If all religions are, theoretically and theologically, anti-violence and pro-peace, why did many of their followers in certain eras of history for certain reasons commit violence, terrorism, and even war? To explore tentative answers to this challenging and crucial question is the main focus of this brief paper, viewed particularly from an Islamic perspective.


Islam as a Peaceful Religion and the Reality of History

Let’s see first why Bertrand Russell so strongly and sharply criticized the harmful operation of religions in human history by concluding: “I think all the great religions of the world–Buddhism, Hinduism, Christianity, Islam, and Communism–both untrue and harmful.”[1] I hope the believers should not immediately get mad by this statement, because what Russell said is also based on the hard fact of history. But, of course, we cannot accept his hastening generalization as if all religions are not more than a burden of mankind by ignoring their positive dimensions as one of the perennial foundations of human civilization. As an ardent agnostic, Russell seems deliberately to deny the important side of a religion as to remind men of something deep and fundamental that philosophy and science cannot offer any final say. Take for example, on the meaning of life and death. At the most, philosophy can only give a speculative answer to the question of the ultimate goal of human life: to seek happiness here in this world, while life in the hereafter is fully beyond the reach of both science and philosophy. Here religions enter to give the answer.


Now allow me briefly to look at Islam as a religion. The original and true meaning of Islam is peace by the way of one’s submission to the will of God, though some elite Muslims in certain periods of history have betrayed this doctrine for political, theological, and sectarian purposes. In this case,  Russell is right when he made a general statement that “all religions are harmful and untrue.” In other words,  violent and harmful acts done by Muslims in history should not be interpreted as the manifestation  of the true meaning of Islam; indeed, those brutal acts were not other than the misuse of it. But at least this British controversial philosopher did justice to one stage of the history of Islam by admitting the fact that: “The Empire of the Caliphs was much kinder to Jews and Christians than Christian states were to Jews and Mohammedans. It left Jews and Christians unmolested, provided they paid tribute. Anti-Semitism was promoted by Christianity from the moment the Roman Empire became Christian.”[2]

Russell’s comparison was historically evidential, but the internal hatreds and enmities between Muslims themselves were sometimes frighteningly harsh and bloody. In other words, for the reason of power hunger there was much more bloodshed spilled on the Muslims by the Muslims throughout history. What the Abbasid Empire did to the Umayyad regime in the middle of the eigthth century A.D. was not other than the act of mass genocide to eliminate the rest of its rival. In this situation, the Qur’anic formula that “All believers are but brothers”[3] was deliberately and irresponsibly erased from the face of Muslim history. The sectarian fightings between the sunni and the shi’i factions in present Iraq, for instance, is merely a continuation from the past gloomy history, and the Bush’s invasion on that suffering nation is surely responsible for renewing and revitalizing this old enmity. Of course, both sides do not forget to  mention the name of Allah before shooting their own brothers in these stupid theo-political rivalries. There were a lot of other examples in human history where the so-called religious people hijacking God for  political game, not only among Muslims, but also among those who arrogantly claimed to have the right to monopolize the truth. The primitive and uncivilized phrase “either with us or against us” is the shared philosophy being updated by the all forms of modern fundamentalism, religious or secular. In substance, all fundamentalisms provide no space for dialogue and mutual respect.

Despite the fact that Islam had negative historical episodes in the past, one should not overlook its great contribution to humanity in the realms of science, philosophy, art, history, theology, mathematics, geography, astronomy, optics, language, and sufism for centuries. Though the zero number came from India, it was Islam that integrated it into the Arabic number system and made it universal and cosmopolitan in use.[4] There is no doubt, the Arab-Muslim had a great past that  historically is valid and proven. But the problem they are facing now is this fact as described by Syrian-born poet and writer Ali Ahmad Said (known as Adonis):

“The Arab individual is no less smart, no less a genius, than anyone else in the world. He can excel—but only outside his society. …If I look at the Arabs, with all their resources and great capacities, and I compare what they have achieved over the past century with what others have achieved in that period, I would have to say that we Arabs are in a phase of extinction, in the sense that we have no creative presence in the world. … We have the quantity. We have the masses of people, but a people becomes extinct when it no longer has a creative capacity, and the capacity to change its world.”[5]

