Issue 48, December 2006

Non-violence and peacebuilding in Islam
The concept of non-violence in Islam
Zeenat Shaukat Ali

The theory this paper seeks to advance is that peace and non–violence form an integral part of Islam especially in the area of conflict situations. It addresses these issues through the verses of the Qur’an and the Sunnah, which embrace the struggle of the oppressed and goes on to illustrate that Islam engages in non–violent, peaceful, effective ways of precluding conflict.

The efforts and instruction of the Qur’an to resist provocation and aggression in a society engulfed in conflict, to speak of patience (sabr) or gentleness (rifq), to actively reject violence (unf) and disruption of the social system causing losses in life and property (fasad), to protect the sacredness of human dignity and engage peacefully in resisting oppression (zulm) through plausible means, to engage in peace making, confidence building, avoiding confrontation or conflict is reflected in the Qur’an and the life of Prophet Muhammad. It is important to understand that non-violence in Islam does not spell surrender or passivity but the active rejection of violence; it entails peaceful engagement in overcoming injustice, social ills or conflict without causing injury, in other words without violence or war.

A complex intricate set of factors has given rise to the discourse on violence or the use of force in Islam. Two of these need special mention. One is the religious legitimisation of political hegemony soon after the passing away of the Prophet Muhammad and second the misconceived notion (giving subsequent rise to animated political controversy) of the word Jihad as signifying the elimination of non–Muslims and their civilization. This paper will deal only with the second issue.

The issue of Jihad has often been ambiguous and has been interpreted by westerners as an atavistic rage or a “holy war” or a general military offensive assault against non–believers as a means for legitimising religious domination. It has also been defined as “an effective basis for aggression against those who did not share this solidarity with the community of believers” (Sachedena 2001, 29) In the same vein the notion was extended to justify imperial goals.

At the outset, let me submit that the Qur’an does not support such a dramatic military interpretation of Jihad. On the contrary the Qur’an states: “And O, Muhammad strive (Jahadu) hard with the Qur’an, the great striving” (25:52). In connection with this verse, Maulana Wahiduddin states: “The Qur’an is a book not a gun or a sword”. “ Striving” with the Qur’an means engaging in a peaceful, spiritual, moral, struggle to overcome one’s individual instincts and engaging in a peaceful dialogue, discussion and discourse in relation to the transformation of mind and spirit.

The word Jihad is a core concept in the Qur’an derived from the root word “Jahada” meaning “to strive”; “make an effort”; “to struggle”. The highest form of Jihad or Jihad Al Akbar means overcoming one’s shortcomings and weakness. It is an ongoing struggle towards self-improvement. Muslims are asked to make an attempt on all fronts, social, economic, intellectual, ethical and spiritual. Jihad al Asghar is a struggle against social ills and injustice. This is known as a lesser form of Jihad. Sometimes when military action may be a regrettable necessity, it extends to self-defence against armed aggression but strictly only for the purpose of self-defence.

Scholars have defined Jihad as an ongoing effort as part of an obligation a Muslim person is required to do, such as prayers (salat) to fasting in Ramadan (Siyam), wealth sharing (Zakat), gathering at the Pilgrimage (Hajj) and standing up for justice, testifying to the truth, working towards education and defending human dignity none of which are violent acts. Jihad is not an assault to overcome those who think differently from us.

Maulvi Chirag Ali (1844-1895) rendered the word Jihad as struggle or 'strenuous'. It is originally 'mujjahid' which in classical Arabic and throughout the Qur’an means to do one’s utmost, to make efforts. It is to strive, to exert, to employ oneself diligently, studiously, sedulously, earnestly, zealously. It does not mean fighting or warfare; it was subsequently applied to religious wars but never used in the Qur’an in such a sense.

Maulvi Chirag Ali also defended Islam against the accusations of Western scholars’ misinterpretation of the term to mean the use of violence for settlement of disputes. "Firstly, all reference to fighting in the Qur’an is dealing only in self defence but none of them relates to make war offensively. Secondly, it should be noted that they are transitory in their nature and should not be considered in functions for future observance or religious perceptions for coming generations. A learned legist of Mecca who flourished at the end of the first century of the Hijrah [The Prophet’s immigration to Medina] held that Jihad was only binding on the Companions of the Prophet but was not binding on anyone after them. They were only temporary measures to meet the emergency of the aggressive circumstances”. It has been pointed out that of 6666 verses in the Qur’an only 40 or 0.6% relate directly or indirectly to war. Further, the 23 years in which the Qur’an had been revealed it is found that 20 years of revelations deal with spiritual and ethical values, whereas the verses relating to war were revealed in the three years when the community was faced with religious persecution. On the basis of the dictum “converting them by force is not acceptable" and “any jihad that leads to a meaningless destruction of human life and ignores concerns for peace with justice is non–Qur’anic Jihad” (Sachedina 2000, 21). Further, he adds that Islam forbids any form of military combat for expansion, prestige or aggression.

