Global Analysis

The Challenge of Radical Islam

An evangelical response

John Azumah Mar 2015

Evangelical views on Islam understandably hardened after the 9/11 attacks.

For example:

Ted Haggard, the past President of the US National Association of Evangelicals, said: ‘The Christian God encourages freedom, love, forgiveness, prosperity and health. The Muslim god appears to value the opposite. The personalities of each god are evident in the cultures, civilizations and dispositions of the peoples that serve them.’[1]

Australian Mark Durie claims that Islamic State (IS) ‘battle tactics are regulated by sheikhs who implement the sharia’s rules of war. Many of the abuses committed by IS . . . are taken straight from the pages of Islamic legal textbooks.’ Thus, ‘attempting to persuade non-Muslim Westerners that Islam is not the problem actually makes it much harder to formulate an effective strategy for countering jihadi insurgencies’.[2]

For many evangelicals, jihadi groups encapsulate all the stereotypes that have daily currency in Islamophobic discourses: at once obscurantist, primitive, and ferocious, these groups embody all the prejudices associated with the supposed ‘essence’ of Islam.

Essence of Islam? 

There is no doubt, contrary to repeated Muslim denials, that aspects of the ideology of radical Islamic groups such as IS are rooted in Islamic texts and that they draw inspiration from Islamic history. The jihadists quote mainstream Islamic texts to justify their actions. However, quoting Islamic texts in itself does not necessarily make one’s views and actions Islamic. The Lord’s Resistance Army in Uganda, the Branch Davidians of David Koresh, and many other eccentric Christian cults have quoted the Bible. Furthermore, it does not matter how learned or high-ranking such claimants are. Leading Christian clergy and theologians have in the past misused Scripture to justify acts that many Christians are ashamed of today!

Sola scriptura

Those who argue that jihadi groups represent the essence of Islam actually reflect a Western way of thinking. Wittingly or unwittingly, they assume a scripturalist interpretation of Islam, imagining that we can explain Islamic terrorism by drawing a straight line between authoritative texts and the actions of jihadists. To prove their point, they tend to link specific acts of jihadi groups to a string of references from Islamic scripture, traditions, legal texts, and Muslim scholarly opinions. Perversely, this sola scriptura approach is no different from the jihadists’ own ‘Qur’an and Sunna alone’ approach.

Complex causes 

The truth about religious lives is not so simple. The vast majority of Christians and Muslims do not live by sola scriptura or Qur’an and Sunna alone—even when they claim to do so! A complex, shifting web of socio-political, geopolitical, racial, ethnic, cultural, sectarian, economic, historical, and existential realities inform the way all of us live out our faith.

My own view is that there are seeds of violence in some Islamic teaching. However, these seeds need fertile ground to sprout and to flourish. The oppressive governments, weak and corrupt state institutions, illiteracy, blind imitation, and poverty that plague many Muslim societies are fertile ground for Islamic extremism. So are historical memories, conspiracy theories, foreign policy missteps by Western governments, disillusionment with mainstream society, and a sense of alienation among Muslim youth in Western societies. We cannot make sense of the jihadi mindset, let alone work out a credible and sustainable response, without taking these factors seriously.

Islamic law violations

While some of the legal and doctrinal edicts the jihadists cite to justify their acts are integral parts of Islamic law, the jihadists violate that law by taking it into their own hands. The conditions necessary for the declaration of jihad, as well as its proper conduct, provide an obvious instance. Questions of which groups can be targeted, how and toward what end, are enormously complicated and sharply qualified in authoritative Islamic texts.

For example, as is the case in Christian just war theory which carefully limits to governments the power to declare war, in Islamic law only legitimate Islamic governments can declare a jihad, not individuals or non-state actors. The exception is when a Muslim land comes under attack or occupation by an enemy force, which renders jihad or resistance an individual responsibility. However, even then, jihad has to have been formally declared by the legitimate authority properly representing people of the occupied nation. By declaring and conducting jihad on their own, groups like al-Qaida, IS, and Boko Haram are heretical usurpers.[3]

When it comes to the conduct of jihad, contrary to claims that the battle tactics of Islamic terrorist groups are taken from Islamic legal textbooks, many of their atrocities are at odds with all four orthodox schools of law in Sunni Islam.

