What does Islam teach about violence?

What does Islam teach about violence? March 29, 2016


Why don’t mainstream Muslims acknowledge that the Quran orders them to do just what ISIS does?


Does the Quran tell Muslims to kill anyone who doesn’t become a Muslim?


David’s full question — posted before the latest slaughter aimed at Christians in Pakistan, children included, and the bombings in Belgium — asks why Quran passages “explicitly order the killing of non-Muslims.” Mike, posting after those atrocities, wonders “why there is so much violence and murder in the Muslim faith.”

The Wall Street Journal‘s Sohrab Ahmari observes that “Islamic terrorism is now a permanent and ubiquitous hazard to life in every city on every continent” and “not a single day now goes by” without an attack somewhere. With much of today’s terror enacted in the name of God, fellow Muslims are the majority among innocent victims. The Global Terrorism Index counts 32,685 killings during 2014, an 80 percent increase over 2013. Not all were Islam-related and, notably, in the West only a fifth of them were.

ISIS and similar factions claim to follow precedents from Islam’s founding, in the holy Quran and collected hadith teachings of the Prophet Muhammad. Nabeel Qureshi writes in USA Today that his conversion from Islam to Christianity, described in “Answering Jihad,” resulted from “the reality of violent jihad in the very foundations” of Islam that provides terrorists’ “primary recruiting technique.” The Atlantic magazine’s Graeme Wood documented the importance of the early religious texts for current terror ideology: www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2015/03/what-isis-really-wants/384980

Yet Muslim scholars say the revelations often applied to specific circumstances and some passages abrogate earlier ones. The founding era also brought an internal struggle for religious, political, and military control after Muhammad died without a fully agreed-upon successor. The resulting and sometimes bloody split between Sunni and Shi’a branches persists as a factor in today’s death tolls.

The terrorist belief defies authoritative Islamic teaching that developed across more than 1,000 years after the founding era. This mainstream Islam has been incapable of suppressing the violent, populist uprising in its midst. Islam was never pacifist and proved remarkably successful in military conquest, but developed a code of military and political conduct that terrorists routinely violate. (The Islamic ideal is distinguished from followers’ embarrassing misdeeds, as with all religions and secular ideologies.)

English readers can now learn about that more moderate heritage through the highly significant “The Study Quran” from HarperOne. North American Muslim scholars provide 15 special essays and analyze the Scriptures in elaborate detail, verse by verse, drawing upon 41 classic commentaries, with hadith citations that run 43 pages.

Numerous Quran verses say infidels will be punished in the hereafter, but what about this life? Moderates cite the Quran’s edicts that “there is no coercion in religion” (2:256) and that God himself willed the existence of humanity’s various creeds (10:99). In 42:48, God tells the Prophet his sole task toward unbelievers is “proclamation.” An essay by Caner Dagli says “the vast majority” of experts believe religious coercion is forbidden “throughout the Quran” and this “still holds true today.”

A well-known “sword verse” is: “When the sacred months have passed, slay the idolaters wheresoever you find them, capture them, besiege them, and lie in wait for them at every place of ambush. But if they repent and perform the prayer and give the alms, then let them go their way. Truly God is Forgiving, Merciful” (9:5).

The Quran generally treats “idolaters” more harshly than “people of the book,” that is, Jews and Christians (some add followers of other religions) though Muslims were told to fight certain of those as well. The Quran says these idolaters violated treaties, vilified the true religion,  sought to expel the Prophet, and initiated the combat. So in the Muslim understanding this was a defensive war, fought for the religion’s very survival.

Many think God prohibited combat in Mecca but prescribed it after the Prophet’s move to Medina in order to protect what the commentary calls “Islam’s precarious beginnings.” A key Medina verse is “fight in the way of God against those who fight against you, but do not transgress. Truly God loves not the transgressors” (2:190). Again, the combat is defensive. “Transgress” refers to ethical conduct of warfare that in Muslim tradition forbids e.g. the killing of women, children, Christian monks, diplomats, and the aged, or despoiling of the environment.

Another relevant verse is 9:73, repeated verbatim in 66:9: “O Prophet! Strive against the disbelievers and the hypocrites and be harsh with them.” The commentary says “disbelievers” are approached with either “the sword” or persuasion depending on circumstances, while Muslim “hypocrites” suffer legal punishment for transgressions.

Some think God forbids all offensive wars in 2:216: “Fighting has been prescribed for you, though it is hateful to you. But it may be that you hate a thing though it be good for you, and it may be that you love a thing though it be evil for you.”

If so, what about conquests of non-Muslim lands, which were by no means defensive? Surprisingly, Dagli’s essay says religious endorsement for such expansion and “conquest for its own sake” was and “has remained a minority view” because aggression is “not completely justifiable according to the moral structure offered in the Quran.”

Obviously these are mere glimpses of an immense subject on which “The Study Quran” has much more to say. Also see the Religion Guy’s article “Who speaks for Islam in a time of terrorism?”: www.patheos.com/blogs/religionqanda/2014/09/who-speaks-for-islam-in-a-time-of-terrorism


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