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Islam: Religion of Possibilities

Islam: Religion of Violence Peace Possibilities

by Shannon Wiese

Sherman Jackson, in his “Jihad and the Modern World,” begins his article by noting that two opposing discourses on Islam have been taken up in the Western world (1). After September 11, 2001, Western media has largely been concerned with promoting the depiction of Islam as a religion of peace. However, Jackson states that this portrayal has been rejected by what he calls “skeptics,” “polemicists,” and “even opportunists.” (2) Sherman then embarks on a mission to show that portraying Islam as a religion of peace is valid. While this reader appreciates that Jackson calls attention to the binary discourses on Islam, she does not believe a defense of only one of these portrayals does much to further an accurate discussion of the issue. This author holds that either depiction (that of Islam as a religion of peace or as a religion of violence) is a form of blind extremism, for while Islamic principles have been used to promote peace, they have also been used to perpetuate violence. Muslims are not monolithic in their worldviews and any discussion of Islam which does not attest to the diversity of opinions is not accurate. A more nuanced discussion of the issue is necessary.

Many people have come to the conclusion that while some Muslims are violent others are peaceful. What is difficult is formulating a way to speak about such diversity. One way in which this has been attempted has been to differentiate between groups of Muslims. Islamist groups like Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood have been declared violent and evil while Sufi groups have been deemed nonviolent and worthy of great respect. While this may seem like a good compromise, this simplification is also inaccurate. As Roxanne L. Euben and Muhammad Qasim Zaman illustrate (3) in their overview of Islamism, (4) no Islamic group is monolithic or static. Not all Islamist groups can be described as “violent, antidemocratic, and oppressive of women.” (5) Rather, depending on historical and cultural circumstances, influences and interpretive frameworks, Islamic groups can manifest as peaceful or violent, democratic or antidemocratic, oppressive to women or liberating. Violence, then, is not a matter of which group one looks at, but what circumstances the group finds themselves in. For example, the Muslim Brotherhood began as a largely peaceful group under the leadership of Hasan al-Banna, working to restore Islamic principles to Egypt through persuasion, and conducting social welfare projects to improve the standard of life for poor Egyptians. (6) As the group’s relations with the government degraded, however, the group became more violent. (7) In a way, Sherman Jackson’s argument is accurate here, pointing out that Muslims can interpret historical events as constituting a “state of war” and therefore leading Muslims to declare that constant jihad is appropriate. (8) He misses the mark, however, by assuming that all Muslims will interpret the historical events in the same way. Each individual may both perceive and interpret events differently and thus come to a different conclusion as to whether or not waging jihad is appropriate. Therefore, it is difficult, if not impossible, to categorize Islam into violent and peaceful factions by assigning Islamic groups to each category. Historical circumstances and individual interpretations can vary across time and space. (9)

Robert Weller’s theory on resistance and ritual may be useful in this analysis. In examining Chinese rituals and symbols over a period of time, Weller notes that the rituals do not have one unchanging meaning, but many, according to the sociopolitical realities of the time. In particular, he notes that some ritual enactments take on a meaning of resistance to certain political powers. Thus, Weller rejects the up-to-that-point popular scholarly endeavor to discover the one true meaning of a ritual or a symbol and states that one must look at “active, social process of interpretation.” (10) He agrees with Stanley Fish that there are “interpretive communities” that limit the possible interpretations of a ritual or a symbol within a given context, (11) but argues that these interpretive structures are the exception rather than the rule. (12) Most often, there will be intense disagreement about what a ritual or a symbol means, particularly during times when the interpretative community has lost some or all of its authority. (13) Further, there may be other symbols that the interpretive community has not clearly defined. (14) In such a situation, there are various potentials for what the symbol or ritual could mean and, depending on the historical circumstances and the ways in which people perceive them, one potential interpretation could precipitate out. (15)

If one examines the discourse on Islam and jihad, one sees that there are a variety of ways to interpret the term. Further, while certain jurist opinions have been given on jihad, the term is still debated, either on grounds of interpretative analysis or questions of authority. In either case, one can see that by trying to reduce Islam or Islamic groups down to one nature of violence or non-violence, one neglects the more complex underlying processes of interpretation and historical change. Human history is dynamic precisely because human interpretations are dynamic. As Weller notes, no one interpretation ever fully wins. (16)

1-Sherman A. Jackson, “Jihad and the Modern World,” The Journal of Islamic Law and Culture 7 (2002): 1.


3-Roxanne L. Euben and Muhammad Qasim Zaman, eds. “Introduction” and “Hasan al-Banna,” in Texts and Contexts from Al-banna to Bin Laden, (Princeton: Princeton University Press).

4-Islamism in this article means: “contemporary movements that attempt to return to the scriptural foundations of the Muslim community, excavating and reinterpreting them for application to the present-day social and political world.” Euben and Zaman, eds., Texts and Contexts, 4.

5-Ibid, 29.

6-Ibid, 51.

7-Ibid, 53-54.

8-Jackson, “Jihad and the Modern World,” 25-26.

9-Euben and Zaman, eds., Texts and Contexts, 2.

10-Robert Weller. Resistance, Chaos and Control in China: Taiping Rebels,

Taiwanese Ghosts, and Tiananmen. (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1994) 14.

11-Ibid, 21.

12-Ibid, 22.


14-Ibid, 222.

15-Ibid, 25.

16-Ibid, 224.

Shannon Wiese is a Master’s Student at Western Michigan University, specializing in Chinese Religions.



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