Subscribe to our email list and receive discounts and special offers from Watchman


New--Now Available

The Profile Notebook on CD-ROM
The Profile Notebook on CD-ROM

Also available by download for $9.95!

Donate Online

Quick Links

Religious Terrorism

Members of:

Profile Notebook

Profile NotebookOnly $39.95, this 312 page-plus binder includes over 75 Profiles. Also available as CD-ROM or Download!

YOU ARE HERE:   Home >  Articles >  Religious Terrorism >  Understanding Islamic Terrorism

For more information on this topic, please visit the Other Religious Movements section of our web catalog; or click here to order a free information packet.

Islam moon star

Understanding Islamic Terrorism

By Bob Waldrep

In the wake of the tragic events of September 11, and as evidence mounted that Islamic extremists committed the acts, the Muslim community in the United States quickly moved to distance itself from the terrorists. In stark contrast, Muslims in many parts of the Middle East could be seen on television news programs wildly cheering the attack on America. Those unfamiliar with Islam suddenly had a deep interest in knowing which of these really represented Islam.

In the first days after the attack, uncertainty bred fear and contempt in some Americans who lashed out at an innocent Muslim community. Many Muslims, fearing for their safety, would no longer go out in public. Political leaders and the media joined Muslim leaders in trying to educate the general public about the differences between “true” Muslims and those who committed these terrible crimes.

Despite these assurances and having moved several months past the attacks, the debate continues as to whether Islam is a “religion of peace” or does, in fact, support the terrorist actions that have taken so many innocent lives in America and throughout the world, in the name of Allah. This debate will no doubt continue for some time. Our purpose here is not to resolve that issue but to try and better understand the beliefs of our Muslim neighbors and our responsibility as Christians to reach out to them with the gospel.

Estimates of the Muslim population in the U.S. run anywhere from 1.5 to 6 million (4-6 million is the most common estimate) and includes both immigrants and converts. The African-American community accounts for over 40% of the Muslim population.1 Claims on the numbers of Mosques or centers in the U.S go as high as 3,000,2 and at the current growth rates, it is projected that the Islamic population will soon, if not already, exceed the Jewish population, becoming second in size to Christians (Protestant and Catholic).

The strategy of Muslims in the West is to convert Americans to Islam. Their methodology is certainly not through terrorist acts but primarily through public forums and personal contacts or dawa (literally, “invitation”), the Muslim equivalent of evangelism.

Long before September 11, 2001, Muslims in the U.S. realized that Islam was associated with terrorism and they set about to distinguish “moderate” Islam from that of Muslim “extremists,” “fundamentalists” and terrorists. Moderates claim Muslim extremists have given the wrong impression of Islam and contend that to equate religious terrorism and ethnic cleansing with Islam is like defining Christianity by David Koresh or Timothy McVeigh. The truth probably lies somewhere in between, for both history and fundamentalist theology present functional problems for Muslims to explain.

As a result of the recent terrorist attacks and the subsequent “War on Terrorism,” the media and many Americans have probably overly concerned themselves with the concept of jihad, or “holy war.” While Osama bin Laden and other terrorist leaders have certainly called for a jihad, none has materialized, because most moderate and Western Muslims emphasize the peaceful teachings of Islam and de-emphasize the jihad advocated by the terrorists.

Generally, Muslims believe there are two types of jihad: a “lesser” and a “greater.” Muhammad is said to have taught that warfare to destroy the infidel is actually a “lesser” jihad. Instead the Muslim should practice the “greater” jihad, which is the war every man must wage within himself to follow Allah and do what is right. In Middle Eastern countries the emphasis certainly seems to be on the “lesser” jihad. However, Muslims in democratic countries, and Western Muslims in particular, currently tend to interpret jihad as the “greater” jihad.

This is important to consider in light of the fact that, although the Muslim population worldwide numbers over 1 billion and even though the spiritual center of Islam remains in the Middle East, less than 1/8 of the Muslim population lives there. In fact, non-Arab Muslims outnumber Arab Muslims almost three to one with over 1/2 of all Muslims living in Asia. The four countries with the largest Islamic populations are all outside the Middle East: Indonesia, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and India.3 Even in traditionally "Christian" Europe, Islam has become a significant force.

