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Islam: A religion of peace?

[COMMENT: A thoughtful essay on the complexities of understanding Islam.   E. Fox]


A video from an Islamist Web site shows Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and four other hooded men before they behead U.S. busines sman Nick Berg in May, 2004.

Gordon Nickel, National Post

Published: Tuesday, June 13, 2006


The problem of Muslim radicalization has been on the agenda of all nations since 9/11. But Canada faces a unique dilemma because the doctrine of multiculturalism is seen as intrinsic to our national identity. The recent disruption of an alleged homegrown Islamist terror plot has caused many Canadians to ask: How can multiculturalism -- which preaches tolerance above all else -- be squared with a militant, intolerant creed that demonizes non-believers? This week, the National Post presents a week-long series of articles examining this question. In today's second instalment, Gordon Nickel examines the claim that Islam is inherently a 'religion of peace.'

Since the London bombings of 7/7, there has been a renewed effort among Muslims in the West to present Islam as a religion of peace. This has come in response to persistent probing of the relationship between Islam and violence. Here in Canada, this issue recently leapt to the front pages following news that all 17 suspects in an alleged Ontario-based terror plot are Muslim.

For some Muslims, the rise of homegrown terror has meant an interest in re-examining the foundational texts that extremists have used to justify their attacks -- the Koran, the Hadith (traditions of what the prophet of Islam said and did), the Sira (earliest biography of the prophet), and works of Fiqh (Islamic jurisprudence). Some are challenging classical interpretations of these texts that have held sway for centuries.

When the Koran is cited by Muslims in response to questions about violence, it is often discussed in such a way as to shut down a meaningful exploration of the text. One or two mild passages are usually offered, as if these fully represented the contents of a scripture containing 6,000-plus verses. But the Koran -- literally "recitation" -- is a collection of diverse materials that include polemic, praise, eschatology, law, narrative, battle calls, and details of the domestic life of the Prophet.

In particular, the sourcebooks contain a great deal of material relating to violence. This article reviews that small part of the material that is directly relevant to any debate about the link between Islam and terror: the commands to fight and kill.

The Koran contains five commands to kill and 12 commands to fight (literally, "try to kill"). Most are found in the second (verses 190, 191, 193, 244), fourth (vv. 76, 84, 89, 91) and ninth (vv. 5, 12, 14, 29, 36, 123) suras.

The commands address a number of different situations, from "fighting those who fight you" to "fighting totally." The objects of the fighting and killing include the unbelievers, the "associators" (mushrikin, or polytheists) and "the friends of Satan."

In classical Muslim discussions of these verses, two verses attracted more attention than any others. They came to be known as "the sword verse" (9.5) and "the verse of tribute" (9.29).

The verse of tribute concerns the "people of the book" -- generally understood by Muslims to be faith communities possessing a scripture, especially Jews and Christians. The command is to fight those who have been given the book "until they pay the tribute (jizya) out of hand and have been humbled." The command in the sword verse is to "kill the associators (mushrikin) wherever you find them, and take them, and confine them, and lie in wait for them at every place of ambush." At face value, therefore, polytheists appear to be at greater risk than Jews or Christians.

The Arabic verb in all of these verses is not the verb related to jihad. Rather, it is the verb qatala in its first ("to kill") and third ("to fight, try to kill") forms. The Koran contains many other verses using forms of qatala which -- though not imperatives -- appear to encourage fighting or killing. Among these is 61.4: "Allah loves those who fight in his way."

These are the commands. But what do they mean? That is, of course, a matter of interpretation. Those who want to give a peaceful interpretation to these verses face challenges from both the classical medieval Muslim consensus and the interpretations of popular figures within the 20th-century Islamic revival.

Muslim scholars have produced lively commentaries (tafsir) on the verses of the Koran from the second Islamic century up to the present. The earliest complete commentary on the Koran was written by Muqatil ibn Sulayman (d. 767). Muqatil seems to take the commands to fight and kill at face value.

One of the interpretive principles that Muqatil and later commentators used was to link passages in the Koran with events in the story of Muhammad, the prophet of Islam. These events are arranged in a continuous narrative in the Sirat Rasul Allah of Ibn Ishaq (d. 767).

Muslim scholars assigned each of the Koran's 114 suras to initial recitation by Muhammad in either Mecca or Medina; and within those main divisions, they gave each sura a place in a definite chronology. The establishment of such a chronology permitted the concept of abrogation -- by which recitations originating later in time took precedence over apparently contradictory passages recited earlier.

