millions of others who fail to act), yet kill and die for and with their friends and fellow travelers (which is why only a very few act, and always together, even if only via internet). They show no reliable history of psychopathy, suicidal tendencies, sociopathy or any of the other psycho-social problems frequently associated with lone-wolf killers. Our research also shows that personal humiliation and victimization are negative predictors of martyrdom. Rather, moral outrage over perceived threats and injustice by an outgroup toward family, friends and ingroup drives violence. We must make every effort to understand what motivates mass murder in order to stop it, but simple and superficial comparisons will not assist.”
(Scott Atran. Personal communication, Feb.10, 2013).

[13] When this reviewer asked Riaz Hassan for his thoughts on Lankford’s criticism, he responded, “I don’t know much of Dr Lankford’s work. But his contention that suicide bombers are suicidal goes against…the evidence about the phenomenon” (Riaz Hassan. Personal communication, Feb.11, 2013).

[14] Ibid. Lankford. Personal communication, Feb.13, 2013.

[15] Ibid. Pape.

[16] The quote is from Robert Pape’s response to Lankford in the Huffington Post:

“It is unfortunate that Adam Lankford has gone ad hominem in criticizing my work, but readers should not doubt the commitment and credibility of the scholarship behind Cutting the Fuse: The Explosion of Global Suicide Terrorism and How To Stop It published by the University of Chicago Press. The research represents years of work by a research team at the University of Chicago, was funded by the Department of Defense and the Carnegie Corporation of New York, has been endorsed by the both heads of the 9/11 Commission, the current Chief of the U.S. Navy and numerous other prominent policy makers and scholars, and published by one of the leading university presses in the country after a lengthy peer-review process.
“Cutting the Fuse surveys and analyzes over 2,200 suicide attacks and 2,500 suicide attackers around the world since 1980, based on over 10,000 documents in English and native languages and nearly every available martyr video in existence. The analysis examines the data as a whole and conducts detailed studies of every important suicide terrorist campaign and numerous studies of the specific motives of individuals (eg, the 9/11 Hamburg cell, July 2005 London bombers, and Moroccans who carried out suicide attacks in Iraq).
“The overwhelming picture that emerges is that foreign occupation is the main cause of suicide terrorism, accounting for over 95 percent of the thousands of attacks since 1980. Of course, this finding is startling. It would be much easier to come to terms with the phenomenon of suicide terrorism, which produces devastating attacks like 9/11, if it could be explained as the result of psychological illness carried out by emotionally disturbed individuals as Dr. Adam Lankford would have us believe. We do like our villains to be monsters and it may be true that mental illness is responsible for some suicide attacks. However, the percentage is low; the data shows less than 5 percent of suicide attackers experience major depression associated with ordinary suicide. And, while mental illness and ordinary suicides occur in every country at fairly constant rates, suicide attacks are highly concentrated in specific areas of foreign occupation — typically starting when the occupation begins and sharply declining when it ends — patterns that strongly refute mental illness as a major cause as they confirm the main findings of Cutting the Fuse.
“The strength of this scholarship and the transparent basis for its conclusions has led many in Washington and around the world to take the findings seriously. If, as we believe, the evidence shows that foreign occupation is the main cause of suicide terrorism, than Americans and other policy makers should take this seriously into account and pursue future courses of action accordingly.
“Ultimately, readers should judge for themselves, either by turning to Cutting the Fuse or looking at the extensive documentation available at the website of the Chicago Project on Security and Terrorism.”  (Robert Pape. (Sept.23, 2011). ‘Response to Adam Lankford.’ The Huffington Post. Available: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/robert-a-pape/suicide-terrorism-_b_977688.html)

[17] Ibid (Pape).

[18] This question is asked by the author, based on Pape’s following point: “But since Israel withdrew its army from Lebanon in May 2000, there has not been a single Lebanese suicide attack.” Robert Pape. (2010). ‘It’s the Occupation, Stupid.’ Foreign Policy. Available: http://www.foreignpolicy.com/articles/2010/10/18/it_s_the_occupation_stupid

[19] Of Chapter-5 of Lankford’s book (What Real Heroes Are Made Of), Lankford says, it “is certainly the most subjective section” of his book. (Ibid. Lankford. Personal communication, Feb.13, 2013).

[20] David Lester. Personal communication, Feb. 8, 2013.

