Islam's Real Attitude Toward Violence, Women, and Fundamentalism

Fact & Fiction

Mr. Smith is the author of The World's Religions.

Following is an excerpt from Mr. Smith's latest book, Islam: A Concise Introduction, which is drawn from the bestseller, The World's Religions.

Three features of Islam that worry people since the September outrage include: violence, the position of women, and fundamentalism.


First, violence. The popular Western image of Islam is of a religion of violence, the most violent in the world today if not in all history. That is utterly untrue. There are violent passages in the Koran, but they are no more violent than some passages in the Bible, and (a point often overlooked by reporters who quote them out of context) they relate specifically to occasions when Muhammad was struggling desperately to keep the revelation that was entrusted to him from being wiped off the face of the earth.

Muslims have also fought, as have the adherents of every known faith--wars of religion have scarred Europe's history from the beginning. But I shall leave assessing the record to Norman Daniel, whose Islam and the West: The Making of an Image is the most serious attempt that has been made to compare the use of force in Islam and Christianity. His conclusion is that what can be safely said is that Islam has resorted to violence no more than has Christianity, while adding that that is probably a conservative statement. He points out, as an example, that Spain and Anatolia changed hands about the same time. Every Jew and Muslim in Spain was killed, expelled from the country, or forced to convert to Christianity, whereas the seat of Orthodox Christianity remains in Constantinople to this very day.

To start at the beginning, with semantics, the word islam means explicitly"surrender," but it is related to the Arabic word salam meaning"peace" as in the standard Islamic salutation, assalamu 'alaykum,"peace be upon you." And when a virtuous Muslim enters heaven, it is said, the only word he will be able to utter for three days, over and over, is peace, the virtue he has been longing for his entire life and that now overwhelms him with its total presence. Between the bookends of the religion's name and its total realization in heaven stands history, and it is instructive.

When the Prophet Muhammad brought the Koranic revelation to seventh-century Arabia, a major part of his mission was devoted precisely to bringing an end to the inter-tribal warfare that was wreaking havoc in the region. Pre-Islamic Arabia was caught up in a vicious cycle of warfare in which tribe fought tribe in an unending pattern of vendetta and counter-vendetta. At the start the Prophet and his cohorts had to fight too in order to survive, but once their foothold was secure, he turned his attention to building peaceful coalitions between tribes, so successfully that when he died he left as his political legacy a solidly united Arabia. And into warfare itself Muhammad introduced chivalry.

No holds were barred in pre-Koranic warfare, but Muhammad introduced many traditions of forbearance. Agreements are to be honored and treachery avoided. The wounded are not to be mutilated or the dead disfigured. Women, children and the old are to be spared, as are orchards, crops, and sacred objects--no scorched earth policy or leveling of Hindu temples or destruction of Buddhist statues in authentic Islam.

The key--and inflammatory--issue, though, is jihad. Literally the word means only"effort, exertion, or struggle," but it has taken on the meaning of a Holy War. No full-fledged religion has been able to manage without a doctrine something like this--complete pacifism remains for smallish sects such as the Mennonites and Quakers. Egregious aggression must be halted, and murder, rape, and pillage defended against. So far, alas, so good. What is not good is that jihad has been turned by outsiders into a rallying cry for hatred against Islam--mention the word and up come images of screaming mobs streaming through streets while brandishing swords and destroying everyone and everything in sight, all at the beck of some Ayatollah or bin Laden. The truth of the matter is that Islam's concept of a Holy War is virtually identical with the Just War concept in Christian canon law, right down to the notion that martyrs in both are assured of entering heaven. In both cases the war must be defensive or fought to right a manifest wrong. Chivalry must be observed and the least possible damaged inflicted to secure the end in question. And hostilities must cease when the objective is accomplished. Retaliation is disallowed.

So, to face the hard question, were the destructive acts of September 2001 jihad? If the perpetrators saw those acts as responses to, first, continuing Israeli settlement of the West Bank and, second, the boycott cordon around Iraq and daily unmanned bombing of its territory, both regarded as acts of aggression against the dar al-salam, the House of Islam--to repeat, if the perpetrators of the damage saw their acts as responses to what they see as aggression, they doubtless saw themselves as waging jihad. Otherwise not.


On the second point of misunderstanding, the place of women in Islam, I can be brief. The treatment of women in Afghanistan under the Taliban was as cruel as anyone can imagine, but that has nothing to do with Islam. One of the most important principles to follow in trying to understand another religion is to distinguish between what is essential to it and defining of it and what, on the other hand, is cultural accretion that it has been picked up along the way. One of the times this distinction was brought home to me was when I was looking into the differences between the Protestant and Russian Orthodox missionary approaches to the Alaskan Eskimos. The Russian missionaries adapted the Christian message to Eskimo mores in every way possible. They learned their language, adopted their style of dress, and even incorporated their deities into the Christian angelic pantheon. By contrast, the Protestant missionaries seemed bent on Americanizing their converts as much as Christianizing them--teaching them English, dressing them in business suits, the works. Coming upon this second group of converts, a stranger who was ignorant in these matters might easily have assumed that Western garb was an ingredient of Christianity.

The actual status of women in the Koran bears no resemblance to the Western stereotype, which is woven of local customs that Muslims have assimilated to along the way. Muhammad's wife was educated, intelligent, and a highly successful business woman. Actually this issue can be resolved quite simply. I suspect that we all know Muslim women who hold important positions in American society--my roster includes a physician, a teacher, a television director, and a shopkeeper--and who feel no conflict whatsoever between their religion and their positions in Western society.

