Justification for Violence in Islam: Part VIII, Quietism rather than Pacifism in Islam

Previous: Justification for Violence in Islam, Part VII: Martyrdom, the Peak of Activism in Islam

[60] I have traversed a long way to demonstrate that Islam is not monolithic in its response to the central question about the relationship between Islamic ideals for an ethical world order and the obstacles that were encountered by those who brought to the fore methods of producing changes in social power. A serious commitment to social reform on the part of those who wielded authority “to command good and forbid evil” implied their readiness to use any means to overcome forces that threatened its realization. This commitment as an active ingredient of the faith, I believe, reveals the Islamic views on activism or pacifist activism or quietism.

[61] So far I have intentionally avoided using the term “pacifism” in the way it has been used by pacifist Christian movements dedicated to a life of poverty and simplicity and opposed to bear arms. The reason is obvious. Islam views human existence caught up in the midst of contradictory forces of light and darkness, guidance and misguidance, justice and injustice as an ongoing and unending moral struggle for the creation of a just society on earth. The attention is focused on problems of interpersonal justice. The fundamental doctrine of the impending Last Judgement at which every individual would reap the fruits of his actions, good or evil, in his lifetime, clearly emphasizes the consequential nature of moral choice which is decisive in determining one’s eternal fate. As such, pacifism in the sense of rejection of all forms of violence and opposition to all war and armed hostility before justice is established, has no place in the Qur’anic doctrine of human faith and its inevitable projection not only in identifying with the cause of justice but in working for it on earth. Social justice accordingly took on implications more challenging to the established order and tended to be egalitarian justice for effective equality among social classes found in Judaism and other Abrahamic traditions. In these traditions there was an active sense of the equal dignity and ultimate rights of the less privileged in society. It is this characteristic of Islam as an Abrahamic tradition which negates pacifism in the sense of opposition to all forms of violence, including that generated by insistence on justice and equality in interpersonal relations.

[62] However, if pacifism is taken in its other signification, namely, exhausting all peaceful means in order to resolve human conflicts, then, its adoption in Islamic community could be nothing more than a temporary decision for giving peace a chance. Pacifist silence in the face of continuous violation of justice amounted to being accomplice to unjust forces, and that was regarded as a major sin of associating other beings to God.

[63] On the other hand, quietism, which has been a strategy for survival in minority communities with the hope of regrouping and reasserting one’s ideals of justice, was a legitimate posture in Islam from its early history. In Mecca, Muslims constituted a minority and despite the fact that jih_d (as armed defense) was ordained at this stage, quietism was adopted as a precautionary strategy to shield the true intent of the faithful community from the unbelievers. It signified the will of the community to continue to strive for the realization of the ideal Islamic polity by preparing the way without confrontation in the future. It was consequently a temporary measure until the achievement of God’s purposes on earth became possible, either through an internal revival of individual believers or by launching the revolution under a divinely guided person to establish the rule of justice and equity. In view of the activist response demanded by the Islamic revelation we have already seen a posture of pacifist activism generated by a sense of dedication to the Shari’a as an embodiment of divine scales of justice for the Muslim community. However, there is one more attitudinal posture that has continued to influence large sectors of the Muslim community around the world even today. This is quietism, more specifically, quietist authoritarianism, the by product of predestinarian doctrinal stance advocated and disseminated by scholars who supported any de facto Muslim authority as lesser evil than general lawlessness created by sedition.

Next: Justification for Violence in Islam, Part IX: Quietist Authoritarianism and Activist Radicalism