Misinterpretation of Islamic Text: Why There Is a Need To Introspect?

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While Islam is viciously portrayed as perpetrating violence, how much of the misinterpretation of Islamic text add to its misrepresentation? Should we blame the religion for extremist tendencies that certain terror organisations exhibit? Or blame the interpreters of the Islamic text who presents a distorted meaning?

While critiquing misrepresentation of Muslims and Islamophobia in the west, Sabahat Wali Khan asks whether there’s a need for introspection within the community. She posits that the misinterpretation of Islamic text often compels Muslims to condone the violence that justifies its making through the Holy Quran.

*Sabahat at no point justifies the toxic portrayal of Muslims in Hollywood or Bollywood movies, and she condemns the same.

Misinterpretation of Islamic Text

By Sabahat Wali Khan, a first-year law student at Aligarh Muslim University


On June 11, this year, the Oscar-nominated actor and ‘Sound of Metal’ star Riz Ahmed launched the ‘The Blueprint for Muslim Inclusion’. The initiative was a step towards enabling Muslim inclusion in Hollywood and mainstream media by providing opportunities such as grants and guidance for Muslim artists worldwide.

The initiative comes in the light of the report published in June this year supported by Pillars Fund, Ford Foundation, Riz Ahmed and the USC Annenberg Inclusion Initiative, called ‘Missing and Maligned: The Reality of Muslims in Popular Global Movies’. The report highlighted several facts about the representation of Muslims across 200 western cinemas from the US, UK, Australia and New Zealand from 2017 to 2019.

According to its findings, out of about 8500 speaking characters, less than 2 per cent were Muslims, in contrast to the Muslims global population, which is about 24 per cent.[1]Furthermore, it revealed that they were mostly portrayed as outsiders, threatening or subservient in the movies.

About one-third (39 per cent) were perpetrators of violence,[2]and 53.7 per cent were targets of primary or secondary violence. Other than these, 19 per cent of Muslim characters were involved in violence. And most of them died by the end. The report also suggested that about 66.7 per cent of the Muslim characters were either Middle East or Eastern/North African, which asserts racial misrepresentation and stereotypes.

As claimed by a study, the ratio of male Muslim characters to female Muslim characters was 175 to 1. And most of them could not speak English or spoke with an accent.

However, this study and the initiative focused on a specific term, ‘perpetrators of violence’. In this regard, Riz Ahmed also stated that Hollywood’s portrayal of Muslims was ‘toxic’. And he is not wrong.

For example, even though Black Panther was one of the most ‘woke’ films of its time, it showed a Muslim as a terrorist and kidnapping a schoolgirl. Not surprisingly, words and phrases used to disparage Muslim characters, including calling them ‘terrorist’ or phrases like ‘he has probably got a bomb strapped to his body’, reaffirm islamophobia.

When we talk about the term ‘perpetrators of violence’, it references terrorism, especially in the west. And to some extent, the 9/11 terror attack and the Bush administration’s ‘War on Terror’ also reaffirmed these stereotypes.

Although the western portrayal of Muslims needs to be denounced,  this article will not focus on the west’s idea of Islamophobia and terrorism. Instead, this piece will look at how Muslims could be somewhat complicit in supporting ‘perpetrators of violence’.

Unquestionably, terrorism has no justification in Islam. Unfortunately, however, there have been instances where the purpose of the Holy text has been interpreted violently. For this purpose, this article will analyse the current empirical research on Muslims and their linkages with terrorism in popular media projection.

Misrepresentation Starts with Misinterpretation of Islamic Texts

“People don’t just wake up hating Muslims. They believe a story… and we need to ask ourselves whether we are complicit in perpetuating this gross misrepresentation that costs lives”

-Sanam Saeed (Pakistani Actress) Via Twitter (16/06/21).

This tweet is an important reflection on the Muslim community’s role in perpetrating misrepresentation based on stereotypes.

Before we delve into how terrorism garners support among the Muslim community, it’s important to understand how ‘misinterpretation’ perpetrates a violent image of a Muslim.

The Arabic texts in the Holy Book are distorted and instrumentalised according to the ulterior motives of the fanatics. One such example would be justifying ‘suicide terrorists’ even though it is forbidden in Islam.

Often, a few create a violent narrative, exploiting and misconstruing Islamic concepts.[3]

Passages and texts and Islamic Verses are cherry-picked from the Holy Quran without context to either justify terrorism or to vilify the entire community. For instance, look at the famous verse below –

The Holy Quran 2: 192

“And kill them wherever you meet them and drive them out from where they have driven you out for persecution is worse than killing. And fight them not in , and near , the sacred mosque until they fight you, therein. But if they fight you then fight them” [4].

