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Developing a theology of peace in Islam - ii
By Asghar Ali Engineer

Thus it is very clear from this verse that Qur’an does not permit unconditional war and aggression and Allah does not love aggressors. But permits fighting in the way of Allah only if war is imposed by others. The words in the way of Allah are also very important here. Fighting in the way of Allah would restrain Muslims from committing aggression and excesses. Fighting in the way of Allah would mean fighting only for a just cause, not for power and wealth, fighting only if war is imposed on them and not involving personal or collective feeling of revenge. When Ali, the son-in-law of the Prophet (PBUH) defeated a powerful foe in the battle and was about to kill him he spat on his face. Ali immediately got off his chest and let him go. The defeated foe was greatly surprised as he expected greater violence from Ali after he spat on him. Ali told him had I killed you after you spat on me it would have been an act of revenge. Thus Islam does not permit killing for revenge. Revenge killing is not a religious act; its main reason is human tendency to retaliate. Arabs used to call it qisas and Qur’an permits it in keeping with the prevailing tradition as it tolerated slavery as a concession to the prevailing system. But as it makes clear that human dignity and equality is the norm, not slavery. Similarly while it permits qisas it makes it clear that one should not be revengeful and should suppress anger. One who suppresses anger (kazim al-ghayz) is a person of great merit.

The Qur’an says, “Those who spend in ease as well as in adversity and those who restrain (their) anger and pardon men.” And Allah loves the doers of good (to others).” (3:133). Thus it becomes clear from above verse that to restrain ones anger and to pardon is an act of merit, a religious act. Thus one should not use violence even as an act of revenge. To restrain anger and to pardon are great acts of merit. Violence in any form, except in defence, is most deplorable. Humanity cannot flower in an atmosphere of violence.

The pre-Islamic Arab society was highly violent society. Various tribes fought against each other for decades on end. Thus before the Holy Prophet migrated to Medina the two principal pagan tribes of Medina Khazraj and Aus had been fighting against each other for more than four decades. The Prophet was invited there by the members of these two tribes as peace maker and the Prophet did bring peace between these two tribes and old enmity was happily resolved. But to stamp out violence from the Arab psychology and Arab society was not an easy project. Many Arab tribes had economically survived through raids on other tribes (it was called ghazw).

The pre-Islamic Arabs, as pointed out, not only indulged in qisas but were used to settle all questions through use of violence and thus violence continued in the society. There was no concept of spirituality and higher morality. It is Islam, which brought, for the first time, the concept of higher morality to the Arab society. Peace (salam) was part of this higher morality. It was in view of the violence in the Arab society that even greeting between two Muslims was made as As-salam-u-‘alaykum (i.e., peace be upon you) and it is the principal form of greeting among the Muslims.

However, the post-Islamic Arab society did not easily imbibe the higher Islamic morality. It required inner struggle to control oneself and it was for this reason that many Muslim thinkers, particularly the Sufi thinkers called this inner struggle to control ones desires and raw passions as jihad-e-akbar (i.e. the great jihad and real jihad) and described war with sword as jihad-e-asghar (i.e. small jihad). The Sufis were the pacifists of Islam and those who kept themselves away from the violent struggle for power and also practised great restraint. They thus could imbibe the higher morality of Islam.

One can understand the nature of Arab society and the deep stamp of violence on it from the fact that after the death of the Holy Prophet his successors – Caliphs hardly got time to promote higher Islamic morality, akhlaq-i-karima. The holy Prophet himself was described as uswa-i-hasanah (best examplar) by the Qur’an. Thus Qur’an says, “Certainly you have in the Messenger of Allah an excellent examplar for him who hopes in Allah and the Latter day, and remembers Allah much.” (33:21)

But the Arabs with few honourable exceptions hardly followed this best examplar in the true spirit. Civil war broke out soon after his death (war of riddah) as many tribes wanted to return to their ancestral religion and refused to pay zakah the Islamic tax. Three of four Khulafa-i-Rashidun (the rightly guided caliphs) were murdered. The third and fourth caliphs (Uthman and Ali) had to face tumultuous times and rebellions resulting in more than one hundred thousand deaths.

Thus one can understand the great gap between what was ideological – peace – and what was empirical – violence. The great tragedy of Karbala on 10th of Muharram saw the grandson of the Prophet being martyred by the forces of evil as he tried to revive the higher Islamic morality. The Umayyads usurped power and indulged in violence and terror to retain it. Yusuf al-Hajjaj, governor of Iraq, during the Umayyad period, was a great terror and was quite ruthless in eliminating his enemies. The Umayyad and Abbasid caliphs with some exceptions had no compunctions in resorting to violence. The founder of the Abbasid dynasty was known as al-Saffah, which means one who sheds blood.

Before Islam there was inter-tribal violence. After Islam the social and political scenario changed. All tribes embraced Islam and the very nature of their economic sustenance through inter-tribal raids changed but inter-tribal rivalries persisted. One more factor was added to this. Now centralised state came into existence, which did not exist before Islam and inter-tribal struggle for power to capture the state began often resulting in great blood bath. Thus when the Abbasids captured power from Umayyads the Abbasids hunted down all Umayyads including their children and killed them. This violence was direct result of struggle for power.

All inter-tribal violence in the post-Islamic period was result of struggle for power and had nothing to do with Islam. In other words it was empirical rather than ideological. There is hardly any evidence in history of violence for spreading of Islam. As far as spreading of Islam was concerned the Qur’anic directive was very clear that “call people to the way of your Lord with wisdom and goodly exhortation and argue with them in the best manner.” (16:125) One can argue that this again is an ideological statement and that empirical reality was different in the sense that Islam spread through sword. This is simply not true. Firstly, no religion can spread through bloodshed and terror and secondly there is hardly any evidence of this in history.

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