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Does Islam Promote Violence?
Nov 1, 2015

In the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, a huge number of books and articles have been published investigating the link between some certain interpretations of Islam and the terrorist attacks.

Further terrorist attacks in certain countries, and the brutal emergence of ISIS right after the Syrian crisis, have led to the embers of anti-Islamic sentiments burning in the west.

Just last year, comedian Bill Maher identified ISIS with Islam, stating, "If vast numbers of Muslims across the world believe, and they do, that humans deserve to die for merely holding a different idea, or drawing a cartoon, or writing a book, or eloping with the wrong person, not only does the Muslim world have something in common with ISIS, it has too much in common with ISIS."

In addition to many irrational arguments they contain, these simplifications and equating Islam with terror do not help us actually fight terror, nor do they reflect the truth.

Mr. Fethullah Gulen, a leading Muslim scholar who has challenged extremism and radicalization for decades, said in one of his statements in 2004:

"Today, at best we can say that Islam is not known at all. Muslims should say, 'In true Islam, terror does not exist.' ... No person can kill a human being. No one can touch an innocent person, even in times of war. No one can give a fatwa (a legal pronouncement in Islam, issued by a religious law specialist, concerning a specific issue) on this matter. No one can be a suicide bomber. No one can rush into crowds with bombs tied to his or her body. Regardless of the religion of these crowds, this is not religiously permissible. Even in the event of war -- during which it is difficult to maintain balances -- this is not permitted in Islam."

The prominent scholar Jessica Stern suggested that religion is essentially irrelevant as a causal force, adding that jihadist actors are not actually religious during the course of their radicalization.

She argued that, "terrorists who claim to be motivated by religious ideology often turn out to be ignorant about Islam and do not have much formal religious education or proper religious instruction and had only a limited and incomplete understanding of Islam."

In his article titled "No Direction Home?" Professor John Horgan noted that radicalization in general is the main reason for terrorist engagement.

Here is the summary of Professor Horgan's findings:

"They feel angry, alienated, or disenfranchised. They believe that their current political involvement does not give them the power to effect real change. They identify with perceived victims of the social injustice they are fighting. They feel the need to take action rather than just talking about the problem. They believe that engaging in violence against the state is not immoral. They have friends or family sympathetic to the cause. They believe that joining a movement offers social and psychological rewards such as adventure or a heightened sense of identity."

There is no doubt that the problem of radicalization is not limited to Muslim societies and should be analyzed through a broader aperture.

However, despite these voices disputing the link between Islam and terror, there are also other views suggesting that some terrorist acts, like the Paris attacks last year, have had some roots in Islamic law.

Dr. Ahmet Kurucan, 54, a renowned Islamic scholar who has published often on Islamic law, argued that the attacks in Paris were terrorism, but that he could see no evidence or justification in the Qur'an, the hadiths, or other Islamic sources for such terrorist attacks:

"I do not see any evidence or justification for these terrorist attacks in the Qur'an, the Sunnah, or other sources of Islamic law. There are three main sources of knowledge in Islamic law: the Qur'an, the Sunnah, and juristic discretion. There are some warnings, orders, bans, or directions in the Qur'an regarding unpleasant behaviors, including insults and defamation, but there is no specific punishment prescribed for insulting the Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him. On the contrary, the Qur'an asks Muslims to leave if they hear anything that insults verses of the Qur'an or Islamic precepts. In a sense, this is passive opposition. But there is no specific criminal punishment in such cases. For a Muslim, the greatest truth and fact is the faith of the oneness of Allah. If there is an assault against this faith, a Muslim is advised not to stay with the group of people who make these insults."

Kurucan said the hadiths reach the same verdict.

"Even when Abdullah Ibn Saba insulted the Prophet Muhammad and Muslims in Medina, the Prophet did not respond. He rejected the offers of those Muslims who said they should retaliate with violence."

Kurucan said that there is nothing in Islamic tradition that has been made in reference to the methodological rules of the Qur'an and the foundations of the Sunnah to justify terror attacks. But of course, there are many incidents and cases that contradict the teachings and provisions of the Qur'an and the Sunnah in the history of Islam, including the battles of Siffin and Jamal. Kurucan also cited the disaster in Karbala, bloody wars, disagreements, political turmoil, tricks, and riots. He said these incidents had no roots in Islam, but were disagreements amongst the Muslims.

"These are cases in which the murderers and the victims alike were Muslim. We may also go back to the time of the Prophet Muhammad. People in Mecca and Medina used to kill each other before Islam. These were tribal disagreements. So, from a theoretical perspective and standpoint, it is possible to say that some fault lines -- including sectarian, ethnic and tribal divisions may cause bloody conflicts.

