This question is important not simply for academic and eristic purposes, but also for the purposes of public policy and national security. Notice that the tile of this paper is a question about the nature of Islam, a religion, and not necessarily about the character of Muslims qua Muslims, the followers of Islam. One might conclude that the majority of Muslims is peace loving, or even that a super majority is peace loving, say 95%, I do not know. It would be difficult to know such a thing like that. The best current polling that we have on the attitudes of Muslims from countries around the world, though, is not all that reassuring for non-Muslims. 1 Nevertheless, one can believe in the irenic outlook of the vast majority of Muslims and still believe that Islam itself is not necessarily a religion of peace. The focus of this effort then is on the nature of Islam.
This paper is divided into two parts. In the first part I probe the beliefs and practices of Muhammad and the founding generations. This will involve looking at the primary documents, the Qur’an and the Hadith reports. In all, this early period will take us up through the first three generations, after which some conclusions will be drawn. In the second part, I examine how Islam has been assimilated and practiced in certain periods in history up to the present, and then present some final conclusions.
It seems many of our most prominent political leaders have little or no ambivalence about the peaceful character of Islam. They can speak of it as a great and peaceful religion, and sometimes speak of it in the most glowing terms. The 43rd President, George W. Bush said this: “The face of terror is not the true face of Islam. That’s not what Islam is all about. Islam is peace. These terrorists,” he declared, “don’t represent peace. They represent evil and war.” 2 Most everyone would agree with President Bush that those who took down the World Trade Center, that attacked the Pentagon, and that hijacked United Airline flight 93 on 9/11/2001 committed acts of “evil and war.” After all nearly 3000 people lost their lives at the hands of those Islamic militants. And, throughout his tenure President Bush continued to extol the merits of Islam.
President Barack Obama adopted the same mantra, but his soaring rhetoric on February 28, 2015 far outstripped anything President Bush ever said: “Here in America, Islam has been woven into the fabric of our country since its founding. Generations of Muslim immigrants came here and went to work as farmers and merchants and factory workers, helped to lay railroads and build up America.” 3 This last statement is so historically preposterous that it is not worth a rebuttal. Going further, President Obama has developed a kind of apologetic for Islam. It goes something like this, the extremists cannot be true Muslims because no religion, especially Islam, would advocate the things the extremists do, that is sell women and children into slavery, behead people, and promote suicide bombings, etc.; rather, he claims the extremists have hijacked a peaceful religion. This stance is, to put it mildly, more than a bit troubling. Pressed to the extremes those who truly follow Islam are by definition virtuous, or at least Muslims never do really bad things. For reasons like this President Obama does not call the militants “Islamic extremists,” instead he refers to them as “violent extremists.”
Conversely, we have the Islamic militants claiming just the opposite for Islam. Abu Bakr al Baghdadi (Dr. Ibrahim Awwad Al-badri), the leader of the Islamic State (IS or ISIS) said this in a recent sermon entitled March Forth Whether Light or Heavy: “O Muslims, Islam was never for as a day the religion of peace. Islam is the religion of war. Your Prophet (peace be upon him) was dispatched with the sword as a mercy to the creation. He was ordered with war until Allah is worshipped alone.” He went on to say, “He (the Prophet) never for a day grew tired of war.” 4 Moreover, In 1996 Osama Bin Laden (and Al-Qaeda) declared war on the United States for having a military presence in Saudi Arabia. 5 The 42 nd President Bill Clinton and most of the political class at the time took little notice of this declaration. Nor did they take seriously Ramzi Yousef’s, and others, attempt to take down the World Trade center in 1993, where six people were killed and a thousand injured. At the time, they considered this attack no more than a random event carried out by a few fanatics. This inability to connect the dots, according to many terror experts, was one reason why 9/11 came as such a shock. I could propound many more quotes and instances from the political class and from the writings of the “radical Islamists” or “Islamic militants” (I will use these labels interchangeably), but the above examples will suffice for my purpose.
Before proceeding I do want to point out that some reputable Muslim scholars and leaders do oppose the militants and their understanding of Islam. Over one hundred Sunni scholars from many parts of the world have written an open letter to Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi condemning his self-declared caliphate and the ruthlessness of the Islamic State’s (ISIS). In the letter they denounce the tactics he employs in conduct of jihad, such as the unjustified beheadings, the enslavement of women and children, and the slaughter of Christians and Yazidis. What these scholars do not condemn outright is jihad as such and the goal of these militants to establish shari’a worldwide. 6 Let us turn now to Muhammad and the founding generations.
