Is Islam a religion of peace?

7 November 2018

What makes a religion peaceful?

It is often stated today, in defending the reputation of Islam against the worst excesses of those who advocate terror, that Islam is a ‘religion of peace’. How should we assess such a statement?

We might ask whether Islam advocates peace. Being a religion of peace could imply that Islam advocates pacifism.[1] But is this really the case? To test this, we need to examine the teaching of Islam in the Qur’an and the hadith.

Another way would be to ask whether its founder was a person of peace. We need to look at the life and teaching of Muhammad to make this assessment.

Alternatively, we might ask if the history of Islam has been peaceful. If a religious group had a long history of peaceful relations with other neighbouring groups and religions, this might be grounds to claim it as a peaceful religion. Sadly, the history of Islam is not one of peaceful relations with others. However, it is also the case that so-called ‘Christian’ nations have been far from peaceful themselves, and not just in self-defence. So this marker may not necessarily be a reliable guide.

What about if most of the followers of a religion are peaceful and law-abiding? Would this make it a religion of peace? Perhaps. But what if a significant minority claim inspiration from the teaching of their religion to commit acts of war and terrorism? What if this minority has a strong claim to be following the example of the founder of their religion? What if this minority can also point to multiple religious authorities and examples through history as setting a precedent for their religious understanding?

It is indeed the case that the majority of Muslims are peaceful, law-abiding people. But it is also the case that the majority of Muslims are unfamiliar with the teaching of the Qur’an and the life of Muhammad. They are not usually encouraged to read the Qur’an in a language they can understand. Many Muslims self-identify as such because of culture, birth or relationships. Therefore if we critique the teaching of their religion, we are not thereby criticising the behaviour or beliefs of every adherent of Islam.

In this article we will start by examining the meaning of ‘Islam’ and ‘Jihad’ and move on to the teaching of the Qur’an, and the example of Muhammad. We will briefly discuss the teaching of religious leaders and the history of Islam. I will conclude that Islam cannot be described as a ‘religion of peace’ in terms of its teaching, the example of its founder, or its history.

The meaning of ‘Islam’

Muslims are not Islam. We need to distinguish between the people and the ideology; criticism of Islam is not criticism of all Muslims. To understand what Islam is, we need to examine its teachings from the Qur’an and the example of Muhammad. The fact that most Muslims don’t know or agree with all these teachings does not change what the religion actually teaches.

The word ‘Islam’ does not mean ‘peace’ as is often assumed. It means ‘submission’ or ‘surrender’. Mark Durie, a linguistics and theology scholar, writes: “In its original meaning, a Muslim was someone who surrendered in warfare.”[2] Muhammad’s famous phrase aslim taslam means “surrender (i.e. submit to Islam) and you will be safe”.[3] These words were included by him in letters sent to various rulers offering them peace if they surrendered to Islam. This is important because, far from carrying a peaceful meaning, Islam actually means peace after surrender in warfare or after subjugation.

In fact, Islam was first called a religion of peace as late as 1930 in a book published to promote Islam,[4] and as Muslims sought to promote their faith to western audiences. Thus, for the first 1,300 years of Islamic history, this description was unknown; it occurs nowhere in the texts or traditions of Islam right up until the last century.

The meaning of ‘Jihad’

The Arabic word ‘jihad’ means ‘struggle’ or ‘strive’. It is sometimes ambiguous whether this refers to a spiritual or a physical (violent) struggle. The clearest use in a non-violent sense is Q 22:78:

And strive (jahidoo) for Allah with the striving (jihadihi) due to him. He has chosen you and has not placed upon you in the religion any difficulty.

However, there are plenty of clear references to jihad as violent struggle. For example, Q 2:216-218:

Fighting is prescribed for you, and ye dislike it. But it is possible that ye dislike a thing which is good for you, and that ye love a thing which is bad for you… Indeed, those who have believed and those who have emigrated and fought (jihad) in the cause of Allah – those expect the mercy of Allah. And Allah is Forgiving and Merciful.

The claim is sometimes made that there is a distinction between the ‘greater jihad’ and the ‘lesser jihad’. This claim is based on the following hadith:

Some troops came back from an expedition and went to see the Messenger of Allah sallallahu `alayhi wa-Sallam. He said: “You have come for the best, from the smaller jihad (al-jihad al-asghar) to the greater jihad (al-jihad al-akbar).” Someone said, “What is the greater jihad?” He said: “The servant’s struggle against his lust” (mujahadat al-`abdi hawah).

