Barack Obama is amused.
“I’m amused,” he said in remarks published Tuesday, “when I watch Republicans claim that Trump’s language is unacceptable, and ask, ‘How did we get here?’ We got here in part because the Republican base had been fed this notion that Islam is inherently violent, that this is who these folks are. And if you’ve been hearing that a lot, and then somebody shows up on the scene and says, well, the logical conclusion to civilizational conflict is we try to make sure that we’re not destroyed internally by this foreign civilization, that’s what you get.”
Where would anyone get the crazy idea that Islam was inherently violent? Well, the day’s headlines might give us that very strong impression, but Obama would tell us (and has told us) that those Muslims who are screaming “Allahu akbar” as they murder non-Muslims are, despite appearances, not really Muslims at all, but just people who have twisted, hijacked, misunderstood the Religion of Peace.
It is, true, however, that there are plenty of Muslims who tell us that Islam is inherently violent. Here are a few of them:
“Jihad was a way of life for the Pious Predecessors (Salaf-us-Salih), and the Prophet (SAWS) was a master of the Mujahideen and a model for fortunate inexperienced people. The total number of military excursions which he (SAWS) accompanied was 27. He himself fought in nine of these; namely Badr; Uhud, Al-Muraysi, The Trench, Qurayzah, Khaybar, The Conquest of Makkah, Hunayn and Taif . . . This means that the Messenger of Allah (SAWS) used to go out on military expeditions or send out an army at least every two months.” — Abdullah Azzam, co-founder of al-Qaeda, Join the Caravan, p. 30
“If we follow the rules of interpretation developed from the classical science of Koranic interpretation, it is not possible to condemn terrorism in religious terms. It remains completely true to the classical rules in its evolution of sanctity for its own justification. This is where the secret of its theological strength lies.” — Egyptian scholar Nasr Hamid Abu Zayd
“Many thanks to God, for his kind gesture, and choosing us to perform the act of Jihad for his cause and to defend Islam and Muslims. Therefore, killing you and fighting you, destroying you and terrorizing you, responding back to your attacks, are all considered to be great legitimate duty in our religion.” — Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and his fellow 9/11 defendants
“Allah on 480 occasions in the Holy Koran extols Muslims to wage jihad. We only fulfill God’s orders. Only jihad can bring peace to the world.” — Taliban terrorist Baitullah Mehsud
“Jihad, holy fighting in Allah’s course, with full force of numbers and weaponry, is given the utmost importance in Islam….By jihad, Islam is established….By abandoning jihad, may Allah protect us from that, Islam is destroyed, and Muslims go into inferior position, their honor is lost, their lands are stolen, their rule and authority vanish. Jihad is an obligation and duty in Islam on every Muslim.” — Times Square car bomb terrorist Faisal Shahzad
“So step by step I became a religiously devout Muslim, Mujahid — meaning one who participates in jihad.” — Little Rock, Arkansas terrorist murderer Abdulhakim Mujahid Muhammad
“And now, after mastering the English language, learning how to build explosives, and continuous planning to target the infidel Americans, it is time for Jihad.” — Texas terrorist bomber Khalid Aldawsari.
Obama would dismiss all these as “extremists” who are not really Muslim at all and have nothing to do with Islam. Yet one also might get the impression that Islam is inherently violent from the authoritative sources in Sunni Islam, the schools of Sunni jurisprudence (madhahib):
Shafi’i school: A Shafi’i manual of Islamic law that was certified in 1991 by the clerics at Al-Azhar University, one of the leading authorities in the Islamic world, as a reliable guide to Sunni orthodoxy, stipulates about jihad that “the caliph makes war upon Jews, Christians, and Zoroastrians…until they become Muslim or pay the non-Muslim poll tax.” It adds a comment by Sheikh Nuh Ali Salman, a Jordanian expert on Islamic jurisprudence: the caliph wages this war only “provided that he has first invited [Jews, Christians, and Zoroastrians] to enter Islam in faith and practice, and if they will not, then invited them to enter the social order of Islam by paying the non-Muslim poll tax (jizya)…while remaining in their ancestral religions.” (‘Umdat al-Salik, o9.8).
Of course, there is no caliph today, unless one believes the claims of the Islamic State, and hence the oft-repeated claim that Osama et al are waging jihad illegitimately, as no state authority has authorized their jihad. But they explain their actions in terms of defensive jihad, which needs no state authority to call it, and becomes “obligatory for everyone” (‘Umdat al-Salik, o9.3) if a Muslim land is attacked. The end of the defensive jihad, however, is not peaceful coexistence with non-Muslims as equals: ‘Umdat al-Salik specifies that the warfare against non-Muslims must continue until “the final descent of Jesus.” After that, “nothing but Islam will be accepted from them, for taking the poll tax is only effective until Jesus’ descent” (o9.8).
Hanafi school: A Hanafi manual of Islamic law repeats the same injunctions. It insists that people must be called to embrace Islam before being fought, “because the Prophet so instructed his commanders, directing them to call the infidels to the faith.” It emphasizes that jihad must not be waged for economic gain, but solely for religious reasons: from the call to Islam “the people will hence perceive that they are attacked for the sake of religion, and not for the sake of taking their property, or making slaves of their children, and on this consideration it is possible that they may be induced to agree to the call, in order to save themselves from the troubles of war.”
