Islam: Inherently Violent?

Islam: Inherently Violent? November 17, 2015

The jihadist attacks in Paris have grieved and frightened the world again with the reality of Muslims committing violence in the name of Islam. Again we face the question – is Islam inherently violent? Are Muslims required to commit violence as a religious obligation? 

There is no doubt that unsettling numbers of Muslims would not only answer ‘yes,’ but follow through on the jihadist, terroristic mandate. Islam has a unique problem with terrorism and violence, among all the world’s religions.

Still, there is some reason to hope that many of the world’s billion Muslims do not agree with, and many even vocally oppose, the call to violent jihad. Here’s a post I wrote on Indonesia before the Paris attacks – the topic now seems more pressing than ever.

Quick: what is the world’s largest Muslim nation? When I ask people this, I often get guesses like Saudi Arabia or Iraq. Some with a bit more knowledge of the Middle East might guess Egypt, but Egypt only has the fifth largest Muslim population in the world.

Those who know the history of the Indian subcontinent might remember Pakistan, or even Bangladesh, but they have the second and fourth largest Muslim populations. Many would undoubtedly forget India, which is only about 15 percent Muslim, but with 177 million Muslims total, India still has the third largest Islamic population.

Stumped? I suspect that few Americans, aside from scholars of world religion, will know that Indonesia is the world’s largest Muslim nation. About 88% of its population is Muslim, or about 205 million people. Part of the reason we don’t know that is that Islam in Indonesia is, by comparison to what we see among the jihadists, Al Qaeda, and Daesh (ISIS), quite tolerant. Indonesia has many problems, of course, including some episodes of religious violence and violations of religious liberty. But on the whole, Indonesians don’t need a “Coexist” bumper sticker – they’re already living in the reality of religious pluralism.

Kuta, Bali, Indonesia: Islam mosque “Masjid Agung Ibnu Batutah” at Puja Mandala Complex. Photo by CEphoto, Uwe Aranas / CC-BY-SA-3.0. Wikimedia Commons.

Indonesia expert and religious liberty scholar Paul Marshall, who recently spoke at Baylor regarding Indonesia, has a column at the Weekly Standard on the improbable qualities of Indonesian Islam. He explains how he attended a congress held by Nahdlatul Ulama (NU), “the world’s largest Muslim organization.” That’s right, the world’s largest Islamic organization, in the world’s largest Muslim country. Surely Marshall, a western scholar and a Christian, would not be welcome there? Not so. Marshall writes

NU’s gathering was a great, sprawling, colorful, four-day business reminiscent of a state fair. There were thousands of delegates, and tens of thousands of visitors and observers, though only a handful from abroad. The official delegates often appeared drained and strained since there were major and acrimonious disputes over election procedures for the new leadership, and the last sessions of the day did not begin until 11 p.m. But ordinary NU members were happy and friendly. I was asked over 100 times to be part of group photos. There was plenty of music from a large soundstage and scattered local bands, as well as an exhibition of NU-related art, myriad food stalls, commercial booths, foot massage stations, and endless vendors offering T-shirts, Islamic fashion, hats, rocks, toys, jewelry, buttons, CDs, bedsheets, and more. My prize: a combination cigarette lighter and bottle opener embossed with the NU logo. 

The stalls also included serious items. Some advertised NU’s many magazines, its expansive and growing charitable and social work, its 22 universities, thousands of schools, and millions of students. There were wonderful book exhibits and sales, from children’s books on Islam to dense theological and philosophical works, including the epistemology and axiology of Islamic jurisprudence. I was particularly struck by a reprint of the 1922 work Menolak Wahhabi (Wahhabism Rejected), by Muhammad Faqih Maskumambang, one of NU’s founders. NU has been struggling against Wahhabism, the repressive Islam of Saudi Arabia, for a century, trying to counteract its inroads into Indonesia, including by articulating and promoting an Islam at home in a plural society.

The event was front-page news in Indonesia, but aside from Marshall, there was little participation by western scholars or journalists. Indonesian Islam does not make for interesting news, because its conflicts play out at the level of ideas, theology, and elections, rather than suicide bombs and American invasions.

