Islam’s View on War and Terrorism: A Survey of the Qur’an and Prophetic Traditions

Perhaps no issue in contemporary politics is the source of greater misunderstanding and caricature than Islam’s view on war and terrorism. The indiscriminate bloodshed wrought on September 11th, the London and Madrid bombings, and the nearly daily suicide bombings that emanate from Pakistan, Iraq, and Afghanistan, have impressed upon the Western psyche a terrifying image of the Islamic faith that is perpetuated with remarkable facility by Islam’s modern antagonists. The Arabic noun jihad, whose lexical meaning is “struggle,” has today entered the Western vernacular with an irredeemably pejorative connotation; to a believing Muslim, however, jihad has long been associated with chivalry, courage, and a military honor that represents a legacy of moral and ethical excellence. As Professor T.J. Winter of Cambridge University observed, “terrorism is to jihad what adultery is to marriage.” As prescribed by the United Nations Charter, Fourth Geneva Convention, and the consensus of modern nation-states, Islam has a rich and comprehensive marital tradition that provides for a theory of just war. Despite an overwhelming Qur’anic emphasis on peace, diplomacy, and clemency, the Islamic tradition, recognizing man’s propensity for material exploitation and self-aggrandizement, does not subscribe to a strictly pacifist worldview. Rather, it provides believing Muslims with a detailed set of ethical principles of military engagement that, as will be shown, mirror modern international law in significant ways. This view of just war is universally espoused not merely by modern nation states, but also finds considerable anchorage in the Christian intellectual tradition. The Catholic Church boasts a highly sophisticated martial law whose origins can be traced to the writings of St. Augustine of Hippo, St. Thomas Aquinas, Francisco de Vitoria, and Hugo Grotius. Indeed, the military component of jihad can be usefully analogized to the Catholic doctrine of just war, which found its most eloquent expression in the writings of Aquinas in the thirteenth century.

Relying on Islam’s primary sources of law and doctrine, the Holy Qur’an and traditions of the Prophet Muhammad (Arabic: “hadith”), classical Muslim jurists extrapolated an organized body rules that may be termed the “laws of war.” The cumulative literature on this subject is vast and highlights the rich diversity of voices that characterized Islam’s internal debate on war and peace. In spite of frequent disagreement among Muslim jurists on the precise contours of the rules of engagement, particularly the circumstances under which war could be entered into (jus ad bellum), basic foundational principles were shared by virtually all medieval scholastics, the most important of which was Islam’s clear and categorical prohibition against the taking, indeed harming, of innocent civilian life (jus in bello). As the Qur’an famously states, “Whosoever killeth a human being for other than manslaughter or corruption in the earth, it shall be as though he had killed all of mankind, and whoso saveth the life of one, it shall be as if he had saved the life of all mankind.” (Qur’an 5:32).

Modern manifestations of terrorism and suicide bombings are invariably the product of aberrant interpretations of the Qur’an and hadith that developed in the post-colonial era. Recognizing the tragic decline of Muslim empires throughout the world, today’s asymmetrical methods of warfare constitute a furtive admission that contemporary Muslim armies are without power to engage their adversaries in a manner that comports with traditional Islamic doctrine and contemporary international law. To justify departures from Islam’s pre-modern stance on the laws of war, vigilante groups have been forced to engage in ahistorical, decontextualized readings of the Qur’an and prophetic traditions to create a pretense of legality for what is emphatically illegal from the standpoint of Islamic law. This is certainly understandable at a rational level, and replicates the “machiavellian” actions undertaken by non-Muslim terrorist groups and state governments that have been equally callous in their disregard for innocent human life. Although Muslims in many parts of the world find themselves the victims of gross depredations and human rights abuses, often at the hands of Western powers, Islam’s legal tradition simply does not lend credence to the subhuman methods employed by Al-Qaeda, Hamas, the Taliban, and other vigilante entities. Indeed, this wholesale rejection of indiscriminate violence is not a question of apologetics, but rather an objective reality rooted in centuries of Islamic law whose fashioners insisted upon an unforgiving attitude towards terrorism.

Before undertaking an examination of Qur’anic verses that pertain to armed conflict, it will be useful to provide the ethical framework to which a Muslim solider must adhere in the context of battle, which has been most clearly articulated in the hadith traditions. The Prophet Muhammad provided succeeding generations of Muslims with clear prohibitions and constraints in their use of force, which are all the more remarkable considering the social milieu in which they were revealed. The quotes that follow are taken from the most authoritative hadith collections of Sahih Bukhari, Sahih Muslim, Sunnan Abu Dawud, Sunnan Al-Tirmidhi, the Musnad of Imam Ahmad Ibn Hanbal, and the celebrated Al-Muwatta of Malik ibn Anas. As noted above, reliable hadith reports, which must undergo a rigorous process of authentication, are second most important source of Islamic law and doctrine; the explicit character of these traditions highlight the unambiguous position espoused by the Prophet of Islam (pbuh) on a matter of the gravest moral import. Before engaging in battle, the Prophet Muhammad instructed his soldiers:

“Do not kill any child, any woman, or any elder or sick person.” (Sunan Abu Dawud)

“Do not practice treachery or mutilation. Do not uproot or burn palms or cut down fruitful trees. Do not slaughter a sheep or a cow or a camel, except for food.” (Al-Muwatta)

“If one fights his brother, [he must] avoid striking the face, for God created him in the image of Adam.” (Sahih Bukhari, Sahih Muslim)

“Do not kill the monks in monasteries, and do not kill those sitting in places of worship. (Musnad Ahmad Ibn Hanbal)

“Do not destroy the villages and towns, do not spoil the cultivated fields and gardens, and do not slaughter the cattle.” (Sahih Bukhari; Sunan Abu Dawud)

“Do not wish for an encounter with the enemy; pray to God to grant you security; but when you [are forced to] encounter them, exercise patience.” (Sahih Muslim)

“No one may punish with fire except the Lord of Fire.” (Sunan Abu Dawud).

“Accustom yourselves to do good if people do good, and to not do wrong even if they commit evil.” (Al-Tirmidhi)

The foregoing prophetic traditions reveal a rather striking irony: by indiscriminately targeting women and children, mutilating human bodies through the use of fire and explosives, hurling corrosive acid in the faces of unsuspecting bystanders, and bombing civilian complexes and places of worship, extremists elements in the Muslim world have effectively contravened every command of the Prophet Muhammad. Should it be argued that the traditions invoked do not represent Islam’s pre-modern position on war and terrorism, or that important traditions have been omitted or sanitized, it will be useful to consider the view of an impartial authority. In his book, “Islam: The Religion and the People, Bernard Lewis, Professor Emeritus at Princeton University and among the most influential Western scholar on Islam in the past half-century writes:

“At no time did the (Muslim) jurist approve of terrorism. Nor indeed is there any evidence of the use of terrorism (in Islamic tradition). Muslims are commanded not to kill women, children, or the aged, not to torture or otherwise ill-treat prisoners, to give fair warning of the opening of hostilities, and to honor agreements…The emergence of the now widespread terrorism practice of suicide bombing is a development of the 20th century. It has no antecedents in Islamic history, and no justification in terms of Islamic theology, law, or tradition. It is a pity that those who practice this form of terrorism are not better acquainted with their own religion, and with the culture that grew up under the auspices of that religion.” (emphasis added)

Furthermore, writing in the Wall Street Journal shortly after September 11th, Lewis states:

“[T]he laws of Jihad categorically preclude wanton and indiscriminate slaughter. The warriors in the holy war are urged not to harm non-combatants, women and children, “unless they attack you first.”….A point on which they insist is the need for a clear declaration of war before beginning hostilities, and for proper warning before resuming hostilities after a truce. What the classical jurists of Islam never remotely considered is the kind of unprovoked, unannounced mass slaughter of uninvolved civil populations that we saw in New York…For this there is no precedent and no authority in Islam. Indeed it is difficult to find precedents even in the rich annals of human wickedness.”

Although Lewis is a widely acknowledged and decided opponent of vigilante terrorism, and even served as a policy advisor to the Bush administration to lend support to the 2003 invasion of Iraq, his understanding of the classical Islamic view on the rules of engagement constitutes an elegant summary of the hadith cited above. As Lewis writes, without equivocation or qualification, “at no time did the [Muslim] jurist approve of terrorism,” for which there is “no justification in terms of Islamic theology, law, or tradition.” Indeed, classical Muslims jurists adopted an unforgiving attitude towards pre-modern terrorism, which often manifested itself in the form of poisoning water sources, abductions, brigandry, rape, and subterfuge. Khaled Abou El Fadl, one of the world’s foremost authorities on Islamic law notes that, without regard for whether the perpetrator (or victim) was Muslim or non-Muslim, Islamic jurists had no reservations in imposing the severest sentences on terrorists, including the punishment of death. Commenting on the supreme rule of the law, one medieval jurist famously remarked, “if political expediency becomes the law, nothing will remain of this religion.”