One of my favorite sayings of the Prophet that has received little notice has at least an indirect bearing here. On one occasion a companion of the Prophet heard a bystander ask him,"Who is most entitled to my good conduct?" The Prophet replied,"Your mother.""Then whom?" the man asked. Again the Prophet answered,"Your mother." The question was repeated a third time and received the same answer. It was only when the questioner asked his question a fourth time that the Prophet replied,"Your father."


Finally, fundamentalism. Islamic fundamentalism is very different from Christian. Both share as their root cause the sense of being threatened, but by different things. Christian fundamentalism took shape in the 1920s as a reaction against the threat (as seen by conservative Christians) of, first, Darwinian evolution which seemed to challenge the biblical teaching that human beings were created directly by God, and, second, the threat of"the higher criticism," which applies the tools of literary criticism to analyzing the Bible as if it were any other book.

Islamic fundamentalism is largely a regional phenomenon that centers in the Middle East--it causes few ripples in Indonesia and Africa. The reason it is powerful in Middle Eastern Islam is that 80 percent of the Muslims there are traditional in their outlook and way of life, while the 20 percent who rule them have been educated in the West and are modem in outlook and lifestyle. It takes no great feat of imagination to sense the threat the traditional majority feel from the ruling minority, and it causes them to dig in their heels. Two worlds, the old and the new, are in sharp collision.

Reprinted with permission of the publisher, HarperCollins.

comments powered by Disqus

More Comments:

SaJ - 12/14/2003

Your so naive, its funny. You will see what happens when you die, then your reality will begin in the fire of hell. I hope you realize that your life is only 80 years long and that there is more then you see while your alive...anyone I hope you find some enlightenment cuz your destined for a miserable death.

me - 12/19/2002

OMG you are the only person i've met(read) that makes sence, i think the rest of the world is very very very very very stupid, i can not believe ppl like u exist, so there IS a chance for the human species, hell yea (no pun intended)
anyhow i hope ur happy and live life (then die at the end cuz that's what life is really about, there IS NO MEANING)
till latOr

nick mallory - 10/10/2002

All religion is bogus. Let's be clear on that. It doesn't matter how strongly you believe in something, it doesn't make it true. Allah is a fairy story, just as the god of the Christians or Jews is a figment of our imagination. Mankind sees patterns and tells stories, that is a source of our intelligence but when we invent such patterns such superstition enslaves us. We don't worship Apollo or the Aztec gods too much these days, our modern gods have as much reality.
The problem with Islam is that it hasn't undergone an enlightenment. Over the last three hundred years religion, fighting tooth and nail of course, has been usurped by Science, rationality and reason in the west. This has led to the West's triumph in the world. Although literal lip service is paid to Christianity, it's science that informs our understanding of reality and reason and interest, not divine revelation, which informs our democratic political debate. Islam has undergone no such enlightenment, it is 'fundamentalist' because it is believed. No-one outside a few loonies in Kansas really believes Christian cosmology (earth the centre of the universe anyone?) or biology (Adam and Eve, and presumably Smallpox and V.D. created with a click of gods fingers) even though many people still, if really pressed, might murmour a few words about there being some vague sort of spiritual something out there somewhere. Islam is at war with us because we are a post religious civilisation, Islam will lose this war for this exact same reason. Islam produces no technology, apart from the geological accident of oil, precious little in the way of economic production, indeed virtually no innovation at all. A culture which accepts spiritual dictats, rather than investigates phenomenon rationally, is doomed to stagnation and decline. The hatred in the Arab world for Isreal stems as much from the fact that the hated sub human jews can produce a vibrant, democratic, rich and successfull state in 8,000 square miles with a millitary power which has cheerfully whipped the bottom of the 300 million muslims in the 3 million square miles of the arab world as anything else.
This is a clash of civilisations. Not between the Christians and the Muslims, but between a scientific, rational, successfull, democratic modernity and a superstitious, credulous, tyrannical mediavelism. There is no doubt who will win it. We will win not through millitary conquest, but the fact that all the arab demonstrators i see are wearing american, T shirts and Jeans, waving mobile phones and going home to watch satallite TV.
A French writer is currently on trial for writing of Islam as the stupid religion. He's right, all religions are stupid, and the more you believe in them the stupider you are.

A Christian reader - 9/11/2002

I have read a few things on the internet. Not enough to become knowledgeable, but enough to recognize bias.

I got the feeling from reading your exerpt, Huston Smith, that you are a fair, honest, intelligent, and educated man. This posting gave me a better feeling of your world. You are a good writer and make good sense.

I have no interest in converting to Islam, but you helped me feel more understanding of it and of Muhammad, and I feel I could become friends with Muslims. Keep up the good work.

Roberta Seid - 1/24/2002

This excerpt is extremely distressing. It is intellectually muddled, analytically weak and profoundly ahistorical. There is usually a vast difference between a religion's theology, its foundational story and its institutional structure and history. The author has completely neglected these distinctions. Furthermore, moral and practical laws within a foundational text are interpreted and reinterpreted over the centuries. He offers no insights about these changes within Islam and its practices--though he does suggest that cultural customs overrode the Koran's strictures.

His defense of Islam's attitude toward women merits the same criticism and is deplorably weak--honoring mothers (women's role as childbearers)is hardly unique to Islam nor does it reflect much about women's role and rights within the religion. Indeed, his example of Mohammed's wife may reflect more favorably on the Pre-Islamic status of women than on their post-Islamic status.

Finally, his suggestion that Muslims could see 9/11 as jihad --which he claims occurs when Islam is under threat--because of Israel is patently ridiculous on many counts: 1) Israelis are hardly trying to threaten let alone eradicate Islam; 2) Many Palestinians are Christian, not Muslim; 3) He is confusing Arabism with Islam.....