Justification for Violence in Islam: Part II, The Interplay between Religion and Power in Islam

Previous: Justification for Violence in Islam, Part I: Introductory Remarks

[4] Islam emerged in seventh-century Arabia in the midst of a serious socio-economic imbalance between the rich and the poor, and between extreme forms of individualism and tribal solidarity. Moreover, it arose in the very spirit of populism of the Abrahamic faiths, that is, as a moral challenge to humanity to rise above its personal grudges and pettiness and to respond to God by affirming belief in God’s plan for the whole of humanity and working for its ultimate realization. Abrahamic faiths tended to dominate the common expectations founded on the ordinary moral needs and abilities of the common people. This outlook may be summed up as “looking to justice in history through community.” All the prophets had stressed just action as the most meritorious religious activity.1

[5] Accordingly, as a religion with a set of beliefs, decisions, and practices, Islam embarked on creating its own public order that would translate the Islamic revelation into a specifically religious-moral social universe. In this sense, Islam inherently functioned as an “activist” ideology within a specific social-political order which it constantly evaluated, calling upon its adherents either to defend and preserve or to overthrow and transform. In addition, Islam as a religious ideology is both a critical assessment of human corporate existence and also a divine blueprint that awaits implementation to realize God’s will on earth to the fullest extent possible and, if necessary, through force.

[6] Nevertheless, in view of its recognition of human volition and innate disposition in negotiating its spiritual destiny, Islam did not overlook the problems of disbelief and the tensions and inner stresses it caused in human beings. Rejection of truth and impairment of moral consciousness were problems that in large measure had to be resolved by means of appeal to the innate disposition of human beings–the conscience–which was divinely guided and which possessed knowledge of good and evil, of godly existence and impiety. But there were times when this abnormal condition of human rejection of faith became a threat to the corporate well-being of the society and caused the spread of corruption on earth, a corruption that involved more than the damaging of the individual conscience. Unbelief came to signify not only a denial of truth, but a threat to the community of the faithful. Moreover, it came to be identified not only as a religious wrong, to be punished in the hereafter, but also a moral wrong, to be corrected in the here and now – by use of force if necessary. Thus the Qur’anic command:

O believers, fight the unbelievers who are near you, and let them find in you harshness; and know that God is with the godfearing. (9:124)

The successive revelation of the Qur’an points to a growing awareness in the Muslim community that it would have to engage in armed resistance to the threat posed by those who did not share its faith and the socio-political implications of that faith.

[7] More immediately, the pre-Islamic Arab tribal culture had institutionalized military power on which depended the security of a tribe and even its existence. Primacy among the tribes belonged to those which were able to protect all their clients, and to avenge all insults, injuries, and deaths through their military strength. The Semitic system of retaliatory justice based on ‘a life for a life’ in the circumstances of desert life could not always ensure that crime would not be committed lightly and irresponsibly. In fact, show of military prowess through warlike expeditions in order to gain ascendancy among the tribal groupings was quite common in the pre-Islamic Arabia. Against this background, the legitimate use of force prescribed by the Qur’an was merely to provide appropriate moral restrictions on the use of military power to resolve conflicts.2

[8] Inasmuch as the Qur’an introduced the injunction legitimizing the use of force through the instrumentality of jih_d, it was responding to moral-religious and political conditions prevalent in the seventh century Arabia. The following passage of the Qur’an illustrates the moral restrictions and religious sanctions that were being introduced to curb prevalent violence in the tribal society:

O believers, prescribed for you is retaliation, touching the slain; freeman for freeman, slave for slave, female for female. But if aught is pardoned a man by his brother, let the pursuing be honorable, and let the payment be with kindliness. That is a lightening granted you by your Lord, and a mercy; and for him who commits aggression after that – for him there awaits a painful chastisement. (2:178)
[9] To be sure, the Qur’anic legitimation of jih_d in the meaning of fighting in the verse 2:193 where the commandment is declared in no uncertain terms: “Fight them (i.e. those who fight with you), till there is no persecution and the religion be only for God” is concerned with the problem of eradication of unbelief that causes a breakdown in the Islamic public order.3

Fight in the way of God against those who fight against you, but begin not hostilities. Lo! God loveth not aggressors. And slay them wherever ye find them, and drive them out of the places whence they drove you out, for persecution is worse than slaughter. (2:190-191)

The permission to fight in the above passage was a response to the problem posed by the powerful Meccan tribes. The Qur’an indicates that although unbelief is a religious problem, to be construed as one dimension of the work of God, unbelief can be, and in the case of the Meccans was, malicious – a willful act on the part of human beings who seek to deceive God or to deprive God of God’s rights.