This hadith is narrated in Al-Bayhaqi in al-Zuhd al-Kabir, though it is noted that “This is a chain that contains weakness.”[5] It is dated from the first half of the ninth century and is not related in any of the official canonical hadith collections.[6] Most significantly, it is contradicted by the Qur’an itself which says:

Not equal are those believers who sit (at home) and receive no hurt, and those who strive and fight in the cause of Allah with their goods and their persons. Allah hath granted a grade higher to those who strive and fight with their goods and persons than to those who sit (at home). Unto all (in Faith) hath Allah promised good: But those who strive and fight hath He distinguished above those who sit (at home) by a special reward. (Q 4:95)

Here it is clear that physical fighting is regarded as the greater endeavour. All four schools of Sunni jurisprudence, as well as the Shi’ite tradition make no reference to a ‘greater jihad’. There are multiple references to jihad in the most trusted hadith collections and with virtually no exceptions, they all refer to physical fighting. For example:

A man came to Allah’s Messenger and said, “Instruct me as to such a deed as equals Jihad (in reward).” He replied, “I do not find such a deed.” Then he added, “Can you, while the Muslim fighter is in the battle-field, enter your mosque to perform prayers without cease and fast and never break your fast?” The man said, “But who can do that?” Abu-Huraira added, “The Mujahid (i.e. Muslim fighter) is rewarded even for the footsteps of his horse while it wanders about (for grazing) tied in a long rope”. (Bukhari 5:52:44)

Leading scholar David Cook argues that attempts to present jihad in purely spiritual terms are completely unsupported by the evidence, and only occur in writings for Western audiences: “Those who write in Arabic or other Muslim majority languages realise that it is pointless to present jihad as anything other than militant warfare.”[7]

In fact, jihad as physical fighting for the spread of Islam is so prominent in the traditional teaching of Islam that it is sometimes referred to as the sixth pillar of Islam. In the earliest hadith collections, sections on jihad immediately follow those on the five pillars.[8] The primary meaning of jihad has always been physical fighting. This applies to the Qur’an, the hadith, Islamic history and classical Islamic hermeneutics.

To conclude, David Cook cites the standard definition of jihad given in the new edition of the Encyclopaedia of Islam: “In law, according to general doctrine and in historical tradition, the jihad consists of military action with the object of the expansion of Islam and, if need be, of its defence.”[9]

The teaching of the Qur’an

Confusingly for the ordinary reader, the Qur’an is not in chronological order. The chapters (Surahs) come in order of length, from the longest to the shortest. According to classical Islamic teaching, however, earlier verses (in chronology of revelation rather than position in the Qur’an) are sometimes cancelled by later instructions in a manner somewhat similar to how Christians view the New Testament as cancelling some of the instructions of the Old Testament. This Islamic doctrine is called abrogation, and it is found in the Qur’an:

We do not abrogate a verse or cause it to be forgotten except that We bring forth [one] better than it or similar to it. Do you not know that Allah is over all things competent? (Q 2:106)

Or again:

And when We substitute a verse in place of a verse – and Allah is most knowing of what He sends down – they say, “You, [O Muhammad], are but an inventor [of lies].” But most of them do not know. (Q 16:101)[10]

This doctrine of abrogation enables apparent contradictions in the Qur’an to be resolved; later verses abrogate earlier ones. Furthermore, Muhammad did not advocate violence earlier in his career, but waited until he had amassed a following large enough to wage war. Earlier verses are thus more peaceful, while later verses are more violent.

The most famous example of a peaceful verse is Q 2:256:

There shall be no compulsion in [acceptance of] the religion. The right course has become clear from the wrong. So whoever disbelieves in Taghut and believes in Allah has grasped the most trustworthy handhold with no break in it. And Allah is Hearing and Knowing.

However, this verse, and many others, is regarded as having been abrogated by the ‘verse of the sword’:[11]

But when the forbidden months are past, then fight and slay the Pagans wherever ye find them, and seize them, beleaguer them, and lie in wait for them in every stratagem (of war); but if they repent, and establish regular prayers and practise regular charity, then open the way for them: for Allah is Oft-forgiving, Most Merciful. (Q 9:5)

In fact, surah 9 is the last chapter to be revealed in the Qur’an and is seen as abrogating earlier instructions. Surah 9 is also the most violent chapter as the following verses demonstrate:

Fight those who believe not in Allah nor the Last Day, nor hold that forbidden which hath been forbidden by Allah and His Messenger, nor acknowledge the religion of Truth, (even if they are) of the People of the Book, until they pay the Jizya with willing submission, and feel themselves subdued. (Q 9:29)

Here ‘Jizya’ is the Islamic subjugation tax to be paid by Christians or Jews who have accepted the subjugated status of ‘dhimmi’.

