By Ziauddin Sardar
April 02, 2008
When taken out of its specific context, the "sword verse" (9:5) can be used to justify all variety of violence. It is the favourite verse of the terrorists who use it to legitimate their own illegitimate and criminal actions. Osama bin Laden and his associates opened theirdeclaration of jihads against "Jews and Crusaders" announced on 23 February 1998, with this verse. Quoting this verse is not just the domain of real terrorists, however - fictional villains, in such Hollywood films as True Lies, Executive Decision, The Siege and, going right back to the 60s, Khartoum are fond of it too. In Rules of Engagement, for example, the terrorists claim the Qur'an commands Muslims to kill "the infidel" Americans and their allies, including civilians, and plunder their possessions.
The "terror verse" is also a favourite of both fictional and real baddies. It reads: "We will put terror into the hearts of the unbelievers. They serve other gods for whom no sanction has been revealed." (3:149) Yet, the apparent meaning attributed to this verse could not be further from the true spirit of the Qur'an. Here, the Qur'an is addressing Prophet Muhammad himself. The verse was revealed during the battle of Uhad (circa 625), when the small and ill-equipped army of the prophet faced a much larger and well-equipped enemy. He was concerned about the outcome of the battle. The Qur'an reassures him and promises the enemy will be terrified by the prophet's unprofessional army. Seen in its context, it is quite clear that it is not a general instruction to all Muslims; but a commentary on what was happening at that time.
Unfortunately, the voices that portray such specific, on-the-spot commentary and instruction as clear universal commands have a strong appeal for some disillusioned Muslim youth. But when we do what the Qur'an demands of us, "think", "reflect" and most of all read verses in their proper context, we are brought abruptly back to two insuperable propositions: do not commit aggression and that the fight against oppression does not and should never initially be by force of arms. Doing justice, working for justice, ensuring that justice and equity are made real in the life of our community is the constant task, the peaceful, progressive and insistent requirement of the Qur'an, that is its path of peace. Only when under direct, physical attack does fighting in self-defence become a legitimate alternative.
But there is one other reason why young and disillusioned Muslims who feel under threat, marginalised and misunderstood are so easily caught seduced by the gun. We have to acknowledge that virtually all biographies of the prophet and so many books by Muslims on the history of Islam dwell endlessly on the battles for survival of the original Muslim community. We are taught more about the details of battles, which were conducted mostly as successions of single combat and which lasted, in the case of both Badr and Uhad, less than a day, in far more detail than a career of 23 years during which the prophet faced down oppression by constructive peaceful means. We are far too intoxicated by the military success of history of Muslim imperialism, though there we pick and choose much more carefully.
Our world has been very good at generating injustice and oppression. But then the followers of all faiths have been less good, less determined and creative at challenging and overturning the blight of oppression by peaceful means that do not "transgress the limits". War, even war for survival, is indeed a "great transgression" that does injustice and usually perpetuates the cycle of oppression by creating new conditions for it to operate. I read the Qur'an as a way to think and learn about how to make peace, justice and equity triumphant, because that is not something war can achieve. But war does become a necessity as a last resort, when attacked and threatened with extermination, to stop all-out aggression. This proposition is most assuredly not something Muslims have to apologise for - they just have to ensure they go no further.