Is Islam a religion of peace? A provocative question, to be sure.
To Muslims, the question of whether Islam is a peaceful religion seems basic; of course it is. It’s in Koranic scripture. It’s in the words and deeds of the prophet Mohammed. Peace is the essence of the faith.
Some non-Muslims would agree with this. But those who don’t will point to certain passages in the Koran, specifically those referring to “nonbelievers” and suggest that Islam is anything but peaceful.
A quote they often reference to prove their point is “Fight the nonbelievers wherever you find them.” How can a religion be peaceful, they ask, if it espouses such indiscriminate aggression?
Before we answer, we might ask why this matters.
It matters because, according to the Pew Forum Report issued in January 2011, there are 1.6 billion Muslims in the world. In the next 20 years, that number will increase at a rate faster than that of non-Muslims. In 2030, more than 26 percent of the world’s population will be Muslim.
In the U.S., Muslims will more than double in number, reaching 6.2 million. That means there will be as many Muslims in America as Jews or Episcopalians.
A quarter of the world’s population represents an economic opportunity that can’t be ignored. Understanding Muslim cultures and beliefs is not just about being inclusive and a good citizen of the world; it also makes good business sense.
Let’s get back to the quote about fighting “nonbelievers.”
As we examine it, it’s important to know who the “nonbelievers” were. And, for that, we need a little historical perspective.
The first Muslim community in Mecca was oppressed and faced constant aggression by idol worshipers of the day. Early Koranic verses encouraged the outnumbered Muslims not to run from their enemy. The full passage reads as follows:
“Fight in God’s cause against those who fight you, but don’t be the aggressor, for God does not approve of aggression. Fight them wherever they are found, and drive them out from where they drove you out, because being oppressed is worse than death... But, if they cease hostilities, (show mercy)... and if they seek peace, then you seek it as well...” (Koran 2:191-194).
Readers can take from this passage what they will. The intent here is to build understanding. It is to provide full context – something that is often lacking on certain blogs and radio talk shows where misquotes and misinterpretations are plentiful.
To clarify, the term “nonbeliever” does not apply to Christians or Jews. The Koran generally describes them as “the people of the book.” It recognizes their faith in saying: “The (Muslim) believers, the Jews, and the Christians ... and (all) who believe in God and the last day and do righteous deeds, shall have their reward with their Lord.” (Koran 2:62).
But, the Koran’s intent is clear. Should anyone attempt to impose their faith on Muslims, Muslims are instructed to say: you go your way, and I’ll go mine.
And, if they are prevented by force from worshiping according to their faith, Muslims have an obligation to fight their oppressors.
Historically, this doesn’t happen very often. Instead, a Muslim country might engage a neighbor in a political or border dispute, one that is not related to religion. Then, somebody, Muslim or non-Muslim, will call the conflict a “jihad,” making it sound like it has a religious basis. And that’s when the question is asked, “Is Islam a peaceful religion?”
A better question might be: Is it plausible that one of four people living on this Earth would subscribe to a religion that calls upon them to wage indiscriminate war against people outside their faith? Clearly, believing that would defy logic and require a particularly dark outlook.
Dean Hosni, an underwriting professional in the insurance industry, is a member of The Olympian’s Diversity Panel. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.