When studying history, both in a professional and academic sense, we try to make connections between civilizations and time periods. Historians have attempted to discover universal constants of human nature, a bond that forms from continent to continent and human being to human being. Are there constant qualities that people posses and reflect in all civilizations? It is extremely difficult to make generalizations about centuries of modern history. To say that something is true of all of history is virtually impossible, as a counter-example exists for just about anything that can be said of any group of civilizations. To say that all religions are spread by violence is equally unfair and untrue because contrasted religions have been spread in exceedingly diverse regions of the world, by vastly different cultures. Islam, as a prime example, has been characterized inequitably by historians and the media as a religion of violence. Islam was mainly spread through Arab territorial conquests (Flint, 1995). Upon examination, it is not fair to make the generalization that Islam is a religion of violence. One can see when looking at world religion on a whole that Islam was no more violent than any other religion. In fact, not only is Islam not a fundamentally violent philosophy, but we can also see that many other religions normally considered “non-violent,” such as Christianity or Hinduism, have been spread through bloody conquest. Thus, in searching for a universal constant of history, we should not fall into the “fallacy of abstractions,” as Betts (1997) keenly puts it, and assume that because of isolated incidents and conflicts of territorial ambitions, that all religions have violent tendencies.
Throughout the centuries Islam has been a victim of circumstance. It has been perceived by many as oppressive and cruel. This belief originated over a thousand years ago, when Islamic people first threatened the western world. As they slowly undermined Byzantine authority, Christians became terrified of their presence, resulting in widespread animosity and aversion. Hindus and Buddhists
from the South Asian subcontinent lived under Islamic law for hundreds of years. Eventually, in the twentieth century, split the region into angry factions (Johnson, 1997).
Mohammed, the prophet of Islam, was a great warrior. This invariably lead defeated people to believe that he begot a cult of war and violence. Over the centuries, it has developed the ability to instill a sense of holy purpose onto its believers and soldiers, where they go into a battle of certain death for their faith in the jihad, or holy war. The jihad is still a potent source of conflict and aversion, as many of the problems in the Middle East center around the issue of Islamic Fundamentalism and the jihads.
Originally, Islam was perceived by western historians as a religion of violence and conquest, “by preying on the caravans of the Quraish, Mohammed weakened them to the point of submission (Anonymous, 1996). In fact, Mohammed was a warrior, aristocrat, and brilliant strategist, a stark contrast to many other holy men of history. He was forced to both defend his cities and force submission. Because of the strong military powers of his religious predecessors and oppressors, the pagans of the Middle East. One might assume that the submission was attained through military and forceful means.
While Mohammed preached peace from 610 to 622 AD, he attracted few converts and was persecuted by the current ruling paganistic regime. After the visions of 622 AD, he realized that his cause was even more urgent than before, and only at that point did he begin to utilize his military skills (Beichler, 1998). Despite the more violent nature that his quest took, even after the revelations by Gabriel in 622 AD, “by reciting his revelations aloud, Mohammed made many converts (Thomas, 1988). Mohammed was not a purely violent man, but also a great speaker and demagogue (Beichler, 1998). He did not solely attack the pagans of the Middle East, he also attracted a great deal of converts by the truths he spoke. “If he could be ruthless, he was more often gentle, kind, generous, magnanimous. He could be Christ-like in his sympathy for the poor (Thomas, 1998). Another non-violent way of spreading Islamic culture was through the merchant system which developed around its new centers of trade and culture in both Mecca and Medina (Johnson, 1997). People from all around the region would come to those cities to trade, and were attracted by the religion.
As Islam developed and spread rapidly, its control quickly began to encroach on Byzantine territory where it found diverse groups of people, who resented the foreign control of the flailing western power. The people viewed the Middle Eastern Islamic conquerors as liberators from the oppressive Byzantine Empire, and welcomed both Islamic soldiers and religion. In addition to other non-violent means of conquest, when Muslims actually did militarily gain territory, they allowed other religions to grow around them. They did not force conversion by slaughter in the name of Allah. The Muslims were tolerant of both foreign religions, peoples, and traders. They welcomed Far Eastern merchants into their territory. In India, while they did gain control of the South Asian subcontinent, they never forced conversion, nor did they enter the territory with a religious intent. The reason that the Hindu and Muslim clashes arose was based on religious differences, which were largely initiated by the Hindus, who viewed their conquerors as heretics (Betts, 1997). The Koran was very tolerant, accepted many beliefs, and was another basis for the peaceful spread of Islam. The Koran appealed to the impoverished and the destitute (Betts, 1997). People from all walks of life could embrace the Koran because it was targeted at them, not at the government-ranking aristocrats that most other religions were centered around. Those religions had been created for the purpose of social control, rather than deep spiritual convictions or for spiritual well-being. The Muslim needs no priest nor intermediary to pray to Allah the only spiritual transmitter to god he needs is prayer. Islam does not even require a mosque or temple for litany. The actual religion of Islam preaches decidedly against violence and speaks out against aggression.
