Islam is a religion of peace in the fullest sense of the word. The Qur’an calls its way ‘the paths of peace’ (5:16). It describes reconciliation as the best policy (4:128), and states that God abhors any disturbance of peace (2:205).
The root word of Islam is ‘silm’, which means peace. So the spirit of Islam is the spirit of peace. The first verse of the Qur’an breathes the spirit of peace. It reads:
In the name of God, the Most Merciful, the Most Compassionate.
This verse is repeated in the Qur’an no less than 113 times. It shows the great importance Islam attaches to such values as Mercy and Compassion. One of God’s names, according to the Qur’an, is As-Salam, which means peace. Moreover the Qur’an states that the Prophet Muhammad was sent to the world as a mercy to mankind. (21:107)
A perusal of the Qur’an shows that most verses of the Qur’an (and also the Hadith) are based on peace and kindness, either directly or indirectly. The ideal society, according to the Qur’an is Dar as-Salam, that is, the house of peace (10:25).
The Qur’an presents the universe as a model that is characterized by harmony and peace (36:40). When God created heaven and earth, He so ordered things that each part might perform its function peacefully without clashing with any other part. The Qur’an tells us that “the sun is not allowed to overtake the moon, nor does the night outpace the day. Each in its own orbit runs.” (36:40)
For billions of years, therefore, the entire universe has been fulfilling its function in total harmony with His divine plan.
These are only but a few references to show what great importance Islam attaches to peace. In fact, Islam cannot afford not to be in a state of peace because all that Islam aims at—spiritual progress, intellectual development, character building, social reform, educational activities, and above all Missionary work —can be achieved only in an atmosphere of peace and harmony.
According to Islam, peace is not simply an absence of war. Peace opens doors to all kinds of opportunities that are present in any given situation. It is only in a peaceful situation that planned activities are possible. It is for this reason that the Prophet Muhammad went to great extents to establish peace at all costs.
Some people bracket justice with peace, but Islam does not subscribe to this notion. Islam believes in peace for the sake of peace. According to Islam, justice is not the direct result of peace. Peace only provides a framework within which we may work towards justice. There are so many examples in the life of the Prophet, which prove that Prophet never bracketed justice with peace.
He always took peaceful circumstances as an opportunity to work for justice and did not attempt to derive justice directly from peace. The treaty of Hudaybiyya, between the Prophet and his opponents, provides one such clear example. From the details of the peace treaty it is clear that no clause regarding justice was included. Obviously the conditions of this treaty were quite against justice. But the Prophet accepted this treaty, not because it was giving them justice, but because it was paving the way to work for justice.
Because of the importance of peace, the Qur’an has clearly declared that no aggressive war is permitted in Islam. Muslims can engage themselves only in a defensive, not in an offensive war, irrespective of the circumstances (2:190).
According to Islam, peace is the rule and war is only an exception. Even in defensive war we have to see the result. If the result is doubtful, Muslims should avoid war, even in a defensive situation. Stray acts of aggression are not enough for Muslims to rush into war. They have to assess the whole situation and adopt a policy of avoidance when war is not certain to achieve a positive result.
There are several examples of this kind in the early period of Islam. In Islamic history, one such example is that of the battle of the trench. In this event there was clear-cut aggression on the part of the antagonists, who traveled as far as 300 miles from Mecca to Medina only to attack the Muslims. But the Prophet got a trench dug in order to prevent an armed confrontation and thus avoided engaging in a defensive war.
It is true that jihad is one of the most important teachings of Islam. But jihad is not synonymous with war. In Islam another word is used for war and fighting. This word is ‘qital.’ When the Qur’an refers to war or fighting, it uses the word qital and not jihad.
Jihad literally means to strive or to struggle. So jihad actually means peaceful struggle, especially for da‘wah work. The Qur’an says:
Do great jihad with the help of the Qur’an. (25:52)
The Qur’an is simply a book, and not a sword, so “do great jihad with the Qur’an” means do great jihad with the ideological power of the Qur’an. In fact, jihad is only another name for peaceful activism. And peaceful activism is the only weapon by which Islam wants to achieve all its aims and objectives.
The Qur’an has this to say of the mission of the Prophet Muhammad:
We have not sent you forth but as a mercy to mankind. (21:107)
In the Qur’an and the Hadith, there are many such references that go to prove that Islam is a religion of peace, love and human brotherhood. However, it is also a fact that in later times the image of Islam has altered drastically. Now Islam has come to be regarded as a religion of violence rather than as a religion of peace. It is not the media that has produced this transformation in the image of Islam. The responsibility for this falls on latter-day Muslims, who have failed to maintain the original image of Islam.
