Is Islam a Religion of Peace?

Asking the Right Questions

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 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. Read other articles by Ahmed.

16 comments on this article so far ...

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  1. halifax said on January 25th, 2011 at 8:36am #

    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.

  2. bozh said on January 25th, 2011 at 11:26am #

    islam-qoran cannot be understood; thus, i ask no question about what cannot be understood

    only what ulema does, can be seen-witnessed and thus understood. forget, i aver, what any writ is–includes talmud, bible, das kapital, mein kampf, u.s. constitution–just look what people who uphold such writs do!

    look at the fancy clothes ulema, rabbis, priests wear. they eat the best foods, live in best lodgings; never do a day’s honest work in their lives.
    they cannot be recalled nor ever fired.
    they r organized just like an army. they forever argue! forever defend amirs, lords, boyars, rich and super rich people, marshalls, generals! tnx

  3. kalidasa said on January 25th, 2011 at 12:47pm #

    “Yet man professes to belong to a particular type of faith with reference to particular time and circumstance and thus claims to be a Hindu, Muslim, Christian, Buddhist or any other sect. Such designations are non-sanatana-dharma. A Hindu may change his faith to become a Muslim, or a Muslim may change his faith to become a Hindu, or a Christian may change his faith and so on. But in all circumstances the change of religious faith does not effect the eternal occupation of rendering service to others. The Hindu, Muslim or Christian in all circumstances is servant of someone. Thus, to profess a particular type of sect is not to profess one’s sanatana-dharma. The rendering of service is sanatana-dharma.”
    -Srila Prabhupada

  4. Nabi said on January 25th, 2011 at 3:50pm #

    please check out

  5. AGnostic said on January 26th, 2011 at 6:34am #

    Neither Islam, nor Christianity, nor Judaism can be called “religions of peace” within any rational, pragmatic discourse.

    Before I can expand on this thesis, I could do with clearing the air over the issue of “offense”. I am somewhat put of by the #1 point of the Comments Ettiquette on this site:

    [blockquote] 1. No racist or prejudiced comments. This includes anti-Arab, Islamophobic and anti-Semitic comments (and yes, Christian-bashing too). This includes comments that disparage, intimidate or attack a person based on perceived ethnicity, gender, or sexual orientation. [/blockquote]

    The issue here is that the proponents of all three Abrahamic religions have traditionally been unable to stick to the basic rules of civilised discourse. When confronted with someone who is not afraid of the censorious, punishing “God” and who proceeds to illustrate the genocidal/ecocidal criminality and delusional nature of these beliefs he/she is invariably attacked ad hominem. There is no rational defense for these religions and what their proponents have done, hence they will attempt to demonise/scapegoat/ostracise/destroy critics, often by feigning victimhood to gain the moral high ground and present their critics as bigoted racists.

    (Followers of Islam, Christianity, and even Judaism cannot be said to be coherent racial or ethnic groups, and the national identity of Jews is debatable to say the least. )

    A philosophical attack on patriarchal religion is invariably met with hostility and ad hominem attacks in return. They take it personally!
    The subtext is that if you attempt to undermine the religion of the Forefathers, you are an enemy. Simply because you’re of a different kind. (In their own pseudo-mythology of racism, not one of Yahweh’s/Allah’s chosen ones, the “children of Israel”)

    Under these circumstances it has become impossible to enter into any public debate on religion. It is not politically correct to criticise Islam, you are then automatically assigned the “righ-wing bigot” label. The same results from criticising Judaism. Criticising Chritianity has less of a stigma until one shows that all 3 methods of brainwashing and cultural depradation come from the same source, and that Islamics, Jews and Christians are not really different in their chosen delusional metaphysics and resultant system of “ethics”.

    I can carry on if it’s OK with the owners of the site, or I could point interested readers to the work of John Lash on regarding the common psychopathological ground the abrahamic religions share.

    They will never bring about true peace, either within or without. Their “peace” is the peace of the graveyard.


