Is Islam a religion of peace?

Islam is a warrior religion.  It was established by sword-wielding men on horseback, not poor people hiding in catacombs. There is nothing in the Koran about turning the other cheek, returning good for evil or doing good to those who hate you. Rather the ethic of the Koran is to live in peace with those who are willing to live in peace with you, but to defend yourself and your loved ones with all your might if you are attacked.

I don’t say this critically.  I am not a pacifist.  I do not turn the other cheek myself. The ethic of being peaceful if you can, but fighting if you must is what I was taught by my father, and what I believe in.

When you call Islam a “religion of peace,” this is not exactly false, but the implication is that Muslims are pacifists like the Quakers or the Amish or the followers of Mahatma Gandhi.  This is easily refuted by quoting some of the fiercer passages from the Koran about waging war against Christians and Jews.

Islam is not a “religion of peace” in the pacifist sense, but it is a religion with which it is possible to live in peace. If you read the whole Koran, you see that the context of those passages is that the followers of Mohammad were fighting for their existence against pagan, Christian and Jewish Arab tribes; there are other passages about living in peace with adherents of those religions if they are willing to live in peace with you.  There is a famous passage (in Sura 2) about no compulsion in religion.

Click on Peace and Love in the Quran for a deeper discussion.

Like the Christian and Hebrew Bible, the Koran is quoted by different people for different purposes. There is nothing in the Koran so bloodthirsty as passages in the Old Testament / Hebrew Bible calling for extermination of the Canaanite tribes.  If you knew nothing of Judaism and Christianity and somebody quoted Genesis 34: 14-29; Deuteronomy 3: 1-7; Numbers 31: 7-9, 15-18; Joshua 6: 21; or Judges 21: 10-24 to you, you would have a very misleading idea of those religions.

Mohammad famously said to followers after a great battle that they had returned from the “lesser jihad,” the battle against enemies, to the “greater jihad,” the struggle to master oneself.

Here is how the Muslim scholar Seyyed Hossein Nasr described the Muslim warrior ideal in Ideals and Realities of Islam:

If one thinks of the Buddha as sitting in a state of contemplation under the Bo-tree, the Prophet can be imagined as a rider sitting on a steed with the sword of justice and discrimination [between good and evil] drawn in his hand and galloping at full speed, yet ready to come to an immediate halt before the mountain of Truth.

In Islam, when one thinks of the Prophet who is to be emulated, it is the image of a strong personality that comes to mind who is severe with himself and with the false and the unjust, and charitable towards the world that surrounds him. … He is that warrior on horseback who halts before the mountain of Truth, passive towards the Divine Will, active towards the world, hard and sober towards himself and kind and generous towards the creatures about him.

The “lesser jihad” still can be a religious duty, and Islam was spread, in part, through wars of conquest. Within the first couple of generations after Mohammed, the Arabs established an empire stretching from Morocco to the borders of India.

Christianity also was spread by conquest.  At least I think that Christianity would have had a much more difficult time establishing itself in North and South America if it had been Powhatan and Montezuma rather than John Smith and Hernando Cortes who possessed gunpowder weapons. Of the world’s three great missionary religions, the only one that was not spread through conquest was Buddhism.

One reason that Muslim rule established itself so rapidly is that Christians and Jews found more tolerance under Muslim rule than Muslims, Jews and heretic Christians always did under Christian rule.  This wasn’t true in every case, but Christians, Jews and Muslims lived together in relative harmony under Muslim rule in Spain, and when Jews were driven out of Spain by the Inquisition, some of them took refuge in the Turkish Ottoman Empire.

I have a good impression of Muslims I have met.  I have one good friend of Muslim heritage from Uzbekistan, and I have had a number of other Muslim acquaintances over the years.  I never thought any of them hated me because of religion.

Some years back I was a volunteer driver for the Refugee Resettlement Program of Catholic Family Services of Rochester.  Among the refugees were several families from Somalia and one from Iraq, plus the families of three Afghan widows whose husbands had been murdered by the Taliban.  They all possessed great dignity and courtesy, as well as gratitude for any kindness and resilience in the face of adversity.

Here in Rochester, NY, we have an interfaith Union Thanksgiving Service established by Unitarians, Universalists and Jews and which now includes Protestants, Catholics and Muslims.  There is an ongoing interfaith dialogue between Jews and Muslims in our community.

