The Conditions for Violence in Islam

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Forbidding self defense when one is persecuted by one's society and its representatives is perhaps what many find most problematic in my call for nonviolence, reviving the tradition of Adam's son, Socrates, and Muhammad to create desired social and political change. This central prophetic notion is still rejected in the world. Creating a third alternative to this polarized hierarchy between oppressor and oppressed was the mission of the prophets. Yet, if the prophetic method does not allow the founding of society through violence, some might question why there are many verses in the Qur'an that urge fighting and Jihad.

To understand the true message of the Qur'an on the use of violence, we must differentiate between (1) a society founded on force, violence and coercion and (2) a society founded on the rule of law, justice and legitimacy. The former society of force is the society that prophets wanted to eradicate in order to establish the latter kind of society, based on peaceful persuasion and lack of coercion and marked by the protection it provides to its members. Fighting or the use of force has, then, to be understood within the boundaries that define the distinctions between these two forms of governing. '

The conditions in the Qur'an for the use of force in a society founded on force include the following:

l. No fighting or killing is permitted to impose one's religion at any level, whether against a state or against individuals. The use of threats or intimidation to make one change his or her religion is completely rejected in Islam, though it is not exclusive to Islam. All true prophets have preached the same message because monotheism, as I have explained above, is not only a theological matter, but a socio¬political issue. Monotheism teaches its followers to refuse to be instruments in the hands of those who want to impose their religion with force. It also teaches them to refuse to accept a religion imposed on them forcefully. The human soul is sacred and may not be murdered for the sake of ideas.

Thus, the Qur'an describes as true believers, "[T]hose who invoke not, with God, any other god, nor kill such life as God has made sacred . . . ." (Surah 25 AI Furqan: 68)

After discussing the regret that befell Adam's second son after killing his own brother, the Qur'an reads:

On that account, We ordained for the children of Israel that whoever kills a person, unless it be for murder or for spreading mischief in the land, it would be as if he slew the whole people: and if anyone saved a life, it would be as if he saved the life of the whole people1.

This is not only the message of all the Prophets but the natural consequence of the movement to include freedom of belief as an inalienable right in every democratic constitution.

2. When a society of free belief is founded and it has produced its institutions, it has the obligation to protect freedom of belief among people. It also has the obligation to protect their blood and money with justice, with the word of equity. Thus, the deimition of a just society implies the application of law equally to its members regardless of the nature of that society's laws. Some might object that such a definition is useless or relativistic, because each state will consider its application just. Yet, we can not judge the equity of any system by what its members say to justify it; rather, the results and the consequences of a system will be the witness to its equity or inequity.

A society of justice, when people rebel against it, has the right to prevent aggression by those who want to return it to a state of lawlessness, to the law of the jungle. This type of fighting is permitted in the Qur'an, because the just society has a legitimate right to self defense. "If two parties among the believers fall into quarrel, make peace between them: but if one of them transgresses beyond bounds against the other, then fight against the one that transgresses until it complies with the command of God; but if it complies, then make peace between them with justice, and be fair: for God loves those who are fair (and just)." (Surah ~9 A1 Hujurat: 9) Preventing aggression is the only violence allowed within a state of equity, and only when all other means have been exhausted. (Here I am referring specifically to physical aggression by those who want to impose their order through the use of force and not through intellectual instigation.) Aggression is to be stopped, through force if other means fail, for it breaches the state of law in a society.

It is important to repeat again and again that violence can be used in a society of justice only to stop those who kill people and exile them for their ideas or ethnicities, for it is the obligation of such a society "regardless of its name or nationality" to install justice among people. If such aggression occurs, we should not be misled by the religious affiliation of the rebels; we should not be misled by names or labels of piety, religiosity, or infidelity. "And say not to anyone who offers you a salutation (of peace): `You are none of a believer! "' (Surah 4 Al Nisa': 94) There is, if fact, an Islamic term for such rebels against a just society: they are called the rebellious outsiders, (khawarij) or aggressors (bughat).