The Sects of Islam

Upon Muhammad’s death, two major sects of Islam developed: the Sunni and the Shi’ite (or Shia). While there are other minor sects today, these two groups still constitute the majority of Islam. The Sunni, which comprise 80-90% of all Muslims, follow the written traditions that consist of the Qur’an, the Sunnah (stories of Muhammad’s conduct, and the source of their name) and the Hadith (Muhammad’s non-Qu’ranic sayings). The Shi'ite sect is dominant in Iran, and until the 9th century believed God spoke through the Imam, a divinely appointed descendant of Ali, Muhammad’s cousin and son-in-law, through his grandson Al-Husayn. They believe the twelfth Imam did not die but that Allah took him away from human sight. It is believed that he will return as the Mahdi, the awaited Messianic figure who will bring the triumph of religion and herald the Last Judgment.

Some of the minor sects of Islam include the Sufis (a mystical group), the Druze (primarily in Lebanon, Syria and Northern Palestine), the Alawites (primarily in Syria), the Ahmadiyas (Pakistan), and the Wahhabis. The Wahhabis are found primarily in Saudia Arabia, and a strong legalistic group representing the radical wing of the Sunnis—terrorist Osama Bin Laden and the Taliban are followers of this sect.

Islam has also spawned several religions including Sikhism (India) the Baha’i (boasting a prophet, Baha ‘U’ Llah, who supersedes Muhammad and his temples around the world) and the Nation of Islam (the religion led by Louis Farrakhan, commonly called “Black Muslims”).

Beliefs and Practices of Islam

Islam means “submission to the will of God.” The person who so submits is called a Muslim or “submissive one.” The religion of Islam is comprised of iman (“beliefs”) and deen (“practices”). While there are divergent sects of Islam, all of Islam recognizes five essential beliefs and practices, commonly called the “Five Pillars.”

The Five Pillars of Islam are:

  1. To recite the shahadah, a profession of faith in Islam asserting that “There is no deity except Allah and Muhammad is the messenger of Allah.” No person becomes a Muslim without reciting this.
  2. To pray (salat) five times a day: at dawn, midday, mid-afternoon, sunset, and two hours after sunset. Devout Muslims prepare for prayer with ceremonial ablutions (washings), the removal of shoes, and assuming correct postures, including facing Mecca.
  3. To fast (sawm) from sunup to sunset during the month of Ramadan, which begins when the moon reaches the crescent phase in the ninth month.
  4. To give alms (zakat), consisting of 2.5% of one’s income, to the poor and needy.
  5. To make the pilgrimage (hajj). Every able Muslim must make the trip to Mecca at least once in his lifetime. Each year millions of Muslims don the ihram, the white garments of the Islamic pilgrim, and make this trip during the twelfth month.

While knowing the basic beliefs of Islam is important to better understand the current status of Islam and the terrorist groups it has spawned, one must also have some understanding of its history.

The History of Islam

Though Muslims would claim that Adam was the first Muslim, historians and other non-Muslim scholars agree that the institutional religion of Islam cannot be found prior to Muhammad. Muhammad was born in 570 A.D. in Mecca, as a member of the Arabian Qurayish tribe, an influential tribe in the city of Mecca. Orphaned at age six, he lived with his grandfather until his death when Muhammad was eight. After that he lived with his uncle Abu Talib. At age twenty-five he married a wealthy widow, Khadijah, who was fifteen years his senior. They had two sons that died in infancy and four daughters who survived him.

Being born in Mecca was significant, for it was a center of commerce and also a religious center, boasting the presence of an important religious shrine, the Ka'aba. This is a cubical structure, which at Muhammad’s time contained 360 idols of Arabian pagan deities. Each Arab tribe had its own tutelary god, and made a yearly pilgrimage here to pay homage to this god. It is said that Muhammad, though exposed to these many deities, was spared from participating in the pagan activities in the life of Mecca.

As did many Arab men, Muhammad would go on an annual spiritual retreat to Mount Hira. At the age of forty, he was on just such a retreat when it is said that the angel Gabriel appeared to him. Initially he feared that this was a jinn (evil spirits of Arab folklore) trying to possess him. But after reporting it to his wife, she convinced him that it was actually God speaking to him and he should continue to listen. This led to many subsequent visions/visitations. His wife encouraged him to share these with others and he began to call people to worship the one true god, who he called Allah.4 These visitations would ultimately result in the Qur'an (“recitations”).

While Islam initially grew slowly, it was a steady growth. As Muhammad began to preach his message of one god, the majority of powerful and influential Meccans opposed it because they stood to loose much if the worship of only one god was popularized. Therefore, most of the first followers were young people of little or no social standing. In 622 A.D. Muhammad had to leave Mecca due to the opposition, and with a small band of followers went to Yathrib (Medina) some 200 miles to the north. This is known as Hijra—“the year of the flight”—and marks the beginning of the Islamic calendar. This same year both of his most trusted and influential confidants, his wife and uncle, died.

