The Root Cause of Terrorism: An Unholy Thought

This article examines the root cause, regardless of the religious or the political affiliation of the perpetrator.

Written and collected by Zia H Shah MD, Chief Editor of the Muslim Times

There is an often quoted saying, “Watch your thoughts; they become words. Watch your words; they become actions. Watch your actions; they become habits. Watch your habits; they become character. Watch your character; it becomes your destiny.” In this article I want to describe the thought that leads to terrorism. It is a thought that any human can have and is not specific to the Muslims. It is the thought of not holding the life of other humans as sacred. Are human lives sacred or not? Are they priceless or can we put a price tag on them? Are they dispensable for our political gains? Should we label some of them as collateral damage? Can some fundamentalists kill a few and go and meet their share of virgins in paradise? These are some of the questions that can identify the unholy thought that leads to terrorism.

Read the article with all the art work and presentation in the winter, 2010 volume of Muslim Sunrise.

Anyone who is interested in the references can read the rest of the article here:

What is terrorism?  ‘The systematic use of violence to create a general climate of fear in a population,’ Encyclopedia Britannica defines terrorism, ‘and thereby to bring about a particular political objective.’ It further adds, ‘Terrorism has been practiced by political organizations with both rightist and leftist objectives, by nationalistic and religious groups, by revolutionaries, and even by state institutions such as armies, intelligence services, and police.’  I would like to add an important aspect to this definition of terrorism, namely, of victimizing innocent bystanders for achieving ones political goals.

A recent terror attack in India demonstrated to the world once again that the Muslims do not have a monopoly on terrorism.  Scores of passengers of a Maharashtra-bound express train were killed on May 28, 2010 and 200 injured in a left wing Maoist attack which led to derailment of 13 coaches that were hit by a goods train coming from the opposite direction.  A Maoist party left two posters near the rail tracks clearly owning responsibility for the derailment of the train but later in a public announcement denied any involvement.[1]  One observation was, however, certain about the latest terror attack in India that the Muslims had nothing to do with it!

A terrorist from Norway: Anders-Behrin-Breivik

A terrorist from Norway: Anders-Behrin-Breivik

It seems terrorist acts are motivated by a belief in effectiveness of terrorism in delivering results for the cause whose righteousness terrorists believe in to the exclusion of nearly all else.  The problem lies in not holding human life sacred or worth more than the political cause that the terrorists are trying to achieve.  Amy Zelman, a writer and consultant on political violence, explains:

If you look at any group that is widely understood as a terrorist group, you will find these two elements are basic to their story.

Zionists who bombed British targets in 1930s mandate Palestine felt they must do so in order to create a Jewish state.

The IRA (Irish Republican Army) bombed English targets in the 1980s to make the point that they felt their land was colonized by British imperialists.

In the 1960s and 1970s, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine felt that armed attacks in Israel were a justifiable response to the usurpation of their land.

Osama bin Laden’s declaration of war on American interests in the 1990s stemmed from his belief that U.S. troops stationed in Saudi Arabia represented an abomination to the kind of Islamic state he believed should exist in the Arabian peninsula.

Uighur separatists in China today feel that Chinese religious repression (the Uighur Chinese are Muslims) justifies their terrorist tactics.[2]

The Holy Quran describes that the prohibition of murder is as old as the prophet Adam.[3] It defines the worth of each human life as priceless! It states that the Divine teaching to the Israelites was that the worth of each human life is as high as the whole of humanity.  It prescribes the same teaching for all the Muslims also in the words, “We prescribed for the children of Israel that whosoever killed a person — unless it be for killing a person or for creating disorder in the land — it shall be as if he had killed all mankind.”[4]  The Holy Prophet Muhammad, may peace be on him, linked the sanctity of human life to the human appreciation of sacredness; as he addressed a large, sobbing and spell bound crowd of pilgrims, at the time of his last pilgrim to the house of one God in Makkah.  He said, “Even as this month is sacred, this land inviolate, and this day holy, so has God made the lives, property and honor of every man sacred. To take any man’s life or his property, or attack his honor, is as unjust and wrong as to violate the sacredness of this day, this month, and this territory.” It is only through Divine law that we come to know the absolute worth of human life.  Dr.  Andrew Conway Ivy was appointed by the American Medical Association as its representative at the 1946 Nuremberg Medical Trial for Nazi doctors.  He wrote, “Only in a moral world, a world of responsibility, can man be free and live as a human being should. Men are truly equal and free only as creatures of God, because only as the children of God and only in the sight of God and ultimate moral law are men truly equal.”[5]  In the Nuremberg trial he struggled with the question that if man-made law is the sole source of basic human rights, why condemn the Nazi assault on Jews, Gypsies, Poles, and politi­cal enemies; and having been shaken by this perplexing trial he concluded:

“If God and the ultimate moral law are denied, there can be no absolute argument against slavery, against ‘might makes right’ and man’s greedy exploitation of man. If human beings have no absolute intrinsic value, no absolute intrinsic freedom of decision, no absolute liberty, no absolute duties, they possess only extrinsic value and may be used as chattels, slaves or serfs by those who have the intelligence and power.” [6]

Extending Ivy’s thesis further, if human life does not have an absolute worth then the possibility of terrorism opens up, depending on how much a group values her political cause.  That is the reason why humans have used terrorism for their political goals over the millennia. They have considered human life to be dispensable.  The history of terrorism is as old as history itself.  Encyclopedia Britannica states:

“Terror has been practiced by state and nonstate actors throughout history and throughout the world. The ancient Greek historian Xenophon (c. 431–c. 350 bc) wrote of the effectiveness of psychological warfare against enemy populations. Roman emperors such as Tiberius (reigned ad 14–37) and Caligula (reigned ad 37–41) used banishment, expropriation of property, and execution as means to discourage opposition to their rule.

