Justification for Violence in Islam: Part I, Introductory Remarks

[1] A note on comparative approach is appropriate in a study which, like this one1, attempts to identify common ground on a particular issue shared by the Western monotheistic traditions of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Comparative studies in religion have been generally criticized for oversimplifying the complex and intricate variations and divergences within each tradition for the purpose of typifying them in broad terms. Whereas it is not difficult to catalog broad categories like prophetic consciousness, the function of revelation and the religious-moral guidance based on it, and the salvation history shared by the Abrahamic faiths, special attention needs to be paid to the historical circumstances and social-political experiences of the respective communities that interacted with their religious orientation and shaped their attitudes, decisions, and actions.

[2] To be sure, the three basic ingredients of the religiously inspired world view are: (1) fundamental principles of the creed that provide the authoritative perspectives for interpreting contradictions and tensions in human existence; (2) the dispositions that are evoked by these perspectives; and, (3) the religious practices that reinforce both the creed and the disposition generated by it by means of special rituals and practices.2 When these basic ingredients are examined and verified against the relevant literature produced by the group within what Max Weber calls the “internal structure of cultural values” by which a religious community justifies its adoption of a practical solution to the ontological anxieties caused by existing fear of death and uncertain future, they may reveal the intricate relationship between the tradition and its contextual formulations and reinterpretations within a specific time and space.

[3] It is possible to assert from the outset that in investigating the particular attitude regarding political quietism3and pacifism4 in Western monotheistic traditions, the believers’ opposition to or resignation in the face of all violent means of attaining a divinely ordained order would be settled in large measure by the way in which the religion maintained its relationship with power and legitimized the authority that exacted obedience to that power in the name of a sacred authority. In other words, Islamic views on activism or quietism, for instance, are part of a theory of statecraft which defines the state as a means to promoting the common good and as an instrument founded on the notions of an omnipotent, omniscient and just God, of a humanity endowed with volition and cognition, and of relations between the divine and human will and act. There is little doubt that the beliefs, attitudes, and practices of the religious subject demonstrate the intricate developing relationship within the context of socio-political history between the authoritative and determinative teachings of a tradition and the emerging power to implement them as normative for the creation of the religious polity. Moreover, the beliefs and attitudes also determine the way the followers of that tradition deal with the question of resistance and opposition to the abuse of power or submission to it. Furthermore, the ultimate outcome of this historical interplay between religion and power is also reflected in the way people have responded to the need to confront the obstacles to the realization of the idealized vision of a religious polity on earth. In other words, religious idealism has to interact with the realities that members of a given society must reckon with and continuingly reevaluate it to make it relevant in current circumstances.

Next: Justification for Violence in Islam, Part II: The Interplay between Religion and Power in Islam

End Notes

1 This article developed out of the two papers presented at two conferences held during 1993-94. The first part was presented at the “Conference on Quietism and Pacifism in the Western Monotheistic Traditions” at Washington University; and the second part was presented at the “Conference on Religious Perspectives on Pacifism and Non-Violence in Situations of International Conflict” at the United States Institute of Peace. I would like to acknowledge my appreciation of the suggestions offered by the readers of the early draft of the work, and incisive criticisms offered by my colleagues and friends Professors James Childress at UVa and David Little at USIP.

2 David Little and Sumner B. Twiss, Comparative Religious Ethics: A New Method (New York: Harper and Row, 1978), p. 54-55.

3 I assume that in the present context quietism refers to political quietism and hence, is not to be confused with the quietism in the meaning of the late seventeenth-century devotional movement of the Catholic Church in Italy and France. See article QUIETISM in The Encyclopedia of Religion, Ed. Mircea Eliade (New York: Macmillan Publishing Co., 19..), Vol. 12/153-155.

4 Pacifism in the sense of nonviolence in the context of the visions of a perfect society based on social harmony and peaceful living is a relatively new term in the English language. However, pacifism in the meaning of nonviolent approach to confrontation, even in oppressive situations has been present in the Abrahamic traditions as something divinely ordained in response to conflict. The corollary of such a requirement is the suffering of martyrdom (kiddush ha Shem in Judaism and shah_da in Islam connote bearing witness to the divine order) by sacrificing one&=javascript:goNote(39s life. See: article NONVIOLENCE in The Encyclopedia of Religion, Vol. 10/463-467.