By John G. Stackhouse
August 18, 2014
“MUSLIMS are all terrorists.”
“No, no: Islam is a religion of peace.”
While these wild oversimplifications continue to be bandied about (mostly by non-Muslims), violence racks the Middle East, South Asia and much of Africa in the name of Islam. Meanwhile, many Muslims, like their neighbours of other outlooks, recoil in horror.
A few basic facts will help us all, Muslim and non-Muslim alike, get past the stereotypes to understand the history of Islam and the events that alarm us here and abroad.
First, Islam is indeed a religion of peace, but in a crucially qualified sense. The root word of both “Islam” and “Muslim” is “s-l-m”, which is also the root for “salaam” or “peace” — but it most basically means “submission” (to God).
So peace will be achieved by the rule of God extending over the world. It is the peace of a single ideology and a single regime, the peace of an empire united around one God and one faith. That global peace has not arisen yet, because the world is still divided into two realms: Dar al-Islam, where people live in submission to God, and Dar al-Harb, the abode of war, where non-Muslims do not yet submit to the beneficent reign of Allah. Once Islam triumphs over the whole world, humanity will have global peace.
Second, Islam’s scriptures forbid forcible conversion. “There must be no compulsion in religion,” says the Quran. Unbelievers are always given a choice: exile or conversion. (Christians and Jews, “people of the book”, traditionally are given the choice to remain under Muslim rule and to remain in their traditions, albeit as second-class citizens. But not all Islamic regimes have extended that privilege to them.)
Third, Islam’s scriptures not only allow for, but in some places encourage, the use of force. The so-called sword verses of the Quran in particular encourage believers to fight to defend the faith and the faithful community, and subdue enemies of the faith. Muslim scholars have long disputed the interpretation and application of these verses. At one extreme are those who preach them as the chief duty of Muslims who feel embattled or aggressive. At the other are liberal Muslims who doubt their authenticity, particularly in the face of many other verses in the Koran that advocate peace. But every educated Muslim knows that the sword verses are there.
Fourth, the general expectation of Islam since Muhammad’s day is that the reign of God (which is to say, the reign of Islamic regimes) would extend steadily over the whole earth. And that ¬extension, again since Muhammad’s day, was achieved sometimes by diplomacy and persuasion, yes, but also sometimes through military action. One cannot understand Islamic history without acknowledging the frequent resort to armed force in extending the “house of Islam”.
(The collapse of the Ottoman Empire and the ending of the caliphate in the early 20th century thus was a tremendous blow to Islamic identity. How could God’s forces be defeated? The ¬recent attempt by Islamic State to restore the caliphate is a call to ¬resume the global agenda of expansionist Islam.)
Finally, it must be acknowledged that very few religions in the world are strictly and uniformly nonviolent. Jains in India and Mennonites and Quakers in the West can claim to be “religions of peace”.
But almost all of the major world religions have offered legitimation and even incitements to violence: from ancient Israel conquering Canaan to Constantine and Charlemagne ruling Christian empires in the Middle Ages, with Buddhists, Hindus, and Muslims fighting each other in South Asia while priests of various religions have blessed Chinese, Korean and Japanese armies.
And, lest the New Atheists draw any comfort from such a summary, let’s recall that secularist regimes were largely responsible for the bloodiest century on record, the last one. So, surprise, surprise: human beings find impressive banners under which to fight wherever we are, whatever our objectives.
It is up to all of us, therefore, whatever our views, to find the resources in our respective traditions to achieve justice and peace, and encourage those in other traditions who are trying hard to do the same.
John G Stackhouse jr, Sangwoo Youtong Chee professor of theology and culture at Regent College, Vancouver, Canada, visited Australia to give lectures at The Scots College, Sydney.