Catherine Larsen, “Understanding Islam as a Religion of Peace,” in Selections from the Religious Education Student Symposium, 2004 (Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 2004), 63–78.
Understanding Islam as a Religion of Peace
After the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, the media inundated the West with information concerning the Middle East. This influx of information was not a new concept, since the West had previously seen nightly news reports on the conflict in Iraq and Kuwait in Desert Storm and had read newspapers filled with stories concerning hostages taken in Libya. However connected to daily life those incidents may have appeared to be, their existence did nothing to arouse Western attention as did the events of September 11. With its limited and misconstrued understanding of the Middle East, the West now had to reform its opinions in an attempt to make peace with, or at the very least know how to defend against future attacks from, the terrorists. The West looked to Islam as the nemesis, the reason for the violence,  claiming that the Islamic concept of jihad had somehow been used to justify the deaths of over three thousand people from several countries.
However, in direct opposition to the view of the West, Muslim scholars argue that Islam, when properly understood, encourages peace and that peace was the original intent of the Prophet Muhammad.  While it is true that certain Islamic fundamentalist groups may perform their actions in the name of Allah, Islam does not advocate senseless killings and brutal destruction but rather the peaceful coexistence of people of different races and religions. 
In her address to the University of World Economy and Diplomacy at Tashkent, Uzbekistan, on April 17, 2000, Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright declared:
It is essential to distinguish between people who advocate or commit criminal acts and those who are simply expressing their religious faith. There is no more fundamental right in any democracy than the right of a person to be judged by his or her actions rather than by assumptions about his or her beliefs or heritage or ethnicity. For instance, it would be a terrible mistake for any government to treat peacefully practicing Muslims as enemies of the state. Many Islamic leaders are playing a very constructive role in helping this region adjust to the demands of the new era. 
Coming to an understanding of Islam’s approach to peaceful conflict resolution and coexistence enables skeptics of the Middle East to see that any act of terrorism performed in the name of religion is misguided and is strictly political in nature. In general, Muslims may not approve of Western approaches to the Arab-Israeli conflict or to peacekeeping strategies with Iraq, but they do approve of peace and they desire to live in harmony within and outside of their own culture.
Millions of Muslims live peaceably throughout the entire world. The unfortunate reality is that they suffer from a bad reputation commonly accepted because of extremist activities performed in the name of religion: “The action of misguided individuals or a small minority are too often equated with the religion of Islam and obscure the reality of the broader Muslim community.”  As a result of this negative attention, Muslims may try to maintain a low profile so as to avoid being identified with this minority. But political events such as oil embargos and assassinations have forced them either to be on the defensive or, occasionally, to denounce their religion.  Only in extreme cases would nonfundamentalist Muslims attack the government or the leaders in the name of religion. Their religion does not justify such behavior. Instead, they have endured religious adaptation  and adopted their own councils to help make the adjustment from living under Islamic law (Shariah) to living under the laws of the lands. 
Viewing Islam from a historical perspective shows that it encourages peace. From the inception of Islam, Muhammad sought to peacefully coexist with Jews, simulating their praying experience in facing Jerusalem.  He differentiated between the monotheistic People of the Book (ahl al-kitab) and everyone else. He taught tolerance concerning the People of the Book: “Those who believe (in the Qur’an), those who follow the Jewish (scriptures), and the Sabians and the Christians—any who believe in Allah, and the Last Day, and work righteousness—on them shall be no fear, nor shall they grieve.”  Muhammad perceived the People of the Book as being allies of Islam, thereby granting them protection. Some scholars argue that this protection came with special rights and opportunities and that it offered better treatment than that received by religious minorities in Europe for centuries to come.  Some scholars, such as Abu’l-A’la Mawdudi (d. 1979), Pakistani founder of the Jama’at-i-Islami, claim that Muslims and non-Muslims essentially shared equally in their duties but that since Muhammad founded the Islamic state upon ideological principles, only those who adhered to those principles received the rights that arose from the state.  For example, non-Muslims were not allowed to fight in the military. While this rule may seem on its surface to be exclusionary, it actually proved to be generous because non-Muslims were allowed to pay a tax rather than be required to fight for the cause of Islam—a cause in which they did not believe.  While the People of the Book may not have experienced complete equality with Muslims, they enjoyed most civil liberties and peacefully coexisted in the area. 
