This is the final installment in a 19-week series from Answering Jihad: A Better Way Forward by Nabeel Qureshi, author of Seeking Allah, Finding Jesus. Weeks one through eighteen covered eighteen questions people have most commonly asked Qureshi about jihad and Islam. These questions explore the origins of jihad, the nature of jihad today, and the phenomenon of jihad in Judeo-Christian context.
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HOW SHOULD WE ANSWER JIHAD? This question is proving to be one of the more pressing and problematic of our time. If we avoid the truth about jihad, we leave the door open for innocent people to be killed in attacks like Paris and San Bernardino. If we lack compassion, we close the door to innocent people who need refuge from places like Syria and Somalia.
Responses to jihad recently have been far too polarized. Some leaders have asserted that radical Islam has nothing to do with Islam, while others have seemed to assume that radical Islam is the only form of Islam. Both are dangerous responses. Qureshi writes, “As I have made clear from the beginning of this book, I am not a policy expert and I do not know how to end our struggles with jihad. But I believe I do know where we should begin, with the truth about Islam and with compassion for Muslims.”
The Truth About Islam
Islam is a complex religion composed of many facets and layers. The expression of Islam that shaped Qureshi’s young life taught him to love his family, serve his country, pursue a relationship with his God, repent of his sins, and strive for a moral life. In addition, he was dogmatically taught that Islam is a religion of peace. He said, “But despite the many positive teachings and qualities, the reality is that Islam’s foundations contain a tremendous amount of violence. The life of Muhammad and the text of the Qur’an are the two pillars of the Islamic worldview, and the traditions of each progress from peaceful beginnings to a crescendo of violent jihad.”
Muslims are justified in moving away from the foundations of their faith either through centuries of accreted tradition or through an intentional re-imagining of the religion. If they do so, they may be able to express Islam both peaceably and with internal consistency. However, as long as Islam continues to place primary emphasis on emulating the person of Muhammad and following the teachings of the Qur’an, without successfully supplanting the canonical texts and traditions, the end result will be the same. Islam will direct its adherents to its violent foundations with violent results.
Qureshi says, “Therein lies the problem, as almost all Muslims, whether violent or peaceful, believe they are following the original form of Islam. Muslims who study the canonical texts carefully will ultimately be faced with the inescapable conclusion that their foundations are quite violent, which is exactly what happened to me. I fought the conclusion for years, but when the reality became unavoidable, I was faced with a three-pronged fork in the road and had to choose apostasy, apathy, or radicalization.”
The Accelerated Polarization of Muslims
This problem did not pose as much of a problem in past centuries or even decades. For the average Muslim it would have been a herculean effort to find and study these traditions, and most were shielded by received traditions. But the Internet has changed that, and any who wish to study the traditions of Islam can do so easily now with the click of a button. That is the major reason why Muslim polarization has been accelerating: We have been seeing more apostates, more nominal Muslims, and more radical Muslims than ever before.
And with the click of a button, radical elements and recruiters can also present the violent traditions of Islam to zealous or curious young Muslims, compelling them to follow. When perusing the propaganda of ISIS, one can see that they lure Muslims through many avenues, but the means of radicalizing them is nothing other than encouraging them to fulfill their Islamic duty by following the teachings of Muhammad and the Qur’an. Radical Islam’s interpretations of these traditions are the most straightforward, with the most consistent use of the original texts and the most coherent perspectives in light of early Islamic conquests and formulations of doctrinal jihad.
Even though Muslims are often raised with the teaching that “Islam is the religion of peace,” when they study the texts for themselves [as Qureshi has done], they are faced with the reality that Muhammad and the Qur’an continually call for jihad. They will stand at the crossroads for only so long before they choose what path they will take—apostasy, apathy, or radicalization.
Compassion for Muslims
As Muslims make that choice, it would benefit the whole world if they did not make it alone, or worse, with radical recruiters. We need to show compassion for Muslims and befriend them, not only because they are people who are inherently worthy of love and respect, but also because we can only speak into their lives and decisions if we have earned the right. Qureshi is not sure there is any way to intercept a Muslim at the three-pronged fork in the road, as there appear to be no markers or signs revealing the stage of a radicalized Muslim’s journey until after he or she has made their choice. We have to be walking with them before they arrive at the crossroads.
This means being proactive, not reactive. It means living life with people who might be different from us. It means integrating communities and social circles. It means stepping out of our comfort zone and loving people unconditionally, perhaps even loving our enemies. And it means doing all this from a place of genuine love, not ulterior motives. Only then can we stop fearing those who are our neighbors, and conversely, only then can we identify those who actually do pose a threat. Otherwise, we will remain behind a veil of suspicion and fear.
