By Chandra Muzaffar
October 4, 2006
It was Albert Einstein who once noted that it is easier to split the atom than to crack a prejudice.
One such prejudice that is deeply entrenched in the Western psyche relates to Islam and violence. At the root of this prejudice is the erroneous belief that Islam had spread through the sword.
If by this one means that people were threatened with death unless they embraced the religion, there is very little historical evidence to support this contention. True, Muslim rulers and generals conquered territories, but often the conquered inhabitants were allowed to retain their religion or belief. In fact, “until the middle of the eighth century”, in the words of British writer Karen Armstrong, “Jews and Christians in the Muslim empire were actively discouraged from conversion to Islam, as, according to Quranic teaching, they had received authentic revelations of their own.” In many instances, it was only after political authority had been securely established that the masses voluntarily adopted the religion of their new rulers. This is something that has happened in almost every religion. After the emperor Asoka became a Buddhist, there was a huge influx of his subjects to his new religion.
In the case of Islam, trade also played an important role in the spread of the faith, especially between the 8th and 15th centuries. Traders assumed the mantle of missionaries. Some historians have observed that the honesty and integrity of these traders attracted a lot of people to their religion. In Southeast Asia, as in East and West Africa, trade was perhaps the most effective channel for the propagation of the religion.
An even more influential factor in the spread of Islam in the early centuries was of course Islamic mysticism or Sufism. Across North Africa and Central Asia, in various parts of the Indian subcontinent and most parts of Southeast Asia, the gentle persuasiveness of Sufi preachers with their message of virtue and compassion culled from the Quran made a huge impact upon culturally diverse communities. Even today, Sufism, with its emphasis upon universal unity, continues to attract large numbers of non-Muslims in North America and Europe.
Perhaps more than any of these influences, it is the sociopolitical and socioeconomic environment that prevailed in various parts of the world in the centuries immediately after the advent of Islam that explains its rapid and dramatic growth. In settings dominated by hierarchical and often oppressive structures, the egalitarian justice offered by Islam came as a breath of fresh air. As the famous H.G. Wells put it, “Islam prevailed because it was the best social and political order the times could offer. It prevailed because everywhere it found politically apathetic peoples, robbed, oppressed, bullied, uneducated and unorganized and it found selfish and unsound governments out of touch with any people at all. It was the broadest, freshest and cleanest political idea that had yet come into actual activity in the world and it offered better terms than any other to the masses of mankind.”
It was partly because of what it offered humankind that even when Muslims were conquered, their conquerors eventually adopted the religion of the conquered. Thus, the descendants of Hulagu, the Mongol conqueror of Baghdad in the 13th century, chose to embrace Islam. In this regard, it is significant that Islam today is spreading most rapidly in societies where Muslims are in a minority, in North America and Europe -- and not in Muslim majority countries where they exercise power.
What all this shows is that the allegation that ‘Islam had spread by the sword’ is an utterly scurrilous lie perpetrated and perpetuated for a vile purpose. Before we examine the motive, it should be emphasized that the Quran is perhaps the only religious text that explicitly prohibits coercion in matters of faith (Surah 2:256). It also acknowledges religious plurality in the oft-quoted verse, “To you your religion; to me, mine (Surah 109: 6). This is why for a period of time in the Ottoman Empire, if a Muslim coerced a Christian or a Jew to convert to Islam, he was put to death.
If this is the Islamic position on forced conversion in theory and in practice, why has the lie about the sword and violence persisted for so long? The elites in the West who for the last few centuries have exercised overwhelming influence on the thinking of the rest of humankind have succeeded in transferring their terrible guilt about perpetrating unspeakable violence upon people everywhere through perpetual wars, conquests and persecutions on to their adversaries. Thus their enemies have become the epitome and the embodiment of their own violence. Islam and Muslims -- the perennial nemesis of the West -- have borne the brunt of this transference of guilt.
There is no better example of this than the crusades blessed by the popes. When the crusaders conquered Jerusalem in 1099, they massacred 30,000 Muslims and Jews. Contrast this with the compassion and magnanimity of the illustrious Saladin when he recaptured Jerusalem in 1187. He not only protected the Christian community -- along with the Jews -- but also their places of worship.
And yet in medieval Christian literature it was the Muslim who was portrayed as a bloodthirsty warrior eager to embark upon ‘holy wars’. The truth is the term ‘holy war’ does not even belong to Islam. As the Austrian Catholic philosopher Hans Koechler points out, “Literally, ‘holy war’ is the translation of the Latin term bellum sanctum which was used to describe a ‘crusade’ against the ‘Saracens’ in the Middle Ages; thus, this notion was part of the doctrine of the Roman Catholic Church over many centuries.”
The crusades are but one gory entry in the long and sordid catalogue of violent wars and conquests associated with elites in the West. There was the merciless slaughter of perhaps 30 million indigenous peoples of the Americas and Australasia; there was Western colonialism, which claimed at least 40 million lives; there was the slave trade, which robbed 25 million souls of their freedom; and there was the cruel violence of apartheid in South Africa, which stripped generations of human beings of their basic dignity. It is sad that in each and every one of these colossal catastrophes, the Church had some role or other. At the same time, however, there were some notable Christian figures who spoke out against the monumental crimes committed in their name.
If the truth about the violence committed by Western elites in the past is not widely known, neither is the general populace today sufficiently cognizant of the terror unleashed by the contemporary centers of power in the West. The brutal violence perpetrated by the American war machine in Iraq or the heinous crimes committed against the defenseless people of Palestine or Lebanon by that haughty Western outpost in the Arab world called Israel seldom evoke as much condemnation in the mainstream media as some desperate attack by a suicide bomber. Once again, it reveals how the powerful have succeeded in camouflaging their vile and vicious acts of violence on behalf of oil and land while transferring the blame on to the victim.
The violence of the Muslim victim of the U.S. occupation of Iraq or of the Israeli occupation of Palestine is more often than not reactive. It is this reactive violence that is often presented as proof of the ‘inherent Muslim tendency to resort to violence’. It is unjust and immoral to equate the violence of the victim with the violence of the victimizer.
Nonetheless, in the course of reacting to oppression and subjugation, it is undeniably true that a fringe within the Muslim community has also indulged in horrendous acts of violence. They have murdered innocent people in total violation of unambiguously lucid Islamic principles. Their dastardly deeds have only helped to reinforce prejudiced stereotypes about Muslim violence.
There is also violence within Muslim society, in the past as in the present, which is in no way related to Western hegemony or to Western injustices in general. Sunni-Shia killings in Pakistan would be a case in point. Sectarian violence of this sort is by no means confined to the Muslim world. Intra-community tensions leading sometimes to bloody conflicts have occurred in almost every religious community at some point or other. When such violence erupts within the Muslim community, religious leaders of every shade should not only condemn it but also mobilize public opinion against the unpardonable crime of killing innocents.
If Muslim religious elites are prepared to do this, they may help to reduce, even if it is only by a tiny fraction, the deep-seated prejudice about Muslim violence.