Islam: A religion of peace or a religion of violence?
For the majority of the world’s 1.8 billion Muslims, Islam represents a comprehensive way of living a life devoted to God. However, over time, fearmongers and the actions of a few have stirred doubt about Islam’s views on violence. On this page, we will answer commonly asked questions on Islam and violence.
Does Islam promote violence?
No, Islam does not promote unprovoked violence.
Islam governs by a primary set of principles (known as maqasid ash-shariah): the preservation of religion, life, intellect, progeny, and property. The value of human life is emphasized in Islam’s sacred texts, the Qur’an and Sunnah. The Qur’an equates a single murder with the killing of humankind at large, and equates saving a single life with rescuing all of humanity. The Prophet Muhammad ﷺ defined the faithful as “those most restrained from violence”. Islam even forbids sports that use animals as targets, or involve striking the face of a fellow human being.
But since tyranny and crimes against humanity are an unfortunate fact of the human condition, Islam engages this reality by sometimes allowing physical force as a deterrent, and regulating it with ethical parameters, to ensure the best possible outcome for society and the world.
Does Islam permit the killing of civilians?
Islam does not permit the killing of civilians.
No classical Muslim scholar has ever condoned the killing of civilians, even in the midst of a justified war, just as they generally understood the prohibition of suicide to include killing one’s self in order to kill the enemy. Indiscriminate acts of violence against civilians, which are often attributed to Islam, therefore have zero precedent in Islamic teachings. It is for this reason that car bombings, suicide bombings, mass shootings, and other crimes committed by self-identified Muslims are so strongly condemned by Muslim leaders and communities around the world.
In Islam, the deliberate targeting of civilians in war is categorically unjustified, going against both the higher aims of Islamic law to protect all life, as well as the universal Islamic maxim which criminalizes any and all avoidable harm.
What does jihad mean?
Jihad is a broad Arabic term that, at its core, means to expend one’s efforts in a good cause despite the adversity involved.
Islam’s scriptures use the term jihad in a variety of contexts. The Qur’an refers to the jihad of preaching an unpopular truth (25:52), the jihad of pursuing guidance despite obstacles (29:69), and the jihad of resisting the persecution of oneself (2:190) and others (4:75). The Prophet Muhammad ﷺ also used the term jihad in the context of speaking truth to power, seeking knowledge, selflessly serving one’s parents, and battling the evil within one’s soul.
How is jihad misinterpreted as terrorism?
Armed jihad is a last resort governed by strict rules. The groups we see today claiming to be performing jihad violate those rules.
Armed conflict could fall under “jihad” when certain conditions deem it necessary, such as the faith or safety of Muslims being physically threatened, human rights being overrun, or when people’s freedom to practice, preach, and embrace Islam is supressed. Islam has strict legal conditions for the use of force as a last resort, which includes the safety of civilians and non-military property, and the forbidding of treachery, mutilation, and plunder. These rules of military jihad, in many ways, preceded what would later become the modern just-war theory.
Read our publication on Jihad, War, and Peace to learn more about the layers of jihad, and how even its military form is fundamentally different from the “holy war” or “conquest ideology bent on world domination” narrative spread by Islamophobes.
Does the Qur’an say to kill the non-believers?
This verse is frequently quoted out of context and with a lack of understanding.
One of the most misquoted sentences in the Qur’an is: “Kill them wherever you find them” (2:191). Reading this passage in its full context, and knowing how extensively peace, justice, and compassion permeate the Qur’anic message, is sufficient to neutralize the misuse of this verse above. This verse is speaking about active combatants (2:190), and specifically attackers whom the believers feared they would be forced to confront in a place which the Qur’an deemed a sacred precinct; a place so sacred that even cutting a tree or frightening a bird was prohibited therein. Therefore, this verse simply establishes a concession to fend off assailants, regardless of where they may be encountered.
Does Islam allow preemptive war?
Islam allows preemptive war only after a fair declaration of war, where a credible threat exists, never in violation of a peace treaty or truce, and never with those inclined to peace.
The Western concept of preemptive war, or a war launched to neutralize an actual threat or impending attack, is similar to the concept of “offensive jihad” (jihad al-talab) in Islam. Offensive jihad is when a Muslim country’s army engages another military force beyond its borders. This must occur after a fair declaration of war (i.e., where a credible threat is made), never in violation of a peace treaty or truce, and never with those inclined to peace.
In premodern times, an offensive strike was often viewed as offensive in its actions, but defensive in its purpose. All pre-modern states were at war with each other by default, unless there was a clear peace treaty, and so they all operated by the “best defense is a good offense” policy. It was only in the modern period that peaceful relations between states became the norm. Classical Islamic legal theory simply accounted for the pre-modern historical context to permit offensive strikes against credible threats. Today, Muslim states are treaty-bound not to execute offensive strikes except within the permit of international law.
Are there specific codes of war in Islam?
Yes, Islam has many regulations to minimize the destruction of any war.
The loss of life is minimized by strict rules against targeting civilians and noncombatants. The loss of property is minimized by rules against pillaging lands and cutting down trees. Also, prisoners of war must be treated humanely, and believers are encouraged to release them unconditionally, or for a reasonable ransom, or by providing them realistic ways to free themselves through fair labor.