Abd el-Kader

Abd el-Kader

I recently learned the story of Abd el-Kader, a 19th century Arab leader who was so respected that a county seat in Iowa is named for him. Click on Abd el-Kader and the Massacre of Damascus for his story. The article tells of his struggle against the French conquest of Algeria with great courage and ingenuity, but also great chivalry which was not reciprocated. It then tells how later as a peacemaker he saved the lives of thousands of Christians in Syria.  His life is a refutation of the idea that it is impossible for Christians and Muslims to live in peace.

Islam is a religion of more than a billion people which has existed for more than 1,500 years. You can find support or exceptions for almost any generalization about Muslims, good or bad.

I don’t deny that many bad things are done in the name of Islam.  Some years back I was involved in a human rights campaign on behalf of a lecturer in Pakistan who was sentenced to death for alleged blasphemy.  The charge against Dr. Yunis Shaikh was that he had said, in answer to a question, that Mohammad logically could not have been a Muslim before he received his revelation from God, and that Mohammad’s parents, who died when he was a child, also could not have been Muslims.  This reasonable statement was judged to be an offense worthy of capital punishment.

I wrote letters of protest to Pakistani authorities, as well as to the relevant human rights specialists in the U.S. State Department.  Others elsewhere in the world conducted a more organized and doubtless more effective campaign.  Eventually Pakistan’s highest court acquitted Dr. Shaikh of the charge, not on the grounds of its absurdity but because it was based on hearsay evidence.  Dr. Shaikh and his family were smuggled out of Pakistan before the acquittal was announced, and are living somewhere incognito.

A lot of bad things are done in the name of Islam, but they are not necessarily representative of all Muslims.  When I wrote my protest letters, I quoted passages from the Koran about the duty of religious tolerance, including Sura 2 that there should be no compulsion in religion. I cited statements of organized Muslim groups, most of them based in Europe, who said that such prosecutions were un-Islamic and contrary to the spirit of the Koran.  The theocrats in Pakistan do not speak for all Muslims.

Muslim U.S. soldiers

The al-Qaeda terrorists who destroyed the World Trade Center and attacked the Pentagon on Sept. 11, 2001, were condemned by most of the world’s Muslims.  There were pro-U.S. demonstrations in Iran!

Click on the following links for denunciations of al-Qaeda and terrorism by Muslim authorities.

Muslim Denunciations of al-Qaeda and Terrorism

Muslims Condemn Terrorist Attacks

Islamic Statements Against Terrorism

The links are collections of statements from the Informed Comment web site of Juan Cole, a professor of Middle Eastern history at the University of Michigan.

Click on On the New Year’s Day Church Bombing in Egypt for a statement by the Grand Mufti of Egypt condemning terrorism against Christians, quoted on the University of Notre Dame’s Contending Modernities web site. [Added 1/7/11]

I would like to think that there is some Muslim expert on Christianity who is posting, for the benefit of Muslims, the denunciations by Christian groups of the killing of innocent civilians by U.S. and allied forces in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan.

One of the worst things done in the name of Islam is the issuance of fatwas (legal rulings) by self-appointed groups authorizing the murder of people such as the writer Salman Rushdie who supposedly insult Islam.  This does not have any exact parallel in contemporary Christianity. I know of no Christian group taking our a murder contract on militant atheists such as Richard Dawkins or Christopher Hitchens.

On the other hand there are Christian terrorists in the United States who murder abortion doctors.  Catholic and Orthodox clergy participated in the ethnic cleansing of Bosnia.  Catholic clergy participated in the Rwandan genocide.  And the atheists Joseph Stalin and Mao Tse-tung were responsible for the deaths of tens of millions.

All these things are part of the historical record, but none of them is the whole story.  The main point of Islam is the teaching of justice and compassion, and the bringing of meaning to the lives of billions of human beings.

I would not like to be judged on the basis of the worst things I ever did and said, as interpreted by my enemies, and I do not think religious communities should be condemned on this basis.

Click on Muslims Are Good Folks for a column by Charley Reese, formerly a columnist for the Orlando Sentinel.  He reported that in all his travels in majority-Muslim countries, among the poorest of the poor, he was never panhandled or attacked, and felt safer than he did in large American cities. “Muslims are much like Southern Baptists, only more so,” he wrote. [Added 8/12/10]

Click on “You’ve Never Met a Muslim” for four accounts of what it means to be an American and a Muslim. [Added 9/18/10]

Here are some books I’ve read about Islam that I recommend.

