By Maulana Wahiduddin Khan
September 22, 2014
An accepted principle for evaluating a system or ideology is to differentiate between its declared principles, on the one hand, and the actual practice of the people who claim to stand for or represent it. So, too, is the case with Islam. To understand what Islam really is, you need to study the texts which contain its principles. These are the Quran and authentic reports that reflect the Sunnah or practice of the Prophet of Islam.
There are more than one billion people in the world who claim to be Muslims. To understand Islam, one needs to study the Quran and Sunnah, rather than the actual behaviour of these people who claim to be its followers. The right method of studying Islam is to differentiate between Islam, on the one hand, and Muslims, on the other. Muslims have to be judged in the light of Islamic teachings, and not vice versa.
To properly understand and appreciate Islam, we also need to know what its principal objectives are. The Quran clearly tells us that the mission of the Prophet is peaceful dissemination of the Divine message. For example, it says:
“[O Prophet] remind them: your task is only to remind, you are not a master over them.” (88:21)
There is no Quranic verse that directs Muslims to establish ‘Islamic rule’. This kind of commandment is alien to the Quranic scheme of things. Political rule is a relative part of Islam, and not an essential part of Islam.
An important social teaching of Islam is reflected in this Quranic verse: “As-Sulh Khair”. (4:128). That is, “Reconciliation is the best.” According to this verse, Muslims must try to establish peaceful relations with others. They are not commanded to impose any system on others. If they try to impose any system, it would lead to conflict, and thus their real mission would get jeopardized.
As far as the socio-political system is concerned, there is no ideal model for it in Islam. It depends on the actual situation prevailing in any given period. The socio-political system emerges from within a given society, rather than being imposed from outside. Muslims must reconcile with this system. That is, they must accept the principle of status quo in this matter. It is in the best interests of Muslims to establish peace between people, because peace leads to normalcy, and normalcy helps in availing opportunities for the Da’wah mission, the mission of inviting people to God’s path.
The Quran mentions another important principle: “As long as they act straight with you, act straight with them.” (9:7). It means, in other words, that as long as others are not creating problems for you, you should avoid creating problems for them. This indicates that Islam believes in accepting the political status quo. Islam commands its followers to adhere to the status quo unless the other party takes such steps that Muslims are compelled to follow a different strategy. Under normal circumstances, Muslims are exhorted to engage in peaceful Da’wah and to abstain from a confrontational approach.
In general, Islam does not permit Muslims to engage in war against anyone. The only exception to this is in case of aggression by others. The Quran clearly mentions that there should be no war unless one is faced with aggression from another party. This means that in Islam there is only legitimate form of war, and that is defensive war. Muslims have not been commanded to initiate war. Nor are they allowed to engage in wars of aggression. However, if another party begins war, then Muslims can engage in self-defence.
The Quran says:
“And fight in God’s cause against those who wage war against you, but do not commit aggression—for surely, God does not love aggressors.” (2:190).
This verse clearly states that Islam allows only defensive war. Aggressive war is not permitted in Islam. No exception whatsoever is acceptable in this regard.
The Quran does contain some verses that refer to war. These pertain to those situations when Muslims were at war. One such verse is:
“Fight those from among the People of the Book who believe neither in God, nor in the Last Day, nor hold as unlawful what God and His Messenger have declared to be unlawful, nor follow the true religion, until they pay the tax willingly and agree to submit.” (9:29)
It is important to note that this verse does not say that Muslims should wage war with “so and so”. It only means that Muslims should fight in defence, against those who have waged war against them. This verse speaks of war against attackers: this is the real reason to engage in war against them. Their being non-believers is not the reason to war with them. The mention of non-believers here is not to indicate that their being non-believers is the reason for war. Rather, it is only to specify who they were. The reason for war was not that they were non-believers, but, rather, that they were attackers. This verse should, therefore, be understood in the light of the verse quoted before this one, that is, 2:190.
