Is Islam a religion of peace? | WORLD
Sound journalism, grounded in facts and Biblical truth | Donate

Is Islam a religion of peace?

The West’s definition of ‘peace’ differs dramatically from Islam’s

YWAM Publishing

Is Islam a religion of peace?

The debate still rages: Two U.S. presidents have repeatedly called Islam a “religion of peace,” but is it surprising that an entity calling itself the Islamic State confuses decapitation with diplomacy?

Darrow Miller, a longtime relief and development specialist, now heads the Disciple Nations Alliance. WORLD has recommended his excellent books, including Discipling Nations: The Power of Truth to Transform Cultures, and LifeWork: A Biblical Theology for What You Do Every Day.

Below is much of Chapter 3 of Emancipating the World: A Christian Response to Radical Islam and Fundamentalist Atheism, which asks, “Is Islam a religion of peace? Yes and no. Yes, Islam believes in peace, but no, not peace as defined by the West.” To see how Islam defines it, please read on. —Marvin Olasky

Chapter 3: The Tyranny of Jihad

To Muslims the world can be divided between those who are faithful to Allah and those who do not know him. Sayyid Qutb (1906–66), author, poet and intellectual father of modern Muslim militancy, identifies two kinds of societies: Islamic and jahil (ignorant).

Stated another way, the world is divided between Dar al-Islam and Dar al-Harb—the House of Islam and the House of War. The House of Islam is governed by Muslims under sharia (Islamic law). Most faithful Muslims share one mission: to bring the whole world into a system of governance marked by the religious-political authority and uniformity of Islam. Some Muslims seek to accomplish this through persuasion, while others employ tyranny.

All people not living by sharia are jahiliyya (the ignorant) and as such comprise Dar al-Harb, the House of War. Whole nations—those such as the United States and England and moderate Muslim countries such as Morocco and Jordan—are jahiliyya. Therefore, they are in a perpetual state of war with Dar al-Islam until they either submit to Islamic faith or are conquered by the sword.

The House of War is engaged in a battle with only one acceptable end. The war will be fought until every person and nation joins the House of Islam and the ignorant proclaim the Shahadah: “I bear witness that there is no god but Allah, and Muhammad is his messenger” (English translation).

Based on Muhammad’s life, Sayyid Qutb speaks of several stages of Islamic war: “a peaceful time of preparation, a migration, the creation of an Islamic state, and finally open warfare.”

Throughout history, civilizations have sought to restrain war’s most heinous practices. The Geneva Convention, developed after the atrocities of World War II, was a major modern attempt to “humanize” warfare. So, too, Muslims have set boundaries. As Mary Habeck points out, “Islamic jurisprudents used the Qur’an, hadith, and life of Muhammad to determine the Islamically correct way to conduct war. The majority determined that noncombatant women, children, and monks or nuns could not be killed; the captives should not be slaughtered outright; and that even animals and trees had certain rights.”

Jihadists, however, reject such restrictions, whether proposed by international communities or by moderate fellow Muslims. To jihadists, sharia takes precedence over international law. They advocate terrorizing both civilians and nations into submission. Their war is a no-holds-barred conflict.

The Meaning of Jihad

The word jihad occurs throughout the Qur’an and means “to strive, to struggle, to strive in the way of Allah.” Jihad has three traditional understandings, two of which reflect the Mecca texts and one of which reflects the Medina texts of the Qur’an. Almost a hundred percent of the time, jihad refers to violent conflict and is understood as such, not simply by extremists but by the vast majority of all Muslims. The tiny minority of Sufi, the mystical impulse within Islam, understands jihad as an inner striving for perfection. Reformers and other moderates see jihad—their “sixth pillar of Islam”—as persuading non-Muslims of the veracity of their faith.

The West stumbles when she fails to note these distinctions. Sufis and reformers may interpret jihad as something other than violence, but these groups are seen as infidels and are not taken seriously by the jihadists and other fundamentalists who understand jihad as violence and fighting for the true religion.

In 1981 extremist Ayatollah Ruhollah Musavi Khomeini called Muslims to war against infidels: “Muslims have no alternative if they wish to enforce those in power to conform to the laws and principles of Islam. Holy war means the conquest of all non-Muslim territories, and this war is the duty of all Muslims.”

