The message of love and tolerance advocated by most peace-loving Muslims stands today in direct opposition to the perceived association of Islam with violence at the heart of a clash of cultures that threatens to engulf the world in a third great war.

Surely for the sake of the many millions of innocents who have been injured and killed in the name of Islam, we all of us share a responsibility to reach out to try to understand a little more fully the questions and problems of violence committed in its name – however elusive the answers may seem?

How can horrific acts of atrocity such as we have seen recently in Manchester and London be the consequence of political statements made by those aggrieved by what they see as the injustices inflicted on all Muslims? At the heart of the issue is the stipulation by the Qur’an, ‘Let there be no hostility, except to those who practise oppression.’ Do Governments therefore need to accept some responsibility for what is happening? Does there need to be reform and clarification within the religion itself? Or is Islam simply being twisted out of context, as the vast majority of Muslims continue to argue is the case?

Over the past twenty years, the word jihad has become as much a part of the English language as ‘blitz’, but do any of us who are not mosque visitors know what it actually means?

By and large, scholars agree that jihad actually refers to the effort to practice religion in the face of oppression or persecution: this could be the struggle against the evil in one’s own heart, or standing up to a dictator. It does not refer exclusively to fighting a war; indeed, this is a disingenuous interpretation that has been perpetuated in part owing to some fundamentalists misusing the term.

Fundamentally, the problem lies in interpretation. Some Muslims limit the concept of defensive jihad, so that it applies only to a situation in which a Muslim state has been invaded, such as in Palestine, Iraq or Afghanistan. Others interpret the term ‘defensive jihad’ much more broadly; and the more radical deny that there is any distinction between internal and external, also known as the greater and the lesser, jihad.

Extremist Muslims such as those who follow Isil or Al Qa’ida interpret jihad solely in terms of holy war. They maintain that this is the only acceptable definition of the term, and that jihad has been used in this manner since the days of the Crusades. Suicide bombers may consider their interpretation no different from that of the Saracens in defence of Jerusalem. In their minds they are simply defending Islam.

Moderates, however, hold that the primary objective of jihad is to fight against oppression, without causing mayhem and misery. They say that using religion to support violence in the name of freedom and justice is the very opposite of what is meant by jihad.

Most Muslims agree that the Qur’an does not sanction the killing of those who refuse to accept the Islamic faith; rather, those who believe are told to ‘bear with patience what they say, and when they leave give a courteous farewell’. ‘Deal gently
with disbelievers; give them enough time,’ says another verse – the assumption being that they will see for themselves, without being coerced, that Islam is a way to a
fulfilling existence in this life, and reward in the next.

If non-Muslims are peaceful toward Islam, there is no justification for declaring war on them. In self-defence military jihad may used as a last resort, although the revelations of the Qur’an clearly specify rules that govern waging a holy war. Such a war may only be declared in the name of Allah to restore peace and ensure freedom from tyranny. But Islam does not permit holy war as a means of spreading the Islamic faith: ‘Let there be no compulsion in religion,’ the Qur’an says.

When the circumstances permit holy war detailed laws are stipulated. Four groups can legally be fought – that is infidels, apostates, rebels, and bandits. Fighting against ordinary criminals, rebels or bandits is not to be honoured with this title. Muslims also differentiate between offensive and defensive war.

Having said this, Islamic law specifically states that war must be waged only to defend the religious community against oppression and persecution. Muslims are commanded never to begin hostilities of any kind, not to embark on any act of aggression, not to violate the rights of others, and not to harm the innocent. Even hurting or destroying animals or trees is forbidden under Islam.

Women, children, the old, and sick are under no circumstances to be harmed; and trees and crops must not be unnecessarily damaged. It is a precept that has been ignored by many of today’s suicide bombers who argue that in any war there will be casualties. People will sacrifice their lives for their faith and their country. By dying in His cause, they bear the highest form of witness to God.

It is hard to comprehend how such apparently high, noble ideals can be used in direct conjunction with the appalling atrocities witnessed by the world in recent years, and certainly Western governments need to examine their policies with regard to intervention which have only fueled the rage of many.

While the problem of ideological interpretation persists, non-Muslims claim that the debate regarding interpretation shows how the Muslim world is fraught with double standards and ambiguities within. The ulema, the body of Islamic scholars responsible for the interpretation and definition of Islamic law, has a duty to try harder to address these points.

Ultimately, we should take heart from the unequivocal message in the Qur’an that it is for God only to judge who has been wronged, and who has acted wrongly; and each will receive what they deserve in the hereafter. Surely on that basis alone, there is hope for us all.