After the Orlando shooting, there was an almost reflexive response by analysts who gave the usual talking points about how Islam is a religion of peace and its practitioners are peaceful people. What the Orlando killer did, many Muslims and pundits said, had nothing to do with Islam. Terrorists are simply hijacking Islam. True Muslims oppose the Orlando killer’s behavior. Saying the shooting was Islamic terrorism wrongly brands all Muslims as violent people or terrorists. There needs to be more nuance, though.
One of the things I routinely call for when I teach on this subject is the importance of making a critical distinction between two things: Islam and Muslims. Islam is the religion and its teachings. Muslims are the people who follow Islam. These two are different. Just because a religion teaches something, that doesn’t mean all of its practitioners believe or obey that teaching.
The same is true with the distinction between Christianity and Christians. The Bible, for example, teaches that God hates divorce, that it violates our vow to God, and is forbidden with a few exceptions (I know this is debated, but that’s not my point here). Divorce, in most cases, is a sin and prohibited for Christians. There are many Christians, though, who don’t follow biblical teaching on this topic and have divorced, contrary to biblical guidelines. It’s fair to say, then, that although Christianity teaches that divorce is wrong, many Christians don’t observe that teaching.
The same is true with Islam and Muslims. Islam teaches that violent jihad is a valid Islamic doctrine. This is taught in three authoritative sources of Islam. The Qur’an, what Muslims believe is the literal word of Allah, teaches violent jihad in the Medinan surahs (the passages allegedly revealed to Mohammed when he lived in Medina). Read surah 9 of the Qur’an for just one example. The hadith, what Mohammed said and approved of, also teaches violent jihad. Read Sahih Muslim, book 1:29–33 for just one example. Finally, the Sunnah, the life example set by Mohammed, teaches violent jihad. Read The Life of Mohammed by Ibn Ishaq for just one example. My point is not to give all the citations from each of these three sources. I provide some in The Ambassador’s Guide to Islam, and they are also available with a quick Google search. My point is that Islam—the religion and its teaching—affirms that violent jihad is a valid Islamic doctrine.
To be clear, I’m not saying that Islam teaches that any Muslim can attack any non-Muslim at any time and for any reason. The commands to engage in jihad have conditions that need to be met before Muslims can attack. Also, once certain conditions are met, Muslims must cease hostility. I’m simply saying that Islam affirms violent jihad.
Some people are critical of my comments, claiming that I’m demonizing Muslim people. That’s not true. I’ll be the first to say that most Muslims are not violent people. Not only is my family from the Middle East, but over the years I’ve known and interacted with Muslims of all stripes. When they’ve come to my family’s home, they are kind, respectful, and even bring gifts. When I’ve visited their homes, they are hospitable, gracious, and kind. I’ve been going to mosques in both the United States and the Middle East (and taking Christian groups to them) for years and never have had a problem.
These Muslims don’t observe the command to fight. Many of them try to reform Islam by making it less violent, while others are simply ignorant of its teachings. Around 70% of Muslims are nominal (Muslim in name only). They don’t study the Qur’an, hadith, or Sunnah. They don’t even attend their local mosque. They’re born in a Muslim family or Islamic country and adopt Islam by default. These Muslims want to lead peaceful lives.
That’s why I’m mystified by the backlash against those who point out that Islam—the religion and its teachings—affirms that violent jihad is a valid Islamic doctrine, while also recognizing that most Muslims are ignorant of those teachings or reject them. This is an accurate and honest view that makes the important distinction between Islam and Muslims.
Furthermore, this view makes sense of reality. There are many acts of violence perpetrated by Muslims who cite Islamic authoritative sources as justification for their actions. There are also many Muslims who denounce these violent acts and refuse to engage in violent jihad. To deny either that Islamic sources affirm violent jihad or that many Muslims don’t live consistently with those teachings is to deny reality.
As ambassadors for Jesus, however, we’re commanded to proclaim the message of reconciliation (2 Cor. 5:18–20) to all Muslims, whether nominal or adhering to violent jihad doctrine. Though governments may distinguish between different kinds of Muslims, the Gospel does not. Every Muslim, indeed every person, is guilty of committing crimes against God and deserves to be punished. God, though, offers a pardon to every one of us. That’s the message we’re commanded to share with every Muslim we encounter.