Frequently Asked Questions - Islam 101
- 1 The Basics
- 2 Jihad and Dhimmitude
- 3 Conclusion
- 4 Frequently Asked Questions
- 4.1 What about the Crusades?
- 4.2 If Islam is violent, why are so many Muslims peaceful?
- 4.3 What about the violent passages in the Bible?
- 4.4 Could an Islamic "Reformation" pacify Islam?
- 4.5 What about the history of Western colonialism in the Islamic world?
- 4.6 How can a violent political ideology be the second-largest and fastest-growing religion on earth?
- 4.7 Is it fair to paint all Islamic schools of thought as violent?
- 4.8 What about the great achievements of Islamic civilization through history?
- 5 Glossary of Terms
There are a handful of questions that invariably arise when the point is made that Islam is violent. These questions for the most part are misleading or irrelevant and do not contest the actual evidence or arguments that violence is inherent to Islam. Nonetheless, they have proven rhetorically effective in deflecting serious scrutiny from Islam, and so I deal with some of them here.
What about the Crusades?
The obvious response to this question is, "Well, what about them?" Violence committed in the name of other religions is logically unconnected to the question of whether Islam is violent. But, by mentioning the Crusades, the hope of the Islamic apologist is to draw attention away from Islamic violence and paint religions in general as morally equivalent.
In both the Western academia and media as well as in the Islamic world, the Crusades are viewed as wars of aggression fought by bloody-minded Christians against peaceful Muslims. While the Crusades were certainly bloody, they are more accurately understood as a belated Western response to centuries of jihad than as an unprovoked, unilateral attack. Muslim rule in the Holy Land began in the second half of the 7th century during the Arab wave of jihad with the conquests of Damascus and Jerusalem by the second "rightly-guided Caliph," Umar. After the initial bloody jihad, Christian and Jewish life there was tolerated within the strictures of the dhimma and the Muslim Arabs generally permitted Christians abroad to continue to make pilgrimage to their holy sites, a practice which proved lucrative for the Muslim state. In the 11th century, the relatively benign Arab administration of the Holy Land was replaced with that of Seljuk Turks, due to civil war in the Islamic Empire. Throughout the latter half of the 11th century, the Turks waged war against the Christian Byzantine Empire and pushed it back from its strongholds in Antioch and Anatolia (now Turkey). In 1071, Byzantine forces suffered a crushing defeat at the Battle of Manzikert in what is now Eastern Turkey. The Turks resumed the jihad in the Holy Land, abusing, robbing, enslaving, and killing Christians there and throughout Asia Minor. They threatened to cut off Christendom from its holiest site, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, rebuilt under Byzantine stewardship after it was destroyed by Caliph Al-Hakim bi-Amr Allah in 1009.
It was in this context of a renewed jihad in the Middle East that the Roman Pope, Urban II, issued a call in 1095 for Western Christians to come to the aid of their Eastern cousins (and seems to have harbored the hope of claiming Jerusalem for the Papacy after the Great Schism with Eastern Christianity in 1054). This "armed pilgrimage," in which numerous civilians as well as soldiers took part, would eventually become known years later as the First Crusade. The idea of a "crusade" as we now understand that term, i.e., a Christian "holy war," developed years later with the rise of such organizations as the Knights Templar that made "crusading" a way of life. It worth noting that the most ardent Crusaders, the Franks, were exactly those who had faced jihad and razzias for centuries along the Franco-Spanish border and knew better than most the horrors to which Muslims subjected Christians. At the time of the First Crusade, the populations of Asia Minor, Syria, and Palestine, though ruled by Muslims, were still overwhelmingly Christian. The "Crusading" campaigns of the Western Christian armies were justified at the time as a war liberating the Eastern Christians, whose population, lands, and culture had been devastated by centuries of jihad and dhimmitude. Conquering territory for God in the mode of jihad was an alien idea to Christianity and it should not be surprising that it eventually died out in the West and never gained ascendancy in the East.