All four declare that women, children, the elderly, the disabled, priests, traders, farmers, and all non-combatant civilians should not be targeted and killed in a jihad.

Things of economic value such as farms, businesses, markets, and places of worship (including non-Muslim ones) are not to be targeted for attack. Islamic law allows that these may be taken as war booty, but they are not to be destroyed.

Deliberate assaults on civilians, blowing up or hijacking of planes, indiscriminate bombings in markets, attacks on churches and mosques, murders of religious figures—all carried out by jihadi groups—violate the clear limits set in Islamic law for the conduct of a jihad.


Another key feature of the jihadists’ ideology is their rejection of, and often rebellion against, established governments of Islamic countries. They have declared Muslim governments around the world un-Islamic and illegitimate, vowing to replace these with a Caliphate.

To achieve their aim, the groups target and kill Muslim opponents, justifying their actions with a doctrine known as takfir that specifies conditions under which fellow Muslims can be declared unbelievers and killed. The doctrine dates back to the 7th century. A splinter group known as the Kharijites taught that it was acceptable to excommunicate and conduct jihad against fellow Muslims, including a Muslim ruler, if they were judged guilty of the commission of certain sins.

This idea was uniformly repudiated by the rest of the Muslim community at the time, and all the four schools of law continue to reject it. Indeed, the legal tradition of Islam includes explicit rulings against Kharijites, classifying them as unbelievers who should be fought and killed.


Given the clear consensus of the Islamic tradition, it is not surprising that Muslim leaders around the world, including the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, the Grand Mufti of Saudi Arabia, and the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar University in Cairo, have repeatedly and publicly denounced al-Qaida, IS, and Boko Haram.

Leading Pakistani Muslim scholars Javed Ahmad Ghamidi and Muhammad Tahir ul-Qadri, both with considerable followings and influence, have respectively written a book[4] and issued a fatwa[5] on the meaning and conduct of jihad. Both rule against terrorism and violent rebellion, citing extensively from the Qur’an, prophetic traditions, and legal and theological luminaries over the centuries and across sectarian divides. They declare IS as Kharijites, terrorists, rebels, and heretics.

On September 19, 2014, 126 leading Islamic figures around the world signed and published an ‘Open Letter to Al-Baghdadi’, challenging the Islamic basis of the ideology of IS (

While these public denunciations may have little impact on the leadership of the jihadi groups, they play a significant role in delegitimizing jihadi ideology and therefore undermine their appeal to young Muslims. We should therefore take them seriously and do what we can to amplify their influence.

Unfortunately, Western critics of jihadi groups overlook these voices and sometimes even discredit them. Too often I’ve heard people say: ‘Islam reformed is no Islam!’ Not only is that a patronizing claim about what Muslims can and cannot achieve within their own tradition, it is a dead-end position. When a Muslim tells a Christian: ‘The Qur’an teaches me to love you’, why should the Christian then tell the Muslim: ‘No, the Qur’an actually teaches you to kill me’?

Issues for discussion 

While Islam is not, in my view, the problem, Muslim societies clearly have problems (some of which were mentioned above as providing fertile ground for seeds of violence) and Christians have to engage with Muslims in frank and open dialogue. As a Christian scholar of Islam, here is my list of topics that require frank discussions with Muslims:

1. Tacit support

During the formative stages of nearly all jihadi groups, local Muslim religious and political leaders have either turned a blind eye to, or actively supported, their activities. Islamic governments, organizations, and businessmen have funded them and used them for their political ends. How is it that groups so widely condemned as heretical by Islamic authorities receive so much tacit support in the mainstream Muslim world, especially when their attacks are aimed at non-Muslims and Western interests?

