How violence affects human life? Under what circumstances Islam tolerates violence? When does Islam allow violence to shape into an armed struggle and in this situation what are the Islamic ethics of war? When does violence become terrorism? Does Islam allow terrorism in any situation? This essay analyzes these and similar questions. However, it is not possible to deal with any one of the above questions in a detailed academic manner as that will need volumes. The main reason for discussing this topic is the current environment. Muslims are the target of violence and terrorism in many places and in many other places Muslim themselves are using violence and terrorism. Is it permissible for Muslims to engage in such activities? Is there any benefit of using such means? Can Muslim prevent violence against them by counter violence?
The American and British aggressions globally, the Hindutva aggressions in India, and anti-Muslim environment elsewhere in the world have disturbed Muslims everywhere. They have become concerned about future course of events. Under these circumstances what steps should be taken to better the fate of Muslims as well as that of the humanity in general. This essay essentially answers this question.
Ethics and violence
In essence violence is an unethical act. In a civilized world that values ethical principles violence is used to punish criminals in order to prevent them from doing such acts again and also to eliminate crime. Violence may also be permissible to defend one self from other’s violence. Except these situations, violence is not allowed otherwise. One may use dialogue, persuasion, communication, and information to achieve an objective but not violence. There is no place for violence in achieving religious objectives because violence is an instrument of coercion and in Islam:
There is no compulsion and coercion in regard to religion. The right thing has been made distinct from the wrong thing. So whoever rejects taghoot (the anti-God) and believes in God has taken a firm support that never gives way. And God hears everything and knows every thing (Al-Quran- 2:256).
Islam is based on compassion, love, tolerance, gentleness, and forgiveness. Violence, destruction, and cruelty are against its nature. God says:
O Prophet! Adopt the way of leniency and forbearance; enjoin what is good and avoid useless discussion with the ignorant people (Al-Quran-7:199).
Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, instructed to use gentle ways and told that harshness and violence do not help in achieving things. Another saying narrated by Ayesha (wife of the Prophet) says that the Prophet, peace be upon him, said:
“God is kind, and likes kindness; for kindness, God rewards what He never gives due to violence or through any other means.”
This statement of the Prophet is recorded in the Sahih of Muslim in which it is further reported that the Prophet said to Ayesha: “Be kind and avoid violence and indecency. Kindness makes a situation best and unkindness makes it worst.”
This is why Islam prohibits offensive violence and discourages violence even as a defensive means. The Qur’an says:
And O Prophet! Goodness and evil are not equal. Counter evil with what is best. You will see that he, with whom you had enmity, has become your closest friend. But none can attain to this quality except those who endure with patience, and those who are people of great good fortune (Al-Quran- 41:34-35)
There is no denial that violence has a place in religion, for example to defend one-self or to punish a criminal. However, there should be an effort by Muslims to use violence to the least and present the real picture of Islam to the people, the Islam that consists of love, kindness, and forgiveness. That is why the Qur’an has presented such examples too where violence could have been used but it was not used.
And tell them accurately the story of the two sons of Adam. When the two offered their sacrifices, the offering of the one was accepted but that of the other was not accepted [by God]. The later said, “I will kill you.” The other answered, “Allah accepts the offerings of the pious people only. Even if you stretch your hand to kill me, I shall not lift my hand to kill you, for I fear Allah, the Lord of the universe; I would rather prefer that you should bear the burden of my sin as well as your own sin, and become a dweller of Hell; this is the just retribution of the inequity of the aggressors.” Even after this his evil soul prompted him to slay his brother without the slightest compassion; so he killed him and became one of the losers. Then God sent a raven that began to scratch the ground to show him how he might hide the corpse of his brother. Seeing this, he cried, “Woe to me! I have not been able to do even as this raven has done and so devised a plan of hiding the corpse of brother.” After this he became very remorseful of what he had done.
That was the way We [God] prescribed this for the children of Israel: “He who killed any person, unless it be a person guilty of manslaughter or of spreading chaos in the land, should be looked as though he had slain all humankind, and he who saved one life should be regarded as though he has saved the lives of all humankind.” But the majority of them went on committing excesses in the land even after Our messengers came to them one after the other with clear directions (Al-Quran-5:27-32)
These verses state that the son of Adam did not use violence even to defend himself. The verses also point to the condition that justifies taking a human life. It clearly states that killing people who are not guilty of murder or creating chaos in a land is the gravest crime. These verses are followed by those describing the severe punishment for people who create chaos on earth, violate rule of law, and fight against God and His prophet.