The Qur’an and the Hadiths reports are the primary sources for early Islam. How are we to characterize these sources? The Qur’an according to Marshall G. S. Hodgson “is the collection of the revelations, word for word, which God [Allah] made to Muhammad, it has been accepted literally as the words of God, and every Muslim must know some of it by heart.” 7 The Hadiths are reports of what Muhammad said (words) and did (deeds) that were later reduced to writing. There are two components to a Hadith report, the matn and the isnād. The matn “is the text of the report”; the isnād “is the chain of transmitters who narrated the report from the Prophet to the scholar who wrote the Hadith in a book or transmitted it to others….” 8 The Hadiths are next to the Qur’an in authority and are vital for understanding and interpreting the Qur’an. Together these documents represent the basic written canon of Islam and furnish the primary sources for shari’a, the Islamic code that governs all of life. Today Shari’a is fully instituted in a number of majority Muslim countries, and where Muslims are in the minority it is often partially instituted. In other circumstances many Muslims appropriate as much of shari’a as possible for personal, or family, or tribal use. In Sunni Islam there are six major Hadith collections and in Shi`a Islam four. Shari‘a as divine law is God’s (Allah) Constitution for humankind to obey. In what follows I will turn to the Qur’an and the Hadiths to show that originally the principal aim of Islam was not peace or coexistence with other religions and cultures; to the contrary, where possible Islam required other religions and cultures to submit to its supremacy before there could be an enduring peace.
First, from the Qur’an: “Fight those from among the People of the Book who believe not in Allah, nor in the Last Day, nor hold as unlawful what Allah and His Messenger have declared to be unlawful, nor follow the true religion, until they pay the tax (jizya) with their own hand and acknowledge their subjection” (Q, 9: 29). 9 A little background will help in understanding this verse. Islam does not mean “peace” but “subjection,” and in this chapter (sura) and verse (ayah) the objective of jihad is subjection. The jizya is a poll tax or the payment of tribute that was a sign of subjection. And too, there is a scholarly consensus that this sura is one of the very last chapters, and maybe the last, in the Qur’an. This means that these revelations occurred when Muhammad ruled Medina and was dominant over the other tribes, Jewish and Christian. What comes later historically in the Qur’an according to many Muslim scholars abrogates what occurred before in time, if there is a conflict between verses. 10 Chapter nine then carries great weight because of its lateness.
Again, from the Qur’an: “O ye who believe! take not the Jews and the Christians for friends. They are friends one to another. And whoso among you takes them for friends is indeed one of them. Verily, Allah guides not the unjust people” (Q, 5:52). In sura nine believers are to be harsh with disbelievers: “O Prophet, strive against the disbelievers and the hypocrites. And be severe to them. Their abode is Hell, and an evil destination it is” (Q, 9:73). Again: “O ye who believe! fight such of the disbelievers as are near to you and let them find hardness in you; and know that Allah is with the righteous” (Q, 9:123). These verses are typical and there are over one hundred of them in the Qur’an.
Islam began as a tribal religion--the Prophet was from the Quraysh tribe and the Hashemite clan. Conquered tribes were assimilated into the Prophet’s tribe through being subjected to strict obedience to the Qur’an and through being molded by the Prophet’s example. In many ways Islam has never completely outgrown its tribal mentality in spite of the fact that Islamdom is constituted of many cultures and is very diverse and sectarian. Today Islam has in excess of one and a half billion adherents. Thus, I would say, more than any other great religions, that Muslims, the umma (the whole people), were stamped with a tribal mentality. For sure, this outlook accounts for some of the distinctive hostility that the followers of Islam manifested early on toward other religions and cultures. This hostility extended even to the destruction of cultural artifacts and institutions of conquered peoples. A couple of contemporary events can suffice to illustrate what I mean. In 2001 the Mullah Omar ordered his Taliban fighters to dynamite the famous Buddhas of Bamyian of Afghanistan. These Buddhas, carved into the side of a mountain, were thirty-five to fifty meters tall and had stood there overlooking the Silk Road for over 2500 years. In addition to this, in just the last couple of years the Islamic State (ISIS) under Al Baghdadi has destroyed libraries and museums in the areas it controls in Iraq and Syria, and now the fear is that ISIS will destroy the recently captured city of Palmyra, a historic and culturally rich city for Christians and the world. The motivation is to purify the land of any visible signs or affronts to the Islamic concept of radical monotheism and the doctrine of the unity of Allah (tawhid). Muhammad, of course, practiced the same in his conquest of Arabia.
