Extremist groups like the Islamic State (IS or ISIS) and al-Qaeda claim the Qur’an legitimizes their terrorist acts. Most Muslims say it does no such thing—that Islam is a religion of peace.
Reformist Muslims especially complain that Islam has been hijacked by extremist thugs who have made jihad into something it was never meant to be. Reformists describe jihad as the noble concept of striving for “self-improvement in the pursuit of the ideals of justice and peace, in submission to God.” Though Islamists would agree in part, they’d hotly contest how that peace and justice should look and be attained.
This brings us to the crux of the matter. Islamists believe true peace and justice are possible only under the rule of the sharia. Many would also say the Qur’an legitimizes violence to advance Islam’s religio-political cause. Reformists counter that it legitimizes only self-defensive warfare. But all Muslims quote their scripture to justify their beliefs and behavior, just as members of Bible-based religions do. So we must ask what kind of violence the Qur’an commands and under what circumstances. Especially now that Muslim extremism has metastasized to North Africa and Asia: it clearly isn’t going away anytime soon.
But we must start with a more basic question than these: what did Muhammad* come to do? According to Islam’s earliest source document, the Qur’an, he came to bring humanity together in submission, which is what the word “Islam” means. This submission was twofold, to God and to himself as God’s final prophet—all of which meant living under Muhammad’s theocratic rule.
Religion and politics inseparable
Many Westerners assume that, like our own world, Muhammad’s world separated religion and politics. But the exact opposite was true. Everyone in his world saw religion and politics as inseparable—Christians, Jews, Zoroastrians and pagans, everyone. In fact, the union of religion and politics was one of the period’s defining features. Had Muhammad* wanted to challenge it, the Qur’an would have repeatedly attacked it, just as it did the polytheism.
The Qur’an only ever urged a separation of politics and religion in calling Mecca’s pagans to tolerate his views (Q 109:6) when Muhammad* was in a position of weakness, before he gave up on Plan A.
This brings us to a vital key for anyone wanting to understand the Qur’an. We can only understand it if we read it chronologically, with Muhammad’s two distinct plans in mind.
When the Meccans refused to listen to Muhammad’s persuasive overtures, he moved to Medina, where he became the town’s ruler. In that role, he launched a military campaign against Mecca, one that ultimately enabled him to impose his rule and religion on his pagan hometown. Thus,
- Plan A aimed to establish his theocratic vision for Arabia peacefully
- Plan B aimed to force the Meccans (and others in Arabia) to submit to his rule
Peaceful though it was, however, Plan A never separated politics and religion. That notion was never under consideration.
Reading the Qur’an chronologically makes clear Muhammad’s shift from nonviolent appeals to military violence against unbelievers (pagans), and later against Jews and Christians. For example,
- The Meccan suras use jihad only to refer to nonviolent struggle against evil (Q 29:6)
- The Medinan suras use jihad to refer to armed warfare (Q 8:75; cf. 8:65)
The word jihad itself means simply “struggle” or “striving.” Before Islam took on its political shape in Medina, that struggle was nonviolent. But once Muhammad* led his community to war, that struggle naturally included military combat. The jurists who created the sharia focused on jihad’s military side. It is refreshing that reformists now focus on jihad’s role in personal growth, as the Sufis have done throughout history the Sufis. But make no mistake, the qur’anic use of jihad includes both kinds of struggle.
Many of the Muslim community’s biggest challenges today directly relate to the Qur’an’s legitimization of violence. This demands that we take a closer look at specifically what the Qur’an authorizes—when it permits violence, against whom, under what circumstances, and what it looks like? Was military jihad limited to self-defense or not? Those questions I’ll need to address in subsequent articles.
* Peace be upon his descendants
 They’d object to the description’s pronounced individualism, which tells us such reformist thinking owes more to the West than East, where Islam originated.
 As a matter of fact, that idea is the entire basis of the sharia.
 In the Medinan period, Muhammad* also said there was to be “no compulsion in religion” (Q 2:256). But this wasn’t a call for the separation of religion and politics.
 The Muslim faith is founded on the belief that these two plans originated with God, not Muhammad.* Non-Muslims need not accept that in order to accept that these two plans marked out the two stages of Muhammad’s prophetic career. (We have four basic choices with respect to the traditional Islamic origins narrative, only two of which are defensible.) Our version of the Islamic origins story—how Muhammad* established Islam in the world—inevitably determines how we interpret the Qur’an.