The following is a guest post by Dr. Juan Cole, 2016 Kluge Chair in Countries and Cultures of the South.
In contemporary debates on the roots of Muslim radicalism and the character of the religion, it is important to go back to the Muslim scripture or Qur’an (sometimes spelled Koran). Like the Bible, the Qur’an has verses about war as well as peace, but those on peace have been insufficiently appreciated.
The Qur’an is believed by Muslims to have been revealed to Muhammad ibn Abdullah, a merchant of Mecca on the west coast of Arabia, between 610 and 632 of the Common Era. Muhammad was one in a long series of human prophets and messengers from the one God, standing in a line that includes Abraham, Moses, David, Solomon, John the Baptist and Jesus of Nazareth. Each apostle of God, Muslims hold, has reaffirmed God’s oneness and the need to have faith and live a moral life. In each of these religions, adherence to the basics in the Ten Commandments given to Moses is necessary, including avoiding sins such as theft, adultery, and murder.
Perhaps because it arose during a great seventh-century war between the Byzantine and Iranian empires, peace (al-salam) was a profound concern for the Qur’an. An early chapter (97) of the Qur’an comments on the first revelation given to the prophet, in 610, while he was meditating at a cavern at Mt. Hira near Mecca. It speaks of a descent of angels and of the Holy Spirit on the night of power when the revelation was sent down, ending with the verse “And peace it is, until the breaking of the dawn.” This verse identifies the night of revelation, and therefore the revelation itself, with peace. Peace in Semitic languages like Hebrew and Arabic is not only conceived of as an absence of conflict, but as a positive conception, of well-being. The revelation and recitation of scripture, Chapter 97 is saying, brings inner peace to the believer.
The Qur’an says that Muhammad was sent as a warner to his people and to the world, that the Judgment Day is coming, when people will be resurrected from their graves and judged by God. The good, or the people of the right hand, will go to heaven, while the wicked will be consigned to the torments of hell. Heaven, a repository of human aspirations, is depicted by the Qur’an as suffused by peace. In 50:34, the Qur’an says that the virtuous admitted to paradise are greeted by the angels with the saying, “‘Enter in peace!’ That is the day of eternity.” The Qur’an admits that most of those who will be resurrected are “ancients,” not “moderns, i.e. that most of the inhabitants of heaven will be Jews, Christians and members of other religions. This multi-cultural Muslim paradise is described as lush and verdant, with water flowing and a cornucopia of delights provided. Qur’an 56:25-26 assures the believers, “Therein they will hear no abusive speech, nor any talk of sin, only the saying, “Peace, peace.”
In heaven, Qur’an 56:90-91 promises “And they are among the companions of the right hand, then they will be greeted, ‘Peace be to you,’ by the companions of the right hand.” And 36:54-56 says that after the Resurrection, “The dwellers in the garden on that day will delight in their affairs; they and their spouses will repose on couches in the shade. They will have fruit and whatever they call for. “Peace!” The word will reach them from a compassionate Lord.” Commentators have noted that this verse seems to demonstrate a progression, from delight and repose to the heavenly fruit and finally to the highest level of paradise, where God himself wishes peace and well-being on the saved.
This word comes from the Lord because, in the Qur’an’s view, it expresses his own essence. Qur’an 59:23 discloses that peace is one of the names of God himself: “He is God, other than whom there is no god, the King, the Holy, the Peace, the Defender, the Guardian, the Mighty, the Omnipotent, the Supreme.”
In the period 613-622 when Muslim chroniclers maintain that powerful local Arab devotees of pagan deities were harassing the early believers in Muhammad’s message, the Qur’an 25:63 praised “the servants of the All-Merciful who walk humbly upon the earth—and when the ignorant taunt them, they reply, ‘Peace!’” Wishing peace upon someone is a kind of prayer, both in the Qur’an and in the Bible. The Qur’an was clearly praising those believers who turned the other cheek in the face of insults and harassment from the pagans in Mecca.
In the period 622-632, Muhammad and the believers relocated to the nearby city of Medina because of persecution and felt constrained to go to war with the aggressive pagans of Mecca. Even in the midst of conflict, however, peace remained an overarching goal in the Qur’an. It forbade aggressive warfare in Qur’an 2:190: “And fight in the way of God with those who fight with you, but aggress not: God loves not the aggressors.” Muslim scholars have noted that this verse implicitly forbids killing non-combatants, including women and children. Qur’an 8:61 demanded that if the enemy sued for peace on just terms, the overture be accepted: “And if they incline to peace, then you should incline to it; and put your trust in God; He is the All-hearing, the All-knowing.” And, indeed, the conflict with the Meccans was ultimately resolved by negotiations and a treaty. When the believers came to power in Mecca, there were no mass reprisals. The former enemy was welcomed into the fold, despite grumbling from Muslims who had lost dear friends in the fighting.
The ideal of peace therefore suffuses the religious concepts in the Qur’an. The revelation and the night on which it came down are peace. Peace is the pinnacle of the Muslim paradise. God is peace. While these verses treat spiritual ideals, they do have implications for the Qur’an’s view of proper human behavior. The Qur’an clearly sees its depiction of heaven, “in which there is no talk of sin,” as a model for how people should behave in this life. In that ideal community, both non-Muslims and Muslims greet each other with prayers for their peace and well-being. And in this world, even those who taunt and humiliate believers should receive prayers for peace. For those who quote the Qur’an partially or selectively to justify violence, it seems clear that they are leaving out some of the most important parts of the scripture.
Juan Cole is the Richard P. Mitchell Collegiate Professor of History at the University of Michigan and the 2016 Chair in Countries and Cultures of the South at The John W. Kluge Center. The author or editor of more than 10 books on the Middle East, at the Library of Congress he is researching a forthcoming book project titled, “The Idea of Peace in the Qur’an.”
Editor’s note: the original version of this article used the term “Islamic radicalism” in the opening paragraph. It has been revised to “Muslim radicalism” at the request of the author.