Because Medina was not a religious center, he found its people more open to his message and the religion began to increase in adherents. “So far as the prophet was concerned, there was absolutely no change in him from Mecca to Medina, except that in Medina external circumstances were favorable to him, something that he had longed for in Mecca.”5 These dedicated followers would fight many battles on his behalf, and by 630 A.D. they had gained control of Mecca. With over 10,000 men following him, Muhammad entered the city practically unopposed and cleansed the Ka'aba of its idols. Pardons were given to the majority of the city’s leaders and almost all Mecca became Muslim.6

In 632 A.D. Muhammad died without having appointed a successor. A dispute over who should replace him quickly ensued and resulted in Islam dividing into the two major sects. The Sunnis insisted that Muhammad’s successor should be elected from the tribe of Muhammad, but the Shi'ites wanted his successor to come from his own family. As one authority explains it, “what basically distinguished Sunni and Shi’ite Muslims was the Shi’ite doctrine of the imamate. According to the Sunnites, the caliph, the elected successor of the Prophet, possessed political and military leadership but not Muhammad’s religious authority. In contrast, according to the Shi’ites, the imam (leader) is directly descended from the Prophet and is the sinless, divinely inspired political leader and religious guide of the community.”7 The real issue comes down to who interprets the law (shari’a). “Shi’ites claim that the imam does . . . Sunnites insist that interpretation comes from the consensus of the ulema, a group of religious scholars.”8

Despite these developing factions, Islam would continue to advance, so that within 200 years of Muhammad’s death Islamic leaders had conquered most of the Arabian peninsula, Syria, Egypt, all of North Africa, most of Spain, and the Persian Empire, extending their rule to Kabul (present day capital of Afghanistan) and Kazakhstan. In 713 they even founded an isolated Islamic community in northern India.9

This was a tremendous accomplishment, especially when you consider that the Arab world of Muhammad’s day consisted of tribal factions that had very little in common other than a common homeland and were constantly warring with one another. Through the religion of Islam, Muhammad “gave Arabs the idea of a unique and unified umma, or community, which consisted of all those whose primary identity and bond was a common religious faith and commitment, not a tribal tie. The umma was to be a religious and political community led by Muhammad for the achievement of God’s will on earth.”10

United by a common faith and religious zeal, the followers of Islam were convinced of the necessity of jihad—“holy war.” “The Qur’an does not explicitly mention this subject, but because the Qur’an does suggest that God sent the Prophet to establish justice on earth, it follows that justice will take effect only where Islam triumphs.”11 However, the motivation for the spread of Islam cannot be reduced to so simplistic a reason as jihad. Obviously there were also other factors such as political and socio-economic considerations. To say that the religion of Islam grew in countries conquered by Muslim rulers is proof that the spreading of Islam was the sole reason for the conflict, would be like saying that the spread of the British Empire was motivated solely by a desire to spread Christianity. While it is true that Christianity followed British rule over conquered territories, it would be naïve to suggest that was the sole or primary motivation for the British conquest of other lands, and similarly naïve to make such a claim about Islam.

By the twelfth century Islam was in decline, due in part to a resurgence of tribal infighting and internal power struggles and from invasions by other powers such as the Turks, the Huns and the Mongols. Islamic rulers were also experiencing the difficulties of trying to rule over an extended empire with a diverse populous. This decline would continue into the modern era, and Islam was never able to return to the glory years of its vast united empire.

The umma, one of the keys to Islamic growth—particularly thorough jihad—finally fractured. “If one accepts the idea of God’s oneness and Muhammad’s claim to be his Prophet, then it follows that all authority comes from God through Muhammad. Within the umma, the law of God was discerned and applied through Muhammad. Thus, in the seventh century, Islam centralized authority, both political and religious, in Muhammad’s hands.”12 But with no prophet to unite the faithful, discord was inevitable.

The Islam of today no longer has that one voice, a unifying leader who can call all Islam into a united holy war. Thus it becomes extremely difficult, if not impossible, to cause the “all-out” jihad against the infidels that Islamic terrorists so stridently demand. The lack of response by Muslims globally to join bin Laden and other Muslim terrorists in jihad bears this out.

