Is Islam a Religion of Peace?

Course: Essentials of Islam

Lecture: Is Islam a Religion of Peace?


At this point I think it would be helpful for us to begin to address some of the more, shall we say, existential questions that many of us face when we think about Islam today, especially raising the question, “Is Islam a religion of peace?”

There has been a wide range of discussions and public statements made by our own president and others who have made the statement that “Islam is a religion of peace.” We need to explore this statement and find out if in fact, the statement is true.

I was recently in a debate or dialogue with a number of Muslim leaders – this was after September 11th – where this statement came up, that Islam is a religion of peace. I asked the Muslim, I said, “Please clarify for me what is meant. I’m not trying to deny it, I just want to know what is meant by the statement, ‘Islam is peace.’ Is this an exegetical statement? Is it something that is derived from the Qur’an? If you do a thorough exegesis of the Qur’an, you will determine that the Qur’an teaches that Islam is a religion of peace? Is it perhaps an historical statement? Are you saying that Islam is a peaceful religion? If you look at history through the annals of Muslim history, is it mainly marked out by peaceful expansion and peaceful propagation, peaceful relationship with enemies or opponents? What is meant by this statement, ‘Islam is a religion of peace?” The person did not have an answer for it. They just simply said, “Islam is peace.” They weren’t prepared to defend it exegetically or historically.

The reason for this is because it is a very difficult thing to sort out. I think in many ways, I would say that the phrase, “Islam is a religion of peace” is basically a sentimental/political statement being made in the aftermath of September 11th in order to accomplish a few things.

President Bush and other leaders wanted to reinforce the idea that all Muslims are not members of Al Qaeda and bent on terrorism and that therefore we should not paint all Muslims with a single stroke. That, of course, is true. We have already seen in so many lectures how diverse the Muslim community is. It is also given because they want to be careful that, in the process of American anger against Islam because of the 9/11 attack, that Americans don’t repeat some of the animosity that was given toward Japanese Americans during World War II. Many Japanese Americans were targeted just because of their Japanese ancestry. Therefore, horrible crimes were committed and a lot of later apologies had to be issued in order to rectify the situation. I think that President Bush wanted to avoid not only the perception of Islam as being a single blanket, but also trying to keep any random acts of violence from being advocated by fringe groups that might advocate taking action against the average Muslim, even a Muslim American.

I think we have to realize the political realities which effected some of the statements that were made. President Bush was trying to gain allies in Pakistan, which is a vastly Islamic state, trying to gain allies with Saudi Arabia, Egypt and other places which are obviously producers of this fundamentalism. Therefore, he went overboard to emphasize the good qualities of Islam.

Our purpose in this lecture is not interest in why someone would politically or even sentimentally, just to give people a sense of wellbeing, make these types of statements. We want to explore this more carefully through a purely objective point of view, quite apart from September 11th, and simply ask the question, “Is Islam a religion of peace and does it advocate at its root, peaceful propagations?”

I. Two Contradictory Principles

A. Da’wah

Let’s look at this. There are two, I would say, tension principles in the Qur’an which are wide. People, when they quote the Qur’an about peace, can easily quote things that make it sound like Islam is a religion of peace. These two principles are known as the da’wah and the jihad.

Many of you have heard the term “jihad.” We will explore that more later. You may not have heard the term “da’wah.” Da’wah I referred to actually in an earlier lecture and refers to “the call.” This is what I said was the Muslim equivalent to the great commission. In this passage Allah commands, all Muslims, quoting from the Qur’an: “Call men to the path of your lord with wisdom and kindly exhortation.” This is surah 16:125. This underscores the necessity of exhorting people to come into the House of Islam, but to do it with kindness. There is another very famous passage which is very often quoted, in the 2nd chapter of the Qur’an, surah 2: iah 256. This is probably the most often quoted passage in the Qur’an when this discussion comes up about Islam being a religion of peace. That verse says: “There shall be no compulsion in religion.” I’ll even quote one scholar who comments on this verse, Abdullah Yusaf Arani, who says, “Compulsion is incompatible with the Islamic religion, for religion depends upon faith and will and these would be meaningless if induced by force.” There is no doubt that if this was the voice of the Qur’an, it would be very similar to the Christian position, because we also believe that religion and faith in Christ cannot be induced by force.

