When it comes to the issue of Islam and violence, I must confess that, as a Muslim intellectual, I find myself in a bit of a bind. Islam, as expounded in the classical books of theology and law, does not bear a message of violence. In fact, salam (peace and tranquility) is a central tenet of Islamic belief, and safety and security are considered profound divine blessings to be cherished and vigilantly pursued. The absence of peace is identified in the Qur'an as a largely negative condition; it is variously described as a trial and tribulation, as a curse or punishment, or, sometimes, as a necessary evil. But the absence of peace is never in and of itself a positive or desirable condition. The Qur'an asserts that if it had not been for divine benevolence, many mosques, churches, synagogues, and homes would have been destroyed because of the ignorance and pettiness of human beings. Often, God mercifully intervenes to put out the fires of war, and save human beings from their follies.
The Islamic historical experience was primarily concerned not with war-making, but with civilization-building. Islamic theology instructs that an integral part of the divine covenant given to human beings is to occupy themselves with building and creating, not destroying life. The Qur'an teaches that the act of destroying or spreading ruin on this earth is one of the gravest sins possible. Fasad fi al-ard, which means to corrupt the earth by destroying the beauty of creation, is considered an ultimate act of blasphemy against God. Those who corrupt the earth by destroying lives, property, and nature are designated as mufsidun who, in effect, wage war against God by dismantling the very fabric of existence. In addition, the Qur'an states that God has made people different and diverse, and that they will remain so until the final day. Accordingly, human diversity is part of the divine plan, and the challenge is for human beings to co-exist and interact despite their differences. The Qur'an proclaims in unequivocal fashion: “God has made you into many nations and tribes so that you will come to know one another. Those most honored in the eyes of God are those who are most pious.” From this, classical Muslim scholars reached the reasonable conclusion that war is not the means most conducive to getting “to know one another.” Thus, they argued that the exchange of technology and merchandise is, in most cases, a superior course of action to warfare. In the opinion of most classical jurists, war, unless it is purely defensive, is not to be preferred, and must be treated as a last resort because war is not a superior moral virtue. Perhaps because of these moral imperatives, the Islamic civilization excelled in the sciences, arts, philosophy, law, architecture, and trade—and Islam entered into areas such as China, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, and sub-Saharan Africa primarily through traveling merchants and scholars, and not through warfare.
Despite this rich doctrinal and historical background, the dilemmas of a modern Muslim intellectual persist. For one, this tolerant and humanitarian Islamic tradition exists in tension with other doctrines in the Islamic tradition that are less tolerant or humanitarian. Many classical Muslim scholars, for instance, insisted on a conception of the world that is bifurcated and dichotomous. Those scholars argued that the world is divided into the abode of Islam (dar al-Islam) and abode of war (dar al-harb); the two can stop fighting for a while, but one must inevitably prevail over the other. According to these scholars, Muslims must give non-Muslims one of three options; either become Muslim, pay a poll tax, or fight. These classical scholars were willing to tolerate differences as long as the existence of these differences did not challenge Muslim political supremacy and dominance. This dichotomous and even imperialist view of the world, however, did not go unchallenged. So, for instance, many classical scholars argued that instead of a two-part division of the world, one ought to recognize a third category, and that is the abode of non-belligerence or neutrality (dar al-sulh or al-’ahd)—an abode that is not Muslim, but that has a peaceful relationship with the Muslim world. In addition, many classi-cal jurists argued that, regardless of the political affiliation of a particular territory, the real or true abode of Islam is wherever justice exists (dar al-’adl), or wherever Muslims may freely and openly practice their religion. Therefore, it is possible for a territory that is ruled by non-Muslims and where Muslims are minority to be considered part of the abode of true Islam.
But the fact that the Islamic scholastic tradition is not unitary, and that it is often diverse and multi-faceted is hardly surprising. What is surprising and often aggravating is the extent to which Islamic debates in the modern age have become politicized and polarized. It is difficult for a contemporary Muslim scholar to take a position on Islam and violence without becoming the subject of suspicion and even accusations as to his loyalties and commitments. For instance, if a contemporary Muslim scholar emphasizes the imperatives of tolerance and peaceful co-existence in Islam, or emphasizes the importance of moral commitments over political expedience, or perhaps condemns terrorism, this is often understood as a thoroughly political position. Such a scholar becomes susceptible to accusations of being a sell-out to the West, pro-Israeli, pro-government, or of being insufficiently sensitized to the suffering of the Palestinians, Kashmiris, Chechnyans, or any other oppressed Muslim population.
The real challenge that confronts Muslim intellectuals is that political interests have come to dominate the public discourse, and to a large extent, moral discourses have become marginalized in modern Islam. In many ways, since the onslaught of colonialism and its aftermath, Muslims have become largely pre-occupied with the attempt to remedy a collective feeling of powerlessness and a frustrating sense of political defeat, often by engaging in highly sensationalistic acts of power symbolism. The normative imperatives and intellectual subtleties of the Islamic moral tradition are not treated with the analytic and critical rigor that this tradition rightly deserves, but are rendered subservient to political expedience and symbolic displays of power.
