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Saint Augustine
Qur'anic Concepts of the Ethics of War: Challenging the Claims of Islamic Aggressiveness - The Origins of Self-Defensive Concepts of War
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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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The Origins of Self-defensive Concepts of War


It is worth remembering that, for the first fourteen years of his public life (from 610 to 624), Muhammad had practiced and proclaimed a policy of peaceful non-resistance to the intensifying humiliation, cruelty and violence that the Quraysh, the dominant tribe of Mecca, attempted to inflict upon him and his fellow Muslims. Throughout that period he had strenuously resisted “growing pressure from within the Muslim ranks to respond in kind” and insisted “on the virtues of patience and steadfastness in the face of their opponents’ attacks.”39 The persecution at one point was so severe that Muhammad had to send two groups of followers to seek refuge in Abyssinia. Even after he and the rest of his followers fled the persecution in Mecca and settled in Medina in 622, the developing ummah (Islamic community), experienced grave hardship and fear. Some of the non-Muslims in Medina passionately resented the presence of Muslims and conspired to expel them. From Mecca, Abu Safyan waged a relentless campaign of hostility against Muhammad and the Muslims, who had now become a rival power and a threat to his lucrative trade and pilgrimage arrangements. Abu Safyan sought no accommodation with Muhammad. In his mind, and according to the norms of Arabic tribal warfare, the only solution was the ummah’s destruction.40

In 624, two years after the migration of Muslims to Medina — two years in which the Quraysh continued to persecute them and then led armies against them — Muhammad finally announced a revelation from Allah that Muslims were allowed physically to defend themselves to preserve themselves through the contest of arms. Most scholars agree that Surah 22:39 contains that first transformational statement of permission.41 Including the verses above and below, it says:

38. Verily Allah will defend (from ill) those who believe: verily, Allah loveth not any that is a traitor to faith, or shows ingratitude.

39. To those against whom war is made, permission is given (to fight), because they are wronged — and verily, Allah is Most Powerful for their aid.

40. (They are) those who have been expelled from their homes in defiance of right (for no cause) except that they say, “Our Lord is Allah”.

These verses continue by pointing out that, had not Allah in previous eras allowed people to defend themselves from the aggression and religious persecution of others, there would surely have been the destruction of “monasteries, churches, synagogues and mosques, in which the name of Allah is commemorated in abundant measure.” The verses add that Allah will surely aid those who aid him, and that he is truly mighty and invincible.

The references to defending the faithful from harm in Ayah 38, to those on the receiving end of violence in Ayah 39 and those who have been driven from their homes in Ayah 40 reveal very clearly that Allah’s permission to undertake armed combat was not for offensive war, but self-defence and self-preservation when attacked or oppressed. Interestingly, it even extols the defence of all houses of worship, including the churches of Christians and the synagogues of Jews.

This permission for self-defensive warfighting (the Arabic word is qital, or combat) corresponds precisely with the first Qur’anic passage on war that one reads when one starts from the front cover: Surah 2:190, which, as quoted above, states: “Fight in the cause of Allah those who fight you, but do not transgress limits: for Allah loveth not the transgressors.” Thus, the purpose of armed combat was self-defence and, even though the need for survival meant that warfare would be tough, combat was to adhere to a set of prescribed constraints.42 The following verse’s instruction to “slay them” wherever they turn up commences with the conjunction “wa,” here translated as “and,” to indicate that it is a continuation of the same stream of logic. In other words, Muslims were allowed to defend themselves militarily from the forces or armies which were attacking them wherever that happened. Tremendous care was to be taken not to shed blood in the environs of Mecca’s sacred mosque, but if Muslims found themselves attacked there they could kill their attackers while defending themselves without committing a sin. This series of verses actually ends with instructions that, if the attackers ceased their attacks, Muslims were not to continue to fight them because Allah is “Oft-forgiving, Most Merciful.”43 Thus, continued resistance could — and nowadays can — only be a proportionate response to continued serious direct oppression.44 In every Qur’anic example in which warfighting (qital) is encouraged for protection against serious direct oppression or violence, verses can be found that stress that, should the wrongdoers cease their hostility, then Muslims must immediately cease their own fighting.

The Qur’anic permission for defensive resistance to attacks or serious direct oppression does not mean that Muhammad enjoyed war, or took pleasure whatsoever in the fact that defensive warfare to protect his ummah from extinction or subjugation would involve the loss of even his enemies’ lives. He was no warmonger and forgave and pardoned mortal enemies whenever he could. This “reluctant warrior,” to quote one scholar, urged the use of nonviolent means when possible and, often against the advice of his companions, sought the early end of hostilities.45 At the same time, in accordance with the revelations he had received, he accepted that combat for the defence of Islam and Islamic interests would sometimes be unavoidable. One of Muhammad’s companions remembers him telling his followers not to look forward to combat, but if it were to come upon them then they should pray for safety and be patient.46

Critics of Islam are fond of quoting Surahs that seem to reveal a certain savagery that today seems bloodcurdling to them. “When you meet the unbelievers,” the Qur’an says in Surah 47:4, “strike at their necks until you weaken them [that is, defeat them] and then bind the captives firmly. Thereafter you may release them magnanimously or for a ransom.” In Surah 8:12 the Qur’an likewise commands soldiers in battle to strike at necks and fingers. Although these verses may seem out of place in a religious text, they are not out of place within advice given by a military commander before a battle. That was precisely the context of those particular revelations. Muhammad’s community had not yet fought a battle or formed an army and those Muslims who were about to become warriors needed to be taught how to kill immediately and humanely. Decapitation, as opposed to wild slashes at limbs or armoured bodies, ensured humane killing instead of ineffective and brutal wounding. Even better, if a soldier could make an enemy drop his weapon by striking at his hands, he might be able to take him prisoner. Having him alive as a captive who could later be freed, even with a wounded hand, was preferable to leaving him as a corpse.

Today all military or security forces in the world teach weapon-handling skills with the same focus. Recruits and officer cadets are taught how to kill or wound on firing ranges where instructors teach them which target areas will bring humane death and which ones will cause someone’s incapacitation without death. The two Qur’anic passages mentioned above should be read in that light. Moreover, they do not represent an instruction to all Muslims anytime to kill or wound all non-Muslims anywhere. That would violate every concept of justice embedded within Islam. The instructions were to one group of Muslims (the nascent ummah, which had not yet experienced combat) in anticipation of a specific conflict: the Battle of Badr fought in March 624.

The fact that these combat-related instructions are contained within a religious book which has powerfully clear central messages of forbearance, toleration and inclusiveness is easily explained by the fact that the Qur’an, revealed episodically over decades, was (and is) considered by Muslim’s to be God’s word. Every revelation on every issue was thus faithfully recorded and retained, including ones dealing with all sorts of things — war, combat, diplomacy, finance, marriage, child-rearing, divorce, death, education, science and so forth — with which the first Muslims had to deal. It is thus a manual for life, with sections on war and combat which are relevant when Muslims go to war for defensive reasons, and on, say, pilgrimage when Muslims go on the Hajj for spiritual fulfillment.

The Qur’an and the Hadith (the recorded words and actions of Muhammad) show that Muhammad took no pleasure in the fact that — as also taught in later Western Just War theory — the regrettable combatant-versus-combatant violence inherent within warfare would sometimes be necessary in order to create a better state of peace. Explaining to fellow Muslims the need in some situations to undertake combat, Muhammad acknowledged Allah’s revelation that warfare was something that seemed very wrong, indeed a “disliked” activity, yet it was morally necessary and thus morally right and obligatory under some circumstances.47 Warfare was frightening and dreadful, but in extremis better than continued serious persecution and attack.48

Muhammad’s greatest triumph — his eventual return to his hometown Mecca in 630 at the head of an army of 10,000 — was itself a bloodless affair marked by tremendous forgiveness and mercy. After his forces entered the city, the panicked Quraysh tribe, which effectively surrendered after realising that resistance to the Muslim army was futile, anticipated that their leaders and warriors would be slain.49 After all, for two decades they had humiliated, persecuted and tried to assassinate Muhammad and had maltreated and even waged savage war against his followers. Yet, aside from four murderers and serious oath-breakers who were judged to be beyond rehabilitation, Muhammad chose to forgive them all in a general amnesty. There was no bloodbath. He reportedly asked the assembled leaders of Quraysh what fate they anticipated. Expecting death, but hoping for life, they replied: “O noble brother and son of a noble brother! We expect nothing but goodness from you.” This appeal must have relieved Muhammad and made him smile. He replied: “I speak to you in the same words as Yusuf [the biblical Joseph, also one of Islam’s revered prophets] spoke unto his brothers. … ‘No reproach on you this day.’ Go your way, for you are the freed ones.”50 He even showed mercy to Hind bint Utbah, Abu Sufyan’s wife, who was under a sentence of death for having horrifically and disgracefully mutilated the body of Muhammad’s beloved uncle Hamzah during the Battle of Uhud five years earlier. Utbah had cut open Hamzah's body, ripped out his liver and chewed it.51 She then reportedly strung the ears and nose into a necklace and entered Mecca wearing it as a trophy of victory. When justice finally caught up with her five years later she threw herself upon Muhammad’s mercy. Extending clemency of remarkable depth, Muhammad promised her forgiveness and accepted her into his community.52

Last Updated on Thursday, 14 July 2011 10:33