The ultimate and overarching goal of Islamic law is to minimize harm and maximize benefit for society as a whole. At times, this may require taking up arms to secure peace. In those cases, sacred laws restrain Muslim armies from taking advantage of an enemy and hold them to the most morally upright codes of conduct in war. The Qur’an also states that wars should be ended as quickly as possible: “And if they incline to peace, then incline to it [also] and rely upon Allah. Indeed, it is He who is the Hearing, the Knowing.” (8:61)
Did Islam spread through violence and forced conversions?
The spread of Islam occured through religious propogation, trade, intermarriage, migration, the universality of Islam, and its emphasis on justice and unity.
Historians have widely discredited the narrative that Islam is widespread in the world today because of forced conversions. While exceptional cases of forced conversions did exist, these were clear violations of Islamic guidelines and never the norm.
Forced conversions are clearly forbidden in Islam. God says in the Qur’an, “There is no compulsion in religion,” (2:256). Forcing someone to practice Islam defeats the purpose of the religion—for individuals to build a sincere and genuine relationship with their Creator. Claims about forced conversions have been part of anti-Islam narratives for centuries. And today, Islamophobic narratives seek to capitalize on the sword storyline to paint modern acts of terrorism as just the latest wave of violence encouraged by Islam. But as British Orientalist, De Lacy O’Leary, wrote in 1923: “The legend of fanatical Muslims sweeping through the world and forcing Islam at the point of the sword upon conquered races is one of the most fantastically absurd myths that historians have ever repeated.”
How does Islam treat religious minorities?
Religious tolerance was historically a hallmark of Muslim societies.
Religious minorities were known in Islamic history as dhimmis, or the “protected class”, which reflected the fact that under Islamic law, they enjoyed the dhimmah (protection) of God, in which they could live in security and practice their religion without harassment. The presence of other religious communities within Muslim majority countries today is perhaps one of the clearest proofs against the claim that Islam requires non-Muslims to convert or face the sword. Many non-Muslim minorities had thriving communities within the capitols of major cities under Islamic control for centuries (there were Christian quarters in Damascus, Jerusalem, and Coptic Cairo, for example) where they operated under their own religious court systems.
Is blasphemy punishable by death?
The Qur’an tells Muslims who encounter blasphemy or offenses to God and His religion to simply turn away until the conversation changes (6:68, 4:140).
When the pagans of Quraysh would call the Prophet ‘mudhammam’ (the disgraced) instead of his name Muhammad (the oft-praised), he would gracefully say to his followers, “Aren’t you amazed that God has even averted the insults of the Quraysh? They revile a man named Mudhammam, while I am Muhammad!” (Sahih Bukhari).
Historically, an attack on the Prophet Muhammad ﷺ meant a rebellion against the constitution of the Muslim state. While Muslim scholars had different opinions about the penalty for insulting the Prophet ﷺ, major early scholars such as Abu Hanifah and al-Bukhari believed there should be no punishment at all, because a non-Muslim’s disbelief in Islam is already assumed.
Scholars note that those executed in the Prophet’s ﷺ lifetime were warmongers and menaces to society, not simply insulters or peaceful opponents. Also, legal punishments in Islam are only enforceable by a governing authority, and so the duty of the average Muslim is to adopt the Prophet’s gentle character, clarify misinformation about him, and advocate for a harmonious society that rejects the desecration of any religious symbols or personalities.
Is apostasy punishable by death in Islam?
Prophet Muhammad ﷺ did not punish a single apostate in his entire life solely for leaving the faith. Following this precedent, many contemporary Muslim jurists choose not to punish apostates for leaving Islam.
Punishing apostasy has roots in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. It may be difficult to grasp why this was ever considered necessary, due to how little religion affects wider society in our secular age. In pre-modern times, religious identity played a major role in defining individuals and nations. As a result, leaving one’s faith would be seen as a rebellion against public order and a subversion of the common good. For example, European Christians who embraced Islam were often referred to as “Renegades” and would risk their lives to remain in Europe, as a religious conversion was widely seen as treason and a declaration of hostility.
In the past, Muslim jurists have held that clear apostasy was a capital crime for which a person may be killed. This does not mean that mobs of Muslim carried out executions, or that officials hunted down apostates inquisition-style. This could only be acted on by the government, and they were only to act on public claims of apostasy, and confirmed offenders were urged to recant as a way to completely avoid any consequences. Many contemporary Muslim jurists choose not to punish apostates for leaving Islam, in accordance with international agreements on religious freedoms, as well as the precedent set by Propht Muhammad ﷺ, who did not punish a single apostate in his entire life solely for leaving the faith.
Does Islam Allow Honor Killings?
Islamic law has a zero tolerance policy on honor killings, drawing on clear rulings set by the Prophet Muhammad ﷺ.
According to Islamic law, any husband who kills his wife or illicit partner has committed murder, even if he was indirectly involved in her death. Islam is not the culprit, but part of the solution, for honor crimes. Islam effectively reforms the cultural and legal systems that perpetuate honor killings, or fail at combating them, through its serious warnings against violating the safety of innocent people in general, and condemning the abuse of women in particular.
Violence against women is a universal problem that extends far beyond a specific religion or region. To depict it as inherent to Muslim societies as a result of Islamic teachings is not only dishonest, but works to downplay the true extent of this global problem. Such narratives only get in the way of efforts to protect the safety and dignity of all women, and disparage the Islamic teachings that have lessened the prevalence of those who prey on women in this tragic way.