Is Islam a Peaceful Religion?

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Is Islam a Peaceful Religion?
By Carson Clark, Campus Pastor for University Abby

Is Islam a peaceful religion?

Complicated question. This semester I’m taking a course on Islam at Baylor University’s Truett Theological Seminary. We’re studying the religion from an empathetic perspective. What I’ve tentatively concluded is that anyone who gives a simplistic answer to that question is usually driven by an ideological and/or political agenda, and is full of crap.

Islam refers to one’s voluntary submission to the rightly ordered will of God. Through this surrender is attained wholeness, safety, and peace for both the individual and the community. To its very core, then, Islam is a holistic faith. TheUmmah, i.e. the global Islamic community, is explicitly intended to encompass the totality of life. This includes political life.

As a result, the Western conception of the separation of church/mosque and state is a wholly foreign concept to a Qur’anic worldview. Muhammad’s submission to Allah included an unapologetic political dimension. He sought and attained political power. And when the Ummah was threatened, he authorized (and at times led) military violence to defend it.

After Muhammad’s death, Abu Bakr and subsequent caliphs quickly spread Islam. Within 120 years the Ummah had spread from modern-day Spain and to modern-day Afghanistan, from the Atlantic Ocean to Central Asia. It is without question Muhammad and his successors used military force to do so. They created relative internal peace through external conquest.

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So, is Islam violent as so many people suggest? No, not innately. But what about when the Ummah is threatened or is aggressively expanding? Lemme put it this way: the use of violence is always on the table. Muhammad tried to lead a peaceful monotheistic revolution in Mecca, but when he encountered oppression and violence he turned to violence in Medina.

Of course, let’s aim for some measure of objectivity. Most Christians–historically and presently– feel similarly about the Church. This despite Jesus seeking no earthly political or military power, early followers of Christ were pacifists, and the First Council of Nicaea forbid military participation. Most Christians seem to think violence is on the table for us, too.

Once again I’m reminded of this quote from Richard Mouw:

“Too often in life we proceed with a hermeneutic of self-assuredness and criticism of those for whom we disagree rather than a hermeneutic of self-criticism and grace for others.”

But what about jihad? Does the Qur’an teach a violent struggle against the infidels? Most Christians don’t know this, but Islam actually distinguishes between the “lesser jihad” and the “greater jihad.” The lesser jihad is external, dealing with threats to the Ummah. The greater jihad is internal, dealing with the internal wrestling of faith. This distinction is important.

It seems to me Christians would do well to learn certain things from our Muslim neighbors. Namely, who among us doesn’t struggle with the greater jihad of trying to more faithfully align our lives with our professed beliefs? We’re called to work out of faith with fear and trembling. Meanwhile, we’d do well to extinguish our knee-jerk tendency toward violent, lesser jihad.

Is Islam a peaceful religion? No simple answer will do the the question justice. Islam seeks to assertively spread the Ummah, and through it establish a particular understanding of peace and justice. Both the Qur’an and Hadiths envision holistic, Islamic dominance. So, what about when Muslims are the minority and/or lack power? Therein lies the truly difficult question.

Islam, from its earliest history through most of its contemporary expressions, is an overtly political faith. What we’re dealing with globally, however, is an unprecedented context: a) post-colonialism, b) Western militaristic, economic, political, and cultural dominance, c) an Ummah with no unifying caliphate from 1923 onward, and d) divided nation-states.

Notice a pattern with all four areas of our unprecedented context? All are a response to Western hegemony and intervention. To my mind, it’s the law of unintended consequences. Through misguided efforts like the Iraq War, the United States and other Western powers just keep making the Islamic world more unstable, volatile, and prone to extremism. #waytogoguys

That still doesn’t answer whether Muslims can peacefully practice their religious faith within Western contexts where the Ummah isn’t dominant–where Muslims are the minority and the separation of church/mosque is pretty much a given. From my limited perspective, the jury is still out on that one. Yet ending Western hegemony would certainly help that cause.

A pressing question during the 1960 presidential campaign was whether John F. Kennedy, a Roman Catholic, could put his commitment to his country above his allegiance to the Vatican. Today this is a laughably arcane question. I think the long-term hope for many is that modern reinterpretations will enable Western Muslims to evolve in a similar manner.

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