Islamic Perspectives

Peace and Violence in Islam

Peace in people’s personal lives, societies and the world over, is one of the main objectives of Islam, which in itself means “peace”. Likewise, the Muslim greeting, Salam, means peace and one of the names of the Abode of Islam is Dar as-Salam, abode of peace. Islam is seen these days as a religion which promotes violence and terrorism but this is an impression created by the western media during the last two decades or so. It does not faithfully reflect either Islamic faith or history or even the current situation.

War in Islam is fought as a case of last resort. In Mecca, where the Prophet spent the first 13 years of his prophetic mission, he did not allow his followers to resort to violence or even revenge despite a continuous barrage of crimes against his companions. Those who could not tolerate the persecution were advised to migrate to Abyssina (Ethiopia) and later to Madina. After the Prophet’s migration to Madina due to persecution, the Quraish with the help of their allies kept attacking Madina time and again (Badr, Uhud, Ahzab etc) and this eventually led the Prophet and his followers to march to Makka in January 630 CE and conquer it in an expedition where no drop of blood was spilt. After the takeover of Makkah, the chieftains came and stood in a row in front of the Prophet who said, “what do you think I am going to do with you?” They replied, “(You are) a generous brother and son of a generous brother”. The Prophet replied, “o, you all are free’. These were the chieftains who persecuted him and his followers at Mecca, expelled him and his companions from Mecca, and repeatedly attacked Madina with their followers and Arab allies. But the Prophet’s most generous behaviour after the Conquest of Mecca closed a long chapter of violence.

The Prophet is said to have fought many wars and killed many people but the reality is that during all his defensive wars fought over ten years in which he personally took part or sent out forces led by others, only 756 persons were killed from both sides (Muslims and non-Muslims).1  Compare this with the First and Second World Wars during each of which an estimated 80 million people were killed.

A very pertinent point to note here is that all the Prophet’s wars were fought against the tribes and sub-tribes of Mudar, i.e., against his own tribal kins. It must be mentioned here that Jews of Arabia against whom the Prophet fought for their treachery were also allies of Mudarite tribes.

Islam does not encourage war. The Qur’an says: “O who believe, enter into peace whole-heartedly” (2:208). It describes the Prophet as “Mercy to the Worlds” (21:107). The Qur’an allows war only when there is no alternative and when it is in defence. Force was not used and cannot be used to spread Islam as the Qur’an in more than one place clearly pronounces that “there is no compulsion in matters of faith” (e.g., 2:256). Hence, it was only Islam in pre-modern times which allowed followers of other faiths to live in peace within its boundaries with no interference in their religion and customs. Everywhere else, subjects had to follow the faith of the ruler.

Islam teaches moderation in all matters and issues of life. While the Old Testament repeatedly tells the Jews to mercilessly kill one and all who come in their way (e.g., Deut.: 34, Judges:1, Numbers: 21, Ezekiel:21), Jesus Christ told his followers in the New Testament if one beats you on one cheek, offer him the other cheek (Luke:6:29) though the behaviour of his followers has been totally different). In contrast, Islam tells its followers: “Fight in the path of Allah against those who fight you and do not transgress limits. Verily, Allah does not like those who transgress limits” (Qur’an, 2:190).

 The Qur’an says that “permission to fight is given to people who have been wronged…who have been unjustly expelled from their homes…” (22:39-49). Islam orders its followers to seek peace if the enemy seeks peace: “But if the enemy incline towards peace, you (also) must incline towards peace, and trust in Allah, for He is the One who hears and knows (all things).” (Qur’an, 8:61). Qur’an teaches that enmity with a people or group must not prompt a Muslim to do injustice to them (“Let not the hatred of others to you make you swerve to wrong and depart from justice. Be just, that is next to piety” - 5:8). Allah says in the Qur’an that he does not like mischief-makers (28:77). In another verse, the Qur’an says that killing one person is equal to killing whole humanity and saving the life of one person is equal to saving whole Mankind (“if anyone slew a person - unless it be for murder or for spreading mischief in the land - it would be as if he slew the whole Mankind: and if anyone saved a life, it would be as if he saved the life of the whole Mankind” - 5:32).

The Prophet told his followers: “Do not wish to face your enemy [in war], and ask Allah to spare you its evils but if you finally meet them, stay steadfast.”

There is a very detailed Islamic law of statecraft, law of war, and law of nations including rules of international diplomacy and conduct of war which evolved over centuries. One such book is Al-Shaybani’s Al-Siyar al-Kabir in around 12 volumes which is still very relevant today.3

Islamic law of war does not allow betrayal or treachery. If the Muslim ruler or state is bound by an agreement or treaty with another ruler or state, he/it has to publicly revoke that agreement or treaty before initiating any act of war against that enemy (Qur’an, 8:58).  An oft-repeated rule of war in Islam is the order iissued by the first Caliph of Islam, Abu Bakr, to the commanders and troops while sending them out to fight the Romans: “Do not mutilate, do not kill a small baby nor an elderly nor a woman; do not cut down a tree or burn it; do not cut a fruit-giving tree; do not kill a sheep or camel unless you want to eat its meat. You will pass by people who are busy in temples, so let them do in what they are busy in.”

