Please help me, I’m confused. My Muslim friends tell me that Islam is a religion of peace, but…

Mosque, Bradford

Mosque, Bradford, United Kingdom

This is the first post deriving from someone other than myself. I have been asked by the author to withhold his name (the author is male), which I am more than willing to do (we live in dangerous times). Although I do not agree with everything the post contains, it is well argued and draws convincingly on evidence that currently exists, so to exclude it from the blog would be most unfair (if for no other reason than in the interests of responsible free speech, as outlined in the blog’s “About” page). Moreover, because the post derives from someone who is NOT Muslim but keen to ensure that a positive image of Islam is generated at a time when negative images are widespread, publication is of even greater merit. So here goes.

Mosque, Elazig, Turkey

Mosque, Elazig, Turkey

It is a very difficult time for many of my Muslim friends, all of whom are peace-loving people who have extended the hand of companionship to a non-Muslim of doubtful moral integrity. My Muslim friends hear almost every day about people describing themselves as Muslims who engage in warfare in many parts of the globe, often against co-religionists of a sect or a schism that is different to their own. Such warfare is often accompanied by the brutal persecution of non-Muslims, threats of genocide against so-called “infidels” or “unbelievers”, the beheading of journalists or aid workers assisting innocent people caught in the crossfire, the exploitation of non-Muslim girls and women as sex slaves, and the denial of rights and opportunities to Muslim girls and women, even to Muslim girls and women who belong to the same sect or schism as that of the (overwhelmingly male) armed combatants.

Understandably, my friends say that the warlike stereotypes of Islam that have emerged in the non-Muslim world in the last decade or so do not represent “true” Islam and that Islam is really a “peaceful” religion. They tell me that the very name “Islam” means “peace” and that no “true” or “real” Muslim would engage in the sort of warfare or brutal actions outlined above. I know for a fact that none of my Muslim friends would engage in such warfare or actions, but evidence from around the world confirms that such warfare and actions are deemed right, or morally acceptable, by many Muslims. Moreover, such Muslims find it easy to justify such warfare and actions by a selective reading of the Qur’an and/or a selective reading of the Hadith.

Harvesting apricots, Gunduzbey, near Malatya, Turkey

Harvesting apricots, Gunduzbey, near Malatya, Turkey

Before progressing further, let’s get a couple of things straight so we can engage in a dispassionate but informed manner with the content of the post. First, strictly speaking, the Arabic name “Islam” means “submission”, and all Muslims I know, no matter the sect or schism to which they belong, agree that submission relates to the will of God/Allah alone. The name “Islam” derives from the term “aslama”, which means “to surrender” or “to resign oneself”. To submit, surrender or resign oneself to anything other than the will of God/Allah is to engage in a forbidden practice, in something Muslims define as haram. The Arabic word for “peace” is “salaam”, which, although etymologically related to “Islam” and aslama”, is nonetheless different from both. Some of my Muslim friends tell me that Islam is a religion which, in its essence, requires that people submit to the will of God/Allah AND promote peace, but, strictly speaking, to say that “Islam” equates with “peace” is misleading.

Second, if Islam IS a religion of peace, why are the Qur’an and the Hadith replete with references to war, conflict and information about the lesser jihad (“jihad” means “struggle” or “striving”. The lesser jihad is the struggle or striving against real or imagined external enemies, which often leads to conflict or war and, in some instances at least, to the defeat of those described as enemies of Islam), and why is it that, even in official histories about the emergence of Islam under Muhammad and the first four caliphs (successors) who followed him, war and conflict were almost constant? And why is it that war and conflict included the great battle at Kerbala/Karbala, Iraq (680 CE/61 AH), a battle which, in many respects, cemented the often fratricidal division between Sunni and Shia Muslims which persists to this day?

Third, reflect on the depressing information below extracted from a diary entry of mine from 2014:

It is 4th August and commemorations are taking places in many European locations, Belgium in particular, to mark the start of world war one a hundred years ago. The commemorations are very dignified as former enemies remember the dead of all nations in an enviably even-handed manner, a manner confirming that now, in most parts of Europe at least, war between what are now friendly nations is almost inconceivable. I confess: I am moved by a lot of what I see.

But world war one was meant to be the war which ended all war because the death and destruction, most of it of little or no strategic value in the long-term, would remind those tempted to engage in conflict to say, “Never again.” However, the last hundred years have seen far too many wars and conflicts to list, the second world war included, and, today, war and conflict afflict sixty-four nation states/territories (for more information about this, see the informative website entitled “Wars in the World”) including Ukraine, Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, Israel, Gaza, Libya, Mali, Nigeria, Yemen, Somalia, Sudan, South Sudan, Central African Republic, Democratic Republic of Congo, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Chechnya, Dagestan, Afghanistan, Burma/Myanmur, Pakistan, Philippines, Thailand, Columbia and Mexico.

One of the most worrying aspects of the list of places where war and conflict are currently taking place is that, in over half of the places listed, people who allege that they are Muslims are on at least one of the competing sides and sometimes on both (indeed, in some cases people who say that they are Muslims represent three, four or even five competing groups in the same war or conflict. This is most obvious in Syria and Iraq).

What are we to conclude from the above? First, that war and conflict remain at least as common as a hundred years ago (and, of course, that war and conflict are potentially far more costly in terms of human life and environmental destruction due to advances in armaments technology). Second, Muslims are engaged in a disproportionate number of wars and conflicts world-wide, suggesting that, as in the distant past, religion can still operate in such as way as to be a divisive and destructive force in society at large.

