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Blogging the Qur'an by Ziauddin Sardar- Part 18: Jihad, War And Peace: Part One



By Ziauddin Sardar

March 31, 2008

And so we arrive, not at the heart of the Qur'an but rather at the predicament of our time. These verses (al-Baqura 190-195) are some of the most controversial, bandied around by some Muslims to justify indiscriminate violence and by some non-Muslims to argue that Islam is inherently violent. Both are way off the mark. There can be no doubt these verses now condition relations between Muslims and non-Muslims, therefore they require careful reading and clear understanding by all. They have immense bearing on what Muslims should demand of themselves and how non-Muslims should hold us to account.

The question here is simple: how do you get from the simple declarative statement that opens this passage - "but do not commit aggression - for verily God does not love aggressors" - to the blanket warrant for violence? Answer: only by distorting one's reason and ignoring how this passage fits within the whole of the Qur'an's moral and ethical framework.

In reading this passage it is necessary to keep a number of our cautionary notes in mind. First, no passage can be taken out of context; all must be read in conjunction with and in light of their relationship to the whole of the Qur'an, as I suggested in my third introductory blog.

Second, we have to remember the Qur'an was revealed over a period of 23 years and addresses itself both to the actual circumstances of a real community of ordinary human beings as well as to all people at all times. This means that apart from needing to know what problems confronted the Muslims at the time of revelation we also have another major factor to consider: the mindset; the outlook the Qur'an seeks to promote.

In this passage the Qur'an is speaking to ordinary flawed human beings in a terrible predicament. It is a predicament that humanity has been all too capable of recreating throughout history, so the specifics directed to one time and place have relevance far beyond the particular circumstances. And what I find so hopeful and uplifting is that in these circumstances the Qur'an does not expect people to be perfect and follow a counsel of perfection, yet it simultaneously raises their souls and minds to the path of perfection. It gives guidance on how to strive to do better and how to limit the damage humans can cause to themselves, other people and the world in which they live. It offers limits and restraints that lead towards bettering the human condition, and point to ways of learning how to make peace. The Qur'an is consistent in being a manual for reform, a process that is not a one-off but an ongoing task, an effort that must continually be made by the mind and the soul, a course to be returned to time and time again. So here I have to disagree with Madeleine, and earnestly question her response.

Let's start by looking at the context in which these verses were revealed. The tiny Muslim community, numbering no more than a few hundred people, is under siege. There is open hostility between Muslims and various Arabian tribes, particularly the Quraysh of Mecca. Having failed to suppress Islam in Mecca, and knowing that Muslims have found refuge in Medina and are gaining strength, the Quraysh have taken up the sword to annihilate the Muslims once and for all.

The Quraysh are preparing for a major battle - the battle of Badr (circa 624) - which will decide whether Muslims survive or perish. The Quraysh are committed to the complete destruction of the Muslim community - as a later verse makes clear: "They will not cease fighting against you until they turn your back from your religion if they can." (217).

So what options do the Muslims have? In these ultimate circumstances permission is given to the Muslim community, who up to this point had refrained from fighting, to fight in self-defence. The verses were revealed in situ when hostilities were in progress and the very survival of the Muslims as a community was at stake.

And there are specific instructions in these verses which are just that: specific to one historic situation. For example, the personal pronoun in the word "slay them" makes it clear that the Qur'an is referring to those who are engaged in hostilities against the Muslims - specifically, the Quraysh. These persecutors had driven Muslims out of their homes in Mecca. So the followers of the prophet are given permission to "turn them out from where they have turned you out". They occupied the sacred mosque in Mecca, and the Muslims are asked not to fight within it if possible.

And yet, in these circumstances Muslims are told not to "transgress limits" - by which is meant commit atrocities, kill women, children or non-combatants, or burn down property or destroy cattle and fields, or to respond disproportionally to aggression - for transgression could lead to self-destruction: "Make not your own hands contribute to (your) destruction." (v195) And if the enemy ceases fighting, Muslims must lay down their arms - only hostility is to be met with hostility. Thus, the fight is not to exterminate the enemy but only to persuade them to cease hostilities.

There are, then, general principles here which have broader applications. The only possible justification for war according to the Qur'an, the fundamental principle if you like, is self-defence. The only legitimate enemies are those who wage war against you - a principle that is also laid down in 22:39 ("permission to fight is given to those against whom war is being wrongfully waged") and again in60:80 and 4:91. This is why the three battles of the prophet - Badr, Uhad and the Battle of the Trenches - were all defensive in character. The last one was, in fact, not a battle at all: the defence, a trench around Medina, was so good that the enemy was unable to cross it and turned back after a couple of weeks later out of sheer boredom. The corollary is that aggression is forbidden and Muslims are not to begin hostilities: "Do not commit aggression" for "God does not love aggressors".


Jihad, War and Peace: Part Two

Jihad, War and Peace: Part Three (To Follow)



Do These Verses Justify Violence?


By Madeleine Bunting

March 31, 2008

This is the first point in the Qur'an (al-Baqura 190-195) where I feel a complete stranger. Up to this point, there was plenty of familiarity to help put me at my ease. Yes, this was a faith which was entirely different from anything I have been brought up with, but I recognised it as a fellow Abrahamic faith, and there was much in the Qur'an which could be compared with the Bible - many points of similarity as well as important differences.

But these verses threw me: they describe an aggression which is evident in parts of the Old Testament but seems even more violent. For example, "kill them - this is what disbelievers deserve". Ouch.

The phrase above really worries me, I have to be honest. Isn't this the kind of sentiment that can be used to justify violence towards the kufr? It's the kind of rhetoric used by people like Sayyid Qutb, which expresses such loathing of those whom they do not regard as true Muslims.

I know I'm in danger of falling into one of the oldest Orientalist myths about Islam as an inherently violent faith but I'm struggling, Zia, and need some help to understand this. It's a sharp contrast to the Christian "turn the other cheek" pacifism of Christ (even though that was markedly not implemented by his followers).


URL of Part  17: