Did our history begin with the curse of Cain? It is a gory tale of murder, assassination and torture in any event. So much blood has been spilled throughout history that the whole world could be painted red with it–with plenty to spare. When will man stop killing his fellow men? When will his thirst for blood ever be quenched?
Abel was the first man to be killed, by his brother, for no reason. The story of that murder has been preserved by the Quran and the Bible as a lesson to us all—it will remain as an example till the end of time. Study history, and one thing becomes clear: that man is an aggressive creature. His aggressiveness has been untamed by the growth of civilization. Man is as cruel today as he was thousands of years ago. The story of his ruthlessness, his tyranny and his aggression is long and painful. The fire of human aggression has not been quenched even after thousands of years of savagery.
Assassination of individuals and the annihilation of whole groups of peoples are a repetitive theme of history. States have attacked states; countries have fought against their neighbors and against nations far from their borders. Hordes of people living in the steppes and deserts conquered nations with ancient civilizations; blood was shed by Caesar and by Alexander; Baghdad was destroyed by Hulagu and Gengiz; the soil of Kuruksherra ran red with the blood of Kauravas and Pandavas.
Sometimes blood was spilled in the name of honor, sometimes in the name of revenge for supposed wrongs. Sometimes angry hordes overran peaceful lands in search of food, sometimes in search of world domination. But more often the blood of man—created in God’s image—was shed in the name of his Creator. Religion was used as an excuse for mass murder. Seeing this aspect of human nature makes one wonder if mankind is not the basest and most ruthless species on earth. One expects religion to teach man to be civilized, yet religion itself drips with blood. This fact recalls the incident which took place at the time of the creation of Adamas, described by both the Quran and the Bible. The Quran says:
And when thy Lord said to the angels, ‘I am about to place a vicegerent in the earth,’ they said, ‘Wilt Thou place therein such as will cause disorder in it and shed blood?—and we glorify Thee with Thy praise and extol Thy holiness.’ He answered, ‘I know what you know not’. (2.31)
This dialogue between the angels and God is baffling because any book on religious history would seem to prove that the angels were right. If so, why did God refuse to accept their ‘advice’ or uphold their objection to His plan? It was, in fact, an objection to prophecy itself and ultimately to the prophet hood of the Seal of Prophets, Muhammadsa
The history of religion in any part of the world at any time is the history of torture, repression, execution and crucifixion. It is disappointing indeed to find that religion, which is supposed to be the last refuge of peace in a world of war and conflict, is a cause of destruction and bloodshed. Religion itself is not the real cause of mass murder, however, and it is a mistake to think it is. Religion was not given to man to encourage killing.
When one discovers, with mixed feelings of satisfaction and surprise, that God did not make religion for this purpose, one receives a ray of hope. The vicegerent of God, whose creation the angels questioned, was really a great reformer. The religion he preached was named Islam—the religion of peace. The question remains: why, at first glance, does history create the impression that religion sanctions bloodshed and murder in the name of peace? The Quran points out very clearly why a cursory glance at history can lead one to such a conclusion. It cites the past to show that those who perpetuate brutality in religion’s name are either anti-religious or people whose religion has been corrupted. There are also religious leaders who have no warmth, compassion, mercy or piety. To be honest, they are hypocrites with a lust for power cruelty is their ruling passion. It would be a great mistake to associate religion with the misdeeds of such men. The real truth is that God—the Fountainhead of Mercy—does not allow the followers of any religion to oppress His people.
The Quran quotes many historical examples to prove this point. The early part of the prophets’ lives is given by the Quran as a standard for religious reform or for preaching. If physical force had been allowed by God, then surely it would have been permitted by the founders of religions. It is quite clear that force is forbidden. Those followers who came long after the prophets and preached by force either inherited a religion corrupted by time or were themselves corrupt. They used force in the name of religion, yet their religion opposed the use of force.
