Religion — Cure or Cause of Conflict?

I. Introduction

It seems that conflict is something inborn in human nature. It is as old as the fall of Adam: “Say to My servants that they should only say those things that are best: for Satan doth sow dissensions among them: for Satan is to man an avowed enemy” (1) (Quran – 17:53).

Certainly, divine revelation came down to support what is good and defeat what is evil. It is meant to unite all people on the path of mercy; or, in other words, to be cure rather than cause of conflict.

In the following, I shall try to deal with the question from an Islamic perspective, Islam being the final version of the message of Heaven to man, and Prophet Muhammad – pbuh – being the last prophet, who was sent not only to his people but to humanity at large.

II. Cain and Abel

The story of Adam’s two sons Cain and Abel tells about the earliest incidence of conflict on earth:

“Recite to them the truth of the story of the two sons of Adam. Behold! they each presented a sacrifice (to God): It was accepted from one, but not from the other. Said the latter: ‘Be sure I will slay thee.’ ‘Surely,’ said the former, ‘Allah doth accept of the sacrifice of those who are righteous.

‘If thou dost stretch thy hand against me, to slay me, it is not for me to stretch my hand against thee to slay thee: for I do fear God, the cherisher of the worlds.

‘For me, I intend to let thee draw on thyself my sin as well as thine, for thou wilt be among the companions of the fire, and that is the reward of those who do wrong.’

‘The (selfish) soul of the other led him to the murder of his brother: he murdered him, and became (himself) one of the lost ones.

“Then God sent a raven, who scratched the ground, to show him how to hide the shame of his brother. ‘Woe is me!’ said he: ‘Was I not even able to be as this raven, and to hide the shame of my brother?’ Then he became full of regrets.

“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” (Quran – 5:27-32).

In this story, there is a clear description of a person who is righteous, God-fearing, innocent, calm and merciful, embodied in the character of Abel. The contrast is in the character of Cain: arrogant, jealous and then murderous. It is the aim of all religions to strengthen the good qualities of a person, summed up in the word “righteousness,” and purify all people from such bad qualities as Cain’s.

“He it is Who sends blessings on you, as do His angels, that He may bring you out from the depths of darkness into light: and He is full of mercy to the believers” (Quran – 33:43).

III. The first Islamic constitution

Prophet Muhammad – pbuh – in the first few weeks of his advent to Medina, took three steps that proved to be the basic pillars of the Muslim community. He built the mosque, established brotherhood between the Meccans who migrated with him and the Medinans who received him, and established the covenant. By the second step he destroyed the centuries-old traditional tribal divide and built a universal community on the basis of faith. By the third step, he instituted the constitution of civil society where both the Jews and the Muslims of Medina vowed to live together according to fairness, equity and mutual support. Within the Muslim community were believers who came originally from Persia, the Roman Empire, Abyssinia and Yemen, in addition to the Meccan Arabs. The Jewish community included several tribes, the largest of which were Qaynuqa, An-Na’dir and Qurayza. All of them vowed to honor the covenant and live in peace as citizens of the same city.

Following are excerpts from the text of the covenant:

“In the name of God, the Compassionate, the Merciful. This is a covenant given by Muhammad to the believers and Muslims of Quraysh, Yathrib and those who followed them, joined them and fought with them. They constitute one Ummah to the exclusion of all other men. As was their custom, the Muhajirun from Quraysh are bound together and shall ransom their prisoners in kindness and justice as believers do…

“All pious believers shall rise as one man against whomsoever rebels or seeks to commit injustice, aggression, sin or spread mutual enmity between the believers, even though he may be one of their sons…

“Any Jew who follows us is entitled to our assistance and the same rights as any one of us, without injustice or partisanship…

“Whoever has entered into this covenant and believed in God and in the last day shall never protect or give shelter to a convict or a criminal; whoever does so shall be cursed by God and upon him shall the divine wrath fall on the day of judgment. Neither repentance nor ransom shall be acceptable from him. No object of contention among you may not be referred to God and to Muhammad – may God’s peace and blessings be upon him – for judgment. As the Jews fight on the side of the believers, they shall spend of their wealth on equal par with the believers. The Jews of Banu Awa are an ummah alongside the believers. The Jews have their religion and the Muslims theirs. Both enjoy the security of their own populace and clients except the unjust and the criminal among them. The unjust or the criminal destroys only himself and his family…

“The Jews shall bear their public expenses and so will the Muslims. Each shall assist the other against any violator of this covenant. Their relationship shall be one of mutual advice and consultation, and mutual assistance and charity rather than harm and aggression. However, no man is liable to a crime committed by his ally. Assistance is due to the party suffering from an injustice, not to one perpetrating it. Since the Jews fight on the side of the believers they shall spend their wealth on a par with them. The town of Yathrib shall constitute a sanctuary for the parties of this covenant. Their neighbors shall be treated as themselves as long as they perpetrate no crime and commit no harm. No woman may be taken under protection without the consent of her family. Whatever difference or dispute between the parties to this covenant remains unsolved shall be referred to God and to Muhammad, the Prophet of God – may God’s peace and blessing be upon him. God is the guarantor of the piety and goodness that is embodied in this covenant.” (2)

The covenant is a historic landmark in the concept of modern civil society. The early Muslims proved to be ready to coexist with any other faith on the sound principles of freedom and fairness. Had there been Christians or followers of other universal faiths in Medina, they would have signed the covenant that protected their rights as citizens.

