How Extremists Use The Qur’an


There is a 2012 study called “How Islamist Extremists Quote the Qur’an” by Jeffry R. Halverson, R. Bennett Furlow, and Steven R. Corman, of the Center for Strategic Communication, Arizona State University. It is a fantastic insight into how extremists use core Islamic literature to facilitate recruitment, propaganda production, and other organisational and operational goals.

This study looks at thousands of pieces of collected data of Islamist works, letters, videos, recordings, and conversations dating from 1998 to 2011. Although I argue that this has now changed, since the growth of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, the study shows us that Islamic extremists play a tune to a multitude of narratives.

The most common narratives are the “oppression-grievance” narrative, which is used more so than the “aggression-dominance” narrative. That is, that extremists look to facilitate revenge and pseudo-vigilante violence more so than an aggressive pursuit of their agenda as an appeal to domination and divine sovereignty. I will give examples of both where this has changed in regards to Islamic State propaganda, and other examples otherwise not mentioned in the cited study.

The Most Cited Verses and Chapters of the Qur’an

Extremists and terrorists cite Qur’anic verses and chapters for a multitude of reasons. Their religion can be exploited in many ways to facilitate violence, as it was in the Medinan period of Muhammad’s life, to battle “God’s enemies” and those who rejected the monotheistic message of Islam or chose to fight or organise against it.

The most commonly cited verses is seen in Figure 1 below. They include a range of topics, such as “exhortations (e.g. 12:21, 63:8, 3:102), battle imperatives (9:14, 4:75, 22:39), and affirmations of faith (e.g. 8:17, 4:104, 3:139).”


Above: The most cited verses, by extremists, of the Holy Qur’an.

The most common chapters, in ranking order, are:

  • Surah Nine, Surat at-Tawbah (“The Repentance”).
  • Surah Three, Surat al-Imran (“Family of Imran”).
  • Surah Four, Surat an-Nisa (“The Women”).
  • Surah Two, Surat al-Baqarah (“The Cow”).
  • Surah Eight, Surat al-Anfal (“The Spoils of War”).
  • Surah Five, al-Ma’ida (“The Table Spread”).
  • Surah Twelve, Yusuf.
  • Surah Twenty-Two, al-Hajj (“The Pilgrimage”).
  • Surah Forty-Seven, Muhammad.
  • Surah Sixty-One, al-Saff, and Surah Thirty-Three, al-Ahzab [tie].

As noted, Surah 9, is the most commonly cited chapter, although verse 5: the “Verse of the Sword” is one of the least cited verses. It is very interesting that this verse is rarely cited, yet in recent times it has been cited in some of the largest attacks on European soil, as I will discuss later.

Surah 9 itself has many topics that appeal to terrorists, such as martyrdom, fighting, and calls to battle. Mohamed Atta, one of the 9/11 hijackers, had a four-page document which exploited these verses. Namely, 9:111 of the Holy Qur’an – “Allah has purchased from the believers their lives… for that they will have Paradise. They fight in the cause of Allah, so that they kill and are killed.” This is an observably extreme narrative relating towards violence on behalf of religious and ideological goals.

All in all we learn that extremists do use the Qur’an. Islam has something to do with terrorism. The study goes on to discuss world domination but here is where it gets stuck. I believe it gets a few things wrong, and in regards to modern-day, the religio-political understanding of terrorists has changed. They do indeed want world domination, their ability to get there is currently nigh impossible.

Islamists and World Domination

As stated in the aforementioned study, Jenkins 2008 and Roshandel and Chadha 2006, and other academics, frequently cite 9:5 in relation to terrorism, often extrapolating on the expansionistic and aggressive stance of this verse and recent terrorist atrocities committed in Western cities around the world. The suggestion is that Islamists want world domination. But is this true?

Halverson, et al, argues against that Islamists do not want world domination, rather unconvincingly I might add. Halverson and team shift argument from: ‘Islamists may discuss world domination formally but only formally’ to ‘Islamists make claims about impeding takeover and being on the verge of world domination.’ These are two separate claims.

Divine sovereignty is an old and manufactured claim of Islamist groups, however until the rise of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, Islamist groups never cemented or grasped such a claim physically. This has changed the position of world domination, however it still remains an unreasonable and utopian ideal. Islamists do indeed want world domination. The Islamic State wishes to, and has an organisation goal of, committing State rule over the world by inciting an apocalyptic battle in which Jesus will return as a Muslim, to takeover the world. Yes, this is an eschatological precedent in Islam. And yes, it is very unlikely… at least… I hope it is!

To confirm what has been learnt in this article, I must reinforce to you that the Qur’an is used in terror-related activities towards a multitude of narratives, sometimes including world domination and aggressive pursuit of goals leading there. This shift has been observed since the rise of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria.

Is the Qur’an used in Terror-Related Activities?

