Holy, Nonviolent Struggle

Islam

Holy, Nonviolent Struggle
Tuesday, September 25, 2018

Karen Armstrong continues exploring the origins of Islam:

In [the] early days, Muslims did not see Islam as a new, exclusive religion but as a continuation of the primordial faith of the “People of the Book,” the Jews and Christians. In one remarkable passage, God insists that Muslims must accept indiscriminately the revelations of every single one of God’s messengers: Abraham, Isaac, Ishmael, Jacob, Moses, Jesus, and all the other prophets. [1] The Qur’an is simply a “confirmation” of the previous scriptures. [2] Nobody must be forced to accept Islam, because . . . God was not the exclusive property of any one tradition: the divine light could not be confined to a single lamp, belonged neither to the East nor to the West, but enlightened all human beings. [3] Muslims must speak courteously to the People of the Book, debate with them only in “the most kindly manner,” remember that they worshipped the same God, and not engage in pointless, aggressive disputes. [4]

All of this would require a ceaseless jihad (which did not mean “holy war” but “effort,” “struggle”), because it was extremely difficult to implement the will of God in a tragically flawed world. Muslims must make a determined endeavor on all fronts—intellectual, social, economic, moral, spiritual, and political. Sometimes they might have to fight, as Muhammad did when the Meccan kafirun vowed to exterminate the Muslim community. But aggressive warfare was outlawed, and the only justification for war was self-defense. [5] . . . An important and oft-quoted tradition (hadith) has Muhammad say on his way home after a battle: “We are returning from the Lesser Jihad [the battle] and going to the Greater Jihad,” the far more important and difficult struggle to reform one’s own society and one’s own heart. Eventually, when the war with Mecca was turning in his favor, Muhammad adopted a policy of nonviolence. . . .

Like any religious tradition, Islam would change and evolve. Muslims acquired a large empire, stretching from the Pyrenees to the Himalayas, but true to Qur’anic principles, nobody was forced to become Muslim. Indeed, for the first hundred years after the Prophet’s death, conversion to Islam was actually discouraged, because Islam was a din [way of life] for the Arabs, the descendants of Abraham’s elder son, Ishmael, just as Judaism was for the sons of Isaac, and Christianity for the followers of the gospel.

Faith, therefore, was a matter of practical insight and active commitment; it had little to do with abstract belief or theological conjecture.

I would add that mature Islam beautifully parallels the Franciscan and Christian contemplative emphasis on orthopraxy (right practice) and the importance of nondual consciousness. For our jihad to be nonviolent and transformative, our actions must be rooted in an inner experience of love and communion—what we call contemplation. Opening our hearts, minds, and bodies to union takes lifelong practice.

References:
[1] Qur’an 3:48.

[2] Qur’an 12:11; 5:69.

[3] Qur’an 24:35.

[4] Qur’an 29:46.

[5] Qur’an 22:36-40; 2:190.

Karen Armstrong, The Case for God (Alfred A. Knopf: 2009), 100-102.

Image Credit: Muslims Praying toward Mecca (detail). Engraving.
Inspiration for this week’s banner image: In the Qur’an, faith (iman) is something that people do: they share their wealth, perform the “works of justice” (salihat), and prostrate their bodies to the ground in the kenotic, ego-deflating act of prayer (salat). —Karen Armstrong

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