John Esposito: Apologist of Islam or Messenger of Islamic Da'wah?

John Esposito is a professor at Georgetown University and the head of the "Prince Alwaleed Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding."  He is considered one of the foremost apologists of radical Islam in American academia.  The term "apologist" means one who denies events and activities of a group or who uses selective perceptions and cognitive biases to whitewash reality.  However, it is more fitting to view Esposito as a Da'i, or an Islamic propagator who uses Da'wah, the propagation of deceit.

From the very beginning, Islam has been spread by two arms: the violent jihad and the political Da'wah (16:125)i.  Da'wah serves as a diplomatic means of religious legitimization through which to invite all human beings to accept Islam as the only supreme and perfect religion (5:3; 9:33). According to Da'wah, which preaches the message of Allah's infinite wisdom (6:38), it is in humanity's best interest to submit to Islam (7:158; 21:107).  Since Islam is perfect, no one may doubt it, use logic to determine its validity, or judge it by human conceptions (4:115; 5:72-3; 10:69-70; 29:68; 36:64-5).  Any of these transgressions constitutes heresy and warrants the death penalty.

Today, Da'wah has become diplomacy of deceit to mislead the ignorant infidels.  John Esposito, as a Christian professor at a prestigious university, is well-placed to promote Islam by Da'wah. Lately, Esposito has taken to blaming the United States for and exaggerating the indigenous local populations' role in the crisis in the Middle East. In an extreme leftist publication, Esposito deplores the U.S. while praising the Muslim Brotherhood as an apt practitioner of democracy.  In fact, the professor believes that the uprisings have revealed a broad-based, pro-democracy movement not driven by religious extremists and therefore deserving of the U.S.'s support.

These claims are in standing with Esposito's general views and attitudes.  By quoting from his book, What Everybody Needs to Know about Islam (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002), we can best understand how he uses the Islamic Da'wah to promote Muslim interests in the West.

First, as to Islam's hostility to other religions, Esposito claims the following (70-73):

Theologically and historically, Islam has a long record of tolerance. Muslims did not try to impose their religion on others or force them to convert[.] ... Muhammad granted freedom of religious thought and practice to the Jews and Christians, setting a precedent for peaceful and cooperative interreligious relations[.] ... Muslims mainstream and extremist, conservative and progressive, struggle to balance the affirmation of the truths of their faith with the cultivation of a pluralism and tolerance rooted in mutual respect and understanding. 

All that remains, then, is to tell this story to the original peoples of the Middle East and North Africa, who were forcibly conquered, Arabized, and Islamizedii.  Consider also the peoples of the Balkans and Eastern Europe who were conquered and enslavediii, the tens of millions of Africans who were likewise subjugated and exterminatediv, and the 80 million eliminated Buddhists in Asiav. As for our own generation, Esposito should enlighten the Armeniansvi, not to mention the Christians in Greece, Iraq (Assyrians), Lebanon, Egypt, and especially Southern Sudan.  But perhaps the most eager recipients of this information would be the 10-12 million Muslims massacred in the last 80 years by other Muslims.

On Muslim persecution of Christians in Muslim countries, Esposito states (76-79):

Muslim-Christian relations have deteriorated[.]... from the Crusades and European colonialism to contemporary politics. Indigenous Christians were favored by and benefited from the colonial rule. The product of European missionaries that converted local Muslims[.]... [T]he creation of the state of Israel has contributed to the deterioration of relations and the Christian fundamentalists like Robertson, Graham and Falwell have been the source of intolerance, persecution, violence and terrorism.  

So Christians have brought harmful Islamic behavior upon themselves.  As for the genocide in Sudan, Esposito's reaction is that there is no problem, since "actually the majority of the South is animist and the struggle has been political and economic as much as religious."  The Sudanese victims are animists, not Christians, so there is no problem here.

As to whether Jews and Christians have always been enemies of Islam, Esposito has this to say (79-86):

[T]he Jewish population was granted the right to internal religious and cultural autonomy in exchange for their political loyalty and allegiance to the Muslims. The Jews backed Muhammad's Meccan rivals, judged as traitors for the support of his enemies[.] ... [O]ther Jews became Dhimmis and thrived under the protection of Islam[.] ... [T]he establishment of the State of Israel was a turning point in relations between Muslims and Jews, and severely strained their relations in Muslim countries[.] ... [T]he Muslim conquerors proved to be far more tolerant than Imperial Christianity had been, granting religious freedoms to the indigenous Christian Churches. Pluralism is the essence of Islam as revealed in the Qur'an and practiced by Muhammad and the early caliphs[.] 

