The Relationship Between
Violence And Religion
David H. Kessel

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On Developing Theology
of Peace in Islam
Asghar Ali

Islam is being associated with violence and jihad in the minds of not only non-Muslims but also of many Muslims. The slogans of jihad are being raised by frustrated youth unable to find any other way and also by those who are fighting for national liberation and regional autonomy. Such slogans create strong images of holy war being ordained by Islam and Islam being religion of violence. And now what has happened in New York on 11th September 2001 and in Pentagon i.e. attacks on World Trade Centre with the help of hijacked planes will greatly strengthen this stereotype in the minds of people of the world in general and in the minds of Americans, in particular. The attack on WTC in New York and Pentagon in Washington is, to say the least, horrific and must be condemned in strongest possible and unambiguous terms.

It should be remembered that there is no relation between religion and violence, neither in Islam, nor in any religion for that matter. Violence is a social and political phenomenon. It is true that there is mention of war in scriptures like Ramayana, Mahabharata and the Qur'an. But this mention is not to establish any integral link between religion and violence but to portray certain social and political situation that prevailed at that time. It can be called integral only if these scriptures mandate violence as a desirable solution.

It is important to distinguish between what is empirical and ideological. The Twain do not always meet. While violence is empirical, peace is ideological. All scriptures, particularly the Qur'an while permitting violence in some inevitable situations, ordain peace as a norm. The great religions of the world came to establish justice and peace, not to perpetrate revenge and violence. Revenge and violence can never become part of any religion, much less that of Islam. Allah has created both in human beings -- tendency for aggression and violence and exalted feeling for serenity of peace. Allah, according to the Qur'an, created human person in the best of mould (ahsan-i-taqwim) and then rendered him lowest of the low (95:4-5)

In fact it is this dynamics of human personality i.e. being created in the best of the mould and then being reduced to the lowest of the low that we have to understand the dynamics of peace and violence also. Allah desires peace and created us, for that purpose, in the best of the mould but our greed, greed for both wealth and power reduced us to an instrument of aggression and violence. For a human being there will always be an internal jihad, an internal struggle to rise to the level of ahsan-i-taqwim (best of the mould) and continuously resist the temptations of wealth and power.

The Qur'an strengthens the social roots of peace by emphasising the role of need based economy and resolutely opposing greed based one. The roots of violence, as pointed out above, lie in human greed. Thus we find in the Qur'an, "They ask thee what should we spend. Say what is surplus." (2:219) It is obvious from this verse that you spend on yourself according to your personal needs and give away the surplus with you to other needy people. Similarly the Qur'an prescribes in yet another context that the wealth should not circulate among the rich only. (59:7). And it also exhorts Muslims that those who hoard gold and silver and do not give them away in the way of Allah announce to them the painful chastisement.(9:34)

Thus the Qur'an wants to establish peace not superficially by exhorting the believers to love peace but tries to tackle the very socio-economic roots of conflict. If few people or countries grab largest part of the resources of the world and live in all comfort and deny other people even their basic needs violence and conflict will result whatever the pleadings for peace. Or, if some people commit aggression unjustifiable against others to keep their own dominance and deny others their very basic rights, it will be impossible to maintain peace is such unjust political order. The Qur'an draws our attention to such a situation also as the Prophet and his followers were persecuted by the powerful and the rich chiefs of Mecca to maintain their own hegemony and were forced to flee from that town which was rightfully theirs. It is such persecution by the powerful, in order to maintain their hegemony that violence results. The Qur'an is opposed to an unjust order and domination by few powerful whom it calls mustakbirun (i.e. arrogant and powerful). They persecute the weak (mustad`ifun). If such an unjust order persists violence will result, however undesirable it may be. Allah thus says in the Qur'an, "And what reason have you not to fight in the way of Allah, and of the weak (mustad`ifin) among the men and the women and the children, who say: Our Lord, take us out of the town, whose people are oppressors, and grant us from Thee a friend and grant us from Thee a helper." This verse in the Qur'an combines both what is empirical and what is ideological. The weak when oppressed are more likely to fight and resist an unjust order. This is empirical. But the above verse also makes an ideological statement when it says that the weak among men, women and children pray that our Lord take us out of this town (Mecca) whose people are oppressors and grant us from Thee a friend and a helper. Thus the Qur'an makes it clear that one must not live in an unjust order and seek helper from Allah to relive them of injustice.