To the defensive, deeper meaning of Jihad, John Esposito states that “A combination of ignorance and stereotyping, … as well as religious-cultural chauvinism, too often blind even the best intention when dealing with the Arab or Muslim world". Esposito 1992 p. 170) Several respected resarchers on the theory of Jihad are clear that it is meant for defence of a state and agree that Islam forbids aggressive wars. The Prophet Mohammad, despite suffering severe disabilities, did not resort to violence. When forced to take up arms for the survival of the state and oppressed, strict rules regarding the safety of women, children, older men, animals, flora and fauna were imposed. No act of aggression was held permissible. “And fight in the way of God those who attack you, but transgress not, God loves not the aggressor” (2:190).

Again the Qur’an speaks of being just, fair and good to those who are not persecutors, even though they think differently from you: The Qur’an states that one must be “righteous and just towards those who do not fight you because of religion and do not expel you from your home. Indeed God loves those who act justly.” (60.8).

Again, if Muslims are aggressors, the Qur'an states: “And if two among the believers should fight, then make settlement between the two. But if one of them oppresses the other then fight against the one that oppresses…” (49:9).

Distinguished scholars are of the opinion that the precepts of the Qur’an state that even the defensive waging of war is the prerogative of an established government alone and does not fall within the province of groups, organizations, or institutions. If non–governmental organizations wish to offer change or reform they may launch any peaceful movement to meet their need. Using violence is not a means to an end and is in no way permissible in Islam.

Even in conflict situations caution was advised. If for strategic purposes of security, tensions escalated, armed conflict should be avoided and a chance be given to peace.

It is permitted to fight a war in self-defence, but it is bound by the condition of prior declaration. Guerrilla or proxy wars have no sanction in Islam. Peace is always the rule of law, not the exception.

Occurrence of conflicts is at times inevitable. On such occasions Islam advises control of its escalation, not violent confrontation’. The policy of the Qur’an is conflict resolution as a principle, for the Qur’an says: “reconciliation is best” (4:128). The principle Islam lays down declares: “you should not desire confrontation with the enemy; you should ask God for Peace” (Bukhari). In this connection the verse of the Qur’an states: “Whenever they kindle the flame of war, God will put it out.”

It is the task of Muslims, even when others ignite the flame of war, to adopt the strategy of peaceful, non-violent negotiation which should cool the fires. Self-interest can be safeguarded without violence. The Prophet’s example of negotiating peace with the various tribes in Arabia is a case in point. No nation is permanently hostile. European history bears witness to this fact.

The Qur’an differentiates between an enemy and an aggressor. If hostilities escalate, and an armed conflict cannot under any circumstances be avoided and offensive military action is taken, a war can be fought as a matter of security. However, in so far as engaging in war against an enemy is concerned, military action can under no circumstances be invoked on the grounds of enmity. For the Qur’an states “Good and evil are not alike. Requite evil with what is best. Then truly he between whom and you there was enmity, will become your dearest friend.”(41:34). The idea is to eliminate enmity and not the enemy. It is also suggested that potential for deep underlying friendship can evolve through communication with the so- called enemy.

An example of the avoidance of armed confrontations is visible in Mecca, when due to the unreasonable demands made by the Meccans, a pitched battle between the Prophet and the opponent seemed imminent. The Prophet diffused the situation by signing the Hudaibiya treaty by unilaterally accepting all the enemy’s conditions. Hence there was peace. This policy of conciliation proved productive as the atmosphere was more relaxed for discussion and is described in the Qur'an as a “manifest victory” (48: 29)

As Patout J. Burns states: “There is no theological reason that Islamic society could not take a lead in developing non-violence today and there is every reason that some of them should.1

In promoting the paradigm of non-violence in Islam scholars use the following line of argument:

  • Since the historical context of Qur’anic revelation, (dealing with war) no longer is the same, resolution of differences has to be sought through other non-violent ways suggested and recommended by the Qur’an. For example there are universal solutions the Quar'an offers such as "and reconciliation is best..." Qur’an 2 : 128).
  • Minoritism, global interdependencies, new global realities, including advanced weaponry systems, oblige the world population including Muslims to abandon violence.
  • The use of violence presently cannot be ruled within the strict rules prescribed by the Qur’an and traditions.