The Quran’s religious history is full of examples of force and violence used in the name of religion by people who had no religion. People were tortured in the name of Allah by those who had not the faintest clue about God. Noahas who called people to righteousness and piety, was not an oppressor—those who wished to suppress his voice were in the wrong. On hearing Noah’sas message they said: ‘If you don’t desist, O Noah, you shall surely be one of those who are stoned.’ (26.117)
The history of religious persecution, as told by the Quran, clearly shows that followers of true religion are the victims of violence. The Quran gives the example of Abrahamas, who called the people to God by using love, sympathy and humility. He had no sword… not a single weapon. But the elders of his people did exactly what the anti-religious opponents of Noahas had done. Abraham’sas father, Azar, said: ‘If you do not desist from your belief I shall stone you.’ The words used by Azar were virtually identical to those used by Noah’sas enemies. Both Noahas and Abrahamas were insulted and humiliated, both were beaten and tortured, yet both accepted it all with patience and fortitude. Having lit the fire of oppression and mischief, the tormentors of Abraham as tried to burn him alive.
Those who opposed Lotas knew nothing whatsoever about religion. Yet they were his enemies and opposed him and his followers in religion’s name. They threatened him with violence; they warned him that he and his followers would be banished. They did their best to stop him teaching his religion.
The persecutors of Shuaibas did the same and told him: ‘Assuredly we will drive you out and the believers with you from our town and you shall have to return to our religion.’ (7.89)
By citing these examples, the Quran proves there is a pattern of conversion to true religion and also to the force used by the enemies of truth against such conversion. Shuaib’sas reply to the threats typifies the attitude of all God’s prophets. He said: ‘Even though we be unwilling?’ Is it possible to change hearts by force, can a man be reconverted to a religion he has discarded after discovering it to be false? And can he be reconverted after he has discovered the truth of a new religion?
No dictator has ever been able to escape this logic. The historical fact is that the sword has never ruled and will never rule men’s hearts. If the human body can be subdued by force, then the soul cannot. Belief is a thing of the heart. It is human nature which never changes. Innocent people who are sentenced to death in the name of religion by those who do not understand it will continue to raise their voice against this injustice. They will forever pose the question: ‘Do you want us to stick to the beliefs our intelligence has rejected?’ Whenever this question has been asked, enemies of religion across the world have accused the prophets of apostasy and sentenced them to death. Inhuman torture and punishments were invented… the story of violence is one which never ends.
Mosesas and his followers met the same fate at the hands of the so-called religious heads of the time—Pharaoh, Haman and Korah—who said: ‘Slay the sons of those who have believed with him and let their women live.’ (40.26) Conversion from one religion to another was not punished by the prophets, yet they and their followers were punished for the so-called apostasy. After Mosesas, Jesusas endured similar torture and violence which culminated in an attempt to kill him on the Cross. Bloodshed and violence have always been carded out in religion’s name: their victims have throughout time been those found guilty of apostasy. Yet not a single revealed book sanctions the punishment of those who changed from one religion to another. If the texts of revealed Books have been altered by dishonest people, one can hardly blame the Books themselves. By their very nature, Books revealed to God’s prophets cannot teach violence.
Making reference to the history of religions, the Quran proves that the prophets and their followers were victims of violence; victims who, nonetheless, accepted brutality with patience. It is beyond one’s belief that people who change faiths can be tortured in the name of religion, and prophets of God, who are sent to convert us, cannot accept it either. It makes nonsense of their own mission. The Quran also tells how a prophet’s followers are punished for conversion not only during his life, but for hundreds of years after his death. Such oppression has no sanction from God.
Then there is the Quranic story of the people of the cave. These Christians were persecuted for 300 years, and I have seen the places where these poor people were tortured—the amphitheatres intended for gladiatorial combat with bulls and lions. It was in these places that naked Christians were thrown to hungry wild animals. The animals howled and made short shrift of the defenseless Christians. Sometimes these ‘apostates’ were thrown to bulls which had been starved for several days. The starving creatures bellowed and snorted and, with hissing screeches, attacked. The Christians were gored or trampled to death. And after this festival of blood, the laughing Romans returned joyfully home. The ‘apostates’ had been fittingly punished. But while the Christians’ legs trembled, their hearts beat strongly with faith in God.
Their persecution went on intermittently for three centuries. And when they found no place to hide, they fled underground to the catacombs. These long labyrinths exist today and they remind us that the Christians could live with insects, scorpions and snakes but not with religious leaders in their fine clothes.
