76. What Motivates Suicide Bombers?

Terrorism as “lashing out”

In one section of a popular book on globalization, The World is Flat, Thomas Friedman explores the impact of globalization on the Arab-Muslim world and how this relates to the rise of Muslim based terrorism.

[Arab-Muslim] youth, particularly those living in Europe, can and do look around and see that the Arab-Muslim world, in too many cases, has fallen behind the rest of the planet. It is not living as prosperously or democratically as other civilizations. How can that be? these young Arabs and Muslims must ask themselves. If we have the superior faith, and if our faith is all encompassing of religion, politics, and economics, why are others living so much better?

This is a source of real cognitive dissonance for many Arab-Muslim youth – the sort of dissonance, and loss of self-esteem, that sparks rage, and leads some of them to join violent groups and lash out at the world.1

Friedman goes on to quote Theodore Dalrymple,

a physician and psychiatrist who practices in England and writes a column for the London Spectator. He wrote an essay in City Journal, the urban policy magazine (Spring 2004), about what he learned from his contacts with Muslim youth in British prisons. Dalrymple noted that most schools of Islam today treat the Qu’ran as a divinely inspired text that is not open to any literary criticism or creative reinterpretation. It is a sacred book to be memorized, not adapted to the demands and opportunities of modern life. But without a culture that encourages, and creates space for, such creative reinterpretation, critical thought and original thinking tend to whither. This may explain why so few world-class scientific papers cited by other scholars come out of the Arab-Muslim universities.

If the West had made Shakespeare “the sole object of our study and the sole guide of our lives,” said Dalrymple, “we would soon enough fall into backwardness and stagnation. And the problem is that so many Muslims want both stagnation and power: they want a return to the perfection of the seventh century and to dominate the twenty-first, as they believe is the birthright of their doctrine, the last testament of God to man. If they were content to exist in a seventh-century backwater, secure in a quietist philosophy, there would be no problem for them or us; their problem, and ours, is that they want the power that free inquiry confers, without either the free inquiry or the philosophy and institutions that guarantee that free inquiry. They are faced with a dilemma: either they abandon their cherished religion, or they remain forever in the rear of human technical advance. Neither alternative is very appealing, and the tension between their desire for power and success in the modern world on the one hand, and their desire not to abandon their religion on the other, is resolvable for some only by exploding themselves as bombs. People grow angry when faced with an intractable dilemma; they lash out.2

The attraction of becoming the avenging hand of God

For the most part this is a helpful analysis and corresponds with some of the emotions and “cognitive dissonance” I observed during our years in Pakistan.3 However, I think that Friedman’s and Dalrymple’s conclusion that terrorism is primarily a frustrated “lashing out” is misplaced. It does not provide a sufficient reason for the modern phenomenon of the suicide bomber, any more than anger or despair would be a sufficient analysis to explain the motive behind the kamikaze pilots of WWII. Anger undoubtedly plays a role in the suicide bomber’s journey towards their act of violence, but it is an insufficient reason for their motive.

lashing out … is an insufficient reason for their motive

Even interpreting suicide bombings as a desperate cry for help, “a message, a plea, a scream of anguish and anger for the larger society to do something4 underestimates the ideological faith that drives terrorists to commit these crimes.  To attribute terrorism to a “lashing out” of anger is to ignore the powerful conviction on the part of the perpetrators that their ultimate “martyrdom” is tied to the will of God.  Evil actions that many, even in the midst of severe anger, refuse to contemplate because of a conviction of right and wrong, others will do in a calm and calculating way.  They act not because of an emotional imbalance due to a lack of moral compass and a sense of helpless frustration, but because they are a convinced of the absolute rightness of their action.  It is not an abandonment of what they know to be right  (as the concept of “lashing out” would imply) but a fulfillment or demonstration of their faith. They have adopted a moral compass – reinforced by a community that affirms and promotes the ideology – that provides the conviction and motivation to be the avenging hand of God in an evil world.

