Islam and Violence
Posted on 1-October-2014
When in August this year, a group calling itself variously the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant or the Islamic Caliphate quickly overran large tracts of territory in Iraq, arriving almost at the gates of Baghdad, the world fed largely on the New York Times, the BBC, the CNN, the Guardian or other such western news organs, became aware not only of their existence but also of the acts of extreme violence committed by them against those vanquished by them or against hapless civilians belonging to religious persuasions different from their own or to ethnic groups different from their own that they found on the road of their advance or against western hostages taken by them. They were soon presented as a great menace to international peace and order---it is an irony that this same group which was slowly over months gaining strength and control of territory in Syria with funds and arms supplied by Saudi Arabia, Qatar and others and even the USA had been largely ignored by the same news organs of the free western world as long as they were fighting the Syrian armed forces, because the USA, the UK and France had set themselves the objective of removing the Syrian President and his group from power. Leaving this aspect of western power play in the Middle East aside, the cruel nature of the Islamic Caliphate is appalling to most people around the world just as in the last two decades atrocities committed by Al Qaeda, the Taliban in Afghanistan, the Taliban in Pakistan, and diverse Islamic militant groups operating in the Sahara, in Somalia and in Northern Nigeria have shocked nearly every human who has learnt and thought about them. The question that should worry everyone, Muslims and non-Muslims alike, is why these groups are able to mobilise and motivate their supporters--even attract fighters from across different Muslim countries--by invoking Islam. Whenever atrocities are thus committed, people, especially modern westernised Muslims and many non Muslims, including Western politicians and intellectuals and Indian politicians and intellectuals, eager to prove their secular credentials, repeat the commonplace that Islam is a religion of peace and it prohibits violence and force in matters of religion. This proposition needs to be examined.
In the 6th and 5th century before Christ, named the Axial Age by Karl Jaspers, there came in China, India and Greece three remarkable teachers: Confucius, Gautama and Socrates. They had no interest in theology but while the first two taught how to live ethically correct, peaceful and contented lives in this world, the third taught people to ask questions about the purposes and meanings of their actions. In a late efflorescence of the spirit of the Axial age in Palestine, Jesus of Nazareth, when his teachings are shorn of theology, preached principles akin to those taught by Gautama and Confucius while Mohammad ibn Abdullah, in a yet later efflorescence of the Axial spirit in Arabia in the seventh century after Christ also taught, sans the theology, in the suras of the Quran composed--revealed if you will-- in Mecca in the same spirit as those of Confucius, Gautama, Socrates or Jesus. If Islam were a religion based solely on the Mecca suras of the Quran, there would have been no Muslims indulging in violence in the name of Islam. But the Islamic canon comprises the Mecca and the the Medina suras of the Quran, the sunna or the actual practice of Mohammad during his life, the hadith, or the sayings of Mohammad and the four schools of law apart from the considerable body of exegetical literature. In Mecca, Mohammad taught principles and a belief system which threatened the privileges of the established elite just as the teachings of Jesus and Socrates were considered dangerous by the Jewish and Athenian elites--much like the way Marxist ideology was considered dangerous by western elites during the twentieth century. Socrates was made to drink a cup of hemlock, Jesus was executed on the cross and Mohammad and his band of followers were coerced into leaving Mecca for the oasis settlements of Yathrib, later named Medina.
There is a sharp contrast between the career of Mohammad in Mecca as the leader of a small, hunted group of believers in the new religion he was preaching and the one in Medina as the temporal, military and spiritual head of a proto-state. As the spiritual head, he continued to receive his revelations many of which were in the nature of solutions to practical problems that arose in the management of the affairs of his community. As the temporal head he dispensed punishment and rewards. As punishment, for example, he drove two of the three Jewish tribes of Medina into exile and between four and nine hundred male members of the third Jewish tribe, the Qureyz, were beheaded and the women and children were condemned to servitude. As military leader he led his armed men into battle at Badr and Uhud. At Badr his men were victorious and one major casualty on the Meccan side was Abu Hakam, better known as Abu Jahl, the most vocal opponent of Mohammad during his days in Mecca. The battle of Uhud was a military disaster for Mohammad's men, with Mohammad himself being wounded, but it all the same brought political advantage to him. Besides there were numerous other armed raids against Meccan caravans. As years went by Mohammad's authority in Medina became absolute--no difference of opinion, no questioning of his decisions could be tolerated. None of the other axial teachers carried arms or wielded any political power. Islam as practiced in Mohammad's Medina was not quite a religion of peace; it had become a kind of state religion and its practice hopelessly intertwined with politics.