B. Jihad

The problem with this is that the so-called “call,” the da’wah, the peaceful call, “Come unto me” is only one part of the story. The other part of the story is that the Qur’an also contains numerous jihad passages which clearly seem to embrace a very different attitude toward unbelievers. For example, let me read for you surah chapter 8:38 and 39. “Tell unbelievers that if they mend their ways, their past sins shall be forgiven. But if they persist in sin, let them reflect on the fate of their forefathers. Make war on them until idolatry is no more and Allah’s religion reigns supreme.” This calls on Muslims to actually make war on their enemies because the enemies represent idolatry. Another passage in surah 47, verse 4, Muhammad gives them instructions about what to do when you meet unbelievers: “When you meet the unbelievers on the battlefield, strike off their heads; and when you have laid them low, bind your captive firmly.” Allah declares in another passage: “When the sacred months are over (that refers to months like the month of Ramadan or the month of a pilgrimage, when they can now re-engage in warfare), slay the idolaters wherever you find them. Arrest them, besiege them and lie in ambush everywhere for them. If they repent and take to prayer and pay the alms tax, let them go their way. Allah is forgiving and merciful.”

II. Reconciliation of Da’wah and Jihad

What we are trying to recognize here, for someone who is first trying to understand the concept of violence in the Qur’an or peacefulness in the Qur’an, is that the Qur’an actually embraces two ideals. It embraces the concept of peace and peaceful propagation of Islam; but is also embraces warfare and very vigorous, violent attacks on unbelievers and idolators.

What has happened in the Muslim community over the years, again quite apart from the current challenges with the Muslim community, throughout history these passages have been reconciled by Muslim scholars in several ways, the most important of which is that Muslims have acknowledged that the Qur’an seems to contradict itself because you are on one hand saying there is no compulsion to religion. On the other hand, you have Muslims with a sword on someone’s throat, saying “Repent, pay the alms tax, or die.”

The way this is reconciled, the most dominant way, is by saying there is a sequence of events which must take place. The first stage is that Muslims must give people the peaceful opportunity to repent and believe in the Islamic message. That is the da’wah. The da’wah, in other words, precedes the jihad. If, in fact, the da’wah is rejected and people do not respond in repentance and faith, then they have the opportunity or the responsibility to lie low, kill, and announce jihad against other unbelievers who have refused to come into the House of Islam. That seems to me to be essentially what the Qur’an teaches, that there is to be an initial peaceful issuance, followed by, if that is resisted, a more violent response.

From our point of view therefore, the Qur’an does give textual support for violent acts. It is very easy to say, “This person has already been given the opportunity to respond, therefore we must respond more forcefully and even militarily.” This would come as a very critical development because the American community is considered to be unbelievers, kafirs, who have rejected the message. Remember the anthropology discussed before. If you are the people of the book, you are supposed to be given protective status. Considering that most Americans, or many Americans at least, are Christians, then technically American Christians and Jews at least, should be given protective status. The other category is the Muslims, of course, and there are five million Muslims in America, who should be granted, of course, protective status and there are unfortunately many Muslims who are killed, even in the twin towers.

There are those who are ignorant of Islam and those are the ones who are the recipients of the da’wah, the peaceful call. But the kafirs are those who already heard and rejected it; and this is what Bin Laden and others have referred to Americans as, “kafirs.” The peaceful propagation passages simply do not apply to us. I think the more probable grounds would be to say that Christians and Jews should not be targeted because they were granted protective status by Muhammad himself. At this point the Western world is simply painted with one stroke as infidels, or people who have rejected the message, what they call “kafir.” This is essentially the problem we are facing.

III. Historical Analysis

Let’s move from the textual discussion and say a few things about historically what has actually happened because this makes the whole development more interesting. Historically there is no question if you look at the way Islam has spread into Africa, for example. Islam spread in a way that could be regarded as very forceful and militaristic in its early phases. For example, the Berbers of North African hills and plains were essentially given an ultimatum: Repent, pay the alms tax, or we will put you to death. This was happening to a population that was largely oppressed by the Byzantine empire and was actually quite happy to convert to Islam. Gradually what happened was, the Berbers, even though they were forced to become Muslims, gradually began to embrace Islam. This took at least four hundred years; but eventually they began to make their way across the Sahara Desert on camels and began to bring the message of Islam to the sub Saharan tribes. These are black peoples of sub Saharan Africa. The Berber caravan routes placed sub Saharan Africa in permanent contact with Mediterranean civilization, which was largely at this point Islamic. Don’t forget, at this point in history the Muslims had completely cut off all the shipping lanes in the Mediterranean. They controlled the Mediterranean culture and society. I would say that a lot of this expansion was done through peaceful means.

Then you have a number of examples where even in sub Saharan Africa, major military campaigns were launched to bring an entire tribe into Islam and there was terrible bloodshed and terrible pain and suffering of numerous people. But again, even there, sometimes; for example, the famous Saunake Jihad which slaughtered thousands of Saunake, but they eventually accepted Islam. Wthin one generation the Saunake themselves were peacefully propagating Islam among other people groups in sub Saharan Africa. I would say that the relationship historically between the peaceful da’wah, the call, that it is a no compulsion region; and the jihad, a more forceful kind of approach, has gone back and forth throughout Muslim history.