ISLAM: A Primer, by John Sabini

John Sabini is an American writer who has lived for decades in North Africa and the Middle East. This is the best book for people who know nothing whatsoever of Islam.

THE KORAN: a very short introduction, by Michael Cook

The Christian religion centers on a person, Jesus Christ, but the Muslim religion centers on a book, The Koran.  Michael Cook, a Princeton University professor teaching Middle East history, explains the place of the Koran in Islam.

THE MEANING OF THE GLORIOUS KORAN, an explanatory translation by Mohammed M. Pickthall

Mohammed M. Pickthall was an English Muslim whose translation of the Koran that strives for literal accuracy.


Arthur J. Arberry was a British Orientalist whose translation of the Koran tried to do justice to its poetry and beauty.

MUHAMMED: his life based on the earliest sources, by Martin Lings

Martin Lings is an English Muslim who presents Mohammad’s life from the standpoint of a believer in his revelation.

MOHAMMED, by Maxime Rodinson

Maxime Rodinson is a French secular humanist who lived many years in Lebanon.  His biography of Mohammad is respectful but skeptical.


THE HEART OF ISLAM: Enduring Values for Humanity, by Seyyed Hossein Nasr

Seyyed Hossain Nasr

Seyyed Hossain Nasr is an Iranian scholar resident in the United States. He says the moral and spiritual values of Islam are an antidote to the emptiness and materialism of modern Western culture.

Some years back Hossain Nasr was a panelist in the Bill Moyers TV series on Genesis. The major characters of the Christian and Hebrew Bibles appear in the Koran, but their stories are somewhat different.  In the Koranic account, Abraham had equal love for Isaac, the son of his wife Sarah, who became the ancestor of the Jews, and Ishmael, the son of his concubine Hagar, who became the ancestor of the Arabs, and Isaac and Ishmael loved each other.

A FURY FOR GOD: The Islamist Attack on America, by Malise Ruthven

Malise Ruthven is an British expert on Middle Eastern history. This book gives the background of Al-Qaeda in Saudi Arabia and its intellectual roots in the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt.

WHY I AM NOT A MUSLIM, by “Ibn Warraq”

“Ibn Warraq” is the assumed name of a man born in Pakistan who renounced Islam and lives in an undisclosed location because of fears of assassination. So long as this fear is warranted, this book’s harsh criticisms of his former religion cannot be dismissed as one-sided.

My Uzbek friend might say this book’s compilation of evils done in the name of Islam do not reflect true Islam, just as Christian friends might say that the Inquisition and the Salem witch trials do not reflect true Christianity.  Perhaps not, but all these things are part of the historical record.  To ignore them would be as big a distortion as to say they are the whole story or the most important part of the story.

Warraq is the editor of several books of textual criticism of the Koran, similar to what scholars such as Bart Ehrman have done with the Christian Bible. This is an important contribution to knowledge. His books are published by Prometheus Books; click on the name to reach its web site.

WHAT’S RIGHT WITH ISLAM: A New Vision for Muslims and the West, by Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf

Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf is an American Muslim cleric active in interfaith activities.  He is one of the founders of the Cordoba Initiative, one of whose projects is to build a Islamic interfaith and community center in downtown Manhattan – the so-called “mosque near Ground Zero.”

In this book he argues that Muslims occupy a position in American society roughly equivalent to Catholics 50 to 75 years ago, when Protestants, Jews and humanists were fearful of a religion that taught “outside the [Catholic] church these is no salvation” and “error has no rights against truth.” Over time Protestants, Jews and humanists came to recognize the diversity of Catholics, and Catholics overcame their reservations about religious pluralism.  He expects the same changes to happen with Christians, Jews and humanists on the one hand and American Muslims on the other.

Feisal Abdul Rauf’s book and Ibn Warraq’s book should be read as a pair.

REASON, FREEDOM AND DEMOCRACY IN ISLAM: Essential Writings of Abdolkarim Soroush

This book by a courageous Iranian cleric dissents from the Iranian religious theocracy and makes the case for science, democracy and religious tolerance as Islamic values.

