Innallaha ma3a Sabireen
Some issues in peace and violence
Mohammad Omar Farooq, Ph.D.
In the aftermath of September 11 when President Bush visited the Islamic Center of Washington DC, both to reassure the Muslims in America and to create public awareness against prejudice, he remarked: "The face of terror is not the true faith of Islam. That's not what Islam is all about. Islam is peace." Of course, Bush is, first and foremost, a politician and therefore his remarks should be taken with a grain of salt - actually, a lot of salt.
The President was quickly rebuffed even by a number of his compatriots, who vehemently disagreed with the President's diplomatic stance. A Bush-loving, pro-Israel, conservative Daniel Pipes sermonized that Islam exemplifies intolerance, violence and hatred.. If peace has anything to do with Islam or Muhammad, it is merely a ploy to deceive the peace-loving adversaries. Feigning that that he is against Islamism, not Islam, pipes writes: "Islam is more than any other religion, deeply political, in the sense that it pushes its adherents to hold power, and once Muslims do gain power, they feel a strong impetus to apply the laws of Islam, the shari'a. So, Islam does, in fact, contain elements that can justify conquest, theocracy, and intolerance." [Fighting Militant Islam, without bias," in City Journal, Autumn 2001}
In contrast to the above two categories of non-Muslim stance, there are two parallel camps within Muslims. One camp on the fringe has no qualms in taking a public position that Islam enjoins fighting and subduing the non-Muslims, and this is a sublime religious duty. Repudiating this group of extremist Muslims, there is the broader Muslim community that finds an echo of their own position in what President Bush said and they would like the world to know that Islam means peace and Islam is peaceful. Period
So, is Islam essentially intolerant and violent or is it essentially tolerant or peaceful? The fact of the matter is that in presenting Islam as essentially peaceful or violent, there is a false and an unacceptable reductionism, because trying to cast Islam in such reductionist framework inevitably leads to either misunderstanding or misrepresentation.
A few premises
At the center of this whole debate are three aspects: the Qur'an, the life of the Prophet, and the historical experience of Muslims. But first let me identify a few pertinent premises.
Muslims hold the Qur'an as the ultimate source of divine guidance. Even the Prophet could not have contradicted the Qur'an, let alone anyone else.
The Qur'anic verses should not be taken in isolation from other verses or from the Prophetic experience.
The Qur'anic verses, commands or otherwise, have different levels of priority; some are general in scope and are to be treated or upheld as norms, while other verses might be contextual, delimited or transitional.
Life is an integrated whole, and Islam is a guidance for the whole life in a comprehensive or holistic manner, where a sense or goal of balance is of supreme importance.
And life needs to be treated as life, which from the Islamic viewpoint should be understood as based on Fitrah, the innate human nature.
Some historical observations
The history of Muslims, similar to that of many other communities, is not devoid of violence and warfare. There have been almost perpetual wars, conflicts, and the attending violence in the Muslim world. During the Prophetic era in the Madinah period, the Prophet was at war with all those who fought the nascent Muslim community and the Islamic polity. In the post-prophetic era, the conflicts continued on two fronts. The Islamic polity, which from the beginning was on a pluralistic foundation, continued to be drawn to war with other great civilizations and lesser powers of the time. The Islamic polity subsequently also found another front open: internal schism and conflict.
The transformation from a constitutional, participatory, and accountable form of governance during the Rightly-guided Caliphs to the despotic anti-thesis represented a counter-revolution to the revolution ushered in by Prophet Muhammad. Since this counter-revolution, the establishment persistently purported to preserve the status quo, and oppositions--legitimate or illegitimate, right or wrong, just or unjust--were at the receiving end of persecution and retribution. It is important to note that the political institutions and culture in the Muslim world that evolved subsequently are more rooted in that counter-revolution than in the revolution and legacy of the Prophet.
The division of the world between Dar al-Harb (home of war and conflict) and Dar al-Islam (home of peace and security) was a concoction of the classical Muslim jurists to contend with the problems of their time, but the reality was that on one hand Dar al-Islam was no less an internal conflict than an external conflict. Our contemporary generation of self-critical and conscientious Islamic scholars, who are in tune with the challenges of our time, are already reformulating their thoughts and positions, discarding the practically untenable and Islamically unwarranted framework of Dar al-Harb and Dar al-Islam.
Therefore, if from a cursory reading of the history of Muslims makes people think that this religion is quite violent, the impression can't be dismissed quite so easily, even though drawing conclusions about Islam on the basis of such impressions are simplistic and incorrect at best.
Peace and violence
in the Qur'an and the life of the Prophet
All killing, fighting, war and even administration of law and order involve some type of violence. However, the "wild, wild West" did not earn the United States a reputation for violence; the two World Wars - the most violent and the worst killings in human history - did not earn the West in general and Europe in particular a reputation for violence either. The virtual decimation of the Indian people in the United States did not make the country barbaric or uncivilized. The European colonization that ravaged, exploited and dehumanized various parts of Asia and Africa, including the Muslim world, did not make Europe any less civilized. The Spanish Inquisition and the Crusade did not make Christianity violent and barbaric. Even the recent, organized torching of Muslims in India by a Hindu mob does not make Hinduism a burning example of violence and barbarism. Yet, these days there are people who would like to identify Islam and the Prophet Muhammad as violent or symbol of violence.
