How do Islamists justify violence?


Thijs Wester

Islam and Ismalists are often named in conjunction with violence and terrorism. It
seems that, in modern times, Islam is seen as a more violent religion than most. This
essay will explore this notion and attempt to analyse whether Islam is inherently vio-
lent, or whether Muslims are.

Before starting the analysis, I believe it may be fruitful to first explore the differ-

ences between the behaviour prescribed by Islamic scripture and the behaviour prac-
tised by Muslims. If the Islamic holy scriptures (notably the Quran) justify or
encourage violence, then it would be fair to say that violence is inherent to the reli-
gion. This might be compared to the constitutional law of a country. If on the other
hand, violence is simply common among followers of Islam, while being condemned
(or simply not mentioned) by the Quran, then we might imagine an Islamic world with-
out violence. This would be akin to a lower level law, or unspoken agreement in the
previous analogy.

Now, we may turn our attention to the issue of violence and terrorism in the name

of Islam, a tradition with a rich history dating back at least to the 13


century with the

Ottoman empire. While the empire was never exclusively Islamic, the empire did
house the leader of the Muslim church, and expanded it’s borders in-part to spread
Islamic beliefs. Among the best examples of this violent religious expansion is the war
with the republic of Venice, which was backed at the time by the Holy league consist-
ing of a number of powerful catholic nations including the papal states.

However, while the acts of the Ottoman empire during it’s expansion may have

been violent, the question remains on whether they should be labelled as terroristic.
Answering this question will requite a brief overview o the history-, and definition of

The term Terrorism originates in France where it was used to describe the reign

of Maximilien François Marie Isidore de Robespierre. This is an example of state-
orchestrated terrorism, a phenomenon less widespread in the current day-and-age
compared to non-state terrorism. Islamic terror groups such as al-Qaeda, Islamic State
and al-Shabaab operate independent of any particular nation state, though they often
aim to acquire one. The connecting factor between these two forms of terrorism is in
the terror that they cause. Both for Robespierre and Bin Laden the main aim was to
instil fear in the populous.

Now that we have established the difference between terrorism and violence, the

relation of these phenomena to Islam may be explored. There are passages in the
Quran that may be interpreted as calling for terrorist actions. Passages such as
(3:151) “Soon shall We cast terror into the hearts of the Unbelievers” or (8:12)
“(Remember) when your Lord inspired the angels... ”I will cast terror into the hearts
of those who disbelieve. Therefore strike off their heads and strike off every fingertip



Thijs Wester


of them“ So too exist passages calling for violence such as (4:104) ”And be not weak
hearted in pursuit of the enemy; if you suffer pain, then surely they (too) suffer pain as
you suffer pain...“, (5:33) ”The punishment of those who wage war against Allah and
His messenger and strive to make mischief in the land is only this, that they should be
murdered or crucified or their hands and their feet should be cut off on opposite sides
or they should be imprisoned“.

While these passages are seemingly explicit in the calling for both violent-, and

terrorist- actions, the context of these passages should be taken into account. Among
the sections listed above there are many among them that only apply to wartime con-
duct. Furthermore, there are passages that seemingly condone terrorism that have
long been interpreted as claiming that only Allah will instil terror, not faithful Muslims.
In general, it is observed (for instance in court records of the aforementioned Ottoman
empire), that the literal text, and its application may differ. The scholastic Islamic tra-
dition has long discussed passages like the ones above and investigated their modern
applicability. Theologians rarely read these passages as condoning terrorism and those
that do are often shown the numerous passages in the Quran calling for peace, har-
mony, following of the law, and forgiving of “heathens”. Terrorists are however rarely
scholars and as such are often found to have misguided or misunderstood interpreta-
tions of scripture.

Terrorists thus justify their violence with scripture, even though scripture does

not justify their actions. It is however important that scripture may be interpreted in
this misguided way, for it allows terrorists to operate under the guise of rationality an
faith. Faith is perhaps the most motivating factor as we have learned from Pascal’s
wager. If the terrorist believes that an eternal reward is waitijavascript get width of elementng in the afterlife, any
action becomes justified. Passages such as “We shall unite them with fair maidens with
large-, pretty- eyes” have motivated many terrorists, however, this passage also may
be read (especially in older transcripts) as “We shall let them rest under excellent
grapes” (Luxenberg, 2007). Nevertheless, as long as one operates under the impres-
sion that an eternal reward awaits in exchange for violent acts, there is little one won’t

In conclusion, it seems that though Muslims have historically often been violent,

the Quran does not seem to advocate for violence directly. At the very least, Islamic
scholars have, over the centuries, read the Quran as a book advocating peace rather
than conflict. Terrorists however often discard (or simply never hear) these scholastic
interpretations and therefor justify their actions by a minority reading of the holy
book. This justification remains however misplaced.


Luxenberg, Christoph. 2007. The Syro-Aramaic Reading of the Koran: a Contribution

to the Decoding of the Language of the Koran. Verlag Hans Schiler.