[Added 1/11/11]  Click on Islam and Modernity for an essay by Shaykh Ali Gomaa, Grand Mufti of Egypt, for the views of an important Muslim cleric on Islam, peace and tolerance.

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5 Responses to “Is Islam a religion of peace?”

  1. Joyce Ireland Says:

    I agree with my friend, Esther:
    She said, I don’t think any religion is a religion of peace – most people believe their religion is right, therefore, everyone else must be wrong…her late husband taught religion at Colgate University in Rochester….I don’t believe in religion anymore, however, most people do and I’m thankful for that. Does that make sense??.
    Keep us thinking Phil….


  2. philebersole Says:

    A friend of mine received a “joke” e-mail about a Saudi Air pilot and an Iran Air pilot landing their planes at the Atlanta airport. It transcribes the conversation between the pilots and an Atlanta air traffic controller, It is routine until the Saudi pilot says, “You have cleared both our aircrafts for the same runway going in opposite directions. We are on a collision course. … Instructions, please.”

    There follows a photo of two airplanes about to collide.

    Then the Atlanta air traffic controller says, “Well, bless your hearts. And praise Jesus. Y’all go on ahead now and tell Allah ‘hey’ for us.”

    My friend’s reply was as follows:

    >>There is but one God. Some call him the Creator (endowed by their Creator), some call him Yahweh, some call him the Great Spirit, some call him Jesus. Lots of names and lots of disagreements in all the religions, Shiites, Sunnis, Protestants, Catholics, Jews. The latter called upon his followers to sacrificial love, turn the other cheek, and to love one another even as I have loved you. So the Atlanta airport, knowing that their understanding of God is the true one, sends some to their death in the name of Jesus. How does this differ from those who flew their planes into the Towers, the Pentagon and the hillside in Pennsylvania.

    >> Didn’t find it funny. The attacks on Americans who are Muslims reminds me an awful lot of Germany in the 30s.

    My own thought is that if that e-mail were read by a Muslim person who knows as little of Christianity as the average American Christian knows of Islam, the person might well get the impression that Christianity is a religion of hate.


  3. freedomactionnow Says:

    Unfortunately, what they do speaks so loudly that we cannot hear what they’re saying. The Christian Crusades were 800 years ago. (And the first was a reaction to the Muslim conquest of Jerusalem, and their harassing Christian pilgrims.) Terrorist bombings, and launching unguided rockets into Israel, goes on today.

    “… web site of Juan Cole, …”
    I’ve heard of him. I would not consider him an unbiased source – not even a little unbiased. Here’s Hitchens, in Slate:
    “I was not surprised to see professor Juan Cole of the University of Michigan denying that Ahmadinejad, or indeed Khomeini, had ever made this call for the removal of Israel from the map. Cole is a minor nuisance on the fringes of the academic Muslim apologist community.

    Not even Professor Cole will dispute that, in the above passages, the term “occupying regime” means Israel and the term “world oppressor” stands for the United States. (The title of the conference, incidentally, was The World Without Zionism.)”

    The problem seems to be that Islam doesn’t have a single “Chief Imam”, to which the Muslim world can turn to for advice and guidance. They still kill apostates, they still stone adulterers (but only the women), they still preserve the age-old custom of “honor killing” (if your daughter gets raped, you’re allowed to kill her).

    Another name I recognize is Feisal Abdul Rauf, He’s the guy who came up with the $100 million or so to build the mosque near Ground Zero.
    “Speaking from his New York mosque, Imam Feisal said the West had to understand the terrorists’ point of view.”
    “Imam Feisal said it was Christians who started mass attacks on civilians.”

    Consider also the murder of Theo Van Gogh, the fatwa against Salman Rushdie – something that has no equal in Christianity, the worldwide Muslim outrage over every imagined slight against Mohammed – as if his position were so tenuous that the slightest insult would topple him.

    “The main point of Islam is the teaching of justice and compassion, and the bringing of meaning to the lives of billions of human beings.”

    As I started out, what they do speaks so loudly I cannot hear what they’re saying.


  4. philebersole Says:

    Prejudice is to take the worst behavior of members of a group, and attribute it to the group as a whole.

