By Izeth Hussain –
It seems to me extremely important that before we address the question whether or not Islam is a religion of peace, we should first of all situate it in its proper socio-political context. This question acquired importance after 9/11, and it is quite understandable that – after the Paris bombings and other outrages – it remains the question of central importance about Islam in the West and elsewhere. We – meaning most of all the Muslims – must therefore address this question, and we must do so honestly without indulging in Islamic apologetics. We may engage in that process successfully, but we may find at the end of the day that anti-Muslim sentiment has not abated by one bit in the West and elsewhere. To abate that we must address the problem of Islamophobia, which is one of the main reasons why the question of “Islamic violence” has acquired so much exaggerated importance.
For some time something like an international campaign to spread Islamophobia has been going on. After the last general elections we thought that the BBS was finished once and for all because all its candidates lost their deposits, showing clearly enough that it had no mass appeal among the Sinhala Buddhists. But for some time the BBS has been busy at the grass roots level spreading Islamophobia, and now we have the Sinha le sticker campaign. Sinha stands for the Lion Race and le stands for blood, and the message apparently is that this is the land of the Sinhala and any nonsense from the minorities can lead to their blood being shed. It is the Muslims who are being targeted. The walls of some Muslim houses in Nugegoda were spray-painted with the slogan Sinha le and stickers carrying the slogan have reportedly appeared in some of the Gulf countries. A foreign hand is obvious behind this Islamophobic campaign. The fact that so insignificant a minority as the Sri Lankan Muslims has been targeted in this way shows the depth and range of the international Islamophobic campaign.
There are several websites that are engaged in that campaign. The silliness of their material is mind-boggling, but I suppose that silliness has a mass appeal in hate campaigns. What I find surprising is that Islamophobic silliness is shown even by some of the top intellectuals of the West. For instance the late Christopher Hitchens, who had a very high reputation as a practitioner of the higher journalism, began his dialogue with Tariq Ramadan by noting that the term Christendom fell into disuse after the First World War. Several European powers fought each other in that war, but there was also a Muslim one, namely Turkey. The Christian world became secular after that war but not the Islamic one where the idea of the Caliphate has persisted. The correct facts about the Caliphate are these. Kemal Ataturk disbanded the Caliphate in 1924, after which the idea of reviving the Caliphate hardly figured in the Islamic world except among Indian Muslims during the pre-Independence period. Recently the IS claims to have established the Caliphate but no one outside the ranks of the IS takes that seriously. I find it perplexing that Hitchens has given so much importance to nonsense about the Caliphate. He seems to exemplify an Islamophobic propensity to find fault with anything and everything that is Islamic.
A surprisingly widespread notion – surprising because it is so preposterous – is that Islam makes the exceptionally large claim that it gives the final revelation after which there can be no other. I find this notion expressed by Hitchens, I think also by the academic philosopher Roger Scruton, and others including a recent reader of mine. Surely every religion claims to be definitive and claims therefore to be final. This charge against Islam is peculiarly preposterous because the Prophet was very modest indeed about his revelation. He did not claim that his revelation was new and original but merely that he was reiterating something revealed to mankind right down the ages by a whole series of Prophets before him. But the revelation that there was only one true God was always corrupted in the course of time. He was therefore reiterating it as something that was definitive and final, from which all the rest of Islam followed. That was why there are two verses in the Koran according to which Christians, Jews, and Sabataeans who believe in the one true God and lead a good life will go to heaven.
The above will have to suffice in this brief article as examples of the silliness that goes with Islamophobia. I will now focus on the main charge made by Islamophobes, which is that Islam is a religion of violence. I will sketch out, very briefly, my own approach to this problem, an approach that is doctrinal and also commonsensical. On the doctrinal level theologians have given primary importance to the Verse of the Sword, that is verse 5 of Sura 9. I will not provide any quotations here because the interested reader can easily access the material through the internet. That verse certainly projects the image of a militant, violent, proselytizing Islam that is fiercely intolerant of everything that is unIslamic. But that verse totally contradicts the many verses in which Islam is projected as a religion of peace. Some theologians hold that all those verses were abrogated by the Verse of the Sword.
I must now briefly explain what is meant by abrogation in interpreting the Koran. There is a verse in the Koran which states that later and fuller verses can be taken as abrogating earlier ones on the same subject.. A problem arises because there has been no consensus on the correct chronological order of the Koranic texts apart from a broad division between the early Meccan Suras and the later Medina ones. The attempt to solve this problem leads to certain conclusions, one of which is that a verse has to be read in its context. In this case verse 5 of Sura 9 has to be read in the context of verses 4 to 7 of that Sura. It then becomes clear that verse 5 really applies to those who have broken treaty obligations and is not meant to be taken as embodying an immutable principle.
So the identical Koranic text can be read in two different and opposed ways: one as projecting Islam as a religion of peace and the other as projecting it as a religion of violence and jihadist war. We must bear in mind that what is known as Islam is not just what is revealed in the Koran but also the Sunna, the Way, which is inclusive of the six books of the Hadiths – the vast corpus of the Traditions of the Prophet – and the four schools of Divine Law. In all that vast corpus plenty of texts can be found to read Islam in the two different and opposed ways that I have mentioned above. What this means is that Islam, just like the other three world religions, can be interpreted in different ways. So my answer to the question whether Islam is a religion of peace is the ambivalent one that it is both a religion of peace and a religion of violence and jihadist war. I don’t believe that the dilemma facing those who want a final and definitive interpretation of Islam can be found by entering the thickets of theological controversy. My way out is a commonsensical one.
I have two commonsensical points to make. I would firstly observe that there are two different kinds of questions, namely the right questions and the wrong questions. The right questions amount to fertile hypotheses that lead to useful answers while the wrong questions lead nowhere. I base my position that asking whether Islam is a religion of peace is a wrong question on a Biblical text: The Son of Man goes forth to war. It is an indubitable fact that the adherents of all the great world religions have indulged in much violence and much war, and that is true also of Buddhists who practice the most peaceful of all the religions. The historical record shows that Muslims have been no more prone to war and violence than others. Let us remember that nations whose civilisations were shaped by Christianity were mainly responsible for the two greatest blood-lettings in all of human history, the two world wars of the last century. My second commonsensical point is that ninety nine per cent and more of the Muslim immigrants in the West and elsewhere are peaceful law-abiding citizens. It surely means that the demented violence of Wahabism and its clones is an unIslamic aberration. However my answer to the question whether or not Islam is a religion of peace is not going to convince the Islamophobe. How to deal with him is another story.