Koran a Book of Peace, Not War, Scholars Say

Peter Standring
National Geographic Today
September 25, 2001
Osama bin Laden, who is widely assumed to be the force behind the
September 11 hijackings in the United States, cites the Koran, Islam's
most holy book, as the inspiration for terrorist attacks. But Muslim
scholars around the world who are reviled by such actions explain that
the Koran preaches peace.

"The Koran is saying to humans, this is the final guidance from your Creator, for the specific purpose of worshipping him and creating a civil society where you can live in peace with one another," says Muslim scholar Imam Sulayman S. Nyang of Howard University in Washington, D.C.

Muslims around the world rely on the Koran for guidance, says Nyang. Devout followers heed the call to prayer five times each day and recite passages from the holy book. Muslims believe that the Koran is God's unfiltered message—teaching them how to lead a good life and become a better, more moral person.

"The Koran is very specific with regard to the nature of human struggle, because in order for a human to be at peace with himself, they must control their baser instincts," says Nyang.

The quest to control base instincts such as greed, lust, and cruelty and to seek spiritual purity is known by Muslims as the "great jihad." Featured widely in the Koran, the "great jihad" is a person's most important internal struggle.

Nyang quotes Chapter 3, verse 172, of the Koran: "Of those who answered the call of Allah and the messenger, even after being wounded, those who do right and refrain from wrong have a great reward."

But also in the holy scripture is a reference to "lower jihad," a more earthly and physical—and controversial—struggle. "To those against whom war is made, permission is given [to fight] because they are wronged; and verily, God is most powerful for their aid," quotes Nyang.

This verse speaks of combat or war to be waged against one's oppressors—a struggle sanctioned by God.

But the Koran also states in Chapter 2, Verse 190: "Fight in the cause of Allah those who fight you, but do not transgress limits; for Allah loves not transgressors."

The essence of the verse, Nyang says, is to fight back "if you are attacked by your persecutors, but don't fight back indiscriminately. Follow the rules of engagement." According to mainstream Muslim clerics, those "rules of engagement"' are explicit: women, children, and innocent civilians are off limits.

Perversion of Text

Muslims believe the prophet Mohammed received these revelations directly from God some 1400 years ago. It was at a time when he and other Muslims were being driven from their homes, persecuted, and killed. But although the Koran advocates self-defense, its most prevalent message is one of peace and brotherly love.

"If people are intent on using religion to motivate terror or violence, they'll find an excuse there no matter what the actual text says," says David Rodier of American University in Washington, D.C., who is an expert on the world's religions. Like the Koran, he says, most holy scriptures are filled with stories of war and warriors, and these images have been used throughout history by some members of every faith to justify bloodshed.

"Religion, after all, speaks to our most basic and ultimate convictions, and if you are wanting to use violence, if you can find a religious justification, then you can find a very powerful motivation," says Rodier.

Christians have killed in the name of God, as have Hindus, Buddhists, Jews, and others. But it is Muslims who have most recently been accused of turning "divine commandments" into a divine license to kill.

Terrorists have often said they are striking out against their enemies and oppressors "in the name of Allah." But many Islamic scholars say such terrorists are not only violating the spirit of the Koran, but the letter of it as well.

"You do not kill innocent people, you do not cheat, you do not lie, you do not destroy any property of other human beings," says Imam Abdullah Khouj, an Islamic scholar and director of the Islamic Center, in Washington, D.C.

The attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon "can't be in the name of Allah," he adds.

"Violation of Allah's Wishes"

Islamic scholars interviewed by the TV news show National Geographic Today agreed that terrorists such as Usama bin Laden and his supporters are fanatics using Islam to further their own worldly causes.

"In order for them to generate support beyond their small group, they have to latch onto universal symbols, and this is where Islam becomes a target of convenience for them," says Nyang

People combine pieces of verse from the Koran and use it to justify their actions, says Khouj. "But to understand the full meaning of the verse," he says, "you have to read the one before it, the one after it, maybe five to six verses to get the full picture."

The "full picture" of Islam and the Koran, say Khouj and Nyang, is captured by Chapter 5, Verse 32: "[I]f anyone slew a person—unless it be for murder or spreading mischief in the land—it would be as if he slew the whole people. And if anyone saved a life, it would be as if he saved the life of the whole people."

For most Muslims, the callous and indiscriminate taking of human life violates Allah's wishes. It defies the Koran's central message and undermines the peace that Islam promises to deliver to all people.

"Human life in Islam is extremely sacred," says Khouj. "We're not talking about just Muslim [life], but human life in general."

This article was excerpted from a one-hour special, "The Geography of Crisis," aired by the TV news show National Geographic Today on September 25 at 8 p.m. EST.

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