[10] This was a prescriptive measure to arrest the harm caused to the people at large and to redress the wrongs suffered by the weak at the hands of those who perpetrated immoral conduct in order to defeat the divine purposes on earth. In other words, the “struggle” and the “striving” (primary signification of the word jih_d) by means of force, as far as the religious attitude was concerned, underscored the divinely sanctioned endeavor as a response to actively hostile unbelief. It is not unbelievers as such who are the target of force, but unbelievers who demonstrate their hostility to Islam by, for example, persecution of the Muslims. In other words, it is not merely the negative attitude to religion per se that sanctions the use of force; it is the hostility to which it leads that makes it a prior moral offense and which requires a response with force.

[11] The need for the use of force first became evident when the Muslims under the leadership of the Prophet established the first Islamic polity, in Medina. As willful disobedience, the unbelief of the Meccan tribes became a problem with moral as well as religious dimensions for the public order. The Qur’an indicates that various kinds of action were appropriate for the Prophet and the community to deal with this situation. The important point to underscore here is that the more the Qur’an stresses the moral aspects of the problem of unbelief (e.g., Meccan persecution of the Muslims, their expulsion of the innocent from their homes) the more the use of force is justified.

[12] The use of force, then, as far as the Qur’an is concerned is defensive, and limited to the violation of interpersonal human conduct. For the Qur’an it is crucial to emphasize its defensive strategy in dealing with the problem of human violence stemming from human rejection of faith. Nonetheless, in the historical development of the relationship between Islam and power, Muslim jurists regarded this explicitly Qur’anic principle of defensive warfare as abrogated. They maintained that fighting was obligatory for the Muslims, even when the unbelievers had not begun hostilities.4 This accommodation with the historical practice of jih_d is not uncommon in the works of the jurists.

[13] What happens when unbelief among the Peoples of the Book (Jews and Christians), who are otherwise tolerated as non-Muslim monotheists, takes the form of disregard for the moral standards prescribed by the Islamic public order? The Qur’an prescribes:

Fight those who believe not in God and the Last Day and do not forbid what God and His Messenger have forbidden – such men as practice not the religion of truth, being those who have been given the Book – until they pay the tribute out of hand and have been humbled. (9:29)
[14] There is no other place in the Qur’an than this above-cited verse where there remains room to interpret its directive to combat disbelief as going beyond the consistent defensive posture that must be adopted by the Muslim public order. And, yet it is the moral clause in the verse (“do not forbid what God and His messenger have forbidden”) which is within the jurisdiction of the community to assess its negative impact and respond accordingly. Although Muslim community, according to the Qur’an, was one among many divinely guided communities such as the Jewish and Christian, all equally sharing in their blessed Abrahamic origin, soon after the establishment of Muslim political power, Muslim community saw Islam as a political ideology that was first to rule over and then to supersede all other communities. Islam was to usher the true and uncorrupted divine guidance to humankind, creating the world-wide society in which the Qur’an and the Prophetic paradigm, the Sunna, would be the everyday norm of all the nations. Islam, Muslims believed, must guide the practical policies of a cosmopolitan world under its sphere of influence, the d_r al-isl_m.

Next: Justification for Violence in Islam, Part III: Jih_d as a Defensive Strategy or a Means of “Calling”?

End Notes

1 Marshall G. S. Hodgson, on “The World Before Islam,” Venture of Islam (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1974) I, 103ff provides one of the most detailed introductions to Islam by undertaking the discussion of the Abrahamic roots of the Islamic tradition and highlighting the populist as well as confessional characteristics of Islam that it shares with the other Semitic religions.

2 See our joint venture entitled: Human Rights and the Conflict of Cultures: Western and Islamic Perspectives on Religious Liberty, co-authored with David Little and John Kelsay (University of South Carolina Press, 1988) for the justification and restriction in use of force.

3 According to Mumammad b. JarAr al-mabarA, TafsAr (Beirut: D_r al-Ma&=javascript:goNote(39_rif, 1972), takes the word fimna (‘dissension’) to mean shirk, that is, a form of disbelief in which a person would ascribe divinity to things not worthy of such ascription. Other Qur’anic exegetes agree with mabarA on this point. See, for instance, al-BaymawA, Anw_r al-tanzAl (Cairo, 1887), p. 41.

4 See the article “Djih_d” in Encyclopedia of Islam (London: E. J. Brill, 1970), 2nd edition, 2/538 for the opinions of Muslim jurists.