How do Muslim apologists defend the idea that Islam is a religion of peace? In a number of ways, but it boils down to six. Three of them are scriptural strategies, debates over what the Islamic holy texts say and require. The other three are non-scriptural strategies which foist the blame for Muslim violence on something other than religiosity. Let’s consider them all.
There are generally three apologetic strategies used to prove that the Islamic holy texts — the Qur’an, the Sira, and the Hadith — don’t promote or require violence.
(1) The Reinterpretation Defense. This strategy relies on interpreting the holy war texts in a way that opposes their evident meaning. We often hear that jihad is a spiritual struggle, not a physical or military one. It’s actually both and has always been so. If jihad were only a spiritual struggle, then the sections in the Qur’an about booty and spoils of war make no sense. You don’t get spoils out of a spiritual struggle.
The requirement to wage literal warfare has been mandatory since the days of Muhammad, and remains so in all schools of Islamic jurisprudence. The Shafii legal manual ‘Umdat al-Salik (Reliance of the Traveler) is one of the highest authorities on the subject, and certified by the Al-Azhar University as reflecting the “practice and faith of the orthodox Sunni community”. The manual devotes a single paragraph to jihad as spiritual struggle, and then spends seven whole pages on jihad as warfare. It makes clear, as the Qur’an does, that jihad is physical warfare against non-Muslims:
“Jihad means to war against non-Muslims, and is etymologically derived from the word ‘mujahada’, signifying warfare to establish the religion. And it is the lesser jihad. As for the greater jihad, it is spiritual warfare against the lower self (nafs), which is why the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) said as he was returning from jihad, ‘We have returned from the lesser jihad to the greater jihad.’ The scriptural basis for jihad, is such Qur’anic verses as: (1) ‘Fighting is prescribed for you’ (2:216); (2) ‘Slay them wherever you find them’ (4:89); (3) ‘Fight the idolators utterly’ (9:36); and such hadiths as: ‘I have been commanded to fight people until they testify that there is no god but Allah and that Muhammad is the Messenger of Allah, and perform the prayer, and pay zakat. If they say it, they have saved their blood and possessions from me’, and ‘To go forth in the morning or evening to fight in the path of Allah is better than the whole world and everything in it.’ “
The idea that jihad is purely a spiritual struggle is a fantasy.
There is nothing wrong with reinterpretation when you acknowledge that is what you are doing. It’s what reformers do when they reevaluate texts so that religion can survive and evolve. The Catholic Church did this at Vatican II, when it reinterpreted the gospel passion narratives to dispense with antisemitism. Islamic reformer Maajid Nawaz wants to spiritualize the jihad and dispense with violence. He says, “We Muslims must admit there are passages in the Qur’an that require reinterpretation. Let us use existing tools of exegeses, such as specificity, restriction, abrogation, and metaphor to condemn [the violence required by the Qur’an].” As a reformist plan, that’s great. Reinterpreting jihad as a purely spiritual struggle is a commendable goal. The problem is that unlike Nawaz, most re-interpreters don’t admit the problem, because they don’t believe there even is a problem with the Qur’an. In their minds, they are not really reinterpreting, rather supplying what the holy sources actually mean, and insisting that people who read violence and other bad things from the Qur’an are mistaken. That’s not only wrong, it gives the fatal impression that reform isn’t necessary.
(2) The Context Defense. The idea is that verses may seem to endorse violence, but if you read them in context with the surrounding verses (the literary context), and/or understand them in their original setting (the historical context), they promote fighting only in self-defense. For example, when it says to “slay people wherever you find them” (Qur’an 2:191), it’s relevant that in the previous verse, the command has to do with “fighting those who fight you” (Qur’an 2:190). And that’s certainly true. But there are many more verses that also command the slaying of unbelievers wherever you find them, and there is nothing from either the literary or historical context that qualifies the command at all. Examples would be “fight those who do not believe in Allah or the last day” (Qur’an 9:29), which is not about fighting in self-defense. It’s about offensive jihad, based on holy imperative.