[21] David Lester. (2010). ‘Are Suicide Bombers Heroes?’ Psychological Reports, 106, 2, pp. 499-500.

[22] Mohammed Yahia. (July 24, 2012). ‘Dealing with Mental Illness in the Middle East.’ Nature Middle East. Available: http://www.nature.com/nmiddleeast/2012/120724/full/nmiddleeast.2012.103.html

[23] Doug Saunders. (2012). The Myth of the Muslim Tide. Vintage Books. New York, NY. pp. 86-87.

[24] Alex P. Schmid. (2012). ‘Twelve Rules for Preventing and Countering Terrorism.’ Perspectives on Terrorism. Vol.6. Issue 3. p.77.

[25] W.I. Thomas and D.S. Thomas. The Child in America. New York: Knopf, 1928, pp.571-572.

– Militants and Perverted Fantasies.

(© Zubair Qamar 2013)

“Muslim” militants and Islamophobes portray terrorists as loyal to their supposed cause: To fight in the cause of Islam, in the cause of Allah, and to suffer with honor any consequences. However, examining the lives of well known militants unveils a different reality.

For example, Khalid Sheikh Muhammad’s (KSM) behavior is far from what the Qur’an and Sunnah teach. Of KSM, The Guardian notes:

“Although Mohammed insists that he is a believer, he is not a strict Muslim, and while the September hijackers lived in cheap lodgings, he stayed in plush hotels. In contrast to the spartan lifestyle of Osama bin Laden and his followers, he was flamboyant, spent lavishly, and is known to joke with colleagues to ease the pressure on him and on them”[1]

KSM’s lack of humility and simplicity is not the only issue. He is quite impure from an Islamic standpoint.

“In the Philippines he was a frequent visitor to Manila’s red light district, including its karaoke bars and mirrored go-go clubs, where he introduced himself to women as a wealthy businessman from Qatar. Mohammed’s womanizing included phoning a dentist and telling her: “Look out of the window and look up.”’

What she saw was Mohammed and his nephew and protege Ramzi Ahmed Yousef waving from a helicopter hovering above her clinic and displaying a banner saying

“I love you.”[2]

Terrorist escapades with women and lying about being a wealthy businessman. Neither reflects Islamic behavior. Richard Miniter sheds more light on KSM and Rami Yousef’s playboy lives “at odds with Islamic Law”:

“While planning a series of bombings designed to create an Islamic superstate, KSM and Ramzi Yousef enjoyed a playboy life in the Philippines, at odds with Islamic law. They hung out nearly every night at strip clubs, where Arminda Costudio, a waitress, remembers KSM’s ‘chubby’ fingers and fat wads of cash….Another favorite haunt was an alcohol-serving karaoke bar on A. Mabini Street in Manila. They enjoyed music and alcohol while watching the overhead television screen. Bin Laden would not have approved. KSM didn’t care. He had his own financing and made his own rules.”[3]

Women, and now alcohol, and all the things that come with it at strip clubs and karaoke bars. A twisted love of lust while desiring to make a bomb to kill innocent civilians to make a so-called Islamic state? It is probable that their making the bomb was an escape for these terrorists  to soothe their guilty conscience for all the perverted and un-Islamic things they did.

KSM and Ramzi Yousef are not the only warriors of worldly lust. Anwar al-Awlaki is reported to have solicited prostitutes in his life [4], and The Telegraph reports that Muhammad Atta, the:

 “leader of the September 11 terrorists and four other hijackers made several trips to Las Vegas over the summer to hold meetings, gamble and be entertained by topless dancers.”[5]

It is worth examining this matter at length to give us a better understanding about what these militants are really like, especially when they claim to be the best representatives of Islam:

“According to the FBI, Mohamed Atta, the pilot of the first hijacked aircraft that crashed into the World Trade Centre, and his accomplices spent some of their time in Las Vegas at the Olympic Bar, a downtown strip club.

Lotfi Riassi, a pilot arrested in London on suspicion of teaching four hijackers how to fly, also stayed in the gambling city in Nevada. Investigators believe the September 11 plot was developed there.

