“Diagnosing terrorism as a symptom and Islam as the problem, though popular in some circles, is flawed and has serious risks with dangerous repercussions.”
– John Esposito, (Who Speaks for Islam, 97)

Nabeel Qureshi is a former Muslim who converted to Christianity and is now a full time Christian apologist with a Ministry. But if you read his USA Today Opinion piece, headlined The Qur’an’s deadly role in inspiring Belgian slaughter this critical fact would not come to your attention – as the author begins the article by describing himself as “a Muslim growing up in the United States.”  Anyone may easily read this entire piece and conclude – as numerous comments on the article show – that Qureshi is a practicing Muslim who finally “confirms” that the Qur’an is an inherently violent text. His actual allegiances are only mentioned at the end of the article. This sort of deceptive writing by someone who claims to be promoting “love” toward Muslims represents the height of dishonesty. It is only eclipsed by the sort of dubious and factually problematic arguments Qureshi advances. One should note that Nabeel Qureshi possesses little to no credentials in the academic study of Muslim law, history, thought or Qur’anic studies (his MA thesis is a comparison of “orality” in the Qur’an and Gospel of Mark) and certainly no expertise on the topic of warfare and jihad in the Qur’an and Islam. He is a self-admitted Christian apologist (except in the body of the article under question) and his arguments must be viewed in light of his evangelical agenda.

Qureshi’s problematic thesis is that the Qur’an as a whole is violent, that its literal interpretation enables and inspires ISIS, and that its Surah (Chapter) 9 commands Muslims to commit unconditional violence against all non-Muslims and “subjugate Jews and Christians.” Qureshi is quick to say that “My point is not to question the faith of such Muslims nor to imply that radical Muslims are the true Muslims.” But once sentence later, he goes on to say that ISIS “radicalizes” people “by primarily by urging them to follow the literal teachings of the Quran and the hadith, interpreted consistently and in light of the violent trajectory of early Islam.” By declaring that the Qur’an itself inspires and commands violence, Qureshi is trying to brand “real Islam” as inherently violent.  He even concludes that “As long as the Islamic world focuses on its foundational texts, we will continue to see violent jihadi movements.” 

Not only is Qureshi’s analysis historically and textually inaccurate, his entire article is nothing more than a Christian apologist’s attempt to attack Islam and convert Muslims. While Qureshi is entitled to his opinion, dressing up his Op-Ed as the honest views of a Muslim is simply not in keeping with either Christian or Muslim values of honesty and integrity.

Does the Qur’an command unconditional violence?

Firstly, the Qur’an does not contain a doctrine of “jihad” and the word “jihad” in the Qur’an does not simply mean “warfare”. The word jihad means struggle and striving and its usage in the Qur’an encompasses all kinds of strivings- moral, religious, spiritual, and physical. Muslim jurists developed the concept of jihad in legal discourse in which jihad is not much different than the Christian concept of the “just war.” One thing for certain is that the Qur’an’s rules for warfare are among the most humanistic rules of war in human history – and certainly surpass modern standards of war which allow collateral damage to civilians.

Qureshi refers to Surah 9, but fails to even consider this Qur’anic chapter as a whole. He also reads Surah 9 in isolation from the rest of the Qur’an – as if the Qur’an does not even exist apart from Surah 9. Instead, like many other Islamophobic writers, Qureshi reads the Qur’an in a way unknown to the vast majority of Muslims who believe in it. He only refers allusively (without quoting any verses, giving their historical context, or providing commentaries of traditional Muslim exegetes) to a handful of verses. Qureshi’s conclusion is that “it is fair to wonder whether any non-Muslims in the world are immune from being attacked, subdued or assimilated under this command.” Qureshi then makes the bogus claim that “Muslim thought leaders agree that the Quran promotes such violence” but is only able to cite one individual, Maajid Nawaz, whose reputation among Muslim scholars and intellectuals is questionable at best. Even then, Nawaz as quoted by Qureshi is not even speaking to Qureshi’s own claims. Meanwhile Qureshi ignores the hundreds of leading Muslim scholars who openly condemned ISIS understanding of the Qur’an (read it here). So what does Surah 9 0f the Qur’an say about violence?

As adopted directly from Kabir Helminski’s article at HuffPost, Surah 9 was revealed, Muhammad and his followers had begun to establish themselves securely. They had returned triumphantly to Mecca without violence, most Meccans themselves had become Muslims, and many of the surrounding pagan Arab tribes had also accepted Islam and sent delegations to the Prophet pledging their allegiance to him. Those that did not establish peace with the Muslims were the bitterest of enemies, and it was against these remaining hostile forces that the verse commands the Prophet to fight. The verses 9:4 states, “Those with whom you have treaties are immune from attack.” It further states, “Fulfill your treaties with them to the end of their term, for God loves the conscientious.” This was a guidance to the Prophet at that specific time to fight those idolaters who, as 9:4 mentions, violated their treaty obligations and helped others fight against the Muslims. It is not a general command to attack all non-Muslims, and it has never signified this to the overwhelming majority of Muslims throughout history. Had it been so, then every year, after the “sacred months are past,” (The “sacred months” are four months out of the year during which fighting is not allowed) history would have witnessed Muslims attacking every non-Muslim in sight. This yearly slaughter never occurred.  9:6 even says “And if any one of the polytheists seeks your protection, then grant him protection so that he may hear the words of Allah . Then deliver him to his place of safety.” Qasim Rashid exposes the intellectual dishonesty of Qureshi when it comes to the historical context of Surah 9, when he explains that:

