Islam: religion of peace and violence

This debate goes on and on. Every time there is an atrocity committed by someone calling themselves a Muslim, the media talks about how Islam is a violent religion, while apologists try to tone down this rhetoric with reason, their main argument being that it doesn’t make sense to brand all Muslims as terrorists — like Donald Trump is doing.

Ultimately I feel that this is an unhelpful argument. Islam is merely an ideology, and religions are all ideologies. Violent people, however, use them for violent ends — to legitimize their actions. But why, people will ask, do we not see the same from Hindus, Buddhists, etc? The answer is that we do. Hindus have been violent for millennia — that is to say, humans who are also Hindus are violent. What’s more, a substantial case can be made for the idea that they use their Hinduism to legitimize said violence, like the Hindu Nationalists, who since Indian independence, have essentially been trying to make India a Hindu (and not Muslim) nation.

Many Hindus have fought wars and killed others while pronouncing their Hinduism. (To be clear, I’m not wailing on Hinduism here — any more than I would wail on any ideology/religion). But in the Hindu tradition, peace has been promoted scripturally through the notion of Ahimsa, the idea that one should harm no living thing. Gandhi was a major proponent of Ahimsa, although even he did not rule out the possibility that Ahimsa was compatible with killing, under certain circumstances.

On the other hand Hinduism, which many say is not even a religion — more of a moral code — evolved historically, and through multiple sacred texts, and therefore has a complicated past. The Rig Veda, one of Hinduism’s foundational texts, is a war story on par with Homer’s Illiad, and as such features multiple incitements to violence. In the Rig Veda, for example, the character Arjuna is told that he must fight, even though there are relatives amongst his foes. This, because war is his Dharma — fate, you might say — because he is of the warrior caste, and what do warriors do? You guessed it.

Violence, then, rides shot-gun (excuse the pun) alongside non-violence in Hindu tradition, just as it does in Islam. Not because whoever “invented” these religions wanted violence unleashed, but because violence and war constitute much of the raw material of human history, and as you might expect, they tend to get written into foundational texts. In the latter case, the Koran is full of incitements to violence, the majority of them emanating from the “Medina” verses, believed to have been revealed to Muhammad after he and his followers fled Mecca to Medina in the mid-seventh century. Here he conducted a war, first against opposing Meccans, and then in the Arabian peninsular more widely, to establish his religion as the predominant religion of the Arabs, thence across much of Eurasia in subsequent centuries.

This was a violent period, and this is reflected in the Koran’s verses, just as violence is reflected in the Hindu scriptures, the Jewish Old Testament, and while not so much in the New, certainly in Christian history. Even St. Augustine’s model of a “Just War” makes it plain that ideologies of the period tended to reflect violence. Note here: The foundational Christian text (New Testament) is pretty clear on non-violence, with its turn-the-other-cheek and martyrdom stance. It’s just Christians who have been the problem.

Arguments about Islam’s inherent “violence” founder because there is little “inherent” about living religions, as they exist in the minds of millions (actually billions) of adherents — as do all fictions. They also founder because once you look at foundational texts (let’s just consider the Koran here, that’s the big one) it has “violent” verses, promoting Jihad, infidel-killing, etc., and peaceful verses promoting mercy and compassion.

For people — like most of the world’s 1.6 billion Muslims — who do not feel that they are living in the middle-ages, amidst boiling religious wars, talk of infidel-killing and Jihad is taken with a grain of salt. These people understand that history is change over time. The Koran (although believed technically to be Gods eternal speech) is also widely understood to tell a historical story. Things have changed.

For ISIS, however, a return to seventh-century Arabia looks pretty good as they are keen to rekindle the ‘Ummah of that period, along with its version of Shari’a (Islamic law).

Islam, like other religions, is being constantly re-negotiated, both by everyday believers who re-interpret everything in millions of choices daily. But also through Islamic jurisprudence, a vast body of writing comprised of centuries of work in multiple continents. This, admittedly, has suffered from certain periods of stagnation, when “orthodoxy” prevailed, as it does from time to time in all ideologies.

To those, then, who claim that Islam is a religion of violence I would say, yes, in some ways it is. It was born in fire. And passed through the stormy thirteen-odd hundred years to the present with other religions, civilizations, and peoples, who were also negotiating their way through the world, using violence, peace, prayer, war, good and evil in equal measure.

Clearly its not good enough, as a thinking person, to claim baldly that Islam is violent. Its just plain intellectually shortsighted and therefore unhelpful. You cannot, Like Donald Trump would apparently like to, declare war on Islam. But you can, perhaps, declare war on extremism.

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