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Is Islam a Religion of Peace?

January 24, 2011 By: NCVeditor Category: Ahmed Afzaal, Culture, Politics

Asking the Right Questions

by Ahmed Afzaal

Ever since the atrocious events of September 11, 2001, the question has been raised and discussed countless times: Is Islam a religion of peace? I do not wish to add yet another answer to the already huge pile of responses that have been produced by Muslims and non-Muslims alike. Instead, I would like to argue that the question itself is not — or is no longer — worthy of any serious consideration by intelligent people. I propose to examine this question one last time in order to expose its fatal flaws, before suggesting that we banish it forever. I would then like to propose what I believe is a more constructive and fruitful way of inquiring into the issues involved.

Is Islam a religion of peace? Whenever I hear this, I want to ask a counter-question: Who wants to know? It so happens that the overwhelming majority of people who ask this question do not care about getting an informed or accurate answer. They do not raise this question because they believe they are lacking in the knowledge of the Islamic tradition, and that the response will help them overcome their ignorance by giving them new insights. The question is typically raised by those who are already sure of being in possession of the right answer.

In the majority of these cases, the speaker is an Islamophobe who asks the question only to create an illusion of having carried out an objective inquiry; he/she is then able to present the right answer as an emphatic “no.” Occasionally, this question is raised by an uncritical Islamophile whose response, as expected, is an equally emphatic “yes.” Unfortunately, what this well-meaning friend of Islam does not recognize is that the problem represented by the negative response to the question cannot be solved by simply giving a positive response.

Whether the question is raised for polemical purposes or apologetic ones, it has little or no scientific value. The question fails to generate real inquiry, mostly because it is weighed down by its own ideological underpinnings, which can be revealed by making explicit a series of unacknowledged assumptions without which it cannot function as it currently does.

The most obvious assumption is that there are only two possible answers: “yes” and “no.” The yes/no dichotomy coincides with the peace/violence dichotomy that is also assumed in the question. The question implies that Islam is either a “religion of peace” or it is not. If it is not a “religion of peace,” Islam must, ipso facto, be a “religion of violence.” The query does not allow any third choice.

This way of framing the discussion is problematic. As a clichéd joke has it, a man cannot answer the question, “Have you stopped beating your wife?” with either a “yes” or a “no” without admitting his guilt. The same holds true for the question, “Is Islam a religion of peace?” As soon as we agree to offer a response, we find ourselves trapped in the faulty logic of the question. The wording seduces us to respond within the structure of the question, encouraging us to disregard all the details and nuances of the issues that may be pertinent to the matter at hand. In order to say either “yes” or “no,” we must become highly selective in our choice of evidence. Regardless of which side we choose, the exercise does not generate an honest inquiry but a hardening of preconceived positions, an increase in polarization.

The second ideological assumption underlying the question can be exposed by looking more closely at the value-laden word “peace.” The positive connotations of the word “peace” are so strong and pervasive that it is practically impossible for anyone in their right mind to be against peace. This is evidenced by the fact that politicians never tire of speaking about their commitment to “peace,” even when they are in the midst of declaring and conducting wars. There is an inherent bias in our language that favors “peace” over and against “violence,” so much so that “peace” constitutes its own argument but “violence” must be justified in one way or another. As language users, we instinctively know that, by definition, “peace” is good and “violence” is bad. Because of this linguistic bias, it is self-evident that a “religion of peace” is inherently superior in value to a “religion of violence.” No argument is required to prove this point, and none is given.

In this context, whenever the question “Is Islam a religion of peace?” is raised, everyone thinks that it better be, for it would be really bad for Islam if it can be shown as a “religion of violence.” Fair enough. But the real problem emerges when we look at the people who are raising this question publicly. It turns out that they are rarely pro-peace in their own ethics. Many are known for being anti-Islam and anti-Muslim, and not for their contribution to peacemaking. Their opposition to violence is far from being a principled rejection of all violence; they are definitely against violence when it is perpetrated by Muslims, but they express no comparable indignation when violence is carried out on their behalf and is directed against a group with which they do not identify, including Muslims. In effect, they tend to approve or condone “our” violence against “them” while vehemently criticizing “their” violence against “us.”