But the Muslim fundamentalists, who supposedly believed that their terrorism would earn them the pleasures of eager virgins in heaven, also sampled some of the forbidden pleasures of America’s capital of decadence.”[6]

Reporter Harnden then tells us about a stripper named Samantha who did a lap dance for one of the terrorists:

“Samantha, a 29-year-old stripper, told the San Francisco Chronicle, that she had been paid to lap dance for Marwan al-Shehhi, the pilot of the second aircraft to hit the World Trade Centre.”

Breathtaking. And it is not over yet. Samantha had something to say:

“Some big-man terrorist, huh?”,

she said as she took a break at the Olympic Garden Topless Cabaret.

“He spent about $20 for a quick dance and didn’t tip more.”

She remembered the terrorist staring blankly at her as she swung her hips inches from his face. “I’m glad he’s dead with the rest of them, and I don’t like feeling something like that,” she said. “But he wasn’t just a bad tipper – he killed people.”

“Some of the girls here remember a couple of those guys coming in here in August, too. For me, what I remembered most was the guy with the beard. You don’t forget a face in this business.”

What was going on in Marwan al-Shehhi’s mind when Samantha

 “swung her hips inches from his face.”

How is al-Shehhi supposed to reconcile dying in the name of Allah with having American hips swinging inches from his face?

This brotherly absorption in materialism by terrorists was shared by others of their kind:

“The FBI has told business owners that in addition to Atta and al-Shehhi, Nawaq Alhamzi, Ziad Jarrahi, and Hani Hanjour all stayed in Las Vegas off and on between May and August. The group included a hijacker from each of the four flights.”

And the pattern makes itself evident when examining other terrorists. Pornography was reportedly found in Osama bin Laden’s compound in Abottabad.

Apparently Nidal Malik Hassan had a humble lap-dance at a strip joint just six days before the Fort Hood massacre.[7]

Imam Samudra, “overall commander of the Bali bombings,” also contributed to unIslamic behavior:

“When investigators seized his laptop computer, they found a wealth of evidence showing connections to Al Qaeda as well as hours of pornographic images of Barbie-doll-like women downloaded from Western Web sites.”

Naked women, and from the “West”? The same “West” that they condemn as filthy, immoral, and decadent? The same “West” they are waging a supposed “holy” struggle against? Where is the “holiness” in their struggle?

Pornography was even found by security forces in Taliban hideouts in Pakistan. Pakistan’s Daily Times reported that

“Security forces…seized porn films from the hideouts of the Taliban during various search operations” according to Pakistan’s Interior Minister at the time, Rehman Malik.[8]

Militants were also guilty of “embedding coded material” in child porn:

“Scotland Yard fear the Islamic fundamentalists are embedding coded material in depraved pictures of children and using paedophile websites as a secure way of exchanging information. The Sun continued, “The sick link came to light after child pornography was found in anti-terror swoops on addresses across the UK – and during major investigations in Italy and Spain.”[9]

It all really makes one wonder what the “Dirty Bomber” really means. And then we hear about the “Underwear Bomber.” It certainly does not sound like Islam but sick urges with sexual undertones. Militants are not looking forward to virgins in heaven. They want them here and now. Apparently even non-virgins will do.  Pornography-prone mujahideen among the noble salaf-us-salih never existed, so who are these terrorists emulating?

72 Virgins and “Martyrdom”

Speaking of heavenly virgins, it is a good time to settle the issue. Why all the obsession from militants and martyr wannabees for 72 virgins?  Shaykh Faraz Khan says the 72 virgins issue is from an authentic hadeeth of Prophet Muhammad  in the Sunnah of Tirmidhi. The Prophet says:

“The martyr has six unique traits: he is forgiven immediately; he sees his seat in Paradise and he is saved from the punishment of the grave; he is granted safety from the great terror [of the Day of Judgment]; a crown of honor is placed upon his head, a ruby of which is better than this life and all it contains; he is married to 72 maidens of Paradise; and he is allowed to intercede for 70 relatives.”

Shaykh Faraz Khan, an orthodox Sunni scholar, explains:

“Notice that there is no particular emphasis in the hadith on the 72 maidens – it is one of several types of reward given to the martyr. Likewise, Muslims do not go about their day-to-day lives thinking of the maidens of Paradise; they are not obsessed with it the way they are often made out to be.”[10]

But it is the militants who seem to be the most obsessed about it. It is interesting that of the many rewards in Paradise, militants so frequently single out heavenly virgins at the exclusion of other rewards mentioned in the Qur’an and Sunnah just before they kill themselves in the name of “martyrdom.” Their intentions and efforts show a frustrated lust for women than having a genuine desire to experience the many rewards in Paradise as a real believer would.

