Does Islam Promote Violence?

Dr. Javeed Akhter
Executive Director, The International Strategy and Policy Institute

Posted Aug 25, 2002      •Permalink      • Printer-Friendly Version
Bookmark and Share

Quoting the Koran (Qur’an) without context.

The evangelist, Franklin Graham and the conservative Christian commentator, Pat Robertson’s, assertions that Islam exhorts its followers to be violent against non-Muslims, are only two of the most prominent voices that are part of a rising cacophony of vicious criticism of the Koran.  One can read and hear a whole range of negative opinions about this issue in the media.  Few have taken an in-depth look at the issue.  What does the Koran actually say about violence against non-Muslims?  Does it say what Robertson and Graham claim it does?  Does it say that it is the religious duty of Muslims to kill infidels?  But first some basic principles about reading and understanding the Koran.  After all, studying the Koran is not exactly like reading Harry Potter.  Like any other scripture, there are rules that may be followed for a proper understanding of the text.

Muslim scholars suggest that those who read the Koran should keep at a minimum the following principles in mind.  First, the reader should have an awareness of the inner coherence in the Koran.  As the verses are connected to each other, the reader should study, at the least, the preceding and following verses for a sense of the immediate context.  Also, the reader should look at all of the verses that deal with the same subject in the book.  These are frequently scattered all over the scripture.  The indices provided in many of the exegeses of the Koran as well as the books of concordance allow the reader to get this information relatively easily.  Often, there is information available about the occasion of revelation of a particular verse.  This requires at least a cursory knowledge of Prophet Muhammad’s life.

As Professor Fazlur Rahman of the University of Chicago would frequently point out, the Koran, in part at least, may be looked upon as a running commentary on the mission of Prophet Muhammad.  Finally, Koranic scholars advise us to analyze the way the Prophet implemented a particular directive in a verse of the Koran in his own life and ministry.  For all Muslims, Prophet Muhammad was the ultimate exemplar of the Koran and its living embodiment. 

Let us examine the verses in question with these exegetical principles in mind.  One of the verses says:

“put down the polytheists wherever you find them, and capture them and beleaguer them and lie in wait for them at every ambush” (Koran 9:5).

The immediate context, as Muhammad Asad (The Message Of The Qur’an) points out, is that of a “war in progress” and not a general directive.  It was an attempt to motivate Muslims in self-defense.

Muslims were given permission to defend themselves just before Prophet Muhammad’s migration from Makkah (where he grew up) to the city of Madinah, which occurred in the 13th year of his 23-year mission.  The danger to Muslims in Makkah at this time was extreme and there was a real possibility of their total eradication.  They were permitted to fight back in self-defense against those who violently oppressed them.  “Permission is given (to fight) those who have taken up arms against you wrongfully.  And, verily, God (Allah) is well able to give you succor.  To those who have been driven forth from their homes for no reason than this that, say ‘Our Lord is God.”

The Koran goes on to add:

“Hath not God repelled some men by others, cloisters and churches and synagogues and mosques, wherein the name of God is ever mentioned, would assuredly have been pulled down.”  (Koran 22: 39-42)

On another occasion the Koran says:

“Fight in the cause of God those who fight you, but don’t transgress limits; for God loves not the transgressor ... And fight them on until there is no more oppression, and there prevails justice and faith in God; but if they cease let there be no hostility except to those who practice oppression”(Koran 2: 190-193)

Muslim scholars are of the opinion that war is permitted in self defense, when other nations have attacked an Islamic state, or if another state is oppressing a section of its own people.  However, this is only a part of Jihad that Muslims are allowed to practice.  A greater Jihad is struggle against one’s own inner self.

The word Jihad comes from the root letters JHD, which means to struggle or to strive.  It is understood by piety minded Muslims as a positive, noble and laudatory term.  That is how most apply it in their personal, social, political and military lives. The history of the Muslims rulers, on the other hand, gives us examples of those who attempted to sanctify their wars of personal aggrandizement as wars for a noble cause by applying the label Jihad to them.  A few even named their war departments as the departments of Jihad.  This kind of behavior may be likened to a politician’s attempt to wrap him in the flag.  Such exploitation of the term should not be allowed to corrupt the original or the commonly understood meaning of the word, which is to strive for the highest possible goals, struggle against injustice and practice self denial and self control to achieve the moral purity to which all piety minded people aspire.

The “holy war” concept, for which many non-Muslims use the word Jihad, is foreign to Islam.  Rather, it comes from a concept first used to justify the Crusades by the Christian Church during the middle Ages.  The concept of “holy war” may even go back to the time when the emperor Constantine the Great allegedly saw the vision in the sky with the inscription on the cross, “in hoc signo vinces” (in this sign you will be the victor).  The Arabic term, as has been pointed out by scholars, for “the holy war” would be al-harab al-muqaddas, which neither appears in the Koran or the sayings of the Prophet Muhammad (Hadith.)  Muhammad’s wars were defensive wars against groups who sought to eradicate Islam and the Muslims.

It is interesting and useful for social scientists or philologists to study how the meaning and usage of words differ in different communities.  Ironically, the word “crusade”, because of its association with the crusades in the middle ages, should have had a pejorative sense to it and yet the word has acquired an ennobled meaning in the West.  This, in spite of the fact that the Church itself, along with most historians, acknowledge the injustice of the Crusades and the atrocities done in the name of faith.  On the other hand, the word “Jihad"which means for Muslims, striving for the highest possible goal, has acquired the negative connotation of the holy war. 

It is clear from even a cursory study of the Koran that Islam does not permit, condone or promote violence.  Just the opposite, it abhors violence and allows it only in self-defense. A claim to the contrary is no more than bad fiction.

The critics of the Koran should remember that if the Bible were similarly quoted out of context it would appear to be an extra ordinarily violent scripture.  I will leave Graham and Robertson to defend the violence in the Bible and the history of Christianity. 

Javeed Akhter is Executive Director of a local think tank “The International Strategy and Policy Institute” and author of a new book on the biography of the Prophet titled “The Seven Phases Of Prophet Muhammad’s Life” available at the Iqra bookstore in Chicago.