>Flickr/Mikhail Kryshen

Is Islam Violent?

Print This Article Print This Article

In the wake of the Paris attacks on November 13, and in the wake of previous (and future?) attacks in the West, “Is Islam violent?” is being posed less and less as a genuine question, and more and more as a rhetorical one, which already assumes the answer: Islam is inherently violent.

>Flickr/Mikhail Kryshen
>Flickr/Mikhail Kryshen

The assumption is, of course, that the Other of Islam, “we,” “the West,” and its guiding doctrine of secularism, is/are inherently non-violent. It is telling that comparable questions — “Is secularism violent?” “Is democracy violent?” “Is atheism violent?” (all three of which are constituent elements of the Western imaginary) — cannot be even imagined. Philosopher Susanne Langer (1895-1985) argues that every age is defined by the questions it asks, because each age is defined by certain parameters of thought that permit only certain kinds of questions.

This is the age of (Western) secularism. This is the age of (Western) democracy. This is the age of (Western) atheism. All other modes of being and thinking are necessarily illegitimate. All other modes of being and thinking are necessarily incompatible in this modern world whose parameters are set for us by an ascendant West and its styles and modes of being and thinking. And the parameters decide for us that the West is inherently good and non-violent — or, in keeping with that, any violence that is resorted to by the West is done so out of sheer necessity and for the greater good — and religion, and in particular Islam, is inherently violent.

Part of the myth of religious violence (as William Cavanaugh calls it in his book The Myth of Religious Violence), assumes that religions — especially Islam — are inherently violent.

And yet, to say that religions — or Islam — exist(s) is the same as saying that physics exists, that chemistry exists, that biology exists. They are no more than discursive practices and formations — regimes — of knowledge that constitute individuals, people, organizations and how they interact with one another.

There is an extensive body of literature describing the invention of world religions by colonial projects. At the same time that colonialism arrived in the colonies, it set out to know the people, their “religions,” their “cultures” — thereby actually creating these knowledges. And we know from the French philosopher Michel Foucault that knowledge and power are inseparable, each constituting the other. Thus, where knowledge and categories didn’t exist, Orientalists created them. In British India, for example, Hinduism was invented by Orientalism, and “Islam” was significantly constituted and re-configured by Orientalists as well.

The history of “the West’s” engagement with and constitution of Islam and Muslims is a long one, and has also been extensively documented. What has been less well documented is how Muslims and Islam are constituted in contemporary times by Western power structures and discursive regimes. Islam historically, until today, served as a vitally important foil — the Other — against which the West measured itself. “We are everything they are not.”

What do I mean? I’m thinking of, for example, the War on, or of, Terror (I say the War on, or of, Terror precisely because it is experienced as a War of Terror by many thousands of people — Muslims — around the world. When Afghan carpet weavers are incorporating motifs of drones into their rugs, there is something terribly amiss.) The Middle East Eye reported that, in March, “the Washington DC-based Physicians for Social Responsibility … released a landmark study concluding that the death toll from 10 years of the ‘War on Terror’ since the 9/11 attacks is at least 1.3 million, and could be as high as 2 million. The 97-page report by the Nobel Peace Prize-winning doctors’ group is the first to tally up the total number of civilian casualties from US-led counter-terrorism interventions in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan.” Of course, this report didn’t even get a passing mention in mainstream news outlets.

None of this is normal.

And yet, that is exactly what the War on, or of, Terror has done. It has normalized war — violence — against primarily civilian populations in the name of some unseen threat of terrorism, ad infinitum, until the end of time.

And Western governments are as much to blame as non-Western governments. Various forms of liberties are being curtailed at home and abroad in the name of the War on/of Terror to silence dissent.

But this isn’t going to be just a diatribe against various governments in the West and the non-West. There is a group called ISIS/ISIL that is doing all sorts of unimaginable things in the name of Islam. As shocking as it may seem for me to make this claim, ISIS/ISIL is not a great aberration. Rather it draws its inspiration from Wahhabism, a fundamentally anti-intellectual tradition.

Ibn Abdul Wahhab lived from 1703 to 1792 and founded the tradition based on the idea that, over the centuries, Islam has been corrupted and changed by so-called Muslims from a religion of pure monotheism to a superstitious culture of saint- and grave-worship. (This is how Wahhabis characterize Sufism, the central dimension of Islam that the vast majority of Muslims throughout Islamic history practiced.)

