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Islam and Violence: Revisited

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Author: Rashied Omar

By A. Rashied Omar

The dramatic turn of world events at the dawn of the twenty-first century — including the collapse of the Oslo Peace process in September of 2000 in the face of a renewed and ongoing cycle of violence in the Middle East; the terrorist attacks on the United States of America a year later in September 2001, and the Bush administration’s subsequent “enduring” war on terrorism in Afghanistan and Iraq - have all served to reinforce the widespread perception that Islam is in some special way linked to terrorist violence. Even conventional academic perspectives regard Islam as having a predilection for violence. According to this view, Islam is defined as inherently violent and one of the primary sources of contemporary violence in the world.[1]

In direct opposition to this perspective, Muslims often categorically deny that Islam has anything to do with terrorist violence. In their view, all violence in which individuals or groups who claim an Islamic affiliation are implicated is a debasement and vile distortion of the noble and peaceful teachings of Islam.[2]

As with all received understandings, there are elements of truth in both of these formulations. The first one largely understates the contemporary socio-political and economic conditions under which Islam is implicated in violence, and the second one ignores the fact that virtually all Muslims accept that Islam is not a pacifist tradition and allows for and legitimates the use of violence under certain conditions, the definitions of which may differ from one Muslim scholar to the other. It is here that a large measure of the problem lies. Under what conditions does Islam condone the use of violence?

This critical dilemma is not unique to Islam. All religious traditions agonize about the question of what might constitute a “just war” and it becomes particularly acute in situations of deadly conflict. The central point that we need to bear in mind is that the religious legitimization of violence does not occur in a socio-historical vacuum.

To discern the veracity of the assertion that in some special way Islam is related to deadly conflict, it is important to situate the discussion within a concrete socio-historical context. Since Islam, conflict and violence do not occur in a social vacuum. Moreover, in order, to correctly understand the ethical norms of Islam represented in the Muslim sacred scripture, the Qur’an, and in the exemplary conduct of the Prophet Muhammad, it is necessary to analyze the historical milieu within which they were negotiated.
When the Prophet Muhammad (570-632 C.E.) brought the Qur’an to the Arabs in the early seventh century, pre-Islamic Arabia were steeped in oppressive social relations and were caught up in a vicious cycle of violence. Muhammad’s egalitarian message quickly bega