In actual fact, the mission of all the prophets, right from Adam to Christ (may peace be upon them all), was one and the same—of establishing the ideology of monotheism in the world, so that man might worship one God alone. As we know, there came a large number of prophets in ancient times, but the message of monotheism remained at the initial stage; it could not culminate in a revolution. This state continued up till the time of Christ, the last but one Prophet. The reason being that in ancient times, the system of monarchy was entrenched throughout the world. The kings, in order to secure their political interests, adopted the course of religious persecution. These kings suppressed all religious movements, which were different from the state religion. They would nip all apostasy in the bud, since they saw religion as a matter of affirming one’s loyalty to the state. If a person adhered to a religion other than the state religion, he was regarded as a rebel.
That is why in ancient times prophetic movements could go no further ahead than the stage of da‘wah. No sooner would a movement based on monotheism arise than the coercive political system would be activated to pull it out by its roots. The reason for the absence of any historical record of prophets (besides the Prophet Muhammad in antiquity is traceable to the intense opposition of these coercive political systems. All the Prophets of ancient times, historically speaking, were like mythical beings, rather than real human beings accepted as historical figures. Prophet Jesus was the last link in the chain of these persecutions faced by the preachers of monotheism. Then God decreed the abolition of this coercive political system, even if it entailed the use of force in order that the age of religious persecution might be brought to an end forever, and replaced by the age of religious freedom. This divine plan was brought to completion through Prophet Muhammad and his companions. This is the command given in the Qur’an:
“Fight them until there be no persecution and religion be wholly God.” (8:39)
Therefore the Prophet Muhammad received special divine succour in the form of a powerful team consisting of more than one hundred thousand individuals. Equipped with this team the Prophet waged war to end this coercive system of religious persecution, and it was in Arabia that it was first of all overthrown. Then within a very short span of time, they advanced to abolish the coercive system established by the Sassanid and Byzantine empires. In the wake of this Islamic action, the coercive system was abolished forever in the major part of the inhabited world of the time. This war waged by the Prophet Muhammad and his companions was not a war as is commonly understood, but rather a divine operation, which was carried out by a people who possessed a high standard of moral character.
However, this operation was certainly only temporary in nature. Its goal was to put an end to the age of religious persecution and usher in the age of religious freedom. This end was fully achieved during the early period of Islam, the age of the pious Caliphs. Afterwards the time came to keep the sword in its sheath and engage in da‘wah work, that is, the call to God, which was the real and permanent goal of Islam. According to the explicit command of the Qur’an, the call to God is the true and eternal mission of Islam, whereas war is only temporary and allowed only in exceptional cases.
Here it would be pertinent to refer to a great companion of the Prophet. After the period of the pious Caliphate, a group of Muslims once again engaged in war. At that time some senior Companions were present in Mecca and Medina. But they did not join these wars, one prominent name being that of Abdullah ibn Umar ibn Khattab. He did not approve of these wars; therefore he remained away from them. Some of those involved in these wars came to him and said: God has commanded us in the Qur’an to fight against fitna (persecution). Then why do you not join with us in these wars? Abdullah ibn Umar replied “the command of the Qur’an to fight against fitna is not what you hold to be fitna. Fitna meant religious persecution and we have already fought and put an end to this fitna (qad fa‘alna). Therefore now after the removal of this obstacle, we have to engage ourselves in peaceful da‘wah work, rather than initiating hostilities and creating new fitna once again, which is akin to creating new obstacles for peaceful Islamic da’wah (al-Bukhari, Sahih, Kitab at-Tafsir, under al-Baqarah and al-Anfal).
Abdullah ibn Umar had made an extremely pertinent point at the most appropriate time, but others did not forcefully take up this point of view. Afterwards when the Islamic sciences were developed, this important point made by Abdullah ibn Umar could not be highlighted, with the result that history took the course of wars and conquests, while in terms of the real teachings of Islam, history should have taken the course of the call to God and the propagation of Islam.
It is no exaggeration to say that Islam and violence are contradictory to each other. The concept of Islamic violence is so obviously unfounded that, prima facie it stands rejected. The fact that violence is not sustainable in the present world is enough to convince one that violence, as a principle, is quite alien to the scheme of things in Islam. Islam claims to be an eternal religion and such a religion cannot afford a principle in its scheme which will not be sustainable in later periods of human history. An attempt to bracket violence with Islam amounts to casting doubts upon the very eternity of the Islamic religion.
No wonder, then, that the Prophet Muhammad so earnestly used to entreat his Lord in his daily prayer:
“O God, You are the original source of Peace; from You is all Peace, and to You returns all Peace. So, make us live with Peace; and let us enter paradise: the House of Peace. Blessed be You, our Lord, to whom belongs all Majesty and Honour!”