A contrast of convictions: Sunni and Shia

The two major sects in Islam are Sunni and Shia.  An underlying Sunni conviction is that God blesses those who follow the right path of Islam (sunnah).  Therefore, if Sunni Muslims believe they are missing out on blessings that others enjoy, this can be interpreted as evidence that they must not be as dedicated or as passionate as God requires.  Some translate this conviction into greater personal piety and dedication to religious practices.  Others follow a more fundamentalist doctrine and believe that God calls them to be channels of his punishment on those who are not living righteously or who are deceiving the righteous.  In this case, it is not mere anger –  “lashing out” – but a corrective to the problem of dissonance between God’s blessing and their experience.

Shias are highly influenced by the themes of suffering and martyrdom. Beginning with the deaths of Ali, the cousin of the prophet of Islam, and Ali’s son, Hussein, they celebrate the memory of the righteous vindicated through martyrdom. Dying for the right cause results in God’s favor.  Although they suffer, their endurance is part of being on God’s side.  When people brought up with such strong religious images come under the influence of radical Islamists, they may become convinced that they are also called to follow in the steps of the martyrs.

The proposal of “lashing out” as the primary motive for suicide bombers is insufficient. It suggests that frustration and anger are being expressed in a manner that the perpetrator, in a calmer frame of mind, would consider inappropriate.  If “lashing out” is the main motive that drives Muslim suicide bombers, the prevention of this would involve anger management so that the person can be brought into their “right mind.”  It also suggests that if people would channel their emotions into more productive activities, their sense of helplessness would be overcome and they would not commit this act of cruelty. It implies that if their low self-esteem can be corrected, then they will not seek a path of violence.  However, if the problem has ideological roots, then this approach would only circumvent the heart of the matter.  That is, if in their “right mind,” they view suicide bombing as a logical and beneficial action, anger management will not correct the problem.

Ideological solution

Ideological problems require ideological solutions

Ideological problems require ideological solutions.  That is, the solution is not psychological, requiring emotional stability and change of action within their current belief system, but a fundamental change to their belief system.  They need to come to a different view of God.  As it is, their reactions are a logical outcome of their view of God, a view that needs correcting. All of us act according to the perspective of the absolute that we believe in, whether that is a personal God or an impersonal force.  Therefore, for the radicalized Muslim, when the understanding of God is altered, the drive towards suicide bombs and terrorism is addressed.

As a follower of Christ, I propose that Jesus is the best antidote to religious terrorism.  The way of Christ is a way of suffering that takes on the pain of others, not one that inflicts pain.  It is act of redemption in which one dies for others, not in order to bring death to others.  This is a picture of God who makes things right by absorbing the pain, not by inflicting pain; who brings transcendence, not revenge; who says, “Forgive them,” not “Damn them.”  The New Testament view of Jesus addresses the Sunni concern to live righteously, as well as providing a theology of suffering for the Shia that transcends death to bring redemption.

Jesus as the antidote needs to be distinguished from the religion of Christianity, however, for there are and have been religious expressions that deviate from Jesus’ revelation of God. The New Testament presents Jesus, not a religious system, as the ultimate picture of God, an exact representation of the divine nature (Heb. 1:3).  If Jesus is what God is like and we are committed to pleasing him, then we will live like him.  Jesus’ refusal to resort to evil in the face of evil becomes the moral compass and ideology that guides the actions of his followers. Those who recognize God as the loving father in the person of Christ will maintain that image as their internal orientation and be kept from the temptation to bring harm to others.  Their anger may tell them to “lash out,” but their ideology will guide them into a less destructive path.

If you would like to contact Mark please use the Contact Me form.  If you would like to leave a comment, please use the “comment” link at the bottom of this article.


