Fractured Fundamentalisms

Extremism exists in every major faith, and sometimes turns violent

Continued from page 5

  • How do Christian, Jewish and Islamic fundamentalism differ?
  • What kind of Muslim is Osama bin Laden?
  • Does fundamentalism inevitably cause violence?
  • What does the Qu'ran say about violence?
  • Why don't top Muslims reprimand terrorists?
  • Why are there so few Islamic democracies?


    What responsibility does Islam bear for these acts? What does the Qu'ran say about violence?
    The word Islam, which means "surrender," is related to the Arabic salam, "peace." When the Prophet Muhammad brought the revealed scripture called the Qu'ran ("recitation") to the Arabs in the early 7th century C.E., one of his main purposes was precisely to stop the kind of indiscriminate killing we saw on September 11th.

    At the time the Arabian Peninsula was in crisis. The tribal system was breaking down, and the various tribes were locked into a murderous cycle of vendetta and counter vendetta. For a weak tribe, or a man who lacked powerful protection, survival was nearly impossible. The Prophet himself suffered several assassination attempts, and when his religious and social message ran him afoul of the establishment of Mecca, the small Muslim community was persecuted. Things got so bad that the Muslims had to migrate to Medina, some 250 miles to the north, and there they were subject to attack by the Meccan army, the greatest power in Arabia.

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    For about five years, there was war and the Muslims narrowly escaped extermination. Terrible things were done on both sides. But when Muhammad sensed that the tide had just begun turn in his favor, he completely changed tack. He concentrated on building a peaceful coalition of tribes, and initiated an inspired, brave and ingenious policy of non-violence. This proved so successful that eventually Mecca opened its gates to the Muslims voluntarily, without a single drop of blood being shed.

    Because the Qu'ran was revealed in the context of an all-out war, several passages deal with the conduct of armed conflict. Warfare was a desperate business in Arabia. An Arab chieftain was not expected to take prisoners; it was a given that he would simply kill everybody he could get his hands on. Muhammad knew that if the Muslims were defeated they would all be slaughtered to the last man or woman.

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