Here, ‘kill them wherever you find them’ has always been misinterpreted, often deliberately, to justify terrorism. However, when read without isolating it from the rest of the verse, it is crystal clear that the command is to fight when one is being persecuted and only to fight when they fight you.

Similarly, in the previous verse, 191 of Chapter 2, it is mentioned:

“And fight in the cause of Allah against those who fight against you , but do not transgress. Surely , Allah loves not transgressors .” ‘

Transgression’ or ‘zulm’ in Arabic means injustice. So often, ‘fight in the cause of Allah’ is misinterpreted and fed to the community members to mobilise masses and gain support while completely discarding the concept of ‘transgression’ in Islam.

Similarly, ‘transgression’ or zulm has also been mentioned in another verse which so-called custodians of Islam have largely overlooked.

This verse is Chapter 50 Qaf, Verse 30:

“And I am not at all unjust to my servants.”

This verse holds a significant position in Islamic law and jurisprudence as in this verse God has forbidden even himself, let alone his creations, to commit unjust,

Zulm is oppression, which means denying someone their rights. Hence, when one legitimises terrorism in the name of Islam, it is an absolute misinterpretation; since terrorism blatantly violates the right to life.

Every ‘kill them wherever you meet them’ should be countered with ‘I am not at all unjust to my servants’

Given how extensive Arabic text is, some misinterpretation of the same is common. However, the problem arises when some Muslims believe the so-called ‘guided and pious souls’. However, contrary to their belief, the ‘guided and pious souls’ often aid such misinterpretation. Their misinterpretation of Islamic text also follows because people believe them without checking the integrity of such statements.

Most Muslims need to be acquainted with the Islamic literature and its possible distortion to stop the misinterpretation, which further maligns the entire community. Therefore, practising Muslims must understand the Islamic principles for what they are instead of relying on self-styled interpreters.

Data Used: Understanding How Such Misinterpretation Affect Popular Perception

This part analyses different surveys conducted by the Pew Research Center in its religion-based report formed on people beliefs and practices.

Survey 1 is about the concern for ‘Islamic extremism’, which is one of the root causes of terrorism and is often considered synonymous with terrorism.

Survey 2 understands Pakistan’s view of the Taliban, responsible for several terror activities like the Peshawar school massacre, the shooting of Malala Yousafzai, destroying cultural monuments of Buddha, [5] to name a few.

According to a UN report, the Taliban has committed systematic massacres[6] are a declared terrorist organisation. Therefore, this Survey has relied on citizens’ views on terrorism.

Survey 3 covers the respondents’ views on Hezbollah, another globally recognised terrorist organisation by the European Union and others.[7] Hezbollah is an extremist Shiite Muslim group and has associations with Iran.

Unlike the previous Surveys, Survey 4 sampled people from countries with a Muslim minority, particularly in West Africa, which has the prospect of spreading terrorism from Nigeria-based Boko Haram and its offshoot. Also known as the Islamic State-West Africa (IS-WA) in the region. [8]

The last data is based on an article commenting on Gallup Institute’s Survey.[9]The Gallup Survey analysed the understanding of Muslims on the 9/11 attacks in the United States of America.

Analysing Data and Discrepancies

Let’s consider the first Survey about:

Misinterpretation of Islamic Text
Credit: Pew Research Center

Concern for Islamic Extremism across Muslims[10]

[These are the main findings of a new Pew Research Center survey conducted among 14,244 respondents in 14 countries with significant Muslim populations from April 10 to May 25, 2014]

Understanding here, the response to Question 39, which posed:

“How concerned, if at all, are you about Islamic extremism in our country these days? Are you very concerned, somewhat concerned, not too concerned or not at all concerned about Islamic extremism in our country these days?”

Unfortunately, the question has been sugarcoated instead of directly mentioning the term ‘terrorism’. Which further informs the data. This westernised and sugarcoated delivery in research is typical, as these often subjectivise Muslims as a monolith. Professor Alex P. Schmid has also put forth the same opinion succinctly. He says:

 “Due to the sensitive nature of the questions involved, and the problems encountered when trying to define ‘terrorism’, ‘extremism’ and ‘support for terrorism’, most of the surveys draw inferences about support levels based on a series of pseudo-questions that are commonly believed to be good indicators of support. For example, many ask about the legitimacy of the 9/11 or 7/7 attacks, [in formulations like: people having] ‘confidence in Osama Bin Laden to do the right thing’ [regarding world affairs], and the legitimacy of attacking civilian populations in the defence of Islam.

The problem with such questions is that they are not necessarily good barometers of support for international terrorism per se, and all we can say with confidence is that they are, at best, possible indicators of support.” [11]

Considering it is the best indicator of support by far, while the concern for ‘extremism’ has increased, it still just sums up to 50 per cent in Turkey.

