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Oct. 24 2001 9:06 PM

Islam: A Peaceful Religion?

George W. Bush says yes, Osama Bin Laden says no. Who's right? 



President Bush has repeatedly stated that terrorists are not true Muslims—that Islam is at heart a peaceful religion. David Forte, a Bush adviser on Islamic issues, recently argued that Islamic radicals "engage in tactics that are far beyond what is acceptable in the Islamic moral tradition." These claims conveniently avoid stirring resentment in the world's 1 billion Muslims. But are they true? Is Islam peaceful? Or does Islam in its very nature breed and condone violence?


The lack of any central Islamic authority makes it hard to attempt any absolute answer like this. In fact, there are countless conflicting authorities and no Vatican we can turn to for the final word. We're forced to rely on the claims of Islam's practitioners, the claims of their critics, and the primary texts at the heart of Islamic culture.

So let's start with primary-est text of them all, the Quran. The Institute for the Secularisation of Islamic Society quotes several passages that seem to call for violence against non-Muslims:

"kill the disbelievers wherever we find them" (2:191);

"fight and slay the Pagans, seize them, beleaguer them, and lie in wait for them in every stratagem" (9:5);

"slay or crucify or cut the hands and feet of the unbelievers, that they be expelled from the land with disgrace and that they shall have a great punishment in world hereafter" (5:34).

OK, not all that neighborly. Yet within this same Quran many verses call for peace and tolerance. In this London Guardian article, for example, Muslim writer Ziauddin Sardar offers the verse, "Even if you stretch out your hand against me to kill me, I shall not stretch out my hand against you to kill you." Also in the Guardian, Yusuf Islam (the artist formerly known as Cat Stevens) tells us that "the Koran specifically declares: 'If anyone murders an [innocent] person, it will be as if he has murdered the whole of humanity. And if anyone saves a person it will be as if he has saved the whole of humanity.' "

Similarly, one could argue over key definitions in the text. Does the term Islam mean "peace" or the (to some eyes) far more ominous "submission"? Is a fatwa a "death sentence" or, according to Sardar in a different essay, "simply a legal opinion based on religious reasoning ... [that is] the opinion of one individual and is binding on only the person who gives it"? And is jihad "the inner struggle that one endures in trying to practice Islam" or is it "an absolutely aggressive war against non-Muslims"? (Islam Online argues that the attacks cannot be termed jihad because—among other reasons—women, children, and Muslims were killed.)

To further complicate debates, the Institute for the Secularisation of Islamic Society claims that compassionate Quranic verses (the ones cited by moderate Muslims) come from the time before Mohammed (Islam's prophet) became strong and that everything "changed drastically when he came to power. Then killing and slaying unbelievers with harshness and without mercy was justified in innumerable verses." ISIS believes these later "sword verses" supersede any previous calls for tolerance, and this site (run by a Christian group) agrees that "these verses came to Muhammad after he was strong militarily and after he realized that the Christians and Jews were not becoming followers of his new religion." Historian Theodore Zeldin, quoted on this page, acknowledges these violent passages, but suggests they have come in and out of vogue: "It is true that after Islam's rapid military victories, the 'sword' verses of the Koran were held to have superseded the peaceful ones; but theologians, as usual, disagreed. Sayyid Ahmed Khan (1817-98), for example, argued that holy war was a duty for Muslims only if they were positively prevented from practising their religion."

Of course, there is a problem with this entire close-reading exercise: Any text, if vague and poetic enough (I'm looking at you, Bible—and you, Catcher in the Rye), can be invoked to justify violence. And any text will mean different things in different eras. In fact, the Quran may mean nothing at all, according to a 1999 Atlantic Monthly article. It quotes a scholar who says that "every fifth sentence or so simply doesn't make sense. Many Muslims—and Orientalists—will tell you otherwise, of course, but the fact is that a fifth of the Koranic text is just incomprehensible [italics in the original]."

Any debate based on Quranic interpetration could go back and forth forever without end. But if the Quran does not clearly condemn nor condone force, perhaps there are seeds of violence hidden in Islam's long history?

At the infancy of Islam, facing total defeat, Mohammed did indeed defend his faith with force. Al-Islam.org recounts the crucial battle of Badr, during which Mohammed "took a handful of gravel when the battle was extremely heated [and] threw it at the faces of the pagans saying 'May Your faces be disfigured.' " According to the same page, "This battle laid the foundation of the Islamic State and made out of the Muslims a force to be reckoned with by the dwellers of the Arabic Peninsula." So Islam was at least partly forged in battle, albeit in self-defense. And sure, Mohammed wasn't the aggressor ... but still, you rarely see Jesus chucking gravel at pagans.