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Return to peace: the Prophet Muhammad and His nonviolent Message

Iraq is embroiled in grisly carnage, and the need for nonviolent change is as urgent as ever. The roots of the Prophet Muhammad's personality and life example in addition to His Quranic Revelations can meet this vital challenge.

The current crisis has stemmed from vicious attacks on Iraqi cities by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS, which is a splinter group of Al Qaeda. They have expelled Christians from the city of Mosul and have posed a grave threat to another minority group, the Yazidis, who are stranded on Mount Sinjar. Moreover, their supposed Holy War to establish a caliphate in the region is endangering American citizens living in the Kurdish city of Erbil and in Baghdad.

President Obama's response to the conflagration has been exemplary. He has ordered humanitarian aid via aircraft to help Yazidis, who have been at risk of genocide. There have been recent news reports that ISIS's siege on Mount Sinjar may have been broken, and rescue efforts to assist Yazidis have been effective.

Perhaps Obama's most crucial action has been his nascent bolstering of a new Prime Minister, Haider al-Abadi.

Obama and his security team hope for a new multi-sectarian government that will equally represent Sunnis, Shia and Kurds. With that government in place, Iraqis will be more equipped to fight terrorists like ISIS. Moreover, a feeling of human belonging will transpire in the country.

This is where a goal of communal nonviolence can begin. While ISIS must categorically be defeated, a nonviolent alternative to violent jihad can stir the hearts and minds of moderate Muslims to create peaceful societies. In the case of Iraq, decent Sunnis, Shia and Kurds can establish a stable and nonviolent nation despite years of strife.

The idea of sharing governance promotes peace as it hinges on the idea of human dignity. When respect for all is established, nonviolent leaders can eschew the chains of war and promote a society free of violence. When change happens, societies will be based on love and friendship not enmity.

The Prophet Muhammad's life is suffused with goodness. A brief biography follows: Muhammad was born in the late 6th century to father Abdullah and mother Aamina. He became an orphan as Abdullah died before he was born and Aamina died when he was six. According to biographer Martin Ling, as a youth, Muhammad was successful in trading goods for merchants. He became to be known as the Reliable, the Trustworthy and the Honest. With his good reputation, a merchant named Khadija hired and then married Muhammad. She was his equal, and she became a believer and confidant to him. When he was 40, the Angel Gabriel appeared to Muhammad and told him he was a Messenger of God and that he must recite His revelations. These revelations continued until his death in the year 632. There was conflict in Muhammad's life. Fighting existed among clans and families, and some wars erupted.

The true nature of Muhammad's personality is vigorously debated among early and later writers of Sira, or biographers, according to Tarif Khalidi's book, "Images of Muhammad." Writers like al-Qadi Iyad in the 12th century limned a portrait of Muhammad that was both divinely-inspired and human. Khalidi said al-Qadi extolled Muhammad's "pre-eternity, miraculous powers and sinlessness," yet in order to appeal to the faith of his followers, he was also "humanly imitable." To be sure, Khalidi said al-Qadi described Muhammad as "injured, afraid, doubtful and weak as any of us."

Many later biographies only emphasized his divinity, portraying the Prophet as pure and infallible. These writers saw earlier biographies as heretical. Khalidi said some of these later biographies only included details that were "made to cohere with his prophetic persona."

In considering the portrait of early Sira writers, I am reminded of a concept called the Covenant Cycle that Wayne State University Professor Vanessa De Gifis discussed in a lecture. Human beings establish a covenant with God based on divine virtues. Humans then amble away from these virtues and feel sorrow for their sins and alienation. Prophets show mercy to humans and recall to them the idea of a covenant. God forgives and nurtures them, and the covenant is renewed.

By seeing Muhammad as both superhuman and human, believers can find salvation with him by identifying with his human emotions and concern. He accompanies humans in their problematic and hard lives, and with His message as a guide, he returns them to God, who epitomizes mercy and peace.

Muhammad's life course, like his mixed divine and human personality, also prods humans back to a nonviolent God and a peace-filled existence.

Throughout Muhammad's life war existed. As Muhammad evolved as a Prophet, there was conflict between the pagan Quraysh clan and the ever-growing number of Muhammad's umma, or community of believers. Muhammad was involved in three wars, the Battle of Badr, the Battle of Uhud and the Battle of Hunyan. Yet in his book, "The True Jihad," Maulana Wahiduddin Khan argues that Muhammad avoided war at all costs and only fought the Quraysh aggressors in self-defense.

In the Battle of the Trench, a group of tribes went to Medina, where the Prophet was living, and wanted to fight him. Yet Muhammad and His Companions built a trench as a buffer zone between his umma and the aggressors. His strategy was to avoid war, and he succeeded.

Another instance of Muhammad's peaceful essence occurred when he worked out a treaty, dubbed the Treaty of Hudaybiyya, with the Quraysh. When Muhammad and His Companions went to Mecca for a pilgrimage, they encountered some Quraysh. Instead of opting for battle, Muhammad developed a treaty that accepted "the conditions of the enemy," Khan said.

The meaning of these anti-war choices is represented in the Quran. The Quran states: "Stand out firmly for Allah, as witnesses to fair dealing, and let not the hatred of others to you make you swerve to wrong."

These examples of a peace-striving Muhammad call into question the notion of violent jihad. Khan and others say the true meaning of jihad is a moral challenge and type of benign activism. The translation of the word means struggle, and it means grappling with morality within ourselves and speaking God's truth with others. While I don't agree with Khan when he says Islam is superior, I do agree that a dialogue about the goodness and peacefulness of God will hinder militants like ISIS and offer societies across the world an avenue for nonviolent societies.

In examining more of Muhammad's revelations, Muhammad's life again reflects the human morality in the Quran. Muhammad lost his parents early, and the Quran is attuned to the plight of the forlorn. To be sure, the Quran states: "Did He not find thee an orphan and give thee shelter. And he found thee wandering and He have thee guidance."

Muhammad's honorable life in his youth also seemingly led to revelations that build good societies. Good deeds are paramount in the Quran. So are tolerance of Jews and Christians, patience and kindness. These moral building blocks for decency can lead to human comity.

Still, humans sin and become estranged from society, and they need guidance back to God. In his book, "Nonviolence and Peace Building in Islam," writer Mohammed Abu-Nimer describes how forgiveness is crucial to being Muslim. It is more valued than the principle of justice. Even when someone is angry and thinks they are right, they are compelled to forgive. As it so often happens, both sides of a conflict can be angry, and this thus implies the need for mutual forgiveness.

Mercy is an ideal that speaks to the innermost yearnings of the human heart. Whether one is a sinner or victim of sin or both, humans strive for acceptance and love--which God can provide--in order to embrace their value as a human being.

Islam's original good religion could not have occurred without the benign Prophet Muhammad, the Angel Gabriel and God. And it could not have lasted had the Prophet and His revelations not been about peace and human love. Khan argues that in the pockets of war in Islamic history, Islamic intellectual and social progress was stymied. He says violence "disrupts social systems." Yet in periods of peace, Islamic society grew in human terms.

Iraq, in a miasma of a frightening and violent war, seems famished for moral solutions. While military action is needed to fight ISIS, concepts of nonviolence seem to be needed more deeply. Most Middle East countries have a majority Muslim population, and those populations, coupled with good leaders, can build peaceful societies if they return to the nonviolent and humanistic nature of their religion. When humans return to God, the world will know peace.