Extremists and anti-Islam activists also claim Chapter 9 of the Qur’an is the alleged “culmination” of violence against Jews and Christians. On the contrary, Chapter 9 affords the invading army an additional four months to cease their fighting and return to their own lands. Should an invading army comply, Muslims are forbidden from fighting. If, however, that invading army persists in their terrorism, Muslims are permitted to fight in self-defense to protect universal freedom of conscience—including for Jews and Christians.

The fundamental Quranic principle is that fighting is allowed only in self-defense, and it is only against those who actively fight against you. Indeed, Islam is a religion that seeks to maximize peace and reconciliation. Yet, Islam is not a pacifist religion; it does accept the premise that, from time to time and as a last resort, arms must be taken up in a just war. If the enemy inclines toward peace, however, Muslims must follow suit: “But if they stop, God is most forgiving, most merciful” (2:192). Also read: “Now if they incline toward peace, then incline to it, and place your trust in God, for God is the all-hearing, the all-knowing” (8:61). Even then, Muhammad had very clear rules for warfare – attacks on noncombatants, women and children, destruction of property, torture, etc. – were all OFF LIMITS. Qureshi’s central claim that the Qur’an and Prophet Muhammad commanded violence, subjugation, and attacking all non-Muslims – even Jews and Christians – also flies in the face of historical evidence that shows Prophet Muhammad had several covenants with Christian communities, promising to project them and affirming their religious freedom (read about the historical documents). For the record Surah 9 was not the final revelation of the Qur’an – 5:3 was. So when Qureshi says Surah 9 was the last group of verses and contains “final orders” for Muslims, he is plain wrong, lying, or both.

Are “Literal Readings” of the Qur’an the Real Problem?

The entirety of Surah 9 of the Qur’an must be read in light of the WHOLE Surah and the rest of the Qur’an. And this leads to a second point. Are violent groups like ISIS, al-Qaeda, etc. even reading the Qur’an literally? Actually, they are not doing so at all. A literal reading of the Qur’an would still affirm ALL of the Qur’an – including all the verses cited above that place limits on violence. For example, John Espisto, a Professor of Islamic Studies writes and summarizes what the Qur’an as a whole says about violence:

Although atrocities and acts of terrorism have connected Islam with terrorism, the Islamic tradition places limits on the use of violence and rejects terrorism, hijacking, and hostage taking. As happens in other faiths, mainstream and normative doctrines and laws are ignored, distorted, or co-opted and misinterpreted by a radical fringe. Islamic law, drawing on the Quran, sets out clear guidelines for the conduct of war and rejects acts of terrorism… The Quran provides detailed guidelines and regulations regarding war: who should fight (48:17, 9:91), when fighting should end (21:92), and how to treat prisoners (47:4). It emphasizes proportionality in warfare: “Whoever transgresses against you, respond in kind” (2:194). Other verses provide a strong mandate for making peace: “If your enemy inclines toward peace, then you too should seek peace and put your trust in God” (8:61) and “Had Allah wished, He would have made them dominate you, and so if they leave you alone and do not fight you and offer you peace, then Allah allows you no way against them” (4:90).
(John Esposito, What Everyone Needs to Know about Islam, 140)

A literal reading of the Qur’an does not ignore all of the above. Groups like ISIS do not read the Qur’an literally. They ignore more than 95% of the Qur’an, and most of the Islamic tradition as a whole. Instead, they simply pick and choose verses, ignore all the verses around them, ignore the historical context, and ignore 1,400 years of Muslim exegesis on the Qur’an. In some cases, ISIS members are wholly ignorant of what the Qur’an actually says. As Qasim Rashid notes in his article in Time Magazine, Didier Francois reported the following about ISIS members:

There was never really discussion about texts or — it was not a religious discussion. It was a political discussion. It was more hammering what they were believing than teaching us about the Qur’an. Because it has nothing to do with the Qur’an. We didn’t even have the Qur’an; they didn’t want even to give us a Qur’an.

For example, even if ISIS and other violent groups were true literalists, then they would properly follow this flowchart here:

Quran flow chart

Carl Ernst, another Professor of Islamic Studies, concludes that ISIS’ Islam is not a literal Islam but a PHONY Islam:

Their so-called “prophetic methodology” is nothing more than cherry-picking what they like and ignoring what they do not. Furthermore, it is past time to dispense with the idea that organizations like ISIS are “literalist” in their reading of texts. Do the members of ISIS believe, literally, “Wheresoever you turn, there is the face of God?” Of course not. Nor would they interpret literally, “God is the light of the heavens and the earth,” or any number of other passages from the Quran that the so-called “literalists” are compelled to either ignore or read as some kind of metaphor or allegory…there is a wide chasm between someone who “laces” his conversations with religious imagery (very easy) and someone who has actually studied and understood the difficulties and nuances of an immense textual tradition (very hard). I personally know enough Shakespeare to “lace” my conversations with quotations from Hamlet and the sonnets. Does that make me a serious Shakespeare scholar?
(Ernst, The Phony Islam of ISIS, The Atlantic)

What does the Qur’an actually say about other faiths?

