The current dominant reading of Islam is that it is a religion of peace. This is a reading supported by the Western ruling political classes anxious not to alienate Muslim populations living in their midst, accepted by those anxious to encourage religious tolerance in multicultural societies and endorsed by moderate Muslims. It enables the claim to be made that violent radical Muslims are either not true Muslims or not Muslims at all.
But this interpretation of Islam within the West is only a century old.
From war to peace and back again
From the origins of Islam in the seventh century until the beginning of the 20th, Islam was predominantly viewed as a religion of violence compared with Christianity, the religion of peace. This was the key move in the West’s coming to terms with Islam’s enormous success.
For Muslims themselves, from the beginning of Islam, the proof of the truth of Muhammad’s commission from God and of his teaching was the success of Islam during the Prophet’s lifetime and the remarkable extension of Islamic power in the century after his death in CE 632.
To combat this, the West constructed a narrative of Islamic success being due not to the favour of God but to the sword. Conversely, the success of Christianity – having renounced the sword – was solely down to God’s endorsement. In the introduction to George Sale’s translation of the Quran in 1734 – the first from Arabic into English – Sale writes:
It is certainly one of the most convincing proofs that Mahommedism was no other than a human convention, that it owed its progress and establishment to the sword; and it is one of the strongest demonstrations of the divine original of Christianity that it prevailed against all the force and powers of the world by the dint of its own truth.
Sale’s position was the standard for the next 150 years, not least because his words were quoted in the entry under “Mahomet” in the Encyclopedia Britannica in the 1797, 1810, 1817, 1823 and 1842 editions. In 1882, William Muir, in a popular essay for The Leisure Hour, summed up what was by then unquestioned and virtually unquestionable:
… the use of the sword is abjured by the Gospel, while it is commanded by the Coran.
Jesus’ words – “Think not that I am come to send peace on earth: I came not to send peace, but a sword” (Matthew 10.34) – were conveniently forgotten. Those most virulently against Islam for its use of force made little either of Christianity’s own destructive wars or of Christianity’s aggression against Islam. They ignored the violence that often accompanied Christianity’s extension and the religious tolerance that often went with the spread of Islam.
But the myth of an essentially violent Islam did reflect a deep-seated Western fear, always potent in the imagination and sometimes grounded in reality – the fear of the West being overwhelmed by the East.
Yet this fear was abating as the 19th century drew to a close. The West’s cultural and political power had, by then, rendered virtually null and void the threat of being engulfed by Islam. The “religion of force” was coming to be dominated by greater European powers.
The West now developed more benevolent understandings of Islam. A burgeoning imperial confidence enabled Islamic culture to be viewed not so much as a political threat but as a sphere of Western patronage – both religious and secular.
Only since September 11 has the image of a violent Islam returned to the forefront of Western consciousness, aided and abetted since then by new forms of violent Islam. Once again doubts have been cast on the 20th century’s perception of a benign and compassionate Islamic tradition.
Bringing out the best and worst
Islam, like Christianity, has a capacity for violence and a capacity for peace, and neither is in essence peaceful or violent. Each of these religions contains the theological conditions for both peace and violence in their doctrine of God.
In both traditions, God is identified with goodness, mercy and compassion. But God is also a being who at times demands obedience to his commands, even when these suspend ethical obligations to the good and entail acts that are evil.
The “father” of both traditions is Abraham, who was willing to sacrifice his own son in obedience to God’s commands. The God who is merciful fortunately stayed his hand.
It is this theological paradox of a God who is good and yet whose sovereign will at times demands the suspension of human goodness that allows for both peace and violence in these traditions to be theologically justified.
Our modern, Western, liberal predilection is to believe that true religions endorse only the good. But the uncomfortable conclusion to be drawn from the theology of both Christianity and Islam, and from the way they have acted throughout history, is that both peace and violence can be true and authentic expressions of these religions. And in the modern world, violence is as much of a problem within religions as between them.
We do both of these religions a disservice if we fail to recognise that they can inspire and justify not only the best but also the worst of human behaviour.