Is violence a sign of Islam’s strength or its weakness?

Is violence a sign of Islam’s strength or its weakness?

In the early biography of Muhammad written by Ibn Ishaq there are many fascinating and intriguing incidents.  One unforgettable story tells how Huwayyisa came to embrace Islam:

The apostle said, ‘Kill any Jew that falls into your power.’ Thereupon Muhayyisa b. Mas’ud leapt upon Ibn Sunayna, a Jewish merchant with whom they had social and business relations, and killed him. Huwayyisa was not a Muslim at the time though he was the elder brother. When Muhayyisa killed him [Ibn Sunayna] Huwayyisa began to beat him [Muhayyisa], saying, ‘You enemy of God, did you kill him when much of the fat on your belly comes from his wealth?’ Muhayyisa answered, ‘Had the one who ordered me to kill him ordered me to kill you I would have cut your head off.’ He said that this was the beginning of Huwayyisa’s acceptance of Islam. The other replied, ‘By God, if Muhammad had ordered you to kill me would you have killed me?’ He [Muhayyisa] said, ‘Yes, by God, had he ordered me to cut off your head I would have done so.’ He [Huwayyisa] exclaimed, ‘By God, a religion which can bring you to this is marvellous!’ and he became a Muslim.
(The Life of Muhammad, by Ibn Ishaq,  translation by Alfred Guillaume, p.369.)

What a story!  Muhayyisa hears Muhammad urge Muslims to kill any Jew they could get their hands on.  So he goes out and kills Ibn Sunayna, his associate and business partner.  The assassin’s older brother Huwayyisa is amazed.  He protests that Ibn Sunayna had been the one putting food on Muhayissa’s table, and begins to beat up his brother, presumably for idiocy.  Muhayissa replies that he would have killed Huwayyisa too – even decapitating him – if Muhammad had commanded it.  Huwayyisa exclaims ‘what a marvellous religion!’, and follows his younger brother into Islam.

Does a story like this show Islam to be a great religion or a weak one?

This thing is, sometimes terror works.  Huwayyisa was not at any immediate risk in this story.  But he was deeply impressed by the alteration brought about in his brother by Islam.  This story reflects the intimidating, even traumatic effect of encountering a religion which inspires deadly violence in someone you thought you knew as a reasonable person.  The fact is that such trauma can jolt someone over to the ‘winning side’ of a faith which has the spiritual muscle to inspire violent acts in violation of the most stringent social norms.

This raises an important question:  Is Islam’s violence done in the name of Allah and his prophet something Muslims should be proud of or ashamed about? And should non-Muslims admire it – like Huwayyisa – or deride it?

Well, it all depends upon your perspective.  Ibn Ishaq, the author of the Life of Muhammad apparently thought this was a splendid story which reflected well on Islam.

When Malaysian apostate from Islam Lina Joy tried to get her Christian faith recognized by the Malaysian authorities her (ultimately unsuccessful) legal battle launched a storm of commentary.  Al-Jazeera reported the fears of some Malays that if Malaysia were to allow conversions to Christianity, this might set off ‘mass conversions’ away from Islam.  This implies a lack of conviction about the appeal of Islam among the religions.  It implies that Islam is weak.

Islam’s apostasy law declares that the lives of those who leave the religion have no value: they can be freely put to death.  Abdurrahman Wahid, former president of Indonesia, was scathing about those who depend upon such violence to ‘defend’ Islam:

“Nothing could possibly threaten God who is Ominpotent and existing as absolute and eternal Truth… Those who claim to defend God, Islam, or the Prophet are thus either deluding themselves or manipulating religion for their own mundane and political purposes.  We witnessed this in the carefully manufactured outrage that swept the Muslim world several years ago, claiming hundreds of lives in response to cartoons published in Denmark.  Those who presume to full grasp God’s will, and dare to impose by force their own limited understanding of this upon others, are essentially equating themselves with God and are unwittingly engaged in blasphemy.” (From Silenced by Paul Marshall and Nina Shea, p.xvii)

However not all Muslims share the views of President Wahid.  Some take pride in the apostasy law as evidence of Islam’s supremacy. Dr Wan Azhar Wan Ahmad, senior fellow at the Institute of
Islamic Understanding in Kuala Lumpur, commented that the apostasy law reinforces Islam’s truthfulness and perfection, and  respect for ‘freedom of worship’ demands that non-Muslims must grant Islam the right to use violence against apostates:

“If Islam were to grant permission for Muslims to change religion at will, it would imply it has no dignity, no self-esteem. And people may then question its completeness, truthfulness and perfection. … If Islam forbids apostasy, not only the Muslims must observe it, but the followers of other religions that do not have such provisions must appreciate and respect this position as well. This is actually the freedom of worship that must be perceived by all.”

Among Muslims who are unapologetic about killing non-believers who have left Islam must be counted Yusuf al-Qaradawy, who recently declared:

‘If they had gotten rid of the apostasy punishment, Islam wouldn’t exist today. Islam would have ended with the death of the Prophet. So opposing apostasy is what has preserved Islam to this day.’

Al-Qaradawy affirms on a recent Egyptian television broadcast that it was violence which caused Islam to thrive and survive:
With sixty million regular viewers of his ‘Sharia and Life’ program, the views of Sheikh Yusuf Al-Qaradawy are not to be sneezed at.  And they certainly cannot be written off as Islamophobic!

As long as the apostasy law is upheld, and even praised, by leading Islamic scholars such as Al-Qaradawy, no-one can credibly dismiss the proposition that Islam relies on and was advanced by violence.

The question is not whether Islam has prospered through violence, but whether this shows Islam is a great religion, or a weak one.

Mark Durie is the founding director of the Institute for Spiritual Awareness, a Fellow at the Middle East Forum, and a Senior Research Fellow of the Arthur Jeffery Centre for the Study of Islam at Melbourne School of Theology.

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