THE QUR'AN SANCTION VIOLENCE?
"You shall destroy
all the peoples ... showing them no pity." (7: 16)
All these quotations are from
the part of the Old Testament
called the Torah (Deuteronomy),
a scripture that is holy to both Jews and Christians.
"... All the people present
there shall serve you as forced labour."
"... You shall put all its
males to the sword. You may, however, take as your booty the women, the
children, the livestock, and everything in the town -- all its spoil --
and enjoy the use of the spoil of your enemy which the LORD your God gives
"... You shall not let a
soul remain alive." (20:17)
But very few people would
sanely suggest that the Torah sanctions violence. The reason of course
is that these verses and others much like them are subject to various interpretation
and contextual assumptions.
So why is there a wide perception
that the Qur'an sanctions violence?
This is an important question
which must be addressed all the more urgently in light of a recently released
Al-Jazeerah TV documentary in which the al-Qaeda leadership claims apparent
Quranic justification for the events of September 11, 2001. Al-Jazeerah
makes reference to a 120-page document written by Ramzi Binalshibah, who
arrested in Pakistan, justifying
the 9/11 attacks under Islamic law.
Like the Torah, the Qur'an
contains a number of verse references which address states of war. And
also like the Torah and the wider Old Testament canon, those Quranic verses
have been taken out of context and subjected to tragic misinterpretation
They have been intentionally
misused by some Muslims and non-Muslims alike to advance wholly political
agendas, with total disregard for accompanying teachings that overwhelmingly
condemn self-aggrandizing militarism and offensive war-mongering.
The Qur'an repeatedly emphasizes
that defensive war -- fighting to protect oneself against invading enemies
-- is the only kind of combat sanctioned (2:190 - 191). In numerous other
examples, it teaches that the use of force should be a last resort (2:192,
4:90); that normal relations between peoples, nations and states, whether
Muslim or not, should be peaceful (49:13); that necessary wars must be
limited in time and space (2:190); that maximum effort must be applied
at all times to advance the cause of peace (10:25); that whatever means
are undertaken to work for peace during a conflict (such as mediation and
arbitration) must be attempted over and over again until resolution is
achieved (8:61); that freedom of religion must be granted to every one
(2:256), and so on.
As with any Holy Book, every
verse of the Qur'an must be read and interpreted within its own context
and against the background of the Qur'an as a whole.
For example, those Quranic
verses which condone Muslims fighting non-Muslims (9:5, 29 and 36), are
not directed against the non-Muslims for being outside the faith, but because
those non-Muslims were aggressors and/or transgressors. But if taken alone,
and interpreted in isolation, such verses could lead one to believe that
the Qur'an advocates war-like relations between Muslims and non-Muslims
until the latter surrender or convert. So widespread are such de-contextualized
assumptions that one Quranic verse (9:5) was mislabelled "the Sword Verse."
When viewed against more
than 100 other parallel Quranic verses, such extreme interpretations of
these verses invalidate their own logic. For example, one of the most fundamental
Quranic teachings is, "There shall be no coercion in matters of faith"
(2:256), which lays down categorically that any attempt at the forcible
conversion of unbelievers is prohibited and condemned. This precludes any
legitimate possibility of true Muslims demanding or expecting that a defeated
enemy should embrace Islam as the price for immunity or mercy. Thus, the
dangerously extremist interpretation that a state of war is normal between
Muslims and non-Muslims is an exaggerated exception, expressed by a very
small minority of scholars, among them the Egyptian Sayied Qutb, in his
book of Quranic interpretation entitled, "Fe-zelal-al-Qur'an". In actual
fact, his views were at odds with the prevailing opinions of his peers,
including Abdo, Rida, Al-Gazali, Draaz, Khallaf, Shaltout, Al-Khoudry,
and many other respected scriptural authorities.
Great damage to Quranic understanding
was done, however, by the western Orientalist, Bernard Lewis, who consulted
only Qutb's interpretations in his book, The Political Language of Islam,
where he wrote that, "According to the jurists, the natural and permanent
relationship between the world of Islam and the world of the unbelievers
was one of open or latent war, and there could, therefore, be no peace
and no treaty. Truces and temporary agreements were, however, possible,
and for these the jurists found precedent even in the Qur'an."
Both the Qutb and Lewis interpretations
are dangerous in their narrow focus and selectivity, not only for Muslims
today, but for world peace at any time. By contrast, Prof. Mohamed Al-Gazali
in his book, 100 Questions on Islam, recounted how Imam Ibn Taymia, well
known for his conservative views on Quranic interpretation, addressed the
crucial question "Should Muslims fight non-Muslims because they are transgressors,
or because they are non-Muslims?"
Ibn Taymia responded categorically
(and similarly to the majority of scholars -- including Imam Malik, Ahmed,
and Abu Hanifah) that, "It is because they are transgressors, not because
they are non-Muslims." He also added that only a small minority of interpreters,
such as Imam Al Shafi, insisted on viewing war as acceptable for the sole
reason that one's opponents are non-Muslims. Ibn Taymia agreed with the
interpretation of the majority because he believed it was right in the
light of the whole Qur'an.
