Islam, Terrorism, and the Spiral of Violence


Human beings are naturally endowed with the capacity to willingly deliberate and make personal inferences and significance from religious scriptures. Different religious adherents may share the same fundamental principles yet form contrasting convictions. As a result of these varying religious interpretations, many good deeds and equally monstrous acts have been committed thus casting doubt on the original intention of these dogmas. To the Muslims, the Quran is acknowledged as the highest and most fundamental sacred command from Allah. However, it has been interpreted conflictingly and sometimes used scrupulously to suit their selfish desires.

This paper seeks to critically examine the uncertainty of religious dogmas and their role in violent misconceptions. It endeavors to understand religious motivations towards acts of terrorism and if indeed religion motivates individuals to commit violence. The study intends to change people’s minds on the common misleading perceptions of Islam and religion and hopefully reduce the possibility of future acts of terrorism and violence.

The ambivalence of the sacred

Sacred is that which is revered because of its divine nature or its connection with divinity. Religion refers to human reaction to what is considered sacred. It interprets the sacred by making it more meaningful in reality. As an establishment, religion requires varieties of impressive symbols, codes of conduct, creeds, suitable adherents and resources to propagate the sacred.

Different religions have varying opinions on what they consider to be holy. However, no matter the differences in dogmas, Christianity, Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam, Judaism and Sikhism have a common fundamental principle; they are themselves dual yet share the same view on the supernatural (Appleby,9).

Religion motivates people and society into making valuable contributions to society for instance charitable organizations, relief and general welfare programs. Religion is thus perceived by many as a mechanism that preaches and promotes harmony and goodwill. Religion has influenced individuals’ ways of life. Many people have built their lives around spiritual practices and religious principles. In many countries especially in Asia and Africa, religion, politics and society, in general, are intertwined. Ethics are defined along religious lines in highly religious states like Islamic societies. In secular societies, the religious basis of moral character is mostly reserved in places of worship and not the general public.

According to the secularization theory, modernity has led to the separation of religion and the public. Religion has been privatized and risks being marginalized or facing decline while at the same time; religious bodies are more involved in public life and politics for instance “Jewish fundamentalism”,” political Islam” “Hindu nationalism” and “the new Christian right”. Secular and religious spheres are highly imbricated and keep accommodating each other than in the years gone by. As a result, religion is forced to modify itself to accommodate secular inclinations.

Over the course of history, religion has sanctioned acts of violence as much as they have tried to restrain the extent of these crimes. Religion has been used as a tool by individuals, groups and even states to perpetuate and advance personal ambitions in the name of God. Similarly, religions have used violence to foster their interests and to meet political ends.

Religion is perceived as the motivating passion behind fanatical activities and religious antagonism in Europe in the 16th and 17th centuries and the development of imperialism. Regimes like Marxism and Maoism used religion to oppress and exploit civilians and workers while communists violently repressed religions in Russia, Eastern Europe and China.

Christianity in recent times has been accused of being oppressive, unjust and practicing gender bias, especially against women. According to Martha Nussbaum, almost all the religions of the world are guilty of gender discrimination both in their theoretical frameworks and in practice. Consequently, many religions have lost popularity and influence, especially in western countries. In the US, the church has had to be separated from the state and much as religion still flourishes, their roles in issues pertaining to the public are however restricted.

Religion has also been used to support radical groups and motivate prejudice and violence. Extremists use violence as a religious justification in their search for justice. For instance, in weak civil and highly religious societies like the Balkans, Northern Ireland, and North Africa and Iran religions may employ strife and violence or give moral and financial aid to terror groups to further their interests.

Religious extremists have become a serious force to reckon with in many societies. In the Middle East, religions have been used to fuel extremist groups like intifada to sustain the conflict for personal gains. Death tolls from killings, suicide bombings and other manifestations of violence keep rising. Both sides are either unwilling or unable to restrain the terror gangs.

With the advancement in technology, perpetrators of violence are gradually gaining prominence and political recognition. Osama bin laden’s al Qaeda is a perfect example of a highly organized and technologically advanced terror group that gained international recognition and that of security forces around the world following the September 11th attack on the US in 2001.

According to Michael Sheehan, many terrorist groups have depicted their ideals based on religion and culture yet in reality; it is a strategy in which their true intentions lie hidden. They only wish to gather support and sympathy.

Religions cannot be exonerated from violence. However, they do not necessarily cause violence unless under unconventional circumstances. According to Hector Avalos, the individual religious declaration of divinity over other religions creates violence as every religion claims to be the only true religion. This means that religions cannot be evaluated without bias.

