Is Islam a Religion of Peace or Violence?
By Nayyer Ali MD
Ever since 9/11 there has been a cottage industry among the right wing and particularly the conservative evangelicals seeking to demonstrate that Islam is inherently a violent faith incompatible with Western civilization, democracy, gender equality, human rights, etc., and dedicated to the idea of world conquest, forced conversions, and a desire to literally murder all the non-Muslims they could get their hands on. As such, terrorism was intrinsic to being a Muslim.
While the right wing has been mostly pushing these ideas, there have been some liberal voices (Bill Maher and Sam Harris in particular) who also have made the claim that Islam is inherently problematic, and that it represents a threat to secular values and Western notions of liberal human rights. To bolster these arguments several lines of evidence are offered. First is the behavior of Muslims themselves. As Bill Maher noted after the Paris attacks, he didn’t think it was the Amish that did it. Secondly, various aspects of Muslim history are cited to suggest that Muslims are particularly intolerant. And finally, a very concerted effort to cherry-pick verses from the Qur’an, or stories of Muhammad’s life, to demonstrate that Muslims are violent as a requirement of their faith.
With the rise of ISIS in the Middle East, the terror bombing of the Russian plane in Sinai, the attacks in Paris, and the bizarre husband and wife team of shooters in California, there is even more panic and fear about Islam and Muslims. On the campaign trail Donald Trump wants a database of American Muslims and a ban on new immigrants who are Muslims, a view that won him great support among Republican voters in the polls.
So how can outsiders judge this matter? What is the truth, if there is a single truth? And how can we reconcile the attitudes and views of integrated American Muslims with those of ISIS? Is one watered down or is the other a perversion of the real faith? This gets to a very basic question, what defines a religion? Is it the texts it is based on? And who gets to interpret those texts? Is it the sum total of the actual beliefs and behaviors of the adherents of that religion? But what if their behaviors are wildly divergent? And what if those beliefs and behaviors have changed radically over time, can we say that the religion itself has changed, or that those in the current day are not as faithful as those in the past? Or perhaps those currently have a better understanding of their religion than those before? These questions can be applied to any religion. Desmond Tutu and Jerry Falwell probably didn't agree on much.
To make sense of Islam, one has to at a minimum be familiar with what the sacred sources are. First and foremost is the Qur’an. The Qur’an, for Muslims, is the actual word of God as dictated to Muhammad through the angel Gabriel. As such it is not a human document, like the Christian Gospels or the letters of Paul, that were then deemed to be “divinely inspired” and elevated to the status of religious text. Muhammad clearly distinguished what was God’s words from his own utterances. So do Muslims have a Qur’an today that is the same as what was developed over Muhammad’s 23 years as a prophet? We have no Qur’anic copies that date to before his death in 623. But there are recent finds in Yemen that have Qur’anic text dating from about 650, and it is basically the same as the current document. Most scholars believe that the Qur’an as now read is essentially what the earliest Muslims used. Because for Muslims it is the word of God, its stature is above that of anything else. So what else is there?
Basically there are three other major sources of religious interpretation. First is a biography of the life of Muhammad. This is a document written by Ibn Ishaq around the year 700, 70 years after Muhammad’s death, and its sources are oral stories passed down and compiled. To note that the historical accuracy of this is questionable would be a vast understatement. However, many Muslims accept Ibn Ishaq’s biography as true, and use it to interpret Islam. On the other hand, even some of his contemporaries dismissed Ibn Ishaq’s work as worthless fabrication.
The second source are another oral collection of stories about the statements and deeds of Muhammad. These stories collectively are called Hadith, and the Hadiths are very important to Muslims. For example, while the Qur’an tells Muslims to pray regularly, it is the Hadith that delineates the 5 daily prayers and how to perform them. The problem with Hadith is that they too were collected much later, about 150-200 years after Muhammad died, and various scholars developed their own idiosyncratic collections. In addition Sunni and Shia scholars differed about which were authentic or valid. Finally, everyone realized that 90% or more of the stories were fabrications. Statements like Muhammad said the best Muslims were from Baghdad was falsifiable as Baghdad did not exist in 630. Muslims vary in how much reliance they put on Hadiths. Some take all of them literally and binding, and there are others who reject them all as impossible to verify. Most Muslims are in between. Most of the bizarre and noxious ideas that are “Islamic” are rooted in Hadiths, not the Qur’an. Ideas like stoning apostates, or requiring that women wear headscarves, that a girl as young as nine can marry, or that when a person dies as a martyr he goes directly to heaven and can have sex with 72 virgins. Needless to say liberal Muslims dismiss all the Hadiths that support these claims as being certainly false and incompatible with the Qur’an, which should have precedence. It would be like deciding constitutional questions by using the actual US Constitution and an oral history of stories about George Washington and Thomas Jefferson collected in 1925.
