Modern Islamic Terror — Ancient Roots

Many moderate Muslims and their apologists in the West have challenged the view that the actions and beliefs of ISIS and like-minded terrorist organizations are truly Islamic. Islam, they argue, is a religion of peace and has strict codes calling for the humane treatment of non-Muslims. The real religion, they say, allows only defensive jihad – Muslims may attack only those who have first attacked them; even so, they are to prefer mercy over retribution.

For example, in response to the Atlantic cover story by Graeme Wood “What ISIS Really Wants,” a Muslim professor of religious studies at the College of the Holy Cross (rather ironic!) named Caner Dagli argues that the behavior and religious interpretations of ISIS fall outside the pale of true Islam, and that in fact these extremists do not take seriously the texts and traditions of the religion. However, there seem to be more and more reports of other self-named Muslim groups who carry out similar atrocities. Are they all outside true Islam – illegitimate and un-Islamic? Apparently so, according to these moderates and intellectual elites.

Recently I read of an attack by a small army of Muslims against a wealthy agrarian tribal community in the Middle East. The goal of the attack was to capture, plunder, enslave and kill until the entire community surrendered to the Muslims. The Muslim leader had already executed the elder leader of this tribe in a previous encounter. Now he was intent on conquering the tribe as a whole and claiming for himself and Islam the reportedly sizable treasure that they had hidden in their village. After a significant number of the men of the tribe had been killed by the Muslim army’s surprise attack, the Muslims began to divide up the significant booty as well as to claim the captive women as slaves or wives. However, the reputed treasure could not be located. The Muslim commander found the treasurer of the village and ordered him to reveal its location. When the treasurer refused, the commander ordered that he be tortured until he gave up its whereabouts. The man was stretched out on the ground, and a fired was kindled on his chest which burned until the man was near death, now incoherent with pain and confusion. Unable to extract any helpful information, the commander ordered the treasurer beheaded, and the order was carried out with alacrity. On top of all this, the treasurer’s new bride, considered the beauty of the village, was claimed by the commander as his own possession. It turns out that she was the daughter of the former chieftain of the village, whom the Muslim commander had previously ordered executed. Now she had just lost her husband to torture and murder, and earlier that day had lost her brother in the surprise attack at dawn. As the Muslim army withdrew that evening, they stopped and set up tents so that the commander could “marry” his new bride and seal the deal by consummating the relationship in his tent while the rest of the army waited.

What do moderate Muslims and their apologists say concerning this horrific series of events carried out by other Muslims? Mr. Dagli and many others no doubt would like to argue that these actions were un-Islamic, and that the protagonists are either not really Muslims at all, or that they are at the very least bad Muslims. I wish that were true. Unfortunately it cannot be.

You see, the account I summarized is not a contemporary event. It happened in 629 AD. The commander was Muhammad, the army was his companions (the Muslim faithful), the community attacked was Khaibar, an oasis town some 95 miles north of Medina, populated by Arab Jews. The treasurer’s name was Kinana al-Rabi, and his wife was Safiyya, who subsequently became one of Muhammad’s fourteen wives.* All the details of this story are known even by half-awake Muslims, for this account is celebrated within the Muslim world for its violent victory over Jews, who are routinely vilified in Muslim teaching. One of the regular Arabic rhymes chanted by Muslim crowds whenever Jews are killed by terrorists, or Israel is attacked by Hamas or Hezbollah is: “Khaibar, Khaybar, ya Yahud, jaysh Muhammad sawfa ya’ud” which translates as “Khaybar, Khaybar, O you Jews, the army of Muhammad will return!)

To denounce this event would be to denounce Muhammad, something no Muslim is willing to consider. Indeed, far from being an account about which Muslims are embarrassed, it is one in which they glory. And if Muhammad is held within their thinking to be the “perfect man,” the one whose behaviors are to be imitated by the faithful, then who today appears to be the more true or faithful believer: the ISIS radical, or the Western moderate Muslim?

Apologists for Islam can mewl all they wish, but until the worldwide Muslim community is willing to denounce such stories of their prophet rather than celebrate them, the rest of us will continue to take radicals at their word that they are truly disciples of their religion’s founder, and we Christians will continue to point people to a better Master, in whom alone there is salvation for the world.


* The full story of the attack on Khaibar can be found in the earliest biography of Muhammad (written before any of the collections of Hadith traditions, and generally accepted by Muslims to be the most authoritative sources for information on the actual life of Islam’s prophet), penned over 100 years after the death of Muhammad by Ibn Ishaq and handed down to posterity in an edited form by his student Ibn Hisham, translated in 1964 into English by the Arabist and Islamic scholar Alfred Guillaume. See pp. 510-22, 757-8.

