There is an ongoing political and religious debate in the Western media about the true nature of Islam. Many today claim the word "Islam" means "peace," and that Islam is therefore a religion of peace. This claim, however, is based on a misunderstanding.
In Arabic, the word for "peace" is "salam," which is cognate with the Hebrew "shalom." The word "islam" is a Form IV verbal noun from the same root (SLM), meaning, more technically, to "create peace through surrender or submission" — in the religious context, submission to the will of God. A Muslim is one who has surrendered or submitted to God and therefore found true peace. So when we hear from commentators that "Islam" means "peace," it represents a fundamental misunderstanding of the term.
Does the term "Islam" refer to inner peace obtained through personal submission to God? Or peace through political submission to God's kingdom on earth, ideally the Islamic caliphate? Or both? Those who personally submit to God find inner peace, while political peace and the end of war will come only when all mankind has surrendered to the will of God.
One of the vexing questions in Quranic interpretation is understanding the context and meaning of the "verses of the sword," most specifically the notorious verse 9:5, which is undoubtedly the passage most widely quoted to justify (and condemn) extremist Muslim violence. The passage reads: "Kill the polytheists wherever you find them." ("Polytheists" here translates "mushrikun," literally "associators" — that is, those who worship more than one God.) (See also 2:190-192.)
As with most scripture, questions of interpretation immediately arise. First, the historical context: Most Western scholars agree the passage refers specifically to an ongoing war between the polytheist Arabs of Mecca and the Muslim Arabs of Medina, probably in A.D. 631. It encourages the Muslims to attack the Meccan Arabs after a specific sacred month of truce has expired (9:4). Furthermore, verse 3 also explicitly excludes fighting those polytheists who have a peace treaty ('ahad) with the Muslims. Thus, in its original historical context, the verse refers to fighting a specific enemy (polytheist Arabs of Mecca who have no peace treaty with Muslims), in a specific historical situation (an ongoing war with Mecca), at a specific time (after the holy month in A.D. 631).
Extremist jihadists, on the other hand, believe the verse applies universally to all times and places, telling all Muslims to fight all non-Muslims everywhere and always. Thus, from their view, the Quran not only justifies holy war, it demands it. It means nothing to extremists that Western scholars agree that their interpretation has been taken out of context and isn't what the Quran originally meant. (For that matter, it seems to make no difference to anti-Muslim propagandists, either.)
There are, of course, also dozens of verses in the Quran advocating peace. For example: "If they (your enemies) make peace (salam), then you make it (with them)" (8:61), and "God guides those who do his will to the way of peace (salam)" (5:16). So should you make peace with those who try to make peace with you? Or should you kill non-Muslims wherever you find them?
When verses in the Quran seem to contradict each other, Muslims sometimes invoke the concept of "abrogation," the idea that one verse is of limited application while another is more universal. In part, this is a chronological question of later verses abrogating earlier verses. Unfortunately, the precise date or even order of many passages in the Quran is unknown. More generally, the question is which Quranic passage was intended by God to be applied universally, in all times and places, and which was of limited application to specific historical circumstances.
Westerners and Muslims, on both right and left, tend to focus on the violent or peaceful aspects of Islam for their own contemporary political purposes, rather than trying to deepen their understanding of the nature of Islam and the beliefs of Muslims. As with any religion, the reality of peace and violence in Islam is complex, requiring nuanced and contextual understanding.
So, is Islam a peaceful religion? Yes, because there are peace-loving Muslims who interpret the Quran and Islam from the perspective of peace. Is Islam a violent religion? Yes, because there are also violent Muslims who find justification for their violence in the Quran and Islamic tradition. Islam raises the same types of interpretative questions that we find in most of the world's great religions.