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Saint Augustine
Qur'anic Concepts of the Ethics of War: Challenging the Claims of Islamic Aggressiveness - Proportionate Response, Last Resort and Discrimination
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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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Proportionate Response, Last Resort and Discrimination


Mercy between humans, based on forgiveness of someone else’s acknowledged wrongdoing, was something that Muhammad believed precisely mirrored the divine relationship between the Creator and humans. The concepts of patience, forgiveness and clemency strongly underpinned the early Islamic practice of warfare. Proportionality — one of the core principals of Western Just War — also serves as a key foundational principle in the Qur’anic guidance on war. Doing no violence greater than the minimum necessary to guarantee victory is repeatedly stressed in the Qur’an (and described as “not transgressing limits”). So is the imperative of meeting force with equal force in order to prevent defeat and discourage future aggression. Deterrence comes by doing to the aggressor what he has done to the innocent: “Should you encounter them in war, then deal with them in such a manner that those that [might have intended to] follow them should abandon their designs and may take warning.”53 With this deterrent function in mind, the Qur’an embraces the earlier biblical revelation to the Israelites, which permits people to respond to injustice eye for eye, tooth for tooth. Yet, like the Christian Gospels, it suggests that there is more spiritual value (bringing “purification”) in forgoing revenge in a spirit of charity.54 This passage, interestingly, is from the same period of revelation as the Verse of the Sword, which further weakens the abrogation thesis mentioned above. Moreover, even on this matter of matching one’s strength to the opponent’s strength55, the Qur’an repeatedly enjoins Muslims to remember that, whenever possible, they should respond to provocations with patience and efforts to facilitate conciliation. They should avoid fighting unless it becomes necessary after attempts have been made at achieving a peaceful resolution (which is a concept not vastly different from the Western Just War notion of Last Resort) because forgiveness and the restoration of harmony remain Allah’s preference.56

Dearly wanting to avoid bloodshed whenever possible, Muhammad created a practice of treating the use of lethal violence as a last resort which has been imitated by Muslim warriors to this day, albeit at times with varying emphases.57 Before any warfighting can commence — except for spontaneous self-defensive battles when surprised — the leader must make a formal declaration of war to the enemy force, no matter how aggressive and violent that enemy is. He must communicate a message to the enemy that it would be better for them to embrace Islam. If they did (and Muhammad liked to offer three days for reflection and decision58) then the grievance ended. A state of brotherhood ensued. If the enemy refused, then a proposal would be extended that offered them peace in return for the ending of aggression or disagreeable behaviour and the paying of a tax. If the enemy refused even that offer, and did not cease his wrong-doing, they forfeited their rights to immunity from the unfortunate violence of war.59

Islamic concepts of war do not define and conceptualise things in exactly the same way as Western thinking has done within the Just War framework. Yet the parallels are striking. The reasons for going to war expressed within the Qur’an closely match those within jus ad bellum, the Just War criteria which establishes the justice of a decision to undertake combat. The criteria include Just Cause, Proportionality and Last Resort. The behaviour demanded of warriors once campaigning and combat have commenced also closely match those within jus in bello, the Just War criteria which establishes the proper behaviour of warriors that is necessary to keep the war just. The Qur’an described this as a prohibition against “transgressing limits”.60 Ibn Kathir, a famous and relatively reliable fourteenth-century scholar of the Qur’an, accepts earlier interpretations that the “transgressions” mentioned in the Qur’an refer to “mutilating the dead, theft (from the captured goods), killing women, children and old people who do not participate in warfare, killing priests and residents of houses of worship, burning down trees and killing animals without real benefit.”61 Ibn Kathir points out that Muhammad had himself stated that these deeds are prohibited. Another source records that, before he assigned a leader to take forces on a mission, Muhammad would instruct them to fight honourably, not to hurt women and children, not to harm prisoners, not to mutilate bodies, not to plunder and not to destroy trees or crops.62

In the year after Muhammad’s death in 632, his close friend and successor Abu Bakr, the first Caliph, compiled the Qur’an’s and the prophet’s guidance on the conduct of war into a code that has served ever since as the basis of Islamic thinking on the conduct of battle. In a celebrated address to his warriors, Abu Bakr proclaimed:

Do not act treacherously; do not act disloyally; do not act neglectfully. Do not mutilate; do not kill little children or old men, or women; do not cut off the heads off the palm-trees or burn them; do not cut down the fruit trees; do not slaughter a sheep or a cow or a camel, except for food. You will pass by people who devote their lives in cloisters; leave them and their devotions alone. You will come upon people who bring you platters in which are various sorts of food; if you eat any of it, mention the name of God over it.63

There is no explicit statement within the Qur’an that defines the difference between combatants and non-combatants during war, so readers might think that any man of fighting age (children, women and the aged having been excluded) is considered fair game. The Qur’an does not allow this. The verses that talk of combat are clear that war is only permissible against those who are waging war; that is, those in combat. Aside from those combatants and anyone acting unjustly to prevent Muslims from practising their faith or trying to violate the sanctity of Islam’s holy places, no-one is to be harmed.

The rationale for this is clear. Central to the Qur’anic revelation and stated unequivocally in many passages is the message that the decisions that pertain to life and death are Allah’s alone, and that Allah has proclaimed that human life — a “sacred” gift — may never be taken without “just cause”.64 In the Qur’anic passages narrating the story of Cain and Abel (Surah 5:27-32, revealed very late in Muhammad’s life) one can read an explicit protection of the lives of the innocent. Surah 5:32 informs us that, if anyone takes the life of another human, unless it is for murder, aggressive violence or serious persecution, it is as though he has killed all of humanity. Likewise, if anyone saves a life, it is as though he has saved all of humanity. To discourage war, the very next verse is clear: those who undertake warfare against the innocent do not count as innocent, nor do those who inflict grave injustice or oppression upon the innocent. They forfeit their right to what we would nowadays call “civilian immunity,” and are liable to be killed in battle or executed if they are caught and have not repented.65

Last Updated on Thursday, 14 July 2011 10:33