Peace. What is peace?

We often talk about peace in our reactions to conflict, violence and war.

When I started writing this article, I made the same mistake as the first draft I wrote started with the word ‘conflict’.

But I stopped myself from falling into the same trap that so many of us so often make – and so this article begins with Peace / Salam (Arabic) / Shalom (Hebrew) / Shanti (Hindi).

Peace that is for all of us irrespective of race, religion, gender or class.

Peace that I believe is a constant that underpins all aspects of human life and peace that prevents non-violence.

Peace as the Default Position

The Oxford dictionary offers two definitions of peace.

Firstly, peace is: “freedom from disturbance” or “tranquillity”.

Secondly, it is “a state or period in which there is no war or a war has ended”. (Oxford Dictionaries)

It is the first definition which I think should be the one that we should all subscribe to, however more than often we think only about the second. In our information empowered world, we constantly get sound bytes about conflict: crime, gang and turf wars in local communities, towns and cities and in the international contexts wars and violence unrest ..

And so inevitably when we see books being burnt, homes destroyed, and children being killed we think about peace, but peace is much more than this. According to Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him), Peace is what we greet each other with when we meet in the street and say “Assalamu Alaikum” or “peace be with you”, furthermore this is a greeting we must live by.

Prophet Muhammad taught us that peace is the glue that holds communities together and sustains the world. In Islamic scripture, God Almighty has many names and one of the names of our common Creator is As-Salam or the Source of Peace. The word ‘Islam’ is derived from ‘Salam’ or Peace. Thus According to Prophet Muhammad and what he taught us God is Peace and the Islamic way of life is also peace. Peace is therefore all-encompassing and is evident in all that value.

Peace may be understood as the underpinning of all human relations and as the foundations of love, forgiveness and mercy. It is the basic building block for society. God Almighty is compassionate and peace loving – this is something that is often repeated in foundational Islamic texts. Prophet Muhammad himself is referred to as a mercy and compassion to the worlds. As Muslims, we try to emulate the Prophet and we would all benefit if, like him, we were compassionate and merciful to each other. Indeed in Islam peaceful behavior is a necessary virtue and narrations from the Prophet’s life record that he said:

“Allah will not be merciful to those who are not merciful to mankind.” (Al-Bukhari)

I call such peace ‘everyday peace’, not because it is boring or mundane but rather because this ‘everyday peace’ is an inherent part of our daily routines and lives. There are many examples of such ‘everyday peace’ in the Prophet’s lifetime, most of which are easy enough for us to emulate:

The Prophet was always kind to children. He never said an angry word to them and gave them their space to have fun, grow and flourish – so please can you say a kind word to a child today?

He was always chivalrous to women and so for example after prayers he asked the men in the congregation to wait for a few minutes before exiting the mosque, so that the women in the congregation had the time to comfortably leave the mosque. Brothers, please can you be polite to your sisters and take their needs into consideration? Sisters please can you do the same?

He did not judge people who were naïve or who did not know better. When a Bedouin urinated in the mosque, the Prophet did not rebuke him rather he simply got the area cleaned. Can you be non-judgemental when you see somebody do something really silly?

He taught us smiling is a sadaqah or a good deed. Please can we smile a little more?

This ‘everyday peace’ is negotiated in our buses and street corners; in shopping malls and bazars; in homes within families and between siblings; in schools and offices. Conversations are its vehicle, human beings its tools and everywhere is its context. Prophet Muhammad was immaculate in his behavior towards all and was the epitome of the best of human values – generosity, politeness, justice. In the interest of peace, we need to at least aspire to be the same.

Peace as a Response to Conflict

Any treatise on peace will be incomplete without discussing Prophet Muhammad’s diplomatic prowess. And much as I like to take a holistic view of peace, I cannot ignore the heart-wrenching images of burnt books, destroyed homes and dead men, women and children that I alluded to previously and which we are bombarded with on the news. What would Prophet Muhammad do to establish peace in today’s world?