Elsewhere, I have described this contemporary doctrinal dynamic as the predominance of the theology of power in modern Islam, and it is this theology that is a direct contributor to the emergence of highly radicalized Islamic groups, such as the Islamic Jihad or al-Qa’ida. Far from being authentic expressions of inherited Islamic paradigms, or a natural outgrowth of the classical tradition, these are thoroughly a byproduct of colonialism and modernity. Such groups ignore the history of the Islamic civilization, with all its richness and diversity, and reduce Islam to a single dynamic—the dynamic of power. They tend to define Islam as an ideology of nationalistic defiance to the other—a vulgar form of obstructionism to the hegemony of the Western world. Therefore, instead of Islam being a moral vision given to humanity, it is constructed into the antithesis of the West. In the world constructed by these groups, there is no Islam; there is only opposition to the West.
I am not implying that resistance to Western cultural hegemony, or fighting oppression, is illegitimate. But the type of Islam that the radicalized groups offer is akin to a perpetual state of emergency where expedience trumps principle, and illegitimate means are consistently justified by invoking higher ends. In essence, what prevails is an aggravated siege mentality that suspends the moral principles of the religion in pursuit of political power. In this siege mentality, there is no room for analytical or critical thought, and there is no room for seriously engaging Islamic intellectual heritage. There is only room for bombastic dogma, and for a stark functionalism that ultimately impoverishes Islamic heritage.
This, perhaps, is nowhere as clearly apparent as in the treatment of the issue of jihad and violence in modern Islam. Jihad is a core principle in Islamic theology; it means to strive, to apply oneself, to struggle, and persevere. In many ways, jihad connotes a strong spiritual and material work ethic in Islam. Piety, knowledge, health, beauty, truth, and justice are not possible without jihad—without sustained and diligent hard work. Therefore, cleansing oneself from vanity and pettiness, pursuing knowledge, curing the ill, feeding the poor, and standing up for truth and justice even at great personal risk are all forms of jihad.
The Qur'an uses the term jihad to refer to the act of striving to serve the purposes of God on this earth, which includes all the acts mentioned above. Importantly, the Qur'an does not use the word jihad to refer to warfare or fighting; such acts are referred to as qital. While the Qur'an's call to jihad is unconditional and unrestricted, such is not the case for qital. Jihad is a good in and of itself, while qital is not. Therefore, every reference in the Qur'an to qital is restricted and limited by particular conditions, but exhortations to jihad, like the references to justice or truth, are absolute and unconditional. Consequently, the early Muslims were not allowed to engage in qital until God gave them specific permission to do so. The Qur'an is careful to note that Muslims were given permission to fight because they had become the victims of aggression. Furthermore, the Qur'an instructs Muslims to fight only those who fight them and not to transgress for God does not approve of aggression.
In addition, the Qur'an goes on to specify that if the enemy ceases hostilities and seeks peace, Muslims should seek peace as well. Failure to seek peace without just cause is considered arrogant, and sinful. In fact, the Qur'an reminds Muslims not to pick fights, and not to create enemies because the fact that a particular party does not wish to fight Muslims and seeks to make peace is a Divine blessing. God has the power to inspire in the hearts of non-Muslims a desire for peace, and Muslims must treat such a blessing with gratitude and appreciation, not defiance and arrogance.
In light of this Qur'anic discourse, classical Muslim jurists debated what would constitute a sufficient and just cause for fighting non-Muslims. Are non-Muslims fought because of their act of disbelief or only because they pose a physical threat to Muslims? Most classical jurists concluded that the justification for fighting non-Muslims is directly proportional to the physical threat they pose to Muslims. In other words, if they do not threaten or seek to harm Muslims, then there is no justification for acts of belligerence or warfare. Similarly, relying on a precedent set by the Prophet, classical Muslim jurists held that non-combatants, like children, women, people of advanced age, monks, hermits, priests, or anyone else who does not seek to or cannot fight Muslims, are inviolable and may not be targeted even during ongoing hostilities. The existence of these doctrines is crucial for assessing the relationship between Islam and violence. But the reality is that the impact of such doctrines entirely depends on how modern Muslims choose to understand, develop, and assert them. Perhaps it is painfully obvious that regardless of how rich, humanistic, and moral the Islamic tradition is in fact, this tradition will be of very limited usefulness if it is not believed and acted upon by Muslims today. But herein is the true travesty of modern Islam, and the agony of every honest Muslim intellectual. It is fairly well-known that non-Muslims suffer from much ignorance and prejudice about the Islamic doctrine of jihad, its meaning, and effect. Unfortunately, however, much of this ignorance is shared by Muslims themselves about their own tradition. For example, many Muslims today do not know the difference between jihad and qital, or are woefully ignorant about the rules for the conduct of war in Islam. Even worse, when contemporary Muslim scholars rise to emphasize the numerous moral and humanistic aspects of the Islamic tradition, they are accused by their fellow Muslims of being Westernized or of seeking to appease the West. The real danger is that in this highly polarized and politicized climate, much of what is authentically Islamic and genuinely beautiful will be lost or forgotten for a long period to come.
Reprinted by permission of the author.
7. Khaled Abou El Fadl, “Islam and the Theology of Power Islam,” 221 Middle East Report (Winter 2001); 28–33.
1. Qur'an 22:40.
2. Qur'an 5:64.
3. For instance, see Qur'an 2:27, 205; 5:32; 13:25.
4. Qur'an 2:27; 13:25.
5. Qur'an 11:118.
6. Qur'an 49:13.
8. Qur'an 22:39; 60:8; 2:246.
9. Qur'an 2:190, 194; 5:87.
10. Qur'an 4:90.
11. It is reported that the Prophet used to instruct his armies not to hurt a non-combatant or needlessly destroy property or vegetation. It is also reported that after a battle, upon finding the corpse of a woman, the Prophet became very upset, and reproached his army for killing a non-combatant.