By Ziauddin Sardar
April 01, 2008
Defensive fighting in the Qur'an is related directly to oppression. Oppression, we are told, is worse than "killing" or "murder". As history shows oppression can lead to unspeakable atrocities, including mass displacement and genocide. It was to prevent just such an occurrence that the Qur'an permitted the Muslims of Medina to stand up and fight against the oppressors of Mecca who were torturing and abusing those Muslims who did not migrate from the city with the prophet, just as they abused and preyed upon Muslims before the migration.
In a later verse the Qur'an considers the nature of oppression: "If they do not let you be, and do not offer you peace, and do not stay their hands." in other words, oppression is continuous suppression, that denies the right and freedom to live according to one's conscience and identity and allows no option for peace.
The word often translated as "oppression" is Fitna. It incorporates the idea of persecution, suffering, slaughter, sedation, and constant distress. It is also synonymous with hindering people from practising their faith. It is in these circumstances that war, which the Qur'an later in this Surah describes as a "great transgression", (v217) becomes legitimate. It is this fight against oppression and for survival that the Qur'an sees as just war "in the cause of Allah".
The phrase "in the cause of Allah" has nothing to do with fighting for the propagation of faith, which is not once mentioned in the Qur'an. The "cause" here is strictly liberation from persecution and oppression. Neither does the verse "there prevail justice and faith in Allah" (v193) (translated by Pickthall as "religion is for Allah") have anything to do with the domination of Islam and the subjugation of non-believers. If it did I would have severe doubts! Rather, it points to the end result of freedom from oppression: God can be worshipped without fear of persecution. Indeed, the phrase "religion is for Allah" implies worship in general by all faith communities.
This is made clear in 22:40 where those who fight oppression in "the cause of Allah" liberate "cloisters and churches and synagogues and mosques in which Allah's name is much remembered" and which otherwise "would have been pulled down". The words used are exactly the same: "religion is for Allah". The message of these verses is that the final outcome of fighting against oppression should be that there is no persecution on the basis of religion and everyone is at liberty to hold their chosen belief.
In my opinion, the opposite interpretation, that fighting is to be continued till all people accept Islam, not only makes a mockery of the spirit of the Qur'an but makes numerous other verses - such as the one we read later on in this Surah, "there is no compulsion in religion" (v256) - totally meaningless. It also renders all those verses where the Qur'an exhorts the believer to make agreements with other communities superfluous.
This, however, has not stopped certain scholars from interpreting these verses in exactly this way. For example, Sayyid Qutb , the intellectual ideologue of the Muslim Brotherhood, interprets verse 190 as "fighting in Islam must be undertaken only to promote the aims defined by Islam: to make God's word supreme in the world." He goes even further in his interpretation of v192: "But if they desist, know that God is much-Forging, Merciful." Simply desisting in fighting, says Qutb, is not good enough. The enemies are "required to renounce their denial of God and their rejection of His message."
But this is by no means a common interpretation. Maulana Maududi, the founder of the Jamaat-e-Islami of Pakistan who is frequently lumped with Qutb, offers a totally different interpretation of verse 192. "What is meant by 'desisting'," says Maududi in his popular commentary, Towards Understanding the Qur'an, "is not the abandonment of unbelief and polytheism on the part of the unbelievers but rather their distance from active hostility to the religion enjoined by God. The unbelievers, the polytheist, the atheist, have each been empowered to hold on to his belief and to worship whomsoever and whatsoever he wishes."
This passage (al-Baqura 190-195), is usually read in conjunction with a number of other verses where we find the injunction to fight, such as 4:76, 84, 89, 91 and 9:5, 12, 14, 29, 36, 123. But the verses that have attracted most attention, both from the classical commentators and critics of the Qur'an, are 9:5, known as "the sword verse", and 3:149 known nowadays as "the terror verse".
I don't see the sword verse, "kill the associators (mushrikin) wherever you find them, and take them, and confine them, and lie in wait for them at every place of ambush", as a command to all and sundry. Once again, it is a specific instruction to those in the thick of battle. The first part of the verse speaks of "sacred months" when a truce of a sort was supposed to be in operation but with the exception of the tribes of the Bani Damrah and the Bani Kananah, who respected the treaties they made with Muslims, all other tribes frequently violated their agreements and continued to kill and persecute Muslims. Indeed, violation of agreement was a common characteristic of the Arabian tribes in their relations with Muslims.
Here again, the survival of the Muslim community was at stake. Muslims are thus urged to use the tactics of warfare to defend themselves but, as before, once the enemy "repents", that is hostilities cease; they must be allowed to "go their way". But on the battlefield too the enemy did not play fair and abide by widely accepted tribal agreements. Muslims followed the injunction to desist fighting, and would sheathe their swords when the enemies laid down their weapons. But the Quraysh often took advantage of this and practiced deception, killing many Muslims. This verse thus expresses total exasperation about "those with whom you make an agreement then they break their agreement every time" (8:56); and these are the specific people to whom this verse refers.