It is said that Mahatma Gandhi once echoed a saying about Islam: “Islam was spread by the sword”. At that time, this generated resentment among many imams and Muslim scholars inside and outside India, and motivated some of them to refute it. However, when Gandhi described Islam in his journal Young India (which he published from 1919 to 1932), he said: “I became more than ever convinced that it was not the sword that won a place for Islam in those days in the scheme of life. It was the rigid simplicity, the utter self-effacement of the Prophet [PBUH], the scrupulous regard for pledges, his intense devotion to his friends and followers.”
In spite of that, the view that “Islam was spread by the sword” is still prevalent in western circles, where defining Islam as a religion tends to involve highlighting violence more than peace and tolerance, especially with the increasingly deadly actions of Daesh (the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant) and groups like that.
Proceeding from the idea of jihad, which consists of making it a duty on every Muslim to protect the Islamic Da’wa and disseminate it by oneself, money and word, arguments have raged among Muslim scholars regarding the reasons and methods used for jihad and the appropriate time to execute it.
This controversy did not emerge recently; it has persisted for decades — between those who believe that jihad is defensive case and others who feel that it should be used both to defend and attack in order to spread Islam. And some believe that it is only to be used against “infidels” while others suggest that it may involve facing “infidels” and the “polytheists”.
And these people consider Jews and Christians to be part of the latter if they do not pay tribute and abide by their oaths to Muslims.
Some also see that jihad follows the first stage of Da’wa, which depends on the theoretical aspects to get to the second stage — of work and action. Contrary views on this subject may emerge even within the same groups. Perhaps the clearest example of such conflicting thoughts is noticeable in the doctrine of the Muslim Brotherhood.
The group’s founder Hassan Al Banna believed that Islam does not strive except for defence but Sayed Qutb saw jihad as a way of removing all the “tyrants” from the land so that people worship God alone.
While Al Banna did not see Christians and Jews — Ahl dhimma — as enemies and believed that it is possible to open the doors of reconciliation with them, Qutb saw them as infidels. A similar direction is also noticed in different denominations of Shiite doctrines with regard to Jews and Christians: in some cases, they are seen as “infidels” and “enemies of Islam” and thus Muslims must fight them.
The reactions that could arise in the non-Muslim world — turning their attack from Daesh to Islam in general — shouldn’t cause shock or outrage or disapproval among Muslims, whether the attack is on Islam as a religion or as a way of life. This is because the Muslim world itself is mired in controversies with regard to issues like jihad, caliphate, the application of Sharia, and the relationship with the Jews and the Christians or others. Some believe that this quarrel is motivated more by politics than religion.
History has taught us that there is no continent or country that has not been exposed to wars that were fought in the name of religion. Although the religious objectives vary from one country to another, and from one political group to another, religion itself is always used as a political tool in war to achieve political and non-political ambitions.
Perhaps Christopher Tyerman’s book God’s War contains some of the ideas that might be applied to the current period about the spread of religious intolerance, even within Christianity. Intolerance and violence are not Islamic doctrines. They are a result of the actions of groups and individuals who cloak themselves in the garb of Islam.
One such group is Daesh, which is exploiting religion for its own purposes. The crusades, for example, proved the existence of Christian militants and reflect the constant hostility between the Christian and Islamic worlds. The danger lies in portraying the confrontation between the West and Daesh as a religious war against Islam. This is a concern — not only at the level of governments or political and military leaders but also at the level of ordinary people.
This representation is not directed solely by western leaders, as was the case with former US president George W. Bush who described his wars in Afghanistan and Iraq as a “crusade”. That immediately aroused Christian fanaticism and revived hostility towards Islam and led to the hatred of Muslims. But it may also be directed by Muslims themselves. This was evident in the recent call by one of the Brotherhood leaders, Wagdy Goneim, on the eve of his departure from Qatar to Turkey. He said: “No to crusade against Daesh”, warning Muslims against alliance with non-Muslims.
The dilemma in the confrontation between the West and Daesh lies in using religion as a weapon. Daesh declares jihad in the name of Islam, under the claim of liberating Arab countries from the enemies of Islam. Granting Daesh this dubious status could drive many Muslims — whether individuals or organisations inside and outside Arab states — to sympathise with the group purely out of religious sentiment and not out of faith in the group’s orientation and political goals.
It is important not to fall into this trap, and to avoid turning Daesh into a victim. The introduction of religious sentiment in confrontations with extremists such as Daesh could broaden their support base in the Muslim world. And it would not contribute to the suppression of their power in the long term. If violence means genocide, unjust execution, shedding the blood of innocent people, spreading corruption, spread chaos and the destruction of civilisational heritage, it is far from the objectives of the Islamic Da’wa. Islam, since its birth, has called for non-violence. The early migration of Muslims from Makkah to Abyssinia was to avoid violence and the second migration to Madinah was to start a new and safe life and avoid war as much as possible. But what Daesh calls for does not include promises of a new and safe life, even if they claim so. The way and the means used are wrong. However, manipulating the facts could lead to disastrous results.
Broadcasts of the executions of American journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff and British aid worker David Haines may be the prime mover in provoking western public opinion, which led to the speedy formation of a huge anti-Daesh coalition. The steps were much slower before, despite thousands of victims inside Syria, Iraq, and the occupation of large swathes of land in both countries, including the Sinjar Mountain in Iraq.
Images of people claiming to act in the name of Islam persecuting defenceless Christians contribute tremendously in injecting religion into the political scene. Some argue that these images would inevitably push political leaders and media commentators to accuse Islam and Muslims of violence, which may irritate Muslims and push them to support Daesh instead of viewing it as the enemy. Splits that have occurred recently in Al Qaida-linked organisations, with some joining Daesh and adopting the same violent mechanisms, may indicate that Daesh has already started to gain some supporters for its strategy of violence.