Ashgar Ali Engineer, India, September 2009
Theory of war and peace in Islam
Islam has been much maligned today as religion of war, not peace and compassion. The acts of terrorism on the part of some international terrorist groups who indulge in needless and wanton killing has further aggravated this image in the contemporary world. During medieval ages also crusades threw up an image of Islam which pictured Muslims as sword in one hand and Qur’an in the other.
It would be interesting to note that both during medieval as well as contemporary times the images of Islam thrown up was not based on the wholistic study of the Qur’an but on situation of war and conflict between Christians and Muslims and Huntington’s theory of ‘clash of civilizations’ too is based on situation of conflict between the western and Islamic world. Crusades, as well as today’s confrontation is primarily political in nature and not religious as it would appear to be.
Let alone common people, even scholars, historians and political scientists confuse what is political for religious though there is obvious difference between the two. For, example in Qur’an both Judaism and Christianity have been accepted as religions sent by Allah through His prophets Abraham, Moses and Christ and yet we find clashes between Jews, Christians and Muslims in history.
Both with Jews and Christians no less than the Prophet of Islam (PBUH) himself entered into treaties and gave followers of both religions guarantee of freedom to follow their faith, their lives and properties. The Prophet had entered into such pact with Jews of Madina and Christians of Najran. He even insisted that Christians say their prayer into his own mosque when a delegation of Christians came to meet him in Madina. What more tolerance and respect one can show to other religion.
Though there were no clashes with Christians during the Prophet’s life time later Muslims fought against Roman Empire and conquered many of its territories. But with Jews there were clashes during the Prophet’s own life time. Though Judaism was shown all respect and Prophet even prayed for initial few years facing Jerusalem Jews resented Muslim domination in Madina and betrayed the Mithaq-e-madina and conspired with kuffar of Mecca to attack Muslims.
Thus in no way these clashes were religious in nature but political and yet often they are portrayed as religious. It is nothing but biased and sectarian view of history. Islam recognized previous religions as equally respectable as all religions were sent by Allah through His prophets and it is not for nothing that Muslims believe that Allah has sent one hundred and twenty four thousand prophets to guide the people of the world and if it is so all religions become respectable. Where is the question then of fighting with peoples of other religions.
All the wars in history are wars of political power and result of clash of interests between rulers fighting for political supremacy. One should not go by declaration by these rulers that they are fighting for their religion. Use of ‘jihad’ or holy war by these rulers is nothing but a religious cover for their political designs.
Here we would like to discuss the theory of war and peace in the Qur’an so that such misunderstandings could be clear. Before we discuss theory of war from Qur’an we would also like to say that many formulations of theologians and jurists are contextual and secondary to Qur’an and cannot be treated as normative pronouncements and hence cannot be binding on subsequent generations. Also there are significant differences between various jurists in this respect. Thus theories of jihad developed by jurists of middle ages cannot be cited to discuss Qur’anic theory of war and peace. These jurists were pronouncing their theories in their own conflict situation and we have to formulate theory of war one, in the light of Qur’an and two, in the context of our own situation.
Also, today the nature and structure of state has radically changed and new political theories have come into existence. Our state is of democratic nature and there is broad participation of people in political processes which was not so during medieval ages. Though concept of ijma’ (consensus) was somewhat democratic but it was generally ijma; between ‘ulama and it was also often restricted to ‘ulama of particular group or school. These limitations of ijma’ cannot be disregarded. Thus theories of jihad propounded by medieval jurists has to be taken cautiously.
Now coming to the Qur’anic theory of war, it is important to say that war is sanctioned only in exceptional circumstances and peace is the norm. The permission for war in Qur’an is given reluctantly and extreme conditions of persecution and oppression. War is not permissible if people of other persuasions, religious faith and nationality are part of any treaty or causing any kind of harm to Muslims. Also, to begin with Muslims should only preach their faith peacefully and even put up with resistance and opposition and bear adverse conditions with patience and endurance of high degree.
Patience, sabr is projected as great virtue and Qur’an says innallaha m’as sabirin (Surely Allah is with those who are patient). And also Qur’an says, « By the time, Surely man is in loss, except those who believe and do good and exhort one another to Truth, and exhort one another to patience. » (Chapter 110) Thus it would be seen that truth and patience go together and one cannot be bearer of truth without inexhaustible patience. Truthful have often to suffer as they come in clash with those whose interests are harmed.
Also, truth takes long time to bear fruit sometimes entire life time or even more. Thus those who are eager to see immediate result often get frustrated and loose faith and hence Qur’an’s emphasis on patience and joining truth with patience. All the Prophets and saints and sages have shown great patience and never lost faith in their mission even in most adverse circumstances.
Thus Qur’an resorts to morality as truth is basically a moral category. War advocated in Qur’an is not for propagation of truth as alleged by those who promote stereotype of sword and Qur’an. Truth and war can never go together. Truth goes only with patience. War is advocated, as we will see to fight oppression and persecution only and secondly to defend against aggression.