IV. No coercion in Islam

“Let there be no compulsion in religion” (Quran – 2:256).

Commenting on this excerpt from the Quran, Muhammad Asad (3) says: “On the strength of the above categorical prohibition of coercion (ikrah) in anything that pertains to faith or religion, all Islamic jurists (fuqahaa), without any exception, hold that forcible conversion is under all circumstances null and void, and that any attempt at coercing a nonbeliever to accept the faith of Islam is a grievous sin: a verdict which disposes of the widespread fallacy that Islam places before the unbelievers the alternative of ‘conversion’ or the sword.”

Man is given the power of reason, which distinguishes him from other animals. But with reason he is given the freedom of choice. Consequently, he bears responsibility for the course of action he chooses, reaps the fruits of good and bears the consequences of evil.

All divine revelation sent down to prophets, from Adam to Muhammad, peace be upon them all, was meant to show man both the road of good and the road of evil. Man is supposed to use reason and, with intelligence, discover the truth. In this sense, divine revelation is mercy that God extends to humans to help them lead a life of honesty and purity.

So, freedom is the basic point. To testify under coercion that you are a Muslim is unacceptable. You should freely and willingly have faith that God is your creator, Muhammad your prophet and the Quran your book of guidance.

Muslims, from the time they were a few, poor, downtrodden people in Mecca to the time they became lords of their own destiny all over the world, never coerced people into religion. They fought Roman and Persian tyrants to gain access to the oppressed people and convey the message to them.

It is narrated that Prophet Muhammad – pbuh – had a Jewish servant and never ordered him to become a Muslim. When the servant fell ill, the Prophet visited him to ask about his health. (4)

Umar Ibn Al-Khattab, the second Caliph after the Prophet, is reported to have visited a woman on her deathbed. He advised her to bear witness that there is no deity but God and that Muhammad is God’s messenger. She said she was not ready for that. He recited the verse: “Let there be no coercion in religion.” (5)

After the Islamic victories over the Roman and Persian empires, many people chose not to become Muslims and lived peacefully as citizens.

Following are some of the numerous Quranic verses that again and again confirm this universal principle:

“Say, ‘The truth is from your Lord’: Let him who will, believe, and let him who will, reject (it)” (Quran – 18:29).

“He said: ‘Get ye down, both of you, – all together, from the Garden, with enmity one to another: but if, as is sure, there comes to you Guidance from Me, whosoever follows My Guidance, will not lose his way, nor fall into misery. But whosoever turns away from My Message, verily for him is a life narrowed down, and We shall raise him up blind on the Day of Judgment’” (Quran – 20:123-124).

“Seest thou not that to Allah bow down in worship all things that are in the heavens and on earth – the sun, the moon, the stars; the hills, the trees, the animals; and a great number among mankind? But a great number are (also) such as are fit for Punishment: and such as God shall disgrace, – none can raise to honor: for Allah carries out all that He wills” (Quran – 22:18).

“Verily We created Man from a drop of mingled sperm, in order to try him: So We gave him (the gifts), of Hearing and Sight.

“We showed him the Way: whether he be grateful or ungrateful (rests on his will)” (Quran – 76:2-3).

“Therefore do thou give admonition, for thou art one to admonish. Thou art not one to manage (men’s) affairs” (Quran – 88:21-22).

V. Conclusion

Conflict, whether within the family, the workplace or among states and civilizations, is a fact of life. Cain followed his base instincts so far as to kill his brother. In more recent history, the industrialized states spread aggression all over the world in search of raw materials and markets. In modern times, the materialistic Western civilization is following the same path of aggression. A great portion of human potential is spent on weaponry and wars.

The message of heaven has always been to introduce moderation into man’s behavior. It is a constant endeavor to achieve justice among all people. Divine knowledge introduces mercy and understanding. By introducing a spiritual dimension into human relations, religion upholds Abel’s good qualities and checks Cain’s aggressive nature.

The three examples given earlier in this presentation are aspects of the Islamic search for universal justice and peace.

In a meeting that was held in Tarrytown last February, representatives of different religious institutions gathered after an incident of vandalism to a cemetery there. One of the noteworthy findings of that meeting was that to spread tolerance among the followers of different religions, religious education should be expanded in the work of every church, synagogue or mosque.

A religiously educated person accepts diversity. To him, all people are God’s creatures and have equal rights and responsibilities.


(1) The translation of Quranic verses in this paper is taken from: A. Yusuf Ali, “The Holy Quran, Text, Translation and Commentary”, Amana Corp., 1983.

(2) The translation of the covenant is taken from: Muhammad Husayn Haykal, “The Life of Muhammad”, North American Trust Publications, 1976.

(3) Muhammad Asad, “The Message of the Quran”, Dar Al-Andalus, Gibraltar, 1984.

(4) This story is cited with authentic reference in: Muhammad Saiid Ramadan al-Buti, “Strife in Islam”, (Arabic only), Dar al-Fikr, Damascus, 2001.

(5) Ibid.

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