Islam is far from being a violent religion. Its basic aim is to promote justice and peace and establish a just, non-exploitative and humane order. It denounces exploitation of one human being by the other and believes in equality of all human beings - believers or non-believers. It teaches human actions to be based on peace (salam), compassion (rahman), benevolence (ihsan) and wisdom (hikmah).
Such a religion cannot preach violence against other, including the kafirs (non-believers). Before we proceed further it is important to note that the word "kafir" has also been much misunderstood and much misused by certain Muslim theologians. The Quran uses this word very carefully and in a definite sense. However, in Islamic history this word has been often used loosely and for denouncing rivals among Muslims, more than against non-Muslims. Had it been used strictly in the sense in which it has been used in the Quran, much bloodshed and conflict among the Muslims could have been avoided.
The Quran uses the word kafir for those Meccans who not only refused to believe in the message brought by the Holy Prophet Muhammed (PBUH) but also turned hostile and used violence - both psychological and physical against the holy prophet (PBUH) and his followers. It was not only the question of worshipping idols that qualified them to be kafirs but their rejection of the entire the value system of Islam (i.e. values like justice, compassion, non-violence, peace, truth, equality and human dignity and sensitivity to other's suffering).
Idol worship was not the only criterion for kafir (non-belief), it was rejection of these values to constitute a humane society. Not only this these powerful tribal chiefs and their supporters severely persecuted the Prophet (PBUH) for preaching unity of God, His creatures and bringing about a humane social order.
In Arabia and outside Arabia there were people who followed their respective religions (either religions of the books like Torah and Bible or their traditional religions) and did not accept Islam but Muslims never insisted on their accepting Islam, let alone persecute them for doing so. They were left to follow their religions. The Prophet (PBUH) himself allowed, for example Zoroastrians of Bahrain, to follow their religion and entered into a pact with them as people of the book (ahl al-kitab). Uthman, the third caliph after the Prophet (PBUH), even accepted Berbers as ahl al-kitab though they had no revealed scripture and were following traditional religion.
Thus we find in the Quran in verse 2:190 that and fight in the way of All against those who fight against you but be not aggressive. Surely Allah loves not the aggressors. This verse makes three important points. First, the fight must be only for Allah and not for personal reasons (revenge or aggrandisement); second, one should not initiate the fight but should fight only if attacked and three, one should not persist in fighting and become aggressor once the other party lays down weapons and sues for peace. Almighty Allah does not love aggressors.
If one keeps this in mind it becomes clear that the Quran, the main source of Islamic teachings, does not sanction violence but permits it only for self-defence and in certain well defined circumstances and with rigorous conditions. It nowhere sanctions violence for spread of religion or any other religious purposes. It upholds the principle of freedom of conscience as propounded in the verse 2:256 and never deviates from it.
It is quite clear that Quran in no way permits violence for suppressin of religious freedom; it is quite to the contrary. It permits violence even if others' religious freedom is in danger. Freedom of religion and freedom of conscience should be defended and should not be allowed to be endangered. If it is in danger such a situation is referred to in verse 2:193 as fitnah (i.e. persecution). Persecution in every form should be ended and then only a just and peaceful society could be established.
Often comparison is made with Buddhism or Christianity and it is concluded that while these religions are advocates of peace, Islam promotes violence. It is a very mistaken view as violence or absence of it is ascribed to religion rather that to circumstances in which religion comes into existence or spreads. Islam, if one goes by teachings alone, is as peaceful a religion, as Buddhism or Christianity.
Let us examine this further. The beginnings of Buddhism and Islam are very similar but circumstances are very different. Buddha was highly dissatisfied with conditions around him. He was greatly disturbed by the suffering of people around him. He left his house, his family in search of truth, in quest for solution. He spent number of years reflecting, brooding and meditating and came out with his eight-fold path and the values he considered most fundamental, values like compassion and sensitivity to suffering and ways to remove dukkha (suffering).
He began preaching his doctrines among the people and did not meet with strong resistance, nor was he persecuted by powerful vested interests. He was wandering monk and did not stay at one place. He did not confront any religious establishment or political power. He did have religious debates with those who upheld certain Vedic practices but faces no persecution. Thus his circumstances were very different from those of the Prophet Muhammed (PBUH). As Buddha did not face violence while preaching he did not refer to permissibility or otherwise of violence.