  • 1 Friedman, T. 2005. The World is Flat. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux. p. 397 italics added.
  • 2 ibid. p. 399 italics added.
  • 3 Mark served with FEBInternational in Pakistan for 14 years.
  • 4 Hall, Edward T. 1977. Beyond Culture. New York: Anchor Press / Doubleday p. 94.  Hall is not specifically referring to suicide bombings, but his comment reflects another possible interpretation.

29. How are we to think about Allah in Islam?

Religions do not bring people to God

H. Kraemer in his influential book, The Christian message in a Non-Christian World, builds a strong case for the inability of religions, as human constructs, to bring people to God.  The revelation of God in Christ is solely a redeeming act of God, and not aided by or a product of humanity’s attempts to reach God.  Thus he claims it is “a mistake” (p. 137) to assume a one-to-one “point of contact” between the God and Father of Jesus Christ and the high deities of human religions and cultures.  He bases this on a number of important arguments:

1) “No element of a living system of religion or culture can ever be taken in isolation…. Every religion is a living, indivisible unity” (p. 137). Every part of a religion is related to every other part so that it can never be fully understood without taking into account the extensive living unity of the worldview which gives that part its meaning.

Therefore, to view one part of another religion, such as the concept of Allah in Islam, and assume that it is understood in the same way as the high deity in another culture and religion, such as the God of western Christianity, is simplistic and reductionist.  Every concept and idea cannot be taken in isolation but is dependent on and shaped by a number of cultural and religious assumptions and interrelationships.  Comprehension of both the God of western Christianity and Allah in Islam is shaped by the worldview assumptions and cultural influences within which people live.

2) It is improper to assume that theistic concepts constitute proper thinking about God.  In other words, opinions or doctrines about the nature of God – omnipotence, omnipresence, etc. – do not provide an adequate biblical view of God. Thus, although the understanding of Allah in Islam and concepts of God in western Christianity parallel important descriptions of God in the Scriptures (e.g. as Creator, Sovereign, etc.), the biblical concern is the relational aspects of God in his actions towards his people and his self revelation in Jesus Christ.

3) The idea that a composite picture of God may be gained by pooling different religious concepts, such as Allah in Islam and God in western Christianity, is faulty by assuming that human thought is capable of discerning the true from the false in considering the nature of God.  A “common denominator” God distilled from a comparison of religions, is a non starter because it is not human creativity but God’s revelation of himself that guides right thinking about God.

The Right Questions

Therefore the appropriate question is not “Are Allah and God the same?” but “How can the concept of Allah in Islam and God in western Christianity be corrected and shaped by the revelation of God in Christ?”  The goal is not to discard concepts of God in other religions that do not provide equivalent understanding according to our theology, but to work towards the transformation of everyone’s theology (including our own) according to God’s revelation of himself in Jesus Christ.  This requires a dynamic tension between culture and revelation within each person and each society.  It is culture that provides that language through which God may be contemplated.  It is God who provides the revelation in Christ within cultural forms.

The question is not “Who has the right God?” but “How can we be engaged in a process of correcting, refining and developing our relationship with God through the interaction of our lives with the revelation of God?”  The goal of missions with respect to Islam is not to convince Muslims to abandon their Islamic views of Allah for a Christian theology of God.  Such an approach only leads to confusion as there is much overlap between the theologies of these two religions.  Such teaching can generate unnecessary anguish for Muslims attracted to Christ but think they must reject values and beliefs that have meaning and importance to them.

Seekers with Other Religions

A more appropriate orientation in missions is to recognize that, along with many Muslims, we are seekers after God.  In our beliefs and the beliefs of other religious faiths there exists both continuity and discontinuity. Because we are created in God’s image (Genesis) and have God’s law in our hearts (Romans), and because we are living in a world in which there are common spiritual, moral and material struggles, there is much that resonates as truth in the answers that religions provide for their followers and for those outside their belief system.  At the same time there is an important discontinuity that is the basis of the Christian faith: God has revealed himself uniquely in Jesus Christ.  Thus, there is a both resonance (which provides communication) and tension (which provides transformation) between human theologies and God’s declaration of himself.