In Mecca the Prophet (PBUH) and his followers bore with great patience utmost humiliation and persecution without any retaliation. The Prophet himself suffered insults and personal injuries from the hands of his persecutors. He was prevented from offering his prayers, he allowed himself to be spat upon, to have dust thrown upon him, and to be dragged out of Ka’ba by his own turban fastened to his neck.
The Prophet bore all this with utmost patience as he was convinced of truth of his message and did not retaliate even once. After the death of his uncle Abu Talib who had extended his protection to him, a conspiracy was hatched to assassinate him and had he not fled from his bed at dead of the night, he would have been assassinated. Along with the Prophet his followers also bore even more indignities and torture but never gave up their faith.
Islam had given them a new spiritual message and it was spiritual and moral teachings of Islam which had given them inner strength to bear all this. Sir W.Muir writes, « Few and simple as the positive precepts of Mahomed up to this time appear, they had wrought a marvelous and a mighty work. Never since the days when primitive Christianity startled the world from its sleep, and waged a moral combat with heathenism, had men seen the like arousing of spiritual life, the like faith that suffered sacrifice and took joyfully the spoiling of goods for conscience sake. »
Thus even Sir William Muir who was not very favourably inclined towards Islam accepts that it was a great spiritual movement for which its followers, like early Christians, were ready to sacrifice everything including their lives. So there was no question of preaching it with sword. They suffered rather than make others suffer.
Then when does war comes into picture? Not until the Holy Prophet migrates to Madina and the context changes entirely. It is true that Muslims after going to Madina did attack some trade caravans of Meccans. But this was not war in any sense of the word. Firstly it was in keeping with the ghazwa (attacking caravans) tradition of the tribal Arabia. Secondly, the Meccan migrants had lost every thing they had, their homes, their trade and their economy was ruined completely only due to Meccan kuffars who had persecuted them in most inhuman ways.
The tribals used to survive in Arabia through such attacks only and hence Muslims used this tradition to find their bearings in Madina and to establish themselves there. This also delivered a blow to Meccan economy and these Meccan Arabs felt that they and their trade was insecure. The first permission in Qur’an to fight also came under similar circumstances. Thus Qur’an says: « And what reason have you not to fight in the way of Allah and of the weak among the men and the women and the children who say: Our Lord, take us out of this town., whose people are oppressors, and grant us from Thee a friend, and grant us from Thee a helper » (4:75).
This verse is quite clear as to why Muslims should fight. All conditions have been mentioned. Also, justice is very central in Islam and is one of the most fundamental values so much so that Allah’s name is ‘Adil. And Muslims were subjected to gross injustices so permission to fight was given and again the words of the verse clearly shows, it had nothing to do with spreading of religion.
Had people of Mecca not committed such gross injustices and persecuted helpless Muslims in minority there was no question of permission being granted to fight. And for war, if it is war and not mere ghazwa Qur’an clearly lays down that « Fight in the way of Allah against those who fight against you and do not be aggressive. Surely Allah does not love aggressors. » (2:190).
From above verse also it is clear that in Islam nature of war can only be defensive, not aggressive. And during Prophet’s (PBUH) lifetime Muslims fought all wars in defence. It is people of Mecca who attacked Muslims in Madina without any provocation. What Muslims did after the death of the Prophet is a different story. Islam cannot be held responsible if Muslims behave otherwise and violate norms laid down by their religion.
Maulana Muhammad Ali of Lahore observes commenting on this verse, « This is one of the earliest revelations permitting the Muslims to fight…It is remarkable that fighting in the way of Allah, is here expressly limited to fighting in defense. Muslims were required to fight in the way of Allah but they could fight only against those who waged war on them. Exactly the same limitation is placed on what was in all probability the first revelation permitting fighting: ‘Permission to fight is given to those upon whom war is made because they are oppresses’» (22:39) (The Holy Qur’an ,Lahore, 1973)
It is also important to note that fighting in defense of faith is not mentioned even once in the Qur’an as alleged by opponents of Islam. Fighting has been permitted to defend those who believed in Islam. These two things are very different. And as for faith Qur’an clearly lays down that « there is no compulsion in religion » (2:256). If there is no compulsion where is the question of spreading it with sword? Also, for spreading faith Qur’an says: « Call to the way of thy Lord with wisdom and goodly exhortation, and argue with them in the best manner. » (16:125)
What the opponents of Islam or those with half baked knowledge of Qur’an do is not to read Qur’an in totality but in pieces and pick and choose verses as suits them and out of context. That is how they prove their case.
The next verse i.e. 2:191 appears to be disturbing, if not read in proper context. The very fact that it in continuation to verse 190 shows it talks of state of war, not of peace. The verse is as follows, « And kill them wherever you find them, and drive them out from where they drove you out, and persecution is worse than slaughter.. » Here when the verse says « kill them wherever you find them » obviously refers to those who are at war with Muslims and not those unbelievers who live in peace with them.