Different views within Islam

Islam has suffered prejudice as a result of violence perpetrated by Muslims against their perceived “enemies”, acts of violence against women and most acts of terrorism incited by or vindicated by Islam. Many Muslims; civilians, clerics and leaders have used the Quran and other Islamic ideas and basis to rationalize their acts of violence against others (Rippin, 26).

The jihadis are interpreted by many, Muslims and non-Muslims, to mean a holy war against anyone opposed to Islam. However, the real concept, interpretation and application of the term have evaded many. Just like in any other religion, there exist different Islamic groups with varying views and interpretations. The Quran represents the true will of God while the jihadis the most controversial issue in interpretation and practice.

Jihad in the Quran means to struggle and it is a significant religious obligation for Muslims. Some refer to it as another pillar of Islam while others consider it one of the habitual customs of Islam. According to Lewis, the word is used in reference to spiritual struggles: a personal struggle of keeping the faith, the effort to progress Islam civilization and the struggle to safeguard Islam against attack. Jihad is defended by Muslim scholars to mean a corporate duty through which the Muslim community presents well-founded grievances, solves religious issues, learns about God’s laws and proclaims right from wrong (117).

However, various interpretations of the word have always been controversial with western cultures translating it to mean ‘holy war’ against non-Muslims. While Islam scholars reject this interpretation, even among Muslims themselves, there is no single clear-cut understanding of the term. The majority of Muslims translate jihad as giving up one’s life for the glory of Islam or Allah or a worthy cause. Others for instance in Lebanon, Jordan and morocco look at jihad as a divine obligation toward God without any military significance. Most of the acts of terror are propagated by extremists.

The Sunni

They comprise the largest population of Muslims around the world. Their fundamental doctrines are the Quran and the Sunna. Sunna is the version of the life of Muhammad as it appears in hadith (reports of Muhammad’s actions, his words and his personal traits). The Sunni call themselves the traditional denomination that follows the true path of Mohammad. They encourage Muslims to tread in the path of the prophet in their day-to-day lives by emulating his actions, words and character. The Quran is interpreted from the prophet’s point of view. However, Sunnis to wage war on contradicting sects like the Shia.

The Shia

The Shias, unlike Sunnis, that Ali, Mohammad’s cousin was the rightful person to fit in the prophet’s shoes after his death. Likewise, the imams, who are descendants of the prophet have a political and spiritual mandate over Islam. Just like other Islamic denominations, the Shia base their teachings on the Quran and the teachings of Mohammad.

The Sufi

The Sufis are a mythical aspect of Islam that emphasizes on knowing Islam not necessarily from the books but from the teachers of the faith. The Sufis model themselves to the prophet and subsequent teachers of Islam with the hope of getting an experience with God. They focus more on the spiritual aspect of religion. They perceive the greater jihad as more of a personal struggle within oneself to achieve salvation and distinction.

Minor Denominations

The Ahmadiyya Muslims are pacifists who view jihad as personal strife that should not be used for political ambitions or to cause violence. Violence is only used as a last resort and only in self-defense and the defense of Islam in cases of the highest degree of oppression. According to Mirza Tahir Ahmad the fourth caliph of the Ahmadiyya Muslims, any manifestation of violence by any individual, group, or country should not be justified as an act in the name of God. This is because true Islam does not condone the use of violence.

The Kharijites are a sect in Islam that interprets and follows the Quran in its literal sense. To them, it is not enough to profess the faith and anyone who does not adhere to the Quran to the latter is a nonbeliever. According to Kharijites, it is their obligation to ensure that good was adhered to and evil prohibited. Those Muslims who did not see eye to eye with the Kharijites were deemed foes of Allah and deserved a ‘holy war’ (Rippin 70).

This view has been followed by extreme Islamic fundamentalists, carrying out acts of violence ‘jihad’ to dispose of “un Islamic” rule and rulers and also to wage a holy war against the west. This was the motivational force behind the assassination of Anwar Sadat in Egypt and the al Qaeda bombings all over the western world.

These groups focus mostly on the verses in the Quran that refer to conflict, war, resistance and persecution and conclude that the Quran warrants them to commit acts of violence that include terrorism, suicide bombings, assassinations, violence against women, and armed attacks against non-Muslims and killing innocent people.

In essence, Islamic groups seek information from the same script, and give different emphasis but end up with varying and contradicting conclusions. Hence terrorists and peacemakers are a product of the same environment and in most cases only differ in their manifestation of what is sacred.

Why certain groups have led to violence

Whether groups commit acts of terror and violence for political or religious aims, whether this so-called Islamic terrorism is perpetrated by Muslims or nationalists, whether for self-defense or aggression is still a subject of controversy. However, these acts have been taking place since time immemorial.

