Is Islam a Religion of Peace, or of War?
Islam can indeed be a religion of peace. Islam is indeed a religion of war.
The flashlight in my hand was pointed at the damp branches ahead of me as I watched them sway to the cool whims of Brother Wind. “This is stupid,” I thought to myself.
An instructor had woken me up from my sleeping bag during the pitch-black hours before dawn, handed me a flashlight, and informed me of my duty to “guard” the campground. He escorted me to the edge of the grounds and instructed me not to let anyone through unless they said a certain passphrase. I was left to stand there until another groggy kid would be escorted to relieve me of my duty.
A nearby bush suddenly rustled. I pointed the flashlight at the bush. The Syrian-born man who regularly organized events for the Muslim boys at our mosque in Raleigh emerged from behind the bush.
“What’s the password?” I asked him.
“Okay,” I replied, and I let him through to the campground.
I was in the fourth grade, and it was spring break in 1993. Some men at our local mosque had organized a camping trip for the Muslim boys in the mountains of North Carolina. I was excited to go… until I got there. Our instructors had been shouting at us constantly. They had us repeat military-like cadences when we hiked.
It rained on one of the nights. A buddy of mine left our tent unzipped and our tent got partially flooded. From the back of the tent I witnessed the silhouetted figures of my buddy and my Sunday school teacher, an Iraqi-born man with a fierce temper, as my teacher inspected the damage with a flashlight while he seethed his fury. The flashlight fell upon a pair of soaked sneakers. My teacher picked up one of the sneakers and put it up to my buddy’s face. “Look at this,” he seethed, and then he struck my buddy in the face with it. He put his face up to my buddy’s. “You’re so stupid.” My buddy started sniffling, but we both knew better than to talk back. That very same teacher had once raised a threatening hand at me during class at Sunday school, and I could tell from his angry face that he was ready to hit me. So I watched, wishing I was just a little bit older so I could show him a thing or two.
When the trip came to an end, our instructors acknowledged to us boys that yes, they’d been strict, and then went on to explain that it was how young men were treated in the army.
I hated those men for a very long time. It didn’t occur to me back then that they were only trying to instill in us that which had been instilled in them, that they too were born into a line of indoctrination which could be traced back for over a thousand years. They didn’t know that there are better ways to live.
Peace or War?
“Islam is a religion of peace.”
I get told this every now and then by well-meaning friends.
I grew up in a household where Islam was practiced peacefully, taught that being a good Muslim meant I was practicing the Five Pillars (declaration, prayer, fasting, almsgiving and pilgrimage) and abstaining from sin decently enough. During my late teens I’d developed a fascination with mystical Sufism, so wonderfully articulated by teetotaler poets who wrote of being inebriated on God. My father was a convert to Islam, and so I had Christian relatives (and also a Jewish uncle by marriage), that my family wasn’t keen at all to dismiss non-Muslims as kafirs (a derogatory term for nonbelievers). I’ll also say that the discipline, in spiritual matters, of the average Muslim floors that of the average Christian. It was never difficult to cite verses from the Quran, or hadiths (recorded sayings and deeds of Muhammad) that supported my family’s outlook, nor was it difficult to meet easygoing Muslims (especially among those who were nominal in their practice).
I hear something like this every now and then as well.
I grew up routinely hearing anti-American and anti-Jewish sentiments from fellow American Muslims, many of whom considered their non-Muslim neighbors to be kafirs. I’d met many fellow Muslims who were eager to blame every problem in the Muslim world upon the former empires of European, and/or conspiracies arranged by the CIA, or the Jews, or some collaboration of the two. In 2005, during the khutba (sermon) of the last Jummah (Friday) prayer service I attended at our mosque in Raleigh, the speaker had even made seditious remarks. Such Muslims could just as easily cite verses from the Quran, or hadiths, to support their worldview.
Mecca — Before the Flight
This complication can be found in the biography of Muhammad himself. Muhammad was said to have received his first revelation from the Angel Jibreel (Gabriel) at the age of 40, roughly in the year 610. From there his ministry can be divided into two phases. The Hijrah, the event which marks the beginning of the Islamic lunar calendar, was the migration of the Muslim community from Mecca to Medina, in roughly the year 622.
Before the Hijrah Muhammad had been preaching in Mecca (where the first 86 of 114 chapters of the Quran were revealed), urging the people there to abandon polygamy and many of their wicked practices for the sake of the one true God. Beginning with his wife Khadija (he remained monogamous during that time), and his cousin Ali, he slowly gained a following. Mecca’s economy heavily depended on pilgrimages performed by polygamists, plus wickedness can be loads of fun when the consequences get ignored, and so most of Mecca’s tribal leaders weren’t eager for his message to spread. The Muslim community, which was far too small to feasibly fight back, endured much persecution. Muhammad nevertheless kept on preaching, suffering one setback after another, and such mettle always deserves our commendation (although his denial of Christ’s divinity, of course, does not).
