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.
And as Jesus is for Christians, Mohammed is, according to PBS.org’s site on the Islamic empire, “the perfect Muslim” who “still serves as the model for all believers.” So Mohammed’s willingness to fight (it is echoed in many other tales) seems to mark a clear distinction between the religions. Al-Islam.org (which invites non-Muslims to “let this site serve as a means of introducing Islam to you, and provide you with options for exploring the beauty of this religion further”) explains its take on the Islamic attitude toward war:
[W]ar is natural and instinctive and man cannot do without it. … [A] religion, a perfect religion, unlike Christianity, recognizes the necessity of warfare. Christendom superficially claims that there must be no war. … They relate what they think are the words of Christ, If someone slaps you on the cheek, offer the other cheek. Has it been so in practice? Where have all these wars come from in this world? … The purpose of warfare, Islam says, is so religion, all of it, is for Allah. … If it is a true religion, it must take up the sword and advance.
Like Christians, Muslims were initially persecuted. But within Mohammed’s lifetime, Islam began a long series of conquests. What was behind this expansionism? University of Chicago professor Fred Donner, in his book The Early Islamic Conquests, theorizes that there may be something intrinsic to Islam that spurs a conquering attitude: “[T]here is the possibility that the ideological message of Islam itself filled some or all of the ruling elite with the notion that they had an essentially religious duty to expand the political domain of the Islamic state as far as practically possible; that is, the elite may have organized the Islamic conquest movement because they saw it as their divinely ordained mission to do so.” Though these conquests were at swordpoint, many Muslim scholars argue that conversions to Islam by the vanquished were done of free will. Donner suggests, however, conversion was in part accomplished with the promise of booty from further conquests.
In an essay posted on the ISIS site, Roy Brown of the International Humanist and Ethical Union writes, “To pretend Islam is a religion of peace and love is to delude ourselves. … Islam, which means ‘submission,’ submission to the will of God, has been a religion of conquest. Convert or die.” Also at ISIS, Paul Kurtz of Free Inquiry magazine argues (scroll down) that “if one studies the history of Islam, one finds that it expanded its hegemony by the use of the sword. Mohammed himself raised an army of ten thousand men and destroyed his enemies and he advanced Islam by ruthless methods.” Yet in the same essay Kurtz refers to the Crusades. Christianity is expansionist, with missionaries across the world. If it no longer spreads through violence, Christendom certainly conquered by force during the Crusades.
In his well-known essay “The Roots of Muslim Rage,” Bernard Lewis actually frames the last 14 centuries as a struggle between Islam’s and Christendom’s expansion. For the last 300 years, Islam has been losing. And there may be something in Islamic culture that cannot tolerate the encroachment of infidels. Lewis, echoed by many other sites, writes that “in the classical Islamic view, to which many Muslims are beginning to return, the world and all mankind are divided into two: the House of Islam, where the Muslim law and faith prevail, and the rest, known as the House of Unbelief or the House of War, which it is the duty of Muslims ultimately to bring to Islam.” Muslims see the House of Unbelief expanding rapidly—even finding toeholds within their own countries. The culture of the West has taken root inside the House of Islam. Lewis claims that for Muslims, “What is truly evil and unacceptable is the domination of infidels over true believers. For true believers to rule misbelievers is proper and natural, since this provides for the maintenance of the holy law, and gives the misbelievers both the opportunity and the incentive to embrace the true faith. But for misbelievers to rule over true believers is blasphemous and unnatural, since it leads to the corruption of religion and morality in society, and to the flouting or even the abrogation of God’s law.” The intolerance for non-believers is so stringent, argues historian Paul Johnson in the National Review, that “in all countries where Islamic law is applied, converts, whether compulsory or not, who revert to their earlier faith, are punished by death.”
But no one would claim that Christianity has been free from brutal intolerance (I’m looking at you now, Holy Inquisition). So it may be less useful to look at Islamic history—for any long history will be filled with dark chapters—than to examine modern, sociological factors that might lead to brutality. In his book The Clash of Civilisations and the Remaking of World Order (as described in this dissenting book review), crusty political scientist Samuel P. Huntington offers several possible causes behind mass Muslim violence. According to the review, they include the fact that Islam is a “religion of the sword” and has “no concept of non-violence”; that there is an “indigestibility” to Muslims that makes assimilation in either direction difficult; and, moving on to modern issues, that there is no central, dominant Islamic “core state” and that a demographic “youth bulge” in Arab populations has not surprisingly led to trouble. (Huntington repeats his “youth bulge” theory in this 1997 interview with David Gergen.) In the National Review, David Pryce-Jones argues that modern Muslim society has been a failure, politically and economically, and that rather than look in the mirror Muslims decided they “were not responsible for their plight, it was all the fault of the West, to be rectified by war.”
Along with Bernard Lewis, several sites conjure the image of a once-proud civilization now licking its wounds and itching to strike back. In thisChicago Tribune article, anthropologist Cynthia Mahmood says, “Muslims have strong memories that there was a time when they were on top.” Mahmood also claims that in the world of Islam, people self-identify as Muslims, not as Iraqis, Indonesians, or Afghans—suggesting any battle with a Muslim country will soon be a battle with all of Islam. Finally, the New Republic’s Franklin Foer claims the biggest influence on Bin Laden and his followers is Wahabbism, a “central movement” of modern Islam whose ranks include the Saudi royal family and whose followers preside over 80 percent of American mosques. Nothing marginal about that.
So can we at last conclude that Islam is violent? Edward Said, writing in The Nation (in part as a rebuttal to Lewis and Huntington), dismisses the very question as folly because you can’t characterize “Islam”—or for that matter, “the West.” “Certainly neither Huntington nor Lewis has much time to spare for the internal dynamics and plurality of every civilization … or for the unattractive possibility that a great deal of demagogy and downright ignorance is involved in presuming to speak for a whole religion or civilization. No, the West is the West, and Islam Islam.” But this, too, gets us nowhere, since the West does characterize Islam, and vice versa. Saying it’s wrong doesn’t make it go away. In the end, as in the beginning, it comes down to the practitioners. Islamic fundamentalists are violent, and there are roots of this violence to be found both in the Quran and the cultural history of Islam. At the same time, this is a faith with a billion adherents of every race and color, in countries across the globe, with hundreds of different sects and movements. Peaceful Muslims are practitioners, too.