This umma had a mandate from Allah and his Prophet to spread the truth of Islam throughout the whole earth and, if necessary, by force of arms. Within a century after the Prophet this mandate led Islamic jurists to order the world into three basic realms or abodes. The first is dār al-islām, the abode of Islam, and the realm where Islam has supremacy. In this realm conquered peoples of other religions, mainly People of the Book (Jews and Christians), are allowed to live as dhimmīs, i.e., denizens of inferior status to that of Muslims. The second abode is that of dār al-harb, or the abode of war. These are the territories where Islamic law does not obtain, the realm where “it was the duty of the Muslim ruler to undertake jihad—through peaceful means if possible, but through force if necessary—to reduce dār al-harb and expand dār al-islām whenever the state was militarily and financially able to do so.” 11 The third category is that of Dar al-şulh, or the abode of truce, a classification that does not find universal acceptance among Islamic jurists and scholars. It described those regions not subject to jihad because of a truce or peace agreement, etc. These arrangements however were time specific, often ten years (following Muhammad’s own example), after which jihad could be waged. A Muslim leader usually agreed to a truce either because he did not have the wherewithal to accomplish more or because his position was weak.
The conduct of jihad and the unfriendly attitude toward Jews, Christians, and others continue in the hadith reports. For example, “It has been narrated by 'Umar b. al-Khattib that he heard the Messenger of Allah (may peace be upon him) say: I will expel the Jews and Christians from the Arabian Peninsula and will not leave any but Muslim” (Muslim 4366). Also, It has been narrated on the authority of Abdullah b. 'Umar that the Messenger of Allah said: I have been commanded to fight against people till they testify that there is no god but Allah, that Muhammad is the messenger of Allah …” (Muslim 33). Not only is there “hardness” toward those who are not believers, there is hardness toward those Muslims who would dare to apostatize. According to Al Bukhari the apostate should be killed: “for the Prophet said, 'If somebody (a Muslim) discards his religion, kill him' " (52:260). For those regions under full shari’a today, apostasy is punished as the capital crime of treason.
Why did Islam develop this way? It is instructive to remember that Muhammad not only is the “seal of the prophets” (the last and most authoritative of a long line of prophets, which include Abraham, Moses, and Jesus) he was a judge and military leader, and more. According to the Qur’an he is an exemplar for the believer: “Verily you have in the Prophet of Allah an excellent model, for him who fears Allah and the Last Day and who remembers Allah much” (Q, 33:22). Muhammad is also the “immaculate one” who rightly guides the believers: “So believe in Allah and his Messenger, the Prophet, the Immaculate one, who believes in Allah and his words; and follow him that you may be rightly guided” (Q, 7:159). The Prophet’s stature becomes especially conspicuous for Muslims when it is recognized that the Prophet’s authority extended indivisibly to every quarter of life. His words and his behaviors set the example for how the believer was to live and to carry on his affairs, from saying prayers and observing ritual ablutions to such things as what to eat and ideas about sexual and hygienic practices. When considering Muhammad as exemplar, it is jarring to learn of some of the things he sanctioned. For one, he approved of banditry to support the budding umma and to fund the spread of Islam. Following the hijra (emigration) to Medina (622 A.D.), Muhammad incorporated banditry (and slavery) under the umbrella of jihad. Take for example what happened to the dominant Jewish tribe of Medina. In the spring of 627 Muhammad accused the Quraiza tribe of collaborating with the enemy, so six to eight hundred men of the tribe “were brought in small groups to trenches dug the previous day, made to sit on the edge, then beheaded one by one and their bodies thrown in.” Further, “The women and children were sold into slavery and the money they fetched, together with the proceeds from the tribe’s possessions, was divided among the Muslims.” It is not usually a fair practice to judge past generations by contemporary standards and sentiments, but this episode would seem to be unusually brutal and despicable by the standards of any age.
