This article is also part of a larger series called "The Koran from a Christian perspective." You can find other posts in this series here.The question I get most often when people find out I have been writing on the Koran is, "Is Islam really a religion of peace or is it a religion of war?" This question is a difficult one and, like most things in the Koran, presents not a simple straightforward answer. What compounds the problem is that, when asking this question, what most people really want to know is "Are Muslims a people of peace or a people of war?" This latter question I will leave for others to answer as it requires us to make distinctions between the various forms of Islam and the wide diversity of people who call themselves Muslim. Instead, we will look at what the Koran has to say for itself and what it defines for the Islam religion as it relates to this question.
We have seen before this important and famous quote from Muhammad.
"The sword, is the key of heaven and hell; a drop of blood shed in the cause of Allah, a night spent in arms, is of more avail than two months of fasting or prayer: whosoever falls in battle, his sins are forgiven, and at the day of judgment his limbs shall be supplied by the wings of angels and cherubim."However, this sentiment represents an evolution in the life of Muhammad and in the development of Islam. Neither seems to have started out here but arrived at this position over time as their power, fortunes, and strength grew and matured. We read in the Koran,
"And obey not the unbelievers [infidels] and the hypocrites; heed not their hurt [yet abstain from injuring them], but put thy trust in God." (Koran 33:47)While Muslims were not to follow the ways of the infidels and hypocrites, there were not to strike out against them or hurt them without provocation. Even if an unbeliever were to come to them for help, they were to aid them as a witness to their peaceful Muslim faith,
"And if any of the idolaters seeks of thee protection [asylum], grant him protection [asylum] till he hears the words of God; then do thou convey him to his place of security --that, because they are a people who do not know." (Koran 9:6)When it came to war, their first thought was to be for peace not war.
"Make ready for them whatever force and strings of horses [strong squadrons] you can, to terrify thereby the enemy of God and your enemy, and others besides them that you know not; God knowsthem... And if they incline to peace, do thou incline to it; and put thy trust in God;" (Koran 8:62-63)And when it did come to war, the Koran calls for restraint, especially in regards to the other duties of their religion.
"Let not detestation for a people who barred you from the Holy Mosque move you to commit aggression [lead you to transgression]." (Koran 5:3)Here the transgression Muhammad is referring to is the making of war during the holy month of Ramadan. What is interesting in this last sura is the fact that Allah strives to restrain their outward actions while ignoring their inward hatred. Allah leaves the issue of their detestation for others unchallenged while Jesus spoke directly against harboring anger and hatred towards others.
"But I say to you who hear, love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you. Whoever hits you on the cheek, offer him the other also; and whoever takes away your coat, do not withhold your shirt from him either." (Luke 6:27-29)In many places where the Koran calls for war, it does so in the context of self protection; of protecting themselves, their property, and the land they occupied. However, in all these cases they are cautioned not to be the aggressor but the protectors of what God had given them.
"And fight in the way [cause] of God with those; who fight with you, but aggress not [commit not the injustice of attaching them first]: God loves not the aggressors [such injustice]. And slay them wherever you come upon them [wherever ye shall find them], and expel them from where they expelled you; persecution [civil discord] is more grievous than slaying [carnage]. But fight them not by the Holy Mosque until they should fight you there; then, if they fight you, slay them -- such is the recompense of unbelievers [the reward of the infidels]." (Koran 2:186-187)One can understand a people defending themselves and their way of life and certainly we would not call a people not given to aggression a people of war. By these suras we would have to conclude that Islam is not a religion of war, but these suras do not tell the whole story nor are they consistent with the life of Muhammad that the past fourteen hundred years of Islamic aggression and conquest.
While Muhammad was weak and his numbers few, he spoke of peace and the peaceful coexistence of those who, while being infidels, were not antagonistic towards him. However, as his numbers grew and he became powerful and mighty, his words and actions changed. He became the man in the famous quite we sited earlier; the one who believed in the power of the sword to produce conversions, forgive sins, and accomplish the work of God. Philip Scahff describes the transition of Muhammad as follows,
"At first he proclaimed toleration: 'Let there be no compulsion in religion;' but afterwards he revealed the opposite principle that all unbelievers must be summoned to Islâm, tribute, or the sword. With an increasing army of his enthusiastic followers, he took the field against his enemies, gained in 624 his first victory over the Koreish with an army of 305 (mostly citizens of Medina) against a force twice as large, conquered several Jewish and Christian tribes, ordered and watched in person the massacre of six hundred Jews in one day, while their wives and children were sold into slavery (627), triumphantly entered Mecca (630), demolished the three hundred and sixty idols of the Kaaba, and became master of Arabia... The last chapter of the Koran commands the remorseless extermination of all idolaters in Arabia, unless they submit within four months." (Philip Scahff, History of the Christian Church, Vilume IV, Section 42)Muhammad's change towards aggression is reflected in the Koran suras he write and it is to these suras that we must turn our attention to next.
More to come...