Permission to kill
It should be clear that violence that results in the loss of human life is permitted only in very specific situations. Let us now look back at the Muslims living in Makkah along with the Prophet, peace be upon him. As long as Muslims lived in Makkah, they were not permitted to use violence to kill even though they were constantly subjected to violence. Some times this violence was very inhuman and caused the loss of human lives such as in the case of Somayyah who was killed as a result of torture by the non-believers. One might think that in the beginning Muslims were very small in number and quite weak. But even around the sixth year after the prophecy of Muhammad, peace be upon him, when many influential and powerful persons, such as Umer al Farooq and Hamzah bin Abdul Muttalib had embraced Islam and were seeking permission to deal with force against the tyranny of the non-believers in Makkah, Muslims were not allowed to use violence. Instead they were asked to migrate to Ethiopia and thus more than 100 Muslims migrated to Ethiopia.1
Muslims were allowed to use violence after they were established in Medinah under the rule of Prophet Muhammad. When the enemy targeted Muslims, attacked their land, and some Muslims who still remained in Makkah were tortured, then God permitted them to use force in these words:
Permission (to fight) has been granted to those against whom war has been waged, because they have been treated unjustly, and God is certainly able to help them. These are the people who have been expelled unjustly from their homes only for the reason that they said, “Our Lord is Allah.” (Al-Quran-22:39)
And fight in the way of God against those who fight against you, and do commit aggression for God does not like the aggressors. (Al-Quran-2:190)
This war that Muslims were permitted to fight was not an offensive war to occupy other people’s land; this was a war to defend Muslims and to prevent such attacks in the future. The aggressors were not only attacking Muslims in Madinah but they were targeting Muslims elsewhere too and forcing people not to accept Islam. Thus the purpose of fighting a war was to end ‘aggression’ and to make the obedience of God possible for every one who desires so:
And keep on fighting against them [the attackers of Muslims] till there is no more tribulation2 and God’s way is established then if they desist from it, there should be no more hostility except against those who had been guilty of cruelty and brutality (Al-Quran-2:193)
Why should you, then, not fight in the way of Allah for the sake of those helpless men, women, and children who, being weak, have been oppressed, and are crying out, “Our Lord, deliver us from this habitation whose inhabitants are unjust oppressors, and raise a protector for us by Your Grace and a helper from Yourself (Al-Quran-4:75).
Qur’an has made it clear that after creating human beings and giving them life and death, God has put them in a test to see who acts on good and who does evil.
He Who created life and death so that He can try you (humans) and see which of you is best in deed. He is All-Mighty as well as All-Forgiving (Al-Quran-67:2)
This environment that fulfills God’s purpose of human creation is disturbed by tyranny and aggression because some people forcefully try to prevent others from choosing a way of life. Islamic jihad, on the one hand, is to defend Muslim’s life and property, and on the other, it is also to liberate oppressed people from the tyranny and aggression of oppressors. Thus one major objective of Islamic jihad is to restore human freedom and their right to choose.
Use of violence as means to punish for crimes, or to defend Islam and Muslims, or to regain human freedom and right to choose is permitted only to the extent that it is necessary. Else, it becomes a tyranny and aggression itself, which is strictly forbidden. Use of violence for any other purpose is not permitted by Islam, in particular the violence that results in destruction of human life.
O Prophet, say to them, “Come, I will recite the limits that your Lord has set for you.” He has enjoined that you should not set up anything as a partner with Him, and you should treat your parents kindly, and you should not kill your children for fear of poverty for We provide sustenance for you and will provide sustenance for them also, and you should not go near indecent things whether they be open or hidden., and you should not kill any living being whom Allah has forbidden to kill except for a just cause. These are the things that He has enjoined on you so that you may use your common sense (6:151)
Do not kill any soul whose killing has been forbidden by God, except with justice; and if one is killed unjustly, We have granted the right of retribution to his guardian. So he should not transgress the limits in retaliation, for he shall be helped (17:33).
The last of the above quoted verse from the Qur’an allows violence to repel violence, but the Qur’an has not made violence as the only course nor does it give people the right to take the law in their own hands. It is evident from the laws concerning capital murder as well as from the above verse of Chapter 17 that even for murder one cannot take the law into his/her own hands. Instead, it would be the responsibility of the state to ensure that justice is done. This is the general policy of Islam, it does not encourage violence in response to violence. Islam encourages taking such actions that eliminate violence altogether in future and teaches forgiveness instead of revenge_:
The recompense for evil is a like evil, then whoever forgives and seeks reconciliation, his reward is with God. God does not like the wrongdoers. And those who avenge themselves after they have been wronged, cannot be blamed, for those should be blamed who oppress others and commit excesses in the land without any right. For such people there is a painful torment. However, the one who is patient and forgiving, these indeed are the works of great courage and resolution (Al-Quran-42: 40-43)
One must also recall the story of the good son of Adam as narrated in the second chapter of the Qur’an (2:28-32) and which has been discussed earlier. While Islam allows the use of violence in response to aggression and tyranny, it reminds people that for the fulfillment of God’s mission it may be advisable to adopt a course other than resorting to violence. This point is emphasized in both Chapter 2 (28-32) and Chapter 42 (40-43). The discussion should not be limited to whether Islam permits violence to quell violence, it should be broadly concerned with whether the mission of God and the purpose of human life can be better achieved by using violent means or by avoiding it as much as possible. Chapter 42 (Al-Shura’) was revealed in Makkah after Hamzah had already become Muslim and before Umer accepted Islam. Muslims at that time were suffering from extreme form of violence and aggression but they were not allowed by God to use violence in return. They were only allowed to resort to violence when they had established their state in Madinah. This was done to ensure that use of violence would be within the limits prescribed by Islam and within the Islamic ethical parameters.
1 First, a small number of Muslims migrated to Ethiopia in the 5th year after the prophethood of Muhammad. They came back to Makkah after hearing the rumour that all the Makkans have embraced Islam. Then, in the 6th year 112 Muslims migrated to Ethiopia and remained there until the Prophet migrated to Madinah after which they gradually joined him.
2 ’fitna’ translated above as tribulation involves persecution of a person because of his or her choice of faith, in this case Islam. The word may have some other connotations in other contexts, but in the above verse it means depriving people of their freedom to choose. The reader may refer to this writer’s paper, ‘Future of the Islamic Movement’, Enconters (Leicester) 4:1,1998,p.97.