Islam and Violence: Debunking the Myths with Dr. Asma Afsaruddin

When it comes to campaign rhetoric about Islam, immigration and ISIS, fear often crowds out reason. This installment in our election series offers us a chance to step back from our fears in order to examine commonly held beliefs about the connection between Islam and violence. Maybe there’s less to fear than we thought, or maybe we are afraid of the wrong things. It would be good to find out!

We recently spoke with Dr. Asma Afsaruddin, who gave us some much-needed background information about Islamic teachings on violence, war, sharia, and the (misunderstood) obligation to wage jihad.

Below is the video, mp3, and show notes. You can listen to a recording of Dr. Afsaruddin’s lecture at the Colloquium on Violence and Religion this summer in Melbourne, Australia. You can purchase her books Striving in the Path of God and Contemporary Issues in Islam.

Asma Afsaruddin is Professor of Islamic Studies and former Chairperson, Department of Near Eastern Languages and Cultures, Indiana University, Bloomington. She currently serves as Chairman of the Board of Directors of the Center for the Study of Islam and Democracy (CSID), a non-profit based in Washington, DC, dedicated to studying Islamic and democratic political thought and merging them into modern Islamic democratic discourse. Her lecture on Islam and Violence at the 2016 COV&R conference was proudly made possible by a grant from the Raven Foundation.



Show Notes

Islam and Campaign Politics

The Republican presidential candidate, Donald Trump, initially proposed a ban on immigration from Muslim countries. He’s backpedaled and is now talking about extreme vetting. The reason has to do with fear of terrorists coming into US borders. Trump is afraid of Muslims coming in who do not share Americans values. But how well does Donald Trump represent basic American values? His extreme misogyny, regarding women as play things on recent tapes shows he has very little respect for women. One value that Trump and his representatives touted in public was that Muslim majority countries don’t have comparable values for women. He should be challenged on this point. He should also be challenged on his bigotry. Trump’s political ploy is fear mongering and shouldn’t be taken seriously.

Violence and terrorism is a legitimate concern. But to assume that the majority of populations in these countries are somehow to be painted by a broad brush of violence and terrorism is not fair. More level headed and saner politicians from all over the political spectrum have taken issue with Trump’s proposed ban.

Individual Muslims and mosques have been targeted for hate crimes. But Sikhs have also been targeted because Sikh men often wear turbines, so many assume they are Muslim. People are also targeted because of the color of their skin. This is a reaction to the type of rhetoric on display, as seen in Trump. Trump’s hate mongering rhetoric has empowered people to come forward with similar feelings of anger, rancor, and resentment at perceived foreigners who supposedly do not fit into the American mainstream.

America cherishes freedom of religion and expression, but Muslims are often attacked for wearing religious garments in public. The last thing we want to do is to become like France, where religious activity and expression in public becomes criminalized. There’s a fear that if this rhetoric continues unchallenged that there will be serious repercussions down the line.

Radical Islamic Terrorism

Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton refuse to use the term “radical Islamic terrorism.” Donald Trump insists they are avoiding the issue by not using the term. Obama and Clinton do not want to associate Islam, as a religion, with terrorism. Clinton, in a debate, used the term “radical Jihadi terrorism,” which is also problematic. Whatever these violent militants are doing, it is not jihad as described and developed by classical Muslim scholars and jurists. A better term is “Islamist Terrorism.” Islamist is an ideology. It’s not part of a world religion, but it’s part of an ideology where religion has been instrumentalized for their particular political motives.

When you look at people who carry out these attacks, it’s clear they aren’t faithful Muslims. For example, before the 9/11 attacks, the hijackers went to a nightclub where there were nude dancers and they were drinking. That’s not the behavior of observant Muslims. And if you look at members of ISIS, many of them are staunch secularists from the former Bath Government in Iraq and have no religious training.

ISIS claims to want to go back to a “golden age of Islam,” and from what we see on the news, that’s horrific. It has the morality police, abuse of women, beheadings in the news, and the shear mistreatment of communities that they conquer. There’s a lot of violence against Muslims. ISIS is claiming to be Muslims. But that notion has nothing to do with the “golden age of Islam” or the Prophet Muhammad. Over 100 recognized Muslim scholars and jurists issued a statement condemning the actions of ISIS. This hardly found any attention in the media. These scholars took the time to demonstrate that ISIS’s actions have nothing to do with Islam. In fact, they show that ISIS is committing what is shown in Islam legal literature is terrorism. The act of terrorizing civilian populations, plundering and pillaging, is a highly punishable crime in Islamic legal literature. That document signed by Muslim scholars and jurists should have been promoted in the media, but it wasn’t.

Question from Audience

Q: It is often said that winning the hearts and minds of Muslims is necessary to defeat ISIS. What are the most important relevant issues for Muslims? Response: We need to listen to Muslims who are denouncing terrorism. There are so many voices from the Muslim world denouncing terrorism as un-Islamic, but they are not amplified as much as militancy. The media needs to take a more prominent role in combating militancy. Muslims are speaking out loudly, prominently, and frequently, but we do not hear those voices in the West and so this misperception remains.

