Towards An Islamic Active Non-Violence Approach

The medieval fears of Islamic expansion and Christian crusades were rekindled by the attack of 11 September 2001 on the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon in the United States. The further rise of Muslim extremism in response to the United States’ enduring campaign against terrorism has unfortunately made Islam synonymous with terrorism. This misconception has ignored not only the benevolence of Islamic faith and morality, which has continually inspired Muslims internationally to promote peace and justice, but also the fact that there is no religious community in the world whose history is innocent of religiously motivated violence. Even Buddhists, generally considered a peaceful community, have supported the Tamil–Singhalese conflict in Sri Lanka and the oppressive military regime in Burma.

To clarify this misconception, it is essential to understand Islam’s sacred and authentic teachings – the Holy Qur’an and the Sunnah of the Prophet – before examining how various Muslim groups interpret them in the current geopolitical context. What religious justification motivates religious groups or individuals to engage in military action or other violence? More importantly, what arguments or situations can prevent, or at least constrain them from resorting to these tactics?

Clearly, ideology is not the only motive for violence and warfare. The strategies employed by traditional Muslim groups range from peaceful missions to political activism and militancy, even to armed struggle and terrorism. Geopolitical and geostrategic factors have often been the most powerful forces driving a Muslim group to violence. Examples are the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and Jama‘at-i-Islami in Pakistan, which were originally political organizations, until continual repression drove some of their followers to militant action. This evidence supports John L. Esposito’s argument that Islamic radicalism and extremism are not based on only religious zealotry, but more probably frustration and anger at US policy.[1] Oliver Roy is firmly of a similar view.[2] This argument also invites parallels in Christianity. Is there any ideological change that will stop the Reverend Michael Bray or his followers from attacking abortion clinics in the United States? Probably none.

However, this does not mean that ideology has no role in driving people to commit violence or eschew it. Ideology, according to Ted Robert Gurr’s analysis, “serves to define and explain the nature of the situation, to identify those responsible for deprivation and to specify courses of action.”[3] Ideology legitimizes supports and rationalizes both violent and peaceful strategies. In Christianity and the Western tradition, the primary moral justification for military action and violence is the just-war theory, based on a long chain of writings by Christian philosophers and theologians. At times, just-war theorists have construed that Christians could even resort to violence for a just cause, if certain interconnected sets of extremely strict criteria are met. These cover the cause, intention, conduct and probable outcome of military action.[4]

Moral Justification for Armed Struggle in Islam
Most of the Qur’anic verses concerning disputes, oppression and injustice strongly emphasize that peaceful solutions are preferable to war and violence. It says: “O you who believe…let not the hatred of some people who [once] banned you from the Sacred Mosque lead to transgression [and hostility on your part]. Help one another in righteousness and piety” (5:2). Similarly, Allah commands us to do everything possible to avoid war and violence: “Repel evil with which is best, then you will find that your enemy will become your warmest ally” (41:34).

However, it must also be emphasized that the Muslim understanding of these verses varies widely, though it can be classified under two main headings: offensive and defensive, or assertive and conciliatory.

The prominent theoretician of the first category was Taqi al‑Dīn ibn Taymiyyah (d. 1328 ac), followed by his successors, such as Hassan al‑Bannah, Sayyid Qutb, ‘Abd al‑Salam Faraj, al‑Mawdudi and others. They believed that both offensive and defensive holy war was permitted, referring to the historical practice in which war had been a means of establishing Islamic rule in the formerly dar al‑kufr (territory of the infidels). Therefore, this was part of the obligation to “command good and forbid evil”, particularly where there was the established authority of a Muslim ruler in the so-called dar al‑Islam (territory of Islam). Nevertheless, the theoreticians of offensive jihad could do this only by ignoring the cardinal Qur’anic injunction against compulsion in religion. Abu Bakr was the first caliph to allow the Muslim armies to cross the Arabian frontier, and his action was followed by the caliphs ‘Umar and ‘Uthman. The early history of “Islamic” expansion and conquest is well documented.[5]

The Qur’an sanctions self-defence in two situations: (a) when Muslims are the victims of tyranny; and (b) when Muslims are unjustly driven from their homes merely for practising Islam (22:39–40). However, there are many contemporary Muslims who interpret this teaching from an exaggerated xenophobic perspective. They define dar al‑harb (territory of war) as those parts of the contemporary world where Muslims are repressed, where Islamic Law is not applied and where there is supposedly a conspiracy against Islam. Therefore, these extremists/terrorists see themselves as fulfilling the legitimate obligation of waging “holy war” against foreign (usually American) facilities or indigenous regimes that oppress Muslims.

