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Religion of Peace, Relgion of War, or Simply a Religion?

Islam, like any other religion that bases its principles in text, struggles with issues of interpretation. Every Muslim finds their own meaning in the sacred texts. Sometimes this meaning is similar to or different from the ideas of the majority in their community. The issue of interpretation means multiple opinions even on particular issues, such as jihad. While, Roxanne L. Euben and Muhammad Qasim Zaman illustrate a sampling of ideas on jihad, Sherman A. Jackson struggles to provide a loose framework for ideas about jihad and peace.

In his article, “Jihad and the Modern World”, Jackson defines “religion of peace” not as a religion that is against violence, but as a religion that can live peacefully among other religious groups (18). He believes that Islam and ideas of jihad fit into this definition. Using the historical context of the Qur’an, Sherman shows that jihad was used as defense and in a “state of war”. War was the norm at the time in the region, so war had to be used for self-preservation. When the norm changes to peace, Muslims no longer must use jihad. So long as Muslims live in a “state of peace” among rivals, religious and non-religious, there is no reason to wage war. Peace treaties and agreements are not simply enough, peace has to be achieved on the ground level as well (19). Since Muslims have different measures of peace, there is no consensus on justification of war.

According to Jackson, calling Islam a “religion of peace” should not be used just to take away blame, for Muslims can and will use violence if they feel justified. Many Muslims have different views on when and if war is a justified action. The fact that Muslims live in many places with different realities makes the issue even more complex. There is also the issue of collectivity; if Muslims in Iran decide to wage war does that mean that all Muslims are justified in waging war against you. “In the end, however, whether Islam actually functions of the ground as a religion of peace will depend as much on the actions of non-Muslims as it does on the religious understanding of Muslims (25).” As long as other countries do not act aggressively towards Muslims there will be no jihad according to Jackson.

Jackson’s definition of “religion of peace” could be applied to any and every religion, so what makes it distinct? His article basically tells us that all religions have the capability of coexisting with non-believers or other faiths despite the idea of war in religious texts. In this case, Islam has the capability of peace but always has the Jihad card up its sleeve just in case. To me this says nothing more than, “Don’t provoke the Muslims or there will war!” Meaning the world should just pay no mind or not get involved in the affairs of Muslim nations no matter what, making for a very ambivalent coexistence.

Euben and Zaman give a much broader of picture of jihad in their book, Princeton Readings in Islamist Thought. Unlike Jackson, they are not trying to argue that Islam is a “religion of peace,” instead they present a variety of Islamist views on violence. They are not referring to Muslim views as a whole but Islamist views. They characterize Islamists in this way, “We take Islamism to refer to contemporary movements that attempt to return to the scriptural foundations of the Muslim community, excavating and reinterpreting them for the application to the present-day social and political world (4).” This is not just the average Muslim’s interpretation of jihad, but an interpretation of jihad that can be applied to today’s society and politics.

Jihad to some Islamists is not the self-defense characterized by Jackson’s article but a war against any person or system that seeks suppresses Islamic law (42-43). This system does not have to be armed itself; it can be even an economic or cultural system, which makes justification of violence rather easy. Some Islamists are against this interpretation and say that those who use it only seek political gain and domination for themselves (43). Both writings show that not all Muslims and not all Islamists can be put into one box concerning jihad.

The safest conclusion seems to be, not that Islam is either a “religion of peace” or a “religion of war” but a religion like any other. We cannot call Muslims non-violent or violent any more than we can characterize Christians as violent or non-violent. However, we may be able to characterize individuals and movements within religions this way. During certain periods there may be trends towards either violence or non-violence. Only after many years can we conclude that a religion has had a tendency towards violence or peace, and even then we must examine the reasons that led to either tendency.

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