But if this is the world’s largest Muslim nation, shouldn’t Indonesians at least compete for the role of the world’s “typical” Muslims? Wahhabists and jihadists, of course, reject the moderate Muslims of Indonesia and elsewhere, saying that they are sellouts and syncretists. Christian critics of Islams sometimes mirror this critique, arguing that moderate Muslims simply aren’t being good Muslims, because good Muslims are violent and intolerant. Anti-Muslim critics point to Daesh and say, “they’re the REAL Muslims!”

But I would concur with Marshall when he suggests that Indonesia offers a vitally important counter-example to the media-driven impression of what Islam is, and what normal Muslims do. We should highlight and applaud Indonesia. For all of its imperfections, we should defend Nahdlatul Ulama and all other Muslims who reject the jihadist insistence that Islam is inherently violent.

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  • kierkegaard71

    What this article suggests to me is that the role that environments play in the strength of religion-political movements like Wahhabism. Since, at least, the First World War, the West has sought to dictate the politics and economics of the Middle East. I wonder how the Indonesian Muslim communities would respond to efforts by the US and Europe to strongly intervene in their internal affairs, to the point of initiating and supporting military operations to topple their government.

  • truelinguist

    Yes, Indonesia is an exception to the rule, but so what? That isn’t much consolation to all the people killed by jihadists, is it? The history of Islam has been violent from Day One, the historical record is quite clear on that. Muhammad led armies and owned slaves. Praising Indonesia does not erase any of Muslims’ history nor mitigate what happened in Paris and will continue to happen worldwide.

  • Andrew Dowling

    Too many Christians do not know their own history. Look at the pogroms against the Jews, mobs attacking accused witches and heretics, Bible verses used to justify practically every military action of the Middle Ages through the Renaissance (and beyond in many places). Up to this past century, lynchings of blacks in the South were justified by a racist theology justified by the Bible.
    Yes, Islam, particularly Arab Islam, has many many problems both theologically and culturally, but I wish we Christians could have a little more humility when it comes to this topic of religious violence. Our hands are not clean here.

  • Sven2547

    Indonesia has more Muslims in it than the combined populations (of all religions) in Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Iran, Jordan, Syria, Gaza, and the West Bank. I fail to see how you can discount such an enormous population as “an exception to the rule”.

    Praising Indonesia isn’t intended to mitigate the evils of the Nov 13th attacks. It’s to mollify the fear that all (or even most) of Islam resembles the fanaticism expressed by those creeps.

    Do not let your decision making be dictated by fear and prejudice.

  • Semp

    Did they finally ban you from Cranach?
    Good for them. More to come.

  • Sven2547

    Not as far as I know. I just commented there this morning. I also haven’t violated any commenting policies there.

    You really hate me, huh?

  • Andrew Dowling

    I’m pretty sure he was not banned, and what would he be banned for? Sven’s comments are always substantive and he does not revert to name calling; you just don’t like being challenged? Pathetic.

  • Joe Monte

    Let’s not forget that Islam was undergoing a renaissance while Europe was mired in the Dark Ages. The writings of the Greek philosophers were preserved and reintroduced to Europe.

  • SJ

    Indonesia isn’t the only country with a Muslim population in southeast Asia. I used to know a Chinese woman who grew up in Malaysia and she said there was a strict quota imposed by the Malays on the Chinese minority only allowing one child to go to university and there was some sort of riot where Muslims cut people’s heads off in the street. But this riot was a few decades ago and I forget the reason for it that my friend told me.

    Also you have a heavy population of Muslims in the Philippines in Mindanao and sometimes in attempts to separate from the rest of the Philippines they send people to bomb shopping malls in Manila.

    I don’t know anything about Indonesia’s Muslims really but I have heard these things about Malaysia and the Philippines.

  • TampaZeke

    Yeah, GREEK philosophers, not Muslim.

  • Sven2547

    Indonesia is geographically far from the Muslim world

    There’s a stunningly ignorant statement. How can it be “far from the Muslim world” when it’s the world’s largest Muslim country? It is part of the “Muslim world” by any reasonable definition.

    I’m sorry but even Indonesia has Islamic terrorism problems.

    So does France and the United States. Does that make us a radical Muslim country too? Please.