Following the very bloody capture of Jerusalem in 1099 by the Latin armies and the establishment of the Crusader States in Edessa, Antioch, and Jerusalem, the Muslim and Christian forces fought a see-saw series of wars, in which both parties were guilty of the usual gamut of wartime immorality. Over time, even with reinforcing Crusades waged from Europe, the Crusader States, strung out on precarious lines of communication, slowly succumbed to superior Muslim power. In 1271, the last Christian citadel, Antioch, fell to the Muslims. No longer having to divert forces to subdue the Christian beachhead on the Eastern Mediterranean, the Muslims regrouped for a 400-year-long jihad against Southern and Eastern Europe, which twice reached as far as Vienna before it was halted. In geostrategic terms, the Crusades can be viewed as an attempt by the West to forestall its own destruction at the hands of Islamic jihad by carrying the fight to the enemy. It worked for a while.
Significantly, while the West has for some time now lamented the Crusades as mistaken, there has never been any mention from any serious Islamic authority of regret for the centuries and centuries of jihad and dhimmitude perpetrated against other societies. But this is hardly surprising: while religious violence contradicts the fundamentals of Christianity, religious violence is written into Islam's DNA.
If Islam is violent, why are so many Muslims peaceful?
This question is a bit like asking, "If Christianity teaches humility, tolerance, and forgiveness, why are so many Christians arrogant, intolerant, and vindictive?" The answer in both cases is obvious: in any religion or ideology there will be many who profess, but do not practice, its tenets. Just as it is often easier for a Christian to hit back, play holier-than-thou, or disdain others, so it is often easier for a Muslim to stay at home rather than embark on jihad. Hypocrites are everywhere.
Furthermore, there are also people who do not really understand their own faith and so act outside of its prescribed boundaries. In Islam, there are likely many Muslims who do not really understand their religion thanks to the importance of reciting the Quran in Arabic but not having to understand it. It is the words and sounds of the Quran that attract Allah's merciful attention rather than Quranic knowledge on the part of the supplicant. Especially in the West, Muslims here are more likely to be attracted by Western ways (which explains why they are here) and less likely to act violently against the society to which they may have fled from an Islamic tyranny abroad.
However, in any given social context, as Islam takes greater root -- increasing numbers of followers, the construction of more mosques and "cultural centers," etc. -- the greater the likelihood that some number of its adherents will take its violent precepts seriously. This is the problem that the West faces today.
What about the violent passages in the Bible?
First, violent Biblical passages are irrelevant to the question of whether Islam is violent.
Second, the violent passages in the Bible certainly do no amount to a standing order to commit violence against the rest of the world. Unlike the Quran, the Bible is a huge collection of documents written by different people at different times in different contexts, which allows for much greater interpretative freedom. The Quran, on the other hand, comes exclusively from one source: Muhammad. It is through the life of Muhammad that the Quran must be understood, as the Quran itself says. His wars and killings both reflect and inform the meaning of the Quran. Furthermore, the strict literalism of the Quran means that there is no room for interpretation when it comes to its violent injunctions. As it is through the example of Christ, the "Prince of Peace," that Christianity interprets its scriptures, so it is through the example of the warlord and despot Muhammad that Muslims understand the Quran.
Could an Islamic "Reformation" pacify Islam?
As should be plain to anyone who has examined the Islamic sources, to take the violence out of Islam would require it to jettison two things: the Quran as the word of Allah and Muhammad as Allah's prophet. In other words, to pacify Islam would require its transformation into something that it is not. The Western Christian Reformation, that is often used as an example, was an attempt (successful or not) to recover the essence of Christianity, namely, the example and teachings of Christ and the Apostles. Trying to get back to the example of Muhammad would have very different consequences. Indeed, one may say that Islam is today going through its "Reformation" with the increasing jihadist activity around the globe. Today, Muslims of the Salafi ("early generations") school are doing exactly that in focusing on the life of Muhammad and his early successors. These reformers are known to their detractors by the derogative term Wahhabi. Drawing their inspiration from Muhammad and the Quran, they are invariably disposed to violence. The unhappy fact is that Islam today is what it has been fourteen centuries: violent, intolerant, and expansionary. It is folly to think that we, in the course of a few years or decades, are going to be able to change the basic world outlook of a foreign civilization. Islam's violent nature must be accepted as given; only then will we be able to come up with appropriate policy responses that can improve our chances of survival.