The Ottoman millet system granted freedoms to non-Muslims. The sultan appointed religious leaders, more specifically Christian patriarchs and chief rabbis, to collect taxes. He also offered limited autonomy to non-Muslims; allowed them to operate their own churches, synagogues, domestic religious courts, and schools; and allowed them to train their own clergy and oversee their charitable institutions. 
In addition, non-Muslims experienced freedom from pressure to convert,  meaning they had the right to practice their own religion while living under Muslim rule.  The granting of this freedom was not to say that Muslims and non-Muslims lived in a euphoric state with no complications. To the contrary, non-Muslims who refused to conform faced aggression: “It is the behaviour of non-Muslims towards Muslims which determines their status and treatment. So long as they behave themselves, they will be treated with justice, mercy and fairness. Otherwise, they will be attacked until they recognise the dominance of Islam and the Muslims.”  However, with choosing peaceable behavior came freedom from desecration of holy sites and equality in criminal matters. 
The period of Ottoman rule was one of religious tolerance, focusing mainly on accomplishing political goals. Ottoman rulers did not seek to impose Islam by force but rather to see that all religious groups could peacefully coexist within the empire.  As a political measure taken to ensure this peace, the Ottomans established a system for each group that allowed for the use of their religious rules and guidelines in determining justice.  With the influence of the Western political systems, the Ottomans eventually allowed non-Muslims to be politically active, beginning in 1830 with Sultan Mahmud II proclaiming that Jews, Christians, and Muslims were alike and that he would offer justice to each of the three groups.  This type of tolerance led to the eventual admission of non-Muslims into the First Constitutional Assembly.  Also, at the end of the Crimean War, the Ottomans provided a way for non-Muslim equality by allowing them the opportunity to join the military and by abolishing the poll tax.  The Ottomans’ political combination of Muslims and non-Muslims made way for religious tolerance and peaceful co-existence.
Islamic rulers allowed for peaceful religious coexistence after the Muslim capture of Jerusalem by ‘Umar in 638. ‘Umar described his intentions for the city in his Covenant of ‘Umar by granting security to the people and their possessions provided the churches would remain intact and used for religious purposes. When the patriarch from the Holy Sepulchre offered him the chance to pray in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, he refused, knowing that by praying in that venue it would inevitably become a shrine for Muslims. He also respected the Temple Mount, ordering the removal of its long-accumulated garbage.  Although Muslims built the Dome of the Rock and the al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem, they allowed Jews to return to the city and allowed both Jews and Christians to worship at their holy sites. 
Some Muslim leaders welcomed non-Muslim thought to their courts. For example, when the Arab capital moved to Baghdad, the caliph invited philosophers—Christian, Jewish, and atheist—from all around. He provided them with venues in which discuss and debate their ideas. Religious separation did not pertain to this circumstance; rather, all joined together as long as they demonstrated intellectual skills. When Constantinople later banished all philosophers from his kingdom, those philosophers looked to the previously demonstrated generosity of Baghdad for refuge. 
The period of the Christian Crusades proved devastating to the Middle East. In an effort to colonize the area, under the guise of religion, the pope sent thousands of volunteers to recapture Jerusalem.  The events that followed proved to be a series of bloodbaths, with crusaders destroying Muslims of every age and gender.  Richard the Lionhearted and Egyptian military leader Salah al-Din (or Saladin) both fought for their causes, but Saladin proved to be more driven by his religious and moral convictions than Richard.  Rather than acting vindictively toward his enemies, Saladin spared civilians and left sacred buildings untouched.  One such incident occurred after Reynaud de Chatillon (a French crusader) sabotaged pilgrims on their hajj to Mecca. Upon hearing of a wedding feast going on in Reynaud’s castle, Saladin waited to attack until the completion of the event.  Although he also had political motives for fighting and conquering his enemies, he sought to do so in the most peaceful manner possible. In keeping with the Qur’an,  upon recapturing Jerusalem from the Crusaders, he allowed the Christians to surrender peacefully, unlike the bloody approach taken by the crusaders in their own exploits. 
