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.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Well written and concise yet comprehesive with great references. Good job Khaled.