The historical facts stand in stark contrast to Esposito's analysis.  Muhammad massacred the Jews of Arabia immediately after his military successesvii.  At Haybar, the Meccans flouted the Hudaybiyah agreement, massacred the Jews, and took the fertile lands left behind by the dead -- all without any provocation whatsoever.  After the Jews were massacred in Arabia, it was Muhammad's commandment that Jews are not allowed to live any longer in Arabia, viii a commandment which was strictly fulfilled till our days. Christians, for their part, are now all but an extinct species in the Middle East.ix

However, among Esposito's greatest hits is his declaration that "[t]he Ottoman Empire is a prime example of the positive treatment of religious minorities in a Muslim-majority context."  Well, perhaps there were two Ottoman Empires, with one clearly coming from Esposito's imagination.  The original Ottoman Empire has a different history: abusing minorities in the Balkans and Eastern Europe; kidnapping almost a million children and converting them to Islam (devshirme system); bringing millions of slaves and concubines from Eastern Europe, mainly Ukraine and Hungary (Serge Trifkovic, Islam's Wretched Record on Slavery); and massacring Christians, as in the Armenian holocaust and the Greek extermination (to mention only two examples)x.

Furthermore, Esposito is at his best while analyzing "violence and terrorism" (117-138):

Jihad is struggling against the evil in oneself and to be virtuous and moral. It also includes the right, indeed the obligation, to defend Islam and the community from aggression. Western governments are propping up oppressive regimes and exploiting the region's human and natural resources, robbing Muslims of their culture and to live in a more just society. This is the reason for the use of Jihad. The Qur'an does not advocate or condone terrorism. Muslims are merciful and just. Islam does permit Muslims only to defend themselves and their families, religion and community from aggression.

To prove his point, Esposito quotes from the Qur'an -- 22:39-40; 48:17; 9:91; 2:192; 47:4; 8:61; 4:90.  However, there is only one problem: all of the quoted verses have different meanings and objectives.  Qur'an 22:39-40 was revealed in year 624, while Muhammad was weak and plundering the caravans of Mecca.  However, the tides had turned by 626, when Muhammad was waging aggressive wars against his enemies to conquer Arabia and convert the Arabs to Islam.  Qur'an 48:17 and 9:91 have nothing to do with peace with the unbelievers -- on the contrary, these verses permit believers not to go to war.  

Qur'an 2:192 is connected to 2:190-191, and the two together call upon Muslims to fight unbelievers whenever they are found.  Only if the unbelievers desist (i.e., submit to Islam) is Allah forgiving and kind.

As for Qur'an 47:4, one can only be amazed by Esposito's distortion, as 47:4 is one of the most horrible verses: "when you clash with the unbelievers smite their necks until you overpower them, then hold [those who submit] in bondage. Then either free them graciously or, after taking a ransom, until war shall come to an end [there will be no more unbelievers, or they will submit to Islamic rule]."  

Qur'an 8:61 is the same, for it is tightly connected to verses 8:59-60. The command is to strike terror in the hearts of Allah's enemies and fight them ceaselessly. Only then comes 8:61: "if they are inclined to peace [after submitting to Islam], make peace with them."  

Qur'an 4:90 is connected and conditional to 4:89, which commands the Muslims to "seize the unbelievers wherever they are and do away with them." This establishes the context for 4:90: "accept those who take refuge ... or those who weary of fighting you or their people, come over to you[.]"

It is for Westerners to evaluate how Esposito distorts the Qur'an to suit his political views.  But Esposito's propaganda reaches its highest level when he deals with Qur'an 9:5 and 9:29.  He declares:

[I]n fact however, the full intent of "When the sacred months have passed, slay the idolaters whenever you find them" is missed or distorted when quoted in isolation. For it is followed and qualified by "but if they repent and fulfill their devotional obligation and pay the Zakat, then let them go their way, for God is forgiving and kind" (9:5). The same is true for another quoted verse (9:29), which is often cited without the line that follows: "until they pay the tax with willing submission, and feel themselves subdued."

Let's analyze this. Qur'an 9:5 has presents a grim choice: convert to Islam ("but if they repent and fulfill their devotional obligation and pay the Zakat, then let them go their way") or be massacred.  The clause thus becomes rather coercive.  Qur'an 9:29 speaks of submission to Islamic rule via a humiliating tax. Can we assume that Esposito considers all this peaceful and tolerant Islam?

