Question: How can we say that Islam is a religion of peace when it advocates all kinds of violence and its believers engage in violence in many places in the world?
Answer: This type of question is very common in the present day and very easy to answer provided the questioner is willing to do three things:
- Some research into Islam on his own
- Willingness to separate facts from propaganda
- Willingness to separate what Islam advocates as a religion from what people professing to be Muslims may do at any given point in time.
Before we look at each in some detail a word about people who selectively quote Ayahs of the Qur’an in an effort to ‘prove’ that Islam advocates violence we need to remember some facts about the revelation of the Qur’an.
The Qur’an was revealed over a period of 23 years and has several different kinds of Ayahs (verses):
1. Ayaat relating to the doctrine of belief in One God, types of worship (Salah, fasting, zakat, hajj and so on), relationship with God, fear and love of God and so on.
2. Ayaat relating to social and political issues and orders regarding them (charity, inheritance, people’s rights and duties, virtue, sexual relations, gender relations, marriage, obedience to Rasoolullahﷺ and so on).
3. Ayaat relating to the history of past people and their Prophets (Moses, Jesus, Noah etc.) as a way of learning lessons from their lives and times.
4. Ayaat relating to things of the unknown (some of which have become known now due to scientific development and confirm what the Qur’an said 14 centuries ago): how the universe was created, development of the human fetus, roots of mountains, movement of tectonic plates, separation of oceans, life after death, Day of Judgment, Heaven (Jannah) and Hell (Jahannam), nature of the soul and so on.
5. Ayaat that were revealed at the time of particular incidents such as battle orders, instructions to deal with some peculiar situation of the time, interpretations of happenings or glad tidings as a result of the actions of Rasoolullahﷺ and His Companions or answers to the questions that people used to ask Rasoolullahﷺ for which Allahﷻ would send him the answers.
It is a critical part of the study of the Qur’an to study the circumstances of the particular revelation (Al Asbaab-un-nuzool) without which it is entirely possible to misunderstand the meaning of the Ayah as one does not understand its contextuality. This is particularly true of the Ayahs revealed at the time of particular happenings or events which applied only to that time and those people and are not universal in application in the normal sense. What remains however that is if such situations happen again then the orders of those Ayaat would be applicable in that case. A good case in point are the orders concerning the treatment of slaves (prisoners of war who used to become slaves). In today’s world these instructions are not applicable since we don’t have slaves and prisoners of war are lodged in prisons and are not given to individuals to keep as servants. However if ever a situation emerged where a Muslim had control of another person in the role of a slave, the Qur’an advocates that he should either free him or treat him well and look after his welfare if he retained him in that role. More about this in relation to the Ayaat about warfare later in this article.
Without the knowledge of the context of revelation it is therefore clear that one cannot understand the meaning or scope of application of the Ayah.
This is basic, foundational (primary school level) theory in Islamic theology in the study of the Qur’an. Very basic and foundational and so very important.
To give an example of this scope for misunderstanding when the context is ignored let me take an example from another source, The Bhagavad Gita. If one were to read the conversation of Krishna with Arjuna in the Bhagavad Gita without understanding the context of the whole story of Mahabharata, it is entirely possible to come to the conclusion that the Gita advocates the killing of one brother by another, killing of the father by the sons, the destruction of family, and even the attacking of teachers by their students in order to gain land and kingdom. But it one reads the whole Mahabharata and then interprets the above Ayahs, it is perfectly clear that Krishna’s comments related to the dilemma of Arjuna and to his moral crisis when he faced the army of the ‘enemy’ which actually comprised of his own family; his grandfather, cousins, nephews and even his teacher Dronacharya.
To give another example if one were to read the battle orders of the US Army in Vietnam and come to the conclusion that it is the duty of every American citizen to kill every Vietnamese citizen wherever he finds him, then one could rightfully be accused of stupidity of a marked degree or of deliberately distorting facts and quoting them out of context to cause mischief.
This is the most common mistake that all criticizers of Islam and Muslims make when in their hurry and desperation to find something negative they try to ‘cherry-pick’ and quote Ayahs from the Qur’an with either no knowledge of the context of the revelation or by deliberately hiding it hoping that their readers are too stupid or lazy to do their own research to find the truth. But even a rudimentary level of research will show-up the falsehood they speak.
What makes absolute sense and is most reasonable when studied in context appears unreasonable when seen out of context. Another very major mistake that such people make, which leads one to suspect their very intention, is that they conveniently ignore all the Ayaat (Ayahs) that say the opposite of the meaning that they are trying to impute falsely to the ones they have picked. Any serious researcher can quickly see through this lame strategy and come to the correct conclusion about the mischief that they intend.
