Is Islam a Religion of Peace?

A Palestinian woman straps a bomb around her waist, kills herself and her unsuspecting Jewish neighbors, and is celebrated as a martyr. Yet we are told, “Islam is a religion of peace.”

On September 11, 2001, 19 Muslim men hijack and crash three passenger jets, killing about 3,000 people. Various parts of the Muslim world hail them as heroes, and the ringleader of the attack promises more of the same against the “crusaders” who support the Jewish state. Again we are told, “Islam is a religion of peace.”

After U.S. forces liberate Iraq from the brutal dictatorship of Saddam Hussein, holdovers from the regime join Islamic fanatics from outside the country, attempting to thwart the emergence of democracy. They blow up oil pipelines, kill coalition forces, slaughter Iraqi policemen, and kidnap and behead civilians involved in the reconstruction. And what are we told about the religion that motivates them? You guessed it: “Islam is a religion of peace.”

Not surprisingly, the American people are having a hard time reconciling the words of peace with the deeds of terror. In fact, seeing a clear disconnect, more and more of us are choosing to doubt the good will of Muslims. We wonder: Is there something inherently violent in Islam?

Looking at Muslim history is not reassuring. Muhammad, the founder of Islam, preached the brotherhood of man. Yet he was no stranger to the sword. In A.D. 610, Muhammad began receiving the visions that would later be incorporated into the sacred book of Islam, the Qur’an. In 622, fleeing from Mecca to Medina, Muhammad and his followers became practitioners of jihad, or holy war. Combining the power of religion and worldly arms, in 630, Muhammad and his troops marched on Mecca, forcing the city to surrender and submit to Islamic law. On one occasion, Muhammad ordered hundreds of Jews who had sought his overthrow to be slaughtered.

After Muhammad died in 632, his successors, called caliphs, proved they had learned the art of religious war. Starting in 636, Muslim armies quickly captured of Jerusalem, Antioch, and Damascus in the Middle East. Then they targeted ancient Christian centers in North Africa, including Alexandria and Carthage. Fusing religion and state power, Muslim forces held Spain and Constantinople (today, Istanbul) for centuries and repeatedly attempted to capture Vienna. Once territory fell into Muslim hands, it was considered Muslim land for all time.

The vanquished who survived were given a choice: Become a Muslim and enjoy full rights, or remain Christians or Jews and be tolerated (as “people of the Book”), forever second-class citizens. Those who converted to Islam were never allowed to return to their former faiths. The penalty for apostasy in Islam–though not always carried out–is death.

Too often the peace that Islam extols only comes after military conquest. However, Muslim rule in Spain—gained of course by force of arms—from 800-1200 was benign by the harsh standards of the day. In the book What’s Right with Islam, Imam Feisel Abdul Rauf, a Muslim cleric from Egypt now leading a mosque in New York, calls that period “a rich flowering of art, culture, philosophy, and science. Many Jewish and Christian artists and intellectuals emigrated to Cordoba during this period to escape the more oppressive regimes that reigned over Europe’s Dark and Middle Ages. Great Jewish philosophers such as Maimonides were free to create their historic works within the pluralistic culture of Islam.”

Unfortunately, as detailed in Ernest Volkman’s fascinating book, Science Goes to War, Islamic thinkers who believed the study of science would undermine Muslim beliefs soon gained ascendancy. Their theology stifled intellectual development and scientific innovation. Also weakened by the bloody encounter with Catholic fanaticism during the Crusades (in themselves partly a response to earlier Muslim aggression), the world Islamic community slowly imploded into a smoldering heap of poverty and despotism.

While this was happening, the influence of Christendom, spurred by the Protestant Reformation and, later, the Scientific Revolution, was growing exponentially. As Michael Novak and others have pointed out, science and democratic capitalism emerged from a Christian worldview in which God is seen as active and involved in His creation, and in which man is seen as a steward of the Almighty, developing the creative potential of the earth for the good of others and for the glory of God.

In recent years, Freedom House and others have spotlighted the integral connection between economic freedom and political freedom. For most of the last millennium, the bulk of the Muslim world has had neither. As scholar Bernard Lewis said in The Atlantic, “In the course of the 20th century it became abundantly clear that things had gone badly wrong in the Middle East—and indeed, in all the lands of Islam. Compared with Christendom, its rival for more than a millennium, the world of Islam had become poor, weak, and ignorant.

“The primacy and therefore the dominance of the West was clear for all to see, invading every aspect of the Muslim’s public and even—more painfully—his private life.”

Muslims generally have responded to this state of affairs in one of two ways. The first is to turn away from Islam’s perceived backwardness and embrace “Western values.” Early last century, Kemal Ataturk, the founder of the modern state of Turkey, took this route. Saying, “Uncivilized people are doomed to be trodden under the feet of civilized people,” Ataturk abolished the caliphate and attempted to secularize the country (forgetting that economic development was born in a Christian, not a secular, milieu).

The second is to return to Islam’s supposed “golden age” by more strictly enforcing Islamic law. The Taliban and Osama bin Laden champion this radical approach, to the point of killing “infidels” (i.e., Christians and Jews) and other Muslims deemed not sufficiently faithful. The existence of the state of Israel is one grievance of these fanatics, but certainly not the only one.