It is precisely this contradiction that nullifies the very logic on which the question is built. The appeal of the question depends on the audience’s implicit belief that “peace” is good and “violence” is bad; while the questioners rely on their audience’s moral sense to bolster the validity of the question, they simultaneously undermine that validity by failing to reject violence on a principled, as opposed to a selective and utilitarian, basis.

There is one final assumption underlying the question that we must examine carefully, and it has to do with the word “religion” itself. Whenever the question is raised, there is a tacit understanding that everyone involved shares the same view of religion, i.e., the view that makes the question possible in the first place. However, the particular view of religion that is implied in the question is itself problematic and must not be taken for granted. The question is worded as if “religion” could be accurately understood as a single, circumscribed, well-defined, and unchanging entity, something that is unmistakably distinct from society, culture, history, politics, and economics. This view assumes that each individual religion is easily and obviously distinguishable from all other religions, that each religion has its own unique and fixed essence that can be objectively known, and that there is no overlap between the respective essences of any two religions.

What is being ignored in this framing is that the concept of “religion” is just that — a concept. As such, we are dealing with an abstraction that can be defined and described in many different ways depending on our immediate purpose. This is precisely why it has proven impossible for the experts to agree on a single definition of the term “religion.” Over the last century and a half, the most intelligent minds have failed to draw conceptual boundaries between “religion” on the one hand, and society, culture, history, politics, and economics on the other hand. Furthermore, the boundary between any two religious traditions is also fuzzy at best; historically, no major religion has developed in complete isolation from the rest of the world, and therefore all religious traditions are products of syncretism as well as genuine innovations.

If the concept “religion” is so slippery and unstable as to defy a single, objectively verifiable definition, the more complex notions of “religion of peace” and “religion of violence” pose an even greater challenge to our desire for pinning them down. Neither of them is a precise concept that can be employed in an unambiguous or unbiased manner; both have originated in highly contentious debates over power, authority, and identity, and continue to be contested in a variety of ways.

A historically informed perspective does not allow us to treat any religion as if it were a static and monolithic object. No religion speaks with a single voice, and every religious tradition is characterized by a diversity of beliefs, attitudes, and expressions — a diversity that tends to increase with the passage of time. To describe any religion as being solely this or exclusively that, one must reduce its inner complexity to an artificial simplicity, as well as its ever-changing character to a fixed caricature or stereotype. This reduction is itself an act of violence. The resulting image is almost entirely a product of the reductionist enterprise, bearing little resemblance to the dynamic and complex lived reality of the tradition.

In light of the above discussion, the best response I can offer to the question, “Is Islam a religion of peace?” is no response at all. This, however, does not mean that we are trying to avoid or evade the problem; it only means that we must bury this particular question before we can find more constructive and fruitful ways of inquiring into the relevant issues.

One might ask, what would those constructive and fruitful questions look like? Here are some examples. If we are interested in finding out the causes of violence, we may want to ask: “What are the needs of a particular people that they are trying to meet when they act violently?” If we are interested in ending violence, we may want to ask: “How can we help educate a particular people so they can use more effective and peaceful strategies for meeting their needs?” If we are interested in the religious aspects of the problem, we may want to ask: “What are the resources available in a particular religious tradition that might help its adherents make effective contributions to peace?”

From a Muslim viewpoint, the most relevant course of inquiry may well be this: What are the specific resources in the Islamic religious heritage that can help us create a world where everyone can meet their needs peacefully? I find this to be a supremely worthwhile question.

Ahmed Afzaal, Ph.D., holds his doctorate in Religion and Society from Drew University, and is an assistant professor of Comparative Religion at Concordia College. Dr. Afzaal was born in Pakistan, where he studied science and attended medical school, and is the author of numerous articles on subjects including religion and social change.