Fear is not a solution, as it will only alienate those we hope to deter from violence and serve as positive reinforcement to those who want to use terror. Fighting will not work, as it will only further convince those at the crossroads that the radicals’ cause is just. Also, some specific radicals, such as ISIS, actually want us to fight back. Their hope is that they will sufficiently anger the world such that we fight them on the field of Dabiq, ushering in the end of the world, as the tradition of Muhammad foretells.
Fear and fighting fuel the radical fires. We need something that breaks the cycle—and that something might be love. Not love as wistfully envisioned by teenagers and songwriters, but love as envisioned by Jesus [see 1 Corinthians 13], a decision to engage others as image-bearers of God, to put their needs and concerns above our own, even at the cost of our own.
Qureshi writes, “I am not advocating naïve pacifism in the face of genocide and murder. Many Christians believe it is the duty of the state to fight for and protect its people, as defending the oppressed is an expression of loving one’s neighbor. They often refer to passages such as Romans 13:1-5 and 1 Peter 2:13-14 to suggest that Christians should play active roles in such state-led efforts.” Qureshi adds, “I am not promoting pacifism, but neither am I advocating a violent response. I am, in fact, not advocating any particular course of action, but rather a frame of heart and mind that will, in turn, shape the way we respond.”
That frame of mind is truth and love, and both elements are essential. Without truth we will not be able to identify the real problem, and without love we will not be able to formulate an enduring answer. Regarding the latter, the Apostle Paul was correct: Even if we can fathom all mysteries and have all knowledge, it will not ultimately work without love. Qureshi notes, “Yes, I do suggest we share alternative worldviews with Muslims as one of our methods to address radicalization, especially the Gospel. The Gospel does not succumb to the pitfalls of fear or fighting, which only fuel radicalization, and it gives Muslims an appealing direction at the three-pronged fork in the road.”
Qureshi said, “That is what happened to me. As I faced the reality of the violent traditions of Islam, I had a Christian friend who suggested that Islam did not have to be my only choice, that there was excellent reason to accept the Gospel. Apart from the appeal of the foundations of Christianity, I can say from my own experience that atheism and secularism offered little draw as an alternative to Islam as they were not spiritually robust, a reality to which many Muslims are finally attuned.”
Answering Jihad: A Better Way Forward
The Muslim world today has, by and large, rejected violent jihad in modern contexts. Expansive jihad, as it was envisioned in the foundations of Islam and practiced in the early centuries of the Islamic Empire, is a relic of the past. But radical Muslim groups such as al-Qaeda, ISIS and Boko Haram, will continue using jihad because of its expediency and the explicit mandates in the foundations of Islam.
Muslims today have unprecedented accessibility to the foundational texts of their faith, the life of Muhammad and the teachings of the Qur’an. Within those texts, they encounter a call to violent jihad. Unless Islam is re-imagined and emphasis is drawn away from these traditional foundations, Paris and San Bernardino might be our new normal. Sadly, it is not likely that Islam will be re-imagined soon, so we have to answer jihad as best we can.
Qureshi concludes, “My suggestion is that we engage Muslims proactively with love and friendship while simultaneously acknowledging the truth about Islam. This is not the final step in answering jihad, but it is the correct first step, and it offers a better way forward.”
Selective Timeline of Jihad in Islam
THE DATES LISTED BELOW are extrapolated from either Islamic traditions or from modern historical sources.
570: Birth of Muhammad
610: Inception of Islam
622: Flight to Medina/ Starting Point of the Islamic Calendar
623: Muslims Begin Raiding Meccan Caravans
624: Nakhla Raid
624: Battle of Badr
625: Battle of Uhud
627: Battle of Khandaq
629: Battle of Muta
629: Conquest of Medina
630: Battle of Hunayn
630: Battle of Tabuk
632: Death of Muhammad
632: Apostate Wars
633: Invasion of Persia
637: Conquest of Syria-Palestine
639: Invasion of Egypt
643: Incursions into India
670: Incursions into Cyrenaica
711: Conquest of Spain
732: Muslims Defeated in the West by Charles Martel Attempting to Conquer France
1099: First Crusade
1187: Salah al-Din Defeats the Crusaders
1258: Mongols Sack Baghdad
1453: Byzantine Empire Falls to Ottoman Empire
1492: Spanish Inquisition and Beginning of the Colonial Era
1683: Ottomans Defeated at Vienna
1918: End of World War I and the Colonial Era
1922: Dissolution of the Ottoman Empire
1928: Establishment of Muslim Brotherhood
1945: End of World War II
1948: Establishment of Israeli State
1966: Execution of Sayyid Qutb
1967: Six-Day War
1979: Egyptian-Israeli Peace Accords
1988: Establishment of Al-Qaida
1993: Bombing of World Trade Center
2001: September 11 Attacks Against the United States
2005: July 7 Bombings in London
2014: ISIS Establishes Caliphate
2015: Boko Haram Pledges Allegiance to ISIS
2015: November 13 Attacks on Paris
2015: December 2 Shooting in San Bernardino