On the night of 11th July 2010,  most of Kampala’s popular hangouts and nightspots were crowded with people eager watch the final match in the first World Cup tournament to be held on African soil.

At about 10.30pm, there was a massive explosion at Ethiopian Village Restaurant, a place mainly frequented by expatriates, and about 30 minutes later 2 bombs exploded at Kyadondo Rugby Club where hundreds of football (soccer) fans had also gathered to watch the final between Spain and Holland.

Scores were killed, with the total death toll from these attacks reported at 74 dead.

kampala bomb - ethiopian villageUgandan government officials immediately suspected that fundamentalist Islamist group al-Shabaab were the perpetrators, given the open threats that the group had issued to Uganda for their role in AMISOM peace keeping mission in Somalia. Al-Shabaab eventually claimed responsibility for the attacks:

“We will carry out attacks against our enemy wherever they are.” Sheikh Ali Mohamed Rage, an al-Shabaab spokesman in Mogadishu told the Associated Press news agency, claiming responsibility for the explosions.” No one will deter us from performing our Islamic duty. 

al shabab

Al Shabaab

Al Shabaab is just one out of dozens of fundamentalist Islamist groups in existence that justifies acts of violence against civilians in the name of their religion. Naturally, many moderate Muslims are unhappy with the fact that terrorist organisations such as al Shabaab, al Qaeda and others, commit acts of violence in the name of their religion.

Many moderate Muslims are also embarrassed by the extremist antics often displayed by their more radical counterparts in the public sphere:

islam demonstration

Many apologists for Islam have thus had a difficult time trying to convince the rest of the world that Islam is indeed the religion of peace its adherents claim it is.

So why is it that some Muslims read the Qur’an and conclude that it justifies violent acts if done within the context of ‘holy war’, and there are other Muslims who are convinced that the Qur’an does not justify the killing of civilians under whatever context?

Moderate Muslims will argue that the fundamentalist extremist radicals have ‘misinterpreted’ or ‘misunderstood’ the Qur’an, or that the moral guidelines prescribed in the Hadith were specific to its time and are not to be applied in this day and age. They will go as far as state that those who would engage in acts of terrorism are in fact NOT true Muslims.

The fundamentalist extremists (radicals and conservatives) instead say it is the moderates who have misinterpreted and misunderstood the Qur’an and are the ones who are not true Muslims.

So , who is right? Who, among these, is being the true Muslim?

Let’s try to find out.


Applied to religious belief the term fundamentalism has a number of definitions, which for the most part are closely related:

  • The interpretation of every word in the sacred texts as literal truth.
  • Fundamentalism refers to a belief in a strict adherence to a set of basic principles (often religious in nature), sometimes as a reaction to perceived doctrinal compromises with modern social and political life.
  • Religious fundamentalism is an ideology or philosophy that gives the religion absolute precedence over any other norm. It is usually accompanied by a literal, monolithic interpretation of sacred texts.
  • A belief in the infallibility, and literal interpretation, of a particular religion’s doctrine or holy books. When applied in Abrahamic sects, it can lead to extreme prejudice and violence due to the nature of the Bible.
  • Religious orientation grounded in an attempt to return to fundamental or core beliefs and practices in a tradition; often associated with rigid, literal, and narrow interpretations based on readings of primary scriptures.
  • Literal interpretation and strict adherence to a set of basic principles (usually religious; many can take these beliefs to an extreme and even violent level.

(From: Google define:fundamentalism)

The reason religious fundamentalism is dangerous is that  once an edict in a religious document has been labelled “the will of God” or “God’s command”, in the mind of the believer that edict is immutable, unchallengeable, and unquestionable.

The fundamentalist believer acting on that edict cannot be persuaded through reason or logic to reconsider his actions or prejudices because to do so would, in his mind, constitute heresy and/or disobedience to the supreme ‘God’.

