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Saint Augustine
Qur'anic Concepts of the Ethics of War: Challenging the Claims of Islamic Aggressiveness
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Article Index
Qur'anic Concepts of the Ethics of War: Challenging the Claims of Islamic Aggressiveness
Understanding Abrogation
Explaining the Verse of the Sword
The Origins of Self-Defensive Concepts of War
Proportionate Response, Last Resort and Discrimination
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by Dr Joel Hayward, Dean, Royal Air Force College and Head of the Air Power Studies Division of King’s College, London

From the editor: While we expect that most of the content of this journal will be derived from the Judeo-Christian teachings and traditions that serve as the spiritual foundation of the English-speaking nations, we welcome the contributions of those of other major faiths, such as Dean Hayward, who are committed to our national ideals and the core values of our armed forces. We also welcome Dean Hayward as our newest Contributing Editor

A frequently quoted saying, with slight variations, insists that, while not all Muslims are terrorists, all terrorists are Muslims. This is a great untruth. According to be the American Federal Bureau of Investigation, Muslims have not been responsible for the majority of terrorist attacks identified and prevented or committed throughout the world in the last twenty years.1 Yet it is true that, even before the Bush Administration initiated a concentrated campaign against anti-American terrorists around the world in 2001 — a campaign which quickly came to be known as the War on Terror — several states including America and Israel had already experienced terrorism undertaken unmistakably by Muslims. For example, the bombings of American embassies in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam in 1998 brought Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri to the focused attention of American security services for the first time. These terrorists and their ideological bedfellows embraced an extreme minority opinion within Islam. According to that opinion, militant opposition to any ostensibly oppressive political activity that weakens Islamic states and their interests constitutes a righteous struggle (jihad) on God’s behalf (fi Sabi Lillah, literally “in the path of Allah”). Yet these “jihadists” (a phrase not widely used in those pre-9/11 days) did not garner much public interest until that dreadful day when nineteen of them hijacked four aircraft and carried out history’s worst single terrorist attack.

No-one can doubt that Western attitudes towards Islam changed for the worse at that time and have not returned to the way they were before 2001. Among widely held negative views of Islam is a perception (or at least a concern) that, while Western states adhere to the Just War tenets, other states and peoples, particularly Muslims in general and Arabs in particular, have no comparable philosophical framework for guiding ethical behaviour during international disputes and during warfare itself. According to this perception, the Western code of war is based on restraint, chivalry and respect for civilian life, whereas the Islamic Faith contains ideas on war that are more militant, aggressive and tolerant of violence.

This paper analyses the Qur’an and attempts to explain its codes of conduct in order to determine what the Qur’an actually requires or permits Muslims to do in terms of the use of military force. It concludes that the Qur’an is unambiguous: Muslims are prohibited from undertaking offensive violence and are compelled, if defensive warfare should become unavoidable, always to act within a code of ethical behaviour that is closely akin to, and compatible with, the Western warrior code embedded within the Just War doctrine. This paper attempts to dispel any misperceptions that the Qur’an advocates the subjugation or killing of “infidels” and reveals that, on the contrary, its key and unequivocal concepts governing warfare are based on justice and a profound belief in the sanctity of human life.

The Importance of the Qur’an

Sadly, people do not tend to read the holy scriptures of other faiths so it is not surprising that, although Muslims constitute one-quarter of the world’s population2, very few Muslims have studied the Jewish Tanakh, the Christian Bible or the Hindu Vedas and equally few non-Muslims have taken the time to study the Qur’an. Not many people ever even “dip” into other holy books to get a quick feel for the language, tone and message. Yet, given the geographical location of our major wars throughout the last two decades, the strategic importance of the Middle East, as well as the cultural origin of some recent terrorist groups, it is surprising that very few non-Muslim strategists and military personnel have taken time to read the Qur’an alongside doctrine publications and works of military philosophy. The Qur’an is certainly shorter than Clausewitz’s widely read and constantly quoted Vom Kriege (On War) and far easier to understand. The Qur’an is a relatively short book of approximately 77,000 words, which makes it about the size of most thrillers or romance novels and roughly half the length of the New Testament or one-seventh the length of the Old.3 It is not deeply complex in its philosophy or written as inaccessible poetry or mystical and esoteric vagueness.