The population of Turkey was 7.67 crores in 2014.[12] Let’s say half of them were concerned about growing extremism that still leaves more than three crore people weren’t really concerned about the same.

Out of the options to Question 39, ‘very concerned, somewhat concerned, not too concerned’, only 19 per cent said they were very concerned. [13]

On the other hand, Lebanon, Tunisia and Egypt were considerably concerned about Islamic extremism and subsequent terrorism. However,  for eradicating terrorism, will and concern might not be enough. This is because the global nexus and impact of terrorism extend beyond people’s unwillingness and suffering.

The rationale is simple. With a global population of 1.6 billion people, as quoted by Riz Ahmed, the Muslim community has the onus of condemning and being aware of the baseless justification of terrorism in the name of faith.

In Survey 2, one can observe that 59 per cent of Pakistan’s sampled population consider the Taliban in an unfavourable light, while 8 per cent support it.[14]

Misinterpretation of Islamic Text
Credit: Pew Research Center

What is strange in this case is that 33 per cent of the population has no definite stand on the same. Does this uncertainty raise questions as to how come the Population of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan, with 97 per cent[15]Muslims, is not aware of the basic tenet of Islam?

Thus, can it be deduced that while some might/ might not support terrorism, they were unwilling to reject or support the Taliban openly?

Survey 3 considers the respondent’s opinion of Hezbollah. Here again, Question 15 gave the following options: ‘very favourable, somewhat favourable, very unfavourable, somewhat unfavourable, refused and don’t know’.[16]

On further examination, about 16 per cent of the population of Tunisia considered Hezbollah ‘somewhat favourable’. And another 16 per cent ‘somewhat unfavourable’. This leaves a scope of indecisiveness and ambiguity.

The worrying part is the ambiguity, Which was noticeable in the rest of the countries. For instance, 21 per cent of people from Bangladesh ticked ‘somewhat favourable’ and 23 per cent went with ‘somewhat unfavourable’.

The data may be misleading as one might consider that 56 per cent of the Bangladesh population (a Muslim majority country) discards terrorism.

Misinterpretation of Islamic Text
Credit: Pew Research Center

The ‘Don’t Know’ section in Pakistan and Malaysia is 81 per cent and 52 per cent respectively, which makes it worse to combat terrorism,

So far, the data was based in Muslim majority countries. Now, considering data from Muslim-minority countries, including Cameroon, Ghana, Guinea Bissau and Liberia. Three of them have a Muslim minority population of 21 per cent, 18 per cent, 45.1 per cent and 12 per cent, respectively.[17]

This empirical study was titled, ‘Understanding Muslims Support for Suicide Bombing in West Africa: A Replication Study’.

This report found that about 82 per cent in Cameroon, 51 per cent in Ghana, 51 per cent in Guinea Bissau, and 63 per cent in Liberia supported suicide bombings.[18]

Cameroon is of primary concern because, as mentioned, the Islamist militant group operating in the region is Nigeria-based Boko Haram. Its offshoot, Islamic State-West Africa (IS-WA), has penetrated Northern Cameroon in recent years.

In Cameroon, most Islamist militancy and terrorism is concentrated in the Lake Chad Basin, which involves  Northern Cameroon, and along the Cameroon-Nigeria border.[19]

However, in addition to Boko Haram and its offshoot IS-WA, influence from other regional terrorist groups continues to spread. As a result, it only increases the likelihood of spillover conflict in neighbouring states.

Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), Ansar Dine, and the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO) are three active Islamist groups in the region who pose a threat of banal extremism. AQIM originated in Algeria and is active in Mali, Niger, Libya, Ivory Coast, Burkina Faso, Mauritania, Morocco, and Tunisia. Ansar Dine is primarily active in Mali, and MUJAO operates in Mali, Niger, Algeria and Burkina Faso [20].

In 2008, the Gallup Institute published their study as a book titled ‘Who Speaks for Islam? What a Billion Muslims Really Think’. The book was based on 90 per cent representative Muslim population in the world. It sought to ask the opinion of the sample size regarding the 9/11 terror attack on America.

The book’s authors, John L. Esposito, Dalia Mogahed, claimed that only 7 per cent of Muslims supported terrorism. However, in a debate over their study, they conceded that 7 per cent were those who completely supported terror attacks.

There was also other 6.5 per cent of global Muslims who ‘justified the attacks’. And about 23.1 per cent thought they were somewhat justified. [21] When added, it totals to about 36.6 per cent of Muslims who were not completely against the September Terror attacks. Which is a substantial figure, if estimated, 36.6 per cent is 585 million of 1.6 billion.


“Nothing in the world is more dangerous than sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity.”

― Martin Luther King Jr.