Holy War is declared against the kuffar, people or states that do not recognize Allah or Muhammad, the prophet of Allah. Kuffar (singular kafir) comes from the Arabic root meaning “to cover” and refers to those who cover up truth. There are two types of kuffar. The first is all non-Muslims, including people of other faiths, atheists, and pagans. The second is Muslims who become apostate. The action of one Muslim declaring another Muslim apostate is called takfir, and for jihadists it is right to kill apostates. Muslims may be declared apostate if they become too closely aligned with the West. Often the declaration of takfir is followed by a fatwa (usually the ruling of a mufti, an Islamic scholar of law). Such an injunction amounts to putting out a contract on a person’s life, allowing jihadists to kill with impunity.

Two Jihadist Visions

While jihadists are attacking the West and moderate Muslims, it is important to understand that they also attack each other. This is the result of the historical division between Shia Islam and Sunni Islam (see chapter 2). The division between Shia and Sunni has resulted in bloodshed at various times throughout history. The Iran-Iraq War (1980–88) is a tragic example of this feud, in this case between secular Sunnis of Iraq (who ruled over a majority Shiite population) and religious Shiites of Iran.

Two jihadist visions have sprung from the division between Sunni and Shia Islam. While both Sunni and Shiite jihadists want to see Islam rule the world, Sunni jihadists strive to fulfill their vision by violent purification of the world, whereas Shiite jihadists seek to begin a global military conflict. Both visions stand in contrast to more moderate Muslims who seek to spread Islam through nonviolent means.

Of the various Sunni jihadist groups, perhaps the most well known is al-Qaeda, led by the late Osama bin Laden and Dr. Ayman al-Zawahiri. Their goal is “to establish the truth, get rid of evil, and establish an Islamic nation.”

The Shiite front of jihad is led by the spiritual Supreme Leader of Iran, Ali Khamenei, and the radical Iranian president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Their goal is world domination, as expressed by Ayatollah Khamenei: “We shall export our revolution to the whole world. Until the cry ‘Allah Akbar’ resounds over the whole world, there will be struggle. There will be Ji’had. … Islam is the religion of militant individuals. … Islam will be victorious in all the countries of the world, and Islam and the teachings of the Koran will prevail all over the world.”

The Culture of Death

The Judeo-Christian worldview promotes a culture of life. Because humans are made in the image of God, every individual has intrinsic worth and a God-given right to life. All human life, from conception to natural death, at any level of society, is sacred. I firmly believe that living things are hardwired for life and instinctively regard death as an enemy.

A single human life is of absolute significance. This is the message of Stephen Spielberg’s 1998 award-winning film, based on a true story, Saving Private Ryan. During the allied invasion of Normandy in World War II, a small group of US soldiers was sent to rescue Private Ryan, whose three brothers had already been killed in the war. These young men put their own lives in extreme jeopardy to save the life of one man, the last living son of his family.

Jihadists are raised in a culture of death. They are trained to deny their natural hardwiring in favor of death. As bin Laden said in his “Declaration of War”: “These youths [the jihadists] love death as you love life.” The widespread practice of suicide bombing reveals that jihadists hate moderate Muslims, Israel, and the West more than they love life.

Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir captured with unforgettable clarity this culture of death in a 1957 statement to the National Press Club in Washington, DC. “Peace will come when the Arabs will love their children more than they hate us,” she said, implying that many Palestinian mothers hate Israel more than they love their own children. A dozen years later at a London Press conference Meir said, “When peace comes we will perhaps in time be able to forgive the Arabs for killing our sons, but it will be harder for us to forgive them for having forced us to kill their sons.”

Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi, the Muslim “theologian of terror,” has stated, “The Israelis might have nuclear bombs but we have the children bomb and these human bombs must continue until liberation.” Middle East expert Walid Phares writes that jihadists “praise death as a weapon to bring about victory, but they also worship the concept of killing for the sake of ideology. ‘Naashaq’ul maout kama taashaqun al hayat’ (‘we are in love with death’).”

The Hamas website proclaims: “With Allah’s grace, we have raised an ideological generation that loves death as much as our enemies love life.”

Martyrdom in the service of Allah guarantees immediate access to paradise. The death of Ibn Omar Muhammad, a volunteer commander in the Popular Defense Forces of Northern Sudan, was followed, not by a funeral, but by his “wedding.” His family dressed the corpse as a bridegroom and seventy-two virgins were the brides.

Jihad’s symbol is the sword: conquering the world for Allah. The symbol of Christianity is the cross: sacrificing self that others may live. Jihad calls her sons to kill for Allah to achieve salvation. Christianity’s God sent his only Son to die for our salvation. Jihad achieves righteousness by works: entering paradise by killing infidels. Christianity teaches righteousness by grace: salvation by faith in the finished work of Christ on the cross.