According to Wahhabism, 14 centuries of science, arts, literature, philosophy, religious and non-religious scholarship — all aspects of Islamic civilization, or any civilization for that matter — are fundamentally corrupt and must be done away with. Anything not explicitly sanctioned by the Prophet of Islam is considered an innovation (bida) that must be purified — far too often by violently removing it from the face of the earth.

The Saudi royal family, which goes back to Muhammad Ibn Saud (d.1765), a tribal chief of Diriyyah (near present day Riyadh), struck a deal with Abdul Wahhab, who would be given sponsorship in lands under Ibn Saud’s rule while also giving religious legitimacy to Ibn Saud’s political authority.

Wahhabis then went into towns and cities and summarily put to the sword anyone who did not affirm their doctrine. Noted scholar of Islam, Khaled Abou El Fadl, in his book The Great Theft: Wrestling Islam from the Extremists writes: “Historical sources describe horrendous massacres committed by Wahhabi forces in the eighteenth century all across Arabia.” The Saud-Wahhab alliance became the cornerstone of the present Saudi kingdom, established in 1932 with the long-term support of the British, who had wanted to gain a foothold in Arabia and destroy the Ottoman caliphate (both had been achieved by then).

Fast forward to the present. ISIS/ISIL has been systematically butchering Christians despite their designation in the Quran as “People of the Book” (also accorded to Jews). ISIS/ISIL Wahhabis argue that the Jews and Christians whom God refers to in the Quran are not the same as Jews and Christians today. Christians today worship Jesus and Mary. They are therefore idolaters. And idolaters must either become Muslim or they must die.

This is nonsense. In the Prophet’s lifetime, and in the lifetimes of his companions who took over the first Islamic State after his death, Muslims signed treaties with Jews and Christians, and their lives and property were considered inviolable.

In the name of purifying Islam of “idols,” the Saudi government has been systematically demolishing major sites of Islamic heritage in Mecca and Medina, such as the graves of important Islamic personages. There has also long been serious talk of destroying the Prophet’s tomb, which according to Wahhabi doctrine would constitute an “idol,” but they haven’t yet done so, no doubt over fear of major backlash from Muslims worldwide. In these sites’ place, the government has been erecting enormous monuments to the grossest forms of materialism. Mecca — Islam’s holiest city — today stands as a surrealist Muslim vision of Islamic-Vegas.

With mirror-image zeal, ISIS/ISIL has been demolishing major sites of religious and cultural significance. Although it doesn’t have the money to erect its own idols to capitalism and consumerism, there has been some speculation that what money ISIS does have — and it is not insignificant — has been coming from Saudi coffers. According to an analysis by The Atlantic, U.S. lawmakers encouraged officials in Riyadh to arm Syrian rebels.

Describing the “signs” of the end of times, the Prophet Muhammad once said:

Screenshot 2015-12-15 13.07.45

ISIS is the black-and-white, blood-soaked face of a religion with no historical or intellectual substance, one that bears no resemblance to the Islam it’s trying to replace or the Islam it’s seeking to recreate. At the very least, then, we may hope and pray (and act in our individual and collective ways) that — as with all things — ISIS too will pass.

“Is Islam Violent?” (which is set to be the defining question of our times) is rooted in a worldview whereby secularism/the West is seen as inherently conducive to people’s wellbeing, while Islam is seen as inherently antithetical to it. The West — which sees itself as the beacon of democracy and secularism — supports dictatorial regimes that have Wahhabism as their state policy. At the same time, the highest ranks in ISIS/ISIL belong to former members of Saddam Hussein’s secular Ba’ath party. In other words, the vacuum created in Iraq by the U.S.-led offensive from 2003 to 2011 in effect created the very conditions for ISIS/ISIL to erupt from the bosom of a devastated region.

So is it Islam that is really violent? Or is it our Western idea of how people in other countries must live to serve our interests at home that is violent?

  • Latest comments on TIM

  • About the autor
    Hasan Azad

    Hasan Azad is a doctoral candidate specialising in Islamic Studies at Columbia University. @1hasanAzad

    Latest at tim

    See our Current issue

    Join our Newsletter

    Enter your e-mail address below to receive periodic updates from The Islamic Monthly.