Islam and Modernity

Is Islam compatible with modern values of religious tolerance, equality of women, and representative government? Asma’s most recent book is titled Contemporary Issues in Islam, discusses the issue of Islam and modernity. It covers topics including: sharia, Islam and politics, gender, war and peacemaking in Islam, American Muslims and expansion of the Muslims community, and religious dialogue and interfaith relations.

These are the hot button issues that people are concerned with. There are plenty of resources within the diverse Islamic tradition that lead to a compelling case for religious freedom, equal rights for women, democratic civil societies, and peaceful coexistence of Muslims with non-Muslims. All of those answers are found within the Islamic tradition. One resource from early Islam is the famous verse from the Qur’an chapter 2 verse 256, “There is no compulsion in religion.” In the early history of Islam, there were no forced conversions. That happened in later periods, but was also infrequent and sporadic. Why? Because Muslims are commanded in their holy book there is no compulsion in religion and people cannot be forced to accept any religion or belief system against their will.

Of course, people will bring up the issue of the conquest. Those might better be called “Arab conquests” than “Islamic conquests.” We don’t know why the conquest started. They often started without knowledge of the four Caliphs of early Islam. After those areas were conquered, they remained resolutely Christian up until around the 10th century. So there was no wholesale attempt to force conversion to Islam during that time. When it did happen, we have documents of Muslims scholars scolding people for trying to force conversion, even when they tried to force conversion on their own spouses and children.

Questions: How do we win hearts and minds of Muslims in the Middle East towards this understanding of Islam? There are a lot of scholars throughout the Middle East who are doing this work to resurrect these principles that have been forgotten over time. Fazlur Rahman stated that we need to make a distinction between “normative Islam” and “historical Islam.” He meant that there are certain accords and normative principles within Islam that should never be violated. However, in the unfolding of history, people often had to adjust themselves to historical realities and let some of these principles slide and become compromised. But that doesn’t mean that those examples that do not fall into accord with Islamic principles are in any way binding on later generations of Muslims. We should recognize them for what they were – contingent responses to particular historical circumstances and are not meant to be historically binding.

What is Sharia

There is a difference between sharia and fiqh. Sharia in Arabic means “a path.” It often meant “a path to a watering hole.” Sharia is the font of ethical and legal principles, but it is not law. There’s no such thing as “sharia law.” Fiqh refers to law or jurisprudence. Sharia is more of a moral code that has been divinely revealed. But we know that no moral code in itself provides all the answers to life’s different situations. The moral and ethical code has to be interpreted and engaged. Fiqh is the study of the law through human  deliberation. The regulations of the law are very much a human product and are therefore fallible and changeable.

Sharia is the font of enduring ethical principles, such as, there shall be no compulsion in religion. That can be mapped onto our modern notions of religious freedom. That all human beings are created equal and have inherent human dignity is also part of sharia and have inalienable right granted to them by God. This, of course, accords with the principles of the United States.

Fiqh, not sharia, is where we get fallible and changeable laws, such as the practice of stoning. Many people think that female genital mutilation is part of sharia, but it’s not even part of fiqh. It’s a cultural practice that Christians and Muslims have participated in throughout certain countries, but has nothing to do with originating in either religious tradition.


Jihad first means “struggle, effort, or striving.” Jihad refers to any laudable activity that promotes the well being of the individual and the larger society. Anything conducive to the good is a part of jihad. In Islam, there’s a broad principle that one should promote what is good and forbid what is wrong. The effort required to implement this principle in one’s life is jihad.

For individuals, jihad is a moral and physical endeavor. For example, it can be a jihad to get up in the morning and go to work or school to better oneself and society.

The one kind of jihad that we hear about all the time is a military jihad. The military jihad has to do with the state, not the individual. A proper military jihad should be defensive, promulgated in order to ward off an external aggressor, and can only be called for by a legitimate head of state. It is also meant to be a last resort.

The military dimension of jihad came very late in Muhammad’s career. He struggled nonviolently and peacefully for most of his career. After the immigration, the Qur’an allowed for self-defense against persecution. The earliest connotations of jihad refer to patient forbearance in the face of persecution. Patient forbearance is the enduring aspect of jihad. The Qur’an councils Muslims repeatedly to have patient forbearance for those who harshly persecute them. It councils to counter evil or harm with good and set a good example for those who were often violently opposing the teaching of the Qur’an.

Interpreting Violent Passages in the Qur’an

People often refer to chapter 2 verse 190 of the Qur’an to claim Islam is inherently violent. It says, “Fight in God’s cause against those who fight you, but do not overstep the limits: God does not love those who overstep the limits. Kill them wherever you encounter them, and drive them out from where they drove you out, for persecution is more serious than killing. Do not fight them at the Sacred Mosque unless they fight you there. If they do fight you, kill them—this is what such disbelievers deserve—but if they stop, then God is most forgiving and most merciful. Fight them until there is no more persecution, and worship is devoted to God. If they cease hostilities, then there can be no further hostilities, except towards aggressors.”