Context is always crucial, and historians pride themselves on getting it right. Otherwise you can make a passage say anything you want. The problem is that in this case, apologists are just assuming that the context will prove what they want it to prove. They have this strange idea that context is somehow automatically liberating and results in more palatable readings of texts. Sometimes that happens, and it’s nice when it does, but it just as often doesn’t. The purpose of historical criticism isn’t to produce better theology (even when it can genuinely lend support in that regard). Its purpose is as cold as scientific inquiry: to let the chips fall where they may, for better or worse. Violence in the Islamic sources is just as obvious when taken in literary and historical context. It’s a mandatory requirement on Muslim believers; to subject infidels and bring them under the rule of Islamic law. The difference between the context of Muhammad in the 7th century and that of ISIS in the 21st doesn’t amount to anything that changes this.
(3) The Counter-Scriptural Defense. This is the game of scriptural one-upsmanship. To prove that Islam is a religion of peace, apologists will cite, “To you be your religion, and to me be mine” (Qur’an 109:6), and “There’s no compulsion in religion” (Qur’an 2:256), both of which sound progressive. The problem is that these texts aren’t the Qur’an’s final marching orders. The pattern found in the Qur’an, Sira (the life of Muhammad), and the Hadith is the same: only when Muhammad was outnumbered and building his power base in his early years in Mecca, did he counsel such a message of peace and tolerance. This was to ensure the survival of the Muslim community. (Ironically, it is these peaceful passages which fall prey to the context trap, not the violent ones as the apologists think.) In his later years in Medina, when the Muslim community had grown, the message changed to “fight those who fight you” (Qur’an 2:190-191; the defensive jihad). Finally, in the latest period of Medina, when Muslims had the strongest and dominant position in society, the message changed again, from “fight those who fight you” to “fight those who do not believe in Allah” (Qur’an 9:29; the offensive jihad) for the subjugation of non-Muslims. These are the abundant passages which carry eternal force: Muslims are to kill infidels and heretics until they die in martyrdom (Qur’an 9:111), and should “not weaken and call for peace when they should be uppermost” (Qur’an 47:35).
There’s a term for this trajectory. It’s called the Doctrine of Abrogation, which says that later passages supersede earlier ones. It’s still the official doctrine in all schools of Islam, and derives from the Qur’an itself: “We do not abrogate a verse or cause it to be forgotten except when we bring forth one better than it or similar to it. Do you not know that Allah is over all things competent?” (Qur’an is 2:106). Allah changes revelations as he goes along, and the later (“better”) revelations trump the earlier ones. The early peaceful texts have relevance only when Muslims are vulnerable or in a minority position; the later violent texts have eternal force. Islam is unique on this point. In other religions you can play the counter-scriptural game with flexibility. When rabbis debated whether or not children suffer punishment for the sins of their parents, there is no controlling text in the Jewish scriptures that would lead one to favor Exodus 20:5 (“yes”) over Ezekiel 18:20 (“no”), or vice-versa. That’s why most scriptures are conveniently malleable. Not so the Qur’an. When liberal Muslims cite “there is no compulsion in religion” and that if you disagree with someone, “to you be your religion and to me be mine”, we should of course applaud them, but the fact is that their claims are toothless, because the doctrine of abrogation refutes their citations in advance. Until actual reformers succeed in reversing the direction of abrogation, and manage to give primacy to the (very few) Meccan texts at the expense of all the Medinan ones — not to mention all the passages in the Sira and Hadith — the counter-scriptural game is doomed to fail.
In sum: scriptural strategies
All three scriptural strategies are legitimate, but Muslim apologists don’t use them properly when trying to prove that Islam is a religion of peace and tolerance. In the case of reinterpretation, they essentially don’t admit what they are doing (unlike reformers) and just pretend that the scriptural texts are fine and peaceful as they stand. In the case of context, it’s no help at all on this matter. And in the case of setting the few genuinely peaceful scriptures against the many violent ones, the Doctrine of Abrogation — indeed the Qur’an itself — renders the peaceful ones obsolete.
Now we should ask how Islamic violence is accounted for by these apologists who don’t examine their scriptures carefully. Where do they put the blame in order to salvage Islam as a religion of peace? There are generally three strategies of blame-shifting.
