We Americans, with our singular heritage of religious freedom, endeavor to think the best of all faiths. But the past four years — since September 11, 2001 — have challenged our accustomed ecumenism. The questions arise: How much do we actually understand about Islam, and is it compatible with liberal democratic ideals that evolved, uniquely, in the West?

Elected leaders tell us that Islam is a religion of peace and that the Muslim terrorists who destroyed New York’s World Trade Center, slaughtering 3,000 non-combatants, adhered to a perverted form of their own faith. Muslim leaders in America now routinely condemn terrorist acts against innocent civilians.

“Islam considers the use of terrorism to be unacceptable for any purpose,” declared the Muslim Public Affairs Council (MPAC) after the recent bombings in London, also perpetrated by Muslims. “MPAC condemns the exploitation of people and issues, regardless of the perpetrators and their justifications.”

But while Muslim spokesman may condemn the killing of innocents — cynically neglecting to make explicit who “qualifies” as innocent — precious few have spoken up to condemn and disown the Islamic doctrine of jihad. The reason may be that jihad, which means “to strive in the path of Allah,” is so much a part of Islamic faith and history, that it represents a permanent Muslim institution.

The foundations of the institution are found in the Qur’an. Sura (chapter) 9 is devoted in its entirety to war proclamations. There we read that the Muslim faithful are to “slay the idolaters wherever you find them . Fight against such as those who have been given the Scripture as believe not in Allah . Go forth, light-armed and heavy-armed, and strive with your wealth and your lives in the way of Allah. That is best for you, if ye but knew.”

From such verses in the Qur’an and in the “hadith” (i.e., words and deeds of Muhammad, recorded by pious transmitters), Muslim jurists and theologians formulated the uniquely Islamic institution of permanent jihad war against non-Muslims to bring the entire world under Islamic rule (Shari’a Law).

The consensus on the nature of jihad from all major schools of Islamic jurisprudence is clear. Summarizing this consensus of centuries of Islamic thought, the renowned Muslim scholar Ibn Khaldun, who died in 1406, wrote:

“In the Muslim community, the holy war is a religious duty, because of the universalism of the mission and [the obligation to] convert everybody to Islam either by persuasion or by force,” he wrote. “The other religious groups did not have a universal mission, and the holy war was not a religious duty for them, save only for purposes of defense.”

Only Islam, Ibn Khaldun added, “is under obligation to gain power over other nations.”

Muhammad himself started things off with a series of proto-jihad campaigns to subdue the Jews, Christians, and pagans of Arabia. Within a century of his death in 632, the jihad wars of his successors had expanded the Muslim empire from Portugal to Pakistan. Later Muslim conquests continued in Asia, Africa, and Eastern Europe.

The Christian kingdoms of Armenia, Byzantium, Bulgaria, Serbia, Bosnia, Herzegovina, Croatia, and Albania, in addition to parts of Poland, Hungary, and Romania, were conquered and Islamized. Arab Muslim invaders also engaged in continuous jihad raids that ravaged and enslaved Sub-Saharan African animist populations, extending to the southern Sudan.

When the Ottoman Muslim armies were stopped at the gates of Vienna in 1683, over a millennium of jihad had transpired.

These tremendous military successes spawned a triumphalist jihad literature. Muslim historians recorded in detail the number of infidels slain, or enslaved and deported, the cities and villages which were pillaged, and the lands, treasure, and movable goods seized.

Christian and Hebrew sources, and even the scant Hindu and Buddhist writings that survived the ravages of the Muslim conquests, independently validate this narrative, and complement the Muslim perspective by providing testimonies of the suffering of the non-Muslim victims of jihad wars.

A prominent 14th-century Muslim treatise on jihad written by Ibn Hudayl revealed the violent methods employed during the conquest of the Iberian peninsula:

“It is permissible to set fire to the lands of the enemy, his stores of grain, his beasts of burden — if it is not possible for the Muslims to take possession of them — as well as to cut down his trees, to raze his cities, in a word, to do everything that might ruin and discourage him.”

Terrorism was often a prelude to conquest. The Muslim historian al-Maqqari, commenting in the 17th century on the brutal tactics of Arab raiders, wrote, “Allah thus instilled such fear among the infidels that they did not dare to go and fight the conquerors; they only approached them as suppliants, to beg for peace.”

Later centuries saw Muslim fortunes decline. Many conquered lands liberated themselves from Muslim rule. But the ideology of jihad was handed down unchanged, to all future Muslim generations.

“Even today, the study of the jihad is part of the curriculum of all the Islamic institutes,” wrote Lebanese law professor Antoine Fattal in 1958. “In the universities of Al-Azhar, Najaf, and Zaitoune, students are still taught that the holy war (jihad war) is a binding prescriptive decree, pronounced against the Infidels, which will only be revoked with the end of the world…”

Sadly, almost 50 years since Fattal made his observations, learning the Manichean theory of jihad war remains an integral part of the formal education of many Muslim youth in the Muslim world.

The historical record demonstrates that this jihad war theory has been put into practice by Muslims, continuously, across the globe, for well over a millennium, through present times.

This fourth anniversary of the carnage of 9/11/01 — caused by a major act of jihad terrorism — would be an appropriate occasion for contemporary Muslim clerical and ruling elites to formally acknowledge, renounce, and begin dismantling the devastating Islamic institution of jihad war.


Bostom is an associate professor of medicine and the author of

The Legacy of Jihad: Islamic Holy War and the Fate of Non-Muslims, just published by Prometheus Books.