The final source of Muslim religious knowledge is the body of common law developed in the middle ages, between roughly 650 and 1300. This was slowly put together through a process of case law and the creation of four distinct Sunni legal schools that held sway in differing regions, and a Shia legal school. These different bodies of law are what is commonly referred to as “Sharia law”. During the colonial era, Sharia law was replaced with European legal codes, and in the post-colonial era, a central struggle in the Muslim world is whether this old legal system has any place whatsoever in the modern day, or should be left to history. Conservative and liberal Muslims sharply divide on this question.
So let’s now try to answer the critical first question, what sort of religion is Islam? If we look at the sources of Islamic religious knowledge, it becomes apparent that the Qur’an should be the key document to work from. What does it actually say about God, religious freedom, war and peace, and who gets salvation? To read and interpret the Qur’an is not easy. It is not a chronological story of the world and the Jews like the Hebrew Bible, or the life of Jesus as the Gospels are. Instead, it is an extended sermon by God toward man. It does go over many of the same stories that are in the Hebrew bible, but they are scattered in the text and used as examples where needed, rather than as a coherent history. In some sections it is speaking to all Muslims past and future, in others it is speaking directly to Muhammad, and in others it is speaking to a group of Muslims that are with Muhammad at the time. With a modicum of effort these frames can usually be understood with a common sense reading of the text.
The Qur’an is actually rather ecumenical, explicitly stating that salvation is due all those who worship God and do good works.
“Behold those who believe in that which is revealed unto you Muhammad, and those who are Jews, and Christians, and Sabaeans (presumably a monotheistic people of that time), whoever believes in God and the Last Day and does right, surely their reward is with their Lord, and there shall no fear come upon them neither shall they grieve. (Qur’an 2:62).
“And as for those who believe and do good works, He will pay them their wages in full, and God loves not wrongdoers.” 3:57
“Those who believe and do good works, for them is pardon and a rich provision.” 22:50
There are many other verses along the same lines, salvation is to those who believe in one God and do good works, but there is no explicit requirement to be a Muslim or a believer in Muhammad. Don’t tell the Saudis that though.
What is the highest principle of the Qur’an? For the Hebrew Bible it is fidelity to God’s law. For the New Testament it is love of all mankind. For the Qur’an, it is not peace, for the Qur’an does not in any way espouse pacifism. It is instead justice.
“O you who believe! Be strong in justice, witnesses for God, even though it be against yourselves or your parents or family, whether the case be of a rich man or a poor man, for God is closer to both than you are. So follow not passion lest you lapse from truth and if you lapse or fall away, then God is ever informed of what you do.” 4:135
“O you who believe! Be strong witnesses for God in fairness, and let not hatred of any people seduce you that you deal not justly. Deal justly, that is nearer to your duty. Observe your duty to God. Behold, God is informed of what you do.” 5:8
“God commands justice and kindness, and giving to family, and forbids lewdness and abomination and wickedness. He exhorts you that you may take heed. Fulfill the promise of God when you have promised, and break not your oaths after the stating of them, and after you have made God surety over you. God knows what you do.” 16:90-91
“And slay not the life which God has forbidden save with justice. Whoso is slain wrongfully, We have given power unto his heir, but let him not commit excess in slaying. Behold he will be helped. Come not near the wealth of the orphan except with that which is better till he come to adulthood, and keep the covenant. Of the covenant it will be asked! Fill the measure when you measure in trade, and weigh with an honest balance, that is right and better in the end.” 17:32-35
What does the Qur’an say about freedom of religion? It is actually rather explicit on that point. Islamic theology posits that life is a test of obedience to God, and that humans are all free to choose whether to obey his desires or not, but it is not for any man to enforce belief. In addition, Muslim men are given direct permission to marry Jewish or Christian women by the Qur’an, without them having to convert.
“There is no compulsion in religion. The right direction is henceforth distinct from error. And who rejects false gods and believes in God has grasped a firm handhold which will never break. God is Hearer and Knower.” 2:256.
