Academic journal article The Ecumenical Review

Islam and Violence

Academic journal article The Ecumenical Review

Islam and Violence

Article excerpt

The dramatic world events which continue to unfold on a daily basis--the collapse of the Oslo peace process in September 2000 in the face of a renewed and ongoing cycle of violence in Israel/Palestine, which has reached alarming proportions; the terrorist attacks on the United States of America in September 2001, and the Bush administration's subsequent decision to end militarily the theocratic rule of the Taliban in Afghanistan as part of its "enduring" war on terrorism; the attack on the Indian parliament by alleged Muslim Kashmiri militants in December 2001, followed by the fresh outbreak of Hindu-Muslim violence in the Gujarat province of India in February 2002; the protracted and violent separatist struggles in Chechnya and of the Moros in the Philippines - have all served to reinforce the widespread perception that Islam is in some special way linked to terrorist violence. In order for us to discern the veracity of the assertion often made that Islam has a unique propensity for violence, we need to analyze this question in reference to the ethical teachings of Islam represented in the Muslim sacred scripture, the Qur'an, and the conduct of the prophet Muhammad, as well as the current global geo-political context.

It might be expedient to begin with a simple binary Manichean formulation. As I have already inferred, terrorist violence is never far from popular understandings of Islam. Even conventional academic perspectives regard the political agendas of Islamists (or rather "Islamic fundamentalists", as they are pejoratively described in the literature) as having a predilection for violent paths to social change. According to this view, it is the religious dimension, namely Islam, that is the primary source of contemporary terrorist violence. In direct opposition to this perspective, Muslim apologists categorically deny that Islam has anything to do with terrorist violence. In their view, all violence in which Muslims are implicated is a debasement and vile distortion of the true and noble teachings of Islam.

As with all received understandings, there are elements of truth in both these formulations. The first largely understates the contemporary socio-political and economic conditions under which Islam is implicated in violence, and the second ignores the fact that virtually all Muslims accept that Islam is not a pacifist tradition and allows for and legitimates the use of violence under certain conditions, the definitions of which may differ from one Muslim scholar to the other. It is here that a large measure of the problem lies. Under what conditions does Islam condone the use of violence? This critical dilemma is not unique to Islam. All religious traditions agonize about the question of what might constitute a "just war" and this becomes particularly acute in situations of deadly conflict. The central point that we need to bear in mind, however, is that the religious legitimization of violence does not occur in a socio-historical vacuum. The former vice chairman of the National Intelligence Council at the CIA, Graham Fuller, writing in a recent issue of Foreign Affairs, powerfully illustrates this point when he asserts:

   If a society and its politics are violent and unhappy, its mode of
   religious expression is likely to be just the same. (1)

Violence and the life of Muhammad

In order to understand correctly the ethical norms of Islam on violence represented in the Qur'an, and the conduct of the Prophet Muhammad, it is necessary to analyze the historical milieu within which they were negotiated.

When the Prophet Muhammad (570-632 CE) brought the Qur'an to the Arabs in the early 7th century, pre-Islamic Arabia was steeped in oppressive social relations and caught up in a vicious cycle of violence. Muhammad's egalitarian message quickly began to threaten the Makkan elite. They opposed his teachings with great vehemence. He was forced to send some of his early followers to seek refuge in Abyssinia and later he himself fled to the nearby city of Madina in 622 CE. …

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