Understanding Islam’s War and Peace Signals

Saleem Ahmed, Ph.D. 1,2
On reading reports of terrorist attacks such as 9/11, Bali bombing, and Mumbai massacre, people often conclude that Islam is a religion of war. But Muslims emphasize Islam is a religion of peace. Which side is correct? Depending upon the Qur’anic verses and Hadith followed, both are correct. This is because passages extolling both war and peace exist in these sacred Muslim texts. Read in isolation and without knowing their contextual background, therefore, it is relatively easy to make a snap judgment supporting war, terrorism, and suicide bombing. In this article, I will present my views on what causes this fork in the Muslim road and discuss how we can move from war to peace. I should emphasize that, while I quote several Qur’anic passages and hadith, their interpretation and discussion presented are mine.
Examples of the fork in Muslim road
Here are three examples from the Qur’an of this fork: (1) While verse 5.5 permits Muslims to eat and intermarry with the ‘People of the Book’ (such as Jews and Christians), verse 5.51 prohibits Muslims from trusting Jews and Christians; (2) While verse 2.256 declares “Let there be no compulsion in religion”, verse 9.5 declares “Fight and slay the pagans wherever you find them! Seize them and beleaguer them, and lie in wait for them in every strategy of war”; and (3) While verse 2.62 explains, “Those who believe in the Qur’an and those who follow the (Jewish) scriptures and the Christians and the Sabians – any who believe in Allah and the Last Day and work (in) righteousness – shall have their reward”, verse 5.82 declares, “Strongest among men in enmity to the believers will you find the Jews and pagans and the nearest among them in love to the believers will you find those who say ‘We are Christians’. . .”
And here is an example of such “mixed signals” in hadith: Muhammad declared: “No tithes are to levied on Jews and Christians” (Abu Dawood hadith 1328). But Muhammad also declared “Tithes are to be levied on Jews and Christians but not on Muslims” (Abu Dawood hadith 1327).
On which fork should Muslims walk? And which groups currently walk on these divergent paths?
Followers of these divergent paths:
(a) Peace Path: Majority Muslims worldwide follow the path of peace. This is reinforced by the Islamic Society of North America. It cited more than 50 “peace” verses in its press release of July 28, 2005, to underscore Islam as religion of peace.
(b) War Path: Very few Muslims worldwide follow the path of war. But, among those who follow this path, let us consider Sheikh Abdullah, former Saudi chief justice. For example, he quoted more than 50 other Qur’anic verses in his 1996 essay on Jihad to incite Muslims to “fight Jews, Christians, and pagans” continuously.
A more recent example of the “war path” would be the killing of 13 innocent people at Mount Hood by Major Nidal Malik Hasan in 2005. While ISNA strongly condemned this killing, Anwar al-Awlaki, a Muslim terrorist leader, praised it and encouraged other Muslims to follow Hasan’s example. Awlaki was considered Osama bin Laden’s successor. He was reportedly killed recently by U.S. forces.
Dilemma Muslims Face
Since both ISNA and Sheikh Abdullah quote the Qur’an in support of their respective view, neither side challenges the other directly. That would be blasphemous as any challenge would mean challenging the Qur’an.
Why Do Such Diametrically Opposite Signals Exist In The Qur’an?
Before I share my interpretation, I’d like to make an important clarification: The Qur’an carries two kinds of messages: spiritual, such as on God’s attributes and wonders of creation; and temporal, such as guidance on war and peace and interpersonal relations. The spiritual message remained unchanged throughout the 23 years of Muhammad’s prophethood . But the temporal message evolved from being defensive and reactive when Muhammad was vulnerable, to becoming progressive and proactive after all Arabia had been conquered and danger dissipated.
Why Don’t We Follow This Progression?