What about the history of Western colonialism in the Islamic world?
Following the defeat of the Ottoman army outside Vienna on September 11, 1683 by Polish forces, Islam went into a period of strategic decline in which it was overwhelmingly dominated by the European powers. Much of dar al-Islam was colonized by the European powers who employed their superior technology and exploited the rivalries within the Muslim world to establish colonial rule.
While many of the practices of the Western imperial powers in the governance of their colonies were clearly unjust, it is utterly unwarranted to regard Western imperialism -- as it often is -- as an endemic criminal enterprise that is the basis of modern resentment against the West. It was only due to the assertive role of the Western powers that modern nation-states such as India, Pakistan, Israel, South Africa, Zimbabwe, etc. came to exist in the first place. Without Western organization, these areas would have likely remained chaotic and tribal as they had existed for centuries.
When one looks at the post-colonial world, it is apparent that the most successful post-colonial nations have a common attribute: they are not Muslim. The United States, Australia, Hong Kong, Israel, India, and the South American nations clearly outshine their Muslim-majority post-colonial counterparts -- Iraq, Algeria, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Indonesia, etc. -- by just about any standard.
How can a violent political ideology be the second-largest and fastest-growing religion on earth?
It should not be surprising that a violent political ideology is proving so attractive to much of the world. The attractive power of fascist ideas has been proven through history. Islam combines the interior comfort provided by religious faith with the outward power of a world-transforming political ideology. Like the revolutionary violence of Communism, jihad offers an altruistic justification for waging death and destruction. Such an ideology will naturally draw to it violent-minded people while encouraging the non-violent to take up arms themselves or support violence indirectly. Because something is popular hardly makes it benign.
Furthermore, the areas in which Islam is growing most rapidly, such as Western Europe, have been largely denuded of their religious and cultural heritage, which leaves Islam as the only vibrant ideology available to those in search of meaning.
Is it fair to paint all Islamic schools of thought as violent?
Islamic apologists often point out that Islam is not a monolith and that there are differences of opinion among the different Islamic schools of thought. That is true, but, while there are differences, there are also common elements. Just as Orthodox, Roman Catholic, and Protestant Christians differ on many aspects of Christianity, still they accept important common elements. So it is with Islam. One of the common elements to all Islamic schools of thought is jihad, understood as the obligation of the Ummah to conquer and subdue the world in the name of Allah and rule it under Sharia law. The four Sunni Madhhabs (schools of fiqh [Islamic religious jurisprudence]) -- Hanafi, Maliki, Shafi'i, and Hanbali -- all agree that there is a collective obligation on Muslims to make war on the rest of the world. Furthermore, even the schools of thought outside Sunni orthodoxy, including Sufism and the Jafari (Shia) school, agree on the necessity of jihad. When it comes to matters of jihad, the different schools disagree on such questions as whether infidels must first be asked to convert to Islam before hostilities may begin (Osama bin Laden asked America to convert before Al-Qaeda's attacks); how plunder should be distributed among victorious jihadists; whether a long-term Fabian strategy against dar al-harb is preferable to an all-out frontal attack; etc.
What about the great achievements of Islamic civilization through history?
Islamic achievements in the fields of art, literature, science, medicine, etc. in no way refute the fact that Islam is intrinsically violent. Roman and Greek civilizations produced many great achievements in these fields as well, but also cultivated powerful traditions of violence. While giving the world the brilliance of Virgil and Horace, Rome was also a home to gladiatorial combat, the slaughter of Christians, and, at times, rampant militarism.
Furthermore, the achievements of Islamic civilization are pretty modest given its 1300 year history when compared to Western, Hindu, or Confucian civilizations. Many Islamic achievements were in fact the result of non-Muslims living within the Islamic Empire or of recent converts to Islam. One of the greatest Islamic thinkers, Averroes, ran afoul of Islamic orthodoxy through his study of non-Islamic (Greek) philosophy and his preference for Western modes of thought. Once the dhimmi populations of the Empire dwindled toward the middle of the second millennium AD, Islam began its social and cultural "decline."