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Why the Polarization Concerning Islam and Violence?

Few questions regarding Islam are as salient to current events and public discourse as the relationship between Islam and violence, and few questions are as polarizing. Outsiders looking into the house of Islam have reached conflicting conclusions, with American Presidents defending “the religion of peace” while others connect acts of terrorism and violence directly to “the traditional, orthodox, and classical version of Islam.”[i]

Both sides can cite ample anecdotal evidence to illustrate their views. These analyses are overly simplistic, though, in that they fail to acknowledge that both moderates and puritans[ii] support their positions by appealing to the Qur’an[iii]; the problem cannot be resolved by claiming that one side misses the “true” teaching of the Qur’an. Instead, different beliefs about violence stem from different hermeneutics applied to Islamic sources. Specifically, the locus of interpretive authority is key to explaining the differences between moderate and puritanical positions on violence.

The Moderate Hermeneutic

The earliest generations of Muslims saw the Qur’an as “a spark of divine potential, the seed from which a holistic way of life and belief would bloom…”[iv] It was imperative that Muslims interpret the ‘ilm, or “sacred knowledge” contained in the Qur’an and Muhammad’s Sunna, and “[map] it onto earthly affairs” in the form of Shari’a law.[v] In time, a class of scholar-jurists, or ulama, arose. These jurists “provided the quintessential source of religious authority in the Muslim world” and expanded Shari’a into an increasingly detailed and comprehensive system.[vi]

Moderates who denounce violence often arrive at their position from the legal tradition codified by the ulama. Jurists have wrestled over proper limitations for the methods, purposes, and targets of war, coming to conclusions that “are enormously complicated and sharply qualified in the authoritative legal texts.”[vii] In general, the history of interpretation regarding warfare and jihad sets narrow limits for the use of violence.[viii] Thus, those Muslims who give interpretive authority to the ulama tend to practice their religion peacefully.

The Puritan Hermeneutic

In contrast to this moderate view, the puritan hermeneutic rejects the authority of the ulama in an attempt to revive the expression of Islam practiced by Muhammad’s earliest followers. Indeed, one school of interpretation closely tied to puritanical Islam, Salafism, is named after these earliest generations of followers (salaf), and Wahhabi Islam rejects “any practice or teaching later than the third century of Islam (salaf) as satanic innovation (bida‘).”[ix] In doing so, puritans are left with little choice but to claim interpretive authority for themselves.[x] When these groups approach the subjects of warfare and jihad, they employ the principle of abrogation to prioritize passages in the Qur’an which condone violence,[xi] and they hold that “real Islamic virtue is to fight and conquer.”[xii]


Fundamental to the differences between moderate and puritanical expressions of Islam is the hermeneutic that these groups apply to the Qur’an and other Islamic sources. Moderates, who tend to grant interpretive authority to the ulama, draw from Islam’s rich legal history to advocate for a religion of peace. Puritans often reject the authority of the ulama and interpret the sources for themselves, relying on the principle of abrogation to justify violence.

How, then, are we to explain the problem of violence in the name of Islam? Azumah responds, “…[W]hile it is neither true nor fair to argue that Islam is the problem, there is no doubt that Islam has a problem.”[xiii] Since both moderates and puritans can claim Qur’anic support for their positions, outsiders cannot make firm conclusions about the “true nature” of Islam. Nevertheless, the puritans’ dependence on abrogation is suspect. Abou El Fadl comments,

“Per this logic, a single verse, 3:85, commanding Muslims to wage war against unbelievers has canceled out and voided all the verses in the Qur’an that speak about making or seeking after peace. This amounts to saying that a single verse in the Qur’an abrogated at least thirty verses that call for peace.”[xiv]

One hopes that such peace-loving views prevail within the Muslim world.

[i] Mark Durie discusses the responses of American Presidents to acts of terror in “Is Islam a Religion of Peace?” Middle East Forum, December 16, 2015, John A. Azumah quotes Patrick Sookhdeo on the orthodoxy of jihadist groups in “Challenging Radical Islam: An Explanation of Islam’s Relation to Terrorism and Violence,” First Things 249 (January 2015): 34.

[ii] I adopt the terms “moderate” and “puritan” from Khaled Abou El Fadl, The Great Theft: Wrestling Islam from the Extremists (New York: HarperCollins, 2007), 16–19. For the purposes of this paper, a “moderate” Muslim is one who interprets the Qur’an as primarily encouraging peace, while a “puritan” is one who finds Qur’anic support for war and violence.

[iii] Colin Chapman observes that “the ideologues of ISIS spell out in great detail where in their scriptures, tradition and history, they find the Islamic justification for what they are doing” even while “mainstream Muslim scholars…believe they can demonstrate why ISIS is a clear departure from Islamic tradition” (“ISIS: Un-Islamic or True Islam?” Zwemer Center for Muslim Studies, accessed October 25, 2019,

[iv] Jonathan A. C. Brown, Misquoting Muhammad: The Challenge and Choices of Interpreting the Prophet’s Legacy (London: Oneworld, 2015), 23.

[v] Ibid., 18.

[vi] Abou El Fald, The Great Theft, 34.

[vii] Azumah, “Challenging Radical Islam,” 35. Scholars such as Abou El Fadl would argue that the legal tradition is representative of the fundamental teachings of the Qur’an, which favors peace over war (The Great Theft, 240), while others, such as the historian Daniel Pipes, claim that the legal tradition used “hiyal (tricks) and other means by which the letter of the law could be fulfilled while negating its spirit”  (“Can Islam Be Reformed? History and Human Nature Say Yes” Commentary, July 2013,

[viii] Abou El Fadl, The Great Theft, 241.

[ix] Azumah, “Challenging Radical, Islam,” 34. Abou El Fadl connects the rise of puritanical movements to weakening authority of the ulama brought about as the Muslim world interacted with the West. “The disintegration of the traditional institutions of Islamic learning and authority meant a descent into a condition of virtual anarchy in regard to the mechanisms of defining Islamic authority” (The Great Theft, 37).

[x] “…[J]ihadi groups…claim that they have the authority to interpret and impose…laws.” Chapman, “ISIS: Un-Islamic or True Islam?”

[xi] Chapman, “ISIS: Un-Islamic or True Islam?”

[xii] Abou El Fadl, The Great Theft, 237.

[xiii] Azumah, “Challenging Radical Islam,” 37.

[xiv] Abou El Fadl, The Great Theft, 240.

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