How Islamist Extremists Quote the Qur’an

Islamist extremists make heavy use of the Qur’an (Islam’s most sacred text) in their strategic communication. This study analyzed the most frequently cited or quoted verses in the Center for Strategic Communication’s database of over 2,000 extremist texts.  The texts date from the years 1998 to 2011, and originate primarily from the Middle East and North Africa. Taking this data as a starting point, we provide a qualitative analysis of the historical contexts and core narrative components of the cited passages.

The results confirm certain common assumptions about extremist readings of the Qur’an. There is a disproportionate use of surahs (chapters) from the later Medinan over the earlier Meccan period – only one of the top ten most frequently cited surahs of the Qur’an is Meccan. The Medinan surahs also fall within a certain historical window representing the onset and completion of military conflict between the earliest Muslims and the “pagan” clans of Mecca and their allies.

Other findings in the report raise questions about the veracity of claims often made by analysts. The most surprising is the near absence of the well-known “Verse of the Sword” (9:5) from the extremist texts. Widely regarded as the most militant or violent passage of the Qur’an, it is treated as a divine call for offensive warfare on a global scale. It is also regarded as a verse which supersedes over one hundred other verses of the Qur’an that counsel patience, tolerance, and forgiveness.

We conclude that verses extremists cite from the Qur’an do not suggest an aggressive offensive foe seeking domination and conquest of unbelievers, as is commonly assumed.  Instead they deal with themes of victimization, dishonor, and retribution.  This shows close integration with the rhetorical vision of Islamist extremists.

Based on this analysis we recommend that the West abandon claims that Islamist extremists seek world domination, focus on counteracting or addressing claims of victimage, emphasize alternative means of deliverance, and work to undermine the “champion” image sought by extremists.

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2 Responses to “How Islamist Extremists Quote the Qur’an”

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  1. Major Dave says:

    I found this analysis to have faulty analysis and is full of fallacious arguments. Starting from the top:
    1) The authors of the study appear to be biased concerning the rule of abrogation. They suggest extremist reliance on the later Medina period Surahs is perhaps unreasonable and indeed suggest “zealous scholars” apply it in a “radical” way. My understanding of the rule is that the later parts of the Koran supersede the earlier parts. This is a function of time—not of extreme. If it is right of the timeline, it is the greater truth. This is the reason why extremism has appeal and traction—moderates have no legitimate argument against their ideology. This explains exactly why there is such reliance on later Surahs.
    2) The authors use descriptive and extreme language to suggest they are not encouraging a “culture of naked aggression”. Who says they are encouraging a culture of “naked aggression”? Extremists if nothing else work within the scope of what is allowed according to the Qur’an and interpretations and/or rulings from clerics (Fatwas). They believe they are conducting a defensive jihad. It does not make it any less bloody or threatening. A future offensive jihad may be justified in the future at which point, the authors would see more justification in statements. However, in this phase, extremists are promoting today’s conflict as a defensive one.
    3) I assert there is a disconnect in the logical argument behind the recommendation to “Abandon claims that Islamist extremists seek world domination.” My understanding is the argument goes like this: Extremists do not use Qur’anic quotes to call for world domination; therefore, they do not seek world domination. I recommend the authors examine the goals and objectives of extremist groups to identify goals and objectives (al-Qaida, HuT, Muslim Brotherhood). Does establishment of Shari’a over the earth suggest a desire for world domination?
    4) Regarding the assertion that Islamists seek world domination, the authors “poison the well” when they make the following statement: “More objective analysts regard these claims as alarmist.” Really? A University uses this kind of critical thinking?
    5) The authors twist the argument citing an extreme from Robert Pape: “The idea that Islamic fundamentalism is on the verge of world domination . . . is pure fantasy.” The argument went from extremism to fundamentalism; went from an objective to time-associated “on the verge”. In the author’s analysis, we are to presume this is objective thinking. This objective writer, Robert Pape, goes on to use ad-hominem attacks calling others “fearmongers” who use “delusions” to “whip up hysteria.” Is this a critical thinker worthy of consideration for his argument?
    6) The authors then cite Michael Scheuer who asserts that extremist calls for world domination are “merely pro forma” and their true objective is the Middle East. The authors provide no evidence to support this opinion of one. I invite the authors to examine extremist literature about Khorasan (Central Asia), to view what is happening in West Africa, to explain the growth of extremism in Thailand and Indonesia; and, to explore extremist websites in Europe. There, they may find evidence.
    7) Remarkably, the authors conclude that because extremists do not use the “Verse of the Sword” as often as they expected, their stated objective of world domination is irrelevant. Their evidence: 1) that is what objective analysts would say; 2) Robert Pape tells us domination is pure fantasy; 3) Michael Scheuer assesses their desires are only in the Middle East; and 4) extremist use of the Qur’an does not fit the author’s narrow criteria for evaluating intent. Really?
    8) The authors then make the following claim: “Members of the target audience, the contested populations of the Muslim World, realize that extremists are not really preaching world conquest” without providing a shred of evidence.