Armed violence is prevalent in the Middle East, Africa, Europe, and South East Asia and more recently in the United States of America. According to Camara, violence is a vicious cycle. It begins with injustices that reduce people to sub-human conditions that even aid or negotiations cannot heal. Since no one likes to be undermined or be treated unfairly, these actions expose humans to this sub-human state leaving them oppressed, bitter, and hopeless and with no other way out but to retaliate. This then leads to revolt as individuals resort to battle in order to get better treatment or better conditions. The people get tired of waiting for something better to happen to them and take it upon themselves to change their condition. The commonly felt ideas are spread from one person to another, street to street, country to country and the masses come out to protest. The younger ones become more radical by using whichever means to be felt. However, this unrest does not sit well with the oppressors who value their status and do not sit idly and watch their positions being changed. They then resort to another form of violence which is repression. Repression is achieved by whichever means including violence. The vicious cycle continues (32 to 35).

Analysts indicate that injustice and oppression of Muslims could be the reason for al Qaeda attacks on the western world and Christians though most people assume and conclude that they religiously motivated hatred for other religions and cultures.

Al Qaeda’s main aim in perpetrating terror attacks is to put a stop to American armed troops in the Arabian Gulf, dispose of corrupt and inadequately religious systems of government and put an end to American unconditional aid to Israel. Among Osama bin laden’s grievances are the presence of the American troops in Saudi Arabia which Muslims consider holy grounds, the US support for renegade states in the Middle East and Africa, the US offensive and subsequent seizure of Afghanistan, the discrimination of Muslim immigrants in the west, the Us support for the installation of a Christian regime in east Timor from Muslim Indonesia, historical injustices like the papacy approved wars on Muslims in Europe in the early centuries and the seemingly US support of counterrevolutions against Islamic radicals in Asia and the middle east.

The ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict that has raged on since the late 19th century has also been characterized by violence and armed confrontations. The bone of contention is what each side considers their rightful land; Israel for the Jews and Palestine for the Arabs. Violence by both sides is articulated by government troops, militias, terror groups and individuals. Some of these groups take responsibility for acting individually yet at times leaders have often engaged or supported some of these groups to propagate attacks and counterattacks. Suicide attacks, kidnappings, executions, hijackings, and recruiting new members through the internet are some of the strategies employed. The conflict has also attracted the attention of international terror groups. According to Osama bin laden, the US-Israeli alliance is a plot to eradicate Islam hence any killings are vindicated as jihad.

According to some academicians, some terrorist groups pursue violence as revenge against world powers. Empires often stir up resistance which comes in many forms, for instance, the Russian empire, the Ottoman Empire and the Habsburg Empires had to contend with terrorist attacks from groups like the Black Hand, Young Bosnia and Narodnaya Volya. These groups were ethnic, religious and nationalistic in nature. Al Qaeda attacks on the US could then be a reaction against the power the US represents in the world.

This vicious cycle can only be stopped by addressing the root cause which is human oppression and injustices.

Islam is a religion of peace, by way of the prophet’s actions as well as through interpretation of the holy text.

Acts by extremists have tainted the image of Islam, especially across the western world. Some Muslims argue that Islam is traditionally a religion that advocates for peace and tolerance among all people regardless of their religious beliefs while critics advocate that Islam is by nature a violent religion whose principles and creeds are the driving force behind the terrorist attacks all over the world.

Some are undecided since while one Muslim approves of suicide bombings and killing of innocent civilians in an act of protest against foreign invasion, another strongly condemns the act of killing the innocent. In their defense, each group refers to the Quran and conclusively argues to be acting in the way of the prophet. However, the issue remains; is Islam a religion of peace or violence?

The critics state that Muhammad was not altogether a humble and peaceful man. History proves that the prophet’s humble and peaceful disposition ended when he fled Mecca. His subsequent actions were filled with unimaginable violence. He used violence to force those who opposed him into submission. Families, women and children were not spared. His utterances during those times are the motivational factor behind subsequent Islamic violence. Therefore even as Muslims claim to tread in the footsteps of the prophet, they are not consistent owing to the prophet’s discrepancies.

In Sura 9:29, Muhammad urges Muslims to attack nonbelievers until they submit to Allah’s will or endure humiliation under the domination of Islam. In various places in the Quran, Muhammad insists that the jihadis the most favorable way and Muslim believers ought to fight in the way of Allah. While it is undeniable that Muslims should only fight when threatened, what is meant as a threat is controversial. Historically, rejecting Islam and the prophet was a threat hence warranted a jihad (Garver 97).

Peace is one of the fundamental elements of Islam. In Arabic, Islam means submission. The word shares its origin with ‘salaam’ or peace. According to the Quran, we are all children of Adam and the devil is the father of hostility and hatred. God calls on all people to love and affectionate others. Therefore, a perfect life is in submitting to God and acknowledging love and friendship which is part of human nature. Muhammad in his last preaching told believers not to harm others so that no harm befalls them.