(4) The Poverty Defense. The claim is that poverty and/or lack of education causes violence and terrorism. Social scientists have collected massive data on the socioeconomic background of terrorists, and unfortunately no evidence supports the idea that Islamic jihadists are unusually poor or badly schooled. The Princeton University survey in 2008 was a landmark in this regard. Another study done by the RAND Corporation focused on suicide-bombers recruited by Hamas on the West Bank and Gaza, and found that nearly 60% of suicide-bombers had more than a high-school education, compared with less than 15% of the Palestinian population on whole. Another study in Lebanon focused on Hizbullah militants, who were better educated and less likely to be from poor families than the overall population of the Shia areas of Lebanon. Nor is there evidence that sympathy for terrorism is greater among the destitute and deprived. In Pew surveys done in 2004, adults in Jordan, Morocco, Pakistan and Turkey were asked whether they believed that suicide-bombing was justified. Shockingly, the ones who voiced more agreement were those who were more educated.
Some then insist that poverty is at least the root cause of terror, even if terrorists themselves are not poor, the argument being that anger over poverty causes richer citizens of poor countries to join terrorist groups. This idea was tested by looking at data on 956 terrorist events between 1997 and 2003. Against expectations again, the data showed that the poorest countries — those with low literacy, and/or those whose economies were relatively stagnant — did not produce more terrorists. Moreover, when the analysis was restricted to suicide-attacks, citizens of the poorest countries were the least likely to commit a suicide-attack.
It is demonstrably false, in other words, that poverty causes violence or terrorism in the Islamic world. The idea seems intuitively absurd anyway. Many other places — Swaziland, Costa Rica, the Philippines, you name it — are plagued by poverty and/or lack of education, and they aren’t combustible like Islamic cultures.
(5) The Political Grievance Defense. The claim is that jihadists and Islamists are motivated more by political grievances than religious ideology. There are two responses to this. First is that on one level this is a meaningless claim, because Islam is inherently political. Warfare (jihad), terms of law and order (sharia), and territorial claims (to subjugate the world and bring all nations under Islamic rule) are in essence what makes something political. By definition, groups like Hamas, Al-Qaeda, and ISIS will cry out against foreign policies. But their grievances, whether sincere or not, have nothing to do with things like enslaving underage Yazidi girls, killing Turkmen Shias, throwing gays off rooftops, and executing Muslim apostates. It’s not even necessarily the case that Islamic governments want their grievances solved. Muslims who have lived in Islamic countries know this firsthand — that Islamic supremacists use leftist narratives about oppression to their advantage, to deflect criticism and to further justify oppressing their own people. They thrive on grievances, which embolden them, open more avenues to paradise, and provide their reason-to-be. But they certainly don’t need to have grievances to wage war, and often they don’t.
The classic case is that of Thomas Jefferson, who responded to an unprovoked Muslim attack by launching war against the Barbary States in 1801. The unprovoked attack came sixteen years prior (1785), at the end of the Revolutionary War, when American trade ships sailing into the Mediterranean were assaulted by Muslim pirates. Those taken hostage were tortured and wrote letters home begging the U.S. government and family members to pay the ransoms. Jefferson (at that time a delegate to Europe, before his presidency) was shocked at the unprovoked attacks, and wanted to know why the Barbary States were doing this. Tripoli’s (Libya’s) response came from Ambassador Sidi Haji Abdul Rahman Adja in 1786, when he met with Jefferson and Adams in London. Adja said that they were doing as Muhammad commanded; that it was the Muslim right to wage war on all nations who didn’t acknowledge Islamic rule, and to make slaves of all they could take as prisoners; and that every Muslim who died in battle for this cause would go to paradise. All of those reasons sound like modern ISIS or Al-Qaeda sermons, and yet this was over two centuries ago, long before America even had a foreign policy. The Barbary Muslims had no political grievances against the U.S. They were just doing — in their own words — as Muhammad commanded in the Qur’an.
