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Tommy Robinson, leader of the anti-Muslim group English Defence League, used some racy language in his response to the recent killing of a British soldier by a young British Muslim man in Woolwich, London. Referring to the actions and religion of the murderer, Robinson stated that “This is Islam… They’ve cut off one of our Army’s heads off on the streets of London. Our next generation [is] being taught through schools that Islam is a religion of peace. It’s not. It never has been.”
Robinson’s statement, however, is contradictory to the lives of several Muslim leaders and thinkers in Islamic history. In highlighting the character and conduct of the Prophet Muhammad, Akbar the Great, and Rumi, we can see that the Muslim faith is not inherently violent. In fact, many Muslims throughout history have actually behaved in the opposite manner of what Robinson suggested – with goodwill and peace.
To counter Robinson’s message we should turn to the beliefs of the Prophet Muhammad, who in his final sermon in 632 AD planted the seed of peace for his people and for future generations of Muslims. In stating that “An Arab has no superiority over a non-Arab” and that “a white person has no superiority over black nor does a black have any superiority over white,” Muhammad made it clear how important it is to embrace diversity and secure equality when it comes to building a cordial and tranquil society.
The Medina Constitution, a document Muhammad created to ensure the protection of non-Muslims in an Islamic society, is another example of the prophet’s interest in building amicable relations among his diverse band of followers. Muhammad believed that “strangers” were to be treated with special consideration and on the “same ground as their protectors.” He extended his call for peace by focusing specifically on Jews, who he said “shall maintain their own religion… The close friends of Jews are as themselves.” Muhammad even encouraged Muslims to spread peace through small, everyday acts by using modest and kind language. In the Holy Quran, offensive name-calling is forbidden: “Let not some men among you laugh at others … Nor defame nor be sarcastic to each other, nor call each other by (offensive) nicknames: Ill-seeming is a name connecting wickedness” (49:11).
The life of Akbar the Great, ruler of the Mughal empire in the late 16th and early 17th century, also contradicts Robinson’s idea that Islamic values are antithetical to peace. Shortly after taking power Akbar the Great implemented an inclusive approach toward non-Muslims, ushering in an era of religious tolerance based on the Sufi concept of Sulh-e-kul, or “peace to all.” Borrowing ideas from Sufism, Akbar synthesized major religions in creating the Din-e-Ilahi, or “the religion of God,” which focused on finding peace by reconciling religious differences among his subjects.
Akbar also went to great lengths to accommodate Hindus in his Mughal empire by securing their freedom of public prayer and allowing Hindus to build and repair their temples. In response to his son’s question about why he allowed a Hindu Minister to build a Hindu temple, Akbar responded by saying that “I love my religion, but others also love their religion.” He added: “If they want to spend money on their religion, what right do I have to prevent them? Do they not have the right to love the thing that is their very own?” Finding ways to build peace through religious dialogue was of the utmost importance to Akbar the Great because he understood that finding common ground amongst his diverse population was imperative to establishing a stable and prosperous society.
One of the biggest omissions in Robinson’s theory that Muslims do not practice peace is his disregard for Sufism, or Islamic mysticism. The work of internationally renowned Sufi poet Rumi, a 13th century mystic, is one case in point. As a practitioner of Sufism, a popular ascetic movement inspired by Christian ideals, Rumi was inspired by finding peace through loving one’s self and loving others. According to Rumi, human beings “come from love, are made by love, and cannot cease to love.” In Rumi’s mind, the ultimate task for people is to seek love by finding “all the barriers within [ones self] that [they] have built against it.” Rumi calls on people to break down the barriers which exist between groups so that they may find common ground and understanding.
There are many more leaders and moments in Islamic history that disprove the myths espoused by Robinson, whose attempt to rewrite history is part of an increasing transnational movement to demonize Muslims in Western societies and to tarnish Islam. What we need now is not imaginative stories but rational discussions between Muslims and non-Muslims, who can only come to better understand each other through face-to-face encounters and cross-cultural interactions.