Why Do Extremists Kill During Ramadan?

It astonishes me that religious extremists choose to kill during one of Islam’s holy months, Ramadan. As a young counter-terrorism analyst, I have been asked every Ramadan to explain why religious-based violence occurs and increases during the sacred month of fasting. According to devout Muslims, there is no justification for fighting during any one of the four sacred months ordained for worship. But extremists ignore this ruling in Islam and scale up their attacks.

Why They Kill 

Timing is everything. The Islamic State or ISIS declared its Caliphate during the month of Ramadan. It was on the first day of Ramadan that ISIS leader Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi stood on his pulpit posing as a supreme cleric when he announced the ISIS plan. And last year, ISIS spokesman Abu Muhammad al-Adnani urged his followers to scale up their attacks during Ramadan. For years, al-Qaeda did the same. Killing during Ramadan was not off-limits for the mad men (and women).

Some of the reasons why extremists have conducted attacks during an Islamic holy month are:

  • To take the Muslim world by surprise. Fasting Muslims least expect an attack during a time of spiritual renewal.
  • To signify their holier-than-thou attitude. Extremists want the world to know that they set their own rules. They willfully ignore Islamic history, theology and law. 
  • To increase their iman or faith. Extremists feel they have something to prove–by killing during a holy month, they feel more powerful and purposeful. 
  • To die a martyr. Extremists wish for martyrdom, which is an easy entry to Paradise. But they have abused martyrdom, which does not apply to unjustified killing. 
  • To gain multiple rewards. Extremists believe their reward will be much greater if they kill during the month of sacrifice (Ramadan).

Islamic scholars have declared ISIS and other groups (e.g., al-Shebab in Africa) misguided and misfits. According to Islamic scholar Omid Safi, extremists do not follow the “letter [or] the spirit of Islamic teachings.”

Safi continued to say that attacks during Ramadan are “the greatest insult, the greatest affront to the teachings of Islam.”

Other Muslim scholars have condemned ISIS for attacks against Muslims, Christians and Jews, who are the ‘protected’ and ahl al-kitab, or people of the book. Shaykh al-Qadri, the founder of the Irish Muslim Peace & Integration Council, has said: 

Terrorists are criminals, enemies of religion, enemies of morality and the enemies of human values.”

What Islam Teaches

For years, I taught the core principles and practices in the Islamic faith to American audiences. I’ve said that holy months like Ramadan are a celebration of faith and peace. Fasting from dawn to sunset–abstaining from food, water, sex and more–is a cleansing ritual, physically and spiritually. The cleansing process is meant to be a time of reflection for Muslims. 

During Ramadan, the verses of the holy book, the Quran, were revealed. The first verse has been called ‘the light of the Quran’ and is as follows: 

Surah Iqra, Ch. 96

Surah Iqra, Ch. 96

Muslims believe the Quran is the greatest miracle of Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him). According to Islamic history, the angel Gabriel revealed the first verse to Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) at Mount Hira. The emphasis is on submission to God and to seek knowledge through the ‘sanctified pen.’  Verses of warfare that are often cited by religious extremists (and Islamophobes, alike) contradict the essence of Islam.

But even the ‘fighting verses’ need to be understood in their context. 

They were revealed 13 years after the Prophet migrated to a nearby city called Medina–once he was forced out of his hometown of Mecca by pagan Arabs from his own tribe–and the verses of ‘defensive warfare’ are very specific. They define the criteria for legitimate and illegitimate jihad–a rule that religious extremists ignore and discard for expediency. 

Screenshot 2016-05-02 22.35.37


Going to war against the polytheists of ancient Arabia, or modern-day Saudi Arabia, was no easy task. Islam teaches forgiveness and reconciliation–revenge is never an option, but justice is, especially when Muslims are attacked first and have no alternative to defend their honor and homes. 

The trouble is that scripture is misquoted and misapplied by religious extremists. Here’s an example offered by Yusuf Estes, an American Islamic scholar and convert.

Screenshot 2016-05-02 22.53.47 

Some things are lost in translation. Which is why it’s easy to see how extremists and ultra-conservatives conveniently insert additional ideas and add meaning to verses that are meant to be read with a comprehensive knowledge of classical Arabic. Only a true Islamic scholar–a man or woman with expertise in Islamic history, theology and law–is qualified to translate the verses of the Quran, taking into account the context in which verses were revealed.

Answering the ‘who, what, when, how and why’ questions are essential to understanding the Quran, or any other religious book and tradition.

Another example of a misquoted verse relates to jihad. Also provided by Yusuf Estes.

Screenshot 2016-05-02 22.54.46

Unfortunately, most Muslims (moderates and extremists) do not understand the language of the Quran. They do not know classical Arabic. Most Muslim are only required to read or memorize the Arabic verses, without truly comprehending its vast meaning and historical significance. Many Muslims rely solely on an Islamic imam, shaykh, scholar or anyone who’s speaks fluent Arabic to interpret the holy verses. 

That’s a mistake. 

Using Language to Degrade Extremists 

Muslims need to learn the meaning of the Quran and its holy verses through its original language. A senior leader of the Fawakih Institute, a learning center in Virginia, told the class he was teaching that Islam will cease to exist without Arabic. Which reminds me of an old adage that says language is a gateway into a culture and civilization. The same is true for classical Arabic, which is richer and deeper than the multiple dialects that are spoken or sung today in countries where Arabic is taught.

To marginalize religious extremists, we need to speak their language. We need to debate them in a language they understand and use. We need to degrade their logic and defeat their so-called religiosity.

With language, we can expose extremists for who they really are: empty vessels or hypocrites, which the Quran deems as among the worst of people.

There are multiple references to the munafiqun or the hypocrites, who claim to accept Islam but do not really believe in God or the Last Day. Among the worst of hypocrites are religious extremists. Fighting against them in their own words is a powerful linguistic tool. 




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