Friday, January 11, 2008

Islam, Violence and War

Click here for a PDF of referenced chapters & Verses

The essence of the relationship between Muslims and non-Muslims, as individuals or as communities, is that of kindness and respectful coexistence (60:8). This friendship and kindness is, however, denied for those who actively engage in systematic effort to harm Muslims (60:9).

Lack of friendship does not automatically mean engaging in war, and human life is looked at with extreme respect. The loss, or saving, of one human life, Muslim or non-Muslim, is considered a major event for all humanity (5:32). But if war became inevitable (see later), Islam since its early days has established clear rules for the conduct of hostilities. Several sections in the Quran discuss war in detail and, contrary to the ‘out-of-context snippets’ that tend to dominate media coverage and anti-Muslim portrayal, a careful look at the discussion of war in the Quran shows a very unique perspective that favors non-violent means, and looks at war as the least desired path to solving conflicts. That perspective was unique by 6th century standards as much as it is unique by 21st century standards.

  1. War is permitted under Islamic rules, but only for defensive purposes. War of aggression is not permitted in Islam (2:190).
  2. If the non-Muslim warring party stops aggression, Muslims have no choice but to stop (2:192, 4:90, 8:61) even if they think it is not in Muslim’s army interest (8:61 and 8:62).
  3. The purpose of war is to resist or stop oppression and to fight aggression (2:190, 2:193, 4:75) not to expand territory or to dominate others (28:83) [note: Exalt in this verse means ‘raise in rank and status, or attain supremacy, Uluwan in Arabic]. War is definitely not a mean to force Islam on non-Muslims (2:256, 2:272 [first sentence], 10:99, 16:82).
  4. War with another Muslim community is also permitted (for the same purpose stated of fighting oppression and aggression) if that Muslim community engages in oppressing another community, and does not heed the calls for just and fair resolution (49:9)
  5. War is permitted in defense of the right and religious freedoms of non-Muslims well as Muslims suffering from oppression (22:39 and 22:40)
  6. Revenge for past hatred and hostilities does not justify war and aggression (5:2, 5:8) and Muslims are instructed and advised by God to forgive (43:89, 15:85)

War is the last resort: Not only does the Quran forbid wars of aggression, but it also very strongly encourages peaceful means to counter aggression and resolve conflicts before war is resorted to (8:61, 23:96, 41:34).

But it is also important to realize Islam is not a pacifist religion. It strongly believes in peaceful coexistence, supported by deterrent defensive stance (8:60), and the inclination to peaceful resolution of conflict (8:61, 23:96, 41:34) but without denying Muslims the right to wage war against aggression if other measures fail.

Once war starts (legitimately as discussed before) Muslim men and women are expected, by God, to fight it with utmost zeal, and with the willingness to sacrifice themselves and their material wealth in defense of their community and in the cause of God. In the fervor of war, Muslims are expected to obey the Islamic code of conduct during war time (47:4).

Granting protection to enemy fighters: In addition, every Muslim man and woman, is endowed with the right to grant asylum and protection to one or more enemy warriors if those warriors declare themselves non-combatant, and ask for the protection of a Muslim. They are not to be treated as prisoners of war, nor should they be detained. They are allowed to live within the Muslim community until war is over, or helped to travel to another society of their choice that is not at war with the Muslim community (9:6, 4:90).

Martyrdom: Those who die in the fight, be they men or women, are considered martyrs (defined as ‘ones who die for the sake of principle’) who will be in close proximity of God in heavens (2:154, 3:169, 4:74). The urban myth of ‘seventy virgins awaiting the martyrs in paradise’ has no basis in the Quran.

The Prophet’s teaching: Muhammad, pbuh, has set a very well defined path for warriors to follow. During the sending off the Muslim army to a battle, the prophet issued the following ‘battle field code of conduct’: “You shall not break a promise you make, you shall not mutilate the dead”, and “You shall not kill an elder, a child or a woman”. He gave clear instructions not to kill the injured and unarmed enemy members (equivalent to army civilians, and non-combat support troops in modern times).

Ensuring the moral conduct of war is the responsibility of all Muslim fighters, commanders and lowly soldiers alike. The Prophet made his well authenticated statement “There shall be no obedience of a leader in the violation of the rules of God”. This unequivocal statement was made in support of some Muslim soldiers who refused to obey a commander’s order when they felt the order violated the morality of Islam.

Prisoners of war (captives) enjoyed a status under Islam not seen in previous wars. They were to be treated without abuse or humiliation. They were to be well fed even when food was not abundant (76:8-76:9), kept warm and adequately sheltered. After the war POWs were treated based on the reciprocity principle with the enemy (e.g., freed in exchange for Muslim prisoners, or after reparations (47:4). In a real life example, the prisoners of war during the first battle with the people of Mecca were freed in exchange for teaching 10 Muslims each how to read and write. Illiterate prisoners were freed unconditionally when the battle was over. Enemy fighters who surrender (i.e., willingly give up fighting), are kept as prisoners of war until the fighting is over, and are then released unconditionally.

