Peace and Conflicts in Islam By Rachida El Diwani Fulbright Scholar, Chatham College



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Peace and Conflicts in Islam

By Rachida El Diwani

Fulbright Scholar, Chatham College

Pittsburgh PA 15232

February 2003

I. Introduction

Since the horrific and tragic events of 9-11, little has been more discussed than the violence attributed to Islam. There are people who are determined to paint terrorism and Islam with the same brush. Simplified and undifferentiated descriptions of the Islamic religion help create an image by which Islam is seen as hostile and dangerous to the Western Civilization.

While the terrorist crime of 9-11 may have been the work of some misled individuals, it was certainly not the product of orthodox Islam. Islam is a religion that preaches peace, as its very name “Islam” means: submission to the will of God, and through this submission, one becomes “Muslim” meaning: submitted to the will of God, and enter in Islam – the realm of Salaam- peace from within and peace from without. Peace with oneself and Peace with others. Salaam –Peace- is one of the Divine Names.

Islam is a religion that preaches peace, compassion and justice. The Kamikaze assault on innocent civilians stood in direct conflict with Islam’s most elementary principles, teachings and spirit.

In my talk I will cover the following points:


  • Islam and Peace.

  • Jihad, rendered incorrectly in English by “Holy war”.

  • Islam: religion of the sword? As it is said in the West.

  • Terrorism.



II. Islam and Peace

Islam sets up certain principles that constitute, when followed, solid ground for the achievement of peace among various peoples of the world. These principles include the following:




  1. Equality of Mankind Before God: All human beings are equal in the sight of God. Piety and God-consciousness are the criteria on which one is judged by God, as He tells us in the Quran. Nothing else count: color, race, material or physical advantages, etc… are not criteria for superiority when one will stand alone before God in the day of judgment. This equality is an important basis for mutual respect and understanding and consequently peace among individuals and communities.

  2. Justice in all Circumstances: Meaningful peace cannot be achieved without justice. Injustice leads to wickedness and anarchy, as we can see today. The Islamic sense of justice demands that we should love for others what we love for ourselves and treat others as we would like to be treated. The Quran says: “O you who believe! Stand out firmly for God, as witness to fair dealing, and let not the hatred of others make you swerve to wrong and depart from justice. Be just: that is next to piety” [5:8].

  3. Defense Readiness: Those who are inclined to peace become an object of attack by the wicked ones if they fail to plan for their self-defense. Islam has taken this into consideration and urged Muslims to equip themselves and to improve their capabilities in defense of peace and justice and in the wording off of oppression and injustice. Islam has however, balanced this by prohibiting aggression, hostility and wanton destruction of lives and properties.

  4. Peaceful Disposition to Others: Muslims are commended to stretch the hand of friendship to others among mankind and are forbidden to open hostilities or start aggression. The way for peace should be kept open and whenever the enemy inclines toward peace, the opportunity must be seized.

  5. Cooperation with Others for the Good of Mankind: Islam recognizes the need of cooperation among nations and cultures for the good of all.

These are some of the Islamic principles for the achievement of world peace. Unfortunately the Islamic world today is full of tension, basically because of the lack of almost all these points that are sometimes due to the Muslims and sometimes due to the others. But the fact is that the Muslim people are not really living according to the Islamic principles. Although, in the Islamic world, the majority of the population is Muslim, very few have governments who exist and rule according to the true Islamic principles and allow an authentic Islamic life.

The Islamist movements call for an Islamic way of life. They are repressed by governments with secular tendencies that are often backed by the West who fear Islam. Some of the Islamists, repressed, resort to “terrorism”, to express themselves. As someone said “Terrorism in the arm of the weak”.

III. Jihad

The goal of Islam is the attainment of peace, inwardly and outwardly, and this is only possible through Jihad. The concept of Jihad cannot be rendered simply by the current erroneous translation of “Holy war”. Jihad is derived from the Arabic root “Jahada” that means to strive or to exert oneself. So, Jihad would be rendered more exactly by “striving: or “exerting oneself” in the path of Allah, or to please Allah, and this is not necessarily through war.

Its translation into “Holy war” combined with the erroneous notion of Islam, prevalent in the West, as the “religion of the sword”, has helped to eclipse its inner and spiritual significance and to distort its connotation.

