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Is Islam Essentially Violent?

Islam and Violence

Dutch scholar Johannes Jansen contributed an essay – ‘The Religious Roots of Muslim Violence’ (opens in a Word document) – to a 2011 anthology entitled, ‘Terrorism: Ideology, Law, and Policy’. In it he makes the case that violence and terrorism are part and parcel of the Islamic religion, traceable to its root sources at every level of sharia construction. Jansen’s scouring of the sources is admirable, and he launches several challenges to an irenic understanding of Islam. Unfortunately, he gives short shrift to worthy counterarguments, instead presenting the reader conclusions deemed unassailable, established on the basis of his insight. While his insight is formidable, it is not conclusive. As a scholar he would do well to simply present both sides.

Johannes Jansen
Johannes Jansen

That Jansen does not is unfortunate, since it bathes his text in a bias which obscures a viable link between violence and Islam. Desiring to damn Islam in its entirety, he allows a critic to dismiss his work given its failure to admit other interpretations. Jansen instead takes upon himself the role of mujtahid (one who interprets) and throws down the gauntlet as well as any extremist scholar or caller to jihad. The only difference lies in condemnation versus approval.

This text will first present the legitimate challenges marshaled by Jansen, then demonstrate some of the ways he overstates his case, and close with a selection of examples where his argumentation is simply faulty, and at times, dismissive. A serious scholar of Islam would do well to outright refute many of his judgments; this review will suffice to proceed from a generalist’s knowledge. The reader is encouraged to lend his or her own fruits of study.

Difficult Matters

Moving sequentially through the text of Jansen, the first example of a difficult challenge lies in the verse of 9:30 in the Qur’an. The reference is to the delusion of Jews and Christians in imagining that God could have a son. This idea is met with an anathema – ‘God fight them’. Jansen notes that such a verse would make friendly religious dialogue difficult between Muslims and Christians, knowing that such a curse is leveled in the text of the oft-supposed friendly partner.

Later Jansen accuses Islam of dehumanization of its enemies. In verse 5:60 God is said to have turned some Jews into monkeys and pigs. This accusation is often heard among Muslims when they chant against Israel, for example. Also in 8:55 unbelievers are labeled ‘the worst of all beasts’. Indeed, it is much easier to oppose and kill those who are not given respect for their humanity.

Jansen then moves to consider the life of the prophet, referring to 33:21 in which Muhammad is declared to be an ‘excellent pattern’ for those who hope in God. He then goes on to describe how

Muhammad and his men raided their neighbours, captured these, and sold them into slavery. Mohammed and his men robbed travellers and caravans, and assassinated critics of their behaviour. According to the Muslim sources themselves, Muhammad and his men migrated from Mecca to Medina, but once there they rewarded the inhabitants of Medina by killing a large number of them. These sources themselves report how Muhammad beheaded 700 Medinese Jews, on the flimsiest of excuses.

This text is noted here with a contempt that belies the objectivity of a scholar, and each of these incidents listed is able to receive an explanation from Muslim historians. Yet Jansen’s argument is listed in this section not for its specifics, but its reference to Muhammad as an ‘excellent pattern’. Putting aside Jansen’s bias, there are aspects of Muhammad’s life that offend modern sensibilities and morality. These are a worthy field to consider linkages between Islam and violence.

Throughout his text Jansen brings up many of the oft-cited references in the Qur’an to warfare, fighting, and killing. These will be dealt with conceptually in the next section. Yet it is interesting to note here a commendation given by the prominent Azhar University in Cairo for a definition of jihad found in an English language guide to sharia law, called ‘The Reliance of the Traveler’. Jihad is often defended, correctly, as first an internal struggle against the self. Yet here Jansen notes the reference declares

Jihad means to go to war against non-Muslims (…). The scriptural basis for jihad (…) is such Koranic verses as: (1) ‘Fighting is prescribed for you’ (Koran 2:216); (2) ‘Slay them wherever you find them’ (Koran 4:89); (3) ‘Fight the idolaters utterly’ (Koran 9:36); and such hadiths as the one related by Bukhari and Muslim that the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) said ‘I have been commanded to fight people until they testify that there is no god but Allah and that Muhammad is the Messenger of Allah’ (…) and the hadith reported by Muslim ‘To go forth in the morning or evening to fight in the path of Allah is better than the whole world and everything in it.’

The challenge is not necessarily in giving nuance to these verses, but the fact that as eminent and generally moderate an institution as the Azhar has endorsed this reading of jihad.

Contested Interpretations

It is noteworthy that in twenty pages of text Jansen is only able to bring the above arguments to bear that do not receive immediate pause, at least in the eyes of this reviewer. Far more numerous is the evidence he draws from Islam that does indeed ask fair questions of the religion, but then shields the reader from alternate viewpoints. Again, the summation will proceed sequentially.