It’s true, however — and this is the second response — that our war-mongering in the Middle-East is much to blame in exacerbating the problem of jihad terror. In that sense, a lot of the anti-Americanism in the Muslim world owes to our interventionist policies. The last two American presidents were horrible in this regard. George W. Bush and Barack Obama labored under the illusion that the United States could bring democracy to the Middle East by toppling dictators and encouraging their opponents to work for elections and peaceful change. Bush thought this when he removed Saddam Hussein; Obama thought so when he aided in the fall of Mubarak in Egypt and Gaddafi in Syria, and then Assad. The result wasn’t democracy; it was chaos and anarchy in Libya; unrest and instability in Egypt; the strengthening of jihad and sharia groups all over. The dictators we have toppled were bad, but the jihad and Islamist groups who fill the void are worse. This is what political critics often point out, and as far as that goes, it’s an accurate observation. The problem is that the observation fuels the myth that jihad terror wouldn’t exist at all if not for western war-mongering and/or imperialism, which — as cases like Thomas Jefferson prove — isn’t true. The Islamic world has been expansionist and war-driven since the seventh century. Muhammad is the jihad exemplar, and his eternal command is to wage war on infidels, and to bring them under caliphate rule. So while our misadventures in the Muslim world have made us a particularly hot target for jihad, and irresponsibly so, the jihad imperative exists regardless of what we or any nation does to provoke it.
You don’t have to look far in the world to see the truth of this. The oppressive injustices China has inflicted on the Tibetans are worse than even what western powers and Israel have done in the Muslim world. The Tibetans have bitter grievances against China, and yet suicide-bombing has not been the Tibetan-Buddhist response. That’s because Buddhism doesn’t require homicidal martyrdom. Islam does.
(6) The “Other Religions Have Their Problems Too” Defense.
This strategy is one of evasion. Instead of trying to explain disproportionate amounts of Muslim violence, the apologists pretend that all religions carry an equal potential for violence and harm. How often do we hear that Christianity has its abortion-clinic bombers like Islam has its jihadists? The problem is that this isn’t an analogy. Abortion-clinic bombers are a fringe phenomenon, and none receives endorsement from any mainstream Christians — or even from most fundamentalist Christians for that matter. There are many jihadists and Islamists, on the other hand, and they have huge influence. Jihad and sharia are to Islam what the Eucharist and resurrection are to Christianity. For every abortion clinic bomber there are thousands of jihadists who are routinely active, and they are properly doing what Islam requires. There’s no comparison here.
Then we hear about the medieval crusades. They are at least an analogy, and prove that a religion can indeed evolve by cutting entirely against the grain of its tradition. But the crusades resulted from the combination of unlikely forces. They copied the jihad in their premise of sacred violence, and the zealous mindset they fostered for security of one’s salvation, but in just about every other aspect — how essential they were to Christian doctrine (not), how mandatory they were on Christian believers (not), how difficult they were to justify theologically (very) — they were opposite phenomena.
The crusades were essentially two things, (1) a defensive response to Muslim aggression, and (2) a creative solution to the problem of medieval knights. Popes had been trying for decades to curb knightly violence (telling knights they couldn’t fight certain days of the week, etc.) to no avail. A knight’s profession depended on warfare, and warriors lived in a constant state of guilt, told by the church they were sinful for violating the peaceful example of Christ. In response to Islamic offensives, the pope suddenly went the opposite route, and gave Christian warriors full rein to their violent impulses, by making bloodshed sacred if they channeled their aggression against Muslims and reclaimed the holy lands. Only with the intersection of these issues — Muslim offensives, uncontrollable Christian knights, and particularly ambitious popes — were holy wars made possible in Christian thinking. Even then, justifying them was acknowledged to be a problem. Muslims have never had problems justifying their holy wars. They’ve been the historical norm. The crusades were a peripheral and self-contradictory development in Christianity, and were foreordained to pass.
We can compare Islam to other religions, but we need to use better analogies. Vigilantism, terrorism, and holy wars are not the place to look. A proper example would be something like contraception in the Catholic church. Unlike the crusades, but like the jihad, contraception has been a consistent Catholic obsession and its prohibition is mandatory on all believers. Most Catholics ignore the mandate and use contraceptives anyway, because they choose to live responsible lives. But there are non-trivial numbers of Catholics who do as the church teaches and refuse to use birth control.
The same is true about Muslims. Most of them are obviously peaceful and just want to coexist in the world as normal people. But that’s not the equivalent of reform. Too many other Muslims take the obligation for jihad and sharia seriously, and for very good reason given the clear imperatives in the Islamic sources. Too many Christians held antisemitic attitudes before Vatican II, also for good reason; the influence of passion plays and other New Testament traditions can’t be overstated. If the Islamic world is going to embrace humane civilized thinking, then Muslims have uphill reformist battles ahead of them.