However, “if the infidels, upon receiving the call, neither consent to it nor agree to pay capitation tax [jizya], it is then incumbent on the Muslims to call upon God for assistance, and to make war upon them, because God is the assistant of those who serve Him, and the destroyer of His enemies, the infidels, and it is necessary to implore His aid upon every occasion; the Prophet, moreover, commands us so to do.” (Al-Hidayah, II.140)
Maliki school: Ibn Khaldun (1332-1406), a pioneering historian and philosopher, was also a Maliki legal theorist. In his renowned Muqaddimah, the first work of historical theory, he notes that “in the Muslim community, the holy war is a religious duty, because of the universalism of the Muslim mission and (the obligation to) convert everybody to Islam either by persuasion or by force.” In Islam, the person in charge of religious affairs is concerned with “power politics,” because Islam is “under obligation to gain power over other nations.”
Hanbali school: The great medieval theorist of what is commonly known today as radical or fundamentalist Islam, Ibn Taymiyya (Taqi al-Din Ahmad Ibn Taymiyya, 1263-1328), was a Hanbali jurist. He directed that “since lawful warfare is essentially jihad and since its aim is that the religion is God’s entirely and God’s word is uppermost, therefore according to all Muslims, those who stand in the way of this aim must be fought.”
This is also taught by modern-day scholars of Islam. Majid Khadduri was an Iraqi scholar of Islamic law of international renown. In his book War and Peace in the Law of Islam, which was published in 1955 and remains one of the most lucid and illuminating works on the subject, Khadduri says this about jihad:
The state which is regarded as the instrument for universalizing a certain religion must perforce be an ever expanding state. The Islamic state, whose principal function was to put God’s law into practice, sought to establish Islam as the dominant reigning ideology over the entire world….The jihad was therefore employed as an instrument for both the universalization of religion and the establishment of an imperial world state. (P. 51)
Imran Ahsan Khan Nyazee, Assistant Professor on the Faculty of Shari’ah and Law of the International Islamic University in Islamabad. In his 1994 book The Methodology of Ijtihad, he quotes the twelfth century Maliki jurist Ibn Rushd: “Muslim jurists agreed that the purpose of fighting with the People of the Book…is one of two things: it is either their conversion to Islam or the payment of jizyah.” Nyazee concludes: “This leaves no doubt that the primary goal of the Muslim community, in the eyes of its jurists, is to spread the word of Allah through jihad, and the option of poll-tax [jizya] is to be exercised only after subjugation” of non-Muslims.
All this makes it clear that there is abundant reason to believe that Islam is indeed inherently violent. It would be illuminating if Obama or someone around him produced some quotations from Muslim authorities he considers “authentic,” and explained why the authorities I’ve quoted above and others like them are inauthentic. While in reality there is no single Muslim authority who can proclaim what is “authentic” Islam, and thus it would be prudent not to make sweeping statements about what “authentic Islam” actually is, clearly there are many Muslim who believe that authentic Islam is inherently violent.
One might also get the impression that Islam is inherently violent from these Qur’an verses:
2:191-193: “And slay them wherever you come upon them, and expel them from where they expelled you; persecution is more grievous than slaying. But fight them not by the Holy Mosque until they should fight you there; then, if they fight you, slay them — such is the recompense of unbelievers, but if they give over, surely Allah is All-forgiving, All-compassionate. Fight them, till there is no persecution and the religion is Allah’s; then if they give over, there shall be no enmity save for evildoers.”
4:34: “Men are the managers of the affairs of women, for Allah has made one superior to the another, and because they have expended of their property. Righteous women are therefore obedient, guarding the secret for Allah’s guarding. And those you fear may be rebellious admonish; banish them to their couches, and beat them. If they then obey you, look not for any way against them; Allah is All-high, All-great.”
4:89: “They wish that you should disbelieve as they disbelieve, and then you would be equal; therefore take not to yourselves friends of them, until they emigrate in the way of Allah; then, if they turn their backs, take them, and slay them wherever you find them; take not to yourselves any one of them as friend or helper.”
5:33: “This is the recompense of those who fight against Allah and His Messenger, and hasten about the earth, to do corruption there: they shall be slaughtered, or crucified, or their hands and feet shall alternately be struck off; or they shall be banished from the land. That is a degradation for them in this world; and in the world to come awaits them a mighty chastisement.”
5:38: “And the thief, male and female: cut off the hands of both, as a recompense for what they have earned, and a punishment exemplary from Allah; Allah is All-mighty, All-wise.”
8:12: “When thy Lord was revealing to the angels, ‘I am with you; so confirm the believers. I shall cast into the unbelievers’ hearts terror; so smite above the necks, and smite every finger of them!”
8:39: “Fight them, till there is no persecution and the religion is Allah’s entirely; then if they give over, surely Allah sees the things they do.”
