The Command of War in Islam

By Khalida Adeeb
4 August 2000

The Quran introduces itself as a book through which God causes many to stray while he guides others along the right path. (2:26)

Now a question arises as to how a study of the same Quran may show two opposite results at the same time. That is by studying the sane book, some may receive guidance while others might go astray.

There are two ways of studying the Quran. One is with the intention of understanding, with all seriousness, what the Quran has to convey to its reader. The other way is to study it with the aim of moulding it to the reader's own mental make-up. In the former case, the Quran will become a source of guidance, while in the latter it will lead the reader astray. What the latter type of reader does is read his own desires into the Quran. This has been expressed in the Quran in these words:

"There are those who displace words from their places." (4:46)

In other words, the reader takes verses out of their context in order to pervert their meaning to suit his own whims and desires. Treating God's book in this manner is an act of great insolence. One who studies the Quran with this insolent attitude can never receive guidance from it.

Now let us take the instance of jehad to explain this point. There are people who wage war against their supposed enemies - for land and wealth and other material interests. And to justify these actions, they cite those Quranic verses which deal with jehad in the sense of qital (armed struggle). But their are clear reasons why their fighting does not fall into the category of jehad fi Sabilillah (in the name of God).

Jehad in the sense of an armed struggle (qital), is always subject to the Quranic condition of its being carried out in the path of God (jehad fi sabilillah). In Islam, fighting for land or wealth is totally unlawful. Therefore, only that war can be termed jehad which takes place solely for God's cause. besides the Quranic verses there are a number of verses in the book of Hadith that if one is fighting for material gain, his act will not be counted as jehad in the eyes of God.

Another most important point is that jehad, in the sense of doing battle, far from being an offensive war is a defensive war. The Quran is very specific about this. There is a verse in the Quran which clearly states that fighting is permitted only for those who are attacked. That is, the aggression is unilateral. Muslims having committed no act of aggression to provoke any attack. These are the words of the Quran:

"To those against whom war is made, permission is given (to fight) because they are wronged." (22:39)

In this verse (wrong) does not mean atrocities and injustice in the general sense. It refers only to aggression. That is, when war has been waged by the aggressors, then permission to fight in self defence is given to the believers (Abdullah Yusuf Ali).

Another extremely important teaching of Islam is avoidance of conflict. The Quran has therefore commanded the believers to adopt the policy of avoidance to the fullest possible extent. (7:199). All precautionary measures must be taken to keep any confrontation from taking place. We find many examples of this in the life of the prophet, despite the maximum provocation of the enemy, the Prophet never initiated any hostility.

Certain verses in the Quran do, however, convey the command to do battle (qital) (22:39). Here are the special circumstances, which justify military engagement as we learn from the Quran.

In this verse, fitna signifies the coercive political system which had gone to extremes in religious persecution. In ancient times this system, under the patronage of the Roman and Persian empires, prevailed all over the world. This absolutism had closed all doors to progress: both spiritual and material, by imposing a strict curb on freedom of thought. Without this kind of absolute imperialism being brought to an end, freedom of thought could never have been achieved. These two empires held sway over a major part of the inhabited world of the time. Under imperial rule no one had the right to think independently. This is why after such a long period of intellectual suppression, no real beginning could be made on scientific enquiry. The coercive system had reached the point of brutal suppression. People were severely persecuted, even beheaded, if their views ran counter to the official tenets of imperialism.

The Quran refers thus to the religious oppression of ancient times :

"Cursed be the people of the trench, who lighted the consuming fire and who sat around it watching the believers whom they were torturing. And they had nothing against them, save that they believed in God, the Mighty, the Praiseworthy." (85:4-5)

The human conditions of those days is similarly depicted in a Makkan tradition narrated by Khabbab ibn al Arat: We claimed to the prophet at that time: when he was resting in the shade of the Kabah wall. We said to him: "Don't you pray for us to God?" The prophet replied: "Those who went before you faced such unbearable trials (due to their faith in a religion other than that of the state). One of them would be brought for trial, a pit would be dug for him, then he would be buried in it in a standing posture, with his head above the edge of the pit. Then a saw would be passed through his head until it split into two parts. Yet even such severe trials did not cause him to waver from his faith. People were scraped with iron combs until their skin came off and the bones of their bodies were exposed. Yet these acts of persecution did not deter them from adhering to their faith. Certainly God's will shall prevail (that is, the age of religious freedom will certainly come) when a traveler will journey from Saana (Yemen) to Hadhramawt, (that is, from one region to another), without fearing anyone save God. And he will fear no wolf for his sheep. Yet you are in a hurry." (Sahib Bukhari, kitab al manaquib, Chapter, Alamat an Nubuwah fi al Islam).

