2022 Annual Peace Conversation

In Defence of Religious Peace
Mufti Nazirudin Nasir
29 September 2022, Otago University, Dunedin NZ

Key points for the Otago Peace Lecture 2022

by Mufti Nazirudin Nasir

1 Atrocities in Christchurch and elsewhere around the world remind us of the dangers of a warped ideology centered on hate, contempt and ignorance, but also the strong will of the many good people in this world to defeat it. Even as we mourn the death of the countless innocent lives of peace-loving believers, such pain and suffering will only heal if we work tirelessly and relently to replace hate with compassion, suspicion with trust, contempt with love.

2 We speak of peace in even more challenging times today, when a war in Ukraine and conflicts elsewhere are escalating, when social and religious fault lines are at risk of rupturing completely due to multiple pressure points in our troubled world. It shows how fragile peace is, and building and strengthening peace is always a work in progress.

3 However, throughout the pandemic, we learnt something that offers us a reason for optimism. Faith groups remained resilient, made adjustments and implemented safe measures for the greater good of society and to protect lives. Beyond that, religious leaders expressed solidarity and support for each other, which helped our faith communities draw strength from togetherness at a time when anxieties were high.

4 Why is peace important? Why defend it? In summer of 2014, ISIS emerged and self-proclaimed a caliphate that preached violence to achieve its aims, and to revive the ‘religion of Abraham’. But what ISIS claimed about the prophet Abraham was not completely foreign to many Muslim minds. On more than one occasion, the prophet Muhammad was asked by the Quran to direct believers to follow the faith of Abraham (millata Ibrahim) because Abraham was a staunch monotheist (hanif), and that this faith was unadulterated.

5 The insidious and poisonous ideology of extremism is meant to cause harm and destruction – where violence and aggression are easily justified and where you belong either to an imagined collective or outside of it as an enemy. In the Muslim case, you either live in a Muslim land or the land of the enemy (dar al-Islam or dar al-harb). One has to either accept this version of the faith or be prepared for its most horrendous consequences.

6 My search for religious peace grew and intensified against such ideas of religion and religious goals that necessitate violence and aggression, and of a faith that demands some form of hate towards a person different from us. In such a worldview, it is impossible to imagine a life that is free from hate, discord and division.

7 For Muslims, the context we live in today is unique, and gives rise to unprecedented theological, jurisprudential and existential questions. There is huge discomfort and worry in coming to terms with the fact that life today presents us with very complex and completely new issues and challenges. Whilst some may justify religion to inspire aggression, exclusiveness and violence, our choice must be the opposite – to demand, defend and protect a peaceful expression of faith.

8 For Muslims, the Shari’a is most instructive. But the quest for what the Sharia is in the modern world or what it should be like has been a perennial struggle, and different expressions of it have led to very different forms and visions of religious life. But in general, the Shari’a exhorts humankind to protect and enhance welfare and well-being. Everything that it sets out for its followers to do is never outside the realm of human life and society, but within it and for its benefit.

9 But one of the greatest challenges in interpreting the Sharia is to situate the human condition and interest vis-à-vis the divine – which is at the centre and which is at the margins and periphery? How we understand the Shari’a as Muslims is extremely crucial, how we interpret its values, principles and laws, and how we envision the priorities given any particular context and environment.

10 Some see the world from a binary lense with two distinct and irreconciliable realms or entities, and within this worldview, only one or the other would prevail. If a worldly life that functions on reason and rationality clashes with a worldview and laws from a sacred source, then we will always remain in conflict, both in our minds and with others out there.

11 The pursuit of peace, and the concomitant avoidance of aggression, are principles that are well-entrenched in the Muslim religious tradition. There are many examples that speak to this. The Prophet asked the companions to migrate to Abyssinia in early Islam to seek a peaceful and safe life under the protection of a Christian king Negus. In a similar way he avoided direct confrontation with the Meccans at Hudaibiyyah, even willing to negotiate on matters some felt were unnegotiable principles.

12 These prophetic examples are consistent with how the Quran sets out the mutual and symbiotic relationship between communities. Success depends on the level of trust, confidence and support between them. The Quranic exhortation to do good and act honourably and with fairness (al-birr) and (al-qist) is important. This is also closely tied to the way we think of diversity and difference. At the heart of the Qur’an’s engagement with other communities is recognition, dialogue and hospitality.

13 Abraham’s faith in God was unquestionable – it was relentless; he was ready for the ultimate sacrifice. Perhaps so pure, so staunch, that the claim to Abraham’s faith was so fierce so as to give birth to different and competing traditions over time. Reading about Abraham as a Muslim, I am driven to understand how other communities and scriptures interpret him and conceive their worldviews around his life.

14 The different interpretations of Abraham reveal a remarkable possibility – powerful and evocative stories that speak of commonality and difference could be employed for whichever ends one desires. In this case, stories about Abraham could be used either to reinforce common origins and thus bolster a sense of unity, or to highlight differences and therefore justify exclusion.

15 The themes of commonality and difference become all the more important as we discuss social cohesion and peaceful coexistence in our diverse social worlds. This requires of us to constantly negotiate and navigate our interconnected worlds. As we live amidst many global existential threats, such as violence, hate crimes, terrorism, environmental crises, inequality, our faiths certainly need to offer responses and guidance.