Even more bizarre, their desire for heavenly virgins occurs just before they commit the haraam act of suicide – as if suicide, in what they wrongly understand as “martyrdom,” will give them any reward, much less the reward of heavenly virgins.  These lunatics play with Allah’s Words in the Qur’an and are experts at making a mockery of Islam’s Holy Book and Sunni tradition. They do not respect or fear Allah when they make the haraam (forbidden) halaal (permitted) by making the haraam act of suicide synonymous with the act of martyrdom. Shaykh Faraz Khan explains:

“Also, it is worth mentioning that what is meant by “martyr” in the Islamic tradition is not what is commonly portrayed in Western media, namely, one who dies committing an act of terrorism – that is merely propaganda, and it is a lie. Terrorism has no place in Islam, and Islamic scholars have unequivocally condemned it in the harshest manner, time and time again.

The concept of martyrdom when understood properly is something valued by all religions and societies as noble and chivalrous, as it represents the ultimate sacrifice one can make to serve his Creator and his fellow man. In American history, for example, figures such as Patrick Henry are praised as courageous and honorable for statements such as, “Give me liberty or give me death.”[11]

It is worth pausing for a moment to understand – and the militants should pay heed – that because one  thinks one is doing “martyrdom” does not necessarily make it so. This should make anyone think twice before attempting martyrdom because it requires the purest of intentions in the correct Islamically approved circumstances.

An example of a person who thought he was a martyr, but was not, is clearly illustrated in a hadith. The fact that this mistake can occur with the mistaken “martyr” being dragged to hellfire instead of heaven should make every terrorist pause and reflect: “What if I am hell-bound?”

[3] Richard Miniter. Mastermind. Pg.88.

– The Sin of “Takfir” in Islam.

(© Zubair Qamar 2013)

Takfir, or to declare someone a disbeliever, is a heinous sin in Islam, reminiscent of the Kharijites in early Islam who declared the Companions of Prophet Muhamamd to be disbelievers, and misinterpreted Qur’anic verses to justify their fanaticism.

Shaykh Faraz Khan, a contemporary Sunni scholar, says:

“One of the greatest tribulations (fitan) of our times is the prevalence of some Muslims deeming other Muslims as disbelievers (takfir). This is a catastrophe, whose harm is most clearly manifested in the senseless killing of innocent Muslims by extremists.”[1]

It is, in fact, easy to become a Muslim. If there is certainty that one believes in Islam, but doubt as to whether such a person renounced Islam or not, the former takes precedence over the latter since in Islam a state of certainty takes precedence over a state of uncertainty. For the same reason, when a Muslim, for example, purifies him- or herself and is unsure of whether he or she nullified the purification, then he or she is considered to be in a state of purity. To accuse someone of being out of Islam’s ambit requires concrete proof – not hunches and conjecture. As explained, that is why Muslim scholars in Sunni tradition were reluctant to excommunicate others.

Can any Muslim declare another Muslim of being outside the pale of Islam? No. This is the prerogative of a qualified Muslim Judge. Shaykh Nuh Keller explains:

“In Muslim society, such a judgment [of belief versus unbelief of someone] is the business of the qadi or Islamic judge alone, and only because he has to. In cases where he must distinguish between the kufr or iman of a nominally Muslim individual, he does so because of earthly rights and penalties entailed by such a judgement, such as that an apostate’s marriage to a Muslim woman is null and void, the meat he slaughters is not lawful to eat, and his property belongs to the Muslim common fund (bayt al-mal), and so forth.”

Shaykh Nuh Keller continues – and this is very important:

“Moreover, these are the responsibility of the Islamic government to implement, and in the absence of such a government, ordinary Muslims may neither judge nor carry out the worldly consequences of such legal rulings because they have no authority to do so, for Islam does not permit vigilante or mob “justice.” Ordinary Muslims other than the qadi are not required to judge the faith in the heart of anyone who has spoken the Shahada or Testification of Faith, with the possible exception of someone married to a spouse who may have left Islam.”

So, if a judge has the prerogative to excommunicate someone from Islam – and only when the evidence is conclusive – this stresses the abomination and unlawfulness of Muslim laypeople to play excommunicator.

