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Saint Augustine
Qur'anic Concepts of the Ethics of War: Challenging the Claims of Islamic Aggressiveness - Jihad
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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
All Pages



It should already be clear that, far from serving as the foundation of a callous faith in which human life is not respected, or a bellicose faith in which peace is not desired, the Qur’an presents warfare as an undesirable activity. It should be undertaken only within certain constrained circumstances and in a manner that facilitates the quick restoration of peace and harmony and minimises the harm and destruction that war inevitably brings. An analysis of such matters would not, of course, be complete without making some sense of jihad, that famous word and concept that nowadays is most controversial and misunderstood.

Interestingly, given that jihad is now associated with extremists who are full of hatred, like Osama bin Laden and other terrorists, the Qur’an does not allow hatred to form the basis of a military or other armed response to perceived injustices. It explicitly states that the hatred of others must not make anyone “swerve to [do] wrong and depart from justice. Be just.”66 The Qur’an likewise praises those who “restrain their anger and are forgiving towards their fellow men”.67 These and other verses communicating the same message are clear enough to prevent crimes perceived nowadays by Muslims from turning them into criminals.68 They certainly made an impact on Muslims during Muhammad’s lifetime. During the Battle of Khandaq in 627, for example, Ali ibn Abi Talib (who later served as Caliph) reportedly subjugated Amr ibn Abd al-Wudd, a powerful warrior of the Quraysh. Ali was about to deal a death blow when his enemy spat in his face. Ali immediately released him and walked away. He then rejoined battle and managed to slay his enemy. When later asked to explain why he had released his foe, Ali replied that he had wanted to keep his heart pure from anger and that, if he needed to take life, he did it out of righteous motives and not wrath.69 Even if the verity of this story is impossible to demonstrate (it is first found in a thirteenth-century Persian Sufi poem), its survival and popularity attest to the perceived importance within Islam of acting justly at all times, even during the heightened passions inevitable in war.

Despite some popular misperceptions that jihad is based on frustration or anger that many non-Muslims consciously reject the faith of Islam, the Qur’an is quite clear that Islam can be embraced only by those who willingly come to accept it. Islam cannot be imposed upon anyone who does not. Surah 2:256 is emphatic that there must be “no compulsion in religion.” Truth is self-evident, the verse adds, and stands out from falsehood. Those who accept the former grasp “the most trustworthy hand-hold that never breaks.” Those who accept falsehood instead will go forth into “the depths of darkness”: the same hell that Christ had preached about. The fate of individuals, based on the choice they make, is therefore Allah’s alone to decide. The Qur’an repeats in several other verses that coerced religion would be pointless because the submission of the heart wanted by Allah would be contrived and thus not accepted as genuine. When even Muhammad complained that he seemed to be surrounded by people who would not believe, a divine revelation clarified that Muslims were merely to turn away from the disbelievers after saying “peace” to them “for they shall come to know.”70 The Qur’an itself enjoins believers to invite disbelievers “to the Way of thy Lord with wisdom and beautiful preaching; and argue with them in ways that are best and most gracious … if ye show patience, that is indeed the best (cause) for those who are patient. … For Allah is with those who restrain themselves, and those who do good.”71 At no point in Muhammad’s life did he give up hope that all peoples would want to get along harmoniously. Despite his grave disappointment whenever communities competed instead of cooperated, in one of his later public sermons he revealed the divine message that Allah had made all of mankind “into nations and tribes, that ye may know each other (not that ye may despise each other).”72

This desire for tolerant coexistence even included other faiths and Muhammad never stopped believing in the commonality of belief between Muslims and the God-fearing among those who identified themselves as Jews and Christians (Ahl al-Kitab, the People of the Book). They shared the same prophetic line of revelation, after all. Despite rejection by several powerful Jewish tribes, and frustration over trinitarian concepts, Muhammad remained convinced that the Jewish and Christian faith communities (as opposed to some individual tribes which acted treacherously) were eminently acceptable to Allah if they followed their own scriptures. Verses saying precisely this were revealed very close in time to the Verse of the Sword. The verses encourage the Jews and Christians to believe (submit to God) and act faithfully according to their own scriptures, the Torah and the Gospel. The verses state that, if they do so, they, along with Muslims (fellow submitters73), will have no need to fear or grieve.74 The revelation of these religiously inclusive verses late in Muhammad’s life further undermines the thesis that the verses revealed late in his life undid all of the inter-faith outreach that Muhammad had preached years earlier.