In general, Muslims have historically allowed for a peaceful coexistence in their military endeavors. In 1492 the last Muslim king of Grenada surrendered to King Ferdinand, a Christian, with a treaty declaring that all Muslims would be protected. While the Christians ignored that treaty beginning with the Inquisition, Muslims did not seek revenge but rather allowed Jews exiled from Spain to come to North Africa and Turkey to enjoy continued Muslim protection. 
A Christian missionary of the nineteenth century argued that if the Muslims had taken the same approach Spain, France, and England took in dealing with religious minorities, they could have annihilated non-Muslim groups from the area.  However, Muslims chose tolerance. Such tolerance could only exist if their religion encouraged peaceful coexistence.
Modern-day misrepresentations of Islam could be resolved if seen in light of the historical perspective of peace. One misrepresentation of Islamic teachings currently prevalent in the Middle East is that of suicide bombings. Newspapers across the globe publish articles daily concerning such bombings in conjunction with the Arab-Israeli conflict. The bombers profess to perform their deeds in the name of Islam, arguing that they are justified in their behavior based on the notion of jihad. However, those arguments are not supported by the Qur’an but come from a misguided interpretation of what Muhammad taught through his example. Sheik Abdullah Nimr Darwish, founder of the Islamic Movement in Israel, spoke freely of these wrongly taught notions in an interview shortly after September 11. When asked of his opinion of the suicide attacks, he replied, “First of all, I am against this because the letter of the shari’a [Islamic law] firmly prohibits suicide.”  He disputed the exceptions (fatwas) made by some scholars that Palestinians were justified in their suicide bombings since “Palestinians suffer from circumstances not less terrible than death itself,”  arguing that the Shari’a likewise prohibited this form of suicide.
Concerning the difference between martyrdom and suicide, he noted, “Martyrdom is bigger than being killed in war. For example, he who dies when he is far away from his home while he was seeking education is a martyr. He who defends his family and his house, his neighbor, the dignity of a human being, he too is a martyr.”  If Darwish is correct and suicide bombers are not religiously justified in their actions, it is important to understand when violent actions would be justified under Islam. This understanding comes from a careful scrutiny of the notion of striving, or jihad.
Jihad, sometimes unofficially called the sixth pillar of Islam,  generally refers to personal striving to follow God’s will.  Its origin does not deal with nonbelievers since the law provided them with three options at the end of a conquest—first, they could convert to Islam and enjoy full membership in the religion; second, they could accept Islamic rule and pay a poll tax; and third, they could go to battle.  The word jihad is separate from the words for war (harb or qital) found in the Qur’an and hadith (sayings). Muhammud taught that Muslims should strive for righteous deeds, strive by going to Mecca, and strive by serving their parents.
Since its inception at the time of Muhammad, the notion of jihad has become so convoluted that its varying interpretations cause confusion, adding to the world’s misunderstanding of Islam. Even among Muslims the meaning is elusive. One example of this confusion occurred during the inauguration of Nelson Mandela in South Africa. Yasser Arafat professed in a mosque, “Jihad will continue. . . . You must come to fight, to begin the jihad to liberate Jerusalem.”  Even though Arafat claimed a peaceful and religious interpretation of jihad, both Jews and Palestinians interpreted his statement to mean a continuation of military battle in Jerusalem.  Using such volatile terms so loosely instills instinctive fear into the hearts of those whose understanding of striving is associated with terrorism, while it might otherwise be intended to connote personal striving to follow God.
Anwar Sadat added to the confusion of the meaning of jihad in the period prior to his attack on Israel in 1973. Although that the dispute was clearly over reclaiming land that Egypt had previously lost to Israel, he proclaimed this to be a holy war.  The media found Sadat offering prayers at a mosque, building schools, increasing Islamic awareness in public assemblies and in schools, and insinuating Islamic meanings in his speeches.  His blending of religious behavior with political objectives added to the confusion regarding Islamic “holy war.”