From the above-discussed data, one can infer that the Muslim community is divided into three stances when it comes to their understanding of ‘terrorism’ or ‘perpetrators of violence’:

  • completely rejects terrorism
  • obstinately supports terrorism
  • ambiguous or indecisive

It’s cleared that there is horrid misinformation and interpretation of what the Holy Quran says. Those who believe violence is part of Islam believe in a distorted idea of the Islamic text, guided by a third-person interpreter’s inhumanity.

Additionally, the third category is also of concern. The ambiguity around those who are unsure about how they perceive terror, violence and religious extremism lay in limbo. While some may hesitate to denounce or support such violence, their responses could be based on fear or genuine belief in ‘Islamic extremism’.

Public opinions matter because they are instrumental in deliberately or unknowingly supporting a violent movement.[22]  In addition, at times, terrorist organisations seek financial and human resources from the sympathetic population to pursue their goals.[23]

Religion is complex, and the written, rewritten and translated religious text has been through several nuances and understanding, good or bad. But, one cannot shoot the interpreter alone—the space each sacred text lends for interpretation factors how it is purported.  Further, it could come down to several social and economic factors, like literacy, poverty and shelter.

Thus, while no religion perpetrates violence, probably in its making, certain aspects need to be called out for the sake of change.

Therefore, as much as islamophobic representation in western cinema is problematic, those who support ‘perpetrators of violence’ are also problematic.



[1] Dr Katherine Pieper, Dr Stacy L. Smith “Missing and Maligned The Reality of Muslims in popular Global Movies” USC Annenberg Inclusion Initiative, 2021

[2] Supra note 1

[3] Reid Hutchins, Islam and Suicide Terrorism: Separating Fact from Fiction 8, International Centre for Political Violence and Terrorism Research,

[4] Maulvi Sher Ali and Hazrat Mirza Tahir Ahmad, The Holy Quran Arabic Text and English Translation 45 ( Islamic International Publications Ltd, UK, 2015)

[5] “GENERAL ASSEMBLY ‘APPALLED’ BY EDICT ON DESTRUCTION OF AFGHAN SHRINES; STRONGLY URGES TALIBAN TO HALT IMPLEMENTATION | Meetings Coverage and Press Releases”. The United Nations. 9 March 2001. Retrieved 2 August 2018.

[6] Gargan, Edward A (October 2001). “Taliban massacres outlined for UN”. Chicago Tribune.

[7] Kanter, James; Rudoren, Jodi (22 July 2013). “European Union Adds Military Wing of Hezbollah to List of Terrorist Organizations”. New York Times. Retrieved 4 September 2013.

[8]  C. Christine Fair and Samta Savla ‘Understanding Muslims’ Support for Suicide Bombing in West Africa: A Replication Study’; Perspectives on Terrorism, February 2019, Vol. 13, No. 1 (February 2019), pp. 105-122

[9] last visited 6 July, 2021; This article summarizes a forthcoming analysis by the author under the title Islamism, Arab Spring and the Future of Democracy: Developing a World Values Perspective, under contract at Springer Publishers, N.Y.

[10] ‘Concerns about Islamic Extremism on the Rise in Middle East’ Pew Research Centre,2014

[11] Schmid, Alex P. Public Opinion Survey Data to Measure Sympathy and Support for Islamist Terrorism: A Look at Muslim Opinions on Al Qaeda and IS. International Centre for Counter-Terrorism, 2017, pg 11

[12] Population of Turkey, last visited on 28 June, 2021

[13] Pew Research Center,Spring 2014 survey July 1, 2014 Release

[14] Supra note 4

[15] last visited on 29 June, 2021

[16] Supra Note 4

[17]  C. Christine Fair and Samta Savla ‘Understanding Muslims’ Support for Suicide Bombing in West Africa: A Replication Study’; Perspectives on Terrorism, February 2019, Vol. 13, No. 1 (February 2019), pp. 105-122

[18]  C. Christine Fair and Samta Savla ‘Understanding Muslims’ Support for Suicide Bombing in West Africa: A Replication Study’; Perspectives on Terrorism, February 2019, Vol. 13, No. 1 (February 2019), pp. 105-122

[19] Supra note 11

[20] National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (START), “Global Terrorism Database,”

[21] last visited 6 July, 2021; This article summarizes a forthcoming analysis by the author under the tile Islamism, Arab Spring and the Future of Democracy: Developing a World Values Perspective, under contract at Springer Publishers, N.Y.

[22]  Arie W. Kruglanski and Shira Fishman, “The psychology of terrorism: “Syndrome” versus “tool” perspectives,” Terrorism and Political Violence 18(2)(2006):193-215

[23] Reed M. Wood, Jacob D. Kathman, Stephen E. Gent. “Armed Intervention and Civilian Victimization In Intrastate Conflicts,” Journal of Peace Research 49 (5)(2012): 647-660;

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