  6. halifax said on January 26th, 2011 at 7:31am #

    Fellow readers, with respect:
    1. Thank you for the reference to the islamic solutions website. I will definitely take a look at it soon.
    2. I could never anchor any of my ideas or attitudes–no matter how much I read, or studied or trained; no matter how many “grassroots” or “affiliation with the disenfranchised” experiences I had; no matter how many times I put my material security, my health, even my life on the line for a person/cause I believed in–until I came up with an underlying conceptual framework to which I, as an individual, could orient. It was a long time coming. I am 56 years old next month. This personal “credo” or “theory of life” or whatever you want to call it, is absolutely uniquely my own; reflecting an integration of all that is me–my strengths, my vulnerabilities; my still unresolved “stuff”; my acculturated brain up to this point in time–every single element of what constitutes my personal bias. It is evolving as I continue to evolve. How “true” is it? It is as “true” as it feeds me joy, gratitude, curiosity, friendliness, reverence, a “knowing” of that which cannot be named or owned or controlled; and it is as “false” as it feeds bitterness, despair, regret, guilt, fear, and most important of all, for me, any sense whatsoever that there exists such a being as “other” who can draw my attention away from my own shortcomings to focus on theirs. Obviously, like every other perfectly imperfect human on the planet, I fall short of a personal theory of life that is completely “true”.
    As a scientifically minded person, by virtue of both my orientation as a physician and psychiatrist and the way that I appear to meet “diagnostic criteria” of current assessment tools that are exhibiting links between so-called mysticism and autism, I view the world through my personal conceptual framework of the evolution of consciousness (based on chaos/complexity theory; and the bridging of quantum mechanics and relativity theories by superstring and M theories).
    I apologize for this long preamble but I don’t know how else to situate my following contribution to the discussion:
    With regard to the quote of a sage who discounts any identification with an organized religion as contrary to the “true” state of human being-ness (forgive my crude paraphrasing), I agree entirely and disagree entirely. It depends on the orientation to spacetime. Sages speak from a higher order of complexity of consciousness than where we live our lives in third order (dimension). At those higher orders (5th dimension up); consciousness of oneness; the absence of “other” is the reality. Sages speak of that which is yet to come in the process of the evolution of consciousness (using linear, 3D time concept). In “current” spacetime, human consciousness is dualistic. Our basic human need to affiliate, which is as powerful a need as any other basic human need, at this stage of consciousness evolution takes form in our “membership” to groups–families, tribes, and including so-called religious groups for those who are oriented to that particular kind of community. The interchangeability of religious affiliation identity, which the sage also highlights, is a consciousness that is growing within our world ie. the universality of basic tenets of all so-called religions and is noted by many sages, both ancient and modern, as a step along the path toward the acquisition of the consciousness of oneness. In time, it is theorized, the deconstruction of group affiliation will gain momentum as more and more people evolve into full consciousness of their personal authenticity–and find that their affiliative needs are naturally met within the consciousness of global inclusiveness. This is essentially what Einstein meant when he said he didn’t believe in a personal (emphasis) God. If I can paraphase him, he was saying, By virtue of how our biology (brain) works, everything is experienced as personal; the (moral) task of each human being is to actualize all experiences within an impersonal framework of consciousness.
    We are where we are in our evolution; it is neither good nor bad in and of itself. It simply is. How each of us relates to our evolutionary state and to the inexorable dynamism of consciousness evolution is what counts, in my opinion. Cultivating habits of thought, attitude, and behaviour that are oriented to be in flow with this dynamism is the fundamental–and extremely personal–task of each and every one of us. In that state of living where one embraces what I am inclined to call the mystery of life, through the workings of our self-regulating, information-rich, nonlinear, complex chaotic, adaptive brains, one experiences the human reality of our essential solipsism. In the ways that our solipsistic brains can experience non-local coherence with other brains in dynamical “flow”, we experience community; and to the degree that any particular brain or community of brains is experiencing non-local coherence with the dynamism of global consciousness evolutionary “flow”, we experience the fullness that life in the now has to offer us, thereby optimizing our individual and collective capacities to be agents of “smart compassion” (as the Buddhists call it) on the global stage.
    My apologies if this too long-winded.