Moreover those who practice justice are practically speaking monotheistic because monotheism is about rejecting tyranny and injustice. Conversely, those who believe in tyranny are committing social polytheism, the sin that is never forgiven. That is why the verse commanding "no coercion in religion" is followed by the promise that

God is the ally (and protector) of those who have faith: from the depths of darkness He will lead them forth into light. Of those who reject faith their allies are the evil ones!: from light they will lead them forth into the depth of darkness . . . :' (Surah 2 Al Baqarah: 257)

After the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) founded a society in Madinah, through moral, social and political persuasion, four khalifahs (Caliphs) ruled Madinah successively after his death. They did not abduct authority with the sword; nor did they make their position hereditary for their children. Muslims called these "Al ~hulafa ' a1¬rashidun" ("the rightly-Guided Caliphs"). It is interesting that no khalifah in Muslim history was ever labeled "rashid' (singular for rashidun) after that. Perhaps it is no coincidence that the practice stopped because all the other khalifahs came to power either through the sword or through heredity. This is possibly a collective statement by Muslims about the rule of the later khalifahs. This silence implies that even if Muslims could not bring back the political legitimacy of the early khalifahs, they did not lose their understanding of what is meant in the Qur'an by rushd. However, what is problematic in the Muslims' understanding of the era of rushd is that they do not see rushd as a human product. Instead, they understand it as the result of unusual divine intervention, a direct divine blessing on the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) and his companions. This is the grievous error that has befallen the Muslims in understanding their own history and tradition. Their sin of misunderstanding has been overtaken by developments in the modern world, where rushd has appeared through human creation in the form of late modern democracies.

The Qur'an clearly declares that the ruler who comes through coercion is not rashid (someone who is legitimately in power, morally and intellectually mature), but a taghut (tyrant) and is thus illegitimate. Yet, Muslims have failed to understand that reinstating governance with violence is illegitimate; so they regressed to accepting the use of violence in the making of political authority. They have therefore entered the circle of the law of the jungle once more; and from it, they have not been able to escape.

The promising exception to this vicious circle is the recent developments in Muslim politics in Turkey. Turkey accepted the democratic challenge, of all the countries in the Muslim World. It is also the same country that followed the example of Western secularization, and rejected religion in a revolution similar to those that took place in the West. However, this country that historically passed over the Muslim World by rejecting Islam and Islamic rule-which was no longer in a state of rushd-reinstated rushd. It accepted the notion of political authority through the path of legitimacy. If this pattern proliferates in the Muslim World, perhaps rushd has a chance of returning to it, just as Europe is entering a new moment of unity based on its own rushd, a unity based on legitimacy.

These historical events are significant in the movement of humanity at large. We should take their signals, moving to speed up the process of the return to "guidance" rather than fearing or retreating from them. Those who dread such a spread of democracy and equality only fear the loss of their privileges. They do not realize that they will not lose anything, but instead gain security.

3. The relationship between a society of justice and equity and an unjust society is subject to certain conditions. As suggested, the Qur'an demands that societies give up two practices:

A. The killing of people because of their ideas, beliefs, convictions and mental perceptions.

B. Exiling of people for the same reasons mentioned above.

The Qur'an is clear on this: "God forbids you not, with regard to those who fight you not in religion nor drive you out of your homes, &om dealing kindly and justly with them: for God loves those who are just." (Surah 60 Al Mumtahinah: 8)

Similarly, if other societies "withdraw from you but fight you not, and (instead) send you (guarantees of) peace, then God has opened no way for you (to war against them). If they withdraw not from nor give you peace nor restrain their hands, seize them and kill them wherever you get them; in their case we have provided you with a clear authority (argument) against them." (Surah 4 Al Nisa': 90-91)

This is the charter of fighting in the Qur'an, and all the verses in the Qur'an that deal with fighting or the use of force are constrained within these specific limits. Any society that does not practice either one of these two evils-killing and exiling people because of the ideas they carry-is protected and beyond reproach according to the Qur'an2. Hence, any fighting outside the boundaries of these conditions is rendered tyrannical, and turns into a fighting for taghut. It becomes similar to the fighting of jahiliyah, the age (of ignorance) preceding Islam, and not the kind of fighting the Qur'an decreed.

As long as there is murdering and exiling of people because of their opinions, the Qur'an decrees that a society of justice-which has founded itself legitimately-has distinct power to stop such persecution and to use violence as a last resort. In summary, we could say that fighting is allowed in the Qur'an in two conditions, one regarding the society that uses force, the other regarding the society against which force is used. The society that uses force has to be a society founded legitimately through peaceful means. 'The society against which force is used has to be murdering people and exiling them. Therefore, if the world no longer has a society that commits such atrocities, fighting would cease. Once people enter the word of equity, war is obsolete and people will coexist in a world of peace.

