“Would you like to see photos of my family?” the middle-aged gentleman asked me. Although I had just met him a few minutes ago, the question seemed ordinary enough. Everyone seems to carry some device with a camera in it these days, after all.
“Yes, I would like that,” I replied.
Flipping through a few screens, he handed his phone to me. “This is my nephew.” The photo showed a young man lying on a sidewalk with the top of his skull blown off, pieces of his brain scattered on the pavement above him. “And this is what’s left of my brother,” he continued, touching his finger to the screen again. A decapitated head, with eyes gouged out, was lying on the same pavement. The terrorist group known as Islamic State, ISIL, ISIS, or Da’esh had taken over his hometown, and this was the result. “My family are Muslims. My hometown is Muslim. The ones who did this to them, this Da’esh, they are not Muslim!”
I didn’t have to wonder why he felt that way. Being in the depths of his grief and loss, any connection to the people who had caused it was unthinkable to him. Still, I did wonder if he had ever made the same statement about Islamic terror groups that kidnapped African school children, or burned Christian villages in Pakistan. Was it simply because this group was killing his own people, Middle Eastern Muslims, that they were therefore “not Muslim”? Of course I could not ask him such a question immediately, out of respect for his suffering. So I continued to sit with him, silently.
“They are not Muslims!” He repeated it over and over, with such earnest that it seemed he was trying to convince himself, rather than me, that it was so. My heart went out to him.
Is it so? Are IS or any of the other self-proclaimed Islamic terror groups really “not Muslim”?
How do we judge? The most obvious means would be to use the Islamic measuring stick. What makes a person Muslim, according to Muslims?
Many Muslims say they are simply “born Muslim,” which in their eastern worldview is true. Identity (of which, religion is a major part) is passed down through family, clan, tribal, and then national lines. For example, any Arab will tell you that to be Arab is to be Muslim. But worldviews and ethnic cultures aside, what makes a person Muslim according to the official religion of Islam? It might surprise you to know Islam actually claims that all people are originally Muslim at birth:
“The Prophet Muhammad said, “No babe is born but upon Fitra (as a Muslim). It is his parents who make him a Jew or a Christian or a Polytheist.” “(Sahih Muslim, Book 033, Number 6426)
How many of these terror groups are claiming to be “Jews, Christians, or Polytheists”? Indeed, they themselves are claiming to be Muslim. So they have birth, and their own confession of Islam, on their side of the argument. What if their parents did raise them as something else? Then what? According to most any Islamic authority, to convert to Islam out of another religion, one must recite the shihada, which states “There is no god but Allah, and Muhammad is the messenger of Allah.” Many a dear Muslim friend has urged us to “Just say it!” This is because once a person recites the shihada he or she becomes Muslim, a member of the only religion given by Allah. Being in the true religion is what changes a person from “infidel” to “Muslim.” Whatever they do with their religion after that is up to them. The shihada is the doorway into the religion of Islam. Once inside, they might be a good Muslim or a bad Muslim, but at least they are in.
It might be argued by some that a Muslim must perform all five pillars of Islam to be a “real Muslim.” That would mean not only saying the shihada (statement of witness), but also doing salaat (ritual prayers), sawm (fasting), zakat (specified alms), and hajj (pilgrimage to Mecca). But the fact remains that even the most unobservant Muslims– the ones who don’t pray, don’t fast, or who even live secular lifestyles- are still considered Muslim by their peers. Whether you are born into a Muslim family, or converted through saying the shihada, the point is the same. Your peers might judge how well or how poorly you keep up with your religious duties, but they don’t question “if” you are Muslim.
Of course I have no information on whether the members of IS are keeping up with their religious duties, but I do know that they confess the shihada. Often. The first line of it is written on their flag. By this most singular Islamic standard, they are Muslim. Good or bad, they are in. Does that mean every member of the group genuinely has the spread of Islam as their motivation for killing and plundering? Probably not.
To those who contend that IS jihadists are not Muslim, I can only ask, “By what standard are you measuring?” If IS members were originally born Muslim, claim to still be Muslim, and affirm the Muslim shihada, they already meet the criteria by which most Muslims judge themselves and each other. The fact that they are engaged in jihad, the sixth pillar of Islam, means that they more than meet the criteria. This, in effect, means that IS militants might well be considered even more Muslim than their Muslim critics who are not participating in jihad. And sadly, it is exactly this line of reasoning that “justifies” (to themselves) their extermination of others within the religion of Islam— specifically, Muslims who, in their view, are not doing the full will of Allah.
There are at least 80 Islamic terror groups that I am aware of, and I am not known for being a particularly savvy person when it comes to world events. There must be something in the pages of the Quran, Hadith, and related Islamic teachings which leads people to believe what these militants believe. Yet I also know many Muslims who, like my grieving gentleman friend, are appalled at these groups. They are Muslims who sincerely believe theirs is a religion of peace. Nabeel Qureshi has done an excellent job of explaining exactly how a Muslim could think that (in case you were wondering) in his book “Seeking Allah, Finding Jesus.” My hope is that it will be translated into Arabic so that many more seekers of Allah will find Jesus, as he did. In the meantime, we hear many reports from fellow Christian workers of Muslims coming to Christ through the terror crisis. Some who fled IS were sheltered in refugee camps where they heard the Gospel, and became believers. As one family said, “We lost everything, but it was worth it. Because of that we have now found Jesus!” Christians in war torn areas have experienced the miraculous provision of God, enabling them to care for others, including Muslims. Many have come to Christ through the ministry of compassion.
This is a time of great perplexity and deep reflection throughout the Muslim World. Let us ask the LORD of the harvest to turn even the terror of “IS” into a means for good — bringing multitudes to know the great “I AM.”