Islam, it should be noted, has no professional clergy class and no official central religious authority. What they do have is a way of life that makes virtually no distinction between secular and sacred. Even in the Old Testament a clear distinction was made between religious and political authority. Political and prophetic duties were the prerogatives of the prophet Moses, while authority to oversee the cultus, the priesthood, was conferred on his brother Aaron and his descendants. To further elucidate Islam’s different formation from that of Israel, consider the institution of the mosque. The mosque is a place of worship but it is also is a place for administrative and practical activities, frequently placed in the center of the community along beside the Governor’s palace. This is symbolic of a unified authority and of a unified people, the umma. One could plan and make war and even stow military weapons in the mosque; in the mosque one can attend daily prayers and go to hear Friday sermons. In Israel the Temple precincts were restricted to religious use. And too, the successors of Muhammad (khalīfas or caliphs), the appointed leaders of the umma, had authority to wage jihad and to lead prayers and preach in the mosque. It should not go unmentioned, though, that the unity of religious and secular authority embodied by the Prophet could not be replicated in subsequent leaders. When modern Western commentators speak of “political Islam” as if it is an innovation or an anomaly they betray their ignorance of Islam’s founding dynamic and history. Islam has always been political, and the Prophet was its first political leader.
Before leaving this line of discussion, I want to comment on jihad. It was in Medina that Muhammad established jihad as a permanent institution of Islam, a state of affairs that one does not find in other major religions. This is an embarrassing fact for many “moderate” Muslims today, so they often try to convince the rest of us that jihad, which means “striving,” is nothing more than striving against one’s sins, and striving to be a better person, something akin to the Christian doctrine of mortification. Muslims call this striving to be a better person the “greater jihad.” But jihad also has another meaning, “striving in holy war” for the cause of Allah, and is called the” lesser jihad.” The word jihad appears frequently in the Qur’an and the Hadiths. Andrew Bostom in his work Legacy of Jihad points out that jihad as holy war, the lesser jihad, is much more prominent in the founding documents than jihad as personal improvement. The fact that there is no concept of the separation of church (mosque) and state, the fact that jihad as holy war is a permanent institution of Islam, and the fact that jihad is at the ready disposal of Muslim leaders to spread Islam has proved to be a lethal mix for the civilized world. Some moderate Muslim commentators today do try to deflect the public’s attention away from the real problem in Islam’s founding, and that is sanctioned offensive holy war established as a permanent institution by no less a figure than the Prophet himself.
To sum up the founding period, it is obvious that the Qur’an and the Hadith reports portray Muhammad and his companions as a determined, aggressive, and at time a vicious lot. Muhammad conquered and unified Arabia during his lifetime, but this was not accomplished through persuasion but through the raw use of military might. Before he died he even sent a couple of raiding parties to pillage the boarders of the Byzantine Empire. Sure, there are Qur’anic verses and Hadith reports that describe the Prophet as gentle and merciful who implored others to be likewise, but these accounts almost always have to do with relations among his followers. Notwithstanding his efforts, his admonitions often went unheeded, especially after his death when internal strife and civil war seem to be a constant. After all it is difficult to abate aggression once it has been cultivated toward outsiders.
Religions can and do evolve into something significantly better. I believe Christianity has, especially since the Middle Ages. But has Islam also evolved into something significantly better? The second installation of this paper will test this possibility as it takes up selected examples from the span of Islamic history.
1 See for example the Pew Research Center poll: The World’s Muslims: Religion, Politics, and Society, April 30, 2013.
2 Remarks made before The Islamic Center of Washington, D.C., 17 September 2001 (https://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office).
3 At the closing of the Summit on Countering Violent Extremism on February of 2015:
5 See his Ladenese Epistle,” August 23, 1996, “Declaration of War against the Americans occupying the Land of the Two Holy Places.”
7 The Venture of Islam, U. of Chicago P. 1974, Vol. I: 73.
8 The Princeton Encyclopedia of Islamic Political Thought, Hadith, Princeton UP, 2013.
9 Most citations are from the Maulvi Sher Ali (ra) translation.
10 “We do not abrogate a verse or cause it to be forgotten except that We bring forth [one] better than it or similar to it. Do you not know that Allah is over all things competent?” (Q. 2:106)
11 Princeton Encyclopedia of Islam, abodes of Islam, war, and truce.
12 See Efraim Karsh’s Islamic Imperialism, Yale UP, 2006, 4 ff.
13 Karsh 13.
14 Princeton Encyclopedia of Islamic, “mosque.”