Islam and Terrorism:
A Closer Look

Dr. Warren F. Larson

Warren Larson is Academic Program Director and Associate Professor of Muslim Studies at Columbia International University. He served as a missionary in Pakistan for 23 year and has written extensively on Islam, including: Islamic Ideology and Fundamentalism in Pakistan: Climate for Conversion to Christianity?  He lives with his wife in Columbia, South Carolina.

Ever since 9/11we have been bombarded with generalizations as to the peaceful nature of Islam: “Islam is traditionally a religion of tolerance.”  “Our enemy is fanaticism not Islam.”  “Jihad does not mean holy war.”  “Islam calls for racial and religious harmony not violence.”


It is not surprising such generalizations have confused a number of people as to another “face” of Islam they have witnessed—militancy. For a fuller understanding of how Islam sees itself, we will not only look at the Qur’an, but at other Islamic roots and sources. We will then consider practical suggestions as to how Christians might respond biblically to the current threat of Islamic terrorism. But first it will be helpful to see how one extremist has influenced an entire generation of Muslims.


Journey of a Militant Muslim

Syed Qutb has been called martyr, ideologue and theoretician of Islamic fundamentalism—an indication of sufferings he endured and the way his radical thinking shaped the movement. Such terms also reveal his total faith in Islam, and how much he was loved and respected by those who witnessed his moral courage and intellectual capacity.


He was born in 1906, in the village of Qaha, in the province of Asyut, Egypt. His father was a well-to-do farmer and respected member of the community. Yet with a dark complexion, slight build, and frail disposition, the boy was not at all striking or attractive. Besides, he was naturally timid and sensitive.


Nevertheless what he lacked in physical appearance he more than compensated for in intellect. By the time he was ten he had already memorized the entire Muslim holy book. This thorough knowledge of the Qur’an early in life proved to be the beginning of a life totally dedicated to Islam.


At age thirteen Qutb was sent to Cairo for schooling. There he quickly displayed a remarkable penchant for English literature and read everything within sight. Upon graduation from Dar al-Ulum (House of Knowledge) he had become well-acquainted with the “Westernizing tendencies” of many Egyptians. As a result of his mental prowess, he was appointed inspector in the Ministry of Education, but later abandoned this prestigious post in order to write. Thus, he provided a “system” whereby Egyptian nationalism could be combated. He felt Nasser’s bid for the Arab world was a challenge to Islam so he gave fellow Muslims in Egypt, and elsewhere, sound reasons for rejecting it.


As to literary achievement, Qutb resembles Maududi of Pakistan. He wrote a total of twenty-four books and numerous magazine articles. Several of his publications have been translated into English by the International Islamic Federation of Student Organizations in Kuwait. His books have also been popular with Black Muslims in the United Starts and influenced Iranians to overthrow the Shah.


His major publication was an interpretive study of the Qur’an. Again, he was influenced by Maududi in that he held to Qur’anic “literalism.”  His thirty-two volume commentary is famous for homiletical content, simplicity of style and clarity of thought. It has sold thousands of copies, and today is being used as a standard in the privacy of Muslim homes and the public arena of mosques all across the Arab world.


In 1949, Qutb went to the United States and studied educational administration for two years, but his exposure to American life turned him totally against the West. First, partially because of a swarthy complexion, he sensed deep racial prejudice. Second, he observed overwhelming support for Israel in the newspapers. For Qutb this was a combination of personal and national rejection.


Moreover, like many of his Arab contemporaries, he experienced a profound sense of displacement. He felt the British had denied the Arab right to self-determination at the end of World War II and the United States supported and perpetuated this deplorable crime. Eventually his bitterness grew to the point that he hated and despised everything for which the West stood.


This negative reaction included all Western methods, models, values and styles as dangerous and harmful to Muslims and non-Muslims. So he began calling fellow-Muslims to total and irrevocable rejection of Christians and Jews whom he viewed as synonymous with the “West.”  Based on his own Qur’anic interpretation he forbade contact with “people of the book” because he felt they led Muslims astray.


Furthermore, for Qutb there was no difference between a communist and capitalist West. Both were enemies and harmful to Muslims. He concluded that communism and capitalism would surely fall for their failure to protect and provide for the good of humanity. Rooted in human origins, they were doomed, whereas the divinely-revealed Islam would triumph in the end. Interestingly his prediction—at least in reference to the fate of communism—has already taken place.


