Islam is one of the largest religions in the world, and its followers are very diverse in their beliefs. Even fundamentalist Muslim countries have significant differences. For example, Saudi Arabia is a conservative monarchy while Libya under Gadhafi was a socialist military dictatorship. Similarly, while Iran and the United States have had tense relations, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan have been close allies with the U.S. The beliefs of individual Muslim extremists also vary, although they frequently share some traits.
Regardless of whether a Muslim is liberal, moderate or extremist, he or she generally shares several basic beliefs. These include belief in a single God, Allah, who is just, eternal, all-powerful and all-knowing; belief in angels; belief in their holy book, the Quran; belief in the prophets, including Abraham, Moses and Jesus; belief in Muhammad, the final Prophet; and belief in a day of universal judgment. Although Jesus is honored as a prophet in Islam, Muslims do not believe he is the son of God.
While some fundamentalist Muslim countries have allied with the West, Muslim extremists tend to oppose Westernization. Leaders such as Hasan al-Banna, the founder of Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood, have argued that Western ideas such as secularization and capitalism have failed the West and destroyed its moral fabric. Therefore, they are opposed to seeing these concepts brought into the Muslim world. Often they also advocate government based on a strict interpretation of Sharia, or Islamic, law.
The word jihad literally means "struggle" and has several distinct meanings within Islam. One of those meanings refers to any believer's spiritual struggle to live out life as a faithful Muslim. Many Muslims claim that this is the main or most important meaning. However, some Muslim extremists emphasize jihad's second meaning: the sometimes violent struggle to defend Islam. While the Quran has strict limitations on military jihad, not all Muslim extremists follow them.
In 2012, Arizona State University released a detailed study examining how violent Muslim extremists quoted the Quran in their communication. The researchers found that these extremists rarely cited verses related to conquest or domination of unbelievers; instead, they focused on themes like victimization and dishonor. In addition, some of the most frequently quoted verses referred to the importance of caring for widows and orphans and defending the weak from oppression.
- Jupiterimages/liquidlibrary/Getty Images