“The worshippers of the Merciful-to-all are those who walk upon the earth with humility, and when the ignorant address them, reply with ‘peace.’” —Quran 25:63, purportedly revealed in Mecca
Muhammad’s worldly fortunes changed considerably after the Hijrah. By that time the prophet had gained a far-ranging reputation, and had been invited to live and serve as an arbitrator for the ever-disputing tribes in Medina. The great Constitution of Medina was drawn up shortly after his arrival. He’d gotten his first taste of political power. The Muslim community continued growing through his persistent preaching and the strength of his personality.
Muhammad also claimed to have received a new revelation shortly after moving to Medina: that war in self-defense was permissible. Raids upon Meccan caravans, considered recompense for the wealth left behind in Mecca, had begun. The leaders of Mecca assembled an army to put a stop to these activities. In the year 624 the Muslims won the Battle of Badr through the use of sound tactics, despite their being far outnumbered. The sword had been lifted and a six-year war commenced.
The Muslim community continued growing in numbers. Muhammad (who was by then polygamous) became the most powerful man in Medina — so powerful that he could even order that all the men of the Banu Qurayza (a Jewish tribe in Medina) be beheaded, and the women and children of that tribe enslaved, for the “treachery” of attempting to negotiate peace with a hostile Meccan army without his approval. Muhammad later claimed to have received new revelations concerning warfare (the infamous “Sword Verse” is in the second-to-last chapter of the Quran, if the chapters get ordered chronologically). In roughly the year 630 an army of 10,000 Muslim men had been assembled, under pretense of a broken truce, and victoriously marched upon Mecca.
The conquests continued. An everlasting war had begun.
An Empire of Conquest
Muhammad ruled the entire Arabian Peninsula when he died in 632. His successors pushed their armies onward in all directions. Policies of breeding, taxation and the rule of law ensured that most all of the subjugated peoples were Muslim within a few generations (though I’d been taught that they’d converted upon recognizing Islam as the true faith). An empire emerged and a standard had been set. Islam has since been cursed with the popular notion that spiritual purity would be swiftly followed by the blessings of worldly glory.
That first Muslim empire did eventually crumble. Others rose and fell, bringing jihad to new lands, until the might of the Muslim world had finally been outpaced. In our modern era, in which there are no grand Muslim empires, terrorist groups such as the Islamic State seek to retrieve such glory by purging that which they consider to be bid’ah (innovations upon “pure” Islam) from the Muslim world. Many Christians, and Muslims, suffer as a result.
A great discrepancy between what is “supposed to be,” and the current state of affairs, has become a source of tremendous anxiety and rage. Much of that rage is directed toward the United States, the benefactor of Israel, widely considered to have a very depraved and ungodly culture, for having that place of power which the Ummah (worldwide Muslim community) is “supposed” to wield. Many Muslims throughout the world have been left comparing themselves to the Sahaba (companions of the prophet) and asking “what’s wrong with us today?” The apocalyptic belief in Islam’s ultimate triumph has been a consolation for many.
“Is Islam a religion of peace, or of war?”
Confronting that which one grew up being taught was always right and true is very difficult. Doing so goes on to raise further questions: “Then what was all of that praying and fasting for?”
I finally did allow myself to ask such questions in 2006, upon reading a news headline about a sectarian bombing in Iraq. Having lived in New York by then, I was acclimated quite well with the bar scene. I had become a pretty lousy Muslim. Who was I to say that the person who committed himself to those ruthless acts, and who unlike me was prepared to die for his convictions, was less of a sincere Muslim than I was?
From memory I could so easily cite living examples of Muslims who were of good will. I could just as easily cite examples of Muslims who could make any camping trip a miserable experience. It largely depended on whether they drew greater inspiration from Mecca or Medina.
We can only speculate on just how many Muslims around the world ask themselves similar such questions each time terrorist attacks, such as the recent ones in Austria and France, occur.
In February 2006 I left Islam, having a belief in God’s existence and no intention whatsoever to ever embrace any religion (all of which I considered to be poisonous). Carrying on like that looked to be easy enough since I was a millennial living in a city where the shunning of faith was quite standard. It turned out that God had other plans for me.
It was a year later when I encountered the recorded narratives of a Man who had once been tempted in the wilderness, shown all of the great cities of the world, and told they could be his if only he would bow down to the evil one. I’ll bet that those cities looked very nice. He must have known it in his bones that to accept them would spell our utter ruin, the forfeiting of any hope of our salvation. And so for all of our sakes, Our Lord said “no,” and he went on to accept the Cross instead.