Q&A with Nabeel Qureshi, author of Answering Jihad

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This sponsored post was prepared by Zondervan and Nabeel Qureshi.

QureshiNABEEL QURESHI is the New York Times bestselling author of Seeking Allah, Finding Jesus. His latest book, Answering Jihad, released earlier this month and provides a personal, challenging, and respectful answer to the many questions surrounding jihad, the rise of ISIS, and Islamic terrorism. Last week, his USA Today op-ed was one of the most read and shared articles following the attack on Brussels.

Q: Tell me about your reasons for writing Answering Jihad.

 NABEEL: My primary purpose in writing Answering Jihad was to respond to the present climate of confusion in the West. Terrorist attacks occur continuously, and yet our Muslim neighbors whom we know to be kind insist that Islam is a religion of peace. How can we understand this apparent contradiction? Is Islam truly a religion of peace, and if not, why do our Muslim neighbors keep telling us it is? The book is not intended to be a detailed treatise on jihad, but a necessary first step in responding to the present crisis of Islamic violence that I do not think will stop. It is my prayer, as the U.S. and other nations seek a way out of the current confusion and begins to answer jihad, that this book points a better way forward.

Q: You tell the story of your conversion from Islam in your memoir Seeking Allah, Finding Jesus. Now that you are a Christian, how did you approach writing this book? 

NABEEL: Writing the book, I wanted to make sure that I accurately depicted the feelings and beliefs of Western Muslims so that I could write a book that would be informative to them as well as to Westerners at large. In order to do that, I had to revisit how I felt as a Muslim investigating jihad for the first time; I truly was shocked when I discovered for the first time that the foundations of Islam were indeed quite violent, contrary to what I had been taught about “the religion of peace.”

What was particularly difficult was trying to walk the line of sharing this truth about Islam while conveying my heartfelt belief that people should be compassionate towards Muslims. If we overemphasize one aspect, it could appear that we are neglecting the other. In today’s polarized political and social climates, people are staking their positions on either tolerance or truth, but rarely both. I cannot afford to compromise either; my country is under attack by jihad, yet my family remains Muslim. 

Q: As a child, you grew up in a Muslim home with several family members having served in the U.S. Military. What values did that ingrain in you?

Answering JihadNABEEL: Our allegiance was to God and country; we were Muslim, first and foremost. As with Americans of other religious backgrounds, our faith was in no way exclusive of our devotion to our nation. According to my parents’ teaching, it was Islam that commanded me to love and serve my country. Islam taught me to defend the oppressed, to stand up for the rights of women and children, to shun the desires of the flesh, to seek the pleasure of God, and to enjoin the good and forbid the evil. By my teenage years I enthusiastically proclaimed Islam to all who would listen, and I usually started by informing them of a teaching that was knit into the fiber of my beliefs: Islam is the religion of peace.

Q: But then September 11, 2001 comes along. How did that change your thoughts on jihad?

NABEEL: On September 11, I was confronted for the first time with the stark reality of jihad. It was not as if I had never heard of jihad before; I certainly had, but I knew it as a defensive effort buried deep in the pages of Islamic history. That is how our imams alluded to jihad, and we never questioned it. As American Muslims we rarely, if ever, thought about jihad. When the twin towers fell, the eyes of the nation turned to American Muslims for an explanation. I sincerely believe September 11 was a greater shock for American Muslims like my family than for the average American. Not only did we newly perceive our lack of security from jihadists, as did everyone else, we also faced a latent threat of retaliation from would-be vigilantes. It felt as if we were hemmed in on all sides. In the midst of this, while mourning our fallen compatriots and considering our own security, we had to defend the faith we knew and loved. We had to assure everyone that Islam was a religion of peace, just as we had always known. I remember hearing a slogan at my mosque that I shared with many: “The terrorists who hijacked the planes on September 11 also hijacked Islam.”

Q: This led you to studying the history of Islam, in which you discovered a lot of violence in what you were taught was the “religion of peace.” How did you respond to that?

