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Written by Louay Safi   
Oct 02, 2001 at 02:00 PM
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Peace and the Limits or War
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Chapter 3




A systematic examination of Islamic texts and Muslim history shows that peace is and has always been the original position and final aim of Islam. War can and must be fought, however, to repel aggression and lift oppression, but only as the last resort. War should not be seen as an instrument of the state to advance ideological commitments of the bearers of political power.


We argue in the chapter that peace must be governing principle of political action, both locally and globally. War is not, and should never be, a political choice. War in Islam has specific objectives, and these objectives revolve around defending human rights. Advancing narrow interests and imposing religious beliefs are not legitimate objectives of war in Islam.


Peace is the Essence

From its inception, the Qur'an emphasized peace as an intrinsic Islamic value. In fact, the terms "Islam" and "peace" have the same root, salam. Furthermore, Allah has chosen the word peace (salam) as the Muslim's greeting. Reviewing the early Muslim era and reflecting on the experience of the early Muslim generations, one can clearly see that peace was always the original position of Muslims, and that war was either a punitive measure to annihilate tyranny and oppression, or a defensive measure to stop aggression. From the very beginning, Prophet Muhammad was instructed to use a friendly and polite approach to call people to Islam.


Invite to the way of your Lord with wisdom and beautiful preaching; and argue with them in ways that are best and most gracious. (16:125)


Despite the violent opposition of the Quraysh, the Prophet proceeded to summon people peacefully to Islam, and the Muslims were further commanded, for prudential reasons, not to respond to the violence of the Quraysh. As it will be discussed in more detail below, Muslim pacifism during the Makkan period was a political tool to influence change and to protect Muslims from mass destruction.


After the immigration to Madinah, the Muslims were permitted to fight against those who declared war against them.


To those against whom war is made, permission is given (to fight), because they are wronged; and verily, Allah is most Powerful for their aid; (they are) those who have been expelled from their homes in defiance of right, for no cause except that they say, "our Lord is Allah." (22:39-40)


As a result, the Muslims fought a series of battles against the Quraysh, including the Battles of Badr and Uhud. The war against the Islamic city-state of Madinah was further escalated when other Arab tribes joined with the Quraysh in the war against the infant Islamic state in an attempt to destroy it. The campaign to eliminate Muslims reached its climax in the Battle of al Khandaq (The Trench) when ten thousand fighters of the Quraysh and their allies surrounded Madinah.34 The Muslims, nonetheless, made several attempts to neutralize their foes by signing a peace treaty with the Quraysh and their allies at al Hudaybiyah. Unfortunately, the Arab tribesmen of Quraysh and its allies, who had thrived historically on war and developed, consequently, a warlike culture, did not respect the treaty and violated its provisions. It became, thus, quite clear that the only way to neutralize these people was by annulling the cultural basis of their hostility and infidelity, which could be only done by coercing them into Islam.


The original position of Muslims concerning the Jews of Madinah was also based on the principle of peaceful coexistence. A few months after the Prophet arrived in Madinah, he concluded a covenant of friendship, alliance, and cooperation between the Muhajirun and the Ansar on one side and the Jews on the other. The covenant not only recognized the freedom of religion of the Jews and assured their security, but also provided them with complete autonomy, bound with certain duties and obligations, mutually applicable on both Jews and Muslims, as the following excerpt of the document reads: . . .


As the Jews fight on the side of the Muslims, they shall spend of their wealth on equal par with the Muslims. The Jews have their religion and the Muslims theirs. Both enjoy the security of their own populace and clients except the unjust and the criminal among them. The unjust or the criminal destroys only himself and his family.


The friendly relationship between the Jews of Madinah and the Muslims continued until 'Abdullah ibn Salam, a rabbi and a prominent Jewish leader, embraced Islam. This incident, evidently, sparked grave panic among Jewish leaders, who became apprehensive about the Muslim presence in Madinah and feared that Islam would penetrate their ranks. It was at this stage that Jews began their campaign against Muslims; first through a war of words, aimed at refuting the Qur'anic teaching and inducing a state of suspicion about the Prophet and his message, and later through conspiring with the enemies of Islam.


The first confrontation between Jews and Muslims took place after the Battle of Badr when some Jews of Banu Qaynuqa' violated the right of a Muslim woman by forcefully exposing her nakedness. This incident developed into fighting between a Muslim passerby and the Jewish assailants in which a Jew and the passerby were killed. Consequently, general fighting between the clan of the murdered Muslim and Banu Qaynuga' erupted. When the Prophet was informed of the confrontation, he sent word to Banu Qaynuqa; asking them to stop the attacks and keep the covenant of mutual peace and security. Banu Qaynuqa' responded by ridiculing the Prophet's request, leaving the Muslims no option but to fight.