  7. bozh said on January 26th, 2011 at 8:45am #

    may i point to u that most of the words u r using in above post r of very high order and as such cannot be evaluated as true-false nor right-wrong!
    “Sages speak from a higher order of complexity of consciousness than where we live our lives in third order (dimension). At those higher orders (5th dimension up); consciousness of oneness;…”
    words like “complexity” or “conciouness” cannot be, as far as i know, understood– only interpreted.

    if we wld supplant the label “consciouoness” with a description [even erroneous one]; i.e., describing what is happening in our brains when we see a murder or apple pie, we cld gain some knowledge; such as, let’s study it some more?

    for that’s also knowledge; knowledge that we might or might not ever know how a brain and nervous structure functions and especially why all of it exists in first place
    nevertheless, we won’t be daunted–we’l look and look and look.
    for only via looking along with other 4 senses we get to know about anything at a point of time.

    for an illustration, let’s take a woman dancer twirling and showing her panties? do u think anyone is going to theorize about the panties and what it hides? or will u look? tnx

  8. 3bancan said on January 26th, 2011 at 8:57am #

    halifax said on January 26th, 2011 at 7:31am #

    Folks say that a psychiatrist needs a psychiatrist, and halifax is in urgent need for one…

  9. stanisloski101 said on January 26th, 2011 at 12:05pm #

    This article swims in arrogance. The author disparages critics through consistent ad hominem attack rather than rational discourse. By paralleling those who ask the question with the unintelligent, the author cast greater question as to his own.

    An excellent barometer of whether or not a religion is peaceful is quite justifiably its extremes. Jainist extremists are actually MORE peaceful, the more extreme they become. They walk with their heads down so they won’t accidently swallow flies.

    Another excellent measure are the conditions of those nations that specifically say they are ruled by the religion’s doctrines. While they’re many nations that either are significantly Muslim and even regard themselves as Muslim nations, those regions that boast they are ruled by Sharia Law are near universally bastions of oppression and hardship.

    The Quran is not the source of all terrorism, but it is as excellent source for it, jihadists citing Surah after Surah to justify their horrors with scholars throughout the Muslim world supporting those interpretations.

  10. hayate said on January 26th, 2011 at 12:20pm #

    stanisloski101 said on January 26th, 2011 at 12:05pm

    And the zionist hasbarat hate rhetoric against Muslims continues…..

  11. hayate said on January 26th, 2011 at 12:20pm #

    The hasbarat is the modern day version of the hitler youth.

  12. AGnostic said on January 26th, 2011 at 1:02pm #

    I don’ t see any zionists or anyone in need of a psychiatrist here, I do see some poor communications skills.

    If you see zionists everywhere, they’ve got you.

  13. hayate said on January 26th, 2011 at 1:19pm #

    “I don’ t see”

    Bigoted hasbarats generally don’t see…

  14. 3bancan said on January 26th, 2011 at 2:01pm #

    stanisloski101 said on January 26th, 2011 at 12:05pm #

    stanisloski101 seems to have never read the Bible.
    Btw, the main perpetrators of terrorism and genocidal barbarity all over the world in general have been and still are the European and American Christians and Jews…

  15. 3bancan said on January 26th, 2011 at 2:06pm #

    AGnostic said on January 26th, 2011 at 1:02pm #

    “If you see zionists everywhere, they’ve got you”

    A zionazi never sees a zionazi…

  16. Deadbeat said on January 26th, 2011 at 4:43pm #

    halifax writes …

    In time, it is theorized, the deconstruction of group affiliation will gain momentum as more and more people evolve into full consciousness of their personal authenticity–and find that their affiliative needs are naturally met within the consciousness of global inclusiveness.

    It was rough wadding through all that gobbledygook to find something that made sense. Put the problem with halifax’s “analysis” (if you want to call it that) is that it absolves POWER. You get the impression that people are “free agents” making their own conclusion and are free able to break out of their “unconsciousness” if they so choose.

    In other words in halifax’s world there is no OPPRESSION only free will.

    Thus, in my own long-winded way, I wholeheartedly agree with 3bancan’s assessment.