I want to re-affirm that ultimately, yes, the Qur’an is used in terror-related activities. It is used as a motivation tool, a recruitment tool, a propaganda tool, et cetera. By some groups and by some individuals Qur’anic justification is offered as a pathway to religious understanding that leads to violent action and martyrdom.

In fact, counter to this studies findings, the first Qur’anic verse released by ISIS to justify the Brussels and Paris attacks was 9:5, at-Tawbah verse 5, in an attempt to explain that those who lost their lives did not fulfill their covenant or contract to Allah. Specifically, they did not repent and ‘enter’ Islam, thus they have left the fold of Islam making their “blood… halal to take.”

As you can observe in the cited link, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria go into a great deal of effort and detail to affirm to themselves that they are not transgressing the rules of Islamic law and tradition. Some jurists and scholars may argue this, but that is their ultimate message: that they believe they are within Qur’anic and Hadithic framework permitting them to commit violent acts on behalf of Islam.

Qur’anic Verse List

Halverson and teams study finished with a list of the most common verses, as translated and interpreted by Yusuf Ali. This is a valuable resource for all those interested in the religious component to terrorism:

12:21: God has full power and control over His affairs, but most among mankind know not. [Partial verse taken from a discussion of the Prophet Joseph (Yusuf), affirming God’s control of events amidst perceived injustices.]

9:14: Fight them and God will punish them by your hands, cover them with shame, help you (to victory) over them, heal the breasts of believers. [A call to battle amidst a discussion of the plots and aggression of the pagans (mushrikin) in Mecca against the Muslims; dates from ca. 630.]

5:51: Take not the Jews and Christians for your trusted guardians; they are but trusted guardians to each other. And he amongst you that turns to them (for aid) is one of them. Verily God does not guide unjust people. [Late Medinan verse repudiating the deviations of the People of the Book (Christians and Jews) and affirming the autonomy of Islam and the Muslims as a distinct nation of believers.]

63:8: Honor belongs to God and His Messenger and to the believers; but the hypocrites know not. [A partial verse dating from ca. 626 addressing claims by the leader of the Hypocrites in Medina that his supporters are the more honorable group.

8:17: It is not ye who slew them; it was God: When thou threw (dust), it was not thy act, but God’s, in order that He might test the believers with a gracious trial from Himself. [A reference to the Prophet throwing dust at the onset of the Battle of Badr in 624. Abdullah Yusuf Ali notes that the act was “symbolical of [the arrogant enemy] rushing blindly to their fate [i.e. defeat].”]

4:75: And why should you not fight in the cause of God and [the cause] of those who, being weak, are ill-treated (and oppressed)? Men, women, and children, whose cry is: ‘Our Lord! Rescue us from this town, whose people are oppressors; and raise for us from Thee one who will protect.’ [A call for battle aimed at those among the Muslims who were reluctant to fight against the Meccans.]

4:104: Slacken not in following up the enemy; if you are suffering hardships, they are suffering similar hardships; but you have hope from God, while they have none. [A verse acknowledging the hardships endured in the wars against Mecca, but distinguishing the Meccan pagans, whose actions were useless, from the believers, who had hope in God to help them endure.]

8:39: And fight them on until there is no more discord and religion (or the way) is for God (alone). [One of the early Medinan verses that granted the Muslims permission to fight against the pagan Meccans, leading to the Battle of Badr in 624.]

22:39: To those (people) against whom war is made, permission is given (to fight) because they are wronged; and verily God is Most Powerful for their aid. [The first verse granting Muslims permission to fight the Meccans; the hijra or migration to Medina in 622 was the final effort by the Muslims to escape Meccan persecution.]

3:139: So lose not heart, nor fall into despair: for you must gain mastery if you are true in faith. [This Medinan verse followed the defeat of the Muslims at Uhud in 625. It counsels the believers to remain steadfast in their faith; victory will come (as it did in 630).]

2:11: When it is said to them [the hypocrites]: ‘Do not make mischief on the earth;” they say: “Why, we only want to make peace!” [A Medinan denunciation of those who subvert the believers from within and disobey God’s commands with false claims of seeking peace or justice.]

4:76: Those who believe fight in the cause of God, and those who reject faith fight in the cause of evil: so fight against the associates of Satan: feeble indeed is the cunning of Satan. [A Medinan verse stressing the binary distinction between the believers and the unbelievers (good versus evil).]

22:40: Those who have been expelled from their homes in defiance of justice, for no cause except that they say; ‘Our Lord is God.’ . . . God will certainly aid those who aid His cause. [A continuation of verse 22:39 [see above].]

47:7: O you who believe! If you aid (the cause of) God, He will aid you, and plant your feet firmly. [A Medinan verse given amidst a call for battle that promises God’s assistance and reward to the believers for their sacrifices.]


In conclusion, the Qur’an is used by extremists and terrorists to achieve organisational and operational goals, including recruitment, motivation, training, and propaganda production. Terrorism has something to do with Islam, seeing as terrorists and extremists exploit and use Qur’anic narratives and justifications towards violence.


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