As well as those people who fled underground—Ashabi Kahf—the Quran also mentions other Christians who believed in the Unity of God and were burned alive for their pains. God says:
“By the heaven having mansions of stars, and the Promised Day, and the witness and he to whom witness is borne, cursed be the Fellows of the Trench—the fire fed with fuel—when they sat by it and they were the witnesses of what they did to the believers. And they hated them not but only because they believed in Allah, the Almighty, the Praiseworthy, to Whom belongs the Kingdom of the heavens and the earth; and Allah is Witness over all things.” (85.2–10)
The enormity of these atrocities is made worse because of the so-called religious protectors who actually prevent worship of Allah; their victims feel a greater anguish from being prevented from worshipping than they do from torture itself. The Quran says: ‘And who is more unjust than the man who prohibits the name of Allah being glorified in Allah’s mosques and seeks to destroy them?’ (2.115) So the Quran totally rejects the use of force to suppress religious freedom. It declares that though such suppression takes place, true believers never use force to preach the name of Allah.
So far we have told the story of the persecution of prophets who came before the time when God’s light was to illuminate the world. But eventually the sun of eternal truth rose on the skies of the Arab peninsula and the world was soon to bask in the light of Muhammad’ssa message.
For thousands of years the world had awaited the greatest prophet. One hundred and twenty-four thousand prophets had lived and died in the hope of welcoming this Seal of the Prophets. The man for whom the whole world was created finally appeared, reflecting the full glory of his Creator. He was greater than all the prophets; his religion was complete. But he, too, was persecuted and his persecution was without precedence. Our Master and Lord, Prophet Muhammadsa, endured every conceivable form of punishment, torture and torment suffered by the earlier prophets and their followers.
Early Muslims were laid out in the blazing sun. Burning stones were put on their chests; they were dragged through the streets of Mecca like dead animals. They were shunned, and kept hungry and thirsty. They were thrown into dungeons, their belongings were seized and their families were broken up. Pregnant women were thrown off camels, their inevitable deaths the cause of merriment. Their dead bodies were cut asunder—the liver of the Prophet’s uncle was even eaten. They were cut down with swords and pierced by arrows. The Prophetsa was stoned by ruffians and vagabonds and was chased and pelted by urchins till the cobblestones of Taif ran red with his blood. And at the battle-ground of Uhud the Prophetsa was seriously wounded.
This bloodshed took place in the name of religion, because Muslims said Rabbunallaha, our Lord, is Allah. This persecution and torture was perpetrated in the name of religion because, according to the polytheists of Mecca, the Prophet’s and the Muslims were apostates. The polytheist called the Prophet and his followers ‘Sabi’—people who discard their ancestral religion and adopt a new one. In order to put down this ‘evil’, the Meccans adopted methods of torture and suppression which had been used by their predecessors. Muhammadsa and his followers suffered patiently and with fortitude for a long time to prove that evil is caused by anti-religious people and not by followers of the truth.
The Prophetsa, exalted by Allah to a position with no equal, showed his persecutors only unsurpassable love, mercy and forgiveness in return for their evil. When victory finally came and the polytheists of Mecca were subdued by the Prophetsa, he ordered a general amnesty. There was no massacre and no punishment for his persecutors. No arrests were made. No executions took place. Instead of retribution there was the Quranic proclamation: ‘Let no reproach be on you this day. May Allah forgive you. He is the most merciful of the merciful.’
That day the cruelest of the cruel were pardoned. Those who had tormented helpless slaves on the burning sand were forgiven. Those who had dragged Muslims through the streets like dead animals were absolved. Those who had breached the peace were pardoned, as were those who had stoned defenseless Muslims—even the woman who had eaten the liver of the Prophet’ssa uncle.
If the history of the world from Adamas to the present day were ever lost—and with it the record of every persecution and of every charter of human rights—a glance at the life of the Prophetsa would more than prove that true religion does not cause hatred, persecution, repression or the suppression of thought.
But the Prophetsa did not confine his teachings to calling for religious tolerance. Since the Prophetsa of Islam is ‘A Mercy for the Universe’ (21.108), a general proclamation is made by the Quran: ‘There shall be no compulsion in religion.’ Compulsion is unnecessary because, ‘Guidance and error have been clearly distinguished’ (2.257) and there is no possibility of confusing the two. On the face of it, this proclamation seems unusual and anomalous. On one hand there was an arbitrary authority, hell-bent on wiping out a small group of people because of their ‘apostasy’ with every means at its disposal. And when this group of ‘apostasy’ gained power, it was told by the Quran to proclaim that:
“There shall be no compulsion in religion, for guidance and error have been clearly distinguished; so whoever refuses to be led by those who transgress and believes in Allah, has surely grasped a strong handle—one which knows no breaking.” (2.257)
But it must be noted that this proclamation is made in the second chapter of the Quran, Al-Baqarah, which was revealed in the first two or three years after the Prophet’ssa arrival in Medina, a place where Muslims were not only free from Meccan persecution but also held power. What could be a more human and generous proclamation of peace from a prophet who, only a year or two earlier, had been persecuted for ‘changing his religion’?
