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01 July 2009

Is Islam a religion of violence?

Is Islam a religion of violence?

Rev Dr John Azumah calls for a balanced approach to a thorny issue...

A theological student in India once said to me, "I am confused. We hear Islam is a religion of peace, but we also read about and see Muslim suicide bombers chanting Koranic verses, Muslims praying with AK-47 assault rifles and teenage girls shot dead or disfigured for not wearing a veil."

One key verse from the Koran often quoted to back the thesis that Islam is a peaceful religion is: "There is no compulsion in religion" (2.256). Yet there are also verses like this: "So when you meet those who disbelieve, smite at their necks till you have killed and wounded many of them" (47.4).

At the very least, this situation is confusing. Some experts argue that violent acts committed by Muslims are deeply grounded in the Koran, traditions, Muhammad's example (sunnah) and Islamic jurisprudence. Others say that the roots of Muslim anger and violence are basically geopolitical, particularly due to American foreign policies. Islam, they argue, means peace.

Making sense of confusion

There is no question that violence is written into the source books of Islam. Indeed, Muslim societies down the centuries have taken these texts and the conquests they inspired as testimony of not only divine approval but of a divine hand in these acts.

You can't simplistically draw a straight line between an historic text and current practice

Having said that, it's actually not legitimate to argue that, because there are texts of violent import in Islamic source books and that Muslims have used these texts to justify violent attacks, Islam as a religion is violent. One can't simplistically draw a straight You can't simplistically draw a straight line between an historic text and current practiceline between an historic text and current practice. Individual human choice intervenes, as do circumstances.

Similarly, not all Muslim anger and grievances against the West are borne out of religious convictions. Many non-Muslims (including Christians) in the developing world share anti-Western sentiments with Muslims. And many non-Muslim minorities in the West share the same grievances and resentment with Muslim minorities towards their host countries. These include perceptions and experiences of discrimination and racism.

The truth is that the Muslims who are willing to engage in violence in the name of Islam are a small minority. The temptation is to argue that the silent majority is just as responsible for the violence. But that fails to appreciate that many more individual Muslim scholars, imams and groups are now speaking out against the murderous views of the fanatics.

To understand the silence of ordinary Muslims, one has to wonder why ordinary citizens did not turn up on the streets in Nazi Germany or Communist Russia, China and Cambodia to demonstrate against their murderous regimes. The silent majority may be complicit in their silence, but in the end it is the fanatical minority who are responsible for their acts of violence.

A way forward

Those who blame Islam for violence committed by Muslims are by implication suggesting that the Koran as a text, or Islam as a religion, should be banned. But religious traditions themselves neither speak nor act. It is adherents who speak and act in the name of their traditions.

Millions of Muslims around the world recite the same texts daily but do not go out to kill others. There are tough texts and actsof violence in almost all religious scriptures, traditions and histories. And it must be remembered that, over the period of time that Muslims generally glorified the tradition of jihad as religious war, other religious traditions like Christianity and Zoroastrianism also drew inspiration from their traditions and engaged in violent conquests too.

So the issue is not the mere fact that there are violent texts or examples of violence by religious figures. The issue is the way people of faith have chosen to interpret the source books of the religions.

During the reformation, the Christian Church went through a painful process aimed at redeeming its traditions by challenging the interpretative framework of earlier generations. In 1965, the Roman Catholic Church, in its Second Vatican Council, had to revise and set aside centuries of unhelpful traditions. To redeem the Islamic tradition, Muslim scholars today reserve the right to consider establishing a new interpretative tool that takes into account the realities and demands of the 21st century.

Islam is what Muslims choose to make it. There may be a high price to pay, and whether Muslims are prepared to pay that price to redeem their traditions is their decision to make. 

Also there is the need to disabuse young Muslim minds of centuries of indoctrination against non-Islamic ways of lives. For instance, young people in Pakistan are taught in mainstream schools and madrasas that Jews, Christians and Hindus are like pigs: dirty and corrupting. Such prejudices serve as detonators to the poisonous cocktail of extremists' dogmas.

Rev Dr John AzumahThe Common Word document issued by a group of leading Muslim figures in October 2007 called upon Christians to dialogue on "love of God and love of neighbour". However, if this is to be a serious overture, the same gesture should be extended to followers of other religions and people of no religion. It should not be treated as a subject of dialogue among specialists but should be taken into schools and madrasas. 

  • John Azumah is director of the Centre for Islamic Studies and Muslim-Christian Relations at London School of Theology.

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