Finally, it is important to remember that in any pluralistic society, there will be many faiths and belief systems, each naturally professing to be the best one. This is perfectly natural in that if this were not the case then that system would not have any uniqueness about it. For example the Communists believe their system is the best and the Capitalists believe the opposite. Even within the same faith, be it Christianity or Hinduism different sects have different beliefs and formulae for success in this life and the Hereafter. Coke may accept that the world has the freedom to drink Pepsi but it will never say that Pepsi is as good as Coke or that it doesn’t matter what you drink. Such is life.
In any free society we have no quarrel with the beliefs of anyone, even if according to that particular belief, we are considered unsuccessful in the Hereafter. People of all faiths are welcome to live with their beliefs and it is this freedom that we cherish in a free society. We don’t demand that they change their belief or their theology as it relates to metaphysical matters. It is acceptable in a free society to hold different beliefs and to disagree without rancor and bad blood on that account. Strange how this is forgotten by some people nowadays in their anxiety to criticize others without even taking the trouble to see if there is anything to be critical about.
However what is a matter of concern is how people of any faith are ordered to act, (especially with respect to those who don’t share their belief) in this life and world. In the context of Islam, to understand this it is necessary to see orders and instructions in the Qur’an that are not specific to a particular situation and the people who were facing it at the time of Rasoolullahﷺ, but at those orders that are for all Muslims, for all time. This list is too long and exhaustive to include here but I have included a couple of things to show that there is nothing in Islam, the Qur’an, the Shari’ah or the Hadith to advocate violence, killing of innocent people, ill treatment of anyone irrespective of their religion or the spread of terror in the land.
On the contrary, there is the most severe castigation and the promise of punishment in the Hereafter for anyone who does such things even if he is a Muslim.
For those who want to study and find out and are genuinely curious, there is plenty of proof. For those who want to spread mischief however, proof is the last thing they want. Such people will always be there and will always fail as they have always failed. For the truth always prevails over falsehood. This is the promise of the Qur’an and its writer, Allahﷻ the One and Only Creator of all that exists and the One and Only worthy of worship.
To look at the three things that I have advocated:
- Some research into Islam on their own
- Willingness to separate facts from propaganda
- Willingness to separate what Islam advocates as a religion from what people professing to be Muslims may do at any given point in time.
Some research into Islam on their own
The first thing to understand is that Islam is a religion based on a Book (Qur’an) and the interpretation of that book by its Prophet. So everything is documented and available for scrutiny. The book is the Qur’an and the interpretation is the Hadith or Sunnah. These are the only two sources of theological doctrine in Islam. Anyone who takes the trouble to read these in any detail will see the clear emphasis on a constructive developmental perspective for the world. Everything in Islam is based on the good it does for society and people. There is nothing at all which is destructive. Even punishments are prescribed in relation to the harm to society that the crime causes. So punishments for crimes which are likely to cause disruption to society or a breakdown in its moral values have the most serious punishments prescribed for them.
I will suffice to quote only one Ayah of the Qur’an in this context and leave the rest to the questioner himself to discover. That way he will believe his own eyes rather more than believing me. I doubt if there is anything in any other religious book that equates the killing of one innocent person (Muslim or not) with the killing of all humanity. If this proof is not sufficient for anyone, then I rest my case.
مِنْ أَجْلِ ذَلِكَ كَتَبْنَا عَلَى بَنِي إِسْرَائِيلَ أَنَّهُ مَن قَتَلَ نَفْسًا بِغَيْرِ نَفْسٍ أَوْ فَسَادٍ فِي الأَرْضِ فَكَأَنَّمَا قَتَلَ النَّاسَ جَمِيعًا وَمَنْ أَحْيَاهَا فَكَأَنَّمَا أَحْيَا النَّاسَ جَمِيعًا وَلَقَدْ جَاء تْهُمْ رُسُلُنَا بِالبَيِّنَاتِ ثُمَّ إِنَّ كَثِيرًا مِّنْهُم بَعْدَ ذَلِكَ فِي الأَرْضِ لَمُسْرِفُونَ
Al Ma’aidah 5:32 Because of that We ordained for the Children of Israel (and all mankind) that if anyone killed a person, not in retaliation of murder, or (and) for spreading mischief in the land – it would be as if he killed all mankind; and if anyone saved a life, it would be as if he saved the life of all mankind. And indeed there came to them (all mankind) Our Messengers with clear proofs, evidences and signs; even then after that many of them continued to exceed the limits (e.g. by doing oppression) in the land.
The Qur’an clearly states its own position while allowing everyone the freedom to accept that or not.
وَقُلِ الْحَقُّ مِن رَّبِّكُمْ فَمَن شَاء فَلْيُؤْمِن وَمَن شَاء فَلْيَكْفُرْ
Kahf 18:29 And say: “The truth is from your Lord.” Then whosoever wills let him believe: and whosoever wills, let him disbelieve.