It is also important that the Qur'an more then once focuses our attention on the on going conflict between mustakbirun and mustad`ifun i.e. between the arrogant and powerful and the weak and the oppressed. The arrogant and powerful is represented by Nimrod and Pharoa and the weak and oppressed by Abraham and Moses. Both Abraham and Moses were liberators. But they liberated their oppressed people not through violence but through struggle leading them out of the unjust order, unjust situation.

There will always be struggle between the oppressors and the oppressed, the powerful and the weak but this struggle need not be violent. It much depends on situation. The Prophet (PBUH) himself prefers peace at Hudaybia (sulh-i-Hudaybia) than war even at the cost of pride of Muslims. The peace conditions (I need not go into details of those conditions here, which are quite well known) were far from favourable to Muslims but the Prophet of Islam accepted those conditions in order to avoid bloodshed. However, the Prophet could do so as the other side also, due to certain constraints, accepted peace on their own terms.

If the other side was bent upon war there would have been no choice for the Prophet but to accept the situation and fight the war. It much depends what situation you are facing. One cannot talk of war and peace quite in an abstract manner. Thus socio-political and socio-economic context plays great role in deciding whether peace will prevail or not.

One thing is sure: Islam does not even indirectly hint at coercion, let alone violence, when it comes to any religious or spiritual question. Thus it becomes quite clear that Islam being religion does not approve of violence at all in any religious matter. However, if Muslims are put in a particular situation which is unjust (not only for them but for humanity as such) they may have to struggle peacefully (and if violence is thrust on them, reluctantly through violence) to remove the cause of injustice.

It is quite important to note that liberative struggle should never be confined to Muslims alone. It is quite significant for theology of peace in Islam that throughout the text of the Qur'an we find the words mustakbirun and mustad`ifun i.e. arrogant and the weak or oppressors and the oppressed without an qualification of being Muslim or not. Thus even if arrogant and oppressor is a Muslim, one will have to struggle against him and even if an oppressed and persecuted is non-Muslim Muslims will have to wage struggle against him.

Thus the struggle nowhere involves Islam as a religion but Muslims as upholders of peace and justice. Yes, it is true justice and peace (and for that matter compassion) are also Islamic values but they are also universal values applicable not only to Muslims but to all whether they be Muslims or not. Thus, as far as justice and peace is concerned the clash is not between Islam and any other religion but it is primarily between oppressors and the oppressed. It is wrong to implicate Islam if some Muslims choose to adopt violent means to achieve their goal. Islam does not automatically approve of violent means if any injustice or exploitation is to be fought.

The Qur'an does not permit use of violence as a norm at all. All the verses involving permission to use violence is preceded by the words "if they commit violence against you...." Thus we find in verse 2:190 "And fight in the way of Allah against those who fight against you but be not aggressive. Surely Allah does not love aggressors." (emphasis added)

Thus it is very clear from this verse that Qur'an does not permit unconditional war and aggression and Allah does not love aggressors. But permits fighting in the way of Allah only if war is imposed by others. The words in the way of Allah are also very important here. Fighting in the way of Allah would restrain Muslims from committing aggression and excesses. Fighting in the way of Allah would mean fighting only for a just cause, not for power and wealth, fighting only if war is imposed on them and not involving personal or collective feeling of revenge. When Ali the son-in-law of the Prophet (PBUH) defeated a powerful foe in the battle and was about to kill him that he spat on his face. Ali immediately got off his chaste and let him go. The defeated foe was greatly surprised as he expected greater violence from Ali after he spat on him. Ali told hi if I had killed you after you spat on me it would have been an act of revenge. Thus Islam does not permit killing for revenge. Revenge killing is not a religious act; its main reason is human tendency to retaliate. Arabs used to call it qisas and Qur'an permits it in keeping with the prevailing tradition as it tolerated slavery as a concession to the prevailing system. But as it makes clear that human dignity and equality is the norm, not slavery. Similarly while it permits qisas it makes it clear that one should not be revengeful and should suppress anger. One who suppresses anger (kazim al-ghayz) is a person of great merit.