After his brief, but unfortunate stay in the United States, he joined the Muslim Brotherhood and continued his literary influence. Although he learned from Maududi, he went further into militancy than the Pakistani leader ever intended—or even dared to go. Consequently, he was arrested along with others for extremist views, and for attempting to assassinate Gamil Abd Nasser. The sentence was fifteen years—hard labor.


Qutb was released after ten years—now a victim of deep hardness and bitterness from the torture he had endured. What he once offered as advice now became rigid dogma. He spoke openly of violence for the good of the ummah (Muslim community) and enjoined jihad (struggle for Islam) against forces that resist by force. In this spirit he wrote his most controversial book, Maalim fi al tariq (Milestones), a publication that precipitated his re-arrest in 1965. Qutb was executed in 1966 by the Egyptian government and buried in an unmarked grave. He had become “Martyr of the Islamic Revival.”


Obviously, Qutb does not speak for all Muslims, but he does speak for some of them. His pilgrimage from reformer to radical sheds light on the world of militant Islam and provides a context for what follows.


Discussing the Main Issues

The Sources of Islam

Islam is more than the Qur’an as all through history Muslims have drawn on several sources: the Qur’an, the Hadith (canonical Tradition), ijma (Islamic community consensus) and qiyas (analogy). By community consensus, these four sources form the basis of the Shari’ah, God’s holy law and the manifestation of his will and guidance for all humankind. The Shari’ah moulds Muslims into “the best of peoples, evolved for mankind” (Qur’an, 3:110).


At the heart of the Shari’ah is first the Qur’an, God’s verbally inspired, eternal and unalterable Word revealed to Muhammad and the Muslim community. Next is the Hadith, God’s inspired accounts of the words and actions of Muhammad, who was the recipient of the Qur’an. As such the Hadith serves as an indispensable commentary for Muslim understanding and interpretation of the Qur’an. It is also the “path” for all Muslims to follow because Muslims must obey God and their Prophet. These sources give us a self-understanding of Islam.


Peaceful and/or Militant Islam

Peaceful Islam does in fact exist. The Qur’an says:  “Let there be no compulsion in religion” (Qur’an, 2:256); and, “… nearest among them in love to the believers wilt thou find those who say, ‘We are Christians’” (Qur’an, 5:82).


Militant Muslims supplement Qur’anic peaceful verses with militant references: “Fighting is prescribed upon you …“(Qur’an, 2:216). “... Fight and slay the pagans wherever ye find them … “(Qur’an, 9:5).

Fight those who believe not in Allah nor the Last Day, nor hold that forbidden which hath been forbidden by Allah and his Apostle, nor acknowledge the religion of truth, (even if they are) of the People of the Book, until they pay the jizya with willing submission, and feel themselves subdued” (Qur’an, 9:29).


As in the above verses, Muslim theologians have appealed to their “Doctrine of Abrogation.”  Thus, in this case, the “Sword Verse” (Qur’an, 9:5) has abrogated other peaceful verses because it is chronologically later. In Milestones, ideologue of fundamentalist Islam in Egypt, Syed Qutb argues strongly for jihad from select Qur’anic verses (Qur’an 4:74-76; 8:38-40; 9:29-32). These passages alone, he states, suffice to justify the universal and permanent dimensions of Jihad (pp. 53-76). See The Encyclopedia of Islam (2nd edition) for a detailed explanation of this doctrine.


Pre and Post-Hijrah (“Flight”)

Islam’s official calendar dates from the Hijrah (A.D. 622), when Muhammad emigrated from his home town in Mecca to Medina. Muslims have divided the Qur’an into Meccan and Medinan surahs (chapters). For thirteen years prior to the Hijrah Muhammad spread the message of Islam among the Arabs in and around Mecca. His followers were few and mostly of low status. Throughout this period Muhammad received messages, telling him to endure the rejection and to remember his role as only a “Warner,” to proclaim God’s message, and to graciously reason with opponents. He was even commanded to “Repel evil with that which is best” (Qur’an, 23:96). After the Hijrah, Muhammad continued on in the prophetic role, but assumed political leadership of the first Islamic state. It is here that fighting becomes the next stage. It is here that religion and state go hand-in-hand.