We have already mentioned above that during the post-Prophetic era, there was plenty of conflict and violence that occurred in the name of Islam, yet Islam did not sanction it. Notably, for 13 years of Makkan period, Muslims were strictly forbidden to reciprocate any violence to the persecutors of the Quraish. Many people misunderstand Muhammad because when they compare him with many other religious figureheads, such as Jesus and Buddha, they find a stark and intriguing contrast. Jesus as portrayed in Bible, appears to be an embodiment of unblemished peace and compassion. Buddha appears to be an enlightened soul far removed from the hustle and bustle of life. In both cases, it seems that many find a message of non-violence. On the contrary, Muhammad appears to be quite different. In the limelight of society, he is helping the feuding Arabs make peace during his youth. He is also involved in a social treaty (Hilf al-Fudhul) to form an alliance against any unjust war and killing. He is an accomplished merchant, a family man, forgiving all the adversaries during the conquest of Makkah, except four murderers, mending his own shoes, foot-racing his beloved wife, leading and motivating the believers to stand for justice and give life in fighting, if necessary.
Such a comparison between Muhammad on one hand and Jesus or Buddha on the other is both incorrect and unfair. It is even worse when, to justify their conclusion about Islam and the Prophet, some people try to find verses in the Qur'an or references in Hadith, where the fighting and violence were so prominently, unequivocally, and sternly mentioned.
To better understand this issue, one needs to recognize that Islam does not teach that if anyone's one cheek is slapped, he or she should turn the other cheek. As mentioned in one of the premises above, Islam is based on Fitrah, the innate human nature. As a society, if we all turn our other cheek in the face of violence or open the door to the intruding burglars, or point to our heart to give a killer's gun a more accurate target, it would be simply against human nature and also against any viable, functional, or healthy society. Anyone familiar with the Shaolin temples know that even the Buddhists contributed toward the development of the Martial Arts, as life's need for self protection so dictated.
There are times when fighting and violence are indispensable even to seek or maintain peace. People - individuals, groups, and nations - may need to fight for self-defense. Even the so-called modern and civilized nations, who now are hell-bent on branding Islam as barbaric and violent can't shun, discard, and avoid fighting and violence. They can't, because there are times, when war, fighting, and violence are essential means to seek and maintain peace. Of course, not all the wars and fighting are for just reasons or to seek/maintain peace. Sometimes, pursuit of a narrow, parochial or unjust interest can be touted as a pursuit of peace, but humanity knows better.
Add to the quest for peace the quest of justice, and one can easily understand the logic and reality of life on one hand and the Islamic guidance/norms and the life of the Prophet on the other. Without justice, peace is an illusion. That is a human reality. Islam urges and emboldens people to never succumb to injustice. Rather, it instills courage and spirit to offer resistance to any social injustice and work collectively, creatively, and capably toward a just society. "O you who believe! stand out firmly for justice, as witnesses to Allah, even as against yourselves, or your parents, or your kin, and whether it be (against) rich or poor: for Allah can best protect both. Follow not the lusts (of your hearts), lest you swerve, and if you distort (justice) or decline to do justice, verily Allah is well acquainted with all that you do." [4/an-Nisa/135] This pursuit of justice is not parochial or limited to only Muslims. Rather, Muslims are to uphold and defend justice, whether the victims and perpetrators are Muslims or non-Muslims.
Therefore, yes, there have been wars and killing during the life of the Prophet. He himself led many expeditions, and in many battles he himself fought as well. But that is because LIFE sometime makes such war and fighting necessary and indispensable. Any war or fighting during the time of the Prophet must be understood within this essential reality of life. That is not so true in the post-Prophetic era, where sometimes non-Muslims as well as Muslims faced violence in the hands of the ruling establishment in the Muslim world. Muslims must acknowledge many such wrongdoings by Muslim rulers throughout history, even though in a comparative sense it was not necessarily any worse than under other religions or ideologies.
Now, let us take a look at some verses of the Qur'an. First, consider the following verses: "Let not the unbelievers think that they can get the better (of the godly): they will never frustrate (them). Against them make ready your strength to the utmost of your power, including steeds of war, to strike terror into (the hearts of) the enemies, of Allah and your enemies, and others besides, whom you may not know, but whom Allah doth know." [8/al-anfal/59-60] Or, the favorite verse of Islam-bashers: "Then, when the sacred months have passed, slay the idolaters wherever you find them, and take them (captive), and besiege them, and prepare for them each ambush." [9/at-Tauba/5]
Based on these verses, if anyone draws or "wants" to draw the conclusion that Islam is violent and it preaches violence, they would be violating almost all the premises listed earlier in this essay. Islam's guidance is to help people find a balance between life's conflicting priorities. It is not static or predefined, but a dynamic search for an equilibrium. Whether in self-defense, to resist the evil of injustice and oppression, or to struggle toward a more just society, Islam requires its adherents to uphold certain norms and parameters. In the verse quoted above in which Muslims are urged to make ready their "strength to the utmost" of their power, one needs to take into account the verse that comes after it. "But if the enemy inclines towards peace, you (also) incline towards peace, and trust in Allah" [9/al-anfal: 61]. The importance of this later verse is that peace is the ultimate goal. It ought to be the ideal and norm that a society should seek. Islam insists that its adherents work and incline toward peace.