Muslims understand that the Qur’an was revealed episodically by the angel Jibril (the biblical Gabriel) to Muhammad, a Meccan merchant in what is now Saudi Arabia, through a series of revelations from Allah (Arabic for “the God”), over a period of twenty-three years beginning in the year 610. Muhammad’s companions memorised and wrote down the individual revelations almost straight away and compiled them into the Qur’an’s final Arabic form very soon after his death in 632. That Arabic version has not changed in the last fourteen hundred years. The Qur’an is therefore held by Muslims to be the very words of Allah, recorded precisely as originally revealed through Muhammad. This explains why most of the world’s 1.6 billion Muslims4 endeavour to learn at least the basics of Qur’anic Arabic so that they can read and more importantly hear Allah‘s literal words as originally revealed. This is also why they consider all translations into other languages to be decidedly inferior to the original Arabic. Muslims usually explain that these translations convey the “meaning” of the revelations, and are therefore still useful, but not the exact word-for-word declarations of Allah.5

A fair and open-minded reading of the Qur’an will draw the reader’s eyes to hundreds of scriptures extolling tolerance, forgiveness, conciliation, inclusiveness and peace. These are the overwhelming majority of the scriptures and the central thrust of the Qur’anic message. A clear indication of that message is found in the fact that every one of the 114 Surahs (Chapters) of the Quran except one opens with a reminder of Allah’s loving and forgiving attitude towards humans: “Bismillahir Rahmanir Rahim” (“In the name of God the All-Compassionate and the Ever-Merciful”). Muslims understand that the compassion and forgiveness extended by God to humans must be mirrored as much as is humanly possible by their compassion and forgiveness to each other.

Yet readers will also find a few scriptures in the Qur’an that seem to be “Old Testament” in tone and message and are more warlike than, for example, Christians are used to reading in the words of Christ and the New Testament writers. Critics of the Qur’an who advance what I consider to be an unsustainable argument that Islam is the world’s most warlike major faith — among whom the American scholar and blogger Robert Spencer is both the most prolific and influential6 — routinely highlight those Qur’anic passages to support their argument that Islam has a clear tendency towards aggressive war, not inclusive peace.7

Such writers commonly focus their attention on a few passages within the Qur’an which seem to suggest that Allah encourages Muslims to subjugate or drive out non-Muslims — and even to take their lives if they refuse to yield. The critics especially like to quote Surah 9, Ayah (Verse) 5, which has become known as the “Verse of the Sword” (Ayat al-Sayf). This verse explicitly enjoins Muslims to kill “pagans wherever ye find them, and seize them, beleaguer them, and lie in wait for them in every stratagem (of war).”8

The critics often add to their condemnation of the aforementioned Surah 9:5 with equally strong attacks on Surah 9:29. This verse directs Muslims to “fight those who believe not in Allah” and the Day of Judgment, who do not comply with Muslim laws, as well as those Jews and Christians who reject the religion of Islam and will not willingly pay a state tax after their submission.9 Many critics assert that this verse directs Muslims to wage war against any and all disbelievers anywhere who refuse to embrace Islam or at least to submit to Islamic rule.10

The critics also place negative focus on Surah 2:190-194, which states:

190. Fight in the cause of Allah those who fight you, but do not transgress limits: for Allah loveth not the transgressors.

191. And slay them wherever ye catch them, and turn them out from where they have turned you out; for tumult and oppression are worse than slaughter; but fight them not at the Sacred Mosque [Al-Masjid Al-Harim, the sanctuary at Mecca], unless they (first) fight you there; but if they fight you, slay them. Such is the reward of those who suppress faith.

192. But if they cease, then Allah is Oft-forgiving, Most Merciful.

193. And fight them on until there is no more tumult or oppression, and there prevail justice and faith in Allah; but if they cease, let there be no hostility except to those who practise oppression.

