Islam, Violence and Non Violence

Islam, Violence and Non Violence

The dramatic turn of contemporary world events which continue to unfold on a daily basis:

-the collapse of the Oslo Peace process in September of 2000 in the face of a renewed and ongoing cycle of violence in Israel/Palestine, which has reached alarming proportions,

-the terrorist attacks on the United States of America in September 2001, and the Bush administration’s subsequent decision to militarily end the theocratic rule of the Taliban in Afghanistan as part of its “enduring” war on terrorism,

-the attack on the Indian Parliament by alleged Muslim Kashmiri militants in December 2001, followed by the fresh outbreak of Hindu-Muslim violence in the Gujarat province of India in February 2002,

-the protracted and violent separatist struggles in Chechnya and of the Moro’s in the Philippines,

have all served to reinforce the widespread perception that Islam is in some special way linked to terrorist violence. In order for us to discern the veracity of the assertion often made that Islam has a unique propensity for violence we would need to analyze this question in reference to the ethical teachings of Islam represented in the Muslim sacred scripture, the Qur’an and the conduct of the prophet Muhammad, as well as the current global geo-political context. It might be expedient to begin our analysis with a simple binary Manichean formulation. As I have already alluded to, terrorist violence is never far from popular understandings of Islam. Even conventional academic perspectives regard the political agenda’s of Islamists (or rather ‘Islamic fundamentalists’ as they are pejoratively described in the literature) as having a predilection for violent paths to social change. According to this view, it is the religious dimensions, namely Islam, that is the primary source of the contemporary terrorist violence. In direct opposition to this perspective, apologetic Muslims categorically deny that Islam has anything to do with terrorist violence. In their view, all violence in which Muslims are implicated are a debasement and vile distortion of the true and noble teachings of Islam.

As with all received understandings, there are elements of truth in both of these formulations. The first one largely understates the contemporary socio-political and economic conditions under which Islam is implicated in violence, and the second one ignores the fact that virtually all Muslims accept that Islam is not a pacifist tradition and allows for and legitimates the use of violence under certain conditions, the definitions of which may differ from one Muslim scholar to the other. It is here that a large measure of the problem lies. Under what conditions does Islam condone the use of violence? This critical dilemma is not unique to Islam. All religious traditions agonize about the question of what might constitute a “just war” a“If a society and its politics are violent and unhappy, its mode of religious expression is likely to be just the same.”(Fuller: 2002)

Violence and the Life of Muhammad

In order, to correctly understand the ethical norms of Islam on violence represented in the Muslim sacred scripture, the Qur’an, and the conduct of the Prophet Muhammad, it is necessary to analyze the historical milieu within which they were negotiated. When the Prophet Muhammad (570-632 C.E.) brought the Qur’an to the Arabs in the early seventh century, pre-Islamic Arabia were steeped in oppressive social relations and was caught up in a vicious cycle of violence. Muhammad’s egalitarian message quickly began to threaten the Makkan elite. They opposed his teachings with great vehemence. He was forced to send some of his early followers to seek refuge in Abyssinia and later he himself fled to the nearby city of Madina in 622 C.E. Throughout the Makkan period, the early Muslims responded to the mental anguishes, physical abuse and persistent threats to their lives with passive resistance. It was only thirteen years into his prophetic mission that Muhammad and the early Muslims were permitted to engage in armed resistance but only under certain stringent conditions.

“Permission (to fight) is given to those against whom war is being wrongfully waged. God has indeed the power to succor them: those who have been driven from their homelands against all right for no other reason than their saying, ‘Our Lord and Sustainer is God! For, if God had not enabled people to defend themselves against one another, monasteries and churches and synagogues and mosques – in which God’s name is abundantly extolled – would surely have been destroyed”. (22:39-40)
It is interesting to note that the above verses give precedence to the protection of monasteries, churches and synagogues over that of mosques in order to underline their inviolability and the duty of the Muslim to safeguard them against any desecration or abuse, and protect freedom of belief. The aim of fighting according to this critical verse is the defense of not only Islam, but also of religious freedom in general.

In the succeeding decade (622-32 C.E.) Muhammad and his growing band of followers were to engage in a series of battles to defend Islam against the military aggression of their adversaries, including the critical battles of Badr, Uhud and Khandaq. Because the Qur’an was revealed in the context of deadly conflict, several passages deal with the ethics of warfare. (5:49; 8:61; 11:118-9; 49:9; 49:13). The Qur’an however makes it emphatically clear, that conflict can only be successfully ameliorated through the establishment of justice, which transcends sectarian self-interests (4:135; 7:29).