Jansen begins his argument by stating the proscribed penalty for apostasy in Islamic sharia law is death. He does not demonstrate this factually, but refers to the aforementioned ‘Reliance of the Traveler’ and quotes from the Egyptian judge Muhammad al-Ghazali who testified the murder of accused apostate Farag Foda was only to be classified as an ‘offense’ under sharia.

Indeed, the standard Muslim judgment against apostasy is death, and the offense against human and religious rights is valid. Yet other scholars condemn this interpretation through a variety of forms. One method is to understand that during the time of the prophet, affiliation with Islam was akin to the modern concept of citizenship in a nation. Apostasy, then, is equated with treason – a crime punishable by death in many modern nations. Given that this relationship no longer applies, apostasy in the contemporary sense does not merit death.

Another path of diffusing the absolutism of apostasy punishments is to recall Muhammad dealt with apostates from Islam during his life, and did not order universally their execution. Listing these two critiques does not infer the validity of textual and historical exegesis; this is a matter for Muslim scholars to decide. Rather, the point is simply to note their existence, even if a minority interpretation. Jansen fails to do so.

Jansen then critiques what he understands to be an undue Western sympathy for Islam, given that many have accepted the idea of religion as an expression of the Golden Rule. This is faulty, he argues, bringing 48:29 as evidence: ‘Muhammad is the messenger of Allah, those with him are violent (ashiddaa’) against unbelievers, compassionate amongst themselves.’ (Richard Bell’s translation)

The issue of translation in Islam is very tricky, and certain Muslim authored ‘interpretations’ of the Qur’an into English cover over issues which might offend Western sensibilities. Here, however, Jansen chooses a translation that makes his point but overstates his case. Ashiddaa’ can also be rendered as severe, strong, harsh, or powerful, though violent is possible. A more direct word for violent – ‘aneef – is not employed.

Even so, the double standard certainly betrays the essence of the Golden Rule, which is Jansen’s overall point. Yet he could have maintained this tension, identifying a source text which Muslim violence can summon, while also quoting from 3:159, ‘By the mercy of God, you dealt with them gently. And had you been severe and harsh-hearted, they would have ran away from about you; so pass over (their faults), and ask (God’s) forgiveness for them.’ This text refers to Muhammad’s dealings with a man who had killed many Muslims. When apprehended, he was treated as a guest, fed, and freed. Such treatment accords also with a hadith in which Muhammad declared, ‘He who is not merciful to others, will not be treated mercifully’ (Muslim 73:42).

Again, these examples do not undo the double standard given by Jansen, but they keep the reader from assuming Islam to be only as he describes. Jansen would have done well to provide them.

Jansen then moves into the controversial Qur’anic verses which either order Muslims to kill (2:191, 4:89, 4:91, 9:5) or to fight (2:10, 2:216, 4:74, 9:119) the unbelievers. He refers to the well known commentary of al-Jalalayn to confirm the violent nature of these verses. Next he heads off a predictable rebuttal by 2:256: ‘Let there be no compulsion in religion’, and 109:5: ‘You have your religion and I have mine’, by bringing in the concept of abrogation. Islam commonly understands that verses revealed later void the application of earlier revelation. He states,

All standard and authoritative Muslim commentaries on the Koran, without exception, hold these two peaceful and reassuring fragments to be repealed and ‘abrogated’ by the later ‘verse of the sword’, Koran 9:5.

Having established the permissibility of fighting and killing unbelievers, Jansen seeks to establish two pernicious modern applications: Assassination and terrorism. Concerning the former he refers to 5:44 in which a leader who does not apply the laws God provided is labelled an unbeliever. Since he is from the community of believers, he is therefore an apostate, and as such, worthy of death. Jansen refers to the ancient commentator Ibn Kathir, the modern ideologue Sayyid Qutb, and contemporary preacher Sheikh Abdel Hamid Kishk of Egypt.

As per terrorism, he references 8:60 in which Muslims are commanded to ‘terrorize’ the enemy. He then returns to the Azhar to refute the idea this was only a concept to be employed during history. The former head of the Azhar, Muhammad Sayyid Tantawi, is quoted in his commentary stating the verses apply ‘first of all [to] the pagans of Mecca’. ‘First of all’, Jansen argues, signifies the beginning of a longstanding and commanded practice.

The seed to nuance these perspectives is provided by Jansen himself. He quotes a 1968 gathering of Cairo scholars to state 8:60 is equivalent to the Roman maxim, ‘If you wish for peace, prepare for war.’ Jansen even says, ‘They may be right.’