    As to the specific points raised by freedomaction now:

    1. Juan Cole knows Farsi and Christopher Hitchens doesn’t. If some expert on Middle Eastern languages disputed Prof. Cole’s translation of President Ahmadinijad’s statement, I would take it more seriously. In any case, it was a rhetorical statement. At the same time many commentators in Israel and the United States have seriously advocated an attack on Iran, including a possible nuclear attack. I hope and trust this would not actually be carried out, but it would be a greater crime against humanity, with greater loss of innocent life, than anything the Iranian government has ever done.

    I do not justify President Adhmadinijad’s tyrannical and illegitimate rule. Indeed, I hope he vanishes from the page of history.

    2. Do you deny the truth of what Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf said? It is a fact that self-described Christians were responsible for Hiroshima and Nagasaki. It is a fact that al-Qaeda’s 9/11 attacks were a response to U.S. policy in the Middle East – supporting Israel and propping up corrupt regimes in Arab countries. It is a fact that more innocent civilian life has been lost as a result of U.S. intervention in Iraq and Afghanistan than ever were taken by al Qaeda and the Taliban. And all of these people were human beings, with as much dignity and worth as you and me.

    We say deaths of civilians were “collateral damage” and not intentional, but that would be a distinction without a difference to someone whose sister was killed on her wedding day by a Predator missile because the wedding party seemed suspicious to some American sitting in front of a computer screen.

    I do not of course say this is a justification for the atrocities committed by al Qaeda and the Taliban. As my mother taught me, “Two wrongs don’t make a right.” Imam Rauf was not justifying their atrocities, just trying to help non-Muslim Americans understand the background.

    His Corboda House project would be a big thumb in the eye of al-Qaeda. It would disprove Osama bin Laden’s central argument, that the West is the enemy of all Muslims and that Muslims and Christians cannot live in peace.

    3. The murderers of Theo van Gogh should be put on trial and punished for their crime. I think this is a case in which capital punishment would be justified. But the responsibility for a crime rests with people who commit the crime, not with everybody who falls within their same category. The nice Turkish tailor who lives down the street, and mends my worn suits so I can keep on wearing them, bears less responsibility for Theo van Gogh than I bear for the Blackwater mercenaries who went on a rampage and murdered Iraqi civilians for no reason.

    4. The fatwa against Salman Rushdie and the riots over cartoons were very bad things, and were justly condemned. I commented on this in my original post. Honor killings and stonings for adultery are very bad things. It has only been a couple of generations since these things were unknown in the Christian world; I remember as a boy hearing about the “unwritten law” by which juries refuse to convict husbands who kill their unfaithful wives and their lovers.

    5. It is true that Islam has no Pope, and no central authority for disciplining teachers who get out of line. They are like Protestant Christians, who have no means of shutting down a Rev. Jim Jones and his suicide cult.

    All this is detail. My main argument is that Islam is a religion of a billion people, who comprise good people and bad, who believe a lot of different things. You say the religion is mostly bad. Suppose it is. Do you think you can stamp it out? Do you think it is of any benefit to the United States as a nation to get into war with a religion of a billion people?

    One thing for which I respect President George W. Bush is that he was careful to distinguish between terrorists, with whom we were waging war, and the Muslim religion, with whom we were willing to live in peace.

    P.S. Click on the URL below for a partial list of Muslim victims of the 9/11 attacks, including first responders. Not everyone of the same religion or the same ethnicity is the same.

    P.P.S. As another afterthought, I do respect Christopher Hitchens for his defense of Salman Rushdie. The way to defense free speech and freedom of the press is to fight back against those who seek to deny it, not to instigate religious persecution or religious war. Turning a case of freedom vs. authoritarianism into a case of the West vs. Islam does not help the case of freedom.


  5. philebersole Says:

    The way I make my argument may give rise to misunderstanding.

    Somebody says Islam is evil because a bunch of Muslims did X.
    I reply that a bunch of Christians or Jews or atheists or generic Westerners did Y, which is worse, or just as bad, or almost as bad.
    The trouble with that mode of argument is the implication that bad actions by one person or group excuses bad actions by another person or group. Two wrongs don’t make a right.

    My point is not to malign Christians or Jews or atheists or Westerners, but to point out that in these cases, we do not judge the entire group by the action of a certain individuals.

    I’m not sure if it is even possible to judge a whole culture or religion, but if it is, they should be judged as a whole by someone who knows enough to make an informed judgment.


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