Those latter day Muslims who claim to establish a Caliphate, like the Taliban in Afghanistan or the ISIS in the Middle East hark back, in their minds, to some imagined version of Mohammad's proto-state of Medina, complete with laws about apostasy and blasphemy, hudud punishments and the veiling of women. What they say sounds convincing enough for many Muslims to rise and fight and die for the cause of these Caliphates. There is another kind of violence that gets committed in the name of Islam--violence against anyone saying something about Islam that is not acceptable to Muslims. In not adding the word Prophet to the name of Mohammad ibn Abdullah, I might for example be offending many Muslims but I am safe as I only speak to the wind standing on my virtual soap box--I might be more circumspect if I were writing all this for a printed tract. A Dutch politician who made some critical comments about Islam was gunned down in Amsterdam a few years ago. When a Danish newspaper published some cartoons about Mohammad--the most they could be held guilty of was bad taste--considered offensive by Muslims some Danish embassies in the Middle East were vandalised and some governments threatened sanctions against Denmark. When Taslima Nasreen, the Bangladeshi writer released her novel, Lajja, in India, a Muslim cleric in India said he would behead her and to their eternal shame, the Marxist Government of West Bengal and the Congress led secular Government of India caved in to the pressure and drove Taslima Nasreen out of the country. When Salman Taseer, the Governor of Punjab in Pakistan suggested that Pakistan's blasphemy laws needed to be revised he was gunned down by a member of his security detail in the name of Islam. The killer was feted and the voices of condemnation of the killing were so muted they were not heard.
For the world's non-Muslims to cease seeing Islam as a religion of violence, Muslim communities themselves will need to change the way they consider some aspects of their religious traditions. First of all there has to be an acceptance that in the world in which Mohammad lived and taught people's mental horizons everywhere were extremely narrow and their knowledge of the world beyond their immediate neighbourhood was almost non-existent. It was still a world full of many mysteries, a world full of magic and charms. Ours is a different world and some of the things that Mohammad did and said in the seventh century Arabia may no longer be relevant in today's world. This observation is certainly true of some parts of the sunna and the hadith and perhaps of the Medina suras of the Quran. Laws about blasphemy and apostasy have no place in the increasingly secular world in which we live, nor have hudud punishments in a world where even death penalty is becoming rare and in which all kinds of torture familiar even two hundred years ago have been outlawed. In many parts of the world Muslims have to live with members of other religious communitites, even as religious minorities, and in places where the state and its laws are no longer based on religion. Ideally, the Quran should be subjected to the same kind of criticism to which the Bible was in Europe in the eighteenth and the nineteenth centuries. I wonder how many Muslims I am hurting or shocking in saying all this, and how many more are likely to label me anti-Muslim.
Such changes, to be acceptable to Muslim communities have to come from within Islam. The alternative is the continuance of the kind of violence we see being committed today in the name of Islam causing wanton death and destruction and worldwide revulsion and hostility to Islam. If the kind of changes necessary for making Islam a religion of peace in a multi-religious, largely secular world, do not come, changes will in the long run come because of human nature itself. For people everywhere, across regions and cultures, the paramount reality is the reality of daily life and their dearest wish is to deal with this reality as easefully as possible. To escape the enormous psychological burden of dealing with daily life people create alternative realities in which also they spend some of their time: sports, cinema, literature, music or religion each of which is capable of arousing intense emotions. But these alternative realities are no more than small slices of life. Thus being human nature people in practice reject those religious tenets that make their daily lives more difficult. Howsoever pious they devote only a small part of their waking lives to the practice of religion. People, Muslim people, will in the long run reject the violence that is being practiced today in the name of Islam. Such a natural corrective will take time to come about. Till then unfortunately the world will have to deal with Muslim rage and violence in the best way, it can unless Muslim leaders themselves come forward and smoothen some of the sharp edges of their religious traditions.