For Esposito's sake, here is an up-to-date list of Qur'anic commandments. Fighting is demanded of the believers (2:216) -- it is jihad in the cause of Allah (2:191; 2:193; 2:244; 8:39; 9:5; 9:73; 47:4; 66:9) against the powers of Satan (4:76), the unbelievers, the hypocrites (9:5; 9:73; 66:9), and the People of the Book (9:29).  The order for the believers is to smite their opponents' necks (47:4; 8:12) and strike terror in their hearts (3:151; 8: 12; 8:60) for the sake of the hereafter (4:74).  (These opponents include the People of the Book [59:2]).  For this, the Mujahid will earn paradise (3:195; 9:72; 13:22-23; 47:4-6), where they will be rewarded with black-eyed virgins (44:51-54; 52:17-20; 56:22-24).  Above all, the believers earn the assurance that they are indeed not dead, but instead staying and living beside Allah (2:154; 3:169-171).

A concise summary of Esposito's views concerning his book, Unholy War: Terror in the Name of Islam, can be found in his May 7, 2002 interview with Joanne Myers.  Israel and the U.S. are responsible for all ills in the Middle East: if only the U.S. would withdraw from the Middle East and Israel would disappear, then there would be no problem with radical Islam.  In response to the question concerning Islamic terrorism and jihad around the world, Esposito speaks simply: "Jihad means to be a good Muslim. It means to strive, the effort that it takes to be virtuous, to be a good believer. Jihad also means that in being a good Muslim you have the right and, indeed, the obligation to defend Islam and yourself if you are under siege, the struggle against an unjust government. This is a 'just war.'"  (See also here.)

According to Esposito, Islamic terrorism is not a problem, and instead of dealing with the real issues, Washington bothers itself with nonsense.  Worse, Esposito blames the U.S. for all the evils regarding the Middle East: the rise of Islamic radicalism in the West; the lack of self-determination, democratization, and human rights in the Middle East; the oppression by Arab and Islamic regimes of radical Islamic democratic opposition; and the worsening situation in the Arab and Islamic lands in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks.

John Esposito is happy to hold and express these opinions.  For his part, he believes that he "represents an alternative school of thought within American academia -- what America is truly about, free speech, open dialogue, and a multiplicity of views."  One can only hope that Esposito's opponents similarly capitalize on America's free speech to set the story straight.

David Bukay, Ph.D. is  at the School of Political Science, the University of Haifa.


i Muhammad Ibn Isma`il, al-Bukhari, Saheeh al-Bukhari, Lahore: Kazi, 1979, vol. 2 nos. 291-301. Ibn al-Hajjaj Muslim, Saheeh Muslim, Cairo: Dar al-Kitab al-Misri, n.d, Book 019, no. 4294.

ii Reuven Firestone. Jihad-The Origin of Holy War in Islam, Oxford University Press, 1999.

iii Paul Fregosi, Jihad in the West: Muslim Conquests from the 7th to the 21st Centuries.

iv Peter Hammond,  Slavery, Terrorism and Islam: The Historical Roots and Contemporary Threat

Ali Muhammad Khan, Islamic Jihad: a Forced Conversion, Imperialism and Slavery. New York: Universe, 2009. Sita Ram Goel, The Story of Islamic Imperialism in India, New Delhi: Voice of India, 1994.

vi Vahakn Dadrian, The Key Elements in the Turkish Denial of the Armenian Genocide: A Case Study of Distortion and Falsification, Cambridge, MA, 1999. Vahakn Dadrian, The History of the Armenian Genocide. Providence: Bergahn Books, 1997.

vii Elias al-Maqdisi and Sam Solomon, al-Yahud: Eternal Islamic Enmity and the Jews. Charlottesville,Va., ANM Publishers, 2010. 

viii Sahih Bukhari, vol. 5, book 59, nos, 362, 392; Sahih Muslim, vol. 10, no. 3763.

ix Andrew Bostom, The Legacy of Jihad: Islamic Holy War and the Fate of the Non-Muslims. Amherst, N.Y.: Prometheus Books 2005.

x Bat Ye'or, The Dhimmi: Jews and Christians Under Islam, Cranbury, NJ: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1985. Speros Vryonis, The Decline of Medieval Hellenism in Asia Minor. Berkeley: California University Press, 1971. Ehud Toledano, The Ottoman Slave Trade and Its Suppression, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1982.
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