The Qur'an says, "Those who spend in ease as well as in adversity and those who restrain (their) anger and pardon men." And Allah loves the doers of good (to others)." (3:133). Thus it becomes clear from above verse that to restrain ones anger and to pardon is an act of merit, a religious act. Thus one should not use violence even as an act of revenge. To restrain anger and to pardon are great acts of merit. Violence in any form, except in defence, is most deplorable. Humanity cannot flower in an atmosphere of violence.

The pre-Islamic Arab society was highly violent society. Various tribes fought against each other for decades on end. Thus before the Holy Prophet migrated to Medina the two principal pagan tribes of Medina Khazraj and Aus had been fighting against each other for more than four decades. The Prophet was invited there by the members of these two tribes as peace maker and the Prophet did bring peace between these two tribes and old enmity was happily resolved. But to stamp out violence from the Arab psychology and Arab society was not an easy project. Many Arab tribes had economically survived through raids on other tribes (it was called ghazw)

The pre-Islamic Arabs, as pointed out, not only indulged in qisas but were used to settle all questions through use of violence and thus violence continued in the society. There was no concept of spirituality and higher morality. It is Islam, which brought, for the first time, the concept of higher morality to the Arab society. Peace (salam) was part of this higher morality. It was in view of the violence in the Arab society that even greeting between two Muslims was made as Al-salam-u-'alaykum (i.e. peace be upon you) and it is the principal form of greeting among the Muslims.

However, the post-Islamic Arab society did not easily imbibe the higher Islamic morality. It required inner struggle to control oneself and it was for this reason that many Muslim thinkers, particularly the Sufi thinkers called this inner struggle to control ones desires and raw passions as jihad-e-akbar (i.e. the great jihad and real jihad) and described war with sword as jihad-e-asghar (i.e. small jihad). The Sufis were the pacifists of Islam and those who kept themselves away from the violent struggle for power and also practised great restraint. They thus could imbibe the higher morality of Islam.

One can understand the nature of Arab society and the deep stamp of violence on it from the fact that after the depth of the Holy Prophet his successors -- Caliphs hardly got time to promote higher Islamic morality akhlaq-i-karim. The holy Prophet himself was described as uswa-i-hasanah (best examplar) by the Qur'an. Thus Qur'an says, "Certainly you have in the Messenger of Allah an excellent examplar for him who hopes in Allah and the Latter day, and remembers Allah much." (33:21)

But the Arabs with few honourable exceptions hardly followed this best examplar in the true spirit. Civil war broke out soon after his death (war of riddah) as many tribes wanted to return to their ancestral religion and refused to pay zakah the Islamic tax. Four of the three Khulufa-i-Rashidun (the rightly guided caliphs) were murdered. The third and fourth caliphs (Uthman and Ali) had to face tumultuous times and rebellions resulting in more than one hundred thousand deaths.

Thus one can understand the great gap between what was ideological -- peace -- and what was empirical -- violence. The great tragedy of Karbala on 10th of Muharram when the grand son of the Prophet was martyred by the forces of evil as he tried to revive the higher Islamic morality. The Umayyads usurped power and indulged in violence and terror to retain it. Yusuf al-Hajjaj, governor of Iraq, during the Umayyad period, was a great terror and was quite ruthless in eliminating his enemies. The Umayyad and Abbasid caliphs with some exceptions had no compunctions in resorting to violence. The founder of the Abbasid dynasty was known as al-Saffah, which means one who sheds blood.

Before Islam there was inter-tribal violence. After Islam the social and political scenario changed. All tribes embraced Islam and the very nature of their economic sustenance through inter-tribal raids changed but inter-tribal rivalries persisted. One more factor was added to this. Now centralised state came into existence, which did not exist before Islam and inter-tribal struggle for power to capture the state began often resulting in great blood bath. Thus when the Abbasids captured power from Umayyads the Abbasids hunted down all Umayyads including their children and killed them. This violence was direct result of struggle for power.