Muslim Cemetery, Mardin, Turkey

Muslim Cemetery, Mardin, Turkey

Now: I would be the first to say that, in some instances, Muslims have good reason to engage in war and conflict, particularly where they are the unquestioned victims of injustice, discrimination, disadvantage or persecution. But in many of the places where Muslims are engaged in war and conflict they are fighting against co-religionists alone, and they are often inspired by a desire to eradicate such co-religionists because they belong to a Muslim sect or schism they define as heretical. Moreover, whether fighting against co-religionists or not, they too often seek to create conditions in which injustice, discrimination, disadvantage or persecution exist for others, which necessarily compromises whatever just cause may have provoked war or conflict in the first place.

I am therefore a very confused person. My friends believe Islam is a peaceful religion, I have always been told it’s a peaceful religion and I have travelled to some predominantly Muslim nation states where peace DOES prevail. As a general rule, things are excellent in those peaceful Muslim nation states, especially if you are Muslim rather than non-Muslim, male rather than female, heterosexual rather than gay or lesbian, or able-bodied rather than disabled (sadly, if you are non-Muslim, female, gay, lesbian or disabled in predominantly Muslim nation states, you are accorded rights and opportunities that are fewer and less comprehensive than those that exist for Muslims, males, heterosexuals or the able-bodied. Also, in some Muslim nation states, homosexuality is punishable by death).

I have read the Qur’an and the Hadith extensively (albeit in translation) and know that verses in the former and statements in the latter are supportive of peace, but there are far more verses in the Qur’an and statements in the Hadith that address war and conflict. What I need is a well-informed Muslim scholar (or a non-Muslim scholar who is well-informed about Muslim scripture, tradition and history) to explain how such a discrepancy can exist between my friends’ perception of Islam as a peaceful religion and how things look in reality.

Annual "Discover Islam Exhibition", University of Newcastle

Annual “Discover Islam” Exhibition, University of Newcastle-upon-Tyne, United Kingdom

I have recently been advised by a friend engaged in interfaith dialogue in North-East England that people at one of the region’s mosques have gone to great trouble to find posters which seek to challenge the perception that Islam is a warlike religion (people at the mosque hope that non-Muslim houses of worship will display the posters to combat such perceptions of Islam). One problem with the posters is that they rely on misconceptions or simplifications about Islamic scripture and the history of Islam. For this reason, the posters are little more than a well-intended gesture awash with platitudes that do not stand up to scrutiny. Moreover, any young Muslim who, for whatever reason, is increasingly disillusioned with life in Britain and susceptible to the Islamist/Salafist/jihadist propaganda that circulates in such quantity on the internet, is likely to look upon such posters as just so much hot air generated by Muslims willing to collaborate with the Crusader West in its efforts to undermine Islamic influence globally.

Don’t get me wrong: the posters could be of some value, but only if the people who put them together address some of the matters I raise above (“Islam” means “submission” and not “peace”. Where are quotes from the Qur’an and the Hadith to confound the notion that Islamic scripture is top-heavy with references to war, conflict, persecution of non-Muslims and death for “infidels” and apostates? Why is it that Muslims, and not, e.g., Christians, Hindus, Sikhs, Jews, Buddhists, atheists or agnostics, are disproportionately engaged in war and conflict around the globe, and, in many instances, engaged in war and conflict with their confessional brothers and sisters?).

Is the problem simply this? That many manifestations of mainstream Sunni Islam have been hijacked by the bad guys? I know dozens of wonderful Sunni Muslims in the UK and elsewhere and none of them are bad guys. And why do we hear so little from Shia Muslims? Sure, there are bad guys among Shia Muslims as well (in fact, there are bad guys in every group subscribing to religion or a secular belief system), but, as a rule, I have found that Shia Muslims are more pragmatic than Sunni Muslims because Sunni Muslims are urged to interpret the Qur’an and the Hadith literally (Shia Muslims are encouraged to believe that scripture contains hidden meanings that are at least as important as its explicit meanings). In fact, literal interpretation of the Qur’an and the Hadith is a requirement of Sunni Islam.

Perhaps the root of the problem is that scripture IS taken literally by too many Muslims. And yet, within Islam, it is well established that the qur’anic revelations which derive from Muhammad’s time in Makkah have a very different tone and quality to the far more detailed and legalistic revelations which derive from his time spent in Medina; and that later revelations can replace those of earlier derivation, perhaps if the earlier revelations are not fit for purpose or prone to ambiguous interpretation (this is known by the Arabic name of “naskh”, which is usually translated to mean “abrogation”).

Of course there are many millions of Muslims who ARE peace-loving, but we hear their voices far too rarely. Such Muslims include most members of the many Sufi groups and the Ahmadiyya. But guess what? Sufi and Ahmaddiya Muslims are condemned as heretics by many Sunni Muslims and some Shia Muslims. Yes: the Muslims most likely to commit to peace are persecuted by fellow Muslims. Should we laugh or cry?

Come on: help my friends persuade the non-Muslim world that Islam is a peace-loving religion. I’m not anticipating that a case can be made that “true” Muslims are indistinguishable from pacifists such as the Jains, the Mennonites, the Amish or the Religious Society of Friends/the Quakers (in common with most people on the planet, Muslims included, I believe that situations exist in which war and conflict are necessary evils, but only under the strictest of conditions), but surely we can present a persuasive case that will confound the messages emanating from that vocal minority of extremist/very violent Muslims who seem to glory in death, destruction and/or the persecution of those more vulnerable than they. However, any such case must begin by utilising Islamic scripture itself because it’s Islamic scripture which, above all, seems to inspire groups such as ISIS, Boko Haram and the Taliban to persist with their outrageous crimes against humanity.

Islamic calligraphy

Islamic calligraphy

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