The potential problems that can arise with fundamentalism become immediately apparent once one reads the contents of the Qur’an that seem to justify violence, such as:

  • Qur’an (2:191-193) "And slay them wherever ye find them, and drive them out of the places whence they drove you out, for persecution [of Muslims] is worse than slaughter [of non-believers]…and fight them until persecution is no more, and religion is for Allah."
  • Qur’an (2:244)"Then fight in the cause of Allah, and know that Allah heareth and knoweth all things."
  • Qur’an (3:151)"Soon shall We cast terror into the hearts of the Unbelievers, for that they joined companions with Allah, for which He had sent no authority"
  • Qur’an (4:74)"Let those fight in the way of Allah who sell the life of this world for the other. Whoso fighteth in the way of Allah, be he slain or be he victorious, on him We shall bestow a vast reward."
  • Qur’an (4:76)"Those who believe fight in the cause of Allah…"
  • Qur’an (4:89)"They but wish that ye should reject Faith, as they do, and thus be on the same footing (as they): But take not friends from their ranks until they flee in the way of Allah (From what is forbidden). But if they turn renegades, seize them and slay them wherever ye find them; and (in any case) take no friends or helpers from their ranks."
  • Qur’an (4:95)"Not equal are those believers who sit (at home) and receive no hurt, and those who strive and fight in the cause of Allah with their goods and their persons. Allah hath granted a grade higher to those who strive and fight with their goods and persons than to those who sit (at home). Unto all (in Faith) Hath Allah promised good: But those who strive and fight Hath He distinguished above those who sit (at home) by a special reward.”
  • Qur’an (8:12)"I will cast terror into the hearts of those who disbelieve. Therefore strike off their heads and strike off every fingertip of them"

More here.

And from the Hadith:

  • Bukhari (52:177)Allah’s Apostle said, "The Hour will not be established until you fight with the Jews, and the stone behind which a Jew will be hiding will say. "O Muslim! There is a Jew hiding behind me, so kill him."
  • Bukhari (52:220)Allah’s Apostle said… ‘I have been made victorious with terror’
  • Muslim (1:33) the Messenger of Allah said: I have been commanded to fight against people till they testify that there is no god but Allah, that Muhammad is the messenger of Allah
  • Bukhari (8:387) – Allah’s Apostle said, "I have been ordered to fight the people till they say: ‘None has the right to be worshipped but Allah

More here.

If a believer were to adopt a fundamentalist attitude towards the above verses from the Qur’an and the Hadith, there is little doubt as to whether or not he or she will resort to actions that might be described as acts of terrorism by those who are subjected to it. Such acts would be seen by this person as his or her duty.


“We are confident, with the permission of God, praise and glory be upon him, that Muslims will be victorious in the Arabian Peninsula and that God’s religion, praise and glory be to him, will prevail in this peninsula. It is a great pride and a big hope that the revelation unto Mohammed, peace be upon him, will be resorted to for ruling. When we used to follow Mohammed’s revelation, peace be upon him, we were in great happiness and in great dignity, to God belongs the credit and praise.”

Osama bin Laden from The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11


Usually, moderate Muslims, in an attempt to distance themselves from the terrorist elements, will accuse the radicals and terrorists of ‘misunderstanding’ Islam. Non-Muslims, on the other hand, are often accused of misrepresenting Islam, or of being Islamophobic.

Frequently verses such as the following are presented by moderates as evidence that Islam does not condone any form of violence:

  • "Take not life, which Allah hath made sacred, except by way of justice and law: thus does He command you, that ye may learn wisdom." (al-An’am 6:151)
  • "Nor take life – which Allah has made sacred – except for just cause. And if anyone is slain wrongfully, We have given his heir authority (to demand Qisas or to forgive): but let him not exceed bounds in the matter of taking life; for he is helped (by the law)" (al-Isra’ 17:33)

On the face of it, it would seem that these verses advocate fairness and justice. However, once they are scrutinized critically, the problem becomes apparent. The problem is that these verses raise the question of what criteria is used to establish just cause, or what is meant by ‘justice and law’. If we were to assume that Muslims considered secular civil law as being above all other laws, in principle, there wouldn’t be much of a problem. The problem is, for most Muslims, Sharia Law is..

a reflection of God’s will for humankind. Sharia must therefore be, in its purest sense, perfect and unchanging.

According to Muslims, Sharia law is founded on the words of Allah as revealed in the Qur’an, and traditions gathered from the life of the Prophet Muhammad. So if the Sharia Law provides the criteria for ‘just cause’, and the Hadith contains verses such as..

