Understanding Jihad Part One: The Heart of a Jihadist

Names have been changed for security purposes


One evening we gathered in our North African home drinking hot tea from colorful glasses. A friend was visiting from Europe, and we were eager to hear his news.

His face was lined with concern as he told us the story of Youssef. Youssef had just graduated from university and was returning to his home country in the Middle East. He had arrived in Europe eager to promote Islam and gain a western education. It was at university he first encountered sincere disciples of Jesus who were willing to share their beliefs and friendship with him. As his relationships with them grew, so did his curiosity about the Messiah. Youssef eventually gave his life to Christ and exchanged his radical views of fundamental Islam for the meekness of a risen Savior.

Now it was time for Youssef to move on. He was leaving Europe with a new education, but more importantly, a new purpose in life. Determined to share Christ with his family and friends, he had decided to return home. This concerned his Christian brothers and sisters greatly. Youssef’s father was a high-ranking political figure in his home country. As a child, Youssef had been invited to observe quietly as his father held important meetings in their home with men like Osama bin Laden.

Youssef’s Christian friends implored him not to go back and suggested other ways he might effectively share the Gospel. The risk was high, and they worried for his life.

Youssef looked at them squarely in the eye and said, “As a young boy, my mother sat me on her knee and stroked my hair as she whispered, ‘My son, one day you will strap a bomb to yourself and become a glorious hero for Allah.’ Since I was a child, I have been prepared to die for God. But now, I know the God I am dying for. His name is Jesus, and He died for me. You must release me to go.”

We sat astonished at this story. The only response was to rise from our comfortable couches and drop to our knees in prayer. We prayed for Youssef that night, and many nights after. The last we heard, he was still alive.

Youssef teaches all of us an important lesson about the heart of a jihadist. Jihadists are devoted to god as they know him. They are willing to make the ultimate sacrifice for him. However, like a cruel hoax, they themselves are victims of destruction along with the lives they take in their zealous acts of terror. The glory they seek dies with them. Jihadists do not know the true, living God who loves them and gave His own life for them.

There is a tremendous cultural shift happening among Muslims today. With the accessibility of the Internet, modern Muslims can study and examine the Quran and Hadith at the touch of a button. This broad access to information once difficult to find is causing Muslims to rethink Islam. They are faced with the foundations of Islam, which are dripping with violence. Nabeel Qureshi, in his book Answering Jihad, suggests this influx of available information about early Islam brings Muslims to a three-pronged crossroads: apostasy, apathy, or radicalization. According to this theory, they must choose apostasy, which is the renunciation of belief, apathy, which is a lack of concern, or radicalization, which is an adoption of the most radical positions of Islam.

Radicalization happens in various ways. Some are led to it as they closely examine the Quran and Hadith. Some are drawn to the power and belonging it promises.

Others, like Youssef in the story above, are taught and prepared for radicalization from an early age. This creates a blind devotion devoid of the logic, reason, and intellectual examination that most Westerners consider basic to the process of committing one’s life to any epic cause.

Jihad also springs from an attempt to bridge the massive gulf between man and god. Allah is a high, mighty, truly unknown god, void of personal relationship. In one sense, jihad is an attempt to draw near to god and gain his approval and acceptance.

All of this points us to the heart of a jihadist, to an essential need he shares with mankind. The human heart was made by God to know God. And it will seek Him by any means. It essentially needs God.

We can begin to understand jihad by remembering this basic human compulsion to reach God. While we condemn the death and destruction committed in the name of Islam, we can pray for those who are on the blind path to radicalization. We can ask God to open their eyes to the One who gave His life for them that they might never be separated from Him again.

Join us for Part Two when we examine Understanding Jihad: The Creed Behind the Cruelty .