Here is another major challenge confronting Muslims: the Qur’an and hadith are NOT arranged chronologically; and context of revelations is also often not known. Thus, we don’t know which verse was revealed when and why. Lacking this, Muslims consider all verses equally valid. It is this “equal emphasis” on these opposite messages that appear as “mixed signals”. Also exacerbating the problem is what appears as the Qur’an’s “mixed description” about itself – when we take these verses out of context. While Verse 85.21-22 describes the Qur’an as “Tablet Preserved”, verse 76.23 clarifies that the Qur’an was “revealed in stages”. Muslims take the first to mean that all verses are equally valid, to be followed unquestioningly. The latter suggests that its verses were revealed at different times, responding to the evolving socio-political situation. However, the lack of chronological information precludes the possibility of our knowing the “stages” of revelation.
I believe the lack of chronological information is due to the manner in which the Qur’an was compiled.
The Qur’an’s Compilation
The Qur’an was revealed to Muhammad over 23-years (610-633 CE). Since Muhammad was illiterate, he would ask any of his literate followers present when he shared his revelation at various times to transcribe what was revealed. About 20 transcribers reportedly helped at different times during those 23 years in Mecca and Medina. While they faithfully transcribed what was revealed, apparently they did not note the date or context of revelation. This was probably not considered important as events were fresh in peoples’ minds.
While Muhammad lived, these verses probably remained in possession of their transcribers. However, about a year after Muhammad died, Umar (later, the second caliph) suggested to Abu Bakr (then caliph), that these verses should be compiled into one book. The reason: several Qaris (those who had memorized these verses) were killed in the Battle of Al-Yamana (634 CE?). Umar foresaw that, with the death of other Qaris in subsequent battles and by natural causes, these revealed verses would gradually be lost, depriving succeeding generations of God’s message to humanity. Although Abu Bakr said: “How can I do something which even Muhammad did not do,” he was eventually convinced to do so. Abu Bakr commissioned Zaid bin Thabit, a young scholar who had also transcribed several verses in the later years of Muhammad’s life. In recalling his experience in gathering these verses from different people, Zaid wrote: “I started compiling the Qur’an (from people who had transcribed them and preserved them) on the leafless stalks of the date-palm tree; on pieces of leather, hides, and stones; and from the chests of men (who had memorized them) . . .” (Bukhari 9.301).
It probably took Zaid 1-2 years to compile all 6,300 verses in one book, which was then called the Qur’an. Imagine trying to put into chronological order messages on thousands of dried leafless stalks of the date palm tree, and on pieces of leather, skin, and stones! It boggles the mind to just try to imagine how these verses might have been reverently kept by their transcribers. I can only visualize those date palm stalks tied in bundles – just as wheat is tied in bundles after harvest.
In such a scenario, it is easy to understand the Qur’an’s non-chronological arrangement. Here is an example of this non-chronological arrangement: The first revelation Muhammad reportedly received (in 610 CE), Iqra, appears in the Qur’an, not as Surah (chapter) 1, but as Surah 96 (out of 114 surahs). We don’t know why. Another example: Both verse 5.5, “You can eat and intermarry with the people of the book” and verse 5.51, “Do not trust Jews and Christians” are in the fifth Surah. So, should contemporary Muslims follow verse 5.5 and befriend Jews and Christians? Or, follow verse 5.51 and not even talk to them?
To this line of introspection, a general response is: “All verses are to be followed unquestioningly (based on verse 85.21-22 mentioned above). So, whether one verse comes earlier or later should not matter.” They add that whether Muslims should befriend Jews and Christians or mistrust them would depend upon the context of the contemporary situation: “If Jews and Christians are peaceful, we should also be peaceful; but if they resort to violence, we should also respond with violence.” But then, shouldn’t Islam be called a religion of retaliation instead of a religion of peace? Besides, who decides whether we are currently at peace or war with Jews and Christians? Indeed, should we follow ISNA’s peace path? Or Sheikh Abdullah’s war path?
A possible solution
Fortunately, we get guidance from the Qur’an’s verse 2.106. It declares: “None of Our revelations do We abrogate or cause to be forgotten, but We substitute something better or similar . . .”. Since something which comes later usually substitutes that which came earlier, this means the Qur’an’s later guidance on any subject superseded its earlier guidance on that subject. This also reinforces the above-mentioned verse 76.23 about the Qur’an being revealed “in stages.”
But then we are back to Square One: Since the Qur’an is not arranged chronologically, how do we know which is the “later guidance” on any subject?