Understanding the conditions of the use of force in the Qur'an better would allow us to understand what happened to Muslims as to many other previous nations. In many places, Muslims articulated and developed their culture after they had lost rushd and adapted to the ways of ghay. Hence, they legitimated the making of political authority through violence. They were incapable of comprehending social change through persuasion, albeit yearning nostalgically for the age of rushd and the prophetic model. This age has taken on a certain significance in the Muslim collective imagination. Yet, it is also a period that is placed beyond history and therefore marked with an absence of analysis of the laws and factors that enabled the Prophet to create such a society.

Perhaps what also caused Muslims' confusion regarding the issues of force and legitimacy is their failure to distinguish the contexts of war and peace. They could not and still do not differentiate the contexts in which the use of force is allowed and the contexts in which even self defense is absolutely forbidden. Hence, the verses and Hadith about force are not understood within notions of legitimacy and within the rules that sanction the use of force in the Qur'an. The constant references in both the Qur'an and Hadith to the sanctity of using arms are, therefore, presented in Islamic tradition without an accompanying analysis about prerequisites and conditions that sanction violence. In one instance, for example, the Prophet praises the use of arms to the point where he says that God would admit three persons to paradise with one arrow: its maker, its carrier, and its archer. Yet, what escapes Muslims is the abundance of Hadith that prohibit the use of arms to the point where the Prophet orders the destruction of one's arms, even if unilaterally, and to rid one's self of one's sword.

A closer look at what may appear as self contradictory commands discloses that the command to take up arms is subject to the context and conditions of fighting discussed above. In fact, there are no contradictions if one understands the rules and circumstances that decree violence and the rules and conditions that prohibit it. Similarly, there is great consistency between the Qur'an, the Hadith and the Prophet's behavior when it comes to the use of force. Notions such as fitna (disorder) and baghy (aggression) are juristic terms. The Prophet was referring to such times when he said: "Break your arrow and cut its bow and hit your sword on a rock." He even commanded taking refuge in the mountains or tending one's own business.

There is a discernable body of Hadith that deals with the issue of social disorder and the abstinence from violence. In one Hadith, the Prophet addressed Abi Dhar when he asked:

`Do not I take up my sword?' The Prophet said: `You, then, would have participated with these people (becoming their accomplice).' Abu Dhar, then asked: `So, what do you order me to do?' The Prophet said: `If you fear the glittering of the sword, throw your garment over your face so that [the aggressor] carries the onus of your sin as well as his3.

However the Hadith dealing with limits on the use of violence in social disorder are rarely, if ever, quoted in Islamic scholarship. There are of course reasons for this omission. People who adapt to the ways of tyranny (taghut) cannot benefit from their sacred texts or what the Prophets established. The entire Islamic tradition, except for the Qur'an, was written after Muslims lost the mode of governance based on rushd. Alas, the Islamic tradition adapted to the age of tyranny rather than the model established by the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH). My wonder at this fact ceased when I realized how Western thought was also captured by the age of tyranny, and has never adapted to the message of Jesus.

The legitimatization of the use of violence and killing to create political change in the Western civilization has also supported the continuity of this line of political thought. It reified Post-Qur'anic Islamic notions about political change, and has resulted in constant attempts to bring back rushd through revolution. But since violence has become taboo in modern Western democratic political behavior, it has created intellectual and political contradictions similar to those in the history of Muslims. Thus, even if violence has become prohibited as a means of changing rulers or amending bills of law, ideas about the legitimacy of violence and revolution are revered at the level of historical political discourse.

Such a world of peace is not a utopian illusion. It has actually become possible if not urgent. Just as slavery was abolished, which was a consequence of war, so will war be abolished. Instead, human energies could be put into competition for inventing instruments that would communicate the lessons of humanity's struggles and efforts to the people. It is the lack of knowledge and understanding of events that leads people to misconceptions and therefore to misconduct; it is false ideas that lead them to hatred and bloodshed.

Coming to terms with the philosophical implications in the prophetic method of social and political change will put the world into a truly new order based on equity and will resolve such intellectual dilemmas. Big and small tyrannies will collapse. It is the role of intellectuals to disclose the extent of the gap that separates the world from religion and democracy, because we live in a world were religion is understood as coercion and compulsion and law as the acceptance of privilege. As coercion negates religion, privilege negates law. The call of prophets has to be addressed in a new light to validate and enforce people's trust in religion, law and humanity.