Jihadist Tactics

Islam is spread through both nonviolent and violent means. Most Muslims abhor violence, choosing words and life-affirming actions to further their religion. Jihadists, on the other hand, use any means, including violence, to reach their desired goal.

Technology and Propaganda

Jihadist groups use the Internet and digital technology to engage Muslims in the struggle. Without the constraints of government structures, jihadists can quickly mobilize Muslims through the Internet and satellite television. In September 2005, when a Danish newspaper printed political cartoons of Muhammad, word spread on Islamic news sites, and riots erupted almost instantly throughout the Muslim world and Europe.


Another jihadist tactic has been an explosion in the founding of madrassas, Islamic religious schools. Madrassas do not teach math, science, art, history, literature, or reasoning, but focus rather on Islamic religious instruction. Pulitzer laureate Thomas Friedman writes: “For many young Pakistani boys, the only way to get an education and three meals a day was by going to one of these madrasas. In 1978 there were three thousand madrasas in Pakistan and now there are thirty-nine thousand—the vast majority of them factories churning out young men who are unprepared for modernity, have little exposure to women and are hostile to everything the West stands for.”

Saudi oil wealth has funded Wahhabi schools around the world as well as Islamic studies departments at major Western universities. Alex Alexiev, senior fellow of the Center for Security Policy notes, “While nobody knows for sure how much the Saudis have spent on getting a foothold in non-Muslim regions and especially in Western Europe and North America, the sums are clearly huge. According to official information, the Saudis have built over 1,500 mosques, 210 Islamic centers, 202 Islamic colleges and 2,000 schools for educating Muslims in non-Muslim countries.” In addition to Islamic Cultural Centers, mosques are being built on the campuses of major US universities all over the country.


Fundamentalists seek to create “parallel societies” in their adopted lands around the world not only through the maintenance of their ethnic language and culture, but also through the use of sharia in their own communities. Sharia allows for “honor killing” by the males in the family of a female family member who has been adulterous, flirtatious, or raped. Such acts break the family honor. The offending party must die to restore the honor. Honor killings are now happening in the United States and Europe. On October 20, 2009, Noor Almaleki died in Peoria, Arizona, after her father, Faleh Hassan Almaleki, ran over her with the family car. Noor had brought shame on her family by becoming too Westernized, refusing an arranged marriage back in Iraq, and living with an American boyfriend and his mother, all grounds for murder under sharia. Almaleki was convicted of second-degree murder in February 2011.


Deception (taqiya) is a virtue in Dar al-Islam, a tactic in the jihadist struggle against its enemies. To distort, conceal, or lie for the advancement of Islam is a good thing. In many parts of the world, politicians are rarely known for their integrity; this is similarly true of Muslim leaders. As an example, Yasir Arafat, the late secularist Palestinian president, often took taqiya to new levels. When addressing the English-speaking world, Arafat claimed to support peace with Israel to end the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. But when speaking in Arabic to the Muslim world, he called for endless jihad until Israel was removed from the face of the earth. The Judeo-Christian heritage of trust and honesty, so critical for a free and prosperous society, is despised and rejected by jihadists. No wonder so many Islamic societies are poor in the midst of plenty.

Tactical Peace

Tactical peace (hudna) is not a permanent peace but a cease-fire or temporary end to hostilities, allowing jihadists to rearm, regroup, and prepare to fight again. Dr. David Bukay, professor of Middle East studies at the University of Haifa, writes: “Arabs view peace as a tactical means for achieving their strategic objective, by defeating the enemy. Peace constitutes a temporary break in the ongoing war against the enemy, until Islam controls the whole world.” We have seen such hudnas countless times in the Middle East conflict. The ceasefire in the 2006 Israel-Hezbollah War was the occasion for the jihadists to rebuild and rearm their forces, preparing for their next attack.

Extremists have little hope of an outright military defeat of the United States and her Western allies. But if they can create terror in the hearts of civilian populations, perhaps Western governments will capitulate to jihadists’ demands. Such a pattern has been repeatedly seen in Europe and in the United States.


We have already mentioned some of the bombings that were part of the pre- and post-9/11 tactics. Since 9/11, bombings in Bali, Madrid, and London claimed numerous Western lives. The Mumbai bombing also took many lives in India. Almost weekly a terrorist bomb explodes somewhere, though many other plots are thwarted.


