Other Worldviews

How to Understand the Distinction Between Islam and Muslims—Mentoring Letter August 2016

Author Alan Shlemon Published on 08/01/2016

After the tragic mass shooting in Orlando, many clues pointed to a familiar explanation: Islamic terrorism. The killer was a Muslim, born in a Muslim family, and pledged his allegiance to Abu-Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of ISIS.

Almost reflexively, though, analysts 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. True Muslims oppose the Orlando killer’s behavior.

There is, in fact, a need for more nuance. We do need to make 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.

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, a useful resource we are offering for your gift to STR this month. My point is that Islam—the religion and its teaching—affirms that violent jihad is a valid Islamic doctrine.

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.

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. 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.

To help you do so in an inviting and even-handed way, we want to send you The Ambassador’s Guide to Islam. It’s a vital resource for you, a family member, or a friend that gives you a very specific plan of engagement. And it’s yours when you send a gift this month.

Will you do that today? Your generosity now will prepare even more believers to stand firm in the faith—and to share it with confidence and grace.

On behalf of Greg Koukl and the entire STR team, thank you for your faithful support. Your generosity and prayers are a true source of encouragement for each one of us. You make this completely donor-supported ministry possible and we are deeply grateful.

In His grace,

Alan Shlemon
Author and Speaker, Stand to Reason

P.S. Thank you for standing with us again this month. Be sure to request The Ambassador’s Guide to Islam as you respond.