لاَ إِكْرَاهَ فِي الدِّينِ قَد تَّبَيَّنَ الرُّشْدُ مِنَ الْغَيِّ فَمَنْ يَكْفُرْ بِالطَّاغُوتِ وَيُؤْمِن بِاللّهِ فَقَدِ اسْتَمْسَكَ بِالْعُرْوَةِ الْوُثْقَىَ لاَ انفِصَامَ لَهَا وَاللّهُ سَمِيعٌ عَلِيمٌ
Baqara 2: 256 There is no compulsion in religion. Verily the Right Path has become distinct from the wrong path. And whoever disbelieves in the Taghut (false things) and believes in Allah then he has grasped the most trustworthy handhold that will never break. And Allâh is the All-Hearer, All-Knower.
There are more but I believe this will suffice for anyone who is interested in facts.
Hadith: Narrated Abdullah ibn Mas’ud: A man asked Rasoolullahﷺ, “How can I know when I do well and when I do ill?” He replied, “When you hear your neighbors say you have done well, you have done well and when you hear them say you have done ill, you have done ill.” [Al-Tirmidhi]
Note: He didn’t say, ‘Your Muslim neighbors. He said, ‘Your neighbors.’ Both Makkah and Madina were multi-religious communities. Neighbors could be anyone. Islam doesn’t distinguish in terms of rights and privileges between Muslim and non-Muslim. Justice in Islam is uniform and doesn’t change with the religion of the individual.
Hadith: Narrated Abdullah ibn Umar: Rasoolullahﷺ said, “The best friend in the sight of Allah is the well-wisher of his companions and the best neighbor is one who behaves the best towards his neighbors.” [Al Tirmidhi]
Once again, he didn’t distinguish between Muslim and non-Muslim.
Hadith: Narrated Anas bin Malik (R): Rasoolullahﷺ said, “The biggest of Al Kaba’air (the great sins) are;
1. To join others as partners in worship with Allah
2. To murder a human being (He didn’t say, ‘Muslim’; but human being)
3. To be undutiful to one’s parents.
4. To make a false statement or ‘to give false witness’.
(Sahih Al Bukhari, Vol. 9, Hadith 10.)
As I said, for a Muslim and for anyone who is a serious enquirer or scholar of Islam, these Ayahs and these Ahadith and their import are clear enough. These are the orders of Allahﷻ and Rasoolullahﷺ and in Islamic theological doctrine there’s nothing that has higher weight in importance. Any Muslim who deliberately disobeys an order of Allahﷻ or Rasoolullahﷺ places himself outside the fold of Islam.
There is not a single instance in the Qur’an or the Sunnah where Islam has advocated, permitted or even remotely suggested the killing of innocent people or terrorist activity in any form whatsoever. This is a challenge to anyone to try to find any Ayah of the Qur’an or an authentic teaching of Rasoolullahﷺ which advocates killing innocent people irrespective of their religion. Islamic Law (the much maligned Shari’ah) prescribes total equality between people in all respects on points of law with Muslims getting no preference at all. The rights of neighbors for example are irrespective of the religion of the neighbor. However, some people choose to believe false propaganda rather than investigating the truth.
Willingness to separate facts from propaganda
To quote an eminent (Christian) writer on this subject, John Esposito, who is an advisor to the US Government on Islamic affairs, in his book, ‘The Islamic Threat’: “Much of the reassertion of religion in politics and society has been subsumed under the term ‘Islamic fundamentalism’. Although ‘fundamentalism’ is a common designation, in the press and increasingly among academics it is used in a variety of ways. For a number of reasons, it tells us everything and yet nothing. First, all those who call for a return to foundational beliefs or the ‘fundamentals’ of a religion may be called fundamentalist. In a strict sense this could include all practicing Muslims, who accept the Qur’an as the literal word of God and the Sunnah (example) of the Prophet Muhammad as a normative model for living. Second, our understanding and perceptions of fundamentalism are heavily influenced by American Protestantism. Webster’s Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary defines the term fundamentalism – as a “movement in the 20th century Protestantism emphasizing the literally interpreted Bible as fundamental to Christian life and teaching.” For many liberal or mainline Christians, “fundamentalist” is pejorative and derogatory, being applied rather indiscriminately to all those who advocate a literalist biblical position and thus are regarded as static, retrogressive and extremist. As a result, fundamentalism often has been regarded popularly as referring to those who are literalists and wish to return to and replicate the past. In fact, few individuals or organizations in the Middle East fit such a stereotype. Indeed, many fundamentalist leaders have had the best education, enjoy responsible positions in society and create viable modern institutions such as schools, hospitals, and social service agencies”.
Esposito goes on to say, “I regard ‘fundamentalism as too laden with Christian presuppositions and Western stereotypes, as well as implying a monolithic threat that does not exist; more fitting general terms are “Islamic Revivalism” or “Islamic Activism”, which are less value-laden and have roots within the Islamic tradition. Islam possesses a long tradition of revival (tajdid) and reform (islah) which includes notions of political and social activism dating from early Islamic centuries to the present day.”