One of the earliest terrorist tactics was hijacking planes and ships. The four planes commandeered on 9/11 were the most dramatic example.

Kidnapping and Hostage Taking

Perhaps the most famous example of the taking of hostages occurred November 4, 1979, when a group of Iranian students and Islamic militants overwhelmed the US embassy in Tehran and held fifty-three Americans hostage for 444 days. Islamists have also taken hostages in other countries, such as the Philippines and Yemen.


On January 23, 2002, al-Qaeda jihadists snatched American Jewish journalist Daniel Pearl in Karachi, Pakistan. During the following week he was beaten and tortured before being decapitated on camera.

Use of Children

Jihadists routinely use women, children, and seniors as human shields, often taking firing positions behind crowds of civilians, or placing military equipment on or near school grounds, hospitals, and mosques, daring the infidels to attack them. On March 20, 2007, a car approached a military checkpoint in Baghdad. US soldiers, noting two children in the back seat, cleared the vehicle. Once through the checkpoint, the adults jumped out of the front seat and detonated a bomb, which destroyed the car with the children still inside.

Until the whole world is the House of Islam, jihadists will combat the rest of the world, the House of War. They are fighting for a religious-political empire, a global caliphate.

The Global Caliphate

The Arabic term ummah, “community of believers” or “nation,” refers to the global Muslim community. Islamists seek an ummah without frontiers. While reformed and other moderate Muslims are content to live in a pluralistic society, fundamentalists and jihadists want nothing less than a global caliphate.

As mentioned before, the word caliphate comes from the Arabic khalifah, which denotes the head of state, or caliph. The caliph is a religious and political leader who applies sharia throughout society, not simply in the religious arena. Jihadists are not content to govern their own nations; as globalists, they intend to replace all states with one Islamic empire. They want not a union of diverse nations but uniformity under sharia. Their goal is Dar al-Islam.

Lebanese-born American Dr. Walid Phares is an expert on Middle Eastern affairs and global terrorism. He states, “The Caliphate wasn’t just an office to interpret holy texts but it was also a real Governance and power position; the equivalent to the Papacy and Emperor rolled into one.”

Islam once had caliphates from Afghanistan in the east to Portugal in the west, from North Africa in the south to southern Europe in the north. Christian Byzantine emperor Justinian I built the Hagia Sophia, one of the world’s most beautiful cathedrals. When the Muslims conquered Constantinople (present-day Istanbul, Turkey), they converted the Hagia Sophia into a mosque. A friend told me of her visit to this sixth-century structure, which was converted to a museum in the 1930s by Atatürk, the secularist president of Turkey. She recalled the guides pointing with pride to the medallions with the inscribed names of the first four caliphs and speaking of their expectation that one day caliphs will rule again.

Jihadists are engaged in a threefold mission, or dawa, relative to the caliphate. The first goal is to restore to Islam all lands that were once part of a caliphate. This precludes peace with Israel; Israel as a nation-state must disappear. Second, they want to expand the caliphate to include the fifty-seven Islamic nations of the world. The final stage is ridding the world of Western moral and spiritual bankruptcy by finishing the dawa and establishing a global caliphate.

These sobering words from Dr. Walid Phares effectively summarize this section:

The term “Caliphate,” with all its linguistic and doctrinal derivatives in today’s Salafi terminology, is as charged and politicized as the “Third Reich” was to the National-Socialists during WWII. The “Caliphate” epitomizes all that the Jihadists are preparing for, working towards, and killing for. This word IS at the center of the War with Terrorism. … The bringing back of the “Caliphate” is the chief reason why Osama Bin Laden, Ayman Zawahiri, Zarqawi, and Adam Gadahn have declared and waged a war against the people of the United States. Given its centrality to the Jihadist activities, the term must be treated seriously.

Presently, the United Nations recognizes 192 sovereign states and their territories. Another eleven entities claim, or are seeking, statehood but are not universally recognized. Examples include the State of the Vatican City, a sovereign entity which is widely but not universally recognized; Taiwan, which claims sovereignty but is recognized by the UN as a territory of the People’s Republic of China; and the Palestinian people, who long to emerge from their state of limbo into nationhood.

The jihadists want to change all this. In their vision, the world’s 203 states would cease to exist. Jihadists decry nationalism. They reject borders of any nation, seeking instead for one global caliphate, Dar al-Islam—the House of Islam.

Which leads to an important question: Is Islam a religion of peace?

A Religion of Peace?