To declare that the theologies of western Christianity have the only right and true concept of God to which all others must conform is arrogant and leads to a dogmatism that resists transformation into the true image of God in Christ.  At the same time “the missionary is the bearer of a message, the witness to a divine revelation, not his discovery, but God’s act” (p. 128).  It is this revelation of God in Jesus Christ, devised not by humanity but solely the gift of God, to whom every knee and every concept of God must bow, whether in the west or east.

A Double Mandate

As Christians, therefore, we have a double mandate.  First, we must constantly discover and rediscover the God we worship in Jesus Christ as we engage him through our cultural eyes.  Second, we must be ambassadors of this vision by challenging those in other religions, including Islam, to reevaluate and shape their understanding of God according to the revelation of the God and Father of the Lord Jesus Christ.  What is required is “a permanent condition of openness in the missionary himself to the criticism and guidance of the Christian revelation, and a not less permanent openness to reality of the non-Christian religion with which he has to deal” (p. 139)

28. Is Allah God?

A recent book review in the Evangelical Baptist (March / April 2005, p. 20) on the book Ishmael: My brother – A Christian Introduction to Islam, contained the provocative statement, “from a biblical vantage point, Allah does not exist.” Such a claim is based on the reality that Allah is not viewed by Muslims as the Father of the Lord Jesus Christ.  Nonetheless, despite conflicting beliefs about the nature and character of God, evangelicals need to understand that the use of “Allah” to refer to the God of the Bible is both an appropriate and accepted practice.

“Allah” in Bible Translation

            “Allah” is the Arabic word for God and most Arabic translations of the Bible reflect this. Joshua Massey in a recent article in EMQ (V 40, No. 3, July 2004,  pp. 284-285) points out that the debate “Should Christians use ‘Allah’ in Bible translation? … ironically … doesn’t exist for Arab Christians.”  Allah has been used in Bible translation from the 8th century to translate the biblical terms for God.  Most scholars view the word to be an “Arab cognate of biblical Aramaic elah and Hebrew eloah [singular of elohim]”  (ibid.). Moreover “Allah” is never used for a false god or idol in Islamic thought.  It can only refer to the one true God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.  This has made Bible translation in the Sindhi language difficult at times. 

For example, in 2 Kings 1:3, Elijah asks why the king has consulted the “god of Ekron.”  Is it because “there is no god in Israel?” In our Sindhi translation (1) we cannot use the word for God to translate the phrase “god of Ekron” because the name of God cannot be used for a false god.  Instead we have translated “the worshiped one of Ekron,” indicating a false god.  However the second phrase presents us with a dilemma because, while sarcastically asking if there is no “god in Israel,” by implication Elijah is making an oblique reference to the true God.  If we simply translate “worshiped one,” this would imply that Elijah is not referring to the true God!  Thus our translation lost the sarcasm but made the meaning plain by asking “Is God not in Israel?” referring to the one true God, who is understood by the Muslim audience to be Allah.  However, the implied distinction is not explicit in the original Hebrew which uses elohim in both of these phrases.

            Massey further explains that this understanding of “Allah” is affirmed not only by Christian translators, but also by Muslim scholars when they quote Bible verses and by Jewish scholars in their studies of Islamic literature.

Communication demands Acknowledgment

The argument that Allah is not God is impractical, unhelpful and illogical.  It is impractical because all Muslims recognize the God of the Bible as the true God and they call him by the Arabic word for God, “Allah.”  It is unhelpful because the argument that Allah is other than the God of the Bible would only reap confusion and cause unnecessary stumbling blocks for the sincere spiritual seeker.  All former Muslims that I have met who have come to faith in Christ have not turned away from Allah, rather they have come to know him as the Father of Jesus Christ.  It is illogical because the issue is not a comparison between two different gods, but a disagreement about the character and nature of the one God.  To argue that Allah is not God is comparable to an argument that the word “rose” does not refer to the flower.  If a person uses the word to refer to the flower, then the hearer is simply refusing communication by denying the speaker’s intent.  The general use of “Allah” for God by both Christians and Muslims necessitates acknowledgment of this intention if we are to speak of God at all.