The most commonly cited example of early terror, however, is the activity of the Jewish Zealots, often known as the Sicarii (Hebrew: “Daggers”), who engaged in frequent violent attacks on fellow Hebrews suspected of collusion with the Roman authorities. Likewise, the use of terror was openly advocated by Robespierre during the French Revolution, and the Spanish Inquisition used arbitrary arrest, torture, and execution to punish what it viewed as religious heresy. After the American Civil War (1861–65), defiant Southerners formed the Ku Klux Klan to intimidate supporters of Reconstruction (1865–77) and the newly freed former slaves.”[7]

The root cause of terrorism lies in not respecting human life.  It lies in not assigning an absolute worth to every human life and regarding its value as less important than ones political goal.  Any unexamined belief that condones violence can become a catalyst for terrorism.  Case in point, the belief of both the Sunni Muslims and the Christians in violent second coming of Jesus, may peace be on him.  A similar view is shared by the Sunni and Shiite Muslims regarding a bloody Mahdi.  Hadhrat Mirza Ghulam Ahmad the Founder of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community analyzes the situation in the case of Sunni Muslims:

“A very detrimental belief that is profoundly hurting the spirituality in Islam is that the Mullahs are awaiting a bloody Mahdi who will soon after his appearance submerge the world into violence and bloodshed. These are the signs that they subscribe for their imaginary Messiah also that as soon as he descends from the heaven that he will start killing the non-believers, and only those will be saved who will become Muslim. Men with such beliefs can never be sincere with others; even traveling alone with such believers is risky business, lest they should kill you thinking that you are a nonbeliever, while they are in total denial of their own disbelief! Always remember that to call these absurd ideas as root of Islam and attribute them to the Holy Quran is preposterous.”[8]

Almost every religion of the world recommends the Golden rule! What is the Golden rule? It can be expressed in different words but with the same message from different traditions in Table 1:


Hinduism One should not behave towards others in a way which is disagreeable to oneself. This is the essence of morality. All other activities are due to selfish desire.[9]
Egyptian Book of Dead He sought for others the good he desired for himself.
Law of Moses Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.
Grecian instruction Do not do to your neighbor that you would take ill from him.
Zoroaster, Persia Do as you would be done by.
Confucius, China What you would not wish done to yourself do not unto others.[10]
Buddhist instruction One should seek for others the happiness one desires for oneself.
Roman Law The law imprinted on the hearts of all men is to love the members of society as themselves.
Jesus Christ All things therefore whatsoever you would that men should do unto you, even so you do unto them; for this is the law of the prophets.[11]
The Holy Prophet Muhammad By God Who holds my life in His Hand, none of you can be a truly faithful Muslim, unless he liked for his brother what he liked for himself.[12]

None of us want to be innocent bystanders of a terrorist attack or collateral damage.  If we wish the same for others there cannot be any terrorism.

If any religion teaches hatred against any group or minority then we need to trade that religion for something better.  The Messiah of this era, the lead follower of the Prophet Muhammad, may peace be upon him, Mirza Ghulam Ahmad Qadiani wrote in his last book, the Message of Peace:

A religion which does not inculcate universal compassion is no religion at all. Similarly, a human being without the faculty of compassion is no human at all. Our God has never discriminated between one people and another. This is illustrated by the fact that all the potentials and capabilities which have been granted to the Aryans have also been granted to the races inhabiting Arabia, Persia, Syria, China, Japan, Europe and America. The earth created by God provides a common floor for all people alike, and His sun and moon and many stars are a source of radiance and provide many other benefits to all alike. Likewise, all peoples benefit from the elements created by Him, such as air, water, fire and earth, and similarly from other products created by Him like grain, fruit, and healing agents, etc. These attributes of God teach us the lesson that we, too, should behave magnanimously and kindly towards our fellow human beings and should not be petty of heart and illiberal.[13]


When a Muslim does not check his thoughts against the touchstone of the Quranic verse, ‘We have sent thee (Muhammad) not but as a mercy for all peoples,’[14] he is vulnerable to fall victim to the unholy thought that may lead to terrorism.  Likewise, when a Jew does not check his thought or plan against the teaching, ‘Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself,’ when a Christian does not evaluate his thought with the litmus test, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself,’[15] when an agnostic or atheist does not evaluate his thoughts and plans against the 30 articles of Universal Declaration of Human Rights, he or she may be slipping on the slippery slope that can lead to pillage, war, terrorism and mayhem.  In the final analysis, do as you would be done by!