With this state of affairs prevailing all over the world, God commanded the believers to destroy this coercive system in order to usher in freedom. so that all doors to spiritual and material progress might be opened to man.

The mission was undertaken and bought to a successful conclusion at the internal level within Arabia during the life of the prophet. Later during the pious caliphate, the Sassanid and Byzantine empires were dismantled with special divine succour. Consequently, intellectual oppression at the international level was replaced by intellectual freedom.

Religious coercion through persecution was totally against the Creation Plan of God. God created this world for the purpose of putting mankind to the test. For this purposed to be fulfilled, everyone in the world had to enjoy full freedom of speech and action. If people were divested of their freedom the very purpose of the test would be defeated. Therefore God granted special help to the believers, so that they might put an end to a system which had suppressed the freedom essential to the divine test in this world.

In this connection, those traditions are worth noting which are enshrined in Sahih al-Bukhari, after the fourth Caliph, Ali ibn Abi Talib, political conflict ensued between Abdullah ibn Zubayr and the Ummayyads, Abdullah bn Umar one of the senior most companions of the prophet, held himself aloof from the battle. People asked him, what prevented from joining the battle, they said: "has not God enjoined us to fight till persecution (fitna) ceased?" Abdullah ibn Umar replied that 'fitna' as mentioned in the Quran, did not refer to political infighting, but rather to the religious coercive system, that had already been bought to an end by them. These are his wordings :" We fought till fitna ceased. Religion became only for god, and now you want to fight so that fitna may return, and religion will no longer be for God."

From this we learn that the war against fitna was a war of limited duration, not meant to be engaged in beyond the point of its specific purpose being served.

Invoking the Quranic exhortation to do battle against fitna in order to validate acts of war which had quite other aims is highly improper. This verse could be cited only if the same state of affairs as existed at the time of its revelation were to prevail once again.

One point must be made clear here: all rites of worship have certain conditions for their proper performance. For example if we say our prayers without ablution or in the opposite direction to the Kaba, they will not be acceptable to God. The same is the case with jehad. One of these conditions is that jehad (in the sense of fighting) should be a state affair. That is, it is not the prerogative of individuals. Islam does not give them the right to do wage war in the name of jehad. They can perform peaceful jehad, that struggling to the utmost in the cause of God. This may involve social work, educating people, striving for their uplift, calling people to the path of God, etc. This jehad has been called by the Prophet of Islam the greater jehad.

Thus the right to declare war, or jehad bis saif, is vested only in an established government. However to the teachings of Islam, even a government is not permitted to wage guerilla warfare. The state has to wage jehad openly, and not by proxy.

Then another condition set for jehad is that the fighting must yield positive results. Otherwise all attempts should be made to avert war. We find a number of instances of such avoidance in the life of the prophet of Islam. For, if war results only in bloodshed and the destruction of the economy, it is fasad and not jehad. The Quran describes those who engage in such negative action having the "aim everywhere to spread mischief through the earth and destroy crops and progeny." And it adds, "Allah loves not mischief." (2:205)

The condition has assumed great importance in today's context. For, the armed jehad in the past was done by the sword and confined to the battlefield. The rest of the world was not affected by it. Now with the technology of modern warfare, it is impossible to confine the effects of war to the battlefield. Any armed jehad today will cause widespread destruction with innocent people being killed on a large scale, and the economy destroyed. In such a case the option of jehad is that of committing suicide, Islam will never allow individuals or nations to take such an action.

There are those who hold the view that jehad has to be waged to establish an Islamic world order. At no place in the Quran and Hadith do we find such teachings which justify this kind of jehad. Anyone who expresses such an opinion is simply giving vent to his own personal view, which has no basis in the Quran or Hadith.

There are again others who advocate all those countries formerly under Muslim rule, being taken back from the present rulers by waging jehad. This is an absurd notion. Islam being a religion of common sense, it could never give such a pointless command.

According to the Quran political power is no one's monopoly. No individual can be in a position of dominance forever. That is the law of nature, which no one is powerful to alter. The Quran states : "We alternate these vicissitudes (victory/defeat) among mankind so that Allah may know the true believers." (3:140)

Another verse tells us that power on this earth does not belong to any individual or group. It is the prerogative of god alone. He bestows it as he wills. He takes it away from one to give it to another. Political power serves as a means of testing the individual. And according to the scheme of god, it is given to people by turns for this purpose :

"You bestow sovereignty on whom You will, and take it away from whom you please" (3:26)