George W. Bush is gambling on a third way, saying that Islam itself supports democracy and advancement. With elections scheduled in January, the Iraq front in the war on terror hangs in the balance. The president says that Muslims’ key problem is not Islam but oppression. While many on both the left and the right scoff, the president has picked up a compelling ally: Natan Sharansky. The former Soviet dissident has just written a book, The Case for Democracy: The Power of Freedom to Overcome Tyranny and Terror.

But the jury, quite frankly, is still out on Islam. For every verse in the Qur’an suggesting that freedom can grow in Muslim soil (such as “there is no compulsion in religion”), there is another commanding oppression in the name of God (“make war on them until idolatry shall cease”).

Earlier this year at a White House conference on women’s rights, Bush chose to emphasize the positive, saying, “A religion that demands individual moral accountability and encourages the encounter of the individual with God is fully compatible with the rights and responsibilities of self-government.”

(For now, we’ll skip a discussion about whether Islam actually does encourage people to encounter the God who is there. Many Christians say it does not, adding that spiritual rebirth through Christ is the only long-term hope for sinful men and women.)

Notwithstanding the depressing weight of Muslim history and the sorry human rights, development, and political records of most of today’s Muslim-majority states, there have been some encouraging signs of late. In Turkey, where a military-backed secular government makes the rules for a population that is over 99 percent Muslim, conversion to Christianity is discouraged (but not punished by the death penalty, as in Saudi Arabia). The relatively few churches encounter many administrative roadblocks. That is finally starting to change.

Seeking to gain admittance to the European Union in the next few weeks, officials there are trying to clean up the country’s abysmal human-rights record. “The political atmosphere in Turkey has improved enough . . . to allow Christians to meet openly, to have summer camps attracting several hundred people and to have public baptisms in the Mediterranean Sea,” reports the Washington Times. An American who pastors a small church in the east told the newspaper, “We are relatively free and we are tolerated now.”

Johan Candelin, Goodwill Ambassador for the World Evangelical Alliance (an international umbrella group), reports that evangelical churches and Turkish authorities are holding regular talks. Candelin says the government will issue new ID cards and social security cards next year. The cards will not mention religion, making discrimination against non-Muslims less likely. And in November, the Turkish Ministry of Culture approved the first new Protestant church to be built in the southeast since the country’s founding. While such acts come from the top down and not the grass roots, they nonetheless represent a real beginning.

Last April, Istanbul was the site of a conference on Islam and democracy sponsored by the United Nations Development Program and the National Democratic Institute for International Affairs. An Indonesian lawmaker said there that Islamic law “includes rights and foundations well-established enough to build a democratic society.”

Morocco, more than 98 percent Muslim, is also undergoing political and social reform. Rich Cizik of the National Association of Evangelicals was part of groundbreaking meetings between Moroccan officials and an international delegation of Christians that ended in early March. Cizik told me the trip was “a breakthrough in relations with an Islamic state that we believe will build a more respectful positive dialogue between evangelical Christians and Muslims around the world. Other nations are looking at what’s occurring in Morocco, and we believe it’s a model for dialogue that could be patterned elsewhere.”

So is Islam really a religion of peace? If we go by much of its history, reluctantly we must say, Not yet.

Turning the other cheek is a Christian duty, not a Muslim one. Unlike Western democracies, Islam fuses “mosque and state,” leading to many abuses in the name of religion. Unlike the Prince of Peace, whose birth we celebrate at Christmas, Islam’s founder was a warrior. And like other faiths (including Christianity), Islam has many elements that sinful people have interpreted as sanctions to slaughter.

But the good news is that the Muslim religion also has elements that teach respect for human dignity, elements that we can encourage. As Christian theologian Timothy George says, “Fundamentally this is not a dispute between Christianity and Islam but rather a debate within Islam itself.”

Ultimately, it matters little whether Christians think Islam is a religion of peace, but it matters terribly what the world’s 1.2 billion Muslims think. Our tasks are to pray that Islam becomes a religion of peace–and to help make it happen.

About Stan Guthrie

Stan Guthrie is an editor at large for Christianity Today magazine and for the Chuck Colson Center for Christian Worldview. His latest book is God's Story in 66 Verses. He also is author of All that Jesus Asks: How His Questions Can Teach and Transform Us, Missions in the Third Millennium: 21 Key Trends for the 21st Century, and A Concise Guide to Bible Prophecy. He is co-author of The Sacrament of Evangelism. Besides authoring, writing, and editing books, Stan is a literary agent, bringing together good authors, good books, and good publishers. Stan writes the monthly Priorities colum for He has appeared on National Public Radio's €œTell Me More,€ WGN's Milt Rosenberg program, and many Christian shows, including The Eric Metaxas Show and Moody Radio'€™s €œNew Day Florida.€ A licensed minister and an inspirational speaker, he served as moderator for the Christian Book Expo panel discussion, Does the God of Christianity Exist, and What Difference Does It Make?
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