According to Jeffrey Wattles, some Quran verses and the prophet’s statements advocate for peace and harmony. For instance, the Quran says that there will be tribulations for those who exact a terrible revenge. The Quran praises those who treat their neighbors fairer than they would treat themselves. Just like Jesus preached fairness, so does the Quran. It says that one cannot be a true believer if they do not desire for others what they themselves long for.

According to conventional Islamic principles, the most preferred Islamic society (Khilafah) would be that which transcends borders and differences. This involves people from different backgrounds joining voluntarily (Brown 66).

Peace in Islam is a godly virtue that should be sought so as to attain absolute happiness in paradise, our original and promised home. The Quran defines justice as equality and it is the guiding and determining principle of all mankind. According to Ali Ibn Abi Talib, justice is putting everything where is rightfully belongs. The Quran emphasizes fairness among the believers. Muslims are encouraged to be just and do right in reverence to God since He is aware of all that they do.

Therefore peace and justice are related and are an integral part of human growth. A person who kills an innocent man is likened to killing the whole human race. Those who commit such atrocities go against the will of God making it subject to mockery.

Consequently, terrorists are not a true face of Islam because true Islam cannot be properly observed in the absence of peace and tolerance. The discrepancies in the interpretation of the original Islamic teachings are to be blamed for terror activities.

The Quran does not use jihad to mean fighting and violence in the name of God. Originally, jihad was meant for the immediate neighbors of Muslims and the current interpretations and additions are updates for the current enemies. According to Mahmoud Ayoub, a Muslim scholar, the traditionally intended aim of jihad is to harmonize Islam, faith and righteous living. In contemporary times, jihad has been used to describe a struggle for a fair and moral social establishment. Some have used it to refer to a struggle for economic growth for instance the Tunisian president, Habib Bourguiba. In Islam, jihad is the only acceptable kind of war covered in Islamic laws. Its principal goal is to expand and defend Islam and not to forcefully convert non-Muslims to Islam.

Even though the Quran does not in many details explain neither the objectives of the jihad, the process of the jihad and the ethical concerns, it focuses more on advancing soldiers for the sake of Islam. In conventional Islamic journals, the rules of armed warfare include not killing women, children and innocent civilians and also not destroying places of residence and arable land.

Jihad in Islam faces challenges within and outside Islam. Many Muslims fail to agree on what justifies a holy war. For the pacifists, the major problem has been keeping up with an Islamic culture that disapproves of violence as a way of addressing injustices and upholding the rights of repressed minorities.


Religious tolerance is a virtue that means being able to desist from using violence against those whom one disapproves of. It goes more than that and embraces the attitude of mutual respect and standing up for the good of all. People should be well informed about religions and be able to think correctly and isolate extremists from religious actors. Religious actors exalt holiness, peace, ethics and reconciliation while extremists mostly allege to be supporting religious principles and are very choosy on what to take in and uphold. Extremists in their bid to gain adherents convince believers that traditional teachings that talk against violence should be disregarded and those for violence be highly prioritized. Such teachings find roots in the young and uneducated people who become easily convinced. Religions have spoken out against violence contrary to what critics say. Peace can be achieved through structural changes in society and through developing workable ways through which conflicts can be decided on and solved peacefully.

Work cited

Appleby Scott R. The ambivalence of the sacred: religion, violence, and reconciliation. Carnegie Commission on Preventing Deadly Conflict series. Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield, 2000. Print.

Brown, McAfee Robert. Religion and violence: a primer for white Americans Portable Stanford. Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1973. Print.

Camara, Helder Dom. Spiral of violence. Houston: Sheed and Ward, 1971. Print.

Garver, Nigel. “What Violence Is.” In Today’s Moral Problems, edited by R. Wasserstrom. New York: Macmillan, 1975. Print.

Lewis Bernard. “The crisis of Islam.” in Fiqh Made Easy: A Basic Textbook of Islamic Law, by Saalikh bin Gahneem As-Sadlan. Westminister.

Martha, Nussbaum C. “The clash within Democracy, Religious Violence and India’s Future” Journal Of Law and Religion Vol. 23 No.2 2007/2008.

Nimer, Abu Mohammad. Nonviolence and peacebuilding in Islam: theory and practice. University Press of Florida, 2003.

Rippin, Andrew. Muslims Their Religious Beliefs and Practices. London: Routledge, 2001. Print.

Sheehan, Michael A. Crush the Cell: How to Defeat Terrorism Without Terrorizing Ourselves. New York: Crown Publishers, 2008.. Print.

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