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A Muslim Perspective on Violence

Basma Elshayyal's picture

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Unfortunately, today it is incredibly rare to hear discussions about violence in relation to Islam without two words cropping up: jihâd and, more recently, terrorism. So, very reluctantly, here goes:


One major obstacle which I would very much like to see overcome is the generally imprecise use of terminology whenever this area of thought is explored or reported on – for example, confusion often arises when discussing whether or not a struggle or conflict may be termed as 'just' from an Islamic perspective (theologically). It is all too common to find words such as 'peace-loving' and 'pacifist' used interchangeably, without considering that so doing can lead to misunderstanding, even factual misrepresentation.


To expand slightly further on this point, another common notion is that Islam means 'peace' or 'submission'. Although both words are derived from the common Arabic root S-L-M, peace (salam) and submission (istislam) do not mean the same at all. In fact, Islam more accurately means an individual's striving to perfect their worship for the sake of One Supreme God (aslama). The two ideas above, while laudable, only reflect one (somewhat passive) dimension of human experience in life.


Defence is acceptable


Any able-bodied Muslim is under obligation to defend another's property, honour, family, etc.


Beware of suspicion, for suspicion is the greatest falsehood. Do not try to find fault with each other, do not spy on one another, do not vie with one another, do not envy one another, do not be angry with one another, do not turn away from one another, and be servants of Allah, brothers to one another, as you have been enjoined. A Muslim is the brother of a Muslim, he does him no wrong, nor does he let him down, nor does he despise him. Fear of God is here, fear of God is here, and he pointed to his chest. It is evil enough that a Muslim should look down on his brother. For every Muslim is sacred to one another: his blood, his honour, and his property. Allah does not look at your bodies or your forms, or your deeds, but He looks at your hearts.


This was narrated by Abu Hurairah and can be found in both collections of Sahih Bukhari and Sahih Muslim.


However, 'defence' does not necessarily have to be violent. Yes, a Muslim is exhorted to be an advocate of peace and promote it wherever and whenever they can, but (s)he must not accept humiliation or occupation or coercion, etc in order to be an advocate of peace. (You can see there is a link with the study of 'Freedom and Authority' here.) In fact, one may often be called upon to defend peace and liberty and , most importantly, justice.




The concept of jihâd has different meanings and a scholar such as Jalal ad-Dîn as-Suyutî (15th century), while studying its scope, highlighted 80 different dimensions, uses and objectives related to its place in Islamic teachings. Its root ja-ha-da means 'making an effort', 'exerting oneself' (or 'striving', which is an accurate reflection of Islam's root meaning) in order to promote good or to resist wrongdoing, evil or oppression. Every individual trying to resist her or his own negative temptations is engaged in jihâd, and the first time the word is used in the Qur'an (25:52) it refers to an intellectual and spiritual resistance by the means of the Qur'an itself.


In all its dimensions, the essence of jihâd is 'to resist' in the name of justice and dignity. When there is an armed aggression, Muslims have the right to protect themselves and to defend their rights. Here jihâd means qitâl (armed struggle). The use of violence and weapons must be adjusted to the nature of the aggression itself: an armed aggression may justify an armed resistance if there is no other way to come to a peaceful agreement. But the use of violence and weapons must be proportionate and never target innocent people, women, children, the elderly, or even fruit trees as Abû Bakr, the first successor to the Prophet, stated following Mohammed's teachings.


The way to achieve peace


jihâd never means 'holy war' in order 'to impose' or 'to propagate' Islam everywhere. In fact jihâd and qitâl mean exactly the opposite of what is commonly perceived: rather than being the justifying instruments of war, they are the imposed measures to achieve peace by resisting an unjust aggression.


In specific situations – when an unarmed person faces an army and has not means to resist, it may be understandable and justifiable to consider sacrificing their life in attempts to reach the armed soldiers. Here we are not far from a kind of suicide, but it is related to three specific conditions:

  • It must be in a time of declared war
  • There are no other means of resistance available
  • The target is exclusively the enemy and/or its armed soldiers


Today's suicide bombers (and here I am ONLY referring to events such as 9/11 and the bombing of the World Trade Centre, and the 7 July bombings in London, NOT to war zones such as Palestine and elsewhere, where people believe they are dying to defend their faith, homeland, etc.) who are killing innocent people are not only disregarding Islamic teachings about the ethics of war, but they are in fact indulging in anti-Islamic actions.


Alfred Lord Tennyson's poem 'The Charge of the Light Brigade' commemorated an incident that was, more or less, a form of mass suicide, but one that lacked even the element of free will or personal decision, as the men were simply following orders:


Forward, the Light Brigade!
Was there a man dismay'd?
Not tho' the soldier knew
Some one had blunder'd:
Theirs not to make reply,
Theirs not to reason why,
Theirs but to do and die,
Into the Valley of Death
Rode the six hundred.


These men were honoured for the noble sacrifice they made in supporting their homeland and dying to protect it and their countrymen.


Collective self-defence


To move forward from this point, while non-retaliation against a personal injury is frequently a virtue (Qur'an, chapter 41 verse 34), Islam believes that human communities have the right to collective self-defence, since non-resistance to aggression would result in a world dominated by tyrants (see 22:40).


Under some circumstances, Muslim scholars will allow oppressed peoples to rebel against their oppressors. They might, therefore, classify the American War of Independence as a form of jihâd, broadly understood. When Bosnia was faced with ethnic cleansing in 1992, the Muslim authorities there authorised the use of force to defend the country's Muslim minority. The alternative would have been mass murder and mass rape, and therefore jihâd was lawful.


Furthermore, some Muslim scholars may permit a non-defensive 'idealist' war to establish justice and freedom in a neighbouring country. This is analogous, perhaps, to the decision of the United Kingdom to declare war on Germany on 3 September 1939, in response to the German invasion of Poland. There are more recent analogies as well, including very recent instances in which Western powers have used force to overthrow tyrants such as Saddam Hussein.


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