Turning to the Qu’ran, a Muslim embarking upon a reading of scripture is instructed to interpret Qur’anic injunctions in a comprehensive manner; that is, he must not only condition his reading of a Qur’anic verse in light of other verses, but must also carefully consider the entire body of hadith literature, the contrasting interpretations of early Muslim exegetes, the specific circumstances to which the verse speaks, extenuating circumstances that would justify a departure from a prima facie reading, and evaluate the authenticity of prophetic traditions in light of systemic principles adduced by hadith experts. If a verse is severed from this interpretive context, it will frequently result in absurd readings that undercut the essential meaning of the language under consideration. Modern militant groups have relied on precisely this kind of decontextualized reading to justify their criminality; despite emphatic protestations to the contrary, their justification for terrorism finds no objective basis in Islam’s intellectual and moral tradition. Echoing Bernard Lewis, Professor Fadl writes, “The [classical] Islamic juristic tradition, which is similar to the Jewish rabbinical tradition, has exhibited unmitigated hostility toward terror as a means of political resistancesome Islamists today argue that the only effective way of resisting oppression or occupation is through terrorism and, therefore, it has become a necessary evil. But this type of unprincipled and opportunistic logic is not supported by the rigorous classical heritage.”

Before considering the verse found in Chapter 9 verse 5 of the Qur’an, which is relied on almost exclusively by vigilante terrorist groups to justify suicide bombings and other forms of asymmetrical violence, it will be useful to consider several Qur’anic verses that address questions of war and peace. The verses that follow do not represent an anomalous voice, but speak to the very essence of the Qur’anic message and are repeated, again and again, in varying language:

“Take not life, which God hath made sacred, except by way of justice and law: this He has commanded you that you may understand.” (Qur’an 6:151)

“Nor take life – which God has made sacred – except for just cause. And if anyone is slain wrongfully, we have given his heir authority (to demand justice or to forgive): but let [the heir] not exceed bounds in the matter of taking life; for he is helped (by the Law).” (Qur’an 17:33)

“Fight in the way of God against those who fight against you, but begin not hostilities. Lo! God loveth not aggressors.” (Qur’an 2:190)

“There is no compulsion in religion. The right direction is henceforth distinct from error. And he who rejecteth false deities and believeth in God hath grasped a firm handhold which will never break.” (Qur’an 2:56).

“We ordained therein for [the Children of Israel]: ‘Life for life, eye for eye, nose or nose, ear for ear, tooth for tooth, and wounds equal for equal.’ But if any one remits the retaliation by way of charity, it is an act of atonement for himself.” (Qur’an 5:45)

“If [non-Muslims] withdraw from you and do not war against you and offer you peace, God alloweth you no way to [to war] against them.” (Quran 4:90)

“O you who have believed, do not consume one another’s wealth unjustly but only [in lawful] business by mutual consent. And do not kill yourselves [or one another]. Indeed, God is to you ever Merciful.” (Qur’an 4:29)

“O ye who believe! stand out firmly for justice, as witnesses to God, even against yourselves, or your parents, or your kin, and whether it be (against) the rich or poor: for God is the Best Patron of both. Follow not the lusts (of your hearts), lest ye swerve, and if ye distort (justice) or decline to do justice, verily God is well-acquainted with all that ye do.” (Qur’an 4:135)

Without undertaking an exhaustive interpretation of each verse, the foregoing Qur’anic injunctions emphasize the following: the right to due process before the law, the wrongfulness of extinguishing innocent human life (including one’s own), the command to bear witness to truth and justice even against oneself or one’s kin, the requirement of honoring peace agreements, the prohibition against continuing hostilities once an armistice has been established, and the fact that religion may not be imposed upon an individual by force. Recognizing the profound textual difficulties in justifying terrorism in light of these Qur’anic commandments, modern vigilante group such as Al Qaeda have relied almost entirely on a verse found in Chapter 9, verse 5 of the Qu’ran, which is widely considered the main source of “inspiration” for terrorism in modern Islam:

“But when the forbidden months are past, then fight and slay the Pagans wherever ye find them, an seize them, beleaguer them, and lie in wait for them in every stratagem (of war); but if they repent, and establish regular prayers and practice regular charity, then open the way for them: for God is Oft-forgiving, Most Merciful.”

What, then, is the context of this solitary verse? The verse in question speaks to the early wars between the Meccan polytheists and newly formed Muslim polity. This Qur’anic commandment was revealed to the Muslim community in response to an irreconcilable political rift that erupted when the Meccans violated the terms of a peace treaty. According to the earliest commentaries, the Muslims offered a four month period of repose during which the Meccans were asked to make amends. It was only after this cease-fire proved to be unfruitful that the believers were permitted to engage in battle and fight and resist those who had committed murder, driven Muslims from their homes, extorted property, and indeed, subjected the Prophet Muhammad and his earlier followers to extreme human rights abuses during the first thirteen years of his ministry. Nevertheless, the verse stresses that if hostilities cease and the Meccans’ repent, “a way has been open for them, for God Oft-forgiving, Most Merciful.”