The new hermeneutic discourse based on pluralism, non-violence and peace, is much needed for building relations. Sachedina calls for the “ rediscovery of Islamic common moral concern for peace and justice” (2000,6). A call for a new theological approach and narrative is based on pluralism and not exclusivity as well as on the consideration of history and the interaction of normative tradition as well as source with the socio-political reality of Muslims. A similar paradigm shift is perceived in international relations where Muslims states are sharing the same equal membership with non-Muslims States in global settings. These circumstances require different theological and hermeneutical approaches.

A word of caution: The Muslim community cannot stand by as observers to the emerging sea of changes affecting the most critical issues facing the global community and influencing economic academic and political practices. Muslim responses can make a significant contribution to the challenging paradigm to move conflict resolution towards a global heritage, shaping and implementing peace-building strategies.

There is a daunting task ahead of us. But there is hope and hope lies in prevention. Intractable conflicts usually have a long history of escalation prior to reaching crises and entrenchment. Ways of intervention must be found earlier. Being pro-active would help monitor emerging disputes. Our greatest hope in resolving intractable conflicts is to avert them and to achieve such goals Muslims must explore and explain the message of conflict-resolution in the Qur’an and put it effectively into practice. This task must be taken seriously and conscientiously.

Muslim arguments do not have to degenerate into aggressive polemics. To vent anger against innocent people or to seek revenge through acts of violence is in complete contradiction to Islam’s call for peace and must be unequivocally condemned. There has to be a civilized way to deal with disagreements.

Among the intelligentsia there is a serious need to review the Islamic educational process in the current environment. Madrassa education systems should include the largest range of subjects including science and technology to equip students to deal in a wider world. Women must be given opportunities and treated at par with their male counterparts. And finally Muslim intelligentsia must engage in releasing fresh energy to occupy a vantage point in the public domain. Stagnation in Muslim scholarship has led to intellectual sterility. Hence creating a new line of scholars is an imperative; a line of scholars that can invigorate a movement of non-violence and truth, for peace and justice.

Rhetoric is a powerful weapon in any conflict situation. Belligerent terminology such as "Islamic terrorism" and now "Islamic fascism" coined by politicians and popularised by media show nothing but contempt for Islam as a religion. Quoting texts randomly and out of context is not merely inaccurate but counter-productive.

All religions have a share in texts that address aggression. While the Bible enshrines many teachings on peace it also includes the saying that “Do you suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth? I did not come to bring peace but the sword” (Mathew 10: 34-36)

Again in the Torah, the most sacred part of the Jewish Bible, the people of Israel are repeatedly urged to drive their enemies from the promised land, to destroy their sacred symbols, and to make no treaty with them. Similarly when the Bhagwat Gita holds at length on passages on wisdom and ethics, it also contains passages from Shri Krishna where he asks Arjun to go ahead and fight for the right cause. It is, however, obvious that such expressions are the exception and not the rule. Nearly everyone who understands religious scriptures realises that such passages are not representative of religion and realise that to use them out of context is illegitimate.

"We rarely, if ever, called the Irish Republican Army bombings “Catholic terrorism” because we knew that this was not essentially a religious campaign. Indeed, like the Irish Republican Army movement, many funda-mentalist movements worldwide are simply new forms of nationalism in a highly unorthodox religious guise. This is obviously the case with Zionist fundamentalism and the fervently patriotic Christian Right in the U.S." This quote is taken from an article by Karen Armstrong, 'Blame Politics Not Islam' in The Hindu, India, Tuesday, Jul 12, 2005.

Unfortunately today the image of Islam is transfixed as one of predation and aggression. The belligerent propagation of religious views depicting Islam as a violent religion is inaccurate. We need a phrase that is more exact than “ Islamic terrorism” These acts may be committed by people who call themselves Muslims but who violate all the essential principles of Islam. Such people have to be brought to court and punished. Marginalisation of people by design or default in order to gain political mileage, leads to alienation of Muslims in terms of opportunities and tragically in terms of quality of life.

Like all great religions, the main thrust. of Islam is towards kindliness and compassion. There are too many unexamined assumptions about Islam, which tend to regard it as an amorphous, monolithic entity. Few know or acknowledge that militant action is an assault on faith even though it is the product of social, economic and political factors. It can be categorically stated that violence can in no way seek justification through the religion of Islam. As an Indian Muslim, I say it is time for Muslims in India to set an example to the rest of the world.

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