O Prophet, fight against the disbelievers and the hypocrites and be harsh upon them. And their refuge is Hell, and wretched is the destination. (Q 9:73)

Allah hath purchased of the believers their persons and their goods; for theirs (in return) is the garden (of Paradise): they fight in His cause, and slay and are slain: a promise binding on Him in truth, through the Law, the Gospel, and the Qur’an: and who is more faithful to his covenant than Allah? (Q 9:111)

O ye who believe! Fight the unbelievers who gird you about, and let them find firmness in you: and know that Allah is with those who fear Him. (Q 9:123)

Note that these are open-ended commands without qualification. In total, there are well over a hundred verses advocating violence in the Qur’an.[12]

Misquoting the Qur’an

Another verse that is used to argue that the Qur’an does not promote violence is Q 5:32:

…if anyone kills a person, it would be as if he killed the whole of mankind; and if anyone saved a life, it would be as if he saved the life of the whole of mankind.

This may be the most misquoted verse in the Qur’an. The whole verse provides the context:

On that account: We ordained for the Children of Israel that if any one slew a person – unless it be for murder or for spreading mischief in the land – it would be as if he slew the whole people: and if any one saved a life, it would be as if he saved the life of the whole people. Then although there came to them Our messengers with clear signs, yet, even after that, many of them continued to commit excesses in the land. (Q 5:32)

Notice that this command is described as having been ordained for “the Children of Israel” – i.e. the Jews. It is not said to be a command for Muslims today. Even if it were ordained for Muslims today, there is an exception clause that is conveniently left out of the quotation: “…unless it be for murder or for spreading mischief in the land.” The question then arises as to what constitutes “mischief” (fasadin). The term is very broad. In one passage in the Qur’an, merely disputing Islam is regarded as making mischief (Q 3:60-63). In another passage, rejecting Allah is making mischief (Q 7:103). There is a hadith that explains that this passage refers to polytheists (Sunan Abu Dawud 38:4359). The classical commentary on the Qur’an, Tafsir Ibn Kathir (2:11) explains:

“Do not make mischief on the earth”, means “Do not commit acts of disobedience on the earth. Their mischief is disobeying Allah, because whoever disobeys Allah on the earth, or commands that Allah be disobeyed, he has committed mischief on the earth.”[13]

So making ‘mischief’ can be seen as any form of disobedience of Allah. This would make any non-Muslim or disobedient Muslim an exception to the instruction not to kill a person.

The very next verse of the Qur’an then goes on to clarify, this time for Muslims and not restricted to Jews, what should be done to those who spread mischief through the land:

The punishment of those who wage war against Allah and His Messenger, and strive with might and main for mischief through the land is: execution, or crucifixion, or the cutting off of hands and feet from opposite sides, or exile from the land: that is their disgrace in this world, and a heavy punishment is theirs in the Hereafter. (Q 5:33)

This next verse encourages Muslims to kill or maim those who spread mischief in the land, which as we have seen could refer to any non-Muslim. Not so peaceful after all!

The example of Muhammad

Muhammad’s life is held up as “a beautiful pattern (of conduct)” for Muslims (Q 33:21). According to tradition, Muhammad participated in at least twenty-seven military campaigns and deputised some fifty-nine others.[14] That is a lot of battles! Some of these were defensive, but most were in order to expand territory. As we have seen, he taught that it was a duty of Muslims to fight in physical jihad. He himself fought to expand the influence of Islam and encouraged his followers to do the same.

Although Muhammad did not envisage modern terrorism, some of his instructions and actions can be used to justify such. For example, Q 8:12:

I will cast terror into the hearts of those who disbelieved, so strike [them] upon the necks and strike from them every fingertip.

This hadith also justifies spreading fear: “I have been made victorious with terror.” (Bukhari 4.52.220)

The contrast with Jesus could not be sharper. Jesus said “love your enemies” – a statement found nowhere in the teaching of Islam. Jesus never killed anyone, and criticised Peter for taking up a sword in his defence. Instead of killing and maiming, Jesus healed people and even raised some from the dead.

Teaching of religious leaders

All four principle Sunni schools of Islamic law agree on the importance of jihad as warfare, as do Shi’ites.[15] There is a long history of this teaching because it is very clear in the Qur’an.[16] An online fatwa gives ten reasons why jihad is prescribed.[17] These include: “to make the people worship Allah alone”, “Frightening the kuffaar, humiliating them and putting them to shame”, “Acquiring booty”, and “Taking [i.e. making] martyrs”.

