Non Violence, Violence, Peace, Justice and Change in Islam

And Allah summons to the abode of peace, and leads whom He wills to the straight path.– (Al-Quran 10:25)

That change is necessary in the Muslim World, both political and socio-cultural, is an eminently uncontested feeling. The issue that public intellectuals and policy makers must contemplate is whether this change can be engineered peacefully or will it have to be violent. Before we can reflect on any substantive issues regarding the impulse for change and the form this change will take, we must examine the idea of peace and nonviolence itself. What is the intrinsic value of peace and nonviolence? Are they to be valued in themselves to such an extent that the fear of violence and instability in the process of change compel us to indefinitely defer change?

Privileging peace and nonviolence as desirable values with intrinsic and not instrumental worth inevitably leads to the politics of status quo. If existing power regimes and ruling coalitions are not willing to relinquish power even in the face of popular opposition like in Algeria, then privileging of peace and stability becomes a defense of status quo even in the absence of legitimacy. However, the need for change should not be taken as a license to resort to violence in the face of political frustration.

If peace and nonviolence are to be conceived as instrumental values then there must be clearly identifiable values whose intrinsic worth must be more than that of peace. It is only when such values are identified that peace can be compromised in pursuit of these values which are more precious than peace itself. I wonder how many would challenge my contention that justice, equality and freedom are values more valuable than peace? I am not willing to give up my freedom or allow myself to be treated as an inferior or be treated unjustly without a fight. Can we demand people to give up their rights, freedom and accept injustices in the interest of maintaining peace?

Certainly not! But we can appeal to the oppressed and the downtrodden to give “peaceful change” a chance. We can defend instrumental peace and not peace as an inherent value worth achieving above everything else. Particularly with respect to a region where change is necessary, the engineering of peaceful, gradual and systematic change will preclude violent and revolutionary transformations.

Al-Quran offers a very sophisticated view of peace. In many verses it promises the believer peace as a final reward for a righteous life ( 5:16 ). It also describes the house of Islam as the abode of peace (10:25). At the behest of the Quran, Muslims greet each other every time they meet, by wishing peace for each other (6:54 ). However the Quran does not shy from advocating military action in the face of persecution and religious intolerance. The strongest statement is in the chapter al-Baqarah (191):

And slay them wherever you find them, and drive them out of the places from where they drove you out, for persecution is worse than slaughter.

The presence of this verse in the Quran clearly precludes a complete prohibition of violence. The verse is important because inspite of the enormous significance that the Quran attaches to peace and harmony, it is categorical in its assertion that persecution is worse than killing. There is nothing allegorical in this verse it is clear: persecution is worse than killing (Al-Quran; 2:217). Else where the Quran states: And fight them until persecution is no more (8:39). The Quranic preference for struggle against persecution and its promise to reward those who struggle in the path of Allah (4:74) means that the only way violence can be eliminated from the Muslim World is by eliminating injustices and persecution. At the risk of sounding tautological one is back at square one, in order that there be peace, there must be change, can this change be peaceful? Perhaps we can minimize areas where violence can be used.

In al-Baqarah, The Quran says: And fight them until persecution is no more, and religion is for Allah. But if they desist, then let there be no hostility except against wrong-doers (2:193). This verse is very interesting for it limits retaliation against all except those who are directly responsible for wrong-doing and also suggests that persecution could mean religious persecution. Meaning that when the practice of Islam is prohibited it is a condition that can be deemed as persecution and therefore fighting this persecution is desired. This could have implications for conflicts among Muslim states and between Muslim states and Islamic groups. Where citizens are allowed to practice their faith freely violence is not an option.

The Quran makes a profound pronouncement in al-Anfal: Tell those who disbelieve that if they cease (from persecution of believers) that which is past will be forgiven them (8:38); this injunction further reduces the scope for violent response against persecution by granting amnesty to those who stop persecution. One of the reasons why tyrannical regimes persist in the Muslim World is due to the fear of retaliation. Regimes are resisting change and democratization for fear of being persecuted for past crimes by new regimes. A promise of general amnesty for past deeds by potential challengers may create an atmosphere where existing regimes may permit gradual change.

Thus philosophically we may not be able to completely eliminate the revolutionary option for instituting change, but there is enough meat in the Quran to limit violent response to egregious cases of religious persecution and repression.

Visit Prof. Khan’s site Al Ijtihad at