Civilian leaders of the Muslim community who succeeded Prophet Muhammad followed his teachings meticulously. Abu-Bakr, the first of those leaders, echoing the Prophet’s past instructions, gave his last minute advice to the commander of the Muslim army heading to the north to fight then. On dealing with fighting and non-fighting members of the enemy he said: “Do not betray, do not steal [i.e., take property unlawfully], and do not break a promise you make. Do not mutilate the dead; do not kill a child, an elder or a woman. Do not damage a palm tree or burn it. Do not cut a healthy tree; kill a goat, cow, or other animal except for food. You will come across people who dedicated themselves in monasteries [i.e., monks]; do not disturb them [i.e., let them carry on with worship of God that they dedicated themselves to].” Omar, the second leader who followed Abu-Bakr, maintained the same stance with his military leaders: “do not steal, do not betray [whomever you made promises to], do not kill a child, and beware of God [by not committing injustices] when you treat those who farm the land [that you pass through]”. In a different message to another military leader, Omar ordered: “Never kill and old man, a woman or a child. Make sure to avoid them during battles and in conducting raids”. These commandments, a millennium and a half ago, puts to shame many modern nations and armies for what they have done to civilians over the last few decades.

Islam and social Justice

Click here for a PDF of referenced chapters & Verses

Social Justice is has occupied a significant share of the Islamic conscience. Equality, and a sense of collective responsibility towards one another has been a hallmark of the early Muslim community, and has resulted in an influx of the poor, the underprivileged and slaves into Islam, escaping the brutal and rigidly hierarchical social structure that prevailed Arabia in the 6th century AD. The Prophet’s teachings tell us that “the Muslim community is like one body; if one part is ailing, the rest of the body responds with fever and ache”. Personal wealth is also considered a trial (64:15) and a gift entrusted to the wealthy by God (57:7, 2:254, 4:39, 13:22) to see if they will handle it as He wishes. The poor and the needy are therefore entitled to a share of the society’s wealth (51:19, 70:24-70:25). After the death of Prophet Muhammad, pbuh, Muslim civil leaders perpetuated the teachings of the Quran, and the practices recommended by prophet Muhammad in the construction of social institutions that guarantees those in need will not be ignored or forgotten (see below).

The following is a list of the major mechanisms by which Islam ensures that the wealth of a society does not circulate in the hands of a wealthy few (59:7):

a. Alms-giving (Zakah) is a mandatory fixed percentage (widely accepted as 2.5%) of a Muslim’s savings that the community is entitled to, every year. This is the only pillar of Islam that involves material benefit to others. The money is collected by the state and is spent in specific venues listed in the Quran for the benefit of all community members, Muslims and non-Muslims alike. These venues include amongst others: the poor, the needy, the indebted, and for the liberation of slaves (2:177, 4:36, 9:60). All commercial ventures, e.g., farming, mining, industrial production and trading, have their own specific Zakah that is also due annually.

b. Charity is different from Zakah in that is it not mandatory and has no preset limit. It is strongly encouraged in hundreds of verses in the Quran, as a mean of obtaining God’s mercy and forgiveness (24:22, 92:17 to 92:18), cleansing the souls of impurity (9:103), and attaining superior degree faith (30:38, 76:8 to 76:9, 90:10 to 90:16). Those who are bent on sequestering wealth, and denying the less fortunate a share in their possessions are always given as an example of the ones who will be suffering in the hereafter and are deprived of the mercy of God (3:180, 4:37, 47:38, 89:17 to 89.24). Not feeding the needy is cited amongst the major reasons for which someone will not be in paradise (74:42 to 74:46). Relieving the indebted (or remitting the debt entirely) is also promised a great reward by God (2:280 and 2:281). Lack of kindness to the orphans, and the needy are markings of hypocrites whose hearts are devoid of faith despite performing religious rituals (107:1 to 107:7). Amassing wealth for its own sake (i.e., for the love of gathering money) is an evil deed deserving of extreme punishment on the Day of Judgment (9:35).

c. Making amends: Spending money on those in need is also considered a means of atonement (or expiation) for different kinds of sins and mistakes (2:184, 5:89, 5:95, 58:4).

d. Endowment: Another kind of charity is endowment or ‘Waqf’ in Arabic. This is usually of larger magnitude and is in the form of an asset, e.g., a farms, factory, large building or a piece of land that should be invested with all the revenue going to charity. This choice is particularly attractive as is satisfies what is referred to as ‘on-going’ or ‘running’ charity. This kind of charitable deed is one of only three things that Muslims believe will them reward from God after their death (the other two being, useful knowledge that the individual developed or taught, , and an offspring of high standards and moral integrity).