It is a common belief these days in non-Muslim circles that Islam spread by sword. The historical fact is that Islam did not spread by sword. Force was used only against the Arabs in the immediate environs of Mecca and Madina in what is known as “Hijaz”. The spread of Islam in areas conquered by Muslim was very slow outside Arabia. According to an American study, it took four centuries for Syria and Egypt after their conquest to become Muslim majority societies. Here is a chart showing how Islam spread in some key countries in its early days:
Percentage of Muslims at the end of the first 100 years:
Persia    Iraq    Syria    Egypt    Spain
5%          3%     2%       2%         Less than 1%
Muslim percentage and the years it took to reach 4
Years taken for Muslims  to reach %    
    Persia        Iraq    Syria    Egypt    Spain
25%    185     225     275      275        295
50%    235     280     330      330        355
75%    280     320     385      385        400

Islam achieves this state of universal peace through a clear set of rules of private and public behaviour and by establishing a simple, accessible and cost-effective justice system which treats all as equals in front of law, from the ruler down to the ordinary man.

This system of Pax Islamica worked well for a thousand years in vast areas of Asia, Africa and Europe until the advent of the colonial period which wrecked every part of the Islamic system, be it education, judiciary or political sphere and the world of Islam is yet to recover from this total dislocation.

Violence, physical or virtual, individual or communal or State-driven, has been a part of human behaviour and history since the very beginning of the human race. Every country and community has experienced violence of some kind or another. Islam, per se, does not outlaw violence. Instead, it endeavours to control it and channelise it in order to establish justice, equity and equilibrium in society,

All force used under the guidance of the divine Law with the aim of re-establishing an equilibrium that is destroyed is accepted and in fact necessary, for it means to carry out and establish justice. Moreover, not to use force in such a way is to fall prey to other forces which cannot but increase disequilibrium and disorder and result in greater injustice. Whether the use of force in this manner is swift and intense or gentle and mild depends upon the circumstances, but in all cases force can only be used with the aim of establishing equilibrium and harmony and not for personal or sectarian reasons identified with the interests of a person or a particular group and not the whole.5  

 Islamic law opposes all violence except in the case and duration of war or for punishment of criminals in accordance with Islamic law and that too at the hands of a competent authority, the Qadi (judge). Even in war, the use of violence is strictly not allowed against children, women, non-combatants and people found in prayer places like churches and temples. And the violence during war has to stop the moment the war stops,

The perspective of Islam is based upon moderation and its morality is grounded upon the principle of avoiding extremes and keeping to the golden mean. Nothing is more alien to the Islamic perspective than vehemence, not to say immoderate vehemence. Even if force is to be used, it must be on the basis of moderation.6

The goal of Islam is to attain permanent peace on earth and for this it exhorts its adherents to exert (jihad) themselves in their own lives. This jihad starts with the struggle against one’s self, which is called  Al-Jihad al-Akbar (the Greater Jihad), in which one controls the whims and base instincts of one’s human nature and behaviour. The other Jihad is Al-Jihad al-Asghar (the Lesser Jihad) in which the believer alongwith the community and society takes part in correcting the evils of society, country and world and it includes waging war which cannot be waged by individuals, groups and clandestine societies. Only a proper political ruler or State can declare and wage this kind of Jihad.

This does not mean that the whole Islamic history was a violence-free peaceful society. We will not look here at the violence inflicted on Islamic societies by foreign forces like the Crusaders or Mongols or colonialists or neo-colonialists these days. Islamic societies started experiencing internal violence within half a century of the advent of Islam. Political violence by non-State actors first appeared during the rein of the third Caliph ‘Uthman and became a movement during the time of the fourth Caliph ‘Ali in the shape of the Kharijites (Khawarij) who dissociated themselves from the fourth caliph’s ranks on a trivial matter, excommunicated (takfir) him and his followers, which meant that it was legitimate to wage war against the excommunicated in all possible ways, in addition to shunning such people socially.

Though the Kharijites soon disappeared physically because of active persecution by successive Muslim states and rejection of their extremist thoughts and ways by Islamic scholars and masses but their ideas and literature cloaked in religious terms still survive and feed similar movements to this age.

In Islam, the life (nafs), honour (‘ird) and property (mal) of a Muslim and dhimmi (protected person) are inviolable except by law and by verdict of a court of law, but the Kharijites believed that anyone who disagreed with them made his life violable, so he could be killed with impunity.

A similar secretive organisation called “Assassins” (Hash-shashin) appeared during the Crusades. Its members, high on narcotics, used to go out from their hideouts and kill Crusaders and Muslims they believed were not properly fighting the invaders. This group too disappeared soon.

During the colonial period, we saw the emergence of armed groups in various countries to fight the foreign invaders, like Imam Shamwyl in the Caucasus, Amir Abdul Qadir Al-Jazairi in Algeria, the Sanussis in Libya, ‘Uthman ibn Fudi (Osman Dan Fodio) in north Nigeria, Mulla Abdullah Hasan in Somalia, Omar Tal in West Africa, Sayyid Ahmad Shahid Barelvi in British India before 1857. Leaders of all these movements were full-fledged ulama and sufis who were fighting against foreign occupation and they did not emulate the Khawarij. More or less, they acted as a resistance force and protectors of their people against the colonial onslaught.

