Is Islam a “religion of peace”?

Is Islam a “religion of peace”? February 21, 2015


Where is the Muslim peace movement? Put another way, if Islam is a peace-loving religion where are the Muslim voices for peace?


“Islam is a religion that preaches peace,” U.S. President Barack Obama told CBS last September, and likewise President George W. Bush’s mosque speech after 9-11 said “Islam is peace.” Yet there’s continual violence committed in the name of Islam. Analysts are abuzz over a major article in The Atlantic by Graeme Wood, who contends the bloodthirsty Islamic State Caliphate is thoroughly grounded in end-times theology and “governing precepts that were embedded in Islam by the Prophet Muhammad and his earliest followers.” Wood cites especially the research of Princeton University’s Bernard Haykel.

In this tangled discussion one point is obvious: This great world religion is embroiled in an increasingly dangerous internal conflict as an expanding faction of militant “Islamists” or “jihadis” works to abolish Muslim thinkers’ consensus across centuries about justifications for violence, the proper conduct of wasrfare, and who has the authority to decide such matters. John Esposito, a Georgetown University expert, calls it a “struggle for the soul of Islam.”

“Jihad” is a duty of all believers but the term means simply “effort” or “struggle” in the faith. Teachers have called spiritual exertion the “greater jihad” and violent struggle, when necessary, the “lesser jihad.” As with Christianity’s “just war” concept, Muslim authorities have said the holy Quran allows warfare to defend Islam and its followers but forbids wars of aggression: “Fight for the cause of Allah those who fight you, but do not be aggressive. Surely Allah does not like the aggressors. . . Drive them out from wherever they drove you out” (2:190-191). Of course, adherents of both religions haven’t necessarily honored such niceties.

Mainstream imams cite this  scripture on treatment of civilians: “Allah does not forbid you, regarding those who did not fight you and did not drive you out of your homes, to be generous to them and deal with them justly” (60:8). And they say this verse condemns forced conversions: “There is no compulsion in religion” (2:256). The authorities have said codified teachings of Muhammad (Hadith) said when conflict was justifiable protection was required for innocent non-combatants, the aged, children, women, Christian monks, people attending worship, and prisoners of war.

Amid the general mayhem now afflicting the Muslim world, that venerable understanding of Islam is defied by a rising movement that’s attractive to a subset of young Muslims. It claims divine sanction to embrace thievery, torture, mutilation, terrorism, suicide bombing, kidnapping for ransom, sexual slavery, gruesome executions without trial, killing of envoys and guest aid workers, slaughter of worshippers and Jews and Christians, and of fellow Muslims who dissent from those who hold p0wer or belong to rival factions. See “Religion Q and A” last September 27 on “Who speaks for Islam in a time of terrorism?”

In summary, the heritage now under assault does accept violence and warfare as morally justified in some circumstances, but can favor “peace” in the sense of negotiations between nations and social harmony within nations.

Some religious believers say “peace” means God mandates strict non-violence or pacifism. Islam has a far weaker pacifist strain than other world religions, according to such scholars as Mark Juergensmeyer. Unlike the Buddha, Jesus, and other spiritual founders, Muhammad was a military commander and political ruler, and armed struggle has been continual through Muslim history. Since Islam recognizes no equivalent of “church-state separation,” military politics is bound up with religion and vice versa.

Some individuals do reject violence in all circumstances. The U.S. has a Muslim Peace Fellowship, and Muslim-American attorney Arsalan Iftikhar wrote a book on “Islamic Pacifism.” A non-Muslim sociologist, New Zealand’s Malcolm Brown, thinks some Quran and Hadith texts “can reasonably be interpreted in pacifist terms.” Followers of mystical Sufi orders emphasize spiritual “jihad” to the near exclusion of warmaking. In the past Islam’s Shia branch tended toward military quiescence while awaiting the return of the Hidden Imam, but Iran’s violent Khomeini revolution pretty much extinguished that belief.

For pacifists, the good news is there’s one distinct branch of Islam that fully spurns violence. The bad news is that it’s branded heretical by mainstream Islam — not over pacifism but other problems. We’re talking about the Ahmadiyya community, headquartered in London. The small U.S. group has offices in Silver Spring, Maryland.  This group claims some 15,000 mosques worldwide, and Oxford’s “World Christian Encyclopedia” counts 9.7 million adherents among the world’s 1.2 billion Muslims. However, the Ahmadis are very evangelistic and may be Islam’s fastest-growing faction. The largest concentration is in Pakistan, which brands it non-Muslim and imposes persecution.

The major issue is that founder Mirza Ghulam Ahmad (1835-1908) is believed to be the end-times Messiah or Mahdi or Imam of the Age mentioned by Muhammad, and the metaphorical Second Coming of Jesus Christ. Since his death, a succession of Caliphs have ruled the movement.

In a 1900 booklet Ahmad declared the following. Muhammad “never took up the sword against anyone except against those who first resorted to it.” The military retaliation of those days “was never meant to be a general rule” and “in this age the circumstances for that command do not exist.” Also, Muhammad said the coming Messiah “will put an end to wars” and Ahmad is that Messiah. “Now that the Promised Messiah has come it is the duty of every Muslim to abstain from jihad (with the sword.”



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