NABEEL: After years of investigation, I had to face the reality. There is a great deal of violence in Islam, even in the very foundations of the faith, and it is not all defensive. Quite to the contrary, if the traditions about the prophet of Islam are in any way reliable, then Islam glorifies violent jihad arguably more than any other action a Muslim can take. This conclusion led me to a three-pronged fork in the road. Either I could become an apostate and leave Islam, grow apathetic and ignore the prophet, or become “radicalized” and obey him. The alternative of simply disregarding Muhammad’s teachings and continuing as a devout Muslim was not an option in my mind, nor is it for most Muslims, since to be Muslim is to submit to Allah and to follow Muhammad. Apostasy, apathy, or radicalization; those were my choices.

Q: You make a point of drawing a distinction between Islam and Muslims. Why is that important?

NABEEL: Especially because of the great diversity of Islamic expression, it bears repeating that Islam is not Muslims, and Muslims are not Islam. Though Muslims are adherents of Islam, and Islam is the worldview of Muslims, the two are not the same, as too many uncritically want to believe. On one end of the spectrum, many assume that if the Quran teaches something then all Muslims believe it. That is false. Many Muslims have not heard of a given teaching, some might interpret it differently, and others may frankly do their best to ignore it. For example, even if we were to demonstrate through careful hermeneutics that the Quranic injunction to beat disobedient wives (4:34) is meant to apply to all Muslims today, it would still have zero bearing in my family. My father will not beat my mother. On the other end of the spectrum, criticism of Islam is often taken to be criticism of Muslims. That is equally false. One can criticize the Quranic command to beat disobedient wives without criticizing Muslims. Islam is not Muslims, and one can criticize Islam while affirming and loving Muslims.

 Q: Why do you say that the idea of jihad has violent roots in Islam?

Qureshi QuoteNABEEL: Although the average American Muslim agrees that the Quran and hadith are the ultimate basis of their faith, many have not critically read either and would be surprised to find violent, offensive jihad shot through the foundations of Islam. The Quranic revelations reflect the development in Muhammad’s life as he moved from a peaceful trajectory to a violent one, culminating in surah 9 of the Quran, chronologically the last major chapter of the Quran and its most expansively violent teaching. Surah 9 is a command to disavow all treaties with polytheists and to subjugate Jews and Christians so that Islam may “prevail over every faith.” The scope of violence has no clear limits, so it’s fair to wonder whether any non-Muslims in the world are immune from being attacked, subdued, or assimilated under this command. Muslims must fight, according to this final surah of the Quran, and if they do not, then their faith is called into question and they are counted among the hypocrites. If they do fight, they are promised one of two rewards, either spoils of war or heaven through martyrdom. Allah has made a bargain with the mujahid who obeys: Kill or be killed in battle, and paradise awaits.

Q: What is the relationship between Islamic and Christian views of Jesus, specifically in terms of violence?

NABEEL: Jesus is surprisingly prominent in Islamic eschatology. In common Muslim views of the end-times, he personally wages war on behalf of Muslims, breaking all the crosses and killing all the swine. In this war Muslims will kill Jews and defeat them, and Jesus will destroy the anti-Christ for their sake. By contrast, in Christianity, Jesus shows Christians how to answer persecution with love. Although this suggestion might seem impossible to some and ridiculous to others, Jesus’s teachings were always radical, and they are only possible to follow if the gospel message is true. If we will live eternally with God in bliss, then we can lay down this life to love even our enemies. In the face of jihad, the Christian Jesus teaches his followers to respond with love.

Q: What do you think is the best way we should answer jihad?

NABEEL: By being proactive, not reactive. It means living life with people who might be different from us. It means stepping out of our comfort zone and loving people unconditionally, perhaps even loving our enemies. We need something that breaks the cycle, and I think that can only be love. Not love as wistfully envisioned by teenagers and songwriters, but love as envisioned by Jesus, a decision to put the needs and concerns of others above our own, even at the cost of our own.

My suggestion is that we engage Muslims proactively with love and friendship while simultaneously acknowledging the truth about Islam. This is not the final step in answering jihad, but it is the correct first step, and it offers a better way forward.

**Learn more at AnsweringJihad.com or download a free chapter here.**