Over the past decade Americans have been looking for the answer to a puzzling question: “If Islam is truly a religion of peace, then why do Muslims carry out so many bloody deeds on behalf of their faith?” That question rests upon two basic assumptions: (1) Attainment of peace and the use of deadly force are mutually incompatible activities; (2) When Muslims discuss “peace,” they share the understanding of that term now standard in contemporary Western culture: outright pacifism. Both of these presuppositions are inaccurate, as I will demonstrate through a brief analysis of Islam’s teachings on war, peace, and violence.
Islamic political thought divides the planet into two hostile realms, the dar-al-Islam (House of Peace), whose inhabitants enjoy the One True Faith, and the dar-al-Harb (House of War), whose unbelieving residents live in a state of religious ignorance. Muslims are commanded to spread their religion until the dar-al-Harb has been conquered and merged into the dar-al-Islam. Persuasion is best, but if the kuffar (Arabic, infidels) reject a friendly summons to Islam, Muslims must wage holy war or “jihad” upon them, in accordance with the Quran’s order “to fight against them until idolatry is no more and God’s religion reigns supreme” (2.193).
Vesting jihad with incredible urgency is Islam’s insistence that anyone who practices shirk (worshipping a deity other than Allah) will suffer an awful fate at the Last Judgment: “Whoever gives partners to God, for him God has forbidden the Garden, his abode is the Fire” (5.52). Now, if one accepts that terrible truth, waging war on non-muslims is actually a favor to them. In this spirit, the “Tafsir Ibn Sa’ Di,” a classic Quran commentary, insists that “The Kufr whom we fight will themselves benefit from jihad to fight and strive against them, so that they will enter the religion of Allah, which is acceptable to Him, which lead to their salvation in this world and in the hereafter.” From this perspective, peace is not synonymous with the absence of war. Rather, it refers to the blissful state that humanity will experience—on earth and in Paradise—after embracing Islam. And the horrors of war are a small price to pay for achieving that blessed and permanent variety of peace.
Before drawing any conclusions, we must first take a brief look at our own culture. After six decades of relentless anti-war activism, with its call to “give peace a chance,” the West now views war as the ultimate disaster, a misfortune to be avoided at all costs. Indeed, regardless of age, gender, or political affiliation, most Westerners would subscribe to the argument that “armies dehumanize us” because “we are asked to risk our lives in order to discipline, maim, and kill other human beings,” whereas “resources” should “instead be used for caring, to reduce hunger, disease, and poverty.” (refusingtokill.net) Moreover, when contemporary Euro-Americans refer to “peace,” they have in mind complete rejection of violence or coercion. This association of pacifism with peace, is beholden to the Judeo-Christian tradition, with its hope for a world in which “swords” shall be “beaten into plowshares,” and the warning that “they who take up the sword shall die by the sword” (Isaiah 2: 2-4; Matt. 26: 52). The contrast with Muslim thought, as described above, is simply staggering.
By now, it ought to be quite clear that the question which initiated this discussion: “Is Islam a religion of peace?” has two possible answers. If by that term, one means, as Westerners invariably do, a faith that perceives of warfare as evil, that places the preservation of human life above all other considerations, and looks with favor upon pacifism, then the answer must be: no! If, however, by “peace,” (Arabic, salaam), one means, as Muslims usually do, the state of harmony and bliss that will color human existence after jihad has extirpated shirk and brought everyone under sharia, finally establishing the circumstances that will assure admittance to the ultimate place of peace, heaven, then Islam is undoubtedly the “religion of peace!”
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