The Charlie Hebdo killings have further contributed to a sense that Islam is an intrinsically violent religion.
Such sentiments started in earnest after the September 11 attacks.
“It has become much more respectable to assert that the Muslim faith turns people violent,” the Economist magazine reported in 2008.
This sentiment has only intensified over the past year with the rise of ISIS, Boko Haram, and, now, the murders in Paris.
But such a notion is enormously reductive, to say the least. Keep in mind that roughly one in four people in the world practices Islam. A 2009 “Pew Forum study depicts the world’s second-largest religion as complex and nuanced, challenging the notion that its trajectory is defined by a minority of Islamists,” the Guardian newspaper reported a few years ago. The vast majority of Muslims around the world abhor violence and seek to live in peace. The drumbeat in the Western media about a “war with Islam” endangers them—and all of us.
“Like all religions, [Islam] contains within it both the deep and the simple, the sublime and the cruel, the exalted and the ignoble,” writes comparative religionist Professor Reuven Firestone. “Like Judaism and Christianity, Islam is multifaceted, offering a variety of responses to the questions and perplexities of the human condition. It cannot be fairly forced into a single wrapping.”
In recent media coverage, the violent acts of a few Muslims have dominated the public space. Too few have asked the question as to whether there are qualities in Islam that make it compatible with nonviolence, and whether there are instances in history—and especially the modern world—that show this to be true. My book, ‘Islam” Means Peace, shows that Islam can indeed be interpreted in a tolerant and peaceful way, and that there are plenty of such guideposts in the religion for Muslims to follow.
“In Islam, every person has human sacredness,” writes Egyptian exegete Mohammad Abdullah Daraz. “Due to this human dignity, Islam protects its enemies.”
The killers in France ignored this reading, as they did many others..
Forgiveness is a prized virtue in Islam, for instance, especially when Muslims are angry.
When the Prophet Muhammad, Islam’s messenger, re-entered Mecca after being forced into exile, he set an example by declaring the whole of the city a sanctuary: “There is no censure from me today on you (for what happened is done with), may God, who is the greatest amongst forgivers, forgive you.” When he was asked by his followers to ask God to wreak havoc on Meccans for persecuting Muslims, he replied, “I have not be sent to curse anyone but to be a source of rahmah [compassion and mercy] to all.”
And the Quran, the Muslim holy book, urged him to stay on this path. “Keep to forgiveness [O Muhammad] and enjoin kindness, and turn away from the ignorant.” [7:199]
During his initial years of preaching, Muhammad always prayed while being persecuted, and in an uncanny Biblical echo, said, “Forgive them, Lord, for they know not what they do.”
Muhammad’s response to all the taunting and criticism during this period was benign.
“Although [Muhammad] is harshly criticized by his Meccan opponents for insulting their idolatrous way of life, he is described even during the most heated argument as refraining from any kind of physical violence,” writes Professor Firestone.
“Never a wrong done to him that he did not forgive; never an injury that he was not ready to pardon,” stated Irish intellectual Annie Besant almost a century ago. “Judge a religion by its noblest, not by its worst, then we shall learn to love one another as brothers, and not hate one another as bigots and as fanatics.”
It is a sad irony that the murderers in Paris were purportedly out to avenge their prophet’s honor.
“If the shooters wanted to do something to bring honor to the Prophet, they could begin by actually embodying the manners and ethics of the Prophet,” writes Professor Omid Safi, author of Memories of Muhammad: Why the Prophet Matters. “They could start by studying his life and teachings, where they would see that Muhammad actually responded to those who had persecuted him through forgiveness and mercy.”
Indeed, Muslim leaders such as Abdul Ghaffar Khan, a close friend of Mahatma Gandhi who founded a peace force of more than 100,000 Pashtuns to nonviolently oppose British rule and to push for social reform, turned again and again to the life and teachings of Muhammad for inspiration.
The Paris killers don’t seem to have looked too closely at the Muslim sacred text.
People of great merit, says the Quran, are “those who restrain anger and pardon men. And Allah loves the doers of good.” [3:134]
“Had the shooters in Paris actually bothered opening the Quran, they would have known about ‘repel evil with something that is lovelier,’ ” writes Safi in a recent column. “Had they sought to embody the Quran, they wouldn’t have shot down cartoonists but made sure to shoot down prejudice by embodying luminous qualities that would transform the society one person at a time.
The book offers wise counsel to Muslims.
“The Quran’s general advice to believers is to ignore the opinion of those who hurl abuse at them, demonize them in their fiction, films and television shows, mock their Prophet in cartoons, and scorn and stereotype them in their media,” writes Ziauddin Sardar in Reading the Quran: The Contemporary Relevance of the Sacred Text of Islam.” “Rather, Muslims are asked to concentrate on their own shortcomings and tackle their own problems.
Those of us in the Western world can help by “promoting interfaith dialogue between Muslims and members of other faiths,” Professor Ramin Jahanbegloo, a leading scholar on Muslim nonviolence, tells The Progressive. “The West should also invest in modern education in Islamic countries rather than supporting dictatorships.”
Just as most Christians reject the murder of abortion doctors in their name, Muslims around the world would prefer not to be represented by violent fanatics. All of us can benefit from a more widespread understanding of religious teachings of peace and tolerance.
Amitabh Pal is managing editor of The Progressive..