    • Jeffry Halverson says:

      Hi Major Dave,

      Thanks for your response to the white paper. Before I reply, I’d like to point you towards a follow-up statement released by the authors that responds to some critiques of the research (see ).

      Now to some specifics in your response.

      The principle of abrogation (or naskh) is a normative one in Islamic thought. For example, Muslims all agree on the Qur’an’s abrogation of the first qibla (al-Quds) with the second, Mecca. Thus, all Muslims pray toward Mecca (when possible). And Muslims agree that earlier verses about not praying while drunk are abrogated by the later prohibition against consuming alcohol at all. Those are normative examples. However, extremists generally adopt radical minority views on the subject of abrogation. In the paper we cited the fact that the “Verse of the Sword” is understood by extremists to abrogate an enormous number of earlier verses, thus adding to its significance among extremists (despite the fact that it was only cited 3x in the set of statements). That sort of abrogation is not the norm among the vast majority of Muslims.

      Regarding the distinctions between Meccan and Medinan surahs, the sorts of time-specific abrogations about the qibla, alcohol, or many other topics (including permission to fight) are the norm. However, the Qur’an is still treated as a cohesive whole and the Meccan surahs are not radically marginalized. The sort of disproportionate imbalance in citations from Medinan surahs by the extremists indicates a radical treatment of the text out of step with normative readings. This is not a new finding, but a confirmation of existing views. This is also significant as a possible avenue for counter-messaging strategies and as a means to narrow or focus analytical attention on a smaller section of the Qur’an.

      We agree with you that violent extremists are portraying conflicts as defensive. That is precisely the point. Their communication strategy to attract support among contested populations utilizes a deliverance story form to suggest that Islam is under imminent threat, Muslims are being slaughtered, and people must rally to defend it with violence. That’s the message that the West needs to counter. Approaching the communication dilemma (i.e. battle for hearts and minds) by claiming that we’re sending in troops to fend off world conquest by al-Qaeda doesn’t counter that message; rather it feeds into it (and “Clash” views). And to be sure, it’s a tricky and difficult challenge to address.

      Regarding your claim that extremists are only acting within the parameters of Islamic law in their conduct of war and so forth, I assure you that is not the case. Far from it. The violations of normative Islamic law by al-Qaeda are abundant and many Muslims scholars around the world have pointed to these violations (despite the fact that some in the West claim otherwise). I will give you a couple brief examples. 1) A military jihad is a collective obligation declared by the Caliph/Amir, but extremists claim that military jihad is fard ‘ayn or an individual obligation; this is outside of normative Sunni Islamic legal thought. 2) Deployment of the heretical doctrine of takfir, or declaring other Muslims as apostates worthy of death, is outside of Sunni Islam; this is the doctrine of the Khawarij who murdered the Fourth Rightly Guided Caliph of Sunni Islam and the first Imam of Shia Islam, Ali ibn Abu Talib. I can go on, but I hope this sufficiently makes the point. There’s a reason these guys operate in the shadows and margins of society or take refuge in failed states.

      Regarding what we consider to be “alarmist” views, we are referring to the conspiracy theory that there is a single-minded global Islamist movement working for world conquest. Some would like the US government to embrace this view. The fact that you have conflated the Muslim Brotherhood with al-Qaeda (two very different groups) suggests that you may subscribe to the theory. If so we can only say we believe this view is erroneous, despite the ideological fantasies and ambitions of certain extremists (e.g. Zawahiri).

      And in any case a clear say-do gap does exist among extremists. Certainly there are numerous countries where armed Islamist insurgencies exist, fighting over the nature of state governance or a quest for autonomy/independence from existing states. All of these cases have distinct histories and local factors at play. Connecting the dots from a telescopic distance is the wrong approach. For example, from a distance one might conclude that al-Qaeda and Hamas, both militant Sunni Islamist groups in the Arab world, are a part of a shared project or movement. Upon closer inspection, one would find this is not at all the case. Hamas and al-Qaeda have actually engaged in bloody conflict with each other in Gaza. Numerous al-Qaeda statements have also denounced Hamas. Regardless, this white paper was about the use of Qur’anic verses in the communication strategies of Islamist extremists to contested populations, despite what some headlines (e.g. CNN) have claimed.

      Finally we’ve said that contested populations realize the extremists aren’t preaching world conquest because the extremists are preaching self-defense. We have given ample evidence of that in their selection of verses, described in this paper. We have shown in other publications that the same can be said of their use of master narratives, and also how they frame the so-called “war on Islam” (a phrase that is itself an invocation of their deliverance narrative).

      Thanks for your interest in the research.