[3] Al Quran 5:28-32.

[4] Al Quran 5:33.

[5] The Evidence of God in an Expanding Universe. Edited by John Clover Monsma.  GP Putnam’s sons, New Yrok, published in 1958.  Page 240.

[6] The Evidence of God in an Expanding Universe. Edited by John Clover Monsma.  GP Putnam’s sons, New Yrok, published in 1958.  Page 240.

[7] “terrorism.” Encyclopædia Britannica. 2010. Encyclopædia Britannica Online. 01 May. 2010.

[8] Ishtihariat in Roohani Khazain volume 8 pages 403-404

[9] Mahabharata, Anusasana Parva 113.8

[10] Confucianism. Analects 15.23.

[11] Matthew 7 v12. & Luke 6 v31.

[14] Al Quran 21:108.

[15] Matthew 22:39.

Read this article on page 14 of the PDF file: The Muslim Sunrise 2010 winter volume

26 replies

  1. Terrorism is terrorism and had nothing to do with religion. Some of us lived through the IRA terror of the 1970s but didn’t ask for the Catholic religion to be banished. The KKK, the Spanish Inquisition, all have religion at their heart. Have you forgotten about the crusaders? Who murdered people in large numbers on a daily basis for being unchristian or anyone that they do not approve of.

    The British establishment is wrong in thinking that Imams are to blame for extremism. Imams are not solution to the problem for extremism. Extremism is nothing to do with Imams. Extremism is not created from abroad, it is coming from within. Britain fails to help Muslim communities feel part of British society. Race trouble is being predicted by the Daily Express, because of an ethnic boom in UK major cities. Muslim communities need imams for the solutions of their needs and demands in their own native languages. Muslim parents would like to see their children well versed in Standard English and to go for higher studies and research to serve humanity. The fact is that majority of Muslim children leave schools with low grades because monolingual teachers are not capable to teach Standard English to bilingual Muslim children. A Muslim is a citizen of this tiny global village. He/she does not want to become notoriously monolingual Brit.

    Dropping bombs from 30 000 ft. on populations was always going to have repercussions eventually! The US police murders more innocent people every year than the Isis in Europe. Much more people murdered in the US by legal firearms than in Europe. Stop the mindless paranoia and focus on real issues. Imams and Masajid are not responsible for radicalisation. Leave them alone, get out of their countries, stop meddling into their political affairs, stop supporting their enemies, stop sucking up their resources, and they will stop retaliating. Simple really.
    The dehumanisation of every other culture except our own has to stop humanity has learnt nothing. It is one planet and we are one people. Peace and love to you. If Muslims were ‘slaughtering’ each other ‘on a massive scale for a millennia’ wouldn’t Islam be extinct by now? Instead it’s the fastest growing religion.

    Before they come to Europe they thought they are moving to a civilised tolerant countries. When they come here they find that the so called civilised do not respect and tolerate those who are different. They face discrimination in every walk of life. A tiny minority of them becomes extremists. Do not blame all refugees and immigrants. 99.9% are law abiding people and working for the prosperity of Europe.

    7/7 bombers and all British Jihadis who are in Iraq and Syria are the product of British schooling. None of them were educated in a Muslim school. There will never be an end to extremism as long as Muslim children keep on attending your sinks schools with non-Muslim teachers. Muslim children need state funded Muslim schools with Muslim teachers as role models during their developmental periods. There is no place for non-Muslim child or a teacher in a Muslim school.

    I am a Muslim from Pakistan, living in London since 1967 with my four children and 13 grand children. I just want to tell the German people that you have my prayers, love, solidarity and support. You are wonderfully generous people who did not deserve to go through such trauma AT ALL.
    And to all the people hating on Muslims.. Can I just remind you that in THIS month alone terrorist attacks have hit Pakistan, Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Somalia, Nigeria, Libya, Egypt, Malaysia, Turkey, Afghanistan, Yemen, Jordan, Bangladesh and West Bank: ALL Muslim countries. But you probably didn’t hear about them because the media tries to hide the fact that Muslims are the BIGGEST victims of ‘Islamic’ terrorism.
    Have you read the Wikileaks and the war crimes by USA and the west. They are not leaks by Muslims. In that it suggest war crimes by the USA and its allies. Now imagine if west didn’t kill millions of people for oil it’s not a secret anymore they have even apologised for Iraq. Funding isis in Syria, Gitmo, Palestine, by killing millions of innocent people don’t you think some will seek revenge? I don’t condone terrorism but I can see why they do it
    Please know that we are in the fight against terror, together.

    – Peace, love and blessings be upon you all.

  2. As far as religiously-motivated terrorism is concerned, I think that a frequent cause is the belief by individuals that their particular denomination, faith group or tradition within their religion has the fullness of truth, and that all of the other faith groups in all the other religions are in error. If people could realize that this belief is statistically very improbable then they might doubt that their group, alone, has the truth. I suspect that such doubt would lower the desire to terrorize,

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