To understand the spiritual significance of Jihad and its wide application to nearly every aspect of human life as understood by Islam, we should know that Islam bases itself upon the idea of establishing equilibrium within the being of man, as well as in the human society where he functions and fulfils the goal of his earthly life.

This equilibrium, which is the terrestrial reflection of Divine Justice and the necessary condition for peace in the human domain, is the basis upon which the soul takes flight towards that peace. But to remain in equilibrium in the face of the contingencies of life requires continuous exertion. It means carrying out Jihad at every stage of life: for example, to fight our bad tendencies, to be good with the others, to do our best for the world community, etc…. This continuous exertion of the self to please God would prevent the ever-present danger of loss of equilibrium, which leads to disintegration on the individual level and chaos on the scale of community life. This continuous exertion would also allow the realization of unity “al Tawheed” or total integration of the individual to the Divine order of the universe and thus, realizing peace inwardly and outwardly.

This meaning of Jihad explains why Muslims, both as individuals and members of the Islamic society must carry out Jihad and exert themselves at all moments to fight a battle, at once both inward and outward, against those forces that, if not combated, will destroy that necessary equilibrium.

In its most outward sense, Jihad came to signify the defense of Dar-al-Islam, that is, the Islamic world, from invasion and intrusion by non-Islamic forces. The earliest wars of Islamic history, which threatened the very existence of the young community, came to be known as Jihad, par excellence, in this outward sense of “Holy war”. But upon returning from one of these early wars, which were of paramount importance for the survival of the newly established religious community, the Prophet said to his companions that they returned from the lesser Jihad to the greater Jihad: the inner battle against all forces which would prevent man from living according to his primordial and God-given nature.

To defend their Islamic world, Muslims may use force. All force used under the guidance of the divine Law with the aim of re-establishing an equilibrium that is destroyed is accepted and in fact necessary for it means to carry out and establish justice. Moreover, not to use force in such a way is to fall prey to other forces that cannot but increase disequilibrium and disorder and result in greater injustice. The force used here can be swift and intense or gentle and mild, depending upon the circumstances. But force would be used only to establish equilibrium and harmony and not for personal or sectarian reasons, and this will be done not by individuals but by the consensus of the free will of the Muslim scholars and leaders. The Islamic concept of justice itself is related to equilibrium, the word for justice “al-3adl” in Arabic being related in its etymology to the word for equilibrium “ta-3adul”.

Force is to be found everywhere in the world, in nature as well as in human society, among men as well as among the human soul. By embracing the “world” and not shunning the kingdom of man, Islam took upon itself responsibility for the world in which force is present but Islam limited this use of force.

The concept of Jihad is badly presented to the Western people consciously or unconsciously. Among scholars who propagated a distorted image about Jihad is Bernard Lewis, who views Islam “as a militant, indeed as a military religion, and its followers as fanatical warriors, engaged in spreading their faith and their Law by armed might” (The Political Language of Islam, Univ. of Chicago press, 1988, p.71).

Moreover, since the breakdown of the former Soviet Union and the end of the cold war, an orientalist school of thought has flourished in the West, best represented by Bernard Lewis, Samuel Huntington and Daniel Pipes. This school deems that hostility is a deep rooted feature of the Muslim psyche, thanks to the distorted theory of Jihad, and that Islam has replaced communism as the new world threat. Unfortunately, these three persons are or were advisors on the Middle East policy in the Department of Foreign Affairs, USA. This explains some of the USA aggressive foreign policy towards the Islamic World.

If we go back to the Islamic Laws “Shari3a” dealing with the doctrine of Jihad, we will find that peace is the rule and war is the exception, and that no obligatory state of war exists between Muslims and the rest of the world, nor is Jihad should be waged until the world has either accepted the Islamic faith or submitted to the power of the Islamic state, as those who are distorting the concept of Jihad want the Westerner to believe.

In the Jihad doctrine, a defensive war can be launched with the aim of establishing justice, equity and protecting basic human rights. Accordingly, Islamic humanitarian law strictly lays down a number of humane rules compatible with those established by international humanitarian law governing the conduct of war and the treatment of enemy’s persons and property.

Basing themselves on the doctrine of Jihad, Muslim jurists tried to develop an Islamic theory of international relations, in the modern sense of the term, to regulate inter-state relations between the Islamic world “Dar-al-Islam” and the rest of the world, in times of peace and war. In this respect, Islamic Law insists on honoring treaties even above honoring religious solidarity.