You could not imagine gentle Buddha or the peaceful, cheek-turning Jesus ever saying such things, the critics of Islam assert, ignoring the heavily martial spirit and explicit violence of some sections of the Old Testament; a revelation passionately embraced in its entirely by Jesus. They also brush off some of Jesus’ seemingly incongruous statements as being allegorical and metaphorical — such as Luke 22:36, wherein Jesus encourages his disciples to sell their garments so that they can purchase swords, and Matthew 10:34 (“Do not think I come to bring peace on earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword”).11

When they read the Qur’an, the opponents of its message place little importance on the obvious differences of experiences and responsibilities between Jesus and Muhammad. Jesus was the spiritual leader of a small and intimate group of followers at a time of occupation but relative peace and personal security throughout the land. He suffered death, according to the Christian scriptures, but his execution by the Rome-governed state came after a short burst of state anger that actually followed several years of him being able to preach throughout the land without severe opposition and with no known violence. By contrast, the Prophet Muhammad (in many ways like Moses or Joshua) found himself not only the spiritual leader but also the political and legislative leader of a massive community that wanted to be moderate, just and inclusive but suffered bitter organised persecution and warfare from other political entities which were committed to his community’s destruction. His responsibilities (including the sustenance, education, governance and physical protection of tens of thousands of children, men and women) were very different.

A double-standard also seems to exist. Many of the scholars and pundits who dislike the fact that Muhammad had to fight military campaigns during his path to peace, and who consider his religion to be inherently martial, overlook the fact that many biblical prophets and leaders — including Moses, Joshua, Samson, David and other Sunday School favourites — were also warriors through necessity. Despite our Children’s Book image of these warriors, their actions included frequent killing and were sometimes couched in highly bloodthirsty language. For example, the Book of Numbers (31:15-17) records that Moses ordered war against the Midianites, but was gravely disappointed when, after having slain all the men, his warriors chose not to kill the women. He therefore instructed his warriors to kill every male child and to leave alive no females except virgins, whom the Israelites were allowed to keep as slaves. This hardly fits with our Charlton Heston-esque view of a very popular Jewish and Christian prophet.

It is worth observing that among the scriptures that form the bedrock and bulk of the Judeo-Christian tradition — the Old Testament — one can find numerous verses like these that explicitly advocate (or at least once advocated) large-scale violence incompatible with any codes of warfare that Jews and Christians would nowadays condone. For instance, when Joshua led the Israelites into the Promised Land and promptly laid siege to Jericho, which was the first walled city they encountered west of the Jordan River, “they destroyed with the sword every living thing in it — men and women, young and old, cattle, sheep and donkeys.”12 The lack of what we would today call discrimination between combatants and non-combatants accorded with God’s earlier commandment that, in areas which God had set aside for their occupation, the Israelites were to ensure that, “without mercy,” they did not leave alive “anything that breathed”.13

The ancient world was certainly brutal at times, with military excesses sometimes involving deliberate widespread violence against whole civilian communities. “It is a wonderful sight,” Roman commander Scipio Aemilianus Africanus gushed in 146 B.C. as he watched his forces raze the enemy city of Carthage to the ground following his order that no trace of it should remain. “Yet I feel a terror and dread lest someone should one day give the same order about my own native city.”14

No-one can doubt that humanity has since made tremendous progress in the way it conceives the purpose and nature of warfare and the role and treatment of non-combatants. Yet we would be wrong to believe that the “Carthaginian approach” has disappeared entirely. The Holocaust of the Jews in the Second World War, one of history’s vilest crimes, involved the organised murder of six million Jews by Germans and others who considered themselves Christians or at least members of the Christian value system. Other crimes perpetrated by Christians during recent wars have included the (Orthodox Christian) Bosnian Serb massacre of 8,300 Bosnian Muslim men and boys in and around the town of Srebrenica in July 1995.

A fair assessment of historical evidence reveals that Christianity is a faith of justice that cannot reasonably be considered blameworthy in and of itself for the Crusades, the Holocaust, the Srebrenica massacre or the Timothy McVeigh terrorist attack in Oklahoma City in 1995, even though Christians committed those horrendous acts and many others. Similarly, a fair assessment of Islam reveals that it is equally a faith of justice that cannot fairly be seen as blameworthy in and of itself for the Armenian Genocide, the Iran-Iraq War, Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait or the Al-Qaeda attacks on America in 2001, even though Muslims committed those disgraceful deeds. Certainly Islam’s framing scriptures, the Qur’an, contains no verses which are as violent as the biblical scriptures quoted above or any Qur’anic verses more violent than those already quoted. In any event, even the most ostensibly violent Qur’anic verses have not provided major Islamic movements, as opposed to impassioned minority splinter groups, with a mandate to wage aggressive war or to inflict disproportionate or indiscriminate brutality.

Last Updated on Thursday, 14 July 2011 10:33