“For each We have appointed a divine law and a traced-out way. Had God willed He could have made you one community. But that He may try you by that which He hath given you (He hath made you as ye are). So vie one with another in good works. Unto God ye will all return, and He will then inform you of that wherein ye differ.” (Qur’an 5:48)

“Lo! Those who believe (in that which is revealed unto thee, Muhammad), and those who are Jews, and Christians, and Sabaeans – whoever believeth in God and the Last Day and doeth right – surely their reward is with their Lord, and there shall no fear come upon them neither shall they grieve.” (Qur’an 2:62)

“O mankind! Lo! We have created you male and female, and have made you nations and tribes that ye may know one another. Lo! the noblest of you, in the sight of Allah, is the best in conduct. Lo! Allah is Knower, Aware.” (Qur’an 49:13)

Global Muslims by the Numbers:

Anyone can cherry-pick any text – the Qur’an, the Bible, the Vedas – and use specific snippets de-contextualized from their original place and history to justify violence. The question is – when this happens, is the text itself responsible? Motivation and justification are two very different things. As much peer reviewed research has shown, the primary motivation for violent extremists is social isolation, criminal history, political grievances, and mental problems (read here). If the Qur’an as a whole inspires violence – then why don’t we see this everyday among the global Muslim population?

A. Fact: there are only about 100,000 estimated total militant extremist Muslims in the world. That is less than 0.01% of the global Muslim population of 1.5 billion people. See: http://us.cnn.com/2014/09/26/opinion/bergen-schneider-how-many-jihadists/index.html?sr=sharebar_google

B. Fact: the biggest victims of ISIS and Al-Qaeda ARE Muslims; and not surprisingly, the overwhelming majority of Muslims hate ISIS and al-Qaeda. To say otherwise – to claim that substantial numbers of Muslims support ISIS and other terror groups is like saying that most murder victims support their murderers, or that most rape victims support their rapists and in fact wan to emulate them. See: http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2014/10/07/isis-s-gruesome-muslim-death-toll.html

C. Fact: The overwhelming majority of U.S. Muslims (78%) stated that it is never morally justifiable to target and kill civilians, compared to only 38% of Protestants, 39% of Catholics, 43% of Jews, 33% of Mormons, and 56% of people with no religion/atheists/agnostics.

See:  http://www.loonwatch.com/2011/08/surveys-show-muslims-in-every-country-less-likely-to-justify-killing-civilians-than-americans-and-israelis/

D. Fact: Muslims worldwide are least likely among other religious groups to support violence against innocent people:

See: http://www.loonwatch.com/2011/08/surveys-show-muslims-in-every-country-less-likely-to-justify-killing-civilians-than-americans-and-israelis/

E. Fact:  According to the 2005 Gallup Poll and other studies discussed by John Esposito in his book, “Who Speaks for Islam”:

— Only 46% of Americans believe that ‘bombing and other attacks intentionally aimed at civilians’ are “never justified” while 24% believe these attacks are “often or sometimes justified”. This means that the majority of Americans believe that bombing and other attacks aimed at civilians can be justified. Compare this to Muslim majority countries where the same Poll found that 74% of respondents in Indonesia, 86% in Bangladesh, 86% in Pakistan, and 80% in Iran – in other words, the majority of these Muslims believe that attacks on civilians are “never justified.”

— 6% of the American public thinks that attacks in which civilians are targets are “completely justified”; Compare this to 2% of those in Lebanon and Iran and 4% in Saudi Arabia who think that attacks in which civilians are targets are “completely justified.

F. Fact: In wars and violent conflicts during the last 30 years, Harvard Professor Stephen Walt concluded that Muslims have killed about 10,325 Americans, whereas the U.S. has killed 288,000 Muslims. See: http://sojo.net/blogs/2014/10/09/islam-and-mother-lode-bad-ideas-bill-maher-sam-harris-and-ben-affleck-debate

For all these reasons, Islamic studies Professor John Esposito concluded that:
“Muslims hold no monopoly on extremist views and are, in fact, on average more likely than American public to unequivocally condemn attacks on civilians.”
(John Esposito, Who Speaks of Islam, 94)

Qureshi is free to claim whatever he wants about the Qur’an, but the fact of the matter is that the Qur’an as read, practiced, and lived everday by 99.9% of the 1.5 billion Muslims does not promote violence. So either 99.9% of the global Muslim population have been misinterpreting its own scripture for centuries…or Nabeel Qureshi has a not-so-hidden agenda.