Some scholars argue that Arabia was in a constant state of war at the time of Muhammad. Professor Fred Donner of the University of Chicago is one such scholar: He states, “In this society, war (harb, used in the senses of both an activity and a condition) was in one sense a normal way of life; that is, a ‘state of war’ was assumed to exist between one’s tribe and all others, unless a particular treaty or agreement had been reached with another tribe establishing amicable relations.”  The Qur’an describes this state of war: “Do they not then see that We have made a Sanctuary secure, and that men are being snatched away from all around them? Then, do they believe in that which is vain, and reject the Grace of Allah?”  Some scholars argue that it was out of this consistent state of war that the Arabs initiated the Forbidden Months (al-Ashhur al-hurum), a treaty forbidding the acts of aggression during the first, seventh, eleventh, and twelfth months of the lunar year. 
Regardless of the reason for the constant state of war, Muhammad’s teachings clearly came about during an already turbulent time. Muslims had to comply with the new regulations of the religion by fighting for it rather than remaining attached to their pagan ways.  One scholar notes, “It seems clear that the raison d’etre behind the Qur’anic injunction to fight was clearly connected with the very specific necessity of preserving the physical integrity of the Muslim community at a time and place when fighting, sometimes preemptively, sometimes defensively, was understood to be the only way to do so.”  The religion itself did not promote war but rather had to adapt to its surroundings in order to exist.
Muhammad’s ideas on peaceful conflict resolution were not unique to him. Augustine of Hippo, a North African Christian theologian, had preached similar ideas two centuries earlier. He taught that the best form of conflict resolution was through peaceful means, but violence could be used to defend against violent aggressors. 
Many religions justify fighting, especially when fighting defensively. Christians and Jews read one biblical passage as instructions the Lord gave concerning military provisions to be applied during war: “For the Lord your God is he that goeth with you, to fight for you against your enemies, to save you” (Deuteronomy 20:4). The Lord allowed His people to fight in His name, especially if they were doing so to preserve their lives.
Such is the case in Islam. When Muhammad’s followers began to turn on him, he realized the necessity of using force to ensure the endurance of his newly founded religion. According to Ibn Ishaq, Muslims were not allowed to fight in order to gain power but only to preserve themselves from persecution based on faith. God commanded them to fight honestly and upon victory not to take advantage of the defeated. Likewise, certain restrictions applied in preventing the infliction of harm upon women, children, and animals.  These restrictions forced the Muslims to fight only for the preservation of and reverence for the name of Allah and not for selfish motives.
Some may argue that the Qur’an not only supports war but encourages it. For example, “Remember your Lord inspired the angels [with the message]: ‘I am with you: give firmness to the Believers: I will instill terror into the hearts of the Unbelievers; you smite above their necks and smite all their finger-tips off them.’”  While this verse could seem to allow for terrorism against “unbelievers,” when taken in context, it clearly does not grant such universal acts. The verse concerns a specific battle—the Battle of Badr. It speaks specifically about how the Muslims should have dealt with their opponents in the midst of the battle, not with providing an all-encompassing permission slip to cause non-Muslims unnecessary grief  based on belief.
Another passage opponents quote is, “But when the forbidden months are past, then fight and slay the Pagans wherever you find them, and seize them, beleaguer them, and lie in wait for them in every stratagem (of war).”  However, this text must be read in light of verse 4, “(But the treaties are) not dissolved with those Pagans with whom you have entered into alliance and who have not subsequently failed you in anything, nor aided any one against you. So fulfill your engagements with them to the end of their term: for Allah loves the righteous,”  and verse six, “If one amongst the Pagans ask you for asylum, grant it to him, so that he may hear the Word of Allah; and then escort him to where he can be secure.”  While it may appear that the Qur’an grants the absolute destruction of unbelievers, this is clearly not the case since provisions are made for those who desire to resolve their differences peacefully.
Opponents may likewise quote, “Therefore, when you meet the Unbelievers (in fight), smite at their necks; at length, when you have thoroughly subdued them, bind a bond firmly (on them): thereafter (is the time for) either generosity or ransom: until the war lays down its burdens.”  As with understanding all passages, it is important to look at the setting out of which this verse arose, in this case during the first year of Hijrah. At this time the Muslims fought out of fear of extinction from Mecca. While it promotes peace, Islam is not a passive religion;  God did not expect Muslims not to defend themselves, or Islam would have ended within the first year after its inception.