Moreover, since the seventh century, Islamic International Law has played a significant role in protecting the personal, economic, judicial and political rights of civilians during armed conflicts. It has introduced a human revolution, consisting of a number of human principles, as early as fourteen centuries before the drafting of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (in 1948). A number of European scholars (Marcel Boisard, John Kelsay, …) have emphasized the fact that Islamic International Law has made great contributions to international humanitarian law.

What is happening today in the Islamic World concerning the human rights violation, not even the rights of the enemies of Islam, but those of the very Muslim citizens by their own governments is an aberrant accident in the history of Islam.



IV. Is Islam “the Religion of the Sword” as it is said?

No, Islam is not the religion of the sword by any mean. It is true that the sacred history of Islam began as an epic with the rapid spread of the Arabs outside of Arabia in an event that changed the world history forever. But this rapid expansion did not mean forced conversion of Jews, Christians, Zoroastrians or others who, still to that day, live with the Muslims. In Persia three hundred years after Islamic rule, much of the country was still Zoroastrian and the same is true for the other indigenous religions in all the other provinces conquered by the Muslims, be it Syria, Egypt, Iraq, North-Africa, Spain, etc… It took them centuries to have a Muslim majority or to become Arabic speaking. Up to this day, there is a Coptic-Christian minority in Egypt claiming to go back to the Pharos and to be the pure blood Egyptians. No body forced them to change their religion. The early Islamic conquests were meant to liberate the indigenous populations in these countries from the Byzantines and the Persians who were oppressing and persecuting them. The indigenous populations were welcoming the Arab armies and that is why the conquests were so rapid. The populations did not resist them and the Arabs had to fight just one battle in almost every country before the country was surrendering. There was no resistance but cooperation from the populations of these countries.

I would like to quote here Michael the Elder, Jacobite Patriarch of Antioch, writing in the latter half of the twelfth century, approving the welcoming attitude of his ancestors co-religionists at the advent of the Islamic armies in the 7th century and seeing the finger of God in the Arab conquests even after the Eastern Churches had had five centuries of experience with the Islamic rule. After recounting the persecutions carried on by Heraclius against what he was considering as Christian heretics, Michael the Elder wrote: “This is why the God of Vengeance - Who alone is all-powerful, and changes the empires of mortals as He will, giving it to whomsoever He will, and uplifting the Humble-beholding the wickedness of the Romans, who, throughout their dominions, cruelly plundered our churches and our monasteries and condemned us without pity – brought from the region of the south the sons of Ishmael, to deliver us through them from the hands of the Romans… It was no slight advantage for us to be delivered from the cruelty of the Romans, their wickedness, their wrath and cruel zeal against us, and to find ourselves at peace” (quoted by T.W. Arnold in the Preaching of Islam, Dwarf Publishers LTD, London, 1986, pp.54-56).

While for the West, the spread of Islam is associated with the sword, hardly anyone ever mentions the brutal manner in which Northern Europeans were forcefully converted to Christianity, and the older European religions destroyed. Even the Crusades, carried out in the name of Christianity, did not succeed in changing the Western image of Christianity as the religion of peace and Islam as the religion of the sword. The atrocities of the Inquisition against the Muslims and the Jews of Spain and against all kind of the so-called “heretics”, the violent conversion of the Muslim Phillipinos who survived the horrors of slaughtering the Muslim population of Manila by the Spaniards, the eradication of whole ethnic groups in the newly discovered world of the Americas and Australia, because they were not Christians, the wars and colonization carried out in Asia and Africa by the Christians, all these violence were not enough to tarnish the reputation of Christianity as a religion of peace nor that of Islam as the religion of the sword!



V. Terrorism

The World had seen since the 1970s a development of terrorism by religious groups. Outside the Middle East this is easily presented as inherent to Islam. Such anti-Islamic stereotyping is easily reinforced by the rhetoric of some extremist Islamist movements like Al-Qaida and its leader Ben Laden, who calls for an indiscriminate use of violence against all who collaborate with the “apostate” regimes in the Islamic countries and against their Western allies and the Zionists. Ben Laden call them Apostate because they do not have Islamic rule.