People who persecute in the name of religion are totally ignorant of the essence of religion. Religion is a metamorphosis of hearts. Religion is not politics and its adherents do not make up political parties. Neither is it a nationality with limited loyalties, nor a country with geographical borders. It is the transformation of hearts—transformation for the good of the soul. The home of religion is in the depths of the heart. It is beyond the sway of the sword. Mountains are not moved by the sword, nor are hearts changed by force. While persecution in the name of religion is the repetitive theme in the history of human aggression, freedom of conscience is the Quran’s repetitive theme.
The Prophetsa was asked again and again to proclaim: ‘This is the truth from your Lord; let him who will, believe, and let him who will, disbelieve.’ (18.30) Truth is obviously a matter of the heart; it has nothing to do with force. Once it has been seen it cannot be blotted out by any power. Hence the Quran’s assertion that once truth is known it is our choice to accept or reject it. Yet, elsewhere, the Quran says: ‘Verily, this is a reminder: so whosoever wishes may take to the way that leads to his Lord.’ (76.30) No charter of human rights can surpass the clarity of the Quranic phrase faman Shaa’ (whosoever wishes). The word ‘whosoever’ is all inclusive. It is surprising that after such a clear declaration anyone could possibly think that Islam supports the use of force.
Again, in the 39th chapter of the Quran, the Prophetsa is ordered to tell unbelievers: ‘It is Allah I worship in sincerest obedience.’ Now, as far as you are concerned, ‘Worship what you like besides Him.’ (39.16)
Since freedom of conscience—freedom to believe and to preach—is the cornerstone of religion, and repression of religious heresy is the aim of antireligious forces, the Quran lays great emphasis on the freedom of conversion. The last line of Chapter 109 of the Quran sums up the basic principle of a true religion. ‘For you, your religion and for me, my religion.’ In an earlier passage (10.108), God refers to the same principle by asking a rhetorical question. Addressing the Holy Prophetsa, He says: ‘If thy Lord had enforced His will, surely all those on earth would have believed, without exception? Will thou, then, take it upon thyself to force people to become believers?’ In the scheme of creation, man must have complete free will to believe or otherwise; there is no compulsion; a man must use his reason and understanding. After all, faith is a gift given by God to those He thinks deserve it.
One hundred and twenty-four thousand prophets were sent by God and showed, by their teaching and example, that the bearers of the divine message are the oppressed, not the oppressors. The prophets won over hearts by moral and spiritual strength, not by physical force. It is a great tragedy that the ordained priests and the turbaned Mullahs with their flowing robes of ‘piety’ became the tormentors of the innocent in the name of oppressed prophets. They monopolized religion, yet they knew nothing of it. They claimed to protect the honor of their prophets by maligning others, by spreading malicious lies and, above all, by perpetrating crimes of violence which shamed humanity. They did it before the birth of the Holy Prophetsa. They do it still.
In medieval Europe, the so-called followers of Christas—the popes and the prelates, cardinals and canons, and the elders of the Church—wrote a chapter of terror into the history books. St Augustine called it ‘righteous persecution which the Church of Christ inflicts upon the impious’ (1). Today’s Christian historians admit that this ‘righteous persecution’, inflicted in Christ’sas name, was a disgrace to the Church.
Madame Tussaud’s waxworks museum in London has a strange, moving and terrifying exhibition of this persecution. The museum was originally founded in Paris in 1770 and moved to England in 1802. Its walls are lined with waxworks of famous and infamous people. Its Chamber of Horrors is a kind of underground dungeon. The figures there have been modeled into such uncanny likenesses that you can almost see them breathing. Many visitors there have stopped to ask directions from a friendly looking curator, only to find they have been talking to a dummy! On display are the death-masks from the guillotined heads of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette, which were personally cast by Madame Tussaud. There is an authentic gallows with other instruments of torture: pillory, stocks, whipping-post, ducking-stool, iron maiden rack, galleys, bed of Procrustes, cross, gibbet, halter and many others. Some exhibits are so gruesome that they are covered with screens to keep them away from children and squeamish adults.