Muslims are instructed to spend: It is most interesting that the verb ‘spend’ is used in the Quran almost exclusively to mean spend of one’s money on someone else in need of financial help. Not only are Muslims repeatedly instructed to spend, they are explicitly instructed to spend from their most cherished possessions, from what is dear to them, from what they consider to be the best that they own (2:267, 3:92). Generosity in spending is a hallmark of the most dedicated believers (13:33),

Moderation in Spending is commended: While Muslims are repeatedly encouraged to spend from their wealth in the path of God, the Quran reminds them to spend sensibly. Wastefulness is strongly admonished in the Quran and over-spending -even on charity- will cause harm that defeats the charity’s purpose (17:26, 17:27, 17:29). A generous, yet sensible, wealthy person is, in the long term, more beneficial to the society and to the poor than the unwise one that goes bankrupt (2:195)

The Prophetic teachings (Hadeeth in Arabic, which means narration or speech) are different from the Quran, and are not considered the word of God. When hadeeth is adequately authenticated, it is treated with utmost respect by Muslims and it inspires them on how to implement and abide by the Quran. Numerous Prophetic teachings are narrated on solving the problem poverty, on humanity in Islamic society, and on sharing the wealth. Some examples are listed below:

a. "He who sleeps on a full stomach whilst his neighbor goes hungry is not one of us."

b. “People [in a very generic sense] are partners in three things: water, grazing land, and fire.”

‘Modern day’ meaning of this hadeeth:: the essentials for survival in any society should be made available (i.e., guaranteed) for all members of that society. Water is key to survival in desert environment, water and grazing land are key to maintenance of a herd which is the major source of employment and wealth to a Bedouin society, and fire is the only means to cook food, and warm a household. Food, shelter, basic education and a chance to earn a living would be the closet modern day essential counterparts to those mentioned in the hadeeth.

c. “None of you believes until he wishes for his brother what he wishes for himself.”

d. If anyone would like God to save him from the hardships of the Day of Resurrection, he should give more time to his debtor who is short of money, or remit his debt altogether.”

e. Anyone who looks after and works for a widow and a poor person is like a warrior fighting for God’s cause, or like a person who fasts during the day and prays all night.”

f. Safeguard yourself against miserliness, for it ruined those who came before you.”

After the Prophet’s death: The practices of the early Muslim civil leaders further emphasized the collective responsibility of the community towards its poorest and weakest segments.

a. The House of Treasury (Bayt-el-Maal in Arabic) was established as an institution where Zakat was managed and channeled into its legitimate venues, and Waqf endowments were administered in a way that takes into consideration the Muslim community all over the Muslim Land.

b. Stipends were issued from the House of Treasury to families with children to help offset their increased expenses.

c. Pensions were also introduced to help the elderly who were unable to work. These pensions were offered to Muslim as well as non-Muslim elderly.

d. The concept of transferring Zakat money from the locality where it was paid, to wherever it was needed in Muslim land, was also introduced. This helped redistribute the wealth allover the Muslim land, and prevented creating pockets of extreme wealth or poverty.

Poverty is an evil that underlies a lot of evils: An extraordinary event took place during the reign of Omar, the second civil Muslim leader. A serious famine and subsequent poverty struck large parts of Arabia. This was associated with a significant increase in crime rates, notably theft. This is a crime that is very harshly punished according to an unequivocal verse in the Quran. Omar clearly understood the link between poverty and the increase in crime. He also understood that the role of punishment is to be a deterrent, not to be the society’s revenge. As the underlying cause of the crime (poverty in this case) was not alleviated, the punishment lost its meaning and usefulness as deterrent, and appeared more like revenge. Omar did the unthinkable and took an unprecedented step of ‘suspending’ the implementation of that Quranic verse until the economic pressures were alleviated. While this is not directly relevant to how Muslims handled poverty, it represents an insight into how Islam looked at poverty as an evil that underlies many of the society’s ills. This understanding lead Ali, one of the most respected, wise and righteous of early Muslim leaders, to make his memorable statement: “If poverty were a man, I would have killed him”.

Conclusion of Social Justice and Poverty section:

I would like conclude this section with the full text of a very short chapter of the Quran (Chapter 93). In this chapter, God addresses Muhammad, pbuh, but He speaks to all of us. As members of humanity we all enjoy numerous blessings in our lives, not realizing their existence most of the time. Neither do most of us realize that the only way to thank God for all his blessings is to pass some of the blessings on to our fellow humans. These thoughts are beautifully summarized in this short Quranic chapter. Whether one takes it literally or metaphorically, this chapter leads all of us on a path to greater awareness of our responsibilities to the less fortunate.

Chapter 93:

In the name of God, The merciful, the compassionate

001 [I swear] by the bright morning hours,

002 And by the night when it grows still and dark.

003 Thy Sustainer has not forsaken thee, nor does He scorn thee:

004 for, indeed, the life to come will be better for thee than this earlier part [of thy life]!

005 And, indeed, in time will thy Sustainer grant thee [what thy heart desires], and thou shalt be well-pleased.

006 Has He not found thee an orphan, and given thee shelter?

007 And found thee lost on thy way, and guided thee?

008 And found thee in want, and given thee sufficiency?

009 Therefore, the orphan shalt thou never wrong,

010 and him that seeks [thy] help shalt thou never chide,

011 and of thy Sustainer's blessings shalt thou [ever] speak.