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The Idea of Peace in the Qur’an

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.

6 Comments

  1. Moe Irs
    August 20, 2016 at 6:56 am

    I can can that this is the most delightful and well explained interpretation of the Quran.

    This article is amazing because it highlights something important about the understanding of the Quran which is linking. If you don’t link verses to each other and accompany that with the reason and situation of the verse, the place were the verse was sent, you’re most likely interpreting the whole things wrong.

    I’m a Muslim and I do have concerns about that, but since years and years before, whenever I find someone mentioning a verse that is “supposed” to be cited from the Quran I go check it all. I can say with confidence that all verses which get published online by some media are just out of context. All of them.

    Peace is one of the major things in Islam and everything is done in the name of God/Allah to reach peace. In Islam, praying and fasting for example is for inner peace, helping others is also for peace. Everything is done for peace and as mentioned, it’s one of God’s/Allah’s names.

    I’m happy after reading this article because as much as anyone disagree with Islam and no matter how you see it, you should be true it. In this article, Dr. Juan has said what every Muslim out there is trying to say but no one is listening.

    Finally..
    “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.”

    In Islam or Christianity, religion or culture, people can come up with millions of reasons to justify their actions and behaviour, but what remains true is the source itself.

    Thank you Dr. Juan for your words.

  2. DAVID FRANK
    August 20, 2016 at 9:45 pm

    religion is not as much of a driving force for violence as oil. The nations are gathering together in that place called Armageddon to fight over oil – read Genesis Ch. 14. The slime pits are oil. Russia, Iran, and China have entered Syria on one side, and the U.S. and NATO on the other. This isn’t about terrorism, its about oil. Furthermore, research Islams connection to Aladdin and the Jinn — the tank and black stone in the Kabaa.

  3. Arshad Syed
    August 22, 2016 at 11:55 am

    Dear Mr. Cole, I have read majority of your research articles on a variety of subjects, mostly at Truthdig.com. Your articles have helped me understand my religion (Islam) and appreciate the beliefs of others. I send you my prayers of peace and health.

  4. Amber Egan
    August 22, 2016 at 10:29 pm

    Almost all Christians believe in the he Triune God — Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Jesus therefore is not a prophet but God. Dr. Cole is trying to lump together three religions without regard to the fundamental belief of each.

  5. Ayatollah Ghilmeini
    August 29, 2016 at 11:46 am

    The Koran, like most books of faith is only as good as the heart and intention of the person reading it.

    Aggress not? Islam began on the western coast of the Arabian Peninsula and aggressed quite a bit. The blood of tens of millions of African and Indian victims of aggression and slavery is a very real and undeniable part of world history.

    In the modern age, the Islamic world’s quest for stability and peace is the central challenge of our times. There is real failure and real wars and no sign of them ending any time soon. Syria appears to the be the collapse of Islamic civilization and a chapter of evil of unbelievable proportions.

    To say peace is long way off is a bitter truth; indeed, the nuclear arms race in the Islamic world does not bode well for the future. How Muslims find a road to peace in the Muslim world begins with leadership that speaks of peace first and demands an end to all this bloody history. A call to fundamentally recast the Islamic world into a truly peaceful future has never been more necessary or, sadly, further away.

  6. Jeffrey
    September 27, 2016 at 6:18 pm

    I’m reminded of the last verse of “The Walrus and The Carpenter:”

    “O Oysters,” said the Carpenter,
    You’ve had a pleasant run!
    Shall we be trotting home again?”
    But answer there came none-
    And this was scarcely odd because
    They’d eaten every one.

    Islam believes that the world will be in permanent war until Allah is the only God worshipped – because Muslims will be attacking and killing or forcing conversion on all infidels. Peace will only come with the elimination, by whatever means necessary, of these infidels.

    A mistake infidels commonly make when trying to reassure themselves that Islam cannot possibly be as hideous as it seems is to interpret the milder Mecca verses as if they were as valid a part of the whole as the vicious Medina verses. They are not, and Islamic theology has “abrogated” these milder verses as not being the last, and therefore dominating, commands of Allah, and therefore invalid.

    Whatever Professor Cole thinks he’s read in the Koran justifying some goofily multi-religi idea of Islam is either a thoroughly abrogated passage or born of his own frightened imagination.

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