But a crucial point must not be forgotten: despite an allowance to “kill and slay” the adversary, a Muslim was not permitted to abandon the ethical principles that guide a soldier’s conduct. That is, the combatant was required to adhere to the many prohibitions Prophet Muhammad imposed on the exercise of force, the most obvious was the illicitness of harming a non-combatant. To insist that this verse gives Muslims carte blanche to engage in indiscriminate violence would be akin invoking an American military general’s instruction to his forces in Afghanistan “to kill the enemy wherever you find him” and wantonly applying it to any and all Afghan civilians. The absurd and gross character of this misinterpretation hardly merits comment. It is bizarre irony that vigilante terrorist groups today have adopted a less enlightened view of war and peace than classical Islamic jurists writing during the medieval period. Furthermore, the few Qur’anic exhortations that call upon the Muslims to confront their adversaries on the battlefield emphasize the fact that, far from having a lust for war and violence, the early Muslims were extremely reluctant to engage the Meccans militarily and required continual reminders that their duty to honor and protect the lives of their community was a divinely revealed commandment. (Qur’an 2:216-18; 4:74-77; 9:39).

Owing to the remarkable absence of sciptural support for terrorism in the Qur’an and hadith, the verse cited above is the primary edifice upon which vigilante groups have constructed their theory of “holy war.” Notably, from a purely textual basis, the Qur’an compares favorably to other sacred scriptures in its circumspect authorization of military engagement. Consider the following three verses found in the Old Testament in which the God of Israel is purportedly speaking in the first person: “Now therefore kill every male among the little ones, and kill every woman that hath known man by lying with him. But all the women children, that have not known a man by lying with him, keep alive for yourselves.” (Numbers 17:31); “Now go and attack Amalek, and utterly destroy all that they have, and do not spare them. But kill both man and woman, infant and nursing child, ox and sheep, camel and donkey.” (1 Samuel 15:3). “The people of Samaria must bear their guilt, because they have rebelled against their God. They will fall by the sword; their little ones will be dashed to the ground, their pregnant women ripped open.” (Hosea 13:16). Although evangelical elements in the West are quick to point to the “violent” character of the Qur’an, no analogous verse, which explicitly authorizes that the killing of women and children, may be found anywhere in the Qur’an. The purpose in invoking these passages is not to suggest that Jewish or Christian doctrine authorizes indiscriminate violence, but rather to highlight the gross duplicity that often exists among Islam’s modern antagonists who insist upon a jaundiced reading of Islamic scripture. Due to the scarcity of traditions in the New Testament that address the inescapable reality of military conflict, Western scholars have argued that Christian doctrine was heavily influenced by both secular and Muslim thinkers, including Marcus Tullius Cicero and the Spanish polymath, Ibn Rushd. Indeed, Aquinas, undoubtedly the most influential thinker of medieval Christendom, would argue for the “meritorious” character of just war in his Summa Theologica. His position bears a profound resemblance to the view of classical Islamic theorists: “True [Christian] religion looks upon as [just] those wars that are waged not for motives of aggrandizement, or cruelty, but with the object of securing peace, of punishing evil-doers, and of uplifting the good.”

Interpretative difficulties abound even in secular documents that have achieved a nearly sanctified quality in the West. The United States Constitution, a document that represents the culmination of the European Enlightenment and its most formidable intellectual response to centuries of human bondage, religious persecution, and brutal imperial rule, contains a provision in Article 1, Section 2, paragraph 3, that denotes slaves as “three-fifths” of a person. It was only after the passing of the 14th amendment that this provision was abrogated, though it remains in the original text of the document. Once again, to read Qur’an 9:5 outside its context would be the intellectual equivalent of reading this solitary provision without reference to its subsequent amendment. Although no doubt a strikingly banal observation, to impose self-serving interpretations on a text by severing language from its context constitutes a betrayal of the most elementary standards of intellectual integrity. Ironically, it is a habit common to vigilante terrorists and prominent right-wing personalities in the West who have unwittingly entered into an adulterous union.

In sum, the notion that Islam, the Qur’an, or the Prophet Muhammad countenanced terrorism is not only a calumny against a world religion professed by one in five people in the world, but perpetuates a dangerous myth makes honest introspection and political reconciliation all but impossible. In a forthcoming an essay, an effort will be made to understand the underlying motivations for terrorism in the Muslim world and why Islamic doctrine is frequently invoked by vigilante terrorists to define their respective political struggles.

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10 Responses to Islam’s View on War and Terrorism: A Survey of the Qur’an and Prophetic Traditions

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  4. AbdAllah says:

    typo on line 13… Islam has a … marital tradition… I think you meant to put the tea before I…

  5. jaseem says:

    super view

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