    But even these advantages in distancing themselves from Islamic thought…

    Indonesia is a thoroughly Muslim country. Don’t even pretend they are “distanced from Islamic thought”. There are many forms of Islamic thought, and Indonesia’s is fairly successful, unlike Saudi Wahabbist thought, Iran’s Ayatollah dictatorship, ISIS/Daeish thought, or the thought processes of various dictators like Hussein or Assad.

  • Sven2547

    Nope. I haven’t violated any of their commenting rules, and I’m still commenting there.

    What is the matter with you?

  • Jarod Delhotal

    The article does not match the title. The question is about the religion itself, not about the proportion of its adherents that are violent.

    If you compare Muhammad’s life to ISIS, you will see differences in weapon technology and not much else.

    Compare the life and teachings of Muhammad to the life and teachings of Jesus Christ (or Isa, or Yeshua, Yesu, Messiah, Massi, Massiach, whatever name you know Him by). You will see who is a man of truth and peace, and who is not.

  • aslannn

    Meanwhile, in Turkey, once put forth as the model “secular” Islamic state, when the crowds at a soccer game were asked to observe a moment of silence for Paris, they first booed, and then spontaneously burst out in chants of Allahu Akbar. This wasn’t just a few people at a game in the “Jihadi Soccer League”. This was tens of thousands of average Turkish, muslim citizens at a game of the Turkish national team.
    One would think that after all these years, all of these good, moderate muslims who hate terrorism, would have arisen to combat it in order to preserve the good name of Islam. Instead, what we find is either silence, or demonstrations like this, and dancing in the streets whenever the terrorists strike.
    Hirsi Ali has called for the reformation of Islam, along the lines of the Protestant Reformation. I have rarely heard a more terrible idea. The Protestant Reformation was based on the purposeful intent of more closely aligning with the Christian Scriptures. If this is what continues to occur in Islam, we can expect only an increase in terroristic violence. What we need to hope and pray for is not an Islamic reformation, but rather widespread Islamic apostasy.

  • philipjenkins

    Meanwhile, here is what actually happened.

    Some weeks ago, bombers (probably ISIS) killed a hundred at a peace march in Ankara. Some days ago, the same group murdered forty in Lebanon. Then 120 people die in Paris, and the result is to hold a minute of silence for them, but not the other victims.

    Turks gathered at the football match protested at what seemed like a gross undervaluing of non-European lives. I regret the booing, but understand the fury.

    The bottom line: all lives matter.

  • Sagrav

    True, but they also disrupted a moment of silence for victims of terrorism in their own country according to this article:

    Soccer hooligans will act like soccer hooligans, regardless of their religion.

  • philipjenkins

    Sadly true.

  • ugluk2

    Sounds a lot like most of Christian history

  • ugluk2

    Sounds like most of Christian history.

  • ugluk2

    Actually, the Reformation led to over a century of religious wars and mass killings. It’s weird that you don’t know this. It was in reaction to the violence of Christianity that secularism took root– which of course led to new forms of ideological violence.

  • ugluk2

    This is illogical– secularism did take root in the West not because Christianity is inherently tolerant, whatever that means, but because people grew sick of religious violence. This could happen anywhere. Of course the West soon found that secular motives also provide excuses for slavery, colonialism, racism, ethnic cleansing, gulags, mass killings of civilians in war, and outright genocide.

  • BT

    Apparently, so does context.

  • ugluk2

    A half truth– there were Muslim philosophers who were introduced into Europe as well.

  • BT

    Not true actually. The Muslims preserved all sorts of texts as did the Jews, notably in Toledo and other towns.

    There is a reason we have Arabic numerals after all.

  • BT

    Exactly why I think we are just a bit ahead of the curve. Colonialism held down their development while various internal conflicts may have sped up ours.

    In the end, I suspect the only thing that separates is is time.

  • BT


  • BT

    I’d agree that Islamic fundsmentalism isn’t driven by western oppression. Terrorism however is a different animal. Many Muslims are fundamentalists while not all fundamentalists are terrorists or even approve of that.

    The violence is indeed driven by reactions to the west. Among other causes of course, but our own actions can’t be so easily dismissed as a factor.