Today, those who assert that
the Qur'an advocates war against non-Muslims are also notoriously selective.
Take for example the use of (4:74), which states that those who fight in
the cause of God will be rewarded. And the quote often conveniently stops
there. But the following verse (4:75) explains that Muslims are only allowed
to fight those oppressors who directly attack them, especially those who
oppressing the most vulnerable among them; old men, women, and children.
For the last 1400 years,
Muslims and their religious scholars have dealt -- and are still dealing
-- with the important question of how much of the Qur'an is binding on
Muslims at all times and how much of its teachings apply only to the age
of the Prophet Muhammad and the particular circumstances in which he and
his followers lived. This is a
continually difficult question,
but one on which impressive scholarly work has been done; more yet is needed.
But the fairest approach,
and the most consistent with Quranic teaching, is to understand that the
Qur'an shows respect toward, acceptance of, and enlightened tolerance to
people of different faiths, all the while inviting them to engage in dialogue
in the search for truth.
Muslims learn from the Qur'an
that God's objective in creating the human race with different communities,
religions, ethnicity, etc. was that they should relate to each other peacefully
amid this diversity (49:13).
They also learn that war
is hateful (2:216); that it is a blessing to transform fear into a sense
of safety (24:55); that Paradise, not this earthly life alone, is the perfect
and absolute Land of Peace (6:127); and that the cause of peace is encouraged
throughout the Qur'an, through working for the elimination of poverty,
social injustice, oppression,
and similar excesses.
Even more importantly, the
Qur'an states that it is God's will for peoples on this earth to remain
different (11:118), including that they will follow different religions
and God tells the Prophet Muhammad that most people will not believe, "even
if you are eager that they should." (12:103)
At the time of the Prophet
and for more than ten years in Makkah [Mecca], Muslims were persecuted
by their neighbours, yet he instructed them through God's words to restrain
themselves (4:77) and endure hard times with patience and fortitude. (2:109)
After the Muslims were forced
out of their homes in Mecca, those who remained behind were subjected to
even more abuse. At that time, God gave them permission to fight back in
self-defense and to safeguard their freedom of religion and worship. But
it was made clear that fighting back was granted because Muslims were victims
The Qur'an also stresses
that permission to fight back for reasons of self-defense and religious
freedom is legitimate even if one's place of worship is other than a mosque
".. monasteries, churches, synagogues and mosques, in which the name of
God is much mentioned" (22:39-41).
Another key verse clearly
defines who is to be fought: "Fight in the way of God those who fight against
you, but do not transgress. God does not love the transgressor." (2:190)
And note that "those who fight against you" means actual soldiers -- uninvolved
civilians are protected. The Prophet and his successors, whenever they
sent out an army, gave soldiers clear instructions not to attack civilians
-- women, children, the elderly, religious people engaged in worship --
nor to destroy the enemy's property, crops or animals. And according to
strict ethical proportions and discernment, only combatants are to be fought,
and no more harm should be caused to them than they have caused. (2:194).
Thus wars and weapons of mass destruction that destroy civilians and their
homes are categorically ruled out by the Qur'an.
The prohibition against war
is repeatedly reinforced by corollary teachings, such as, "Do not transgress;
God does not love the transgressor," in which the term "transgress" has
been interpreted by Quranic exegetical scholars as meaning, "the initiation
of fighting, fighting those with whom a treaty has been concluded, ambushing
the enemy without first inviting them to make peace, destroying crops,
or killing those who should be protected." (from Baydawi's commentary on
As one can conclude from
the examples given previously, the Qur'an's teaching directives and orders
for right conduct are always couched in restraining language, with much
repetition of commandments such as, "do not transgress" followed by warnings
of God's imminent displeasure with those who ignore Him, or promises of
approval toward those who obey, such as, "He loves those who are conscious
of Him." From the outset, such instructions are given to people who are
expected to live daily with the intention of acting "in the way of God."
Linguistically we notice
that the verses in this passage always restrict actions in a legalistic
way, which appeals strongly to a Muslim's conscience and sense of duty.
In one passage of only six verses (2:190-5), for example, there are four
prohibitions ("do not" phrases), and six restrictions that include two
each of the phrases "until," "if," and "who attack you." The same brief
passage also contains a series of cautionary advisements using the phrases
"in the way of God," "be conscious of Him," "with those who do good deeds,"
and "God is forgiving, the All-Merciful."
Overall, it can be seen that
when taken in a thoughtfully interpreted context, the Qur'an regularly
gives reasons and justifications for any action it demands, not only in
treating the problematic issues of war, but with numerous other themes
of life and right-living.
However, the definitive interpretation
of the Qur'an, or any other holy writings, still remains a complex human
challenge -- one that is historically vulnerable to extremism, sometimes
with fatal results. Thus it is all the more vital that people of faith
should speak out against extremism from within, using the word of God in
the context and wholeness with which it was revealed.
Elmasry, Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering at the University
of Waterloo is the national president of the Canadian Islamic Congress.