8:60: “Make ready for them whatever force and strings of horses you can, to strike terror thereby into the enemy of Allah and your enemy, and others besides them that you know not; Allah knows them. And whatsoever you expend in the way of Allah shall be repaid you in full; you will not be wronged.”
9:5: “Then, when the sacred months are over, slay the idolaters wherever you find them, and take them, and confine them, and lie in wait for them at every place of ambush. But if they repent, and perform the prayer, and pay the alms, then let them go their way; Allah is All-forgiving, All-compassionate.”
9:29: “Fight those who believe not in Allah and the Last Day and do not forbid what Allah and His Messenger have forbidden, and do not practice 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.”
9:111: “Allah has bought from the believers their selves and their possessions against the gift of Paradise; they fight in the way of Allah; they kill, and are killed; that is a promise binding upon Allah in the Torah, and the Gospel, and the Koran; and who fulfils his covenant truer than Allah? So rejoice in the bargain you have made with Him; that is the mighty triumph.”
9:123: “O believers, fight the unbelievers who are near to you; and let them find in you a harshness; and know that Allah is with the godfearing.”
47:4: “When you meet the unbelievers, smite their necks, then, when you have made wide slaughter among them, tie fast the bonds; then set them free, either by grace or ransom, till the war lays down its loads. So it shall be; and if Allah had willed, He would have avenged Himself upon them; but that He may try some of you by means of others. And those who are slain in the way of Allah, He will not send their works astray.”
There are some tolerant verses in the Qur’an as well — see, for example, sura 109. But then in Islamic tradition there are authorities who say that violent passages take precedence over these verses. Muhammad’s earliest biographer, an eighth-century Muslim named Ibn Ishaq, explains the progression of Qur’anic revelation about warfare. First, he explains, Allah allowed Muslims to wage defensive warfare. But that was not Allah’s last word on the circumstances in which Muslims should fight. Ibn Ishaq explains offensive jihad by invoking a Qur’anic verse: “Then God sent down to him: ‘Fight them so that there be no more seduction,’ i.e. until no believer is seduced from his religion. ‘And the religion is God’s’, i.e. Until God alone is worshipped.”
The Qur’an verse Ibn Ishaq quotes here (2:193) commands much more than defensive warfare: Muslims must fight until “the religion is God’s” — that is, until Allah alone is worshipped. Ibn Ishaq gives no hint that that command died with the seventh century.
The great medieval scholar Ibn Qayyim (1292-1350) also outlines the stages of the Muhammad’s prophetic career: “For thirteen years after the beginning of his Messengership, he called people to God through preaching, without fighting or Jizyah, and was commanded to restrain himself and to practice patience and forbearance. Then he was commanded to migrate, and later permission was given to fight. Then he was commanded to fight those who fought him, and to restrain himself from those who did not make war with him. Later he was commanded to fight the polytheists until God’s religion was fully established.”
In other words, he initially could fight only defensively — only “those who fought him” — but later he could fight the polytheists until Islam was “fully established.” He could fight them even if they didn’t fight him first, and solely because they were not Muslim.
Nor do all contemporary Islamic thinkers believe that that command is a relic of history.
According to a 20th century Chief Justice of Saudi Arabia, Sheikh Abdullah bin Muhammad bin Humaid, “at first ‘the fighting’ was forbidden, then it was permitted and after that it was made obligatory.” He also distinguishes two groups Muslims must fight: “(1) against them who start ‘the fighting’ against you (Muslims) . . . (2) and against all those who worship others along with Allah . . . as mentioned in Surat Al-Baqarah (II), Al-Imran (III) and At-Taubah (IX) . . . and other Surahs (Chapters of the Qur’an).” (The Roman numerals after the names of the chapters of the Qur’an are the numbers of the suras: Sheikh Abdullah is referring to Qur’anic verses such as 2:216, 3:157-158, 9:5, and 9:29.)
Here again, obviously there is a widespread understanding of the Qur’an within Islamic tradition that sees it, and Islam, as inherently violent. And we see Muslims who clearly understand their religion as being inherently violent acting upon that understanding around the world today, in Indonesia, the Philippines, Thailand, Burma, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Egypt, Israel, Nigeria and elsewhere. We can hope that those who embody the true, peaceful Islam that Obama assumes to exist come forward and work against the Muslims who believe in violence, instead of just issuing pro-forma condemnations. So far we have not seen that. On the contrary, we see reformers threatened and cowed into silence. The Moroccan activist Ahmed Assid condemned violence in Islam’s name and was immediately declared an apostate and threatened with death by Muslim clerics. If the Ahmed Assids of the world represent the true Islam that is not inherently violent, the message has not gotten through to all too many of their coreligionists.
We may hope it does someday. In the meantime, it is imperative to continue to speak about how Islamic jihadists use the texts and teachings of Islam to justify violence and supremacism, so as to alert all people of good will to the nature and magnitude of the jihad threat, and its motives and goals. This is not indulging in hateful generalizations; it is simply to speak honestly and realistically about a threat all free people face. If we cannot speak about it, it will nonetheless keep coming, and catch us unawares.