Christians are often chided whenever we talk about the bloody history of Islamic battles, etc., but isn’t this about what you find in the Christian crusades? You will recall that in the Middle Ages there was a widespread desire to win back The Holy Land. There were seven different campaigns that were launched in the eleventh and twelfth centuries which sought to bring the major pilgrimage points in The Holy Land, particularly the traditional place of Christ’s tomb and in Bethlehem, the place of His birth and other important sites that were thought to be very important, to bring them back into the Christian fold. This, by the way, is the first what I call the “Y1K” crisis. Remember all of the excitement and all of the concerns that surrounded Y2K when the world turned the year 2000. Actually, the Y1K was far more dramatic and far more exciting for the people that were living at that time because people were really, really sure that Christ would come back at the year 1000. When Christ did not come back after 1000, there were a lot of discussions about why Christ did not come back. Some said, “Well, it is because it is a thousand years after his death, and so they waited until 1033. That again passed and they said, “Maybe it is after the destruction of the temple in 70 A.D.” and they related it to 1070. Finally, after 1070 passed, they determined that the reason Christ did not come back was because, “How can Christ set foot on the Mount of Olives when this is controlled by Muslims? We must win the Holy Land back to Christianity.”

The first crusade occurred in 1095. I think that the crusades are largely the result of millennial fever, which advocated the necessity of winning back The Holy Land so that Christ could return. Christians have our own story about crusades. The question is whether or not the crusades and the Muslim expansion among the Berbers and others in Africa and other places, essentially cancel one another out. We could say, “Christianity has a bloody past, Islam has a bloody past. Both of us have propagated evil on unbelieving people. Therefore, let’s just strike that and no longer bring that up, each community.”

But I think there is a fundamental difference in the crusades and the propagation of Muslims among unbelieving peoples in Africa and other places. When the West launched the crusades, there was no question it was sponsored by Christian leadership. This was called for by the pope, etc. But the pope, if I may be so bold, was wrong. That is, the pope was not true to the Gospel. In other words, the crusades were Christianity acting in disobedience to itself. That is to say, Christianity was acting, but it was acting against the explicit ethic of Jesus, which clearly is that we are to turn the other cheek. We are not to resort to violent means to subdue people to the faith of the Gospel. The Gospel is clearly propagated apart from forceful means.

In contrast, the Muslim propagation I admit is full of both peaceful and military type stories, full of bloody events as well as very peaceful, inspiring events. But I think it is fair to say that both of these, the peaceful and military and more violent means, are actually a part of Islam being true to itself. That is, the Qur’an does say this is allowed. Therefore, no-one can come back later and say, “We are sorry, we were not being true to the Qur’an.” Today the Pope has publicly apologized. In fact, it was John Paul II who actually did this, who publicly apologized and said that the crusades were wrong and were not part of the Christian faith and that this was Christianity in disobedience to itself.

The Muslims have never apologized for any of their military actions because it was Islam being true to itself; that is, true to its original text. Therefore, I think there is a plausible difference between the so-called records, even though in many ways the story line is similar. It is important to talk about whether a movement is true to the movement and the ideal of the movement, and whether it is not. In this case, there is a huge divergence. I think that textually we can see that Islam has violence imbedded in its text, which is not present in Christianity; and that historically Islam is operating in a way that is consistent with Islam; whereas, Christianity was in disobedience to itself.

There are some real, fundamental differences which make me wonder whether or not it is appropriate to say Islam is a religion of peace. My own thinking is that if someone makes that statement and says “Islam is a religion of peace,” I am not opposed to Islam; but in the same breath, we also say, “Islam is a religion of violence” because Islam is actually both. It is a religion which abrogates peace, it would not be proper to deny that. But, it is also a religion which has advocated violence.

IV. Modern Period

Given that reality, we come to the modern period with a few additional points. First of all, in reference to modern day Muslim scholars, there has been an attempt to go back into the Qur’an and re-interpret these jihad passages and make them something entirely different; because of course many Muslim scholars today are moderate Muslims, especially with the horrors of September 11th. They are so embarrassed by what has happened that they have decided that it is very important to go back and re-examine these texts. What they have done is to say that these passages about warfare and slaying your enemy and all of this are essentially about internal jihad, the jihad of the heart, slaying sin in your heart, slaying evil thoughts in your mind. This should not be applied to unbelievers. This is a spiritualization of the jihad principle.

This is important because historically what happened is that most of the jihads that have occurred in Muslim history were actually not against unbelieving people. They were mainly against other Muslims. This is as movements grew up, they perceived that other previously converted Muslims had become lax, had become worldly, had become less dedicated; and they would launch a jihad against other Muslims. This is important because even today this is what is happening in the language and rhetoric of Osama Bin Laden. He repeatedly called for the overthrow of the Royal Family because they have defected in his view from the true Islam.

