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The Roots of Violence in Islam

OurIndonesia – Within the last few weeks, NU and Muhammadiyah, the two largest Islamic organizations in Indonesia, have been striving for reconciliation in order to heal the tension which resulted from the political battle between Amien Rais and Abdurrahman Wahid.

The question is this — does the peace attempt truly move towards real peace or does it still leave both sides, Christian and Muslim, with traumatic memories and feelings hich could erupt in violence again at any time? This article investigates the historical roots of violence in the Muslim community history, which whether it is realized or not, has links to the more recent violence.

Conceptually, it is the peace injunction that is central to Islamic doctrine. Thus the word Islam means peace, or to be secure, saved or to submit one’s self to Allah. In the ritual of prayer that is the foremost obligation in Islam, the last pledge is a prayer for safety and peace for all humanity. Thus the penultimate aim of Islam is peace.

However, the above conception is not always appropriate to the Muslim community’s journey. During the early days of the development of Islam, there were at least six battles joined in by the prophet, though the objectives were to uphold economic justice, human equality and defense.

This matter supported by Al Quran 4:75: “And what is wrong with you that you fight not in the Cause of Allâh, and for those weak, ill treated and oppressed among men, women, and children, whose cry is: “Our Lord! Rescue us from this town whose people are oppressors; and raise for us from You one who will protect, and raise for us from You one who will help.” And also the verse: “And fight in the Way of Allâh those who fight you, but transgress not the limits. Truly, Allâh likes not the transgressors.” (Al Baqarah 190)

These wars had economic motives, such as the extermination of groups which refused to pay zakat (the tithe paid by rich people) in the Abu Bakr period, or were for expanding the Islamic region as happened in Umar bin Khattab’s time, or were over power struggles as happened in the periods of Ustman and Ali.

Following the death of the Prophet, at least 70.000 Muslims died in the battlefield. Even the last two caliphs, Utsman and Ali, were brutally murdered in war. Ahmad Amin mentions the extent of war in Muslim history as a slanderous situation (alfitnah al-Kubra). Additionally, violent disasters occurred during the Islamic dynasty’s sovereignty, particularly during the Umayya and Abbasid dynasties. The violence in those periods was both physical as well as intellectual.

The intellectual violence took the form of murdering thinkers who were considered to be threats to the powers that be, such as the murder of Ghaylan al-Dimasyqi dan Al-Ja’d bin Dirham. His view was that the power in the Muslim community should not be the monopoly of Arab people (Quraish). Thus thee Sunni ideology, or the monopoly of Ali bin Abi Thalib’s descendants became challenged by the political rule of the Shi’ite ideology wherein anyone in the Muslim community can be approved based on public deliberation.

The violence inflicted in the name of politics was terrifying. For example, in the Umayya dynasty, during the Yazid bin Mu’awiyah period, Hussein bin Ali was decapitated and his head was taken to the castle to be play with. An old man who knew Husain as a child said: “I have even seen that face being kissed by Rasulullah”. This event called as “Karbala tragedy” represents a major split between Sunni and Shiite Islam at 64H.

Violence also characterized the Abbasid dynasty. Akbar S Ahmed illustrates this during the military coup of Abbasid against Umayyah: “On one occasion Abdullah, an Abbasid General invited 8 Umayyah leaders for dinner in the June summer 750 M in his house at Jaffa. While people were having dinner, they were caught by the troops. After the troops stabbed all those Umayyah leaders to death, the maids spread out the mat on their twisted bodies while other guests continue their dinner happily.” (Discovering of Islam).

During the decline of Umayyah’s power in Spain and that of Abbasiyah’s that had spread from Africa up to the Arab peninsula, the Christian troops from western Europe attacked both Islamic dynasties. In the holy war mission to conquer the “kafir” (infidel) people, the Muslims were faced to two choices: embrace Christianity or migrate from the region. This war was followed by another war – the Crusades; a war which lasted for almost a hundred years and left a bitter history of trauma relations between Christianity and Islam.

In the beginning of the ‘20s, some Muslim regions were suppressed by the European colonial countries. For instance, Indonesia by the Dutch, Egypt, Morocco and Algeria by France, Malaysia and Nigeria by England and Libya by Italy. Then the dazzling historical stage of the Muslim community was submerged, as if the tale had suddenly closed.

Those violent tracks, known or not, are still leaving their traces on the Muslim community’s nature today. For example, the American government’s attitude toward the Muslim regions like Afghanistan after the 11 September tragedy in 2001, provokes again Muslim’s emotions about the bitter events of the past.

As the consequence of that pain, some Muslim communities search for their primordial identity to disclose again the humanitarian values they possessed. However, those values tend to show identity in the form of attributes, not in the spirit expressed in the attitude.

In the Indonesian context, those attributes are expressed through the scale of the demand for Islamic sharia’ in some regions. The demands are often performed in violent ways, for example forming various Jihad commander groups, attacking amusement places, forcing women to dress in particular ways, intolerance towards other thought, and making the truth of one group’s thought as absolutely essential and leaving no room for dialog.

These methods support Max Weber’s claim that Islam is a religion that has a military ethos, but not one of entrepreneurship. Thus the Islamic mission is generally understood by the illustration of someone “holding Qur’an in the right hand and a sword in the left hand.”

Yet Islam, in my opinion, is not a complex teaching, far above us in the sky, but rather is an inner-self religion, which is a part of our spirit. Among those teachings, which seems to be trivial, but which is very basic is how we can be at peace with our selves in order to spread peace upon the humans and environment.


The Indonesian version of this article was published in IslamLib.