George Bush tells us and the world that Islam is a peaceful religion. Al Qaeda and Osama Bin Laden disagree, as they call upon all Moslems to join them in a "Jihad" – a holy war against the infidel Americans.
Is Islam a religion of peace, or of war? It is both.
Consider the following passages from the Holy Quran:
Kill the disbelievers wherever we find them (2:191)
Fight and slay the pagans, seize them, beleaguer them, and lie in wait for them in every stratagem. (9:5)
Slay or crucify or cut the hands and feet of the unbelievers, that they be expelled from the land with disgrace and that they shall have a great punishment in the world hereafter. (5:34)
And the Lord our God delivered him before us... and we took all his cities at that time and utterly destroyed the men, and the women, and the little ones, of every city, we left none to remain.
Of the cities of these people, which the Lord thy God give
the for an inheritance, thou shalt save alive nothing that breatheth.
OK, I lied: the last two verses are from the Holy Bible (Deuteronomy
2:33-4 and 20:16). I'll return to that point shortly.
However, elsewhere in the Quran, there is a contrasting message. "Even if you stretch out your hand against me to kill me, I shall not stretch out my hand against you to kill you," and "if anyone murders an innocent person, it will be as if he has murdered the whole of humanity."
There are comparable contrasts in the Bible (which, after all, is not really a "book" – it is a library of books written over several hundreds of years). In addition to the
genocidal slaughters of Deuteronomy listed above, there is the destruction of Jericho and this little encounter with the Midianites:
Now therefore kill every male among the little ones, and kill every woman that hath known man by lying with him. But all the women children, that have not known a man by lying with them, keep alive for yourselves. (Numbers, 31:17-18)
Compare this with the gentle ethics of Micah, the Sermon on the Mount ("blessed are the peacemakers...") and the parable of the Good Samaritan.
Several years ago, I participated on a panel on WNBC in New York. When I read that passage from
Numbers, a conservative Christian preacher responded, "you have to understand that the Midianites were a very wicked tribe, deserving annihilation. ("Including all those children?" I asked). The Reform Rabbi at the table had a very different take on it: "when we consider the context of the entire scripture, we ‘interpret out' such passages as these."
("Interpret out" – what an elegant euphemism!)
Scriptural literalism can be a heavy moral burden to bear!
Secularists such as myself have an entirely different interpretation of "holy books" such as the Quran and the Bible. We regard these scriptures, not as the immutable Word of God Almighty, but rather as evidence of the historical evolution of tribal mores. As such, these chronicles convey an inspiring message of moral advancement. Early on in these books, we read of the murder and mayhem committed by conquering nomadic tribes – atrocities justified by the impious claim that the Lord sanctioned such behavior. Then, through time, an ethic of toleration, peace and love emerges as the circle of interdependence extends beyond "our tribe," and as a common humanity and nobility is recognized and acknowledged in "the other" – even in the person of the despised Samaritan. (We encounter very few "Samaritans" nowadays. But who can doubt that if Jesus were to preach today to the Israelis, he would relate the parable of "the Good Arab," and to the Palestinians he would speak of "the Good Jew").
The orthodox believe that their scriptures provide moral instruction. But is it not even more likely that these cryptic and ambiguous ancient texts offer justification for moral sentiments acquired independently?
Torquemada, Jerry Fallwell and Martin Luther King all read the same Bible, but take note of different portions thereof.
Today, anyone who took it upon himself to follow the Biblical instructions to kill witches and to stone to death disobedient children, would quite correctly be tried and convicted of murder. So instead, we have come to "interpret out" the ethnocentric savagery
and archaic folkways of the scriptures, and to focus instead on the civic and moral virtues of justice, toleration, respect and love.
So we return to our original question: Is Islam a religion of peace or of war?
The question assumes a significant misconception; namely, the Islam is a unified
and singular religion. On the contrary, like Christianity, Islam is a family of religions united by a common historical focus and origin.
Among this family of contending sects are, on the one hand, peaceful, tolerant and universalistic creeds, and on the other hand, and militant, fanatical and exclusionist sects. It is this latter branch which bears the
poisonous fruit of Osama Bin Laden and his Jihad.
To assess the dominant moral legacy of Islam, or of any other great religion, we are best advised to look, not to the scriptures, but to history. And by this measure, Islam comes off somewhat better than Christianity. In the first place, Islam is inclusive: to the Moslems, Moses and Jesus are revered as prophets. Neither Judaism nor Christianity recognize Mohammed as a prophet. Because Islam recognizes and accepts Judaism and Christianity as "religions of the book," Christians and Jews have, for the most part, been accepted in Islamic countries. For example, when the Moslems came to Egypt, they encountered the Coptic Christians, a sect as ancient as Roman Catholicism. The Copts have survived and flourished there ever since, amidst the Moslem majority..
To be sure history, like scripture, is equivocal. Following the death of Mohammed, Islam spread rapidly, by preaching, by commerce, and by the sword. And its advancement into Western Europe was halted by force of arms in France at the battle of Tours in 732. On the other hand, much of Islamic militancy has been defensive, most notably when the Christians invaded their lands and slaughtered their people during the Crusades, and again when they were thrown off their ancestral lands following the establishment of the State of Israel.
Is Islam "a peaceful religion"? It can be, if the Moslems so choose – as most of them have. And
our behavior in "The West" is, of course, a crucial ingredient of their choice. There are abundant scriptural, cultural and historical resources in all the "Abrahamic religions" (Christianity, Judaism and Islam) to support a peaceful, tolerant, and mutually respectful accommodation.
But there are also darker strains and precedents which, along with contemporary injustices, feed the rage, cruelty and fanaticism of Al Qaeda and Osama Bin Laden.
These fanatics are dangerous. But so too are the orthodox Jewish
settlers on Palestinian land, the "end-of-times" evangelical Christians, and
the bigots who refer to the faith of over one billion of our fellow humans
as "a gutter religion."
Consider the legacy of this so-called "gutter religion."
When my European ancestors were groveling in the ignorance
and superstition of the Dark Ages, the Arabic scholars of Baghdad, Damascus
and Cordoba were translating and preserving the philosophy and literature of
the ancient Greeks and Romans. They improved the number system and
invented algebra, which were to become the foundation of our mathematics and
physical sciences. Their universities advanced the sciences of
medicine and biology, and they built architectural masterpieces that stand
today: the Alhambra palace in Granada, the Dome of the rock in Jerusalem,
the shrine of the Kaaba at Mecca.
As a philosophical secularist, I am equally outside of
Judaism, traditional Christianity and Islam, yet I find much to admire in
each of these great world religions. There are resource in each for
accommodation and mutual respect -- as the Moslems have shown us in the
past. There is also a potential for a "clash of civilizations."
The choice is ours.
In our midst and throughout the world there are millions of intelligent, virtuous and admirable Moslems. I suspect, and dare to hope, that a majority of Moslems today abhor and reject the fanaticism of Al Qaeda, and furthermore are eager to strive with us to achieve a just and peaceful world order.
But that desirable result can only come about through our combined and mutually respectful cooperation. We are united with our enlightened Islamic brethren in a struggle against common adversaries: injustice, and the blind hatred and terror that issue from fanaticism. And the scourge of
fanaticism neither defines, nor is it confined to, any of the great world religions.
The urgent question before us now is whether we can emulate
the tolerance and accommodation of Saladin toward "the people of the book,"
following his triumph over the Crusaders.
Copyright 2001, by Ernest Partridge