Whether they are right or not is worthy for debate, but though Jansen proceeds to provide what he calls ‘the standard Muslim denial and defense’ (to be given in the next section), he does not return to this very basic explanation. Muhammad began his ministry by calling to a religion, but the interpretation is clearly possible that he ended it by establishing a state. Commands to fight and kill, then, can be understood as a civil action akin to modern warfare. Even modern warfare can be condemned, and the including of religion complicates the matter considerably. Nevertheless, these verses can be understood as combat, and not as inquisition.

Furthermore, many Islamic scholars state that warfare is the domain of the state alone, which must abide by numerous regulations, including the duty to keep peace with a non-Muslim who does not oppose you. Therefore, while in war it is common practice to ‘terrorize’ the enemy through ‘shock and awe’, for example, this is legitimate only through proper and regulated channels, not through individual action.

Individual or small group action is also associated with assassination attempts. Muslim scholars need to, and have, refuted the interpretation of 5:44 as a call to kill a less-than-faithful Muslim leader. First of all the clear context of the verse applies to Jewish leaders who failed to apply the Torah. Jansen notes this, but calls again upon Kishk to argue that if true for Jews how much more true for Muslims, who have been given sharia law by which to govern. Yet the bulk of Sunni Muslim history has held that a ruler is to be obeyed and Muslims must not declare each other to be infidels, unless such unbelief is clearly advertised. Such assassination attempts, they warn, threaten to return Islam to its early days when extremist groups tore the community apart. This minority reading has now returned with an equal threat. The legitimacy of interpretation is for Muslims to decide, but Jansen makes no reference to where the burden of proof lies, or even that a burden against his argument exists.

The same critique applies to his statements about abrogation. Where he declares that all commentators agree about verses of the sword abrogating verses of tolerance, it would be well to check his sources. That the verses of the sword are later in timeframe than verses of tolerance is not disputed, but the issue of abrogation is not at all clear. Some scholars find only a handful of verses in the Qur’an to be abrogated, others find large swaths of its content. It is simply not true that a uniform opinion on abrogation exists in Islam, though as a concept it is accepted. Application, however, is disputed, which is a fact Jansen does not simply ignore, he obfuscates.

Last to be considered briefly is the extension of the argument to the individual Muslim. Given that jihad is a duty to be carried out in warfare, and furthermore that since the Islamic caliphate no longer exists, it is now incumbent on smaller associations to further this cause. Jansen describes how this has happened without providing rationale why it is Islamically necessary to happen.

Still, he quotes prominent scholar Yusuf al-Qaradawi who states concerning suicide operations: ‘The one who carries out a martyrdom operation does not think of himself. He sells himself to Allah in order to buy Paradise in exchange.’ While this opinion should be studied in context, it appears Qaradawi describes the rationale of the martyrdom-seeker, and does not clearly provide license for his interpretation.

Failures in Argumentation

While sections one and two acknowledge the excellent, if insufficient, study Jansen has given to the Islamic sources, this final section highlights some of the ways in which he betrays his own effort. While only a few examples represent error, there are quite a few statements overvaluing his contribution. These will be followed by an unhealthy number of examples carrying  a regrettable dismissive attitude toward opposing views.

Some of the errors are actually misleading use of rhetoric. For example Jansen notes how the fact of death for an apostate acts as a disincentive to advertise one’s disbelief in Islam. While certainly correct, he proceeds to state, ‘All statistics on the number of Muslims in a region or period [are] unreliable.’ With this broad stroke he renders meaningless the work of professional statisticians upon the assumption that Muslims everywhere hold to their faith out of fear of death. Unfortunately, Jansen offers no evidence to buttress this assumption.

Similar is the critique he levels at scholars and politicians for not understanding the essential violent nature of Islam. Were this properly comprehended, they would have prevented Muslims from ‘invading’ their countries. The word invade infers an organized plan, while overlooking the demographic fact that most Muslims in Europe, at least, originally were recruited to serve in low wage service industries to compensate for a relatively low continental population growth. Their increase in population share is a serious issue for European politicians today, but to label their presence an invasion is an ugly, if not deliberate, rhetorical error.

This may be true as well for Jansen’s denigration of the Qur’an for labeling Jews as ‘pigs’. A careful look at 5:60 shows God turned some Jews into apes and pigs, yet Jansen goes on to say:

It is clear that an enemy about whom Islam teaches that God himself calls him an ape, a donkey, a swine, a dog or just an animal, has no human rights. It is only proper to terrorize such subhuman unpersons.

This example leads well into a number of instances where Jansen establishes a point through the force of his own insistence. Is it indeed ‘clear’ that ‘it is only proper’ to mistreat the above mentioned groups? Is there no other possible recourse in all of Islam? Does logic dictate the necessity of agreement with Jansen’s pronouncements?

