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Religion, Violence, and the Modern World

By Sheikh Hamza Yusuf

Toward the latter days of indiscriminate violence, be like the 
first and better of the two sons of Adam who said, "If you raise 
your hand to kill me, I will not raise mine to kill you; surely I 
fear God, the Lord of the worlds." 

Many of us, in the hustle and bustle of modern life, have little 
time for reflection; yet as these days are marred by violence of the 
worst kind, reflection " on the part of those who regard 
themselves 'religious' as well those who consider 
themselves 'secularists' " is more needed than ever. With 
continual terror in Iraq and Palestine, and now, most recently, with 
the bombings in Turkey, Muslims are confronted with the increasingly 
tragic reality of religious violence and the subsequent retaliations 
of secular violence. 

A strange dual consciousness pervades the Muslim when it comes to 
modern violence. When Khalil Sarakiti, the Palestinian intellectual 
of the 40's and 50's reminded the Palestinian leadership of the 
importance of adherence to the highest principles of engagement in 
the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, he remarked in his journal that 
they viewed it as romantic chivalry, incompatible with the realities 
of modern warfare. And sadly, this is the reality of modern man: 
expediency has won out over principle. 

The modern Muslim has learned well the lessons of his secular 
counterpart. American military action rarely distinguishes between 
combatants and civilians. The Pentagon callously refers to them 
as 'secondary effects' or 'collateral damage.' When some Muslims use 
tactics of indiscriminate violence toward objects of hate, too often 
other Muslims are quick to point out that, 'They kill our innocents 
and expect us to sit by and watch.' Defenders of American foreign 
policy parry with, 'Collateral damage can never be equated with 
terrorism because we don't specifically target civilians and in fact 
attempt to avoid civilian casualties.' Apologetics for wanton 
killing of women and children on both sides nauseates anyone who 
considers the very real impact of innocent blood spilt so 
injudiciously. 

Like all things in which humans engage, religion has many 
paradoxical aspects. On the one hand, it elevates our ideals and 
aspirations to the heavens themselves giving us such priceless 
principles as, "The entire Torah can be summed up in two statements: 
love God with all your heart, and love your neighbor as yourself; 
everything else is commentary"; "Do unto others as you would have 
others do unto you"; and "Taking one life unjustly is as if you have 
killed all of humanity." These are taken from the Jewish, Christian, 
and Muslim faiths, respectively. Meanwhile, some adherents to each 
faith justify with their teachings the most heinous depredations 
against their fellow men. Jonathan Swift remarked, "We have just 
enough religion to make us hate, but not enough to make us love one 
another." Perhaps that is true; for many people, religion is no 
longer a solution to anything but very much part of the problem. 

The great tragedy of modern religion is that it is now seen as a 
toxin polluting the waters of possibility. We who claim faith and 
commitment have too often made our faiths the objects of hatred. 
With our zealousness, we have driven away countless people who see 
the worst aspects of humanity embodied in religious peoples. For 
some of us, it is easy to write them off as skeptics, mockers, or 
secularists who just hate religion, but the truth is that most of 
them are not so. They are simply people who know intuitively that 
the behavior of those claiming to be religious is both inhumane and 
irreligious, and they seek other philosophies to guide them. They 
look to Epictetus or the Tao Te Ching or even Deepak Chopra, or they 
give up the search for meaning altogether, contenting themselves 
with film and music as fulfilling past-times. Organized religion, 
with its self-righteous pugnaciousness and its officious meddling in 
the affairs of others, has driven many moderns to relegate
it to the dustbin of discarded ideas. The irony, of course, is 
that the religious people feel the secularists are the pugnacious 
ones forcing secularity down their throats, ignoring their most 
sacred beliefs or relegating them to a few minutes on shows such as 
Thought for the Day. 

The more religion is marginalized, the angrier religious people 
get; the angrier they get, the more others want to marginalize 
religion, ad nauseam. We have found ourselves in a vicious cyclical 
clash between secularists, who, in many ways, abandoned the 
Englightenment project of a more humane world long ago, and 
religious utopians battling for a piece of turf in the modern world 
" both sides bitter, both sides with minorities that use 
indiscriminate violence to lesser and greater effectiveness, both 
sides becoming increasingly intolerant. Tragically, the very reason 
so many Europeans felt disillusioned with Christianity was the 
centuries of intolerance and pointless religious violence. The 
Muslims, on the other hand, were far less prone to internal 
religious violence, and the level of tolerance toward other faiths 
was unparalleled in the premodern world. Unfortunately, explosions 
in Riyadh, Karachi, Turkey, and countless other places show that 
violence and intolerance have become the paths of pursuit among religious thrill-seekers 
in much of the Muslim world. The unexpected side-effect is that it 
is not just non-Muslims that find Islam odious, but many modern 
Muslims are increasingly becoming disillusioned with Islam, blaming 
the behavior of the practitioners on the religion, seeking 
alternatives in other faiths or philosophies. I believe many Muslims 
are in deep denial about this, refusing to even consider it, but I 
am seeing its signs everywhere, and it troubles me deeply. Those of 
us who are committed to Islam should seriously ask ourselves if we 
are indeed representatives of the Religion of ar-Rahman, the 
Merciful: "The servants of the Merciful are those who tread lightly 
on the earth, and when ignorant people deride them, they 
reply 'peace'" " are we as the Qur'an so wonderfully describes the 
true servants of God? 
Muslims are commanded to avoid backbiting, slander, lying, 
cheating, treachery, pride, anger, sloth, greed, and all of the 
other tragic qualities of beastly humanity. We must remember that 
much of the worst crimes we see in the world are simply our own sins 
magnified on a grander, more grotesque scale. The vice of setting 
aside our principles in small matters that apparently harm no one 
leads to the heinous enormities of our time as the vice continues 
while the scale increases. Religious people who set aside every true 
and universal religious principle in the name of religion are worse 
than any secular beast doing the same in the name of 'might makes 
right.' 

The reason is obvious: one acts in the name of religion and causes 
others to hate religion; the other acts in the name of power and 
causes others to rightly hate the worst qualities of man. It has 
been said that a religious fanatic is someone who redoubles his 
efforts after forgetting his cause. I think a sounder definition is 
someone who cannot risk considering that his life's work has been 
meaningless; that his efforts have been in vain; that his victories 
are, in truth, defeats; and that his successes are utter and bitter 
failures. Violence is not a religious truth " it never has been, 
and it never will be. The Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) 
said, "Never desire to meet anyone in battle, but if ever forced to 
do so, be virtuous." He also said, "Kindness is never present in an 
act except that it embellishes it and is never removed from any act 
except that it defiles it." In addition, he said, "God gives with 
gentleness what He will never give with harshness." 

The Qur'an speaks to the Prophet (peace be upon him), reminding 
us about his noble character: "It is a mercy from God that you were 
made gentle in nature, and had you been harsh and hardhearted, 
people would have fled from your presence." In a sound tradition 
narrated by Imam Tirmidhi, the Prophet oe is reported to have said, 
Toward the latter days of indiscriminate violence, be like the first 
and better of the two sons of Adam who said, "If you raise your hand 
to kill me, I will not raise mine to kill you; surely I fear God, 
the Lord of the worlds." In an increasingly violent world in which 
the individual can now inflict harm that armies of the past were 
incapable of, religious people in particular must categorically 
reject and condemn any vigilante retaliations for injustices and 
question deeply the compatibility of modern warfare with religiously 
sanctioned military action that emanates from pre-modern just-war 
principles in the Abrahamic faiths. 


 

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