From the assassination of Egyptian president Anwar Sadat by the Muslim Brotherhood  to current Palestinian suicide bombings in Israel, the West is keenly aware of terrorist acts performed in the name of religion. Having established that Islam promotes peace and condemns terrorism, it is important for the West to realize that Islam no more justifies terrorism than does Christianity. No believing mainstream Christian would agree that the violence of the Crusades or the killing of the Thirty Days’ War represents the teachings of kindness and peace taught by Jesus Christ. The killing of Catholics and Protestants from the late 1400s to the early 1800s and the conflicts between Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland over the past twenty-five years are not indicative of Christian doctrine. Such conflicts, while perhaps originating with differing religious opinions, were essentially political in that they represented the power struggle between leaders, not the struggle to find truth. It would be highly misrepresentative to conclude that all Christians are terrorists based on historical actions of the minority.
One might argue that due to the Western separation of church and state, Islamic countries do not resemble the West enough to substantiate any parallel drawn between the two regions. While it is true that the two regions currently differ, they were historically quite similar. Religious leaders in the West made the laws based on Christianity. The king was the chief religious leader (the Queen being such currently in England). The West fought political wars in the name of God. However, these acts did not properly represent the religion.
This same principle applies to Islam. The West looks upon hijackings and bombings with disdain, and rightly so since such actions take away life. However, often westerners also look down upon Islam, attributing the wars and carnage for centuries to the religion.  As with Christianity, to conclude that all Muslims are terrorists and that Islam supports terrorism based on the acts of a minority would be a grossly unfair generalization. Islam, when properly understood, promotes peaceful coexistence between believers and nonbelievers alike.
Modern-day Muslims have fallen victim to projection. The West sometimes projects evil onto Islam based on the malicious acts of the minority. This does not have to be the case. Both cultures promote peace. Both cultures can come to an understanding of one another’s ideals and peacefully coexist. Just as when Sadat appeared before the Knesset, both cultures can lower the projection and resolve their differences in a peaceful manner.
 Americans are not the first to point a finger of disdain due to misunderstanding of Islam. Dante relegated Muhammad to the lowest level of hell in The Divine Comedy, calling him an anti-Christ with unholy motivations; see also “Christian Leader Condemns Islam,” http://stacks.msnbc.com/news/659057.asp, accessed November 16, 2002.
 Islam teaches that “Allah guides all who seek His good pleasure to ways of peace and safety” (Abdullah Yusuf Ali, trans., The Qur’an, 3rd ed. [Mt. Holly, NJ: Islamic Educational Services, 1998], 5:16). All Qur’an citations are from this translation.
 President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt recently defended Islam: “The violence and terrorism spread all over the world has no relation with Islam or Arab identity” (“Mubarak Defends Islam,” http://www.cnn.com/2002/WORLD/meast/12/01/egypt.mubarak.ap/index.html, accessed December 1, 2002).
 Madeleine K. Albright, “Speech at University of World Economy and Diplomacy,” http://secretary.state.gov/www/statements/2000/000417.html, accessed April 17, 2000.
 John L. Esposito, Islam: The Straight Path, 3rd ed.(New York: Oxford University Press, 1998), 203.
 Esposito, Islam, 204.
 Esposito, Islam, 217 (describing how Muslims must go to the mosque on Sunday rather than on their prescribed Friday while living abroad).
 Esposito, Islam, 219.
 Esposito, Islam, 15.
 Qur’an 5:69.
 Jorgen S. Nielsen, “Contemporary Discussions on Religious Minorities in Islam,” Brigham Young University Law Review (2002): 353.
 Nielsen, “Contemporary Discussions,” 354.
 See Muhammad Abdel Haleem, Understanding the Qur’an: Themes and Style (New York: I. B. Tauris, 1999), 77.
 Ebrahim Moosa, “The Dilemma of Islamic Rights Schemes,” Journal of Law and Religion 15, nos. 1–2 (2000–2001): 202; see also Esposito, Islam, 39.
 Esposito, Islam, 62.