  • axelbeingcivil

    Given how many predominately Muslim countries Indonesia’s Muslim population dwarfs, it’d be more fair to say Indonesia IS the Muslim world, compared to the Middle East.

  • axelbeingcivil

    … Saudi Arabia was colonized by the Ottomans. The Persian Gulf coastline was heavily colonized, and the interior was nominally subject but never really conquered just on the basis of “What possible reason is there to bother?”.

    Also, I don’t think anyone suggests that fundamentalism is the result of Western intervention. The point is that the violent forms of fundamentalism gain adherents very easily as a reaction to the intervention of foreign powers (Western or otherwise), since they provide an easy focus and rallying cry to the dispossessed.

    You don’t even need to look far to find out these things; many violent fundamentalist groups will explicitly list the various grievances that caused them to target a specific group or region.

  • axelbeingcivil

    And why we have words like algebra, alcohol, alchemy…

  • axelbeingcivil

    What’re you talking about? Voltaire’s Philosophical Letters saw him fleeing for his safety and his books burnt en masse. He was once banned from Paris by none less than the King of France. The guy altered how he wrote and published specifically to allow plausible deniability after a certain point in his life, just because it was too risky.

    Hume had it far better but was writing in a society that had already undergone outright Civil War about six decades before he was born; a Civil War that had lasted ten years and led to the institution of the Commonwealth. Prior to that, thinkers like him did not have such a comfortable reception.

    And that’s without going into people like Martin Luther, the first architect of the Reformation, who fled into a number of countries because his beliefs were a threat to prevailing religious sentiment.

    If there was not a strong trends of religious excess and even violence in societies, people like Hume and Voltaire wouldn’t have been necessary to counteract it in the first place.

    And don’t even get me started on that “tiny elite” malarky. Scholars have, historically, always been the elite up until the 1800s. Even then, it’s taken a very long time to trickle down to the modern democratization of knowledge. As it turns out, it takes a lot of people to keep a person alive that doesn’t directly produce services, so they aren’t that common until an industrial society develops.

  • axelbeingcivil

    They also weren’t chanting Allahu akbar, according to a lot of Turkish-speaking people who have seen the video; they were chanting a nationalist mantra.

  • axelbeingcivil

    One has to wonder what would have happened if Christ actually had to run a nation.

  • Anne Fenwick

    Having read the Quran, it was very clear to me that it intended to promote its ideology via the stick and the carrot, the former to be applied in this life, the latter, a promise for later. I think there’s no getting round that for anyone who actually reads the thing.

    On the other hand, many individual Muslims regularly and sincerely state their intention of promoting Islam by being exemplars of virtue to the best of their ability. They believe the Quran is ‘good’, so whatever they think is in it must correspond to that pre-established ‘good’, if you read it properly. In reality, their sense of ‘good’ comes from their environment: family, friends and society. Clearly, many of them live in societies where threats of violence are NOT valued as virtuous, quite the opposite. Since they equate violence with evil, and Islam with good, they naturally believe violence is unislamic. And their own identities are those of non-violent Muslims.

    Every so often, one of them will read that book, and decide to go by it. Or they might adopt one of the many other possible paths to violence in a society which basically disapproves of violence. It isn’t easy to predict which one, beyond the fact that young men seem to be particularly prone to this transition.

  • Dorfl

    Perceiving anything said in a foreign language as ‘Allahu akbar’ seems to be a pervasive problem among the xenophobic. A while ago there was a brief wave of complaints about the Arabic-language newspaper ‘Akhbar’, until someone pointed out ‘akhbar’ is Arabic for ‘news’.

  • Steve
  • Sven2547

    It’s kind of an apples-to-oranges comparison. One being a prophet, the other a messiah.

    If you compare Muhammed to King David for example, suddenly they are very much alike.

  • Jarod Delhotal

    He’s already my King, but he will eventually return to rule all nations as King. Then one won’t have to wonder.

    The best part is: believers in Jesus don’t have to go out and fight and kill in His name. Since He is God, He is already in control, allowing history to unfold and waiting* for the appointed time to return. All we have to do is trust in Him.