The general feeling of extinction is not only shared by many Arab intellectuals, but the masses are excluded neither. This is very serious and dangerous mental condition suffered by a people who has the lost great past. From the psycho-political perspective, many things strange may occur, that is, anger, helplessness, violence, hopelessness, humilation, and distrust. The sense of helplessness is getting worse when the Arabs bitterly remember their total defeat by Israel, fully supported by the U.S. troops, in the war of June1967. Particularly from this time on, the Arab world has never enjoyed a permanent peace, while the Palestine problem is still far from any solution. Then another horror happened. The Iraqi uncalculated invasion on Kuwait gave a golden chance to the U.S. and its aliances to destroy Iraq, without the U.N.’s legal consent. Almost at the same time, the tragedy of September 11, 2001 happened. Osama bin Laden was accused to be an intellectual actor behind this tragedy. Owe to this reason, the poor Afghanistan, where bin Laden was said to be hidden, got the tragic turn to be invaded by the same neo-imperialist forces under the command of President George W. Bush. Meanwhile, to make things more vulnerable, most the Arab contemporary regimes get no trust from their own people, due to rampant corruption, mismanagement, autoritarianism, and anti-democracy. Adonis is fully right when saying that the Arab individual should leave his society if he wants to actualize his own talented excellence. Otherwise, he has no enough room and space to fully develop his gifted potentiality, intellectually, politically, and scientifically. Is this not a painful and miserable panorama suffered by Arab-Muslims at the present juncture?

Final words: can Islam offer a solution?

Being pinched in dilemmatic and difficult circumstances, what role should  Islam as a revealed religion play to cure the situation, particularly in combatting violence which is now overwhelming some parts of the Arab world and other Muslim countries, such as Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Indonesia? To answer this question, this paper offers three recommendations: (1) the Muslims all over the world, in Arab countries in particular, should rethink honestly and seriously that Islam always  means peace, in theory and in practice. Therefore, any violation to the doctrine of peace, by committing violence and terrorism, for instance, is no doubt a serious betrayal to the very teaching of Islam; (2) though Islam as a civilization has to a great extent lost its creative vitality and capacity to contribute something fresh and meaningful to humanity at large, this does not mean that this weak condition cannot be changed fundamentally provided the Muslims are hambly ready to learn  science, technology, and wisdom from others; (3) Violence and terrorism suffered also by Muslims in certain areas should not incite them to do the same, because it is absolutely contradictory to their own religion. But an attact or invasion on any Muslim territory by alien forces should be met and expelled courageously and firmly. If this happens, all Muslim nations have the religious obligation and duty to demonstrate their solidarity to help the nation being invaded. Though these ideals are far from the present reality of Muslims, the authentic teachings of Islam remain there forever to guide the Muslims all the time. Who knows one day the Muslims would readily awaken from their long sleep to change dramatically their downtrodden condition and fate, due particularly to their own serious historical mistake and carelessness. Now it is high time for the Muslims to monitor themselves openly and nakedly. In one of the Qur’anic verses, we read: “Verily, God will not change the condition of a people, unless they change their inner selves.”[6]

(Presented in the 2nd World Peace Forum, Jakarta, June 26, 2008)


Jakarta, June 26, 2008

[1] Bertrand Russell, Why I am not a Christian. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1957, p. v.

[2] Ibid., p. 202.

[3] See the Qur’an s. al-Hujurāt: 10.

[4] One of the best informations on the Muslim intellectual contribution to humanity, see John R. Hayes, (ed.), The Genius of Arab Civilization: Source of Renaissance. Cambridge, Massachusetts: The MIT Press, 1983.

[5] See Thomas L. Friedman, “Martin Luther King?” The New York TimesOnline, January 24, 2007, p. 1. Adonis’ statement on the Arab today’s fiasco is originally based on his interview from Paris with Dubai TV, March 11, 2006, translated by Memri.

[6] The Qur’an s. al-Ra’d: 11.


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