Within a week after September 11, President George W. Bush visited the Islamic Center of Washington, DC, to build bridges with the Islamic community and calm the fears of the American people. During his brief talk he identified Islam as a religion of peace: “The face of terror is not the true faith of Islam. That’s not what Islam is all about. Islam is peace. These terrorists don’t represent peace. They represent evil and war.”

Is Islam a religion of peace? More importantly, is the Western concept of peace, derived from the Bible and rooted in the Messiah of Peace, equivalent to the Muslim view of peace?

Examining the root of the Western concept of peace as established by the Old and New Testament scriptures allows us to compare it with the Islamic concept of peace.

In the Old Testament, the word translated “peace” is shalom. Its range of meanings include: prosperity (favorable circumstances); completeness (the fullness of a collection); safeness/salvation (free from danger); health (well-being or wholeness); satisfaction/contentment; and blessing (giving kindness to another). We often speak of shalom as the fulfillment of human existence: welfare, health, and freedom from worry. In the New Testament, the word translated “peace” is eirēnē. It means harmony, tranquillity.

These biblical concepts are reflected in Webster’s 1828 American Dictionary of the English Language, which defines peace this way: “To be at peace, to be reconciled; to live in harmony. Heavenly rest; the happiness of heaven. Public tranquillity; that quiet, order and security which is guaranteed by the laws.” In the West, then, peace means harmony, communion, completeness, tranquillity, serenity, health, welfare, and security— freedom from war or danger and freedom from anxiety or worry.

We must avoid the temptation to assume that Islam shares our Western understanding of peace. As we saw before, the term Islam, derived from the Arabic root translated “safety” or “peace,” literally means “accept,” “surrender,” or “submit.” Peace comes only in complete submission or surrender to Allah and Islam.

Just as the Unitarian concept of God in Islam differs from the Trinitarian concept of the Bible, so also the Muslim and Christian concepts of peace are very different. Dr. Syed Kamran Mirza, member of the Institute for the Secularization of Islamic Society, describes the nature of Islamic peace: “Islamic understanding of peace means submission or surrender. Peace comes (according to Islam) only after one surrenders or submits one’s self. Submission or surrender to whom? Submission to only Allah and his messenger Muhammad. Therefore peace (Islamic) exists only inside the Dar-ul-Islam—the house of submission, after the conversion to Islam.”

In correspondence with non-Muslim contemporaries, Muhammad used the Arabic phrase Aslim Taslam, “accept Islam and you will be saved.” Islamic peace is derived from surrender to Allah and the Qur’an.

Syrian-born Muslim reformer Bassam Tibi, professor of international relations at Göttingen University, warns of the need to differentiate between the Western and Islamic concepts of peace: “First, both sides should acknowledge candidly that although they might use identical terms these mean different things to each of them. The word ‘peace,’ for example, implies to a Muslim the extension of the Dar al-Islam—or ‘House of Islam’—to the entire world.”

Uwe Siemon-Netto, a United Press international religion correspondent, comments on Professor Tibi’s work: “According to Tibi, the quest of converting the entire world to Islam is an immutable fixture of the Muslim worldview. Only if this task is accomplished—if the world has become ‘Dar al-Islam’—will it also be a ‘Dar a-Salam,’ or a house of peace.” The goal of Islamists is to expand the borders of Dar al-Islam at the expense of Dar al-Harb.

Islamists equate the terms “sword” and “surrender.” Conversion in jihad is by force, at the edge of the sword. This contrasts with Judeo-Christian conversion through persuasion and emancipation. As the symbol of Islam, the sword appears on the flags of several Muslim nations and societies, including Oman, Afghanistan, and Hamas. The Saudi flag has the sword, as well as an abbreviated version of the Islamic Shahadah, testimony of faith: “No God but Allah and Muhammad is his messenger.”

Is Islam a religion of peace? Yes and no. Yes, Islam believes in peace, but no, not peace as defined by the West. Peace in the view of Islam means surrender, a head bowed before the sword. One cannot grasp Islam without understanding how it uses terms like “peace.”

From Emancipating the World. © 2012 by Darrow L. Miller. Published by YWAM Publishing. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.

Darrow Miller Darrow is co-founder of the Disciple Nations Alliance and the author of numerous books, including LifeWork: A Biblical Theology for What You Do Every Day.

An actual newsletter worth subscribing to instead of just a collection of links. —Adam

Sign up to receive The Sift email newsletter each weekday morning for the latest headlines from WORLD’s breaking news team.

Please wait while we load the latest comments...