As I mull over this, I realize there are two sides to this problem. One is the whole issue of ethics in war – how must one behave when he engages with an enemy in armed combat? This is something that I shall return to in a future article, Inshallah, as usual drawing upon the Prophet’s example. For this article on peace, I shall focus on the other side of this problem which is the process of returning to peace after a conflict or peaceful interventions to avoid conflict.

In a world of diverse standpoints, philosophies and moral values disagreement is inevitable. When such disagreement is tempered by unequal power relations, marginalization and unfairness occur. This then festers in a brewing pot of bad behavior, injustice, corruption and political gain that in the end leads to either revolution or war. Sometimes conflict is for a just cause and is aimed at reclaiming for a community rights or resources that it has lost, on other occasions it is unjust and further strengthens unfair regimes. It is often difficult to distinguish why a war is being fought but what is always true is that conflict will always lead to some loss:

Destruction of human and animal life.

Pollution of our beautiful planet – think of the mines that are still strewn across Africa and which still 20 years after they were first deployed routinely deprive children of their legs.

Sadness, mistrust, long-term suspicion of the other.

So what did Prophet Muhammad do?

Well, Prophet Muhammad taught us to do whatever it takes to preserve peace. He bent over backwards to uphold peace in extremely difficult circumstances. He preferred emigration to confrontation and when they faced tyranny in Makkah, he advised his companions to immigrate to Abyssinia and to Madinah. He too later immigrated to Madinah.

In Madinah, he signed treaties with different communities and forged peaceful relations with Jews and Christians. When the Muslim community grew strong and established the political power and military strength to forcibly take over Makkah, he instead signed a peace treaty with his enemies. This treaty – known as the treaty of Hudaibiyah – was so full of compromise that he was accused of ‘giving it all away’ and ‘forfeiting Muslim interests’! A few years later, when the treaty was broken by the other side, he did lead a Muslim army to conquer Makkah. However this was a peaceful and non-violent conquest that included universal amnesty for all his enemies – both leaders and pawns.

Critics will say: “But didn’t he fight wars?”

The rational reply is “Yes” he did, but these were in exceptional circumstances during which conflict was unavoidable and were mostly in self defence and governed by strict rules of ethical combat which protected the vulnerable and reduced loss of life. So even when he led an army, the Prophetic example was to encourage and preserve peace.

Muslim Initiatives to Sustaining Peace

There is so much more that I could say here on this topic which is so pertinent to the current world situation but perhaps in the interests of brevity I shall end this article here with an assurance that we shall revisit this subject in the future.

However for now, let us be inspired by Muhammad, our beloved Prophet, and let us think about peace not just as something that quells war but as a concept that stands on its own and which is the default position. Peace is the status-quo of human relations that is occasionally disrupted but which is a perpetual truth, which we must constantly strive to renew and which, as humanity, we must collectively always return to.

We must reflect on our actions – what can we do to uphold peace? These can be little things – smiling at the person next door or answering your co-passenger’s questions about Islam on the bus to university. Or these can be big things, news of conflict monopolises our media, can we not instead pool our resources to organize a celebration of peace – a conference where the East and West meet and where we discuss our common shared problems and also our common values – love, trust, generosity, fairness and of course a yearning for peace!

In due course, I shall write about peace again but in the meantime I shall conclude by saying, like Martin Luther King, “I have a dream”. My dream is a dream of peace that is strengthened by my trust in God, my Islamic faith, my Prophet’s example and my belief in the humanity of human kind.

Like Yusuf Islam, the British singer, who like me is also a convert to Islam, I too am waiting for peace and I am sure the “Peace Train” will come:

Oh I’ve been smiling lately, dreaming about the world as one

And I believe it could be, some day it’s going to come

Cause out on the edge of darkness, there rides a peace train

Oh peace train take this country, come take me home again.

By Sariya Contractor

First Published: December 2012.