Elsewhere Jansen states, without reference to studies or statistics, that ‘large numbers’ of Muslims believe specific war passages in the Qur’an are meant to be generalized. Furthermore, it is ‘widely understood’ that Islam teaches to kill unbelievers if the cost is not too great for the Muslim community. Of course, ‘Muslims believe that outsiders hate Islam,’ which, ‘can only be understood as echoes of the fear and distrust Muslims themselves harbour against the adherents of other religions.’ The proof? ‘Printed testimonies from within the Muslim world abundantly illustrate that in general Muslims (with individual exceptions, one hopes) distrust and hate the West.

Jansen’s parenthesis in the previous example illustrates more than just his overstatements, it also reveals his dismissive bias. ‘One hopes’ there are Muslims who do not hate the West? With how many has he spoken, that he sees this as such an impossibility?

Further sarcasm is seen when he posits the chance that what is understood as terrorism is actually to be regarded as legitimate resistance. He says:

This needs to be researched seriously and extensively. Such research should definitely not be omitted or be neglected, no matter how enormous the task will be. It would be a huge project indeed, stretching out from Northern Nigeria to Chechnya, from the Darfur to East-Timor and Bali, and from Madrid, Amsterdam, Berlin, Paris and London to New York.

His highlight on ‘extensively’ is made moot through listing the sites of recent terrorist activity. As before, Jansen’s research is far too serious to utilize such mocking claims. He is not finished, however.

After listing the many verses which demonstrate the Qur’an’s instructions to fight and kill, Jansen exasperates, ‘Someone who is not convinced by these verses will not be convinced by more or even much more of the same.’ Furthermore, Muslims who seek to present an alternate interpretation of their faith by emphasizing verses of tolerance ‘forget to explain’ these have been abrogated.

Failing to recognize their effort as legitimate apologetics, Jansen proceeds to give what he calls the ‘standard Muslim denial and defence’ of their religion – in all its flimsiness. The first is to state that only perfect Arabic speakers can interpret the Qur’an, and that it is Western hatred which drives their criticism. The second is to dismiss the statements of clerical leaders, as these do not represent the people. The third and final technique is to ridicule Westerners who rely on the statements of misinformed young men involved in terrorism.

Jansen admits there is merit behind these defenses, but are they the only ones? Written by a non-Muslim, this text has presented numerous challenges to Jansen’s interpretations. Are none of these worthy to be found in the writings of ‘standard’ Muslim apologists? Jansen builds a straw man, and delights in knocking him down.


Much Western opinion of Islam is divided into two camps. One side finds the religion to be peaceful in essence despite misinformed extremists. The other finds the religion to be violent in essence despite the masses of ordinary Muslims who do not sufficiently understand their faith. As with most dichotomies, reality is often found in the middle.

Though Jansen places himself among the scholars of the second grouping, this text does not fault his essential questions. It is clear that there are violent source texts and examples within Islam. Yet it is also clear there is an impetus toward peace and tolerance. It is right and just for both Muslims and non-Muslims to interpret sources to determine what is the core of Islam.

The fault of Jansen lies in his failure to nuance his argument. His was not a short magazine article; it was a twenty page thesis. There was ample room to both display his conviction about a violent norm and present significant Muslim counterarguments.

His failure to do so is odd given his conviction. If Islam is essentially violent, would Jansen not wish to highlight and promote the many Muslims who seek to ground their faith on a foundation of peace? Are all who do so deceivers, wishing to delude the West to their true intentions? Can there not be validity to their wholly Islamic arguments?

This last question is the essential one. The crux of the issue is not the academic exegesis of Islam, however worthy. It is the social and cultural acceptance of interpretation that must speak to the hearts of Muslims the world over. Will violent verses be found anachronistic in the modern age, or will they define a coming renewed civilizational struggle? It is only within Islam, among Muslims, this answer can be found. Alternate viewpoints are rife, and often in competition.

Jansen may be able to demonstrate the weight of evidence – both in historic sharia understanding and in popular consciousness – lies with violent and jihadist Islam. What he will be unable to accomplish is to demonstrate this interpretation is correct. Islam is first and foremost a religion, and religions, while possessing vast storehouses of conserving tradition, are also adept at drawing from these storehouses to adapt according to the realities of the age. It is as wrong to state that Islam will adapt peacefully as it is to assert it will not. That adaptation is possible, however, is a demonstrated historical fact.

Islam, particularly in its Arab context, is before a potentially great adaptation from Morocco to the Gulf, as the masses demonstrate a desire to shed their current leadership. Whether or not the Arab Spring represents conflict or cooperation with the West is an open question. Prominent among the determining factors will be the emerging interpretation of Islam. Jansen is right to ask his questions; the answers are not nearly as fated as he assumes.

This essay was first published in Arab West Report in February 2012.

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