 Donna E. Arzt, “The Role of Compulsion in Islamic Conversion: Jihad, Dhimma and Ridda,” Buffalo Human Rights Law Review 8 (2002): 15.
 “There must be no coercion in matters of faith” (Qur’an 2:256). “Therefore if they withdraw from you but do not fight you, and (instead) send you (guarantees) of peace, then Allah has opened no way for you” (Qur’an 4:90).
 Gudrun Krämer, “Dhimmi or Citizen? Muslim-Christian Relations in Egypt,” in The Christian-Muslim Frontier: Chaos, Clash or Dialogue? ed. Jorgen S. Nielsen (New York: I. B. Tauris, 1998), 34.
 Arzt, “Role of Compulsion,” 25n16.
 Robert Van de Weyer, The Shared Well: A Concise Guide to Relations between Islam and the West (Dulles, VA: Brassey’s, 2002), 13.
 Van de Weyer, Shared Well, 13.
 Resat Kaynar, Mustafa Pasa ve Tanzimat (Ankara: n.p., 1954), 100.
 Enver Ziya Karal, Non-Muslim Representatives in the First Constitutional Assembly, 1876–1877, ed. Benjamin Braude and Bernard Lewis (New York: Holmes and Meier Publishers, 1982) 388.
 Karal, Non-Muslim Representatives, 341.
 Karal, Non-Muslim Representatives, 123.
 Esposito, Islam, 58n15.
 Van de Weyer, Shared Well, 36n20.
 Arthur Goldschmidt Jr., A Concise History of the Middle East, 3rd ed. (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1988), 92–93.
 Van de Weyer, Shared Well, 10n20.
 Esposito, Islam, 59n15.
 Esposito, Islam, 11.
 Goldschmidt, Concise History, 94n33.
 “Tell those who disbelieve that if they cease (from persecution of believers) that which is past will be forgiven them” (Qur’an 8:38).
 Chad F. Emmett, “Jerusalem’s Role as a Holy City for Muslims,” in BYU Studies 40, no. 4 (2001): 123.
 Haleem, Understanding the Qur’an, 76n13.
 Sir Thomas W. Arnold, The Preaching of Islam: A History of the Propagation of the Muslim Faith (London: A. Constable & C., 1896), 80.
 Jamil Hamad, “The Origin of Islam Is Peace,” Time-Europe, http://www.time.com/time/europe/me/magazine/0,9868,178216,00.html, accessed October 5, 2001.
 Sheik Abdullah Nimr Darwish, founder of the Islamic Movement in Israel, interview by Jamil Hamad, October 5, 2001.
 Darwish, interview.
 Esposito, Islam, 93n15.
 Esposito, Islam, 34.
 Esposito, Islam, 35.
 Quoted in Arzt, “Compulsion in Islamic Conversion,” 35n16; emphasis in original.
 See Journal of Palestine Studies, Autumn 1994, 131–32. See also “‘Jihad’ Not Necessarily a Call to Religious War” (All Things Considered, radio broadcast, May 18, 1994); “The Happiest Jihad,” 8, New Republic, June 13, 1994, 8.
 Esposito, Islam, 171n5.
 Esposito, Islam, 171.
 Quoted in Sherman A. Jackson, “Jihad and the Modern World,” Journal of Islamic Literature and Culture 1 (Spring/Summer 2002): 11; emphasis in original.
 Qur’an 29:67.
 Jackson, Jihad, 12n55.
 Jackson, Jihad, 13–14.
 Jackson, Jihad, 14; emphasis in original.
 Van de Weyer, Shared Well, 50n20.
 Van de Weyer, Shared Well, 49n20.
 Qur’an 8:12.
 Van de Weyer, Shared Well, 49n20.
 Qur’an 9:5.
 Qur’an 9:4.
 Qur’an 9:6.
 Qur’an 47:4.
 “Fighting is prescribed for you, and you dislike it. But it is possible that you dislike a thing which is good for you, and that you love a thing which is bad for you. But Allah knows, and you know not” (Qur’an 2:216).
 Goldschmidt, Concise History, 360n33.
 Van de Weyer, Shared Well, 5n20.