To quote Esposito again, “Focus on “Islamic fundamentalism” as a global threat has reinforced a tendency to equate violence with Islam, to fail to distinguish between illegitimate use of religion by individuals and the faith and practice of the majority of the world’s Muslims who, like believers in other religious traditions, wish to live in peace. To uncritically equate Islam and Islamic fundamentalism with extremism is to judge Islam only by those who wreak havoc, a standard not applied to Judaism and Christianity.
Fear of fundamentalism creates a climate in which Muslims and Islamic organizations are guilty until proven innocent. Actions, however heinous, are attributed to Islam rather than to a twisted or distorted interpretation of Islam. Thus, for example, despite the historic track record of Christianity and Western countries in conducting warfare, developing weapons of mass destruction, and imposing their imperialist designs, Islam and Muslim culture are portrayed as somehow peculiarly and inherently expansionist and prone to violence and warfare (jihad). The risk today is that exaggerated fears will lead to double standards in promotion of democracy and human rights in the Muslim world. Witness the volume of Western democratic concern and action for the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe but muted or ineffective response with regard to the promotion of democracy in the Middle East or the defense of Muslims in Bosnia-Herzegovinia and Chechnya”.
Mohammed The Prophetﷺ; By Prof. K. S. Ramakrishna Rao, Head of the Department of Philosophy, Government College for Women University of Mysore, Mandya-571401 (Karnataka). Re-printed from “Islam and Modern age”, Hyderabad, March 1978.
n “The theory of Islam and Sword for instance is not heard now frequently in any quarter worth the name. The principle of Islam that there is no compulsion in religion is well known. Gibbon, a historian of world repute says, “A pernicious tenet has been imputed to Mohammadans, the duty of extirpating all the religions by sword. This charge based on ignorance and bigotry, is refuted by Qur’an, by history of Musalman conquerors and by their public and legal toleration of Christian worship. The great success of Mohammad’s life had been effected by sheer moral force, without a stroke of sword.”
n Mahatma Gandhi: “Someone has said that Europeans in South Africa dread the advent of Islam — Islam that civilized Spain, Islam that took the torch light to Morocco and preached to the world the gospel of brotherhood. The Europeans of South Africa dread the Advent of Islam. They may claim equality with the white races. They may well dread it, if brotherhood is a sin. If it is equality of colored races then their dread is well founded.”
Today we live in a world that is so colored by anti-Muslim propaganda that anyone who is willing to criticize Muslims and Islam (especially if that person is himself a Muslim) is given a public platform and is published. In all such cases neither the writer, publisher nor even the readers care if the writing is factual or simply hate literature masquerading as fiction, humor or something else. But it is interesting to see what non-Muslim writers, who are recognized as serious scholars and teachers have to say on the same subject. We have a choice about who we want to believe.
There are many examples of oppression of Muslims in the world, without any cause other than that they believe in Allahﷻ and then crying foul when they fight back with whatever means they have. The list is endless and it is added to every day. It is good to remember that peace is very desirable and worth working for. But that means having the courage to accept facts and to condemn oppression. Until the world is willing to do that and continues to support oppression when it is done by the powerful, true peace will only be a mirage on the horizon and any truce, only a recess between wars.
Willingness to separate what Islam advocates as a religion from what people professing to be Muslims may do at any point in time
This should be easy for people who are used to doing this for everyone else. But somehow for some of us applying double standards is easier.
1. Haven’t we seen Sinn Fein and IRA violence for decades? Where have we called it Catholic or Christian terrorism?
2. Haven’t we seen Israeli action in Palestine for the last 70 years? Where have we called it Jewish or Zionist terrorism?
3. Haven’t we seen South African, apartheid with countless atrocities visited on the heads of the black African freedom fighters (Nelson Mandela being their leader) called terrorists by the White South African regime. Where have we seen it called Christian Calvinist Protestant terrorism?
4. Haven’t we seen the oppression of the Dalits in India by the Upper Castes for centuries? Where have we called it Hindu or Brahmin terrorism?
5. Haven’t we seen the slaughter of Muslims by Greek Orthodox Christians in Bosnia and Kosovo? Where have we called it Serbian, Christian terrorism?
6. Haven’t we seen Muslims slaughtered by Russians and Americans in Afghanistan, Chechnya, Iraq? Where have we called it American or Russian terrorism?
As I said, if we want facts, and want to be fair; that is a choice we have. If on the other hand we want to believe propaganda, close our eyes to reality and ascribe blame falsely, that too is our choice. And like all choices, this also has a price.
In the words of Albert Einstein, ‘The world will not be destroyed by those who do evil, but by those who watch them without doing anything.’