  • Muslim (1:33) the Messenger of Allah said: I have been commanded to fight against people till they testify that there is no god but Allah, that Muhammad is the messenger of Allah

suicide-bomber..it is difficult to see how it could be argued by the moderate Muslim that the fundamentalist believer, who engaged in what might be construed by others as violent acts in the name of his religion, was acting contrary to Islamic teachings. In fact, it would appear that such a believer was acting consistently with what is prescribed in his/her scriptures.

Author Sam Harris weighed in on this issue in his book End of Faith. He wrote:

While moderation in religion may seem a reasonable position to stake out, in light of all that we have (and have not) learned about the universe, it offers no bulwark against religious extremism and religious violence. From the perspective of those seeking to live by the letter of the texts, the religious moderate is nothing more than a failed fundamentalist. He is, in all likelihood, going to wind up in hell with the rest of the unbelievers. The problem that religious moderation poses for all of us is that it does not permit anything very critical to be said about religious literalism. We cannot say that fundamentalists are crazy, because they are merely practicing their freedom of belief; we cannot even say that they are mistaken in religious terms, because their knowledge of scripture is generally unrivalled.

He added:

The texts themselves are unequivocal: they are perfect in all their parts. By their light, religious moderation appears to be nothing more than an unwillingness to fully submit to God’s law. By failing to live by the letter of the texts, while tolerating the irrationality of those who do, religious moderates betray faith and reason equally. Unless the core dogmas of faith are called into question — i.e., that we know there is a God, and that we know what he wants from us—religious moderation will do nothing to lead us out of the wilderness.


Irshad-ManjiSome reform-minded Muslims have recognised this problem and have tried to take steps to address the issue head on, by calling on the moderates to be more proactive in engaging with the radicals and conservatives. One such Muslim is Irshad Manji, the Ugandan born Canadian author, journalist and  advocate of reform and progressive interpretation of Islam. Writing in The Australian, she said:

Moderate Muslims denounce violence in the name of Islam but deny that Islam has anything to do with it. By their denial, moderates abandon the ground of theological interpretation to those with malignant intentions, effectively telling would-be terrorists that they can get away with abuses of power because mainstream Muslims won’t challenge the fanatics with bold, competing interpretations. To do so would be admit that religion is a factor. Moderate Muslims can’t go there.

Reform-minded Muslims say it’s time to admit that Islam’s scripture and history are being exploited. They argue for reinterpretation precisely to put the would-be terrorists on notice that their monopoly is over.

Reinterpreting doesn’t mean rewriting. It means rethinking words and practices that already exist, removing them from a 7th-century tribal time warp and introducing them to a 21st-century pluralistic context. Un-Islamic? God, no. The Koran contains three times as many verses calling on Muslims to think, analyse and reflect than passages that dictate what’s absolutely right or wrong. In that sense, reform-minded Muslims are as authentic as moderates and quite possibly more constructive.

Good luck to the reform-minded Muslims such as Irshad Manji. However, as long as religious fundamentalism persists, her struggle is going to be a long, and difficult one.

Making things worse is the problem highlighted earlier, in which it is technically impossible to demonstrate that the actions of those who would resort to violence or terrorism are acting in a manner inconsistent with the teachings in their scriptures. In fact, for all their good intentions, what  is clear is that it is the moderates and reformists whose (re)interpretation of the Qur’anic scriptures is inconsistent.

As with the Christian Bible, once one can arbitrarily pick and choose what verses to accept literally, and which ones to interpret metaphorically (or put in context, as Christians love to say), then anything goes, and no interpretation can be considered authoritative.

For many of us who are non-religious today, this was one of the factors that led to our abandoning religion.

In this post, we’ve only scratched the surface of what promises to be an interesting debate on Thursday, 29th July 2010 at 4 Points, Centenary Park, at 6.00pm.

The topic is “Religious Fundamentalism & Terrorism”.

If you are an open minded person whose opinions are formed on the basis of science, logic, and reason and are interested in meeting like-minded individuals – you are WELCOME to join us at the meeting.

See you there.