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Published in the 1-15 June 2004 print edition of MG; send me the print edition

Position paper
Islam and the use of force - i
...in a world where powerful individuals, groups and nations can deny people freedom, dignity and justice, Islamic mission envisages struggle for peace and justice through persuasion, negotiated agreements and treaties. It is only in the event of persistence of gross violation of rights and after having exhausted all peaceful means, that Islam permits humanized lawful use of force in a just war of liberation from tyranny.

Use of force is not lawful in the eyes of God to propagate any religious belief and creed including Islam, far less its imposition on others. Islamic Jihad is inspired by no worldly gains in terms of power, territory, wealth and increase in number of adherents to one’s faith and creed. 


By Iqbal A. Ansari

Islam recognizes peace as a basic requirement of all individuals and groups for their social, ethical and spiritual well being and growth. Believers are required to develop an attitude of compassion towards not only fellow human beings but also all living beings. Under no circumstance, any one should violate the dignity that God has endowed upon man. Islam persistently extols the virtues of mercy, patience, forbearance and forgiveness. However throughout human history force has been used by individuals, communities and states for settling disputes, for seeking dominance and for territorial expansion. Force has also been used to defend life and liberty of one’s own and of communities under attack. Force has also been used to liberate oppressed people too weak to defend themselves. As use of force leads to destruction of life and property and as it tends to engender a climate of hate and revenge, religions generally show an aversion to violence and preach nonviolent methods of settling disputes. But it is universal experience of mankind that fear of God and conscience cannot alone guarantee ethical non-violent conduct of all persons and groups towards other individuals and groups. Instances of individuals, communities and organised states transgressing limits of ethical norms and law are common.

In the face of such a universal reality ruling out use of force and committing virtuous religious people to absolute pacifism will amount to not only escapism, but to unethical surrender to forces of evil, allowing the weak to be subjugated and oppressed by the powerful, who, while imposing other injustices, will deny to people freedom of religion and conscience. 

Islam considers human life as a struggle wherein it is the duty of all to establish righteousness and justice by resisting evil within oneself as well as fighting injustice, mischief and tyranny in the public domain. Force is thus conceived as a component of struggle for a peaceful and just order of life, whose legitimate use requires bringing it under law.

As in secular humanist democratic framework, societies organised as states are required by Islam to uphold rule of law, by enacting laws based on human rights norms and by establishing institutions for independent and impartial law enforcement and justice delivery system. Any offence against life, limb, dignity, property and freedom, including that of religion and conscience, of any person or group, is unlawful and the offender (s) must be punished after due process of law. There has to be no discrimination on any basis in trial and punishment of the wrong doer (s). Force cannot be used by victims seeking retributive justice. Determination of guilt and sentencing is the sole prerogative of the independent judicial tribunals. Rights of victims include right of pardon with or without compensation. However law, secular as well as Islamic, makes allowance for individuals and groups to use force to defend their life when under attack or facing serious threat to life, limb and dignity. Identity-based communities which are subjected to oppression and persecution, for example people who are forced to flee their homes or denied freedom to practise their religion, are allowed to use force to defend their right to life and liberty after having exhausted other peaceful means of redressal of their situation through negotiation, agreements and treaties. Similarly communities and peoples denied right to self-determination by colonial/imperialist nations are allowed to use legitimate force for their liberation. Force can also be lawfully used by communities and political groups against their own states, which are not based on rule of law and which deny freedom, equality and justice to them, and whose law-enforcement system is partisan and state’s complicity becomes a source of gross violation of rights and recurrence of violence against them.

In the case of individuals and communities subjected to persecution and oppression, Islam does not want victims to necessarily use retaliatory force. It rather wants Muslims to bear hardships with patience and forbearance and be ready to forgive the enemy, and seek conciliation to avoid bloodshed, as the Prophet did during the period of his mission in Makkah and also through treaty of peace at Hudaibiya, and after the conquest of Makkah. But faced with extreme persecution beyond endurance, as exemplified by the Prophet and his companions, who were denied right to freedom of worship and were forced to flee their homes while they lived in Makkah, it is not only permitted but enjoined on Muslims, to fight tyranny with all their might.

The holy Quran proclaims such change of order from tyranny to freedom leading to freedom of worship in churches, synagogues, monasteries and mosques as manifestation of God’s Will and Mercy.

Use of force is permitted, rather enjoined, by Islam not only against aggressive unbelievers/non-Muslims to restore justice and peace. In the event of two parties of Muslims fighting, it is the duty of the righteous people to make peace among them and to fight the party which persists in wrong doing, till it returns to the path of equity and justice. 

In pre-Islamic Arabia tribal alliances were common, which required allies to fight the common enemy, irrespective of justness of the cause. In post Hudaibiya Truce situation Prophet Mohammad made it clear to one his pagan allies, from the days of his grandfather Abdul Muttalib that Muslims would come to their rescue it they were oppressed, but would not aid them if they turned oppressors.

The Quran sanctions use of force not only to secure freedom and justice for one’s own community/country/nation. It exhorts Muslims to help other people, especially those who are too weak to defend themselves, to secure freedom, peace and justice. It will still be a war of defence for not only one’s own rights but of other weak and vulnerable groups.

Thus in a world where powerful individuals, groups and nations can deny people freedom, dignity and justice, Islamic mission envisages struggle for peace and justice through persuasion, negotiated agreements and treaties. It is only in the event of persistence of gross violation of rights and after having exhausted all peaceful means, that Islam permits humanized lawful use of force in a just war of liberation from tyranny.

Use of force is not lawful in the eyes of God to propagate any religious belief and creed including Islam, far less its imposition on others. Islamic Jihad is inspired by no worldly gains in terms of power, territory, wealth and increase in number of adherents to one’s faith and creed. Given this perspective force cannot be used against persons born in a Muslim community who renounce Islam and declare their adoption of any other faith or no faith.

II
After clearly defining the objectives of legitimate use of force as liberation from tyranny to secure freedom, justice and peace without any motive of territorial or ideological/credal expansionism, it is absolute insistence of Islam on observance of ethical code and humanitarian laws of armed conflict, that brings to the fore the humanist creed of Islam that would not tolerate any avoidable suffering and destruction to be caused during hostilities to any creature and to the civilian life including green crops and trees that support not only humans but animal life. 

The objective of use of force being liberation from tyranny, its use can get legitimacy when absolutely confined to this objective. It requires Muslims to accept the hand of peace from the enemy even in the thick of a battle, irrespective of motives, and sign treaty of peace, after which Muslims are enjoined to deal justly with the enemy, the best example of which was set by Prophet of Islam after the conquest of Makkah, where he was not only just but magnanimous.

Islamic requirement of strict observance of giving a warning to the enemy and openly declaring war and its objectives provides opportunity for avoidance of war. This condition should not be dispensed with even for strategic reasons. If there existed any treaty with the enemy, its annulment and reasons for it have to be declared. Honouring treaty obligations and not doing any treacherous act are enjoined on Muslims as absolute requirements of their faith.

Conduct of war cannot be extended when the objectives have been achieved just to humiliate the enemy or to cause avoidable suffering. 

 (Continued:  Islam and the use of force - ii)

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