In his article “Muslim Ideology and Christian Apologetics,” Samuel P. Schlorff writes, “The Muslims began to experience setbacks and loss of territory as the vast empire began to disintegrate. In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the Muslim community experienced its darkest hour. It became politically fragmented, economically underdeveloped, and largely subservient to Western colonial powers. After the abolition of the caliphate in 1924, there was no longer a caliph governing the community anywhere, as required by Muslim ideology.”13 The great Muslim empire was now fragmented and very much of it under the control of “infidels.”

Schlorff continues, “About the middle of the twentieth century, Islam appeared to have turned a corner. In the decade following World War II, most Muslim countries became independent once again. Many adopted forms of government with a degree of continuity with Islamic Law but patterned mainly on Western political models, especially socialism . . . Most constitutions declared Islam to be the ‘Religion of the State’ . . . Few declared it to be the law of the land. The Western concept of the nation, defined in terms of the equality of its citizens, had widely replaced that of a universal ummah. Secularism was making inroads. All these things were in conflict with the Muslim ideal of a single community governed by a Muslim ruler, but they were accepted in hope of better things.”14

In this context Muslim extremists have become part of the fabric of Islam, calling for a restoration of what they call “true” Islam. As author Randall Price points out, “After World War I, a fusion of religion and state that had existed as law in Muslim lands since the seventh century A.D. began to become more aggressively advocated in the interest of the purity of Islam. Having a Muslim population governed by a secular government that could be controlled by non-Muslim powers was considered an abomination . . . What was needed was a revival of revolutionary Islam, of jihadic extremism, to accomplish this unification.”15 The foundation was being laid for the successful development of the Islamic terrorist groups of today.

As these groups grow in number, their acts of hatred and vengeance increase as well. For them, Islam calls for a holy war against the United States and Israel and those who might support them. However, it is not limited to these, as is evidenced by the unjust treatment of fellow Muslims by the Taliban rulers in Afghanistan. The September 11th attacks and the current “War on Terrorism” have shown that the terrorist warrior, the mujahideen, spurred on by the call to jihad and the promise that paradise and its incumbent rewards are guaranteed those who die in battle for Allah, is committed unto the end.

Dr. Muqtedar Khan, an Assistant Professor of Political Science at Adrian College in Michigan and a moderate Muslim, finds this to be distasteful. He writes, “For over a decade we have watched as Muslims in the name of Islam have committed violence against other Muslims and other peoples. We have always found a way to reconcile the vast distance between Islamic values and Muslim practices by pointing out to the injustices committed upon Muslims by others. The point however is this—our belief in Islam and commitment to Islamic values is not contingent on the moral conduct of the US or Israel. And as Muslims can we condone such inhuman and senseless waste of life in the name of Islam?”16

Let us hope that those Muslims who believe as Dr. Khan represent the prevailing opinion.


  1. Larry Poston and Carl Ellis, The Changing face of Islam in America (Camp Hill: Horizon Books, 2000), 22.
  2. John Ankerberg and John Weldon, Fast Facts on Islam: What You Need to Know (Eugene: Harvest House, 2001), 13.
  3. James A. Beverly, Understanding Islam (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2001) 37-38.
  4. Dean Halverson, Islam Religion Profile (Colorado Springs: International Students, Inc., 1992) 1.
  5. Fazlur Rahman, Islam (Chicago and London: Chicago University Press, 2nd Ed., 1979) 19.
  6. Ibid., 23-24.
  7. John P. McKay, Bennet D. Hill, John Buckler, A History of World Societies (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1992), 274.
  8. Ibid., 275.
  9. Ibid., 268-269.
  10. Ibid., 266.
  11. Ibid., 270.
  12. Ibid., 267.
  13. Samuel P. Schlorff, “Muslim Ideology and Christian Apologetics”, (reproduced from:  Missiology, Vol. 21, No. 2 April 1993).
  14. Ibid.
  15. Randall Price, Unholy War, (Eugene: Harvest House, 2001), 201-202.
  16. M. A. Muqtedar Khan, IJTIHAD: A Memo to American Muslims,

Rev. Bob Waldrep, MRE, serves as State Director—Alabama at Watchman Fellowship’s Birmingham, AL office. Bob is also an ordained Southern Baptist Minister and serves as Lay Pastor for the Church at Brook Hills. You can email Bob by clicking here.

This article was excerpted from the Summer 2002 issue of The Watchman Update

For more information on this topic, please visit the Other Religious Movements section of our web catalog; or click here to order a free information packet.