Humanity now lives a crisis of trust. If the world is silent about the deformation of the meaning of religion and law, history does not spare those who ignore its laws:

"Such is the chastisement of your Lord when He chastises communities in . the midst of their injustice: grievous, indeed, and severe is his chastisement." (Surah 11 Hud: 102)

The Qur'an reminds us that those who do not take lessons from history will themselves become lessons for others. The movement of history will not stop for them, for God will give their inheritance to others, and "neither heaven nor earth [will] shed a tear over them4." "[T]hey were unjust to themselves (therein). At length We made them as tales (that are told) and We dispersed them all in scattered fragments.

Verily in this are signs for everyone that is patiently constant and grateful." (Surah 34 Saba': 19)

Our history is, alas, still a fulfillment of the angels' predictions about our species. Human relationships based on equity and compassion rather than power are still seen by some Western thinkers as a radical challenge to Western culture and to all world cultures. This is because the authentic experiences of such relationships practiced with prophetic consciousness are marginalized and fall outside historical analysis. Intellectuals of our time view those who have led movements toward equity and justice, particularly those who were murdered for their ideas such as Adam's son, Socrates, Jesus and Gandhi, as victims of their ideals. What they overlook is the intellectual seeds these figures left behind. The condemnation of violence in our age, even if it is only at a rhetorical level, is some indication that killing is declining as a heroic model worthy of reverence. Thus, the blood of Adam's son did not go to waste. The cry of his blood is read by millions of men, women and children in the world even if they do not comprehend its significance and implications now:

Cain said to his brother Abel, `Let us go out into the country.' Once there, Cain attacked and murdered his brother . . . . The Lord said, `What have you done? Your brother's blood is crying out to me from the ground. Now you are accursed and will be banished from the very ground which has opened its mouth to receive the blood you have shed . . . .' Cain said to the Lord, `My punishment is heavier than I can bear.' (Gen 4:8-14)

And they will remember also the words of Adam's son:

If you do stretch your hand to kill me, I (surely) will not stretch my hand to kill you: for I fear God, the cherisher of the worlds (of all). I intend to let you draw on yourself my sin as well as yours, for you will be among the companions of the Fire, and that is the reward of those who are unjust (aggressors). (Surah 5 A1 Ma'idah: 31-32)

Figuratively speaking, we are the descendants of the killer son, but we started to realize ways of becoming the descendants of the other son, with an increasing reverence for the nervous system and the realm of the intellect.


1 The passage continues: "then although there came to them our messengers with clear signs, yet, even after that, many of them continued to commit excesses in the land." Surah 5 Al Ma'idah: 35.

2 The Qur'an says: "1'hose who believe fight in the cause of God, and those who disbelieve fight in the cause of tyranny: so fight against the allies of Satan: feeble indeed is the cunning of Satan." Surah 4 A1 Nisa: 76.

3 As just some of the best examples of this body of Hadith, read the following: taken from the abridgement of Abi Dawood by the al-Hafiz al-Mundhiri, edition of (Publishers of Sunna Mohammadia 1949), at page 142 section 6 under the numbers 4090, 40, and 4095 (placed here in the same order).

The Prophet said, `There will be disorder where that who is lying down is better than who is sitting, that who is sitting is better than that who is standing and that who is standing is better than who is walking. The one walking is better than one running.' They said: `What do you demand of us in such a time?' The prophet said: `Those who have camels should attend them, and those who have sheep should go after their sheep, and those who have land should take care of it.' They said: `If one does not have any of such.' He said: `Then he should take his sword, hit its edge on a rock and save himself to the best of his ability.' (produced by Bukhari and Muslim).

They said, `Prophet of God, what if he entered my house and stretched his hand to kill me!' He said: `Be like the son of Adam', and he read the verses from the Qur'an, `If you stretch your hand to kill me, I will not kill thee, for I fear God . . . .' Surah 5 Al Ma'idah: 31.

The Prophet said: "I see fintnas (states of disorder) coming like the pieces of a dark night where a man wakes up a believer and goes into the evening an infidel and goes into the evening a believer and wakes up an infidel. The sitting ones are better than the standing. And the walking ones are better than the running. So, break your bows and cut your strings and hit your swords on rocks. If you are attacked, be like the better son of Adam.

4 The entire passage reads:

`Thus (was their end)! And We gave their inheritance to other people. And neither heaven nor earth shed a tear over them: nor were they given respite (again).' Surah 44 AI Dukhan: 29. `Then sent We our messengers in succession: every time there came to a people their messenger, they accused him of falsehood: so We made them follow each other (in punishment): We made them as a tale (that is told): so way with a people that will not believe.' Surah 23 AI Mu'minun: 44.