The classical Muslim understanding that developed from these principles was that the commands to fight and kill could be arranged chronologically in the prophet's lifetime -- from the initial permission Muhammad gave to his followers to fight, to instructions on defensive warfare, to conditional aggression, to open unrestricted warfare as the Prophet's forces grew stronger later in his life. Peaceful passages in the Koran were considered to be superseded by materials with a warlike tone, especially Sura 9.

David S. Powers, professor of near eastern studies at Cornell University, has noted that Muslim scholars of abrogation such as Ibn Salama (d. 1020) claimed the "sword verse" cited above (9.5) had abrogating power over 124 other verses, including "every other verse in the Koran which commands or implies anything less than a total offensive against the non-believers." U.S.-born historian John Wansbrough found that the sword verse "became the scriptural prop of a formulation designed to cover any and all situations which might arise between the Muslim community and its enemies." Influential Islamist authors such as 'Abd al-Salam Faraj, Maulana Maududi and Sayyid Qutb have all expressed their agreement with the classical interpretation of the commands to fight and kill.

Unfortunately, the Islamic principle of abrogation runs in the opposite chronological direction in relation to violence. Because the commands to fight and kill in the Koran are considered by Muslims to be among the recitations made very late in the life of the prophet of Islam -- at a time when his conquest of Arabia was almost complete -- Muslims scholars have been inclined to read the peaceful texts as subordinate to the later ones.

In other words, Muslims seeking to find a peaceful message in the Koran must fight not only the plain meaning of the Koran's text and the current fashion for militancy, but also the arrow of Muslim history.

Interpreting the words of Muslim scripture so that they pose no threat to peaceful coexistence with non-believers thus seems a large challenge. In view of the high stakes in the world today, however, it is certainly a challenge worth taking up. Otherwise, Canadian proponents of multiculturalism will have a harder time arguing that traditional Islam is just another peaceful element in Canada's multicultural quilt.

- Gordon Nickel has a PhD in the earliest commentaries on the Koran and teaches in British Columbia.


What follows are selected Koranic references to fighting and killing infidels.

- Baqara (2):190 - "And fight (qaatiloo) in the way of Allah those who fight you."

- Baqara (2):193 - "Fight them (qaatiloohum), till there is no persecution and the religion is Allah's"

- Baqara (2):244 - "So fight (qaatiloo) in the way of Allah, and know that Allah is all-hearing, all-knowing."

- Nisaa' (4):76 - "Those who are believers fight (yuqaatiloona) in the way of Allah, and the unbelievers fight in the idols' way. So fight (qaatiloo) the friends of Satan; surely the guile of Satan is ever feeble."

- al-Anfaal (8):39 - "Fight them (qaatiloohum), till there is no persecution and the religion is Allah's entirely."

- al-Taubah (9):12 - "But if they break their oaths after their covenant and thrust at your religion, then fight (qaatiloo) the leaders of unbelief."

- al-Taubah (9):29 - "Fight (qaatiloo) those who believe not in Allah and the Last Day and do not forbid what Allah and his messenger have forbidden -- such men as practise not the religion of truth, being of those who have been given the Book -- until they pay the tribute out of hand and have been humbled."

- al-Taubah (9):123 - "O believers, fight (qaatiloo) the unbelievers (kuffaar) who are near to you, and let them find in you a harshness (ghilza)."

- Baqara (2):191 - "And slay them (aqtuloohum) wherever you come upon them"

- Baqara (2):191 - "But fight them not by the Holy Mosque until they should fight you there; then if they fight you, slay them (aqtuloohum) -- such is the recompense of unbelievers."

- Nisaa' (4):89 - "then, if they turn their backs, take them, and slay them (aqtuloohum) wherever you find them"

- Nisaa' (4):91 - "If they withdraw not from you, and offer you peace, and restrain their hands, take them, and slay them (aqtuloohum) wherever you come on them; against them we have given you a clear authority."

- al-Taubah (9):5 - "Then when the sacred months are drawn away, slay (aqtuloo) the idolaters wherever you find them, and take them, and confine them, and lie in wait for them at every place of ambush."

- Nisaa' (4):74 - "So let them fight (yuqaatil) in the way of Allah who sell the present life for the world to come; and whosoever fights (yuqaatil) in the way of Allah and is slain, or conquers, we shall bring him a mighty wage."

- Muhammad (47):4 - "When you meet the unbelievers, smite (darba) their necks, then, when you have made wide slaughter among them, tie fast the bonds; then set them free, either by grace or ransom, till the war lays down its loads."

Compiled by Gordon Nickel


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