As sad as these acts of violence perpetrated by the extremist Islamist groups can be, I would like to point out to a fact: The incidence of political violence by groups invoking religion is by no means specific to Islam: Christianity, Judaism, Hinduism, Buddhism have all been invoked by those using violence from below and above. In Northern Ireland, Christians of two sects – Catholics and Protestants – have invoked religion to justify their crimes. In Israel fanatic Jewish groups have advocated violence by the Israeli State when it has suited them, and independently when it has not. Baruch Goldstein, who killed 29 Palestinians in the Hebron Mosque in 1994, claimed to be doing the work of God. In India, there has been an ominous rise in the use of force by Hindu chauvinists groups, to terrorize their Muslim and Christian fellow citizens.

There is a misuse of the term terrorism for polemical political purposes: On the one hand, to delegitimize not just the actions but the very program of political groups - in Palestine above all – who mobilize Muslim people, on the other hand, to confine discussion of terrorism only to Muslim States. The Middle East has seen terrorist actions from above – by states acting in the name of Islam, like Egypt, but also by Israel and by secular regimes in Turkey. In his A Clash of Civilization, Huntington argues that “Islam has bloody frontiers”, he does not however provide an accurate account of where the responsibility for this bloodiness may lie in Bosnia, Kosovo, Palestine, Kashmir, etc… (cf. Fred Halliday, Nation and Religion in the Middle East).

Long before 9-11, since the 70s and 80s, the issue of terrorism had been taken out of context and has been exaggerated and distorted. I do not mean in any way to detract from the moral and human seriousness of the terrorist phenomenon. There does, however, seem to be a tendency to inflate and distort the question. The USA had since some time ago made much of the issue and presented it as a unitary, worldwide threat. Governments in the Middle East have also made much of the issue to discredit their opponents, and conceal their own uses of political violence, domestically and internationally. Israel has long done this, in an attempt to discredit the Palestinian cause: Benjamin Netanyahu, in particular, made a career out of self-serving demagogy about “Terrorism”. Arab governments have also used the issue of terrorism to justify their own repressive policies, and to identify all political opponents with the cause of political violence. The Turkish government has used the term “terrorism” to justify its refusal to develop a political solution to the Kurdish question. There should not be legitimate criticism of the use of political violence by opponents of a state if it does not permit a full and open examination of the right to rebel, and of the conditions under which such a right may apply. The castigation by governments of the USA, Israel, Egypt, or Turkey of “terrorist” opponents may not always be without justification. In their usage, however, it precludes assessment of actions in which they and their clients have been involved.

The use of the term “terrorist” today, especially with the “War on Terrorism”, is very often used to denote any liberation movement or nationalist movement of which states or people in the West or Israel disapprove. Today, among Muslims, it is especially the Palestinians fighting for their land and the Iraqis, who are the most considerate by the US administration and Israel as Terrorists and this is for obvious political reasons.

Terrorism is now a public concern in the USA after 9-11. It has been reflected and promoted as a state issue, as a subject of seminars in universities, as a subject of alarm and alarmism, rather like witchcraft, promiscuity, or spies. In this sense, the issue of terrorism has been inflated to cover many other phenomena and to justify and direct political action. What is really striking is although a lot has been said about the causes of “Islamic terrorism”, nothing of this has been taken into consideration, in the USA or in the Islamic countries themselves to put an end to this problem. Using force against those terrorists has been seen as the only valid solid solution to the problem, although I think that repression and crushing will just add to the problem. Violence always brings violence, and the present “Islamic” terrorism itself is a result of some inflicted violence.

VI. Conclusion

After having gone through some of the anti-Islamic misconceptions relating Islam to violence and terrorism, I will conclude on a more peaceful note.

Every one speaks today of the need for peace, thanks largely to the modern military technology, which has brought the horrors of war to an inconceivable level. But there is also an innate yearning for peace in the soul of human beings. One might ask why this innate yearning for peace. Islamic teachings have a clear answer to this question, one that clarifies the concept and reality of peace in the Islamic context. In the Quran, God refers to Himself as “As-Salaam”. Peace. For Muslims, God is Peace and our yearning for peace could be nothing more than our yearning for God.

For Muslims, only religion is able to take them to the “Abode of Peace”, which is ultimately paradisal reality and Divine presence. Over and over again the Quran identifies peace with the paradisal states. And the greeting of the dwellers of Paradise will be: “Peace be unto you”. And for you too peace be unto you.







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