The Islamic Just-War Theory
The Qur’anic rules for the conduct of war are similar to those of the Christian just-war theory. Its verses also imply that war must be waged with the right intention, namely, to liberate Muslims from aggressors (22:39–40). In the conduct of war itself, violence should be proportional (22:60), and civilian non-combatants, women, slaves, the environment, the elderly, and religious buildings should not be targeted (2:190). (Verse 2:190 is a popular quotation by modern jihadiyin.) In particular, violence to impose one’s faith on others is not legitimate. Furthermore, Muslims must always remain open to peaceful solutions so that war is only the last resort when every other means has been tried (8:59).

Unfortunately, these criteria are forgotten by those who look at examples of war in Islamic history and rush to arms to solve their problems. They ignore the peaceful strategies exemplified by the Prophet, especially during his residence in Makkah.

This model may also refer to medieval Muslim theorists who, according to Rabia Terri Harris, understand the Islamic Law of war as a rationalization of an imperial “fact on the ground”. These people, according to Harris, liken the suffering of Muslims today to that of the beleaguered and vulnerable community led by the Prophet. They analyse the Prophet’s successful jihad to find strategies that will, once again, liberate the oppressed. This, in Harris’ view, is an inappropriate analogy. The current situation bears little resemblance to the community of the Prophet. They “produce real oppression for the sake of imagined liberation…or redefining ‘the enemy’ to signify something the Prophet never would have allowed.”[6]

Islamic Active Non-Violence
Unlike just-war theory, active non-violence condemns the use of physical violence. Gene Sharp, of the Albert Einstein Institute, lists 198 peaceful strategies for resistance and self-defence.[7] The promotion of these strategies would certainly prevent hasty decisions to resort to violence.

As already stated, the Qur’an emphasizes the preference for peaceful means of dealing with injustice and oppression (41:34). Elsewhere, it recommends that the weak and oppressed should refuse to obey an unjust ruler (4:97).

This resembles Gandhi’s philosophy that power originates from below – from the obedience of the powerless. Therefore, civil disobedience is the most powerful means of ending oppression and, indeed, was proved to be a powerful tool in bringing an end to the British Raj. The concept of jihad also matches Gandhi’s philosophy of Satyagraha. According to A. Rashied Umar, the Qur’anic view of jihad includes peaceful persuasion (16:125) and passive resistance (2:193; 4:75; 8:39; 41:34) as well as armed struggle against oppression and injustice. In addition, the greater jihad (jihad al‑akbar) refers to one’s personal struggle to purify the soul and increase one’s spiritual strength and belief.[8]

According to the Qur’an, another destructive situation to be avoided is fasad (discord, corruption) (2:205). Wahiduddin Khan defines it as “action which results in disruption of a social system, causing huge losses in terms of life and property.”[9]

Hijrah is an effective peaceful means strongly recommended by the Qur’an to resist oppression. This was the Prophet’s choice after long enduring verbal and life-threatening physical attack by the Quraysh in Makkah, as described in detail by Ayatollah Shirazi. Despite his sufferings, the Prophet would ask God to guide his people, for they were ignorant.[10] Both the Qur’an and the Prophet emphasized the forgiveness of one’s oppressors (2:237).[11]

Rebellion against a lawful ruler is condemned as fitnah (sedition) by both the Qur’an (16:90) and the Shafi‘ites, since it is considered better to live under a tyrant than in chaos and anarchy. The Prophet said: “…and the best work of faith is to speak a word of truth to an unjust ruler.”[12]

Classical jurisprudence also requires that peace and justice are achieved by peaceful and just means. The Prophet foretold the existence of tyrannical and unjust rulers, yet advised against an armed struggle to remove them; instead recommending that Muslims should migrate to the mountains with their goats and camels. According to Wahiduddin Khan, this indicates that people should search for opportunities outside politics. In the view of Imam Nawawi, people should use peaceful political action rather than a head-on confrontation to remove rulers who “go against express Islamic injunctions”, even if they are zalim and fasiq (tyrannical and evil).”[13] However, the need to avoid fitnah does not justify the opposition by conservative religious leaders to the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa, for nowhere in the Qur’an is there any support for apartheid.[14]