Likewise, the campaign against Banu al Nadir was triggered by their infidelity and misconduct, when they openly violated the provisions of their covenant with the Muslims by sending three of their leaders, Huyayy ibn Akhtab, Salam ibn Abu al Huqayq, and Kinanah ibn al Huqyaq, together with two leaders of the tribe of Banu Wa'il, to Makkah in order to instigate the Quraysh and their allies to attack the Muslims in Madinah, and to pledge their support. Indeed, the Jewish delegation was able to mobilize the Pagan Arabs against the Muslims, and their counsel led to the campaign of al Khandaq, invoking the most horrible experience the Muslims had ever had in their struggle against the Quraysh and its allies.   In like manner, the fighting between the Islamic state and both Byzantium and Persia was commenced not because the Muslims wanted to extend the dominion of the Islamic state, or dar al Islam, using the classical terminology, but rather because both the Byzantines and the Persians either assailed Muslim individuals and caravans or prevented the peaceful spread of the Islamic message.


The campaign of Dawmah al Jandal, the first campaign against the northern Christian tribes which were Byzantine protectorates, was a punitive expedition to avenge the attacks on the Muslim caravans to al Sham (Syria) by some of these tribes, such as Qada'ah and Banu Kalb. Likewise, the campaign of Mu 'tah was also a punitive expedition to avenge several grave violations against the Muslim messengers and missionaries whom Muhammad had sent north to call people to Islam and introduce the new faith to the northern regions. For example, the Prophet sent al Harith ibn 'Umayr to the governor of Busrah. Upon reaching Mu'tah, alHarith met with Sharhabil Amir ibn al Ghassani, who asked him"! "Are you a messenger of Muhammad? Al Harith answered: Yes. Then Sharhabil ordered his men to kill him, and he was executed."


The Prophet also sent "five men to Banu Sulayman for the sole purpose of teaching them Islam, and he endured their cold-blooded murder by their hosts. Only their leader managed to escape, and he did so purely accidentally. He also sent fifteen men to Dhat al Talh on the outskirts of al Sham in order to call its people to Islam. Therefore, too, the messengers of Muhammad and the missionaries of faith were put to death in cold-blood." It was also reported that the northern Christian tribes killed those among them who had professed Islam, leaving the Muslims therefore no choice but to fight them for their aggression and tyranny. These incidents, and others, triggered the campaigns of Mu'tah and al Hudaybiah, and led eventually to the conquest of al Sham and al 'Iraq.


Evidently, the doctrine of the two territorial divisions of the world, and its corollary concept of the permanent state of war, was influenced by the factual conditions that existed during the period when this conception was conceived, namely the hostile relations between the 'Abbasid caliphate and Byzantine empire. The jurists who devised the classical doctrine had, obviously, overlooked not only the peaceful coexistence between the early Islamic state and Abyssinia, but also the earlier hostility of Byzantium and its allies against the emerging Islamic state. Muhammad Abu Zahrah wrote protesting the classical doctrine:


We object to including this division (i.e., dar al lslam and dar al Harb) in the Muslim legal theory as one of its principles. As a matter of fact, this division under the 'Abbasids corresponded to the factual relations between the Islamic state and non-lslamic state. Classical writers only intended to give a legal justification to that situation.


Respecting Individual Freedom of Belief

We concluded in the foregoing discussion that, contrary to the claims of the classical doctrine of the territorial division of the world, war is not the instrument of the Islamic state to propagate Islam and extend its territory. We turn now to examine a question that closely relates to the previous argumentation: Does Islam recognizes individual freedom of conscience i.e. , are people free to accept or reject Islam? And if the answer is yes, how can we explain the fact that the Muslims fought the apostates (Murtaddun) during the administration of AbuBakr?


The answer to the first question is an emphatic yes. The principle of the freedom of belief has been unequivocally established in two Qur'anic verses:


If it had been the Lord's will, all those who are on earth would have believed; will you then compel mankind, against their will, to believe? (10:99)


Let there be no compulsion in religion: Truth stands out clear from error. (2:256)


The first verse was revealed in Makkah before Hijrah, while the second was revealed in Madinah after Hijrah. As al Qurtubi mentioned in his Qur'anic commentary, Al Jami' Li Ahkam at Qur'an, some commentators claim that the second verse has been abrogated by the verses of Surah Bara'ah which permitted the Muslims to fight the "People of the Book", while others ascertain that it has not been abrogated. Al Qurtubi quotes Abu Ja'far's interpretation of this verse: "The meaning of 'let there be no compulsion in religion' is that no one is to be forced to accept Islam. The al has been added to the world din so that their combination al din would indicate Islam."