So what, then, is jihad and why does it seem so threatening? The answer is that jihad, far from meaning some type of fanatical holy war against all unbelievers, is the Arabic word for “exertion” or “effort” and it actually describes any Muslim’s struggle against the things that are ungodly within him or her and within the wider world. One major form of jihad is the Muslim’s struggle against his or her “nafs”: an Arabic word that may be translated as the “lower self” and refers to the individual’s ego, carnal nature and the bad habits and actions that come from failure to resist temptation or desire.75 For example, a Muslim who consciously strives to break the habit of telling white lies, or the drinking of alcohol, or who struggles against a bad temper, is involved quite properly in a jihad against those unfortunate weaknesses. In Surah 29:6 the Qur’an explains this by pointing out that the striving (jihad) of individuals against their personal ungodliness will bring personal, inner (that is, spiritual) growth. Yet the very next verse goes further by exhorting believers not only to work on their personal faith, but also to do “good deeds” to others. Devoting time and giving money to the welfare of the poor and needy (of all communities, not just Muslims), and to the upkeep and governance of the ummah, is mentioned in several scriptures as this type of divinely recommended effort (jihad). Winning souls to Islam through peaceful preaching is likewise a worthy effort. Muhammad himself revealed a divine exhortation to “strive” with “all effort” (in Arabic it uses two forms of the same word jihad) using the powerful words of the Qur’an to convince unbelievers.76

Jihad is also used in the Qur’an to mean physical defensive resistance to external danger. It appears in thirty verses, six of them revealed during Muhammad’s years in Mecca and twenty-four revealed during the years of armed attack by the Quraysh tribe and its allies and then the protective wars to create security within and around the Arabian Peninsula.77 Critics of Islam claim that this ratio reveals that jihad and qital (warfighting) are effectively synonymous regardless of context. This is incorrect. The struggle against ego and personal vice is a greater, non-contextual and ever-required struggle, as Muhammad revealed. After returning from a battle he told his supporters: “You have come back from the smaller jihad to the greater jihad.” When asked what the greater jihad was, Muhammad replied: “The striving of Allah’s servant against his desires” (“mujahadat al-‘abd lihawah”).78

Moreover, the Verse of the Sword and the other supposedly bloody verses quoted in this article do not use the word “jihad” for the recommended defensive warfighting. They use “qital,” which simply means fighting or combat. Yes, qital is permitted as part of a defensive struggle against serious oppression or persecution, but that does not mean that all jihad is fighting. That would be using logic similar to saying that, because all fox terriers are dogs, all dogs are fox terriers. All lawful qital is jihad — a legitimately approved and rigorously constrained military struggle against evil — but not all jihad (or even much of it or the “greater” type) is warfare. Questions about who can legitimately call for or initiate qital as part of any jihad, in a world which no longer has caliphs leading the ummah, are debated by Islamic scholars, with a vast majority arguing that only state leaders in Islamic (or Muslim-majority) lands would be legitimately able to do so if a genuine just cause emerged. The fact that fatawa and other calls for fighting made in recent years by Al-Qaeda and Taliban leaders have not been accepted by the overwhelming majority of the world’s 1.6 billion Muslims is a clear sign that few Muslims see them as legitimate leaders or agree that armed fighting would be a just and appropriate response to the alleged grievances.

Interestingly, all the verses mentioning jihad as armed struggle in defence of the Islamic people and polity are exhortative in nature: with pleas for effort, urgings of courage and a fighting spirit, assurances of victory and promises of eternal rewards for those who might die in the service of their community. This emphasis reveals that Muhammad recognised that wars were so unpalatable to his peace-loving community that, even though the causes of Muslim warfighting were just, he had to go to extra lengths — much as Winston Churchill did during the dark days of the Second World War — to exhort frightened or weary people to persevere, to believe in victory and to fight for it. On 4 June 1940 Churchill gave a magnificent speech to inspire the British people to continue their struggle against the undoubted evils of Nazism, even though the German armed forces then seemed stronger and better in battle. His speech includes the fabulous warlike lines:

We shall fight on the seas and oceans

We shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our Island, whatever the cost may be

We shall fight on the beaches

We shall fight on the landing grounds

We shall fight in the fields and in the streets

We shall fight in the hills

We shall never surrender.79

No-one would dream of calling Churchill warmongering, much less murderous. Muhammad’s exhortations for Muslims to do their duty — a phrase used by Churchill in that speech and others — and to struggle against the threat of defeat at the hands of the Muslims’ enemies are best seen in the same light. Indeed, most of the verses which urge qital as part of the struggle (jihad) against enemies relate to the self-defensive wars mentioned above, with the remaining verses relating to the broader need to protect the nascent ummah from both the local spiritual pollution of intransigent Arab polytheism and idolatry as well as the external threat to unsafe borders around the perimeter of the ummah. No verses in the Qur’an encourage or permit violence against innocent people, regardless of faith, and no verses encourage or permit war against other nations or states that are not attacking the Islamic ummah, threatening its borders or its direct interests, or interfering in the ability of Muslims to practice their faith. Armed effort against any states that might do those oppressive things would still be permitted to this day, at least according to a fair reading of the Qur’an80 — just as it is within Western Just War theory. Yet such a situation would involve a very different set of circumstances to those existing in the world today; those which somehow wrongly prompted a very small number of radicalised terrorists to undertake aggressive and offensive (not justly motivated and defensive) struggles. Their reprehensible actions, especially those that involve the taking of innocent lives, fall outside the behaviours permitted by a reasonable reading of the Qur’an.

Last Updated on Thursday, 14 July 2011 10:33