All inter-tribal violence in the post-Islamic period was result of struggle for power and had nothing to do with Islam. In other words it was empirical rather than ideological. There is hardly any evidence in history of violence for spreading of Islam. As far as spreading of Islam was concerned the Qur'anic directive was very clear that "call people to the way of your Lord with wisdom and goodly exhortation and argue with them in the best manner." (16:125) One can argue that this again is an ideological statement and that empirical reality was different in the sense that Islam spread through sword. This is simply not true. Firstly, no religion can spread through bloodshed and terror and secondly there is hardly any evidence of this in history.

Islam either spread through Sufi saints who were good examplars of Islamic morality rather than the rulers who were any way seen as tyrants. It was sufi saints who were carriers of real message of Islam and peace by keeping their distance from the power centres. Also, many people adopted Islam simply because it was religion of the rulers and had many advantages. Also, once a prominent member of the community or a tribal chef adopted Islam other members of the community or tribe followed. Thus it is not borne out even empirically that Islam spread through violence. There is even the instance of the Umayyad caliphs stopping conversion to Islam as their treasury was getting depleted as the converts stopped giving jizyah.
 

Islam and Peace

The Qur'an, as pointed out above, tried to spread higher morality of which peace was the most important component. In fact the word Islam itself is derived from the root slm which is the root letters for peace. Islam means establishing peace as well as surrendering to the Will of Allah. One of the Allah's name is Salam i.e. peace. Many Muslims are named as Abdus Salam i.e. servant of peace which also means servant of Allah as Allah is peace.

In Qur'an there are repeated references to the concept of peace. Significantly the Qur'an calls upon Muslims, "O you who believe, enter into complete peace and follow not the footsteps of the devil. Surely he is your open enemy." (2:208) Entering into complete peace here means entering into peace whole-heartedly. It would also imply surrendering to Allah whole-heartedly. Acceptance of violence as the other part of the verse says is like following in the footsteps of devil. Violence is devil and devil is violence.

In the verse 2:131 Allah says submit and reply is given I submit myself to my Rabb of the worlds. Now rabb in Arabic means one who is sustainer or one who takes us step by step from one stage of perfection to another stage of perfection. Thus submitting to Allah, or accepting His authority means dedicating oneself to the cause of peace so that this universe reaches perfection. Perfection is possible only if there is peace, not otherwise. In fact violence destroys all the achievements of culture and civilisation. Since Allah is Rabb i.e. the Sustainer and Perfecter, he ordains peace and those who surrender to His Will have to work for peace so that perfection could be reached.

We find in the Qur'an (14:23) "And those who believe and do good are made to enter Gardens, wherein flow rivers, abiding by their Lord's permission. Their greeting therein is Peace!". Thus it will be observed that jannah (Garden) is so as there is peace therein. Thus the main quality of jannah for which all Muslims aspire is peace. This world can become like jannah only if there is peace in the world. For entering the jannah Allah says, "Enter it (i.e. jannah) in peace and security." (15:46) Thus peace and security are the main attributes of paradise.

Muslims invoke peace for all Allah's messengers because they brought the message of peace for entire humanity. Thus Muslims always write peace be upon him after the name of the Prophet, in fact all prophets of Allah. All Messengers of Allah are messengers of peace as Allah Himself, as pointed out above, is Peace. Again in the verse 56:25-26 we read "They hear therein (i.e. Paradise) no vain or sinful talk but only the saying, Peace! Peace."

Thus peace is so vital for converting this world into paradise. Its opposite i.e. violence is sin. Sin is nothing if not selfish behaviour. We have converted this earth into a violent place because of our interest-oriented behaviour. The harmony of interests is possible only in need based economy. Clash of interests result from greed-based economy. Our world today is full of violence as we clash with each other for our greed. Islam wanted to establish peace on this earth and hence it emphasised need-based economy and condemned accumulation of wealth, circulation of wealth among the rich. The chapter 104 clearly says that obsession with wealth results in fire kindled by Allah.

