Misinterpreting Religion in the Name of Extremism

Terrorists distort religious texts to justify destruction, violence and murder


The theological and doctrinal literature traditionally used by radical Islamist organizations has been a primary cause for the rise of extremism. These organizations’ understanding of theological and doctrinal statements, stripped of context in texts written by preachers and jurists to address specific cases, has given birth to a literalist text-based mentality that interprets political, social, cultural and religious complexities on the basis of these statements. Therefore, these texts have had, and continue to have, a direct impact on the rise of extremism.

To understand how this brand of extremist thought evolved, Gen. Abdul Wahab Alsaidi, commander of the Iraqi Counter-Terrorism Service, organized a conference in April 2021 chaired by Prime Minster Mustafa Alkadhimi. They invited 15 Iraqi scholars and counter extremism professionals to identify and analyze the literature used to justify terrorism. The key elements of this literature are the following: 

Al-Walaa wal-Baraa

Al-Walaa wal-Baraa (Loyalty and Enmity for the sake of Allah) is a concept commonly circulated among radical groups and religious sects alike, but the radicals see themselves as holding ascendancy over society in terms of establishing the rule of Sharia law and tightening the application of the provisions of “Loyalty and Enmity for the sake of Allah.” What then is meant by “Al-Walaa” (loyalty for Allah’s sake) and “Al-Baraa” (enmity for His sake)? 

Al-Walaa, allegiance and friendship based on relationships of kinship, mutual support and emancipation, refers to closeness and the expression of amity/closeness in words, deeds and intentions to whoever is determined to be a friend. This amity/closeness is intended for Allah, the Prophet and Muslims. It is the legal duty of every Muslim of every race, and is, according to the theories of radical factions and groups, the opposite of kufr wa-ridda (unbelief and apostasy from Islam). 


This term means those gathered together in nusra (mutual support). For the benefit of the patriarchs who were polytheists, it was commanded that such a person’s outsider status not lead to excommunication and expulsion from the religious community, as is the practice of extremists. Proof of Islam’s compassion and kindness toward those who stray from the religion is recorded in the Sahih al-Bukhari in which the Prophet urges the daughter of one of his companions not to sever relations with her pagan mother. From the perspective of the Quran and the Prophetic Hadiths, reverence is to be shown to unbelieving parents just as one should be charitable toward non-Muslim relatives or contemporaries. Charity does not consist of assuming power over them, and benevolence toward non-Muslims is not precluded, as opposed to the abhorrence or excommunication that extremists advocate.

The second set of Quranic texts adopted by theorists of radical organizations includes these verses: “Whoever allies himself with Allah, His Messenger, and those who have believed, then it is certainly the party of Allah that will prevail” and “Every religion turns to their own direction of prayer. So compete with one another in doing good.” 

These verses have been interpreted by theorists of Islamic organizations to justify love for companions and hate for enemies. But many believe it includes humane and social relationships that begin with an individual when he decides to take for himself a friend who emulates and follows him in all that he does without coercion or subjugation. Humans can simultaneously belong to different groups without contradicting fundamental unity, such as family, nation, ethnicity, sect, political party or class — human societies in general. The world provides many examples of this, including in the case of the United States.

Therefore, religious and political movements that understand Al-Walaa wal-Baraa narrowly as subjugation to Allah’s governance are flawed because they claim that people should be subjected to guardianship by force, against their will. This mistaken understanding of the Quranic precepts, the Prophetic Hadiths, Islamic textbooks and Quranic interpretation stems from narrow political calculations based on a one-sided understanding of thought and politics that ignores the mindset of ideologically, religiously and ethnically diverse societies.

Nor does it take into account the true concept of religion based on taking care of spiritual and temporal matters. Instead, it forces religion to conform to political currents and exaggerates disagreements, leading to intolerance and fragmentation, uncompromising dogma and heated disputes. This triggers confusion among young people. Preachers become detached from society and current events and fail to address attempts to break the law and destabilize the state.  

Jihad and Qitaal

This is a controversial topic, and one of the most sensitive, complex and divisive subjects of Islamic culture, especially in light of the events of today that seem to mix politics with faith and which deliberately blur the difference between jihad, qitaal (fighting) and qatl (killing/murder) or between acts of sabotage and terrorism, on the one hand, and liberation on the other.

Radical Islamist organizations have confused these concepts and embraced a flawed and distorted understanding of jihad, seeking to seize power with numerous eye-popping headlines, even beyond Daesh overrunning cities in Iraq and Syria under the pretext of establishing an Islamic caliphate. So what does jihad mean?

In Islamic jurisprudence, it has two aspects: one general and one particular. The public is to make efforts to drive away anything that invites one to go against God’s guidance in the form of unbelief and sin. Jihad involves the soul, lust and the devil and includes rejecting those who oppose God’s message, suppressing desires opposing His commands, fighting unbelievers and apostates with arguments and evidence, and struggling against polytheistic unbelievers and the People of the Book (Christians and Jews) until they enter Islam or pay the jizyah tax. 

We find no clearer explanation of jihad than in the Prophet’s own definition, when he told his companions that the “greater jihad” is the striving of a servant of God against his ungodly desires. 

Nevertheless, jihad has been transformed by some jurists into an idiom meaning fighting for the sake of Allah, transforming jihad into physical conquest and fighting into murder. The sources on jihad adopted by violent groups are based on a misreading of earlier scholarship. 

Terrorist groups like Jamaat al-Jihad, which published the pamphlet “Jihad: The Neglected Duty” in the 1980s and spawned offshoots like al-Qaida and Daesh, used this misreading of jihad as the theoretical basis for its actions. One of its ideological godfathers named Muhammad abd-al-Salam Faraj described the Muslim rulers of the late 20th century as “apostates raised at the colonial tables of Crusaders, Communists, and Zionists, who bear nothing of Islam but their names, yet claim to be Muslim whenever they pray or fast.” He was executed in connection with the assassination of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat.

