Does Jihadis’ ‘Conception of Islam' Really Rely on a 'Flawed Reading of the Koran’?

(AP Photo/Karim Kadim)

Maybe it’s something in the water over at National Review. The magazine claims to be conservative, and to be dedicated to upholding the values of Western civilization. Sometimes it lives up to that. Often it is sensible. More often, however, it is weak, cowardly, and submissive to the left. And sometimes it is so far away from the truth and common sense that it takes one’s breath away. Back in 2011, the magazine featured hard-left Soros operative Matt Duss, a friend and associate of the likes of Linda Sarsour, hitting David Horowitz and me for committing the trumped-up leftist propaganda sin of “Islamophobia.”


This new piece, “Reclaiming the Path of Moderation in Islam,” is not nearly as appalling as the magazine’s publishing of Duss, which was tantamount to the Washington Post publishing me criticizing Sarsour. The new article is a fairly standard workout of the establishment Republican position that Islam is a religion of peace that has nothing whatsoever to do with terrorism, and NR is nothing if not weak Romneyite establishment Republican gruel. But it is still yet another example of the magazine’s loss of the plot.

The subtitle is “Fundamentalists are gaining momentum across the Muslim world, but their conception of Islam relies on a flawed reading of the Koran.” Ah yes, I do believe we have heard that before, about six million times: if only Islam were properly understood, you see, then it would be as cute and cuddly as a child’s teddy bear, but these “fundamentalists” (a word that arose from controversies within Protestant Christianity and is essentially meaningless in an Islamic context) get it all wrong. The author, young Mathis Bitton, an NR intern, doesn’t explain why these “fundamentalists” all misunderstand Islam in essentially the same way, or how this “flawed reading of the Koran” captures the imagination of so many young Muslims across the world, such that the presumably true and peaceful version they supposedly learn at home and in mosques is powerless in the face of its appeal. One would think that if the true, peaceful Islam were as easy to access and understand as young Bitton suggests here, “deradicalization” programs wouldn’t prove to be such a singular failure everywhere they’re implemented, and jihad groups’ recruitment efforts among peaceful Muslims wouldn’t be so consistently successful.


Bitton tells us that according to “the leading scholar” Mohammad Hashim Kamali, “the Koran teaches believers that ‘religious diversity is divinely willed, which inspires, in turn, coexistence with, and tolerance of, others as a spiritual and not just an ethical imperative.’”

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“Religious diversity is divinely willed” echoes the Document on Human Fraternity for World Peace and Living Together that Pope Francis signed along with the Grand Sheikh of al-Azhar. That document says, “The pluralism and the diversity of religions, colour, sex, race and language are willed by God in His wisdom, through which He created human beings.” This is a Qur’anic idea (10:99), as Bitton also notes. But the Qur’an does not say that Muslims are to accept this state of affairs complacently. In fact, the Qur’an teaches exactly the opposite: “And whoever desires other than Islam as religion – never will it be accepted from him, and he, in the Hereafter, will be among the losers.” (3:85) And not only will Allah not accept any religion except Islam, but the believers must fight unbelievers “until religion is all for Allah” (Qur’an 8:39). More on that below.

Bitton also informs us that “beyond a set of metaphysical claims, Islam proposes a way of life, a culture, and a political project. It is also a religion of jihad, that is, of spiritual conquest.”


The eighth sura of the Qur’an is entitled “The Spoils of War” (Al-Anfal). What kind of “spoils of war” ensue from a “spiritual conquest”? In that chapter, we read this: “And know that anything you obtain of war booty – then indeed, for Allah is one fifth of it and for the Messenger and for near relatives and the orphans, the needy, and the traveler” (8:40). How does one turn over to Muhammad or the Islamic authorities a fifth of the war booty from a spiritual conquest?

But Bitton does go on to contradict himself, and to let slip that the Qur’an has more in mind than a “spiritual conquest”:

Time and again, the Koran invites believers to “fight [the enemies of Islam] until there is no persecution” (al-Baqarah 2:193), and to “fight in the way of God against those who fight against you” (al-Baqarah 2:190). But these endorsements of defensive warfare, of which terrorists make extensive use, all belong to a specific part of the Muslim corpus: the story of the Prophet Mohammed at war. In times of conflict, Islam does seem to endorse certain forms of violence that can, if interpreted along literalist lines, justify murderous actions committed against supposed enemies and perceived persecutors.

The Qur’an does enjoin defensive jihad, but it also mandates offensive jihad. Bitton doesn’t quote this: “And fight them until there is no fitnah and religion is all for Allah.” (8:39) Or this: “Fight them until there is no fitnah and worship is for Allah” (2:193). How can jihad warfare be purely defensive if it is not to end until religion is all for Allah, or as Islamic law has it, until non-Muslims have either converted to Islam or (in the case of the People of the Book) accepted the hegemony of Islamic law? If fighting can’t stop until religion is all for Allah, it can’t stop when the aggressor stops attacking.


Muhammad’s earliest biographer, an eighth-century Muslim named Ibn Ishaq, explains the progression of Qur’anic revelation about warfare. First, he explains, Allah allowed Muslims to wage defensive warfare. But that was not Allah’s last word on the circumstances in which Muslims should fight. Ibn Ishaq explains offensive jihad by invoking Qur’an 2:193: Muslims must fight until Allah alone is worshipped. Ibn Ishaq gives no hint that that command died with Muhammad.

Ibn Ishaq’s explanation of the progression of Qur’anic revelation is what leads jihadis — and mainstream Islamic theologians — to state that coexistence has been abrogated by the commands to wage defensive and offensive jihad. The great medieval scholar Ibn Qayyim (1292-1350) also outlines the stages of Muhammad’s prophetic career: “For thirteen years after the beginning of his Messengership, he called people to God through preaching, without fighting or Jizyah, and was commanded to restrain himself and to practice patience and forbearance. Then he was commanded to migrate, and later permission was given to fight. Then he was commanded to fight those who fought him, and to restrain himself from those who did not make war with him. Later he was commanded to fight the polytheists until God’s religion was fully established.”

National Review should not be so irresponsible as to publish this nonsense, which will only foster even more complacency among establishment Republicans regarding the jihad threat. Despite leftist rioting claiming all the headlines, that threat still exists.


Robert Spencer is the director of Jihad Watch and a Shillman Fellow at the David Horowitz Freedom Center. He is author of 21 books, including the New York Times bestsellers The Politically Incorrect Guide to Islam (and the Crusades) and The Truth About Muhammad. His latest book is Rating America’s Presidents: An America-First Look at Who Is Best, Who Is Overrated, and Who Was An Absolute Disaster. Follow him on Twitter here. Like him on Facebook here.

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