“The concept of jihad refers to inner spiritual struggle of Muslims for self control in order to do good (Flint, 1995) Actually, the average Muslim is not violent, nor is he driven by holy conquest. Islam has been unfairly depicted as a religion spread through Jihad and the lure of riches and conquest. But Islam, the most unlikely of candidates, has been a relatively tolerant religion. It has never believed in any form of religious genocide, nor had any inquisitions or messianic crusades, as religions of many other parts of the world did. In fact Akbar I of 1556-1605 AD, the third ruler of the Mughal Empire, took the ultimate steps toward tolerance, by marring a Hindu princess, and allowing Hindus a strong role in the government (Thomas, 1998). The wars that Islam fought have been rather secular, despite the fact that their government often was not. The same cannot be said of Christian, Hindu, and Aztec government, all which had strong ties to both violence and conquest, and indeed, while often are characterized as non-violent forms of religion (with perhaps the exception of Aztec), are equally as violent as Islam, if not more so.
Perhaps the religion that has perhaps shaped the world more than any other religion has been Christianity. This is not to deny the roles of the vast numbers of religions in many parts of the world, nor is it to say that Christianity has been particularly unique. Despite the fact that the Western world likes to set European man and Christians apart from the rest of the world. Their connection to imperialism, mercantilism, and social conquest is undeniably real. While Islam is seen by many as a violent religion because of its origins and the popularization of the term ‘jihad,’ they have never had far-reaching imperialistic goals, nor have they preceded their soldiers with missionaries. Christians, however, were instrumental in the undoing of Africa, and in fact the seeds that the pious missionaries of Europe planted into African society eventually lead to the destabilization of centuries of culture and hierarchy. The missionaries poured into Africa, only to be followed by soldiers and company men. It was the foothold of the missionaries that allowed Europeans to eventually dominate the continent, all of which was done in the name of “saving enlightening the heathens (Beichler, 1998). Christianity is certainly not without its bloody conquest, as the most blatant example is that of the Crusades. The Christians of the middle-ages interpreted the Crusades as the very symbol of their faith. The Christians ventured towards the Holy Land with the sole purpose of killing the ‘infidels’ and ridding the Holy Land of all Islamic influence and bringing it back into the light of Christianity. The Muslims in the Holy Land provided important technology for the Christians.
In all truths, Christianity was spread to Latin America in a most brutal fashion. The Spaniards murdered millions of Indians, and wiped out civilizations of people not for the purpose of not only religion, but gold as well. The primary reason that Christianity remains the ubiquitous religion in Latin America is that the Spaniards forced conversion of their Indian slaves, something that Islamic conquerors rarely did. In fact they charged a tax on their non-Muslim subjects which eventually lead to conversion by choice rather than by force. Christians in the Americas came to dominate the continent by using their superior technology to forcefully overwhelm, enslave, or force conversion on inhabitants. In contrast, the Islamic people attracted converts from an economic standpoint and came to absorb many conquered people, as evident in the cultural blending of South Asia (Cobb, 1998). Spaniards burned books, temples, and sculptures, and quelled all rebellion by the once mighty Americans. The Spanish enslaved the Indians of Central and South America, while the British, Dutch, and French enslaved the Africans.
Another religion with ties to violence is Hinduism. While that may be a startling revelation, history proves that it has had many violent incidents and tendencies. It was originally a product of the early Aryans, a war-like people who stormed into South Asia, sacking cities and eventually covering virtually all traces of the early culture of the Indus Valley. These Aryans transmitted their beliefs onto the now helpless people of the Indus river, and created what would eventually be Hinduism. While Hinduism remained relatively non-violent throughout the centuries, when the first Muslim invaders appeared and they clashed in both a philosophical and violent sense. Hindu violence returned in the mid-twentieth century, when they finally regained control of India. They smashed a Muslim temple at Ayodhya (cobb, 1998), and Sikh and Tamil rebel groups rebel against their authority. What is even more notable about Hinduism, is its rigid caste system, in which peoples have set social classes that are totally unchangeable and are products of the religion. The untouchables were considered as low as animals, and forced to do menial work such as sweeping and leather working. They were forced into a life of separatism and the rest of Hindu culture either ignored them completely or hated them. On the other side of the world, in Central America, the Aztec people were powerful warriors, who swept across the Mexican plains, conquering villages and whole peoples (Anonymous, 1996) Their religion consisted of brutal human sacrifices of enemy slaves, in fact the sacrifices grew so many in number that they were watching their population decline significantly, which eventually allowed the Spanish invaders to
When we look at the aggregate spectrum of cultures and religions, we see a significant relationship between religions and violence, one could conclude that much of the world’s problems today are echoes of past religious exploits in places such as Latin America, India, and Africa. To say that religion on a whole is violent and counter productive would be a massive abstraction and false too. In
fact, the purpose of this essay is not to denigrate the notion of organized religion, but to clarify the purpose of the Islamic religion, and to dispel the commonly held notion that Islam is solely a cult of violence. Through the ages, religion brought light to literally billions of people. It has inspired artists, scientists, writers and scholars. It was the founding basis of Western Civilization, and our entire society. We cannot deny it’s overriding role in our history. The purpose of this essay is also not to contrast Islam as good and Christianity as bad. Truly, Islam, when closely examined, is a rather tolerant and non-violent religion. It has no history of imperialism, nor has it ever forced the conversion of mass people. Whatever violence it has created, it is at least not any worse than any other religion. In summary, it is not fair to say that religions are fundamentally violent, nor does it do justice the study of history, which indeed proves to us that often religion had a far more noble purpose. Would our world perhaps have been a better place? That question can never be answered. We do know that religion was both violent and beneficial, to classify it as one or the other would not do it justice. However, we will continue our search for the universal constant, and perhaps the study of religion will someday bring us closer to the truth.
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