It is a strange world where a man can rise to the heights of prophethood and talk with his Creator, then sink to the depths of becoming a priest and questioning Joan of Arc about her visions of angels. He can sink even lower and become an inquisitor. The instruments of torture shown at Madame Tussaud’s tell the tragic story of the Spanish and French Inquisitions. Innocent people were tortured for their so-called apostasy; they were forced to confess that they had recanted from the true religion. When they refused, they were whipped and flogged, put on the rack, lynched, impaled, pilloried, branded and burned. The victims either confessed or died a miserable death. These dignitaries of the Church in all their finery, who tortured innocent Christians, remind one of Christas with his crown of thorns, bleeding on the Cross and crying with a loud voice: ‘Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani?’ (Matthew 27:46). These were the people who symbolically consumed the flesh and blood of Christas at Communion services, yet could not recall that the Pharisees had asked Pontius Pilate to crucify Christas because he had ‘apostatized’ and abandoned the religion of his forefathers. But the crucifixion of Christas pales into insignificance when compared with the Inquisition of medieval Christians. It is with a sense of relief and, indeed, pride that Islam, with its declaration of ‘no compulsion in the matter of belief’, has finally closed the door on such atrocities in religion’s name. But this sense of relief and pride is only short-lived. Any Muslim will lower his head with shame when he sees today’s ulema vying with what the Christian priests of medieval Europe did to devise new ways of suppressing freedom of thought and conscience. And yet these are the very ulema who claim to protect the honor of the Holy Prophetsa whom the Quran describes as a ‘Mercy for the Universe’.
These ulema claim to be the very personification of mercy, but their hearts are without compassion. Instead, they are filled with anger. The use of force in the name of religion has now become part of their faith. In the name of God’s holy water—sent to cool our tempers—they kindle the fires of hatred and anger in the hearts of the innocent. The followers of the Prince of Peacesa, whose blood cleansed barbaric Arabia, are now being persuaded to murder helpless people. In the name of the protector of poor people’s unguarded homes his followers are encouraged to rob the homes of people who are powerless to defend themselves. In the name of the Prophetsa who protected the honor of even ruffians’ wives, the happy and loving marriages of Muslim women are annulled and transformed into adulterous relationships. In the name of the builder of the first mosque in Medina, who offered it to the Christians of Najran for Sunday services, in the name of the Prophetsa who taught his followers to respect the temples of other faiths, today’s ulema incite the masses to destroy the mosques of a small group of people whose lives are devoted to the spreading of shahada2.The unjust acts the Prophetsa condemned and banned forever are now being perpetrated in his very name. What would the Holy Prophetsa think if he could see the ulema of his umma falsely accusing the elders of other Muslim groups of all sorts of misdeeds and shouting abuse about women and housewives? How will an agnostic react to this demonstration of ‘religious zeal’? What Muslim could think, even for a moment, that our Prophetsa, would have advised the ulema of his umma to deliver provocative, disruptive speeches; or that he would have ordered them to deliver such fiery sermons that entire villages of poor and helpless people were set ablaze? Not satisfied with all this, could the Prince of Peacesa have told religious leaders to treat as apostates all those Muslims whose understanding of Islam did not conform to their own? Would he have sanctioned the killing of them and their women and the destruction of their mosques—said to be the only divine way to blot out apostasy?
These are the questions we should all think seriously about. Muslims should consider the attitude of these ulema. For suppression, torture, execution, arson and the razing of mosques are not the Prophet’ssa tradition. Every stone in the streets of Mecca over which the so-called apostates were dragged bears witness to this. Every grain of burning Arabian sand where helpless people were tortured for accepting Islam does the same. The cobbles of Taif, where the blood of the Holy Prophetsa was spilled, bear witness to the fact that our great Master—mercifully did not teach that religious belief was compulsory, that he did not order the burning of houses of worship in the name of worship or the dishonoring of women in the name of honor. Muslims hang their heads in shame and their souls cry out over today’s religious leaders who preach violence in the name of the Prophetsa.
- See P. Schaff, Select Library of Nicene and Post-Nicene
Fathers , 1st series, vol. IV (Buffalo, 1887)
- The proclamation of the Unity of God and the propagation
of Islam and the Holy Prophet Muhammad.