“O Believers! Stand firmly for justice, as witnesses for God, even if it is means testifying against yourselves, or your parents, or your kin, and whether it is against the rich or the poor, for God prevails upon all. Follow not the lusts of your hearts, lest you swerve, and if you distort justice or decline to do justice, verily God knows what you do.”(4:135)
The just war is always evil, but sometimes you have to fight in order to avoid the kind of persecution that Makkah inflicted on the Muslims (2: 191; 2: 217), or to preserve decent values (4: 75; 22: 40). Warfare was a desperate affair in seventh century Arabia. A chieftain was not expected to display weakness to his enemies in a battle, and some of the Qur’anic injunctions seem to share this spirit (4: 90). Yet other verses include exhortations to peace: “Thus, if they let you be, and do not make war on you, and offer you peace, God does not allow you to harm them” (4: 90). The Qur’an quotes the Torah, the Jewish scriptures, which permits people to retaliate eye for eye, tooth for tooth, but like the Gospels, the Qur’an suggests that it is meritorious to forgo revenge in a spirit of charity (5: 45). Hostilities must be brought to an end as quickly as possible and must cease the minute the enemy sues for peace (2: 192-3).

During his stay in Madina, Muhammad attempted to resolve the conflict with the Makkan leaders and their allies by entering into a peace treaty at a place called al-Hudaybiyah. The treaty came to be known as Sulh al-Hudaybiyah. Sulh is an important term in Islamic law (shari’a). The purpose of sulh is to end conflict and hostility among adversaries so that they may conduct their relationships in peace and amity (49:9). The word itself has been used to refer both to the process of restorative justice and peacemaking and to the actual outcome of that process. Even though Sulh al-Hudaybiyah never actually achieved its aims because the Makkan tribesmen violated its conditions, it remains as an instructive conflict intervention strategy.

In 630 C.E., the Muslims gained their most significant victory when they captured the city of Makkah, remarkably without bloodshed. This provided Muhammad with a second opportunity to institute a genuine sulh process. In a spirit of magnanimity, he forgave his enemies and enacted a process of reconciliation. A general amnesty was proclaimed in which all tribal claims to vengeance were abolished. Three years later Muhammad died in Madinah at the age of 63.

The Islamic Concept of Jihad and its Relationship to Violence

The Qur’anic term most often conflated with that of violence is jihad. Jihad is often incorrectly translated as and equated with aggressive “holy war, and consequently for many in the West, it has come to symbolize Islam as a religion of violence and terrorism. The persistence of Western scholars in employing categories of thought such as “holy war” and “fundamentalism” which are rooted in Western Christian paradigms, does not help in interpreting present-day movements within Islam. In fact it obscures reality even further and remains as yet another obstacle in the critical task facing Muslim and Christians in the aftermath of September 11, namely that of “building bridges of understanding” between the two communities.

Muslim scholars have long objected to the inanity of confusing the two terms jihad and holy war. More recently, one of America’s most vocal Islamic legal scholars, Khalid Abou-el-Fadl has emphatically stated the case when he argued that “The Islamic concept of jihad should not be confused with the medieval concept of holy war since the actual word al-harb al-muqaddasah is never used by the Qur’anic text or Muslim theologians. In Islamic theology, war is never holy; either it is justified or not.” (Boston Review 2/25/2002)

As a multivalent Islamic concept, jihad denotes any effort in pursuit of a commendable aim. Jihad is a comprehensive concept embracing peaceful persuasion (16:125), passive resistance (13:22; 23:96; 41:34) as well as armed struggle against oppression and injustice (2:193; 4:75; 8:39). Moreover, jihad is not directed at the other faiths. In a statement in which the Arabic is extremely emphatic, the Qur’an insists, “There must be no coercion in matters of faith!”(2: 256). More than this, the protection of freedom of belief and worship for followers of other religions has been made a sacred duty of Muslims. This duty was fixed at the same time when the permission for armed struggle (jihad al-qital) was ordained (22:39-40).