Those who want to harm Muslims or cause general harm or injustice, Muslims (like any other people) would deal with them to resolve the problems and, if necessary, fight them, as the last resort. However, if the very same people desist and show inclination to peace, Muslims are duty bound to reciprocate for peace. The life and legacy of the Prophet Muhammad were guided by pursuit of justice and peace. Whenever people, Muslims or non-Muslims, take a verse in a fragmented manner, advertently or inadvertently, they commit serious error, or worse. By dubbing Islam violent while it guides us toward a balance in our life, we merely yield to and validate those fanatical and extremist fringes that use or abuse Islam for their extremist angles and agendas.
Peace and justice are amongst the two most important pursuits for humanity and so are those for Islam and Muslims. Islam is meant to guide its adherents toward peace and justice. Here are some of the verses and the Prophetic narrations (hadith) that should be treated by Muslims as norms, and the humanity should hold them to these norms in accordance with the faith of Muslims in the Qur'an and the Prophet.
"Let there be no hostility except to those who practice oppression." [2/al-Baqara/193] Muslims do not and cannot have any problem with adherents of any other faith (be it Christianity, Judaism, Hinduism or even animism) or ideology (communism, capitalism, etc.), unless there is oppression committed by any. Of course, this assumes that Muslims themselves do not engage in practicing any oppression or injustice.
"…if any one slew a person unless it be for murder or for spreading mischief in the land, it would be as if he slew the whole people; and if any one saved a life, it would be as if he saved the life of the whole people." [5/al-Maida/35] Life - of ALL people- is sanctified and to be a Muslim is to show utmost respect for it. The sanctity of life - of Muslims and of others - was so important in Islam that the Prophet pursued an ingenious strategy of reclaiming Makkah: the entire conquest was virtually bloodless, a kind of feat unheard of in the blood-thirsty tribal Arab society. Furthermore, even for war and conflict, strict guidelines were set not to harm the life and property of any civilian, who are not active party to any hostility or conflict, and women, children, old men, monks, were to be particularly spared.
A person asked, O Prophet of God (p), whose Islam is excellent or the best (afdal)? He replied: "From whose tongue and hands the people (an-nas: irrespective of Muslims or non-Muslims) are safe." [Musnad-i-Ahmad, #6762; narrated by Abdullah ibn Amr] The entire life of the Prophet was dedicated to help a conflict-ridden and blood-feuding society of Arabia come to civilization and serve as an illustration of human potential, where people do not give up hope for positive change and are willing to make adequate sacrifice toward establishing a just society for all people. The struggle of the Prophet was not an end point, but rather a reference point for the entire humanity as a source of guidance and inspiration.
Islam motivates people to seek a balance, tempering the extremities in their lives. It instills courage and valor in the weak and oppressed; at the same time, it humbles those who hold power and authority. It emboldens the downtrodden, while holds the oppressors and exploiters accountable. It urges the other-worldly people to take this world seriously and dearly, while it admonishes those who have forgotten about the life hereafter.
Thus, to say that Islam is peaceful does not explain why it also seeks to awaken people to a struggling spirit. And, to say that Islam is violent does not explain why it also emphasizes peace so ardently. Even Rabindranath Tagore, a Nobel Laureate in literature from India, recognized this aspect so beautifully in his novel, Gora. Through the words of Gora, the central character of the novel, in a conversation with a meek and abused Muslim, Tagore states: "One who tolerates wrong is also blameworthy, because he endorses wrongdoing in this world. You won't understand me, but remember that religion is not merely being good-natured, pleasant, humble, meek gentleman (bhalo-manushi). It simply emboldens the bad ones. Your Muhammad had understanding of this and that's why he did not propagate the faith merely as pleasant and meek gentleman (bhalomanush)". [pp. 111-112]
Those who would like to pursue Jesus or Buddha as a model, as perceived within their respective religious tradition, would soon find that puritanical and absolutist peace and acquiescence can rarely help us deal with and resolve the harsh reality and nature of life. Those who are absolutist in regard to use of force and violence for collective selfishness or arrogance would find that they would be buried and overcome in history by the collective decency of humanity and human civilization. Muhammad is one such very special personality in human history that successfully balanced the quest of peace and justice. Muslims in history has badly failed in upholding that quest for balance in the footstep of Muhammad. But it is only by valuing and upholding that Prophetic quest for that balance can Muslims overcome their own failures and miseries, and also serve the humanity in the path of God.