“We send not the messengers (God’s prophets) save as bearers of good news and warners. Those who disbelieve contend with falsehood in order to refute the truth thereby. And they take our revelations and that with which they are threatened (in the next life) as a joke.” 18:56
“This day are all good things made lawful for you. The food of those who have received the scripture (Jews and Christians) is lawful for you, and your food is lawful for them. And so are the virtuous women of the believers and the virtuous women of those who received the scripture before you lawful for you when you give them their marriage dowry and live with them in honor and not in sin, nor take them as secret concubines.” 6:5
“Argue not with the People of the Book (Jews and Christians) unless it be in a way that is better, save with such of them as do wrong: and say “We believe in that which has been revealed to us and revealed to you, our God and your God is One, and unto him we surrender.” 29:46
“O Mankind! Behold! We have created you male and female, and made you into nations and tribes so that you may know one another, not that you may despise each other. Behold! The best of you in the sight of God is the best in conduct. God is Knower, Aware.” 49:12-13
“We are best aware of what they say, and you (Muhammad) are in no way a compeller over them. But warn by the Qur’an who fears My threat.” 50:45
“Say to those who do not believe: O disbelievers! I worship not that which you worship. Nor worship you that which I worship. And I shall not worship that which you worship. Nor will you worship that which I worship. Unto you your religion and unto me my religion.” 109:1-6
So what does the Qur’an say about war and peace? It is not a pacifist religion. Muslims are allowed to fight in war. But to properly understand what the Qur’an says, it is important to pull together all the verses on war and read them as a coherent whole. Anti-Muslim bigots love to cherry pick not just verses but even fragments of verses, creating a deeply false impression of what the Qur’an really says. One of those is a verse that is addressed to a small band of Muslims who went with Muhammad to confront a Meccan army bent on obliterating the Muslims, and in that verse God commands the soldiers to fight hard and use every strategy of war to win. Intelligent Muslims know that this verse is directed to a particular place and time, and not some sort of universal command, as it is commonly portrayed by Islamophobes. Here are some of the key verses on war and peace.
“Fight in the way of God against those who fight against you, but do not start wars. God does not love aggressors. And slay them wherever you find them, and drive them out of the places where they drove you out, for persecution is worse than slaughter…and fight them until persecution is no more, and religion is for God. But if they stop, then let there be no hostility except against wrongdoers.” 2:190-193
“Permission is given unto those who fight because they have been wronged, and God is indeed able to give them victory. Those who have been driven from their homes unjustly only because they said Our Lord is God.” 22:39
“And whoso defends himself after he has suffered wrong, for such there is no blame against them. The way of blame is only against those who oppress mankind, and wrongfully rebel on the Earth.” 42:41-42
“God forbids you not those who did not war against you on account of religion and did not drive you out from your home that you should show them kindness and deal justly with them. God loves the just dealers.” 60:8
“Those of them with whom you make a treaty and then at every opportunity they break their treaty and keep not duty to God, if you come on them in war, deal with them so as to strike fear in those who are behind them, so haply they may remember. And if you fear treachery from any folk, then throw back to them their treaty fairly. God loves not the treacherous…And if they incline to peace, then incline you also to it and trust in God. He is the Hearer and the Knower. And if they would deceive you then behold! God is sufficient for you.” 8:56-62. These verses speak to the importance of giving peace a chance, even if you find your adversary untrustworthy and you fear treachery.
Islam is a religion that has spanned 1400 years, and has 1.6 billion adherents. There is no Pope or institution to impose interpretation. What we are seeing right now is a struggle for what Islam means to actual Muslims. There are plenty of violent extremists seeking to impose a very dark version of the religion, but there are many Muslims both in the US and around the world that subscribe to a liberal interpretation of Islam focused on social justice. It is one of the reasons that American Muslims vote 80% Democrat. What makes it baffling for non-Muslims is this massive spectrum of religious practice. What does ISIS have in common with my Muslim cardiologist? One of the problems is that extremists are happy to pick up guns but moderates and liberals by their nature choose not to fight. The situation can be seen as if in the Christian world we had an even split between liberal Christians of the present day, and Christians that adhered to a 16th century version of the religion, in which women were burned alive for being witches, all non-Christians were damned, Jews were Christ-killers, and other Christian sects were excommunicated and needed to be destroyed with military force and Inquisitions. But in addition to that, the richest and most powerful Christian nation held these backward views and used its massive wealth to fund seminaries and churches around the world to promote its version of Christianity. This is the reality of Islam right now and the role of Saudi Arabia. What makes the situation even more odd is that many of the Muslim extremists know very little about their own religion. The 9/11 hijackers used to go to Vegas many times and hang out in strip clubs. The Parisian attackers were petty criminals and drug dealers who became radicalized in French prisons.
The good news is that the liberals are winning. Democracy, human rights, gender equality, and social justice are advancing around the Muslim world. Countries like Indonesia, Turkey, Pakistan, and Bangladesh have all elected women Prime Ministers in the last 20 years. Women are the majority of university students even in Iran and Saudi Arabia. Most Muslims despise ISIS and the refugees are fleeing that sort of life, not attracted to it. While the progress is not as fast or uniform as many would like it, it is definitely occurring. Headlines are dominated by violence and bloodshed, but the underlying social trends will out. Islam is not to be feared. Muslims are changing, and the example of America’s Muslims, who are by and large liberal, well-educated, prosperous, and integrated is a model of what Islam can become.