Same thing happens if we are obsessed with power. Thus this earth can enjoy peace only if some people are not obsessed with wealth and power. Islam laid equal emphasis on justice (Allah's name is also Just 'Adil along with Peace, Salam). Thus justice and peace go together. There cannot be peace without justice. Today there is no peace on earth as there is no justice. We are living in a violent world because we live in an unjust world. The Muslim world is also full of injustices and hence of violence. Islam did its best to emphasise justice and peace but a section of Muslims, particularly Muslim rulers remained obsessed with wealth and power and perpetrated injustices and violence. Thus the blame for violence lay on the doors of some Muslims not on Islam. As far as Islam is concerned justice and peace are integral parts of its teachings.

Moreover for millions of Muslims Islam is a deep spiritual experience. They pray, fast, perform Hajj and all other spiritual practices and feel deeply satisfied. They pray for peace. Such Muslims are in overwhelming majority. They have nothing to do with politics, violence or use of Islam for ones interests. It is these Muslims who seek deep spiritual fulfilment who matter and not the few who use or misuse it for political purposes. For millions of Muslims Islam, like any other religion, is a great source of inner peace.

Some countries like America bomb countries in the name of democracy and human rights some Muslims commit acts of violence and terror in the name of Islam. Is there any difference between the two? How does it matter if the people are killed in the name of democracy and freedom or in the name of Islam? We must try to learn between ideals and their misuse by some vested interests or frustrated people.

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From: "Positive Atheism" <editor@positiveatheism.org>
To: "Kessel David H."
Subject: Re: islam and peace
Date: October 12, 2001 8:13 AM

Although the great monotheistic religions originated in very primitive times, all containing passages and admonitions which can be exploited by fundamentalists and which the violent ones among us tend to use to justify their violence, we do well to allow religionists the opportunities to try to modernize the core systems of their faith. There is a time and a place for us to bring up the fact that the great monotheistic religions are quite brutal when stripped of their modern, post-Enlightenment interpretations. But when they're desperately trying to put the brakes on the popularization of these violent interpretations, we do well to allow them that room. I say this in the interest of peace and safety.

If someone can argue that we ought not to step aside and let them try to popularize the more peaceful interpretations of Islam (and Christianity), that we ought to reiterate the primitive elements instead, I'd be willing to take this one on.

But as it stands, I already am reluctant to gratuitously and indiscriminately discredit religion, preferring, instead, to presuppose that all theists have (or think they have) valid reasons for believing the way they do. I am further reluctant to try to thwart a world-wide attempt to spin Islam as an essentially peaceful religion in the face of the rising popularity of its more brutal side. We could do a lot worse than to see much of the world convert to this more peaceful expression of Islam -- as long as the violent side is thoroughly routed, of course! (Consider the kind of Muslim I imagine songwriter Cat Stevens having become -- without knowing any of the facts, of course!) Similarly, it wouldn't be "terrible, awful, horrible, and catastrophic" were the bulk of the population to convert to some of the more progressive expressions of Christianity -- as long as the Evangelical and Fundamentalist strains were amply reproached.

Instead, one of the greatest misnomers among Fundamentalists (and unfortunately among ex-Fundamentalists) is the notion that fundamentalism is the most viable form of (for example) Christianity. In "Fundamentalism: The Only Viable Christianity?"

I show that fundamentalism is intellectually honest only to the extent that its claims can be put to the test -- falsified -- and many Evangelical Christian claims can be put to the test. Victor Stenger's new book, Has Science Found God? (as yet published by Prometheus) attempts to show this about many of the popular religious and supernatural claims floating around these days. Unfortunately, when tested, these claims always come up wanting, says Stenger. Thus, to me, the most intellectually viable form of Christianity would be the Progressive Christianity, which in many instances resembles pantheism, specifically panentheism, and which in no case pretends to know about matters of science -- unable to be falsified even in principle. If we can figure out a way to popularly discredit the notion that fundamentalism is intellectually viable at all (aside from the fact that it can be tested), we would, I believe, do much in the way of routing the increasingly popular fundamentalist expressions of the great monotheistic religions.

Cliff Walker
Positive Atheism Magazine
Six years of service to
     people with no reason to believe

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