  • Follow us on

    • Adis Duderija

      Indeed, when are we going to go beyond these undetermined generalisation. what can be said is that classical Islamic political and legal thought is based upon certain assumptions regarding the nature of international/civilisational relations and muslims vs. non Muslims ,namely that of perpetual war and domination/subjugation. that is only classical islam not islam forever

    • O. Locke

      This article is the WORST form of apologetics.

      asking a valid question then qualifying answers with the same things moslem extremists use to justify their violence. And then can’t give a source and says “There is an extensive body of literature”. Yes, from moslem apologists.

      the answer to the question is nuanced. but the answer to the question is a resounding YES. unpacking the yes is the reality that islam is reforming. whether muslims like it or not. the moslem (political/shariah) element of islam is becoming the fringe element. the moslem form of islam, the massive beard, the intolerant bigot, the man that believes mohamed split the moon in half.

      denying that there is an inherent violence in islam is putting your head in the sand and pretending the middle east isn’t on fire. ignorance.

      We now have yet another clear illustration of the shift in blame for problems muslims have caused themselves with their ridiculous faith.

      • sean

        O Locke, what a ridiculous reply, you may want to hate the Islamic faith but you cant ignore the facts that Islam and Muslims are the victims here. victims of transnational terrorist organizations with no agenda except smearing the faith of Islam. I don’t expect you agree with me but do some readings about Islam or Visit a mosque near you and ask them about Islam, then apply the theory of respect your opponent if you don’t agree with what they have to say.

        • O. Locke

          look, pal.

          what is ridiculous is your apologetics. the facts are against you. islam isand cannot be a victim. islam is a ridiculous death cult long past its need for reform. now you might dislike those facts but you will have to learn to live with them.

          the moslems in the middle east living under moslem regimes lashing out at the west with terrorism is one way to deal with the fact no one ever split the moon in half or flew to heaven on a winged horse. another way might be a secular government.

          the only thing i witnessed when I vsited a mosque was outright subjugation of women and ridiculous ritual worshiping death. islam is a death cult that MUST be reformed.

          thanks for your input and allowing me to educate you, pal.

          • sean

            first you need to comprehend what is written, i apologized to no one am stating facts. now and again you still need to read more “pal” coz all you wrote here is nonsense. and when you do so have an open mind and allow me to continue educating you about the others…….

            • O. Locke

              look, bud.

              for this to work you’re going to need to understand english. here’s a clue: do a google search on apologetics. then come back and we can continue, bud.


            • sean

              huh bud English is my 3rd language what is your 3rd language???

            • O. Locke

              oh, this.


              my mother tongue is as irrelevant as your comment.

              your simultaneous defense of your ignorance and limp-wristed attempt to bolster your own confidence by questioning my education is sad and pathetic.

              this is a common theme.

              yet, isn’t what you’re really saying even more pathetic? “I know your language because I must”. I can go to any corner of the globe and I will find the Queen’s English. So can you. You know that. After all. I might not speak your native language.

              So. I ask you. Are you proud of the necessity forced upon you? Just as a slave might be proud of her/his chains?

            • kujasmin

              As an average American your understanding of the world is unprecedented. I see you get what’s going on. Can you please educate these people https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QpDEu8KmNj0 because they are like giving you a bad image?

            • O. Locke

              look, pal.

              it is possible for people to ignorantly paint ALL people with a broad brush because you can’t understand that SOME people might be different. But that’s not my problem. that seems to be what the author of your ridiculous video suffers from.

              now, no one is “giving you (me) a bad image”. I suppose I should apply yours and the author of this ignorant and ridiculous video’s standard to moslems? not sure.

              I will say thank you the illustration of the knee jerk reaction to the facts.

              thank sfor your input and the exchange, pal.

    • Samir Kabir

      What’s a moslem?

      • O. Locke

        a moslem is a fundametalist that can’t understand no one flew to heaven on a winged horse or split the moon in half. a religious nut that can’t understand that women have the SAME rights as men and that gay people shouldn’t be killed and have rights.

        a muslim is one who has accepted intellectually that islam/muslims have already reformed but are waiting for the clerical class to do so.

        thanks for your question and allowing me to educate you

    • JRajBali

      Lol what a scholar, “Hinduism was invented by the Orientalists.” Lol just so uneducated and propagandist.

    • Lucian Maxwell

      Read the Koran do not listen to any of these apologist liars. Islam is inherently violent, they follow the ignorance and blood luster of their founder Mohammad

    • Lucian Maxwell

      I find it extremely fascinating how every time any of this Muslim apologists try and decouple ISIS from Islam they always ignore the call for violence and murder that the Koran calls all Muslims to do regardless of the time constraints.

      If you want to know the truth do not listen to the apologist they are only tell you convenient truths. Go to the source, read the Koran learn for yourself. The ignorance, the inherent violent and blood luster of the prophet Mohammed and his followers.

    • Captain Noypee

      the author seems to suggest that violence is just a point of view.