"Islam, as portrayed in the encyclopedia of Islam, in the Koran, and the Hadith, was spread by means of the sword. The sword played a major role in spreading Islam in the past, and it is the sword that preserves Islam today. Islam relies upon jihad in spreading the religion. Spreading Islam by means of the sword is a duty incumbent upon all Muslims."
Coptic priest Zakariya Boutrus, Al-Hayat TV, June 16, 2005
The Austrian-Iraqi Association for Development held its first conference on extremism and terrorism in January. In attendance were Arab, Muslim, and European researchers, intellectuals, and diplomats, including Kamel Al-Najjar.
Mr. Najjar authored an article for the reformist Web site Elaph.com on February 3 in which he expressed reservations about the validity of recommendations from such conferences. He wrote: "If the Muslims are serious about presenting the radiant face of Islam, they must drop this false, hollow arrogance and acknowledge their dark past and their even darker present. ...They must also reinterpret the Koran, putting the warlike verses the verse of the sword and similar hadiths in historical perspective as verses that are no longer valid."
The issue of Koranic verses supporting the spread of Islam by the sword has been making headlines since Pope Benedict XVI's contentious speech on September 12.
As examples from Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Indonesia, and Iran highlight, figures within the Muslim world have debated this subject, with some calling for such verses to be invalidated and others explaining why they are relevant and to be used.
In April 2004, representatives of 65 countries convened in Egypt for the 16th International Islamic Conference, which was dedicated to "Tolerance in the Islamic Culture." Leading religious figures participated in the conference, including the then-Palestinian Authority mufti, Sheik Ikrima Sabri, who stressed that Islamic history is full of examples of tolerance toward other religions.
In an article in the London Arabic daily Asharq Al-Awsat on May 2, 2004, Mr. Najjar, who was also in attendance, reported that at this and other conferences, leading Islamic figures often quote peaceful Koranic verses, such as "There shall be no compulsion in religion."
He noted, however, that many of the same imams who participated in the Egyptian conference had in the past "insisted that these [peaceful] verses are abrogated by the verse of the sword.'"
One such figure is the influential Saudi cleric Musa Al-Qarni, who once was considered Osama bin Laden's mufti. During the Saudi royal family's counterterrorism conference in February 2005, in which he was a participant, he appeared on Saudi IQRA TV to discuss the spread of Islam by the sword.
"We must realize that Allah obligated us to disseminate this religion all over the globe," he said. "And first, it should be spread through outreach and calling people to Allah's word, through pleasing words. However, if we run up against someone who opposes this path and attempts to obstruct the spread of the upright religion, and to obstruct their reaching others, in this case it is a duty to fight such a person."
Mr. Qarni, who frequently appears in the Saudi press, added, "We don't agree with those who say that the religion [of Islam] doesn't use the sword. No. Islam uses the sword when there is no other alternative. If there is need for the sword, then it is wise to use the sword."
"Islam is in two parts, the Koran and the sword," an Indonesian Islamist cleric with a considerable following, Abu Bakar Bashir, said August 21 in an interview posted on Al-Jazeera's English-language Web site. "The Koran has all the guidelines, rules, norms, laws, and punishments we need. The enforcement of the Shariah is the sword we are talking about."
Praise of the sword within Islam is not new, however. In June, an influential Web log, Little Green Footballs, posted excerpts from a 1942 speech by Ayatollah Khomeini in which he stated: "Islam says: Kill the [the non-Muslims], put them to the sword, and scatter [their armies]. People cannot be made obedient except with the sword! There are hundreds of other [Koranic] and hadiths urging Muslims to value war and to fight. Does all that mean that Islam is a religion that prevents men from waging war? I spit upon those foolish souls who make such a claim."
On Monday, Pope Benedict met with Muslim diplomats at the Vatican to try to ease the tensions that ensued after his mid-September speech.
As the meeting took place, calls continued for the pope to convert to Islam and for crosses to be broken, and Jesus was taunted as "the slave of Allah."
Those denouncing such statements in the Muslim world have been few and far between.
Mr. Stalinsky is the executive director of the Middle East Media Research Institute.