Values of Peacebuilding and Nonviolence in Islam: Ideals and Reality

Mohammed Abu-Nimer

Posted Nov 21, 2002      •Permalink      • Printer-Friendly Version
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One of the factors that contributes to the negative images associated with Islam in western societies is the lack of research relating to Islam and nonviolence. In contrast to the numerous resources available on Islam and violence, there are very few studies that actively promote and explore the issue of nonviolence and peacebuilding in Islam.

There are three types of studies that relate to Islam, nonviolence, and peace. One type of study notes that Islam as a religion and culture lends itself to the justification of war and violence in settling conflicts. In this perspective Islam is a religion of war, a ?religion of the sword,? and a fundamentalist religion. Another type of study focuses on several hypotheses related to the nature of justice and the conditions placed on the use of violence and force in Islam. Such research is conducted from the perspective of international power and security paradigms and concludes that pacifism is a Christian concept that is alien to Islamic teachings. This group talks about the use of force as a defensive strategy and the duty of Muslims to defend their basic rights and pursue justice as a primary value in Islam. A third type of study, still emerging, reinterprets Islamic teaching and reframes the issue of using force and violence to settle conflicts. The emphasis of this group is on the values of peace, unity of humankind, nonviolence and justice. In other words, they emphasize that the overall message of Islam is peace and nonviolence. For these scholars, Islam as a religion has a set of values and beliefs that support peace and nonviolent approaches to conflict. Such values constitute a solid foundation for political and social change in Muslim societies.

Islamic Peacebuilding Values

Dwelling on the third type of study, one can note that Islam as a religion is rich with central values that promote peacebuilding and conflict resolution. Such values can be utilized to construct a framework for nonviolent and mass movements to resist oppression, and struggle against injustice. The values and beliefs in Islam that promote peacebuilding and nonviolent approaches to conflict are numerous, and are supported by the holy book of the Qur?an and the Prophet?s Hadith.

Among these values and beliefs, one can mention the pursuit of justice, which is every Muslim?s duty. There are a number of religious practices and institutions that ensure social justice, such as zakah (almsgiving), saddaqah (charity) and waqf (Islamic institutions to assist the poor and provide services to the needy). The pursuit of justice is called for in many verses of the Qur?an:

O you who believe, stand out firmly for God, as witnesses to justice and let not the enmity of others make you swerve from the path of justice. Be just: that is next to righteousness, and fear God. Indeed, God is well acquainted with all that you do. (5:8)

Another value promoting peacebuilding and nonviolence is doing good (khayr and ihsan). Struggling against oppression by doing good and supporting needy groups and individuals in society is an Islamic virtue and can be a source of empowerment to weak segments of the society. Providing for the needy is a responsibility and obligation of every Muslim.

A third value is universality and human dignity: all humans are the creation of God, thus they are all equal and their lives are sacred. The Qur?an states: “It is We who created you and gave you shape; then We bade the angels bow down to Adam, and they bowed down; not so Iblis; he refused to be of those who bow down.” (7:11)

A fourth important value, equality, follows from the previous one: in Islam no privilege is granted based on race, ethnicity, or tribal association. According to the Hadith:

All people are equal, as equal as the teeth of a comb. There is no claim of merit of an Arab over a Persian (non-Arab), or of a white over a black person, or of a male over female. Only God-Fearing people merit a preference with God.

The sacredness of human life is also an important Islamic value: all Muslims are to respect and preserve human life. The destruction of property and the killing of children, women, the elderly, or innocent citizens, have been banned in wars since the time of the Khalifa Abu Bakr and Khalifa Ali. The Qur?an states: ?And if anyone saves a life, it would be as if he saved the life of the whole people.? (5:32) ?And do not take a life which Allah has forbidden save in the course of justice. This he enjoins on you so that you may understand.? (6:15)

Islam also calls for the quest of peace, which is a state of physical, mental, spiritual, and social harmony. The principle of peace is stressed by many Qur?anic verses, such as:
“Whenever they kindle the fire of war, God extinguishes it. They strive to create disorder on earth and God loves not those who create disorder.” (5:64)

Other verses stress the importance of tolerance and kindness to other people: ?God commands you to treat (everyone) justly, generously and with kindness.? (16:90) ?Thus when evil is done to you it is better not to reply with evil, but to do what best repels the evil. Two evils do not make a good.?

Looking at the life of the Prophet, one can note the use of nonviolent methods to resist persecutors: the Prophet never resorted to violence or force. In addition, the Arabic meaning of the word Islam itself reflects peace. As the Qur?an states: ?And their greeting therein shall be, Peace.? (10:10)

The value of peacemaking and negotiation is also stressed in Islam as being more effective than aggression and violent confrontation. Mediation and arbitration were practiced by the Prophet in several tribal conflicts.