The Islamic Concept of Peace

Does Islam mean peace?  Muslims want us to believe that Islam is a peaceful religion, claiming that the Arabic word “Islam” means “peace.”  The word for peace in Arabic is “Salaam,” not “Islam.”  The word “Islam” is a related word, but means “to surrender, or to make peace by laying down one’s arms in submission” (military use), or “slave submission to one’s master—Allah (religious use). To claim that “Islam” means “peace” is just one more attempt to mislead the public. The Islamic “peace” can only come when all people submit to the rule of God and obey his Apostle.


The Islamic Concept of Jihad

Muslim leaders are quick to explain that Jihad does not mean “Holy War,” but rather to strive in the cause of Allah by study and personal devotion. This is true if only the literal meaning of the Arabic word is considered. Muhammad’s exhortation to Jihad however is almost always in the context of fighting infidels (pagans), Jews and Christians. It is this meaning that Jihad is given in the commentaries and classical writings of Islam. Jews, Christians and munaffiqin (hypocrites), who do not convert are allowed to live, but they must pay jizya, a protection tax levied on “People of the Book.”


Islamic sources frequently refer to fighting and holy war. In fact, nearly one-third of Volume 4, of the nine-volume, canonized collection of Bukhari’s Hadith, deals with Jihad. The Qur’an says Jihad receives the highest reward and is the surest way to paradise if the “fighter” dies: “Think not of those who are slain in Allah’s way as dead … they live … in the presence of their Lord” (Qur’an, 3:169). “… To him who fighteth in the cause of Allah … soon shall we [God] give him a reward” (Qur’an, 4:74). Ibn Ishaq, the oldest biographer on the Arabian Prophet, says “… [when] the Arabs knew that they could not fight the apostle … they entered into God’s religion ‘in batches’ as God said, coming to him from all directions” (p. 628).


Let it be clearly stated, however, that it is wrong to say that Muslims have always converted non-Muslims through the sword. In the United States, for example, there are purportedly between two and three million converts to Islam, and none of them converted by the sword. In other lands Muslim merchants and Sufis have been successful Muslim missionaries. Moreover, Islamic law clearly forbids Muslims to force “People of the Book” (Christians and Jews) to become Muslims. Yet, under dhimmi status, with the right to practice their religion as long as they remain loyal citizens, they are considered second-class citizens.


The Apostate and Punishment

As noted, Muslims particularly in the West, say that Islam proclaims freedom of religion. They quote 2:256 in the Qur’an: “Let there be no compulsion in religion.”  But does this exhaust Islam’s commentary on the subject?  No doubt Jews and Christians can remain in the religion they were born into, but a Muslim is not free to abandon Islam and embrace another religion. One of Islam’s most respected theologians and prolific writers in the last century, Pakistani Abu’l Ala Maududi, insists that both Qur’an and Hadith demand an apostate’s execution. He quotes the Qur’an (9:11-12) and the canonized Hadith: “Any person, i.e. Muslim, who has changed his religion, kill him” (Al-Bukhari, Vol. 9, p. 45). The Islamic scholar, Majid Khadduri, agrees that Qur’anic commentaries say a believer who turns back from his religion must be killed if he persists in disbelief (p. 150).


Persecution of Christians

In the Middle Ages, Islamic governments were usually more tolerant of Jews and Christians, than Christian governments were of Jews and Muslims. But today, in Muslim nations from Nigeria to Indonesia, many Christians are suffering persecution because of their faith. On Sunday, October 28t h, Islamic militants brutally killed sixteen Pakistani Christians and wounded six others as they sang the last hymn in a worship service. Again, on Sunday, March 19th, grenades thrown into the midst of worshipers in Islamabad left five Christians dead and nearly fifty wounded.


Several hours away in the city of Multan, Ayub Masih, who has been accused of insulting the Prophet Muhammad under the “Blasphemy Law,” languishes in solitary confinement in a four-by-six foot cell. In jail for five and half years, the last four on death row, he may hang—though the charges were fabricated because Muslims wanted to oust Christian settlers in order to take over their land.


Islam is More than a Religion

Whether all Muslims are aware of it or not, Islam is not a religion in the same way religion is understood in the West. Islam is much more than a religion. A leading expert on the history of Arabs and Islam was the late Lebanese-American scholar, Philip Hitti, who taught at Princeton University for nearly fifty years. One of his books has three parts: Islam as Religion, Islam as State, and Islam as Culture. Muslims are tied together as a homogenous unit regardless of geographic or racial diversity. This makes Islam a socio-cultural and relgio-economic political system.