Faraj promoted jihad as obligatory for individual Muslims. In other words, it is a jihad that does not require the permission of parents to perform, according to jurists; it is rather analogous to prayer and fasting. 

Moderate Islamic scholars believe that the Quran exhibits a different strategy, that of nonviolence. In the final revelation of the Quran, the Almighty says, “If you raise your hand to kill me, I will not raise mine to kill you.” Yet this concept has been abrogated by extremist movements that erroneously believe it has been replaced another verse called the Ayat As-Sayf. (the Sword Verse). 

The verses of the Quran themselves demonstrate tolerance, and make provision for religious and intellectual freedom. Two famous Quranic verses prove this: “Let there be no compulsion in religion, for the truth stands out clearly from falsehood” and “Invite all to the way of your Lord with wisdom and kind advice, and only debate with them in the best manner.”

Extremists claim those tolerant verses were abrogated by the so-called Sword Verse and use this belief as a pretext to kill and commit crimes against those who disagree with them. The author Mohammed Shahrour suggests this abrogation claim is lunacy that condemns the Muslim masses to mental and scientific underdevelopment and ignorance of the Quran.

Perhaps it’s this reliance on violence — that the sword fulfills the duty of proselytization — that accounts for the failure of Islam to accomplish its mission of conversion. Conversion by violence is an absurd claim to any reasonable people. 


Equally laden with religious misinterpretation is the concept of takfir (excommunication). It began with references to what is known as Salafism, or the teachings of the pious predecessors, or Salaf. The literal interpretations of the Salafi led them to invalidate practitioners of most religions. 

By claiming the absolute authenticity of early religious texts — which they insist should be interpreted literally — any independent reasoning is precluded. Likewise, the Salafis’ rigid interpretation of the first generation of Muslims transforms religion from a universal truth into a static historical model.

This plays into the Salafis’ concept of heresy and excommunication. The problem lies in the fact that many jihadist organizations have adopted a takfiri approach to people they consider to be outside the faith, even if Muslim. If you don’t believe in the same way they believe, you are condemned as an unbeliever and subject to death or expulsion. Takfir is therefore a byproduct of the extremist mindset. 


The majority of the theorists of radical extremist organizations uniformly treat dissidents with hostility. The issue of ar-ridda (apostasy) is a slippery slope that has caused many to be led astray. Extremists past and present have fallen victim to this trap based on a mistaken interpretation. The explanation given by some Salafi scholars for excommunicating opposing clerics as unbelievers consisted of perfunctory conclusions and drastic interpretations driven by the quotation of old texts. The rhetorical violence practiced by extremist scholars is a microcosm of the physical violence espoused by works such as Al-Umda fi Idad al-Udda (The Essential Guide to Preparation), published by an Egyptian extremist in 1988 in light of the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan.

That book contains several theories attributed to but not actually espoused by Muslim scholars, giving it false religious legitimacy. It goes beyond the proper bounds of the Quran and Sunnah. It legitimizes the practice of declaring rulers, their auxiliaries, armies, police and entire sects of Islam and other religions as unbelievers and apostates. This justifies bombings, destruction and assassinations. Extremists with this mindset regard anyone who will not be governed by their distorted definition of religion as outsiders worthy of destruction.  

Scholars are of the opinion that the Quran provides for no punishment for apostasy save that of two chapters that mention God “voiding” a person’s deeds on the day of judgment and granting his favors to true believers rather than apostates. Apostacy is not an earthly criminal offence to be punished by earthly actors in a civil state under the rule of law. Therefore, the interpretations of radical Islamic organizations and their theorists are exaggerated, extremist and logically inexplicable.

It has dangerous repercussions. It simultaneously removes people from the community of believers and allows extremist groups to eliminate them. Such an approach is inconsistent with both reason and religion. 


What can governments and society at large do to prevent extremists from gaining the allegiance of vulnerable citizens? Here are some suggestions:

Ideological: Ideological remedies dealing with the review of doctrinal and religious textbooks are of primary importance. This task lies primarily with religious scholars, investigators and intellectuals. It is necessary to distinguish between religious opinions and the religion itself, where the former may be treated as human and historical knowledge subject to criticism while the latter is represented by the pure divine texts themselves. 

Societal pillars: Work to reinforce the values of citizenship, strengthen human rights, provide freedoms, allow for criticism, provide social justice, and move away from sectarian, confessional and ethnic tensions as a society and state. The extremist mindset works to fuel and exploit these issues in its inflammatory and destructive project to gain additional support and followers, increasing the peril to society.  

Responsive governance: Leverage civic education, beginning with the establishment of a philosophy of the state grounded in the Constitution and the configuration of its political system based on freedom of thought and belief, respect for the law, recognition of human rights and religious and ethnic pluralism. Elected statesmen and legislators should be capable of addressing the problems of society, of state building, and of managing religious and ethnic diversity. The educational system should instill a spirit of moderation and remove troublesome and antagonistic curriculum and textbooks, especially in religious academies and institutes of Islamic law. 

Religious reform: Encourage a social order based on a moralistic religion that separates out contentious doctrinal issues and build up a political culture based on shared values and beliefs that place the concept of the nation-state ahead of narrow definitions of culture and sub-identities.

Military action: The task of countering the ideological aspects of extremism and drying up the wells of extremist and terrorist thought falls on the shoulders of many diverse segments of society, up to and including psychologists. But in many cases, society and the state must rely on security services and intelligence agencies to carry out preemptive military strikes when extremist organizations and individuals seek to use violence against civilians, the military and infrastructure.  

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