The present-day neo-Kharijites emerged in Gamal Abdel Nasser’s torture chambers in Egypt during the 1950s and 1960s when thousands of Muslims Brotherhood (MB) rank and file were thrown into dungeons and concentration camps like Tora prison near Cairo due to their political disagreement with a regime they had helped to usher in. The jailers followed a daily routine of torture and insult of the inmates, rape of their female relatives, confiscation of their properties and extrajudicial murders. Those who escaped jails saved themselves by fleeing to other countries. This led some younger MB members conclude that their jailers and their political masters cannot be Muslims as such behaviour is unthinkable of a Muslim believing in Allah, Qur’an and the Hereafter.

The mainstream MB leadership did not support them in these ideas. The then MB head Justice Hasan Al-Hudaybi (d. 1972) wrote a book, Du’at la Qudat (Preachers, not judges), in which he forcefully argued that the job of the Islamic movement and its workers is only to preach, not to judge people and that they have to continue this mission under severest conditions. The dissident youth were not satisfied. They found a supporter in a junior MB ideologue, Sayyid Qutb, who was also facing torture in Cairo’s Tora jail alongwith others. He wrote a book, Ma’alim fit-Tariq (translated into English as Milestones) which has become the bible of the neo-Kharijites and political Islamists. A US-educated literary critic, Qutb was executed by Nasser’s regime in 1966 (barely two months before my arrival in Cairo as a student). This further inflamed the neo-Kharijite young MB workers. They and their followers later organised themselves in successive secretive organisations like Gama’at Al-Takfir wal-Hijra (correct name: Gama’atul Muslimin), Al-Gama’ah Al-Islamiyah and Tanzim Al-Jihad. This last one assassinated President Anwar Sadat in October 1981 and later germinated what is now called Al-Qaeda. It should be mentioned here that these people learnt their violent tricks from the Zionists, communists and Baathists who were the first to introduce such violence and terrorism into the Middle East.

Takfir (excommunication) and accusation of disbelief (zandaqah) were the lot of people opposing this approach. Muslim regimes were accused of being agents and puppets of foreign powers. With these angry and violent accusations came threats of assassination, murder, physical liquidation which were violently executed in places like Afghanistan, Iraq and Algeria where bodies of victims were even mutilated in flagrant violation of the  dignity and the graceful status given by God to man.

The finest hour of this movement was in the 1970s and 1980s when it was coopted, armed and financed by the CIA and Arab rulers to fight against the Soviet presence in Afghanistan. Once the Afghan “Jihad” succeeded in 1989, these fighters, unable to return to their homes (as their governments had hoped that they will perish in Afghanistan), started going to places like the Indian part of Kashmir (where, as a journalist, I met one of them in 1993), Chechnya, Bosnia and Kosovo etc.

The CIA continued to use these people for its plans, especially in the former Yugoslavia. The leader of this group, Osama Bin Laden, turned against the Americans in early 1990s when they started stationing forces in Saudi Arabia and waged the first Gulf War. Thus started Al Qaeda attacks on American targets since around 1992 in places like Aden, Riyadh, Nairobi etc. and culminated in the terrorist attacks of 9-11 for which Al Qaeda is blamed. This crime was used to attack Afghnistan in October 2001, which housed Al-Qaeda’s main bases at the time. Many were killed and Osama was said to have fled and was finally said to have been killed on 1 May 2011 at Abbotabad in Pakistan.

Today, similar neo-Kharijite autonomous mini groups have spread in many parts of the world. Apparently, they are not connected to any central organisation or leadership. They survive on local support and resources and are fed by the foreign occupation and physical and political challenges to Muslim societies.
Islamic movements believing in violence to achieve their goals never succeeded in securing mass support of either people or ulama. People had apprehensions about their rigid solutions while ulama, both Sunni and Shia, found their approach incompatible with the spirit and style of Islam. This isolation led these movements to become more violent in their approach and applications, while trying to find support for their thoughts from Islamic texts.
(Written notes of a lecture delivered at Jamia Millia Islamia’s Academic Staff College on 2 March 2012)
1. “Al-Radd ‘ala shubhat al-Islam intashara bisl-saif…” -
2. Ibid.
3. Civil and criminal Islamic laws are no longer implemented anywhere, with the exception of Iran and Saudi Arabia. Constitutions of Islamic states usually mention that Islam (or Qur’an) is a/the source of legislation. But, wherever an Islamic state will rise, Islamic laws will be implemented with due changes as required by changed situations and times. In Iran, the ruling Mullas could not confiscate properties of the supporters of the former regime because ulama decreed that it is against the laws of Islam.
4. “Al-Radd ‘ala shubhat al-Islam intashara bisl-saif…” -
5. Sayyed Hussein Nasr, “Islam and the Question of Violence”, Al-Sirat,  XIII:2 -
6. S. Hussein Nasr, ibid.

This article appeared in The Milli Gazette print issue of 16-31 May 2012 on page no. 20

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