Islam’s Global Agenda

Muhammad taught his followers that all religions before him, including Judaism and Christianity, were good in their time, but that Islam is the final and universal religion. Where Islamic law has been instituted, no other religion is tolerated, unless it agrees to submit to Islamic rule. Today, more than forty nations have a majority population of Muslims, and Muslim leaders have spoken of their goal to spread Islam in the West until Islam becomes a dominant, global power.


Choosing Right Responses

Self-evaluation and Repentance

Whenever we face calamity, the Bible instructs us to humble ourselves, repent of our own sins and turn to God (II Chronicles 7:14). As horrific as the September events were, we must recall the words of our Lord: “Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? (Matthew 7:3). Or, “… unless you repent, you too will perish” (Luke 13:1-5). America is the world’s number one advertiser of a life-style allowing adultery, homosexuality, pornography, and abortion. And far too many professing Christians participate in these sins. As the church of Christ we need to repent and cry out for God’s mercy.


Trust in God

Christians need to trust that God is in control and will bring good out of evil in these turbulent times: “And we know that in all things God works for the good to those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose” (Romans 8:28). After immense suffering, Joseph was able to say to his brothers: “You meant evil against me; but God meant it for good” (Genesis 50:2). It has been refreshing to see how this generation, often bent on selfishness, has banded together to sacrifice and service. Since the arrest of Christian aid workers in Afghanistan for sharing their faith, God will surely raise up many more to pray and go to Muslims with the gospel. Christians are becoming more aware of the great physical and spiritual needs of Muslims throughout the world.


Engage in Dialogue

In some cases Muslim activists have been given an open platform in churches to explain Islam. If we do invite a Muslim to speak in church we should also invite a Christian who is knowledgeable in Islam to present the Christian perspective on the subject at hand. Giving Muslims an open platform to propagate their faith confuses Christians and sends the wrong message about Islam. Also, it only seems fair that Christians should in turn be invited to mosques to give the Christian view, in order to have true Muslim-Christian dialogue.


Anticipate Greater Receptivity

We should anticipate greater Muslim receptivity in the days ahead as they hear the gospel. Christians have been praying for centuries that Muslims would respond but often there has been little lasting fruit. Research study on Islamic fundamentalism and Christian conversion indicates that when Muslims see the rigidity and severity of the Shari’ah, they tend to reject Islam and embrace the “Prince of Peace.” 


Prepare for Total Commitment

There is a parallel between our present crisis and biblical records about the circumstances surrounding Queen Esther. Her people were targeted for destruction, but facing this dilemma, she sensed that God had placed her in the kingdom “for such a time as this.”   In simple faith, she said, “If I perish, I perish.”  As God worked out his plan then to save his people through Esther, it seems that God now wants to use the church to avert the eternal destruction of innocent Muslims around the world. With more than a billion Muslims in our world, who awaken daily without the Scriptures, and without any assurance that their sins are forgiven, we must redouble our efforts in prayer, giving and going. Will we respond as our Lord desires for such a time as this?



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Gibb, H. A. A., et al, The Encyclopedia of Islam, 2nd ed. Leiden, Holland: Brill.

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Haddad, Yvonne Y., 1983,   “Sayyid Qutb: Ideologue of Islamic Revival.” In Voices of Resurgent Islam.
John L. Esposito, ed. Pp. 67-98. New York: Oxford University Press.

Khadduri, Majeed, 1955, War and Peace in the Law of Islam Baltimore, MD: John Hopkins Press.

Khan, Muhammad Muhsin, n.d., The Translation of the Meanings of Sahih Al-Bukhari. Arabic-
English, Vols. 1-9, Beruit: Dar Al Arabia.

Larson, Warren F., 1998, Islamic Ideology and Fundamentalism in Pakistan: Climate for Conversion to Christianity?   Lanham. New York. Oxford: University Press of America.

Mawdudi, Abu’l Ala, The Punishment of the Apostate According to Islamic Law. Translated and annotated by Syed Silas Husain and Ernest Hahn. n.p.

Qutb, Syed, 1964   Milestones, Cedar Rapids, IA: Unity Publishing Company, n.d.

Copyright© 2001, Dr. Warren Larson. Used by permission. This article also appeared in Evangelical Missions Quarterly.