            A further problem with such a blanket dismissal of Islamic forms, words and thoughts is that much of Islamic thinking has Jewish and Christian origins.  Therefore introducing a new term for “God” or “Jesus” and ignoring commonly accepted historical usage because of differences in the teachings about the nature of God and Jesus will simply introduce unnecessary communication hurdles.

Allah as God the Father

The author of the review quotes John 8:42 as a proof-text that those who do not worship the Father of Jesus Christ, are not worshipping the true God: “The hostility of Moslems (sic) to Jesus Christ makes it clear they are not worshipping God the Father, else, when introduced to Jesus they would know him.”  While Muslims, in general, would agree that they do not worship God as the Father of the Lord Jesus Christ, this claim by the author is given in support of the contention that “Allah does not exist.”  However, this is a misapplication of the verse.  Jesus is not claiming that the God of the Jews, Yahweh, does not exist.  Rather he was saying that the people who claimed Yahweh as their God were actually not in an appropriate relationship with him as father.  Jesus’ intention was not to deny the existence of the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.  His point was to correct their understanding of God because they were assigning inappropriate attributes to him from their own perverse imaginations, rather than submitting to him as the gracious and loving Father.  In the same way the proper application of this verse to Muslims is not to deny the existence of the God of Islam, but rather to reveal the true nature of Allah as the Father of Jesus Christ.

The Jesus film was translated into Muslim Sindhi during our time in Pakistan.  The translation was generally excellent as the film crew used the common language Muslim Sindhi Bible translation of the Pakistan Bible Society for most Scripture passages.  However, imagine our frustration and disappointment when we discovered that instead of the Muslim name for Jesus, esaw, the common Christian term, yaysoo, was used.  As a result many Muslims would watch the film and be moved by it, but fail to comprehend the identity of this “Yaysoo”!  More than once I had to explain that this was a film about “Esaw.”  Once they understood within the categories of their Islamic teaching that this film was referring to Jesus, they were able to interact with the message.  A much more profitable approach is to use terms already present in Islamic theology and fill them with biblical meaning.

A more pertinent question for the cross-cultural ambassador of Christ to Muslims is to ask how the Muslim view of Allah can provide room for a relationship with God as the Father of the Lord Jesus Christ.  This will be explored in the following article.


  • (1) The Sindhi translation actually uses the Persian word for God, khuda, which is synonymous with the Arabic, Allah.  Mark has been working on the Old Testament translation of the Sindhi Bible since 1989.

27. Inappropriate Criticisms of Islam

A recent book review  in the Evangelical Baptist (March / April 2005, p. 20) on the book Ishmael: My brother – A Christian Introduction to Islam demonstrated an unfortunate attitude towards Muslims and an apparent misunderstanding of Islamic theology. In this and the following two articles I would like to present a rebuttal to some of the comments and in doing so provide some direction towards a more productive and fair approach to Islamic belief.

Are Muslims our “brothers”?

The author of the review poses the question, “should we regard Muslims (Ishmael) as our brothers, or as those standing in the need of the Saviour Christ Jesus?” The difficulty with the two statements juxtaposed in this question is that they are falsely presented as contradicting each other, whereas logically they are unrelated.  The use of the term “brothers” does not necessitate the conclusion that Muslims are not in need of salvation.  Although Muslims are not brothers (and sisters) in the sense that we share the same religion – an understanding that Muslims will fully affirm – there are a number of perspectives which warrant the use of “brothers”:

– in many Muslim societies people show respect by titles of family relationships.

– we share many fundamental beliefs in the moral and religious sphere (e.g. sexual propriety, importance of faithfulness, respect for God’s prophets, etc.).

– we are all children of Adam and Eve and therefore created in the image of God; the term “brother” affirms this mutual respect before God.