Another point to bear in mind is that the prophetic period of the Prophet of Islam lasted for twenty-three years. More than half this period was spent in Makkah. There were non-believers in Makkah then, but no verse was revealed to the Prophet commanding him to wage war against these non-believers. Had the justification to wage war with people been their being non-believers, the command for war would have been given earlier, when the Prophet was in Makkah itself. But a verse of this kind was revealed only after the Prophet’s migration to Madinah. This was because at that time, the opponents of Islam realized that Islam was flourishing on account of having found a strong base in Madinah. It was then that they took to violent aggression. In the Meccan period, Muslims were merely considered a different religious sect by their opponents, but in the Madinan period they were taken as a grave threat. That is why in the Meccan period, the opponents of Islam were only engaged in opposition, but when the Prophet migrated to Madinah, these opponents launched armed military aggression against them. It was at this point in time that the following verse was revealed:
“Permission to fight is given to those who are fought against, because they have been oppressed.” (22:39)
In this verse, the word “oppression” (Zulm) is meant in the sense of aggression. As is known, during the thirteen-year period of the Prophet’s life as a prophet in Makkah, the opponents of Islam continuously subjected the Muslims to persecution. However, in this period, no commandment for war was revealed. Such a command was revealed only after the Prophet migrated to Madinah, when the opponents of Islam embarked on military aggression against the Muslims. Therefore, in this verse “oppression” implies aggression, and not non-aggressive oppression.
A related issue that needs clarification is that of jizyah or tribute. It must be noted that jizyah is not a permanent command of Islam. Instead, it was a temporary order. At the time of the Prophet, it was common practice among governments to impose a levy like the jizyah as a temporary punitive tax on those who had waged an unprovoked war. This same practice was applied to the contemporary opponents of the Prophet. Jizyah was therefore a temporary tax imposed on those opponents of the Prophet who were his contemporaries. According to my understanding, those Muslim rulers who continued with the practice of jizyah after the Prophet were not right—this was an Ijtihadi Khata (error of judgement) on their part. Jizyah is not at all applicable to the present age. Those who extend the imposition of jizyah to the present age have misinterpreted verse 9:29 of the Quran.
Yet another issue that needs clarification in this discussion about war and peace in Islam is a Hadith report that is contained in Bukhari’s collection, which is translated as: “I have been ordered to fight the people till they say: ‘La Ilaha Illallah’ (‘There is no god but God’), and whoever said ‘No god other than Allah’ will save his property and his life from me.”
In this Hadith, “al-Nas”, or ‘people’ refers to the people of Makkah. So, this Hadith report must be interpreted only in the light of the actual conduct of the Prophet of Islam towards the people of Makkah. It is on record that at the time when the Prophet victoriously entered Makkah in 630 CE, most of the Meccans were non-believers. They were brought before the Prophet while he was in the premises of the Kaa’bah. The Prophet did not offer them these two choices: ‘Convert to Islam or you shall be put to death.’ On the contrary, he said to these Meccans: “Iz-Habu Fa-Antum Al-Tulaqa” (Ibn Hisham). That is: ‘Go, you all are free.’ Although these people embraced the faith of Islam later on, their acceptance of Islam was completely by choice. It was not a forced conversion. In the above Hadith report the words “till they say: ‘La Ilaha Illallah’” symbolically implies surrender, or the ending of war.
After the death of the Prophet, there were some wars between the Companions of the Prophet and the two adjacent empires—the Byzantine Empire and the Sassanid Empire. But, these wars were started as defensive wars by the Companions, because both these empires had exhibited clear aggression by killing the ambassador of the Muslim state and sending their armies at the borders of the territory of Arabia. This led to initiation of war by the two empires.
20th century Muslim leaders wanted to revive the Muslim Ummah. However, their starting-point was wrong. They sought the revival of Muslim history of the later period, when Muslims had established empires. The right beginning for these leaders would have been to seek to revive the original method of the Prophet of Islam, which was Da’wah Ilallah, or conveying the message of God to mankind. But Muslim leaders did not begin their endeavours from Da’wah. This was clearly an erroneous reasoning on their part, and it led to all sorts of problems. It goaded some of them to take to violence as a means to pursue their goals, resulting in the enormous tragedies that are unfolding all around us now.
Maulana Wahiduddin Khan heads the New Delhi-based Centre for Peace and Spirituality