"What was the purpose of the attacks in Paris? Was it to protect the honor of Islam and the Prophet Muhammad? Do we not see based on the reactions to the attacks that this did not happen? If such a response had not been made, the caricatures would have had very limited influence; because of these attacks, millions of people are now paying attention to the caricatures."

However, last year The Atlantic magazine published an article claiming that ISIS is actually following a Prophetic methodology, labeling it 'very Islamic':

"The reality is that the Islamic State is Islamic. Very Islamic. Yes, it has attracted psychopaths and adventure seekers, drawn largely from the disaffected populations of the Middle East and Europe. But the religion preached by its most ardent followers derives from coherent and even learned interpretations of Islam."

Another expert on Islamic theology, Professor Zeki Saritoprak, of John Carrol University, said, "ISIS [the Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham] is far from following 'Prophetic methodology.' ISIS preaches hatred and contempt for human life. Nowhere are these parts of anything that could be remotely described as the Prophetic methodology, and their killings and brutal treatment of other Muslims, Christian, Jews, and others show that their methods are truly illegitimate."

Professor Saritoprak underlined that the Quran describes the Prophet as merciful to all human beings and asks Muslims to take the middle path, thus avoiding the temptations of extremism.

"ISIS' methodology is extremist. In this regard, ISIS is nothing new. Throughout the history of Islam, there have been Muslims who follow the path of extremism," said Saritoprak.

"An example from early Islam is the Kharijites. The Kharijites accused some companions of the Prophet, including Ali, the last of the rightly guided caliphs, of being a 'kafir,' or infidel. They specifically accused Ali because he made a peace agreement with Muawiyah, the governor of Damascus. In their argument, they referred to a verse in Quran, which says that those who do not rule according the rules sent down by God are truly disbelievers (5:44). According to extremist groups, all judges who do not rule in line with God's message are disbelievers. This mentality is still alive today – not just in ISIS, but also other groups that profess versions of political Islam."

Professor Saritoprak emphasized that ISIS uses eschatological themes extensively in their ideology, especially certain narratives found in the hadiths, or the collection of reports of sayings and teachings of the Prophet.

"First, let me say that nowhere in the Quran or hadith does it say that the duty of Muslims is to establish a caliphate, and in fact, the idea of an Islamic state did not exist prior to middle of the 19th century. I think that ISIS is so obsessed with a state because they have forgotten how to apply the rules to themselves, and so they have a desire to impose the rules on others. ISIS is thus a version of political Islam, which as a governing philosophy holds that Islam can be imposed on a population from the top down. This actually goes against Quranic principles, which focus on the individual as a universe in and of her or himself.

"One thing that followers of political Islam are generally not aware of is that time is an interpreter of the Quran. Some Quranic verses should be interpreted under the conditions of our time and not under the conditions of the Middle Ages. Therefore, I do not think that a caliphate or an Islamic state is necessary for Islam to flourish in the 21st century. It seems the future of Islam is in cooperation with the West and with Christianity. There is no imperative in the Quran to destroy the West or Christians. Quite the opposite; Islam should build upon Western civilization, not seek to destroy it. Those who see problems in the West should take solace in the words of Said Nursi, who said that eventually the negative aspects of the West will dissipate and there can be a coming together of Western and Islamic civilizations.

"Methodologically speaking, establishing an Islamic state may sound very attractive to many Muslims, but in reality it may not solve the problems of human beings. If you provide the best rules and put them in the hands of corrupt people, those rules will be used for corruption as well. I think that the attraction of an Islamic state blinds many Muslims to the reality of their situation and morality. It can be argued that helping one person to have faith in God is more rewarding than creating an Islamic state. Therefore, I think that any state that develops justice in society is compatible with the core teachings of Islam. Today there are many Western countries that follow Islamic values more closely than many states that claim to be Islamic."

Another scholar, Richard Bulliet, a well-known historian and author of the insightful book, The Case for Islamo-Christian Civilization, said that calling the terrorists 'jihadists' is not appropriate.

"We often call the terrorists jihadists. I don't really think that is the right word. In the Quran, there are certain offenses for which capital punishment is permitted; one of them is 'fasad fi al-ard' -- that is 'corruption in the earth.' There are variations in how 'corruption in the earth' is defined. There are several different places in the Quran where it appears. It is a flexible term, but one of the common definitions is that 'corruption in the earth' includes deeds that act to destroy the Muslim community.

"Now, I think that people who kill in the name of Islam are not participating in jihad. Rather, they are participating in 'fasad.' I think they are seriously wounding their own faith community by leading people to believe that the Prophet Muhammad was a murderer and leading people to believe that Muslims categorically are murderers and terrorists. I think jihadist is too kind a word. I think these are 'Mufasidun.' These are people who are acting against Islam, while claiming to be acting in the name of Islam.