Another virtue in Islam is that of forgiveness, which is considered a higher virtue than revenge, violence, or aggression. Muslims are urged to forgive even when they are angry (42:377) and are instructed to: “[r]epel evil (not with evil) but with something that is better (ahsan) - that is, with forgiveness and amnesty.” (23:96)

Islam emphasizes actions and deeds: “On those who believe and work deeds of righteousness, will (Allah) Most Gracious bestow love.” (19:96) An individual is responsible for his/her deeds; no one else can guide him and no one can bear the responsibility of someone else?s actions: ?It is not that We wronged them but they wronged themselves.? (11:101)

In Islam, a person has three responsibilities, according to which he/she will be judged by God: the responsibility toward Allah (fulfilled through faithful performance of religious duties); the responsibility to oneself (by living in harmony with oneself); and the responsibility to live in harmony and peace with one’s fellow humans. Patience is also an important value emphasized by Islam in dealing with others before judging their actions or statements. It is associated with strength of faith. “You who believe! Seek help with patient perseverance and prayer: for Allah is with those who patiently persevere.” (2:153)

Islamic Ideals and Muslim Reality: Explaining the Gap

It is important to note that Muslims who work for social and political change face difficulties in implementing these peaceful Islamic ideals and values. The obstacles to such implementation come from both macro and micro challenges. 

The macro challenges are divided into internal and external. Internally, they relate to political, social, and cultural structural arrangements that prevent agents of change and ordinary people from accessing or implementing such values in massive social movements or in institutional changes. Among these structural challenges are the systems of technocracy and bureaucracy which lead to political stagnancy. In such systems, there is a lack of imaginative and creative political leadership at the decision-making levels. Under these authoritarian control systems, civil liberties and public participation in the decision-making process are absent. Another challenge is the cooptation of religious leaders by the government. The religious leaders tend to promote the interests of the leaders and ignore the people?s interests and desires: this leads to a lack of trust and credibility in the religious leadership. A third challenge is corruption, which is present at all levels and which has worsened poverty in Muslim communities. A fourth challenge is the patriarchal social structure, which grants little attention to the equality of women (Moghadam, 1993 and Sharabi, 1988). This prevents social change and peacebuilding efforts in the society. Hierarchy is the fifth challenge. By placing more attention on ranking and association than on individual capacities (Hudson, 1977; Barakat, 1993), hierarchy contradicts egalitarian values and equal participation in decision-making and conflict resolution processes.

Among the external challenges, one can mention colonialism and post-colonialism, which had numerous impacts on the development of such Muslim countries; economic dependency on the West; cultural globalization, which challenges the Islamic value system; and war and humiliation (the Arab-Israeli conflict has left a huge and serious destructive imprint on Arab countries).

On the micro or individual level, the challenges arise out of a set of beliefs that are often raised by participants in civil society and conflict resolution workshops. These beliefs or assumptions are shared to challenge the social change agent who calls for nonviolence and conflict resolution as methods of change. Some of these assumptions are first, peace is a tool for cooptation and pacification (that it is used by the powerful to suppress the weaker party); second, peace and nonviolence contradict justice; third, violence can eventually terminate conflicts. In this context, Arab participants often refer back to Gamal Abdul Nasser?s statement in reference to the Israeli occupation of Palestine: ?What has been taken by force can only be returned by force?; fourth, nonviolence is not an authentic method of conflict resolution on a political level; fifth, the denial that conflict is an integral part of life and human interaction and thus the misperception of a conflictless society. These are some of the reasons for concern and resistance to a nonviolent and peacebuilding approach voiced by many in Muslim communities.

Promoting peacebuilding and nonviolent methods of social and political change in a Muslim community context requires that we attend to individual attitudes that resist the possibility and effectiveness of such methods. It is also important to develop approaches and methods that can capture and address the negative and destructive impact of the external factors, as well as the internal factors.


Islam promotes numerous nonviolent and peacebuilding values and expects Muslims to live by them. The difficulty arises not in the absence of these peaceful values and ideals but in their implementation and the obstacles facing individuals and organizations who aim to generate institutional and structural political and social changes. Our job, as Muslim and non-Muslim scholars and practitioners is to continue the construction of an authentic and culturally based framework for peacebuilding and nonviolence that can be applied both to policy as a well as at a community level. The Qur?an, the Hadiths, and other traditional Islamic sources provide plenty of evidence to the hypothesis that Islam is a religion of peace and justice, and that nonviolent practices are well-rooted in the religion too. Educating people (Muslim and non-Muslim) around the world on the peaceful message of Islam and eradicating the ignorance that leads to the negative stereotyping of Islam and to enmity between Muslims and non-Muslims is the first essential step toward peaceful and just relations between Muslim and non-Muslim communities. However, such efforts by themselves are not enough. Peacebuilders and agents of social change in Muslim communities also have to face the internal, social, cultural, and political structural obstacles that exist in Muslim communities. It is true that such structural obstacles are further maintained by external forces, however, individuals and organizations can resist and face such internal decay and evil forces. Every Muslim community should resort to self-examination and criticize itself for the role it plays in perpetuating the reality of stagnation, violence, and sense of helplessness. This needs to occur in order for any genuine change to take place. Peacebulding tools and approaches are effective methods to conduct such a process.

Thanks to David Smock (USIP) for his notes and reviews of this article, also much appreciation to Amal Khoury for her assistance in the process of researching and editing this article.  Mohammed Abu-Nimer.

Originally published at USIP November 7, 2001.  Reprinted in The American Muslim with permission of the author.

Mohammed Abu-Nimer is a professor at the American University, School of International Service, International Peace and Conflict Resolution program in Washington, D.C.