How does an Islamic judge determine the belief or disbelief of a person in Islam? Imam Hamza Yusuf, a contemporary Sunni scholar, says:

“Six conditions have to be fulfilled in order for a judge to rule concerning a person’s faith: Intention; Absence of Coercion; Level of Knowledge; Absence of Esoteric Interpretation; Mental Ability to Reason; and, Proof of Faith.”

Sunni scholars say that if the apparently kufr statements of someone can be interpreted to be other than kufr, then this should be done. The famous Hanafi scholar, Ibn Abideen, as quoted by contemporary Sunni scholar Shaykh Gibril F Haddad, said:

“The Fatwa of Kufr is not given to a Muslim when his words have the possibility of being interpreted in better (Hasan) manner (not amounting to Kufr)”.[2]

Moreover, if someone utters actual kufr, instead of such a person being declared a disbeliever, he or she should be taught the correct understanding of Islam and be corrected politely.

Today what we commonly find instead is so-called Muslims not only not giving the benefit of the doubt in terms of an alternative interpretation to what sounds like kufr, but to declare such people apostates on the spot, with some even brutally killing them without considering any leeway and leniency that Islam provides.

Verbal “corrections” that happen to be provided by some so-called Muslims are harsh and domineering, without wisdom (`aql) or etiquette (adaab), in strict violation of the example of Prophet Muhammad. A lot of times, these “corrections” result in more harm than good, and have little to no effect on the person listening. Also, no Muslim knows whether a living person will go to Heaven or Hell because belief can undergo drastic change in one’s lifetime.

The upshot/point is that a person who has heard the call to Islam and rejected it does not necessarily mean that the person will necessarily go to Hell. Abu Sufyan, for example, opposed Prophet Muhammad and “fought” him “for almost twenty years, yet never did the Prophet despair of the possibility that Abu Sufyan would accept faith.”[3] How different is this from the understanding of extremists and other militants who have already judged the outcome of the salvation of living human beings when they do not even possess such knowledge. Imam Hamza Yusuf said:

“The majority of scholars have prohibited damning an individual, whether Muslim or not, because only God knows a person’s ultimate status.”[4]

King Abdullah II bin Al-Hussein of Jordan issued the Amman Message on November 9th, 2004 for unity and tolerance among Muslims and was supported by 200 Muslim scholars from over 50 countries. This statement, perhaps the biggest demonstration of unity and tolerance among Muslims of diverse sects, stated that it was impermissible for Muslims to declare other Muslims “apostate”:

“Whosoever is an adherent to one of the four Sunni schools (Mathahib) of Islamic jurisprudence (Hanafi,Maliki, Shafi‘i and Hanbali), the two Shi‘i schools ofIslamic jurisprudence (Ja‘fari and Zaydi), the Ibadi school of Islamic jurisprudence and the Thahiri school of Islamic jurisprudence, is a Muslim. Declaring that person an apostate is impossible and impermissible. Verily his (or her) blood, honour, and property are inviolable. Moreover, in accordance with the Shaykh Al-Azhar’s fatwa, it is neither possible nor permissible to declare whosoever subscribes to the Ash‘ari creed or whoever practices real Tasawwuf (Sufism) an apostate. Likewise, it is neither possible nor permissible to declare whosoever subscribes to true Salafi thought an apostate.”

“Equally, it is neither possible nor permissible to declare as apostates any group of Muslims who believes in God and the pillars of faith, who acknowledges the five pillars of Islam, and does not deny any necessarily self-evident tenet of religion.”[5]

[2] Takfir – Anathematizing. Gabriel F. Haddad quotes Ibn Abideen “Radd al-Muhtar” (English translation?). Qibla for the Islamic Sciencies: http://qa.sunnipath.com/issue_view.asp?HD=1&ID=216&CATE=13

[3] Imam Hamza Yusuf article on Who are the Desbelievers?. Pg. 42. http://www.mujahideenryder.net/pdf/WhoAretheDisbelievers.pdf

[4] Imam Hamza Yusuf article on Who are the Desbelievers?. Pg. 42. http://www.mujahideenryder.net/pdf/WhoAretheDisbelievers.pdf

[5] TheAmman Message (cite properly). I have the book.

– Defending Sunni Tradition From Today's Kharijites and Other Extremists –