Nor can this principle be abrogated by the hadith: "I have been commanded to fight   people until they say: 'There is no god but Allah."' For as it was indicated above, the hadith embodies a particular rule (hukm khass) which is applicable only to the Pagan Arabs. Even if we were to hypothetically treat the hadith as a general rule, it could not be used to abrogate a Qur'anic verse. For while the previous hadith is an exclusively narrated hadith (hadith ahad) and therefore uncertain (zanni al dalalah), the verse, like all other Qur'anic verses, is extensively narrated (mutawatir) and, therefore, certain (qat'i al dalalah).


The claim of abrogation is clearly flawed; for both verses embody firm rule (muhkam). The first verse points out in unequivocal fashion that it had not been God’s that mankind should be forced to believe; and the second verse provides more explanation as to why people should not be compelled to accept Islam by indicating that "Truth stands out clear from error." Because God’s will is not subject to change, and because truth stands always clear from error, the two verses are not, therefore, subject to abrogation.


But if the general rule is that no one is to be forced to accept Islam, how should Muslims deal with the questions of apostasy (riddah)? The classical position concerning the apostates is that they should be killed. This position is predicated primarily on two pieces of evidence: The jihad of Muslims, under the leadership of AbuBakr, against the Arab apostates, and the Hadith: "The blood of a Muslim may not be legally split other than in three instances: the married person who commits adultery; a life for a life; and one who forsakes his religion and abandons the community (jama'ah)." 


We should distinguish, when dealing with the question of apostasy, between two different cases. First, when a collectivity of people revolt against Muslim authority and refuse to obey the law of Islam, as was the case of the apostates (murtaddun) who refused to pay zakah to AbuBakr and mobilized their forces to prevent him from collecting it. These apostates are to be fought, not because of their rejection of Islam, but because of their rebellion against and disobedience of the law. The war against them can, thus, be considered as a law-enforcement war. Second, when an individual refuses to fulfill one of his public obligations, such as a person who refuses to pay zakah to the Muslim authority, he is to be compelled to pay it, according to the opinion on the majority of the Muslim jurists-not to be fought or killed. Only when he violently resists the Muslim authorities, and uses force of arms to prevent them from discharging their duties and exacting the law, can he be fought against. The above cited hadith vividly states that the individual apostate could be killed not merely because of his rejection of Islam, but because of his rebellion and revolt against the Muslim community. In other words, a quiet desertion of personal Islamic duties is not a sufficient reason for inflicting death on a person. Only when the individual's desertion of Islam is used as a political tool for instigating a state of disorder, or revolting against the law of Islam, can the individual apostate then be put to death as a just punishment for his act of treason and betrayal of the Muslim community.


The war against the apostates is carried out not to force them to accept Islam, but to enforce the Islamic law and maintain order. Therefore, the individual apostasy, which takes place quietly and without causing any public disorder, should not be of concern to the Islamic authority. Only when the individual openly renounces Islam and violates Islamic law, should he be punished for breaking the law and challenging the norms and beliefs of the Muslim community; and only when a group of people revolt against the Muslim authority, and refuse to implement the Islamic law in the area it controls - by failing, for instance, to establish public prayers, or by abolishing the institution of zakah-can the Islamic authority declare war against them. It follows that if a group of Muslims oppose certain views widely accepted by the general public or protest certain decisions made by the public authority, they are not to be fought as long as they do not violate the Islamic law or pose a threat to the Islamic state – i.e., by initiating war against Muslims or allying themselves with their enemies. When the Kharijite (Khawaraj) opposed 'Ali ibn Abu Talib and refused to recognize his authority, confronting him with the slogan: "authority is only to Allah," he did not declare war against them and stated that they could claim three rights: "Not to be prevented from attending Mosques, not to be preemptively attacked, and not to be denied their share of booty so long as they fight with us." "If an opposing group revolted against a just community," al Mawardi wrote, "and controlled a region, making it their exclusive territory, the group cannot be fought so long as they do not violate any rights or disobey the general law."



The Qur'anic Narrative
The Qur'anic Narrative

Leading with Compassion
Leading with Compassion


Tensions and Transitions
in the Muslim World

Peace and the Limits of War

The Challenge of Modernity 


Blaming Islam

Foundation of Knowledge

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