World renowned Islamic scholar, Mufti Taqi Usmani was a sharia judge in the Shariat Appellate Bench of the Supreme Court of Pakistan. He has served on the sharia advisory boards of several financial institutions, including HSBC. In his book Islam and Modernism, he responds to a question about whether jihad should still be waged in a country in which Islam can freely be preached. He responds by citing Q 9:29 (above) and commenting:

Here killing should continue until the unbelievers pay the Jizya after they are humbled or overpowered. If the purpose of killing was only to acquire permission and freedom of preaching Islam, it would have been said “until they allow for preaching Islam”.[18]

Usmani therefore argues from the text of the Qur’an that “killing should continue” today. There is no question of this being defensive warfare or limited to Muhammad’s time.

The historical spread of Islam

Islam is a territorial religion that splits the world into two spheres: Dar al-Islam, the house of Islam, and Dar al-Harb, the house of war. The primary goal of jihad is not to win people over to the faith, but to expand Dar al-Islam, or the territory of Islam. In the century following the death of Muhammad, Islam conquered territory stretching from the borders of China and India right up to Spain’s Atlantic coast.

Writing in 1991, the French philosopher and theologian Jacques Ellul observed:

In a major encyclopaedia, one reads phrases such as: “Islam expanded in the eighth or ninth centuries…”; This or that country “passed into Muslim hands…”. But care is taken not to say how Islam expanded, how countries “passed into [Muslim] hands”… Indeed, it would seem as if events happened by themselves, through a miraculous or amicable operation…” Regarding this expansion, little is said about jihad. And yet it all happened through war![19]

It is beyond the scope and space of this article to document the spread of Islam through the centuries and how this has been and continues to be done through violent jihad.[20] Suffice to say that force has been used to increase the influence of Islam throughout the history of Islam. I will make do with a couple of representative quotes and refer readers to other resources for further study.

Twentieth century Orientalist and historian Henri Lammens summarised:

The Jehad. The war against the non-Muslims, so frequently recommended in the Medinese suras, almost became, as with the Kharijites, a “sixth pillar of Islam”. Islam owes to it her expansion, in which “the mission”, properly speaking, has played an insignificant role.[21]

An online fatwa responds to the question: “Was Islam spread by the sword?”:

Undoubtedly taking the initiative in fighting has a great effect in spreading Islam and bringing people into the religion of Allah in crowds. Hence the hearts of the enemies of Islam are filled with fear of jihad.[22]

Conclusion: Islam is not a religion of peace

No one can claim that Islam is a religion of peace if by that they mean that it had a peaceful founder, or that its teachings advocate peaceful interaction with people of other religions, or that historically its followers have been violence-free.

In saying that Islam is not a religion of peace, we are not saying that all Muslims are violent people, or even that the majority are such. We are referring to the teaching and history of the religion, not to the behaviour of the majority of people who claim adherence to it. It is important that as a society and as individuals we are clear about this. It is honest and correct to say that most Muslims are peaceful people. But it does not follow from this that Islam is a religion of peace.

(This article was originally published in the Affinity Social Issues Bulletin for November 2018. The whole edition can be found at

For more articles like this one, sign up to receive our free weekly newsletter.

[1]Though the Ahmadiyya sect does teach pacifism, it is not regarded as properly Islamic by the vast majority within Islam, and is heavily persecuted by mainstream Muslims.

[2]Durie, “Is Islam a Religion of Peace?” in Independent Journal Review (2015).

[4]Durie, “Is Islam a Religion of Peace?”

[6]Cook, Understanding Jihad (London: University of California Press, 2005), 35. See the whole chapter for a fuller discussion of the greater jihad concept. See also:, and this online fatwa:

[7]Cook, Understanding Jihad, 43.

[8]Qureshi, Answering Jihad: A Better Way Forward (Zondervan, 2016), 38.

[9]Cook, Understanding Jihad, 2.

[10]For more references justifying abrogation see:

[14]Cook, Understanding Jihad, 6.

[15]For references on this see: Bostom ed, The Legacy of Jihad (New York: Prometheus, 2008), 27-28. This material is also quoted here:

[16]Bostom has translations of over twenty Islamic authorities on the nature of Jihad. Ibid.

[18]Usmani, Islam and Modernism (trans. Siddiqui; New Delhi, India: Adam Publishers and Distributors, 2006), 131. Relevant pages are available online here:

[19]Jacques Ellul, Foreword to Bat Ye’or, The Decline of Eastern Christianity under Islam: From Jihad to Dhimmitude, (Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1996), 18 [emphasis and ellipses his].

[20]For extensive documentation see: Bostom, Andrew G. ed. The Legacy of Jihad. New York: Prometheus, 2008.

[21]Henri Lammens, Islam Beliefs and Institutions, (London 1929), 62.

  • Share

Related articles

All content has been loaded.

Take action

Join our email list to receive the latest updates for prayer and action.

Find out more about the legal support we're giving Christians.

Help us put the hope of Jesus at the heart of society.