The Holy Prophet (PBUH) of Islam too was greatly disturbed by what he saw around him in Mecca. There was malaise all around, suffering of weakers sections of society, slavery, maltreatment of women, absence of any higher spiritual goal and corrupt religious practices like superstitions and exploitation in the name of religion, kahins (priests) enriching themselves and worshipping idols as God and asking them to solver their problem.
The Prophet (PBUH) began reflecting deeply over this malaise in the cave of Hira, outside the city of Mecca on a rugged mountain (now known as Mount of Light - Jabal al-Nur). He spent great deal of time reflecting and meditating and Truth was revealed to him. He came from the cave of Hira with revelation which continued for next 23 years. Now he was a spiritually enriched man and a man with a message from Almighty Allah. But unlike Buddha when he began to preach his message he met with stiff resistance from powerful tribal chiefs who took pride not only in their tribal and social status but were arrogant of their wealth which they had acquired from international trade. Their arrogane knew no bounds. They were all the more disturbed as Prophet (PBUH). Mohammed, though belonging to the clan of Hashim, a branch of tribe of Quraysh, which enjoyed highest social status, was orphan and poor. How can an orphan from a poor family claim to be the Messenger of Almighty Allah and teach them spiritual values?
It was Islam which first gave the concept of law and governance. In pre-Islamic period violence was the only instrument for having one's way. Thus the Prophet (PBUH) of Islam had to deal with this situation. Violence was in the air and no one could avoid violence. The concept of non-violence simply did not exist. As there was no rule, no governmental authority only tribal customs could be invoked to settle disputed matters and tribal customs fully approved of violence.
In Medina too the Prophet (PBUH) could not rest in peace. Though he entered into a movement with all tribal leaders of Mecca, Jew as well as pagan giving them full freedom to follow their respective religions but to defend Medina, if attacked. The Jews were however, quite apprehensive of the rising power of Muslims and began to secretly conspire with the tribal chiefs of Mecca to attack Medina. The Jews had established their leadership in Medina and had become quite influential and benefitted from internecine wars of non-Jewish Arab tribes. Tired of Jewish moves to make them fight, these Arab tribals had invited the Prophet (PBUH) brought peace and united them. This endeared him the to the Arab tribals of Medina Thus the Meccan Arabs would not leave the Holy Prophet (PBUH) in peace. The Prophet (PBUH) did his best to promote peaceful settlement as the peace of Hudaibiyah also shows very clearly. The Meccans would not let him perform Haj and the Prophet (PBUH) did not want to use force although he had more than 10,000 followers with him. The Meccans would not even agree to an honourable settlement. The Prophet (PBUH) persisted and signed the peace pact and wanted to make peace as a norm and violence an exception.
The violence was there all around hem and he had to survive in those given circumstances. Also, the Arabian peninsula was surrounded by powerful empires like Sassanid and Roman empires. Islam was feared by all those who saw real threat in its moral teachings, teachings of equality of all and discrimination against none. It was seen as empowering the weak, the oppressed and exploited.
In Mecca, as pointed out before, there was no legal governing authority and hence no taxes. They were thus not ready to pay any tax to any authority. Islam demanded that and made that obligatory. Such a concept was totally alien to them. It is also proved by the war of riddah (i.e. war on those going back on Islam). After the death of the Holy Prophet (PBUH) some tribes refused to pay zakath and declared that if zakat were made obligatory on them, they would rather turn away from Islam. The first caliph, Abubaker did not agree to this and a fierce war was fought between the Islamic government and the rivals refusing to pay zakat, the poor tax.
It is important to note that zakat was a highly desirable tax for removing poverty from society and was meant to bring about redistribution of wealth in society. It was to be spent on poor and the needy, the captives and those in debt, for wayfarers and in the way of Allah (9:60). Thus it is meant for all weaker sections of society. In early seventh century no government was levying such tax for the weaker sections of society and no one was prepared to accept such thing.
Islam gives primary importance to justice and all governments of time were based on injustice and exploitation. Islam was also trying to change the existing power equations in society - power to impoverished and powerless. The powerful resisted this with all their might. Also, the powerless began to began to taste power and organised themselves better to retain their power. And it is human psychology that when powerless become powerful they use violence. Thus changing power equations in a changing society develops its own dynamics in power struggle.
All this we witnessed in the early Islamic society in the post-Prophetic phase i.e. after the death of the Prophet (PBUH). Thus violence in early Islamic society was not due to the Quranic teachings but because of new power equations coming into existence in the early Islamic society. New vested interests began to develop in this new society and these powerful interests began to use violence to seize power.
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