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Not that long ago, most Americans didn’t know much or care to know much about Islam. It was just one more exotic but irrelevant religion that missionaries and National Geographic occassionally talked about. One scholar noted, “Less than a year before September 11, 2001, the consensus of expert opinion was . . . that [Islam’s] impact had ended long before the Renaissance.” It took a massive terrorist attack on U.S. soil to abruptly bring Islam squarely into the center of the American consciousness.

Since that day, questions about violence and Islam have lingered in the American mind: do these violent terrorists truly represent Islam? Is violence intrinsic to the Muslim faith? Having once been a student at a boarding school for missionary kids that was attacked by Islamic terrorists in an effort to frighten Christian missionaries out of the country, these questions are not hackneyed abstractions for me.

As I observe Christians trying to come to grips with the Islamic world, violence in Islam remains a deeply important problem. As Christians, the issue is important to us not simply because we believe that Christianity is true and all other religions are false, but because we have the duty and privilege of proclaiming the gospel to all peoples, including Muslims. While others may have the option of keeping “those Muslims” out of sight and mind as much as possible, Christians must draw near them. 

Better Question to Ask

The question at hand presupposes the possibility of determining the true Muslim faith, which is something not even settled within Islam itself. In fact, the recent upsurge in violence perpetrated by Muslim groups is related to the fact that multiple groups are contending for the undisputed title of the “true successors.” Much as Protestants and Catholics argue over the true successors of the apostles, Islam faces the question as to the identity of the true successors to Mohammed. But unlike the Bible, the Qur’an does not really provide enough footing on its own to resolve the question.

A better question to ask is whether or not there is a legitimate place for violence within Islamic tradition. The answer is yes. The primary means of determining this right in Islam is power. According to Islamic thinking, if you are in power and succeeding, then God is clearly blessing and supporting you. If you are not, then God has chosen not to bless you. Of the first four caliphs after Mohammed, three of them were violently murdered, either by assassination, mob, or in battle, all by “fellow” Muslims who supported other leaders. The first two Islamic dynasties came into power by slaughtering those who held power before them. Islam’s history only gets bloodier from there, since might makes right in a way that is foreign to the Judeo-Christian world. Despite the shocking number of Christians or secular Westerners being killed by Muslims, Muslims are killing even greater numbers of other Muslims.

Political leaders as well as terrorist groups use force to establish themselves as the rightful leaders of the Muslim world. Political leaders might portray themselves in a more civilized manner, but the governments of places like Saudi Arabia and Iran are just as willing to commit violent acts for the sake of gaining and maintain power, even if it means commiting them against their own citizens (or other people groups that happen to live within their borders). The Washington Post recently ran a story comparing the justice system of Saudi Arabia to that of ISIS. The only difference, basically, is that the Islamic State brags globally about their enforcement in an effort to prove their devotion.

Three Undergirding Principles 

Why else does violence broadly retain a position of legitimacy within the Islamic tradition? I think three theological and cultural issues undergird violence within Islam.

1. Coercion and Belief 

Christianity teaches that God does not desire mere outward obeisance. He wants heartfelt obedience and living faith. As Paul says, “If you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved” (Rom. 10:9). Therefore, we cannot coerce someone into becoming a Christian. All we can make through coercion is hypocrites. However, you can force someone to become a Muslim (though probably not a truly devout one). All five pillars of Islam are behavioral. Each one can be fulfilled without heartfelt conviction.

Islam means “submission.” Christian means “little Christ.” Even in their labels, you can see a clear difference in priorities between the religions. One promotes discipleship—teaching others to follow. The other promotes conquest (internal and external). Shabbir Akhtar, who lectures at Old Dominion University, argues in D. A. Carson’s book The Intolerance of Tolerance, “Ultimately Islam will (and ought to) win worldwide dominion, because Islam alone, and certainly not Christianity, is internally constituted to be an imperial religion.” This kind of thinking has no place in biblical Christianity.

2. Land 

You can see Mohammed’s sword in Topkapi Palace, Istanbul. Of all the supposed relics of Christ, no one has ever claimed to have found his sword. Jesus said to Pilate, “My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my disciples would fight to keep me from being handed over” (John 18:36). Jesus rebuked Peter for “going to war” to prevent his arrest. There is no such thing as a Christian nation, because the new heavens and the new earth have not been fully inaugurated. There is such a thing as a Muslim nation, because every piece of land that belongs to a Muslim nation belongs to Allah.

While Christians grieve the decline of Christianity in places like Europe, we cannot legitimately go to war to reclaim it for Christ. Instead, we pray and evangelize. Furthermore, Christ’s kingdom advances not in territory but in and through the people who claim him as their King. However, when Muslim lands become less Muslim, that is a direct affront to Islam that must be redresssed.  

3. Honor and Shame 

The importance of honor is a key cultural difference between the West and most Muslim countries. Rejection or mockery of Mohammed or Islam is a personal attack on every Muslim. Every person who leaves Islam to become a Christian shames Islam because he communicates that it is unworthy of belief. Christ teaches us that to be shamed by the world for the sake of the Lord is honorable (1 Pet. 4:14). Muslims have no clear category for receiving that shame as a commendation of their faithfulness to Allah, since only success is a sign of God’s blessing. So when Islam is undermined, it must be fiercely defended.

Violence in the Human Heart

These factors contribute to violence in Islam, but more than anything else they condemn the human heart. Physical violence has been a distinguishing mark of all humanity ever since Genesis 4. Violence is not unique to Islam. It’s a distinctive of sinful human hearts. In other words, Islam does not make people violent. Sin does. As a man-made religion, Islam is just one more tool people use to harden the heart and embrace sin.

But common grace also extends to Muslims. Not all Muslims are given over to the violence that the system could potentially justify, just as your atheist/secular neighbors don’t fully embrace every sinful behavior that their non-theist worldview could justify.

Christian Response to Violent Persecutors

How should Christians respond to the reality of Islamic violence? The secular West is scrambling for an answer but coming up empty. Every time we see another attack by Muslim terrorists, public figures sprint to opposite sides of the ring. One side says the violence proves terrorism is the inevitable outworking of Islam, the other that beliefs had nothing to do with it.

The world around us struggles because they are unable to see Muslims as people whose value exists in their personhood, not their beliefs. The world thinks of people in binary terms. Either Muslims are “good people” or extremists who belong with the likes of Hitler, Stalin, and Pol Pot.

But we know—or should know—that Muslims are humans created in God’s image and distorted by the fall. They need the same gospel as we do. Muslims are not the enemy, but they are in bondage to him.

Moreover, we cannot let the threat of physical violence prevent us from fulfilling the Great Commission. The gospel is not just for “regular” peaceful Muslims. It is also for those who will try to kill us. The threat of violence challenges the validity of our belief that the gospel is infinitely precious and worthy of being taken to all peoples. My own parents faced the possible death their children at the hands of Muslim terrorists. Praise the Lord, by his grace, that hasn’t stopped them. The violence that threatens to slow the spread of the gospel really is a matter of life and death. It’s a matter of eternal life or death for souls who do not know Jesus Christ as King.

Islam may raise up soldiers willing to kill for their cause. We must be willing to die for ours.

Even Paul was once a persecutor and oppressor of the church. May the Lord continue to raise up many new Pauls out of ISIS, al-Qaeda, and Boko Haram, so that they may take the gospel not only to their own peoples, but to the entire world. And may the Lord send out from us many Stephens, soldiers willing to die to proclaim that same gospel, no matter the cost.