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Role of Religions In Promoting Non-Violence: Islam's Valuable Resources For Peacemaking

By Sultan Shahin

01 November, 2010
New Age Islam

Full Text of a Speech delivered by Sultan Shahin, Editor, New Age Islam on 28 September 2010 at a parallel seminar organised by Al-Hakim Foundation and Himalayan Research in the UN Human Rights Council's September 2010 session at Geneva: International Day of non-violence: 28 September 2010

Role of Religions in promoting non-violence: Islam's valuable resources for peacemaking

Mr. President, Ladies and gentlemen,

I would like to begin my talk with an entreaty that Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) so earnestly used to make in his prayers several times every day:

“O God, You are the original source of Peace; from You is all Peace, and to You returns all Peace. So, make us live with Peace; and let us enter paradise: the House of Peace. Blessed be You, our Lord, to whom belongs all Majesty and Honour!”

Throughout history religions have played a rather ambivalent role in promoting both peace and violence. They have been used and misused by their supposed followers in both ways. Religious postulates from all religions have been misinterpreted in a variety of ways to promote violence rather than non-violence and peace, though establishing peace and harmony in society is in a sense the primary purpose of every religion. As His Holiness The Dalai Lama once said, answering a question, relating to Islam and violence: “(People of) all religions are violent. Even Buddhists!” [i] Indeed even the beautiful and thought-provoking Buddhist concept of “emptiness” has been misinterpreted to promote violence. [ii] The octogenarian leader of Jamaat-e-Islami in Pakistan, Syed Ali Shah Gilani quotes not only the Quran but even the Hindu scripture Bhagwat Gita to justify terrorism in the Kashmir valley. [iii] And yet, all scholars are agreed that religion provides “valuable resources for peacemaking”, [iv] and it is possible to give examples of how religions or peace-activists from within various religions have utilised these resources to promote peace and non-violence. “Within each of the great religions there is “a moral trajectory challenging adherents to greater acts of compassion, forgiveness and reconciliation”, Scott Appleby wrote, an “internal evolution” that offers hope for religiously inspired peacemaking.” [v]

One can indeed make this point without fear of contradiction on the basis of the teachings of all religions. Theologian Mark Juergensmeyer [vi] has identified three major aspects of non-violence within nearly all world religions:

a) Reverence for life and desire to avoid harm,

b) The ideal of social harmony and living peacefully with others,

c) The injunction to care for the other, especially for the one in need.

Distinguished scholar and peace activist David Cortright has tried to illustrate these points with examples from several religions. [vii] Illustrating the first point he says: All major religions have imperatives to love others and avoid taking of human life. In Buddhism, the rejection of killing is the first of the Five Precepts. Hinduism declares “the killing of living beings is not conducive to heaven.” [viii] Jainism rejects the taking of any form of life: “if someone kills living things…his sin increases.” [ix] The Quran states “slay not the life that God has made sacred.” [x] The Bible teaches you shall not murder.” [xi]

The second point is illustrated by the ideal of social harmony and living peacefully with other being frequently emphasized in the Old Testament and the Qur'an. Third is the willingness to sacrifice and suffer for the sake of expiating sin and avoiding injury to others, which is common in the Abrahamic traditions.

The third universally accepted norm at the core of all religious traditions is the injunction to care for the other, especially for the one in need. Cortright says: “Buddhism and Hinduism are founded on principles of compassion and empathy for those who suffer. Islam emerged out of the Prophet's call to restore the tribal ethic of social egalitarianism and to end the mistreatment of the weak and the vulnerable. In the New Testament Jesus is depicted throughout as caring for and ministering to the needy. Compassion for the stranger is the litmus test of ethical conduct in all religions. So is the capacity to forgive, to repent and overcome past transgressions. The key to conflict prevention is extending the moral boundaries of one's community and expressing compassion towards others.” [xii]