    *Technically, Jesus is not really waiting, since He currently dwells outside of our space and time. But those of us who trust in Him are waiting for the appointed time of His return.

  • jimbo

    Of course Islam is inherently violent. You determine this by what their religious texts state and by Muhammad’s actions. In Islam Muhammad is their ideal moral standard and Muslims are commanded to imitiate his life.
    Did Muhammad terrorize and murder people? Yes.
    Did Muhammad torture people? Yes.
    Did Muhammad allow the capture and rape of female slaves? Yes.
    I could go on, but no Muslim will ever be able to make a strong argument that Islam is not inherently violent because their texts, and Muhammad’s actions, show otherwise.
    And please do not make the mistake of assuming that because many Muslims are not violent that Islam is therefore not violent. Study the texts. Like another poster here wrote, sometimes Muslims read their texts and begin their path to violence.

  • Jarod Delhotal

    Messiah means anointed one. What is special about the Messiah, is that He came to be Prophet (Deut. 18:15-18), Priest (Psalm 110:4), and King (Psalm 2:6). Of course there are many other prophecies about the Messiah. These particular ones come from books that are accepted as scripture by Jews, Christians, and Muslims.

    Christ came to this world to be the King (John 18:33-37). Before we could have Him as our King, He first had to bridge the gap between us and God. So he willingly died to pay our penalty for sin, giving us the opportunity to become blameless, just as He is blameless.

    David was chosen by God to be king. A flawed king certainly, but a king who (most of the time) desired to do right. Muhammad made himself out to be a king, and chose to do violence and whatever else it took to expand his power and influence.

  • Steve

    It is even worse than I realized:

    Phelim Kine, Deputy Asia Director of the Human Rights Watch, stated in one of the videos, “Indonesia has a reputation internationally as a country which has successfully balanced religious diversity with religious tolerance and harmony but that reputation is increasingly undeserved.”

    If you want moderate Islam (as Professor Kidd indicated in this article) then this is what you want to get? Do the research.

  • Steve

    This article is so unbelievably frustrating. Kidd writes, “Indonesia has many problems,
    of course, including some episodes of religious violence and violations
    of religious liberty. But on the whole, Indonesians don’t need a ‘Coexist’ bumper sticker – they’re already living in the reality of
    religious pluralism.” LIVING IN THE REALITY OF RELIGIOUS PLURALISM. Notice the quick dismissal of the “many problems” that is hyperlinked. That article states that Indonesia is #47 of the “top 50 countries where it is most difficult to be a Christian.” This is far from Coexisting as Kidd flippantly dismisses the real problems Indonesia has.

  • Andrew Dowling

    Good point, Hume a century earlier would’ve likely had to flee England, if he even managed to survive at all.

  • Jarod Delhotal

    You can find examples of people from any religion (or no religion for that matter) that do horrible and violent things. It doesn’t mean that it was caused by that religion (or lack of religion). I would argue that it is our fallen human nature that gives us this capacity for evil.

    But the question posed by the title of this article (not so much the article itself) is whether the religion of Islam is inherently violent. Islam is based on a book (the Quran), some other writings (the Hadith), and the life of a man called Muhammad. If you are truly interested in the answer to the question, check the sources.

    I will concede that many people claiming to be Christians have done evil things, and some have even tried to justify them by abusing the scriptures. However, a plain reading of the entire Bible tells Christians to treat people as we would want to be treated. It leaves no basis to justify any form of violence, or racism for that matter. Antisemitism is particularly ridiculous for someone claiming to be a Christian, since our Savior walked the Earth as a Jew.

    I would also note that God takes His name very seriously, so anyone trying to justify doing violence in His name has God Himself to answer to. God will judge those who try to use the Bible to justify doing wrong.


    Indonesia is an interesting case as it is a country where the vestiges of its past as a Hindu kingdom are still extant. Many Muslims in the country observe certain aspects of Hinduism there. Indonesia’s Islam has been tempered by its Hindu legacy. Many Indonesians even are still christened with Vedic/Sanskrit names (like former statecrafter Sukarnoputri).