Because of this, there is a tendency to look back historically and say Jihad can apply to both believers and unbelievers, though there is no support in the Qur’an for this. But they simply say that this did happen in history. They go back to the Qur’an and try to re-interpret and shape these verses to apply spiritually to one’s heart, one’s life and saying basically that a good Muslim, if he or she is honest, would realize that there are unbelieving thoughts in their minds, there is wickedness, wicked armies in their hearts; and that this is the way that these texts should be interpreted today. They are ambiguous, allegorical kind of interpretations of these passages.

This is essentially what has to be thought through when you discuss the whole question of, “Is Islam a religion of peace?”

V. Martyrdom

One final thing we have not brought out on this lecture, but did in an earlier lecture, the whole idea and motive of martyrdom. Today the violence that we most associate Muslims with is not the kind of violence that we have been talking about in terms of a jihad, where they are trying to convert someone to Islam for social means; but actually, is a matter of simply attacking unbelievers because of their influence through the media, etc.

Bin Laden is upset because Americans have troops stationed in Saudi Arabia. He is upset because Western media and the movie industry has propagated immoral values around the Eastern world. In response to this, in reaction to this, you have these bombings and terrorist attacks against the West and of course, September 11th is the most dramatic example of this in modern times.

The problem in assessing this is that all of the cases in the September 11th attack and also in the conflict between Arabs and Jews and the Muslims and Jews on the West Bank against Israel proper, is caused by suicide bombers; or in the case of 9/11, suicide hijackers. The reason this is important is because the Qur’an does embrace the value of martyrdom. We quoted this earlier. The Qur’an does say that martyrdom is an ideal. If someone gives themself in the cause of Islam, they are doing a righteous thing and they will go to heaven.

However, in every case this martyrdom is what we call “an active martyrdom.” That is, if you are out fighting on a battlefield for the cause of Allah and in the process, somebody else kills you - that is, an infidel, an unbeliever attacks you and kills you - then of course you are a martyr, you will go to heaven. This does not automatically make the claim that someone is allowed to kill themselves for the cause of Allah, that is, a suicide attack. This is a step theologically that the hadith explicitly condemns. Suicide is condemned in the hadith. A suicide bomber seems to me to be inconsistent with Islamic thought. ThereforeI think that someone who flies a plane into the World Trade Tower, this is an active, not a passive martyrdom. Someone who is killed because of the action of another is a passive martyrdom. You didn’t invite it, you didn’t ask for it, it just happened to you.

I think there are serious theological questions that must be raised in the Muslim community. We would be remiss if we didn’t realize that this is a major debate within the Muslim community right now. There are many moderate Muslims who are trying to bring Islam to a more mediating position about violence and the role of violence in the Muslim community. On the other hand, there are others who are advocating that this is entirely appropriate and should be done.

In conclusion, I think that we should say that if someone asks, “Is Islam a religion of peace?” we have to answer, yes and no. We have to say that yes, there is a tradition in Islam which calls for peaceful propagation; but the Qur’an clearly, clearly articulates a clear vision of violence as one of the ways in which the Islamic message spreads. Therefore, Islam is a religion of peace and violence. You must say it that way to be accurate. Historically this same dichotomy has occurred. Islam historically has been advocated as a religion of peace as well as violence and has lived that out most of its propagation.

The 9/11 attacks have brought to the forefront a number of particular issues regarding the role of martyrdom and whether or not this kind of active martyrdom when you essentially commit suicide for the cause of Allah, is something that the Muslim community should embrace and should hold up as an ideal. There are many, many groups that believe this and many that do not; which is why the next lecture will begin to close this out with a special little feature on the rise of Islamic fundamentalism. It is a little lecture I give which is entitled “Why is Osama Bin Laden angry?” It tries to explain how Bin Laden has arisen and why he believes that his version of Islam is the true version of Islam. I will argue, as we will see, that Osama Bin Laden represents not just one person or a small group, but many millions of Muslims, many millions, who completely accept his methodology, his strategy and the ideology which lies behind what he is doing. It would also be fair to say there are many millions of Muslims who also abhor what he is doing and find it reprehensible. This contradiction is part of the current situation that we face with Islam. I think it is because, if I may say it quite boldly, Islam is being true to itself. In the Qur’an, itself, these contradictions are enshrined. Therefore, these contradictions have made their way into the history and fabric of the Muslim contact with the world; and today is probably the most dramatic example of it, but one of many examples that could be cited through our history. In the next lecture, we will look at the rise of Islamic fundamentalism and try to answer the question, “Why is Osama Bin Laden angry?”