On his settling in Madinah and assuming political leadership, the Prophet was forced to use military action to defend the Muslim community. Having gained victory, he then liberated his people in Makkah without bloodshed. Tribal vengeance among Muslims was abolished and justice and mercy applied, as required by the Qur’an, without the influence of ill feeling towards opponents (5:2 and 5:8). Wahiduddin Khan reminds us that during his 23 years of prophethood, Prophet Muhammad was compelled to fight his aggressors in self-defence on only three occasions at Badr, Uhud and Hunayn, each battle lasting half a day. Thus, he observed the principle of non-violence throughout his life, except for one and a half days.[15]

Indeed, the Prophet always did his utmost to avoid war. His peaceful spirit was clearly expressed in a letter to the monk of St Catherine at Mount Sinai, in which he insisted that Christians were also his citizens and that they, their religion and their property were to be treated with respect.[16]

Although war should be avoided if possible, the Qur’an does allow self-defence against aggressors, though only if all other options have been tried and have failed. The Qur’anic verses describing the ethics of warfare were revealed when the Muslim community was in a strong position but under serious threat of attack and annihilation by opponents. Unfortunately, some Muslims have misused this context to justify terrorism.

However, while he was in Madinah, the Prophet entered into the Hudaybiyah Peace Treaty to resolve the conflict with Makkan leaders and their allies. The Treaty was based on the concept of sulh, which allows adversaries to conduct their relationship in peace (49:9). Sulh has since been a strong influence on restorative justice and conflict intervention strategies.[17]

It is clear that the Prophet preferred peaceful solutions to every conflict. However, putting these into practice requires a broad knowledge of peaceful tactics. Abdul Gaffar Khan, a Muslim tribal leader of the Pathans in Pakistan and Afghanistan, used the Qur’anic emphasis on peaceful tactics to mobilize his people against British colonial rule. He cited to Gandhi not only the Qur’an, but also the forbearance and self-restraint of the greatest figures in Islamic history.[18] His weapon was patience and righteousness, unequalled by any power on earth.[19] He also emphasized the Islamic ethics encouraging non-violence, based on ‘amal, yaqīn and muhabat (work, faith and love).[20] Thus, Khan converted his fierce Pathans into non-violent activists – both men and women, the tactics of whose campaign were noted in admiration by Bondurant.[21]


*       Mohammad Iqbal Ahnaf:  An Indonesian student studying for his PhD in

         the USA      

[1] John L. Esposito, Unholy War: Terror in the Name of Islam (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2003)

[2] Oliver Roy, The Failure of Political Islam (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1994), p.107.

[3] Ted Robert Gurr, “Psychological Factors in Civil Violence”, in Anger, Violence and Politics, ed. Ivo K. Feierabend, Rosalind L. Feierabend & Ted Robert Gurr (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1972), p.51.

[4] Adam L. Silverman, “Just War, Jihad and Terrorism: A Comparison of Western and Islamic Norms for the Use of Political Violence”, Journal of Church and State (2002),

[5] Silverman, “Just War, Jihad and Terrorism”, p.6.

[6] Rabia Terri Harris, “Non-Violence in Islam: The Alternative Community Tradition”, in Subverting Hatred: The Challenge of Non-Violence in Religious Tradition, ed. Daniel L. Smith-Christopher (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1998), p.106.

[7] Gene Sharp, “198 Methods of Nonviolence”,

[8] A. Rashid Omar, “Islam and Violence”, The Ecumenical Review (April 2003), p.5,

[9] Maulana Wahiduddin Khan, “Non-Violence and Islam”, p.2,

[10] Ayatollah Shirazi, “The Islamic Government”, p.11,

[11] Ibid, p.4.

[12] Khan, “Non-Violence and Islam”, p.9.

[13] Ibid, p.7.

[14] Farid Esack, Qur’an, Liberation and Pluralism: An Islamic Perspective of Interreligious Solidarity against Oppression (Oxford, UK: One World, 1977), p.43.

[15] Khan, “Non-Violence and Islam”, p.9.

[16] Islam 101, “Tolerance, Respect, and Safeguard for Non-Muslims”,

[17] Omar, “Islam and Violence”, p.4.

[18] Joan V. Bondurant, Conquest of Violence: The Gandhian Philosophy of Conflict (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1958), p.140.

[19] Mohammed Abu-Nimer, “Civic Jihad: Islam and Non-Violence” (2003), p.3,

[20] Eknath Easwaran, Nonviolent Soldier of Islam: Badshah Khan, A Man to Match His Mountain (Tomales, CA: Nilgiri Press, 1984), p.63.

[21] Bondurant, Conquest of Violence, p.136.