    Islam is governed by many aspects that serve as rubrics to judge Muslims and non-Muslims alike as practitioners. By contrast, Hinudism does not really have such rubrics except to define individuals in a social-strata (caste). Individuals choose to interpret Islamic rubrics. In most Arabic countries, Ijtihad takes a back seat to taqlid, often, and it is very easy for a corrupt mujtahid to exploit their power through foul doctrine. Throw some reactionary politics into the mix and you have a huge reason why a group like ISIS can only exist in the middle east and probably not in Indonesia. Indonesians and Arabs are probably culturally at odds to really discuss Islam because of cultural differences.

    Making Islam monolithic in either a bleeding heart liberal “peaceful” version or a frothing right wing “violent” religion is making these sort of articles a chore to read, especially since the author has probably an agenda and only a cursory understanding of Islam. No religion is either.

  • Facebook User

    From the Koran the Muslim scripture which Muslims regards as God’s infallible word:

    The Apostles We sent before you were but men whom We inspired with revelations and with scriptures. Ask the People of the Book, if you doubt this (Sura 16:43).
    Say: People of the Book, you will attain nothing until you observe the Torah and the Gospel and that which is revealed to you from your Lord. That which is revealed to you from your Lord will surely increase the wickedness and unbelief of many among them. But do not grieve for the unbelievers (Sura 5:68).
    After them, We sent forth Jesus, the son of Mary, confirming the Torah already revealed, and gave him the Gospel, in which there is guidance and light, corroborating what was revealed before it in the Torah, a guide and an admonition to the righteous. Therefore let those who follow the Gospel judge according to what God has revealed therein. Evil-doers are those that do not base their judgments on God’s revelations (Sura 5:46-47).
    And from those who say, “We are Christians” We took their covenant; but they forgot a portion of that of which they were reminded. So We caused among them animosity and hatred until the Day of Resurrection. And Allah is going to inform them about what they used to do. (Sura 5:14)
    Because of that, We decreed upon the Children of Israel that whoever kills a soul unless for a soul or for corruption [done] in the land – it is as if he had slain mankind entirely. And whoever saves one – it is as if he had saved mankind entirely. And our messengers had certainly come to them with clear proofs. Then indeed many of them, [even] after that, throughout the land, were transgressors. (Sura 5:32)
    Indeed, the penalty for those who wage war against Allah and His Messenger and strive upon earth [to cause] corruption is none but that they be killed or crucified or that their hands and feet be cut off from opposite sides or that they be exiled from the land. That is for them a disgrace in this world; and for them in the Hereafter is a great punishment (Sura 5:33)
    The people of the book are the Jews and the Christians. Islam expects them to follow their own scriptures if they have not got the Koran. If they have then they are to join Islam. Islam regards those scriptures as true and from God.

    See Sura 5:15: O People of the Scripture, there has come to you Our Messenger making clear to you much of what you used to conceal of the Scripture and overlooking much. There has come to you from Allah a light and a clear Book.

    The Koran takes its laws about murdering “criminals” from the Bible and reaffirms them! God in the Bible demands that adulterers and those who put faith in idols must be put to death and Jesus even told the Jews off for breaking the law that people who curse their parents must be killed. No religion that examines how a good God can allow evil in the universe and argues he is to be praised has any right to when it refuses to look at the lies and evil endorsed by its God in the scriptures first. Evil has to be taken extremely seriously.

    Some Muslims say, “The Holy Koran has verses that are just context free. That is why we should not take the violent texts as endorsing violence today.” But why not? If verses are out of context, then surely you can say, “It is up to me then when they are out of context or don’t care about context to decide if I will honour them with violence or not.” To use the context excuse to try and justify the presence of such terrible texts is to honour violence and to whitewash. You don’t do that if you truly abhor violence.

    No criticism of the Koran or Islam’s disgusting acclaim and approval of these violent and evil texts is fair or valid without criticising Christianity and Judaism as well. The Muslim’s religious crimes are in a sense the crimes of the latter duo as well.

    It is dishonest of this article to judge Muslims by their behaviour rather than by what their faith says they should do. All religions have their heretics and those who won’t toe the line.

  • Facebook User

    Thank you for your sensible post. Anyway, man has a violent streak and it is insane how some people try to make out that any religion he creates must be necessarily good. Its ludicrous.