{Pickups: The American Muslim}

15 Comments to “Is Islam a Religion of Peace?”


  1. Is Islam a Religion of Peace? Asking the Right Questions http://t.co/gyWML5N

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  2. What a great and important article! I think that nonsense phrases such as “religion of peace” are used with far too reflection. I would, however, have found this article more satisfying if the esteemed Dr. Afzaal would have spoken more plainly on the idea (that is certainly implied in this essay) that religion does not determine choices like the one between violence and peace, but that people do. The language a person might use to justify choices is determined by her religion, but the choices she makes are determined by what kind of a person she is. THIS is why the question of whether or not Islam (or any other religion) is a religion of peace is total nonsense in a political context.

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    • Ahmed Afzaal says:

      Thank you for your comments, which I enjoyed very much.

      By rejecting the notion that religion is a “thing” or an “entity,” I am trying to refute the belief that it can act as a causal agent independent of historically situated human beings. I do not deny that particular religious beliefs can motivate particular human beings to take particular actions; however, I would like to see more emphasis being placed on how religious beliefs are formed, interpreted, and used in relation to the forces that we do not attribute to “religion” as such but to society, history, culture, politics, and economics. An exclusive attention to religious beliefs is frequently a conscious or unconscious attempt at masking the role of these latter forces. Yet, I agree that any kind of “determinism” is not too helpful either; human beings enjoy a far greater freedom of choice than we normally recognize, perhaps because of the sense of responsibility that comes with that recognition.

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  3. RT @mozaffar: My bud Ahmed Afzaal addresses, "Is Islam a Religion of Peace? Asking the Right Questions" Good read on paradigms. http://bit.ly/eZmBE6

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  4. RT @mozaffar: My bud Ahmed Afzaal addresses, "Is Islam a Religion of Peace? Asking the Right Questions" Good read on paradigms. http://bit.ly/eZmBE6

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  5. http://bit.ly/eZmBE6 – Is Islam a Religion of Peace? Asking the Right Questions

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  6. Thanks for your thoughtful piece. I like it. But I think there is one more assumption underlying the question that you rightly reject. It is that a “religion” can be defined by the book it claims to be sacred. For the moment, let’s assume that the word “religion” is not problematic, and simply describes a variety of practices and beliefs by people who claim to be Muslim or Christian or whatever. There is no one-to-one correlation between the book and the religion which claims the book as its authority, because the book itself requires interpretation, and may not be itself univocal. That is certainly the case with Christianity and its book, the Bible. I just got back from Palestine, and one of the last evening there, I was involved in a discussion introduced by a young man who is near finishing college at a very “evangelical” school in Bethlehem, and he asked if I believed in the Old Testament. He has been taught, apparently, to accept the Old Testament as “inspired” and therefore (it does not logically follow, but many assume it does) it is without error. I said there is a lot of beautiful stuff in the Old Testament, but there is a lot of really bad, frankly immoral, stuff that has been destructive of peoples who cling to those parts of the Bible (like the ethnic cleansing of the “Promised Land,” whether or not it really occurred as described, narratives that were used both by European/Americans to ethnically cleanse Native Americans, and by Zionists to ethnically cleanse the Palestinians). The father, who is a friend of long-standing and was my host, apparently had not thought through his own attitude to the Old Testament, but he rejects large parts of it. So, I take it that you agree: one must search within the tradition for resources that conduce toward peace and justice.
    One more comment: would it be possible on the basis of the book alone to reconstruct the religion that claims the book to be sacred? I don’t think so.

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    • Ahmed Afzaal says:

      Thank you for highlighting the importance of “interpretation.” Indeed, our understandings of authoritative and foundational texts vary according to our immediate needs and purposes, which, in turn, depend on the unique configuration of our concrete, historical situation. Among other things, the problems we are facing in a particular historical moment not only influence which texts we are going to choose but also how we shall read them. Furthermore, if our goal is to understand the present situation of a particular people, we are not likely to reach that goal by relying solely upon the text that is regarded as authoritative and foundational by that people. For instance, if our goal is to comprehend the current social, political, and economic landscape of the United States, we are unlikely to gain such a comprehension by simply studying the US Constitution.

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  7. A comment by “halifax” at Dissident Voice: “As a neuroscientist pursuing the study of the complexity of consciousness, I applaud the both the essential message contained in this article and the author’s dexterity in formulating a way of approaching the dilemmas imposed by dualistic conceptualizations that offers a more inclusive and reflective process within which is embedded the potential to open the door to where real freedom of thought awaits all of us. Well said, sir.”