These factors apart, Cortright also finds other valuable resources. He writes: “There are many other religious principles that provide a foundation for creative peacemaking. Nonviolent values pervade the Eastern religious traditions of Buddhism, Hinduism, and Jainism and echo through the Gospel of Jesus. The religious emphasis on personal discipline and self-restraint also has value for peace-making. It provides a basis for constraining the impulses of vengeance and retaliation that arise from violent conflict. The power of imagination, to use John Paul Lederach's term [xiii] , is necessary to envision a more just and peaceful order, to dream of a society that attempts to reflect religious teaching.” [xiv]

Clearly all religions from ancient eastern religions like Taoism to Buddhism, Jainism Hinduism, and Abrahamic religions like Judaism, Christianity and Islam, all provide us with resources to work for peace and non-violence. Indeed, followers of all these religions and many of their sects have all worked at various times in their own ways in establishing peace. It is not possible in the time available to us here to make a detailed study but a lot of material is available in books and essays published in research journals on the subject.

Mr. President,

I would like to take this opportunity to make a special mention of Islam's quest for peace and the possibility of using Islamic resources for peace-making and for a peaceful quest for justice. Unfortunately in our time a growing number of people look at Islam with fear and are considering it a violent religion or at least a religion that allows violence for its expansion. Nothing could be further from the truth. But we cannot blame people for fearing Islam as Muslim people in several parts of the world are indeed involved in wars and terrorism while Muslim religious scholars are not doing enough to stop these nefarious activities nor are they even condemning these war-mongers and seeking to delink Islam from them.

This makes it imperative for us to recall Islam's repeated call for peace like the following:

The Qur'an calls its way ‘the paths of peace.' [xv] It describes reconciliation as the best policy, [xvi] and states that God abhors any disturbance of peace. [xvii]

The root word of Islam is ‘silm', which means peace. So the spirit of Islam is the spirit of peace. The first verse of the Qur'an breathes the spirit of peace. It reads:

In the name of God, the Most Merciful, the Most Compassionate.

This verse is repeated in the Qur'an no less than 113 times. It shows the great importance Islam attaches to such values as Mercy and Compassion. One of God's names, according to the Qur'an, is As-Salam, which means peace. Moreover the Qur'an states that the Prophet Muhammad PBUH was sent to the world as a mercy to mankind. [xviii]

The ideal society, according to the Qur'an is Dar as-Salam, that is, the house of peace. [xix]

The Qur'an presents the universe as a model that is characterized by harmony and peace. [xx] When God created heaven and earth, He so ordered things that each part might perform its function peacefully without clashing with any other part.

Because of the importance of peace, the Qur'an has clearly declared that no aggressive war is permitted in Islam. Muslims can engage themselves only in a defensive, not in an offensive war, irrespective of the circumstances. [xxi]

The Qur'an has this to say of the mission of the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh):

We have not sent you forth but as a mercy to mankind. [xxii]

That the holy Quran equates killing of one innocent person with the killing of humanity is well known. It also equates saving one person's live with saving the entire humanity. [xxiii]

On that account We ordained for the Children of Isra`il that if any one slew a person - unless it be for murder or for spreading mischief in the land - it would be as if he slew the whole humanity: and if any one saved a life, it would be as if he saved the whole humanity. Then although there came to them Our messengers with clear (guidance), yet, even after that, many of them continued to commit excesses in the land. [xxiv]

Islam also puts great emphasis on Justice. And since seeking justice may sometimes call for violence, some people think Islam allows violence in its quest for justice. This is not true. Two examples from the Life of the Prophet should suffice. The first is the treaty of Hudaibiya that the Prophet signed on terms that all his companions found humiliating for what was by then a powerful community which had fended off several attacks and could be expected to do so again. Hudaibiya was not a just treaty they all thought. But the Prophet accepted that as this was the only way to peace. Another example is Muslims victory over Mecca. The Prophet announced a general amnesty after this. Justice demanded that war criminals be punished. But this would have probably created bad blood and possibly led to counter-violence. The Prophet again delinked Justice with Peace. The requirement of peace was paramount in his view.

