Does the Qur'an Sanction Violence?
by Mohamed Elmasry
"You shall destroy all the peoples ... showing them no pity." (7: 16)
"... 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." (20:14-15)
"... You shall not let a soul remain alive." (20:17)
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.
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 there is 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 was recently
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 and misrepresentation.
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 Qur'an 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
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 Abo Hanifa) 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
Shafee, 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,
greed, over-consumption 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."
At the time of the Prophet and for more than ten years in Makkah,
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 of aggression.
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.
Prof. Mohamed Elmasry
is a professor of electrical and computer engineering at the University of
Waterloo and national president of the
Canadian Islamic Congress.
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