Ibn Ishaq’s book
I found the answer in Ibn Ishaq’s book, Seerat Rasool Allah. Written around 800 CE – about 150 years after Muhammad’s death, it is the earliest extant book on the prophet. Translated by Guillaume as Life of Muhammad, it was published by the Oxford University Press, Karachi, in 1955.
From this, I learned that verse 5.51 (“Do not trust Jews and Christians”) was revealed shortly after Muhammad migrated from Mecca to Medina in 622 CE. Although, he was warmly received by majority people in Medina and acclaimed as their spiritual and temporal head, some did not like his presence there. After all, he had suddenly impacted significantly the local socio-political balance. People having political aspirations and others having close relations with Muhammad’s enemies in Mecca also posed a major threat to him. Thus, verse 5.51 was revealed to caution him against trusting outsiders. This cautionary guidance was well worthwhile as, during the next 10 years, periods of peace and war interwove regularly as Muslims fought nine major battles and 19 skirmishes with Jews and “pagans.” Muhammad participated in all nine major battles. By the end of his life, most of Arabia had been conquered and danger dissipated. Muhammad’s fame had spread far and wide and rulers from neighboring countries sent emissaries to establish peace relations with him; Muhammad also sent emissaries to neighboring countries.
It was then, when Muhammad was no longer vulnerable, that verse 5.5 (actually verse 5.3-5) was revealed: “This day have I perfected your religion . . . I have chosen Islam as your religion . . . The food of the ‘People of the Book’ is lawful unto you and yours unto them. (Lawful unto you in marriage) are (not only) chaste women who are believers, but (also) chaste women among the ‘People of the Book’ revealed before your time . . .“
Four Important Points
The following major points emerge from this verse: (1) It was on “This day” (the day this verse was revealed) that the religion was “perfected”. Even a day earlier, it was “imperfect” as the message had not been completed. (2) The religion was given the name “Islam.” Even a day earlier, the religion carried no name, although followers were called “Muslims.” (3) Cordial relations were to be established with all ‘People of the Book’ – and not with only Jews and Christians.
Muhammad died shortly thereafter.
Who all are included among ‘People of the Book’? This will be discussed in a subsequent article.
The following hadith reinforces verse 5.3-5 message: “A Jew or Christian who becomes a sincere Muslim of his own accord and obeys the religion of Islam, is a believer with the same rights and same obligations. If one of them holds fast to this religion, he is not to be turned (away) from it.” (Ibn Ishaq, pages 647-8).
Thus, peace superseded war. It follows, therefore, that Muslims should befriend Jews and Christians – and, by extrapolation, followers of other religions as well. If we follow this line of thinking, Islam is unquestioningly a religion of peace; not of retaliation. We should be the first to extend our hand of friendship to others – and remain peaceful even under situations of stress. Let us remember that Islam was spread primarily by peaceful Sufis; and not by Muslim armies. The proof? There are large Muslim populations in Southeast Asia and China – areas where no Muslim army ever set foot.
American Muslims should not only befriend their non-Muslim neighbors, but also participate proactively in community activities such as fund raising for local causes, becoming politically active, and breaking bread with all. This should happen not only because it is the “ethical” thing to do, but also because their religion demands it.

1 President, Pacific Institute of Islamic Studies, Honolulu, Hawaii. Contact: HiSaleem@aol.com.
2 This talk is based upon the authors’ book Islam: A Religion of Peace? (Moving Pen Publishers, 2008).
3 Monotheistic people living in the Middle East during Muhammad’s time.
4 Sheikh Abdullah: “The call to Jihad (holy fighting for Allah’s cause) in the Qur’an.” In: Muhammad Taqi-ud-Din Al-Hilali and Dr. Muhammad Muhsin Khan, Interpretation of the meanings of The Noble Qur’an. Darussalam Publishers, Riyah, Saudi Arabia (15th edition 1996), pp 845-864.
5Usually Muslims add “peace be upon him” whenever they mention then prophet’s name. This sentiment resonates throughout this presentation.
6 I could not find any mention of any hostile relations with the Christians anywhere

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