In mystical (Sufi) traditions of Islam the greatest form of jihad, personal jihad, is to purify the soul and refine the disposition. This is regarded as the far more urgent and momentous struggle and it is based on a prophetic tradition (hadith). Muhammad is reported to have advised his companions as they return after a battle, “We are returning from the lesser jihad (physical fighting) to the greater jihad (disciplining the self)”. Sufi’s have traditionally understood this greater form of jihad to be the spiritual struggle to discipline the lower impulses and base instincts in human nature. The renowned thirteenth century Sufi scholar, Jalal al-Din Rumi articulated such an understanding of jihad when he wrote:

“The prophets and saints do not avoid spiritual struggle. The first spiritual struggle they undertake is the killing of the ego and the abandonment of personal wishes and sensual desires. This is the greater jihad”(Chittick 1983: 151).
Transcending Classical Notions of Jihad

After the demise of Muhammad and the completion of the textual guidance of the Qur’an, Muslims were faced with the challenge of interpreting and applying the Islamic normative principles on conflict and violence to their own peculiar socio-historical contexts. Subsequent generations of Muslims have interpreted these normative values in such a way as to give Islam a paradoxical role in human history. In the first three centuries of Islam the classical doctrine of jihad was forged by Muslim jurists primarily in response to the imperial politics of the ‘Abbasid caliphate on the one hand and the Byzantine Empire on the other. Abrogating the Makkan experience and predicated itself on selected verses of the Qur’an such as the following; “And fight them on until there is no more oppression and tumult (fitnah) and religion should be for God” (2:193), the classical scholars developed a doctrine of jihad in which the world is simply divided into a dichotomy of abodes: the territory of Islam (dar al-islam) and the territory of war (dar al-harb). In accordance with this belligerent paradigm, a permanent state of war (jihad) characterized relations between the two abodes. The only way a non-Muslim territory could avert a jihad was either to convert to Islam or to pay an annual tribute or poll tax (jizyah). The classical belief erroneously perceived of jihad as the instrument of the Islamic caliphate to expand Muslim territories.

This controversial interpretation of jihad failed to capture the full range of its rich meaning. The reductionist interpretation of jihad, though not unanimous came to dominate subsequent Muslim juristic thinking. One of the earliest scholars who represented an alternative perspective is that of Sufyan al-Thawri (born 715). He was of the view that jihad was justified only in defense. The classical doctrine of jihad has and continues to be challenged by Muslim jurists. Contemporary Muslim scholars such as Muhammad Abu Zahra, Mahmud Shaltut, Muhammad al Ghunaimi, Louay M. Safi have criticized the classical doctrine of jihad as being seriously flawed since it violates some of the essential Islamic principles on the Islamic ethics of war. Safi has recently written objecting to the classical doctrine; “Evidently, the classical doctrine of war and peace has not been predicated on a comprehensive theory. The doctrine describes the factual conditions that historically prevailed between the Islamic state, during the ‘Abassid and Byzantium era, and thus, renders rules which respond to specific historical needs.” (Safi 2001: 44)

Louay Safi as well as a number of other scholars hold that the hegemonic classical doctrine of jihad is historically contingent and thus has a limited application. They have argued for a recovery of the alternative interpretation of classical scholars, such as Malik ibn Anas, the founder of the Maliki school of Islamic jurisprudence, who identified a third option, the territory of peaceful covenant or co-existence or (dar-al-sulh or ‘ahd). He had in mind the long-standing cordial relationship that had existed between the early Muslims and the Abyssinian Christian state. He recalled that the Prophet Muhammad himself had sent the earliest group of his followers from Makkah to seek refuge from persecution in Abyssinia. They lived there peacefully for many years, and some of them did not return, even after Muslims were in power in Makkah. Moreover, the Prophet had advised peaceful co-existence with the Abyssinians reportedly saying: “Leave the Abyssinians in peace as long as they leave you in peace”. Safi contends that the fact that the early Muslims did not make any attempts to turn Abyssinia into an Islamic state, is sufficient evidence that a third way, the “Abyssinian paradigm,” was an Islamically sanctioned alternative.

The alternative paradigm represented by the Abyssinian model was marginalized and ignored by the partisan interpretations of the classical Muslim jurists. Contemporary Muslims such as Louay M. Safi are currently reclaiming this third paradigm of peaceful co-existence. Others, such as Rabia Terri Harris have called on contemporary Muslims to reclaim the rich Sufi tradition on conflict transformation by relinking the lesser jihad to that of the greater jihad (Harris 1998:108). Both have profound implications for expanding Muslim resources for conflict transformation and peacebuilding efforts.


To return to our central question, how does one account for the many violent conflicts in the contemporary world in which Islam and Muslims are implicated? My simple answer is as follows;
The contemporary global order is not by any stretch of the imagination a just one.
Islam places a strong emphasis on social justice and is not a pacifist tradition.
Extremists have a disproportionate influence within the ranks of Muslims.
The international communications media have “inadvertently” become the ally of Muslim extremists.

In conclusion, despite the violent image of Islam generated by the contemporary media as well as the very real presence of violence in parts of the Muslim world, it is important to remember that the history of Islam has certainly not been witness to any more violence than one finds in other traditions.