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  8. Thank you for this. I just read your short essay, and I found it enjoyable to read and insightful.

    But perhaps you ended the essay too quickly! One might, or should, also turn the question back to the questioner. Just as there are both tendencies – violent and peaceful – within the complexity of the Christian [or Jewish, or Hindu, or what have you] heritage, we should also ask:

    What are the specific resources in the Christian [or Jewish, or Hindu, or what have you] religious heritage that can help us create a world where everyone can meet their needs peacefully?

    And, to continue this line of thought in the interfaith dialogue mode:

    How can a dialogue drawing on resources within both the Christian and Islamic religious heritages help each other to recognize resources within their own traditions to create a world where everyone can meet their needs peacefully?

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  9. Ahmed Afzaal says:

    Thank you for these very useful and practical comments.

    There are two main varieties of Islamophobes. While claiming that there is something “wrong” with Islam, some imply that Islam’s particular defect is absolutely absent from their own religion; others imply that all religions are tainted to a lesser or greater extent, though Islam is a particularly virulent case. A religious polemicist is not too different from a secular polemicist, however, since they both tend to rely on a simplistic black/white, true/false, good/evil kind of dichotomous logic. There is, of course, no deficiency of Muslims who display such a mindset. Every now and then, all of us fall prey to this logic, perhaps because it gives us a false sense of certainty. Whenever we think in this way, however, we are unable to “hear” each other, and this precludes the possibility of any genuine dialogue. I do not mean to say that the kind of interfaith dialogue that you suggest is impossible; what I mean is that such a dialogue won’t happen so long as the parties are locked in a dichotomous way of thinking.

    My own attempt at answering the question that I proposed at the end of the essay does take into account your suggestion. Stay tuned!

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  10. ecks why says:

    islamic definition of “peace” means their sharia law theocracy rules the land. there is no radical, moderate, hijacked or any other nuanced semanticism type of islam. there is only islam which is based on the life of a murdering 7th century warlord.

    the twin fogs of political correctness & ignorance must be dispersed before western society better understands this menace. even a brief review of islamic theology & history quickly exposes the deadly roots of this evil ideology.

    see the links in the pdf version below for more accurate info about islam
    ==========

    islam is a horrible ideology for human rights

    5 key things about islam

    1. mythical beliefs – all religions have these (faith) because its part of being a religion: having beliefs without proof until after the believer dies. the problem is people will believe almost anything.

    2. totalitarianism – islam has no seperation of church and state: sharia law governs all. there is no free will in islam: only submission to the will of allah as conveniently determined by the imams who spew vapors to feather their own nests. there are no moderate muslims: they all support sharia law.

    3. violence – islam leads the pack of all religions in violent tenets for their ideology & history: having eternal canonical imperatives for supremacy at all costs and calling for violence & intimidation as basic tools to achieve these goals.

    4. dishonesty – only islam has dishonesty as a fundamental tenet: this stems from allah speaking to mohamhead & abrogation in the koran which is used to explain how mo’s peaceful early life was superseded by his warlord role later.

    5. misogyny – present day islam is still rooted in 8th century social ethics: treating females as property of men good only for children, severely limiting their activities, dressing them in shower curtains and worse.

    conclusions ??

    there really are NO redeeming qualities for this muddled pile of propaganda.

    islam is just another fascist totalitarian ideology used by power hungry fanatics on yet another quest for worldwide domination and includes all the usual human rights abuses & suppression of freedoms.

    graphics version
    http://img829.imageshack.us/img829/5792/dangero.jpg

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    • Dear ecks why,

      Thanks a lot for your comments, though I am not sure if they would actually qualify as a “response” to my essay. A quick search on Google revealed that you have left the same comments, verbatim, on a number of other websites and blogs, regardless of the topic being discussed. Furthermore, there are so many layers of confusion in your comments that I cannot possibly unravel them in a short reply. I would be glad to address these in a longer essay, however, not because I have any hopes for a dialogue with you, but solely to benefit others who may have encountered these or similar claims elsewhere.

      ~ Ahmed Afzaal

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