Is Islam not a peaceful religion if followed in its true essence?
Your question is difficult and far more complex than could be unpacked in this forum because of the very personal nature of religious belief. Though most religious institutions intend to follow a text or a creed, religion is as much, if not more, a lived expression as it is a set of static beliefs. While the Bible or the Qur’an or the Vedas may not change, the lives built on those texts in all the millennia they have existed are far too diverse to say that any one religious practicing proceeding from them has a single essence.
This is where the real difficulty comes from, in establishing whether or not there is a single and objective essence of Islam. All religious traditions are essentially ongoing dialogues that in which people in various times, places, and situations use more or less the same tools to find meaning and develop a meaningful way to live. With Islam, especially in a Sunni context, this conversation is at the forefront of religious and social life, as Muslims are for the most part free to make interpretations and judgments using a set of sources (the Qur’an, the hadiths, the actions and lives of the earliest community of Muslims, etc.) that are scaled in a hierarchy of legitimacy.
That isn’t to say that commonality among Muslims is impossible to find. Without regard to the diversity of opinion that follows, the starting point for Islam is that there is one single God and Muhammad is the prophet of God. The oneness and supremacy of God is paramount – perhaps the gravest sins a Muslim could commit would be to challenge the oneness of God or to show a lack of gratitude and, in turn, submission toward God. All Muslims would, it’s safe to assume, share at least a version of this belief.
From here, though, all bets are off. While belief is foundational, Islam is meant to be a guide for every aspect of life, and this is where you begin to see a diversity of opinion in the practice of the religion.
Many Muslims certainly do live peaceful lives, within their own spheres of influence and with regard to other religious communities. Many also do not, and in both cases, Islam gives legitimacy to their actions. Which Muslims are more Islamic?
It can be hard to say what motivates people to live how they live. Some of it can be religious, some of it can be genetic, and some of it can be social. The tricky part of religion (or any belief system) is that it can often be used as total justification for the sum of all influences that motivate a person, whether justifying harmful or helpful acts. In many cases, it seems that religious practice is less about what person derives from the tradition and more about what he or she brings to it. To be overly simplistic, “bad” people will practice a harmful version of religion, and “good” people will practice a helpful version of it. The religion itself can be as much a tool as a source of inspiration.
Islam is, at its “essence”, a set of beliefs and practices centered on the God of the Qur’an and the life of the prophet Muhammad. Whether this is peaceful, harmful, helpful, neutral, or some combination of all of these depends on what it is used to justify. The essence of Islam is peace for some Muslims, and it is not for others. Unfortunately, it’s hard to be more specific than that when talking about a religion that has 1400 years of history and is practiced by roughly a third of the world’s citizens. Its essence is as diverse as the billions who have practiced it.
Conversations like these are difficult but important. The links below should be great places to begin to dig deeper.