2. Contemptuous teaching

For fear of being labeled bad Muslims or outright unbelievers by radical preachers, Muslim leaders around the world have turned a blind eye to the largely contemptuous and belligerent teaching about non-Muslims in authoritative Islamic texts and popular consciousness. The same goes for the teaching on jihad, apostasy, blasphemy laws, and the place of non-Muslim citizens in an Islamic society. While jihadi groups are heretical in their claim to have the authority to interpret and impose these laws, the existence of the teaching alone is an invitation to rebellion and extremism. Is it not time for Islamic scholars and leaders to reexamine doctrines that are so easily abused by extremists? Is not the orgy of blood, the overwhelming majority of victims being Muslims, a clear sign of the need for thoroughgoing reforms?[6]

Key trends 

My questions and others are not being ignored. There is a wind blowing in the house of Islam, and a battle for the soul of Islam is earnestly underway. There are disillusioned young Iranians, Egyptians, and Iraqis leaving Islam in huge numbers and giving up on religion altogether. Ordinary Muslims are turning away from Islam to other religions, including Christianity (where there is a friendly Christian presence).[7]

We see also a growing progressive trend in Islam that is engaged in a critical re-reading of Islamic texts and history. These are signs that serious introspection is taking place across the Muslim world. After 9/11, progressive Muslim scholars openly declared their stance against ‘those whose God is a vengeful monster in the sky issuing death decrees against the Muslim and the non-Muslim alike . . . those whose God is too small, too mean, too tribal, and too male’. To all of these, they declared: ‘Not in my name, not in the name of my God will you commit this hatred, this violence!’[8]

Suggested responses

As someone who grew up in the Muslim world, I want to conclude by saying that evangelicals too need to reform our ways.

In recent decades, evangelicals have contributed to the invisibility of Christian presence and witness in Muslim lands. We have caved in to real and imagined threats from radical groups. Instead of openly challenging the criminalization of Christian missions and evangelism in Muslim contexts, we have engaged in undercover and underhanded missions.

We must remain watchful and prayerful about the danger of radical Islam radicalizing evangelicals into re-defining our witness and values. The battle is not against flesh and blood but against principalities and powers. We cannot win by resorting to the weapons our opponents wield, such as paranoia, conspiracy theories, propaganda, lies, and hatred. We are compelled to use superior arms: to put on the belt of truth, the breastplate of righteousness, the gospel of peace, the shield of faith, the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God (Eph 6:14-17).

A longer version of this article has been published in First Things:


  1. Steven Waldman, ‘Do Muslims and Christians worship the same God?’ Slate, 17 December 2003,
  2. Mark Durie, ‘“Three Choices” and the Bitter Harvest of Denial: How dissimulation about Islam is fuelling genocide in the Middle East’, Lapido Media, 12 August 2014,
  3. Editor’s Note: See article entitled ‘Responding to the Challenge of Boko Haram’ by John Azumah in the November 2014 issue of Lausanne Global Analysis.
  4. Javed Ahmad Ghamidi, The Islamic Shari’ah of Jihad (Lahore: Al-Mawrid, 2005).
  5. Muhammad Tahir-ul-Qadri, Fatwa on Terrorism and Suicide Bombings (London, UK: Minhaj-ul-Qur’an International, 2010).
  6. Editor’s Note: See article entitled ‘Persecution of Christians in the World Today’ by Charles Tieszen in the September 2013 issue of Lausanne Global Analysis.
  7. Editor’s Note: See article entitled ‘Turmoil in the Middle East’ by Wafik Wahba in the November 2013 issue of Lausanne Global Analysis.
  8. Omid Safi, ed, Progressive Muslims on Justice, Gender and Pluralism (Oxford: Oneworld Publication, 2003), 9-10.

* Editor’s Note: Featured image is a derivative of ‘Iraqi insurgents with guns‘ by Menendj (CC BY-SA 2.5).