This is shown by the fact that Muslims had entered into treaties with many non-Muslim tribes and also Qur’an lays down in chapter 109 that disbelievers can worship the way they like and the Prophet and his followers will worship the way they like. So where is question of killing any disbeliever but only those who are at a state of war with Muslims?
And this verse also says that fitnah which many lexicologists tell us means persecution, is worse than slaughter. Persecution is worse because it takes place because of ones faith and one is driven out of ones home and place of worship and this persecution referred to here is not of one or two persons but whole community of Muslims and that is why permission to fight was given to Muslims because they were being persecuted and driven out of their homes.
This verse (i.e.2:191) is used to prove that look Qur’an believes in indiscriminate violence against disbelievers and non-Muslims and that proves the thesis ‘sword in one hand, and Qur’an in the other.’ Nothing can be further from the truth. No religion can be accepted by large number of people which advocates such violence; religion is generally accepted by virtue of its spiritual appeal. And Islam was accepted by almost all Arabs except Arab Christians who had their own revealed religion).
Islam became a political power much later. It originated in Mecca as a result of general spiritual and moral degeneration and hence its whole emphasis was on justice, equality of all human beings, doing away with distinctions of low and high, of color and caste and of tribal affiliations and nationalities. Hence equality and brotherhood are very important aspects of Islamic teachings.
Also, it is important to note that Qur’an would not have referred to war and violence had it not existed in the Arab society. What was from heaven was compassion, mercy, peace, reconciliation and forgiveness and what was from earth, especially Arab part of it where it appeared and grew, was violence, conflict and revenge. As opposed to immediate earthly conditions Qur’an presents transcendent moral view of the world to come and that part of the Qur’an is most valuable and is often neglected and what was highly contextual in view of the then existing condition of Arabia is over-emphasized. It totally distorts view of Islam.
Early Muslims in Mecca were confronted by diehard tribal chiefs, powerful, arrogant, proud of their tribal affiliations rather than their human origin, having no mercy and compassion towards more unfortunate sisters and brothers and when an orphan, having no wealth and power challenged them, their anger knew no bounds. How can a poor, helpless, orphan could teach them how to behave and share their wealth with weaker sections of their society.
As the wealthy and powerful often do they tried to silence the Muhammad, the Prophet and his followers by inflicting inhuman torture on them which has been so well documented by early historians of Islam but when they did not succeed drove them out of their homes and hearth and most of them migrated to Ethiopia and then to Madina. And they were not left in peace even there as their moral and spiritual superiority could not be accepted vis-à-vis their material superiority.
It is in this background that one has to understand Qur’ans permission to fight. These wealthy and powerful Arabs were totally a lawless horde as there was no state which could regulate them and apply some rules and regulations. As against that Muslims in Madina were busy establishing a state structure based on some laws with their own political theory partly based on revelation and partly their own experience and wisdom.
It is for this reason that the Prophet repeatedly tried to develop a model of peace so that Muslims can derive inspiration from. First, for the sake of peace he preferred treaty with disbelievers of Mecca at Hudaibiyah which was thought by his most prominent companions, as humiliating, rather than go to war for which all Muslims were prepared. Secondly, when he finally conquered Mecca, he preferred reconciliation with worst of his enemies rather than revenge and bloodshed. It won over all people of Mecca to his religion.
Subsequent writings on war or jihad (which does not mean war in Qur’an at all) by various jurists and ‘ulama cannot be taken as real Qur’anic or based on sunnah of the Prophet and does not draw any inspiration from Hudaybian or Meccan model given by the Prophet. These theories reflect Muslim situation in medieval ages and struggle for power between Muslims and Muslims and non-Muslims, especially Christian powers.
Though these theorists, jurists and scholars quoted Qur’an and referred to sunnah here and there, their main preoccupation was their own political situation rather than Qur’anic or Prophetic model. There is urgent need to develop theories of war and peace on this Qur’anic model and Prophet’s sunna but unfortunately the ‘ulama and jurists of Islamic world even today are preoccupied by the medieval theories and hardly do any original thinking.
Like opponents of Islam al-Qaida and other terror groups also quote Qur’anic verses very selectively and very cleverly to mislead young Muslims to prepare them for becoming suicide bombers. There is great need to refute their point of view which is political and not at all religious, spiritual and moral as advocated by Qur’an. These verses on war, as shown above, deal with the then situation prevailing in Arabia and apply it to today’s situation. They are thus doing greatest disservice to Islam than all opponents of Islam put together.
It is for young scholars and intellectuals to come forward study Qur’an and sunnah in totality and develop Islamic theory of war and peace. Let us not forget Islam is primarily religion and its religious, moral and spiritual teachings must get absolute priority over political situation. It is then and only then religion of Islam can challenge what is politically contingent and transient.
Eternal message of Islam is spiritual, not political and we must disabuse Islam from this political misuse.