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3 Responses to Modern Islamic Terror — Ancient Roots

  1. Kenny Brown says:


    Once again, I appreciate your hard work and care in explaining issues. Dagli’s opinion piece, to which you are responding in your blog, argues that the Islam of ISIS is phony. It represents a small minority of “literalists” who “cherry pick” the Quran and other related texts (such as the hadith). According to Dagli, followers of ISIS do not practice true Islam, which is better represented by the writings and interpretations of hundreds of Islamic scholars over the centuries, who have discerned the real meanings of the Quarn and other related texts. Dagli also claims that Graeme Wood, a mere journalist, is overreaching when he says certain portions of the Quran and related texts “plainly” match with the ISIS interpretation. Your blog obviously comes down on Wood’s side because you are saying that a clear admonition for all Muslims is that they should emulate the life of Muhammed, and they are clearly doing so.

    I wonder whether or not writings of “moderate” Muslims are available in English. Do Dagli and other scholars try to explain to a broader audience of non-Muslims a systematic and thorough delineation of “true” Islam? Do they write explanations of precisely how Islam is different than the “phony” ISIS version—or other theologies of “radical” Muslims? Within Christianity, many purport to be more literal in discerning the meanings of the text of the Bible. They write extensively about their theologies and why they are “correct” (for example, leaders in the PCA and many Southern Baptists). Less traditional “progressive” Christians write extensively and debate with the “literalists” in a very open and forthright way (the UCC and many in the PCUSA). The debates are sometimes heated and even vitriolic. I have not seen similar theological debates among Muslims in an open and vigorous forum. Is my unfamiliarity because those debates do not exist, or is it because they are conducted among Muslims in Arabic and other languages? From what your lectures and writings indicate, you believe that virtually all Muslims subscribe to certain essentials—chief among them is that Muslims must precisely follow the teachings and life of Muhammad. So, even the most “moderate” Muslims either are self deceived or are actually tacitly endorsing and giving cover for the violent and expansionist nature of Islam. Have I captured the essence of your position? Also, are Muslim scholars and theologians actually vigorously debating their differences in the open?

    I just showed my message to my household research colleague, who, as you know, is a prolific reader. She pointed out that Dagli received his Ph.D. from Princeton and has worked closely with Interfaith groups. Princeton, of course, is where Bernard Haykel teaches. Haykel was a major source for Wood’s article. I suppose if I looked for an intramural debate in the Princeton Near Eastern Studies Department, I might find the answer to the last question above.



    • mateenelass says:

      Kenny, you have raised truly important questions, and I must candidly admit that I do not have answers to many of them. There do not seem to be open forums/debates among Muslims in the English-speaking world as to what constitutes “true Islam.” Most moderates are not interested in dialogue with radicals, and vice-versa, in my observations. The radicals are quick to condemn the moderates for watering down the truth of Islam, calling them “hypocrites,” a category of Muslim that according to Shariah law constitutes a death sentence under Muslim governments. Not many moderates, understandably, are willing to stick their necks out — literally….It seems that the radicals and the moderates are both directing their “legitimacy arguments” not at each other, but at the non-Muslim world, when what really needs to happen is that the whole Islamic world needs to clarify what it truly stands for.

      One huge problem for Islam is that it has no generally agreed-upon credal or confessional body of material to which all Muslims must adhere to be considered orthodox. In its place there is a vast body of legal opinions emanating from four ancient jurists and their followers (among the Sunnis), which in turn have generated reams of subsidiary opinions. All of these are based on interpretations of the Quran and Hadith traditions. Sunni jurists claimed in a legal edict that all possible correct interpretations of these texts, and their derived laws, had been exhaustively rendered by some point in the 1100s AD, such that the possibililty of ijtihad (new, acceptable approaches of interpretation by individual Muslims) was innovation, which is forbidden. Among the masses, therefore, finding the right meaning within Islam is a matter of looking back to past interpretations rather than discovering for oneself (and arguing convincingly to others) what Allah really means by particular texts and traditions. For the average Muslim, venturing into personal interpretation is skating on thin ice. Instead, he/she must defer to the esoterically trained imam, sheikh or legal scholar, who has given years to study all the secondary literature so as to produce a learned response.

      In sum, it seems to me that it’s a free-for-all in the Muslim world right now when it comes to addressing who has the authority to speak for Islam. And most Muslims aren’t making their case to their own co-religionists; instead they’re turning to the outside world attempting to convince us of what their own members do not unitedly embrace.

      Insufficient responses to your incisive questions, but that’s all I can come up with. Maybe someone else reading this thread can comment more intelligently on this, as your questions deserve.


  2. Pingback: The Layman Online » Sacred barbarism

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