The most important verse is the first. It conveys the fundamental message, which is that there can be no aggression. Do not overstep the limits means do not be the aggressor. Muslims can never initiate a military campaign, according to the Qur’an. It has to be in response and proportional to a prior attack. (In an earlier book, Striving in the Path of God, Asma explores the full impact of those verses.)

It’s important to note that those verses were directed only at those pagan Meccans who had attacked Muslims. It is not a general commandment. Anyone can pluck verses out of historical and literary context and deploy them for as proof texts for wantonly and violently slaying people, but the context doesn’t allow for that. Throughout Islamic history, many have interpreted these texts as specifically directed to the first Muslims and claim that it isn’t for later generations, which should remain nonviolent.

Suicide Bombings

The Qur’an and the Hadith categorically forbid suicide and immolation in any form. It is forbidden because life is a gift from God and we are to protect and nurture it for ourselves and for our fellow human beings. This moral imperative cannot be violated within Islam.

Suicide bombers present their actions as a political military strategy, and not a religious motivation. They claim to be outnumbered militarily and they believe the only way to strike terror in hearts is to destroy their own bodies through suicide bombings. It’s not religious; it’s a military strategy that’s not in accord with Islam. A Pakistani cleric named al-Qadri created a fatwa on terrorism and suicide bombings. (Click here for a PDF of the fatwa in English.) He proves beyond doubt that there is no scriptural bases for suicide bombings. It’s immoral and opportunistic, based on a desire for vengeance against their enemies.

Who is God in Islam?

According to the Qur’an, the Arabic name for God is Allah, but it is used by Arabic speaking Christians and Jews for God. God in the Qur’an is universal. He has sent revelations to all humankind through a huge number of prophets and messengers. Within that list are names familiar to Jews and Christians, Moses, Jacob, Solomon, Jesus, and then Muhammad is, for Muslims, the “seal of the prophets.” For Muslims this answer is easy. God has sent his message to all humanity through many prophets. All religions that precede Islam are to be recognized as God’s universal message. There are different inflections for different societies, but ultimately the bottom line message is the same, “God is one and we are all his servants on earth.”

Enjoy recordings of the other conversations in our 6-part series, Raven ReViews Election 2016: Weekly Interviews on 6 Crucial Topics:

“…all of the Christians who supported Hitler believed that God wanted them to be patriotic Germans and work for the strengthening of Germany within the world… they believed that the two most important things for a Christian are God and country.”

“If you are a part of the (racist) system, and you participate in the privileging of yourself, or the unprivileging of others, whether intentionally or unintentionally, then that makes you a part of the system.”

“The solidarity we have is a solidarity of enmity, not a solidarity of friendship. The implosion of the Republican party under Trump is a very good example of the instant solidarity of enmity. It’s very interesting for someone in another country, but as an American it’s more that interesting in the context of the next president. But whoever the next president is has implications throughout the world. It’s an issue that concerns us all.”

“How do we love people, especially out enemies, while calling out injustice? … Some activism in the past has tended to demonize our opponents and ascribe the worst possible motives to their actions. What would happen if we did the opposite? If we ascribed the best motives to those we disagree with? We give them every benefit of the doubt?”

“So, this good thing of listening to the voice of the victim can be abused by ‘playing the victim card.’ But there are real victims. The danger is that we can play the victim card in a way that seeks revenge, not justice. We do this by projecting guilt upon another person or institution.”

2 replies
  1. Joyce
    Joyce says:

    Interesting remarks – would have been helpful for Dr. Afsarudden to not just address one candidate’s words and behaviors. Clinton accepted 24 million dollars from the Saudis where gays are thrown off of roofs and women can’t leave the house without a family member male escort.

    Criticize Trump – I’m no fan, but why not also criticize the precedent set by Obama who dropped bombs on Muslim nations *every single day* of his presidency. Obama had eight years to influence the media’s presentation of Muslims in a positive way. Presenting criticism of one side is not helpful in peace-making or in reducing the scapegoating of Muslims. In fact, after reading this transcript I think Trump is the scapegoat! (yikes!)

    Of God’s and Men is a great film that gets at some of the nuanced relationships between Muslims and Christians and the terrorists that disrupt their peaceful community.

    • Suzanne Ross
      Suzanne Ross says:

      Wow, Joyce! You are working your way through our series — I appreciate that. As to your observations, I whole heartedly agree. Trump is certainly being scapegoated by those who are outraged by his behavior but not our nation’s history of supporting tyrants and relying on violence to solve our problems. The one-sidedness of Asma’s comments may reflect more of the timing of the interview and the way I positioned it. We were having a discussion in context of the election season and specifically looking at some of Trump’s rhetoric. I have a strong feeling that Asma would completely agree with your comment.


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