– we worship the one, true God.

During our time in Pakistan acceptable relationships with our Muslim friends was daily underscored by the use of familial titles.  The only appropriate relationship I could have with a woman, apart from my wife, was as a “brother,” “uncle,” or “son,” depending on our age difference.  The use of these titles constantly reaffirmed our social and theological commitments as humans living together in community without compromising my faith in Christ or making a statement about the spiritual condition of Muslim women as “sisters”.  We must be careful about reading our western assumptions concerning the use of terminology into the language of a Muslim people group.

Standing against or for Muslims?

The most disconcerting sentence, which, in the minds of some Muslims, would raise the spectre of the Crusades, was the statement that “the book wants to soften our stance against Muslims by accepting the fact that some truth can be found in Islam.” As followers of the Lord Jesus Christ, none of us ought to have a “stance against Muslims.”  This is highly inappropriate and provocative language.  “For we are not fighting against human beings but against the wicked spiritual forces in the heavenly world” (Eph 6:12).  The reason we send missionaries to the 10 / 40 window is not because we are against Muslims, but because we are for Muslims.  Our desire is that every Muslim brother and sister will gain the best that God has for them.  We believe that God has given his best in Christ, and it is that gift we offer.

Furthermore, the implicit statement that there is no truth in Islam is simply false.  I naively and arrogantly entered the Muslim world in 1985 thinking that I needed to learn about Islam but was unprepared to learn from Islam.  Yet some of my times of greatest spiritual growth and insight have come about because of spiritual seekers in Islam. Any religious system that endures has some measure of truth or it cannot exist.  In some way it must assist its adherents in dealing with the meaning and significance of daily life.  It must provide some measure of comfort and hope to the large questions of life and death.  Our job is not to tear that down, but to present Jesus as our hope and comfort together with his invitation.  Acknowledging truth in Islam does not necessitate denial of the revelation of God in Christ.

Jesus called Satan the “Father of lies.”  But it must be remembered that the power for a liar is, in fact, the truth.  It is the person who speaks truth to us who has the power to deceive.  A known liar is not believed.  Much of what Satan said to deceive Eve was the truth and so he appeared credible.  In the same way much of Islam is true.  Unfortunately, when dealing with the essentials of salvation (the cross) and the way to God (through the Son of God), the hope of the gospel has been denied.

Tensions between Mohammed and Christ

The author of the review complains that the book seeks to “lessen tensions between Christ and Mohammed,” and thus “clouds the glory that belongs to Christ alone.”  While in Pakistan it was a common ploy of those wanting to argue about the relative merits of our religions to raise the issue of Mohammed as the “last prophet” and therefore create a tension between Christ and Mohammed.  However this is a false comparison.  The issue for the missionary is not one of lessening the tension, but of removing it all together.  In speaking to Muslims it needs to be pointed out that Mohammed is not a messiah, he is a prophet.  Mohammed is to be compared to Moses or to Abraham as one who brought his people out of idolatry and spoke a word from God, not to Christ who is the Way and is the Truth.

This distinction was very important to the writer of the book of Hebrews who dealt with a similar understanding among the Jews concerning the place of Moses and the Law.  In Hebrews 3:1-6, the writer does not provide a quantitative distinction between Moses and Jesus, as if there is simply a difference in degree, but a qualitative difference between the house and the builder, or the servant and the master.  In the same way, the difference between a prophet and the Messiah is vast, and Muslims can understand this.  If we attempt to focus on tensions between Christ and Mohammed it is we who are clouding the glory that belongs to Christ, for this will drive Muslims away from the gift God offers.  Our job is not to contrast the two and argue that Jesus is a better prophet than Mohammed.  It is sufficient to simply deal with their unique claims.  It was only Jesus who said, “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me will live, even though he dies” (Jn 11:25).

  • The statement in the book review “From a biblical vantage point, Allah does not exist,” will be considered in next month’s article.