Due to events of the past years, the idea of whether Islam is a religion of peace has been put forward by any number of pundits and media outlets. We hear how the vast majority of Muslims are peaceful people. We also hear other voices insist that Islam is not a religion of peace. Can these two seemingly opposing viewpoints both be true? If so, how can this be?
Part of the answer rests on the difference between Islam and Muslims. On the one hand, there is the issue of Islam and its theology. What does the religion teach? What are its major tenets? What are the commands given to Islam’s adherents? Are there multiple ways in which these commands can be interpreted? On the other side of this, how do Muslims choose to live out their lives on a daily basis? How do they interact with others, and what values to they hold dear?
In other words, what are the differences between theology and practice? To understand this distinction, consider the Christian concept of forgiveness. The Bible teaches Christians are to forgive those who wrong them. In fact, Christians are not only told to forgive, but to actually pray for those who are persecute them (Matthew 5:44). This isn’t a command that has multiple interpretations; it stands squarely in plain language. It’s an outrageous concept and it goes against every fiber of our being. Our natural instinct calls us to fight back and retaliate. So many Christians don’t practice this kind of countercultural response and instead hold on to a grudge or become embittered toward those who harm them. Why is it that many Christians don’t live out this ideal as prescribed by Jesus Himself? We could apply this same idea to any number of concepts, such as tithing, extreme hospitality, or not worrying about tomorrow’s troubles. The point is that there is doctrine that a religion teaches and then there is how its adherents actually live out their faith.
Islamic sources such as the Qur’an and Hadith teach jihad as a mandatory part of Islam. There isn’t any way to avoid this issue, and I have documented that in abundance in previous articles (here and here). I have heard Muslim apologists refer to jihad solely as the internal struggle, but the Qur’an and Hadith don’t support this view. For example, blind and lame people were excluded form jihad, and Muhammad’s orders regarding jihad were given within the context of his army preparing for and returning from military battle. Yet the reality is that the vast majority of Muslims don’t live up to this ideal practice as directly by Islamic theology. I believe there are three major reasons for this inconsistency.
First, many Muslims are basically good and moral people. The idea of jihad is repugnant to them. Therefore, they find ways to diminish or completely ignore the statutes. People have a tremendous capacity to mold a religion to fit their own personal belief system. This is basic human nature, and certainly is not confined to Muslims. Many Muslims follow their conscience rather than the commands regarding jihad as laid out within Islam.
Second, many Muslims are unaware of what their religion teaches. Many mosques, such as the one nearest myself, tend to overlook and sidestep any teachings relating to jihad. They focus on other aspects of the Islamic faith. Any good heretical movement that can split theology and practice does so by overemphasizing some aspects of the religion, while underemphasizing or completely ignoring others. Many Muslims haven’t been exposed to the dictates and requirements placed upon them in the Qur’an and Hadith concerning their duty to fight the infidels. In their minds, they are following Islam as best they know how given the partial theology they have been taught.
Third, there are many Muslims who do believe in jihad. However, part of Muhammad’s teaching relates not only to jihad itself, but also speaks to its timing. When Muslims are vastly outnumbered, Islam teaches that provisions should be made to bide their time. There are stages of infiltration to increase Muslim numbers. At a later date, when the time is more ripe, more aggressive and direct action can be taken.[i] There are many Muslims who secretly believe in jihad, but know that here in the West, that day is still several years away. What the media defines as the “radical” Muslims are those in the third camp who also believe the time is now rather than later. What percentage of Muslims that fully subscribe to jihad, but is patiently waiting for better timing is unknown. Such statistics could probably never be gathered.
In summary, Islam is not a religion of peace. Yet many Muslims are indeed peaceful. It isn’t the “radical” Muslims who have perverted Islam. It is the peaceful Muslims who have perverted Islamic theology in order to fit their consciences, their lack of knowledge, or their desire to await a more opportune time to launch more direct and combative action.