Following the Prophet's example, in the last century, the great leader of the then united India's northwest frontier province, which is now known as Pakistan's province of Khyber-Pakhtunkwa, Badshah Khan devised a strategy that harmonised the demands of a quest for Justice with the interests of peace. He was inspired by the Mahatma and was his greatest, most unflinching ally. But he had worked out his strategy of non-violent struggle and started his unique movement before meeting him. He said he had learnt this from his study of Quran and Hadith. He found his nonviolent strategy in Islam's call for an unrelenting struggle against injustice and the Prophet's constant exhortation for patience and perseverance. He brought the two virtues together and thus was born his unique movement of non-violent resistance against British colonial rule. He told his 100,000 strong non-violent army of khudai khidmatgars (Servants of God):

“I am going to give you such a weapon that police and the army will not be able to stand against it. It is the weapon of the Prophet, but you are not aware of it. That weapon is patience and righteousness. No power on earth can stand against it. …tell your brethren that there is an army of God and its weapon is patience….” [xxv]

Many scholars and peace activists who have studied the Khudai Khidmatgar movement in detail consider this as an Islamic model for non-violent struggle against injustice. Let us hope that Muslims all over the world take this as a model that is as relevant today as it was a century ago. It has the force of truth and righteousness behind it. After all Mahatma Gandhi too had been able to work a miracle through this very model of Satyagraha or struggle for truth based on non-violence. The route through which Gandhiji reached this non-violent methodology of struggle was different. But the endpoint was so well fused together that Badshah khan was known throughout the length and breadth of then undivided India as the Frontier Gandhi. That it is the Frontier (NWFP) that is now the scene of a raging battle fought by Muslims who interpret Islam in a different and violent way is a tragedy of colossal proportions and has implications for Muslims the world over. The sooner they go back to Badshah Khan's interpretation of Islam and perhaps renew the Khudai Khidmatgar movement the better for all.

Thank you, Mr. President

[i] Asra Q. Nomani, Standing alone in Mecca , (Harper Collins 2007), 20.

[ii] Buddhist Warfare and “Compassionate” Torture http://www.newageislam.com/NewAgeIslamBooksAndDocuments_1.aspx?ArticleID=3539

[iii] India has a secular system, which we Kashmiris can under no condition accept: Syed Ali Shah Geelani available at:


[iv] David Cortright, PEACE: A History of Movements and Ideas (Cambridge, 2008), 185.

[v] R. Scott Appleby , The Ambivalence of the Sacred Religion, Violence and Reconciliation (Lanham MD: Rowman &Littlefield, 2000), 31. As quoted by David Cortright in the book mentioned above

[vi] David Noel Freedman and Michael J. McClymond, “Religions, Traditions, Violence and Non-violence,” in vol. III of Encyclopaedia of Violence, Peace, & Conflict, ed. Lester Kurtz, 229-39 (San Diego, CA Academic Press, 1999), 236

[vii] David Cortright, PEACE: A History of Movements and Ideas (Cambridge, 2008), 183.

[viii] Manusriti 5:48

[ix] Sutrakritanga 1.1

[x] Quran 6:151 (Translation by Reza Aslan, No god but God, The Origins, Evolutions, and Future of Islam (New York: Random House, 2005)

[xi] Exodus 20:13 (New International Version)

[xii] David Cortright, PEACE: A History of Movements and Ideas (Cambridge, 2008), 185.

[xiii] John Paul Ledrach, The Moral Imagination: The Art and Soul of Building Peace (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005); Marc Gopin, Between Eden and Armageddon: The Future of World Religions, Violence, and Peacemaking (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000), 20-3.

[xiv] [xiv] David Cortright, PEACE: A History of Movements and Ideas (Cambridge, 2008), 184.

[xv] [xv] The Holy Quran 5:16

[xvi] Ibid, 4:128

[xvii] Ibid, 2:205

[xviii] [xviii] Ibid 21:107

[xix] ibid 10:25

[xx] Ibid 36:40

[xxi] [xxi] Ibid 2:190

[xxii] [xxii] [xxii] ibid 21:107

[xxiii] Ibid 5:32

[xxiv] ibid (5:32)

[xxv] David Cortright, PEACE: A History of Movements and Ideas (Cambridge, 2008), 184.

 Copyright 2010: New Age Islam Foundation

URL: http://www.newageislam.com/NewAgeIslamDialogue_1.aspx?ArticleID=3606