Is Islam a religion of peace? (1)

This question typically crops up in the aftermath of terrorist acts perpetrated by Muslims. As we struggle to reconcile violence with the common understanding of what religion is about politicians come up with the comforting line that Islam is a religion of peace so there is nothing to worry about. But how do they know this indeed is the case? Is there any evidence to the contrary? A new series of 3-4 posts on da-boss will explore this troubling issue.

Let us first have a look at the scriptural authority in Islam. It comprises of three layers of information – Quran, hadith (also referred to as sunnah) and sharia.

In terms of its authority Quran is analogous to the New Testament in that it contains the direct account of Muhammad’s actions and teachings. Being a holy book of Islam, Quran is perfect, highly revered and must be accepted literally by all true Muslims. Moreover, whatever is in Quran came directly from Allah and so can never change – it is the immutable and everlasting foundation of Islam. Quran should be learnt by heart and recited regularly, preferably in Arabic.

Hadith is a collection of writings documenting Muhammad’s statements and actions, compiled some time after his death. Hadith also includes the transmission lineage of its constituent chapters, which enables the “authentication” of the individual stories. Authenticated hadiths are second in scriptural authority only to Quran itself but various schools of Islam differ in which hadiths they accept. While Quran is absolute and unalterable hadith is somewhat open to interpretation by ulema – the groups of Islamic scholars.

Sharia is the Islamic law, based on Quran and the “authenticated” hadiths, compiled by ulema and administered by Islamic judges. Sharia comes in many different flavours, depending on how the local ulema interpreted the Muhammad’s teachings. In particular, various sharias will differ on how Muslims should approach the modern inventions which were not around at the time of Muhammad – car, radio, TV etc. Inevitably, sharia changes over time, in response to the technological and social developments. For example loudspeakers were once forbidden (haram) but are now generally accepted (halal).

To learn about the place peace occupies in Islam we will refer to the immutable and absolute wisdom of Quran. This is also where we are struck by the first surprise because we find verses:

Quran (2:256) Let there be no compulsion in religion: Truth stands out clear from Error

and

Quran (8:61) And if they incline to peace, then incline to it [also] and rely upon Allah . Indeed, it is He who is the Hearing, the Knowing.

alongside:

Quran (3:56) As to those who reject faith, I will punish them with terrible agony in this world and in the Hereafter, nor will they have anyone to help.

Quran (8:12) I will cast terror into the hearts of those who disbelieve. Therefore strike off their heads and strike off every fingertip of them.

and

Quran (9:29) Fight those who do not believe in Allah, nor in the latter day, nor do they prohibit what Allah and His Messenger have prohibited, nor follow the religion of truth, out of those who have been given the Book, until they pay the tax in acknowledgment of superiority and they are in a state of subjection.

The way I see it these two groups of passages from Quran are contradictory and incompatible. Which of the two different sets of values described in them is a true Muslim expected to follow? This brings me to the absolutely critical concept in the exegetic analysis of Quran.

Abrogation.

Is Islam a religion of peace? (2)

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