A common falsehood about Islam that continues to be promoted is that Islam exhorts its followers to be violent against non-Muslims. There are many prominent voices in the West that are part of a rising cacophony of vicious criticism of the Qur'an. One can read and hear a whole range of negative opinions about this issue in the media. Few have taken an in depth look at the issue. What does the Qur'an actually say about violence against non-Muslims? Does it say that it is the religious duty of Muslims to kill infidels? But first some basic principles about reading and understanding the Qur'an. After all, studying the Qur'an is not exactly like reading Harry Potter. Like any other scripture there are rules that may be followed for a proper understanding of the text.
Muslim scholars suggest that those who read the Qur'an should keep at a minimum the following principles in mind. First, the reader should have an awareness of the inner coherence in the Qur'an. As the verses are connected to each other, the reader should study at the least, the preceding and following verses for a sense of the immediate context. Also the reader should look at all of the verses that deal with the same subject in the book. These are frequently scattered all over the scripture. The indices provided in many of the exegeses of the Qur'an as well as the books of concordance allow the reader to get this information relatively easily. Often there is information available about the occasion of revelation, the historical context, of a particular verse. This requires at least a cursory knowledge of prophet Muhammad's life. As Professor Fazlur Rahman of the University of Chicago would frequently point out, the Qur'an, in part at least, may be looked upon as a running commentary on the mission of Prophet Muhammad . Finally Qur'anic scholars advise us to analyze the way Prophet implemented a particular directive in a verse of the Qur'an in his own life and ministry. For all Muslims Prophet Muhammad was the ultimate exemplar of the Qur'an and its living embodiment.
Let us examine the verses in question with these exegetical principles in mind. One of the verses says "put down the polytheists wherever you find them, and capture them and beleaguer them and lie in wait for them at every ambush" (Qur'an 9:5). The immediate context, as Muhammad Asad (The Message Of The Qur'an) points out, is that of a "war in progress" and not a general directive. It was an attempt to motivate Muslims in self-defense.
Muslims were given permission to defend themselves around the time of Prophet Muhammad's migration from Makkah, where he grew up, to the city of Madinah where he spent the rest of his life. This occurred in the 13th year of his 23-year mission. The danger to Muslims in Makkah at this time was extreme and there was a real possibility of their total eradication. They were permitted to fight back in self-defense against those who violently oppressed them. "Permission is given (to fight) those who have taken up arms against you wrongfully. And verily God (Allah) is well able to give you succor. To those who have been driven forth from their homes for no reason than this that say 'Our Lord is God." Qur'an goes on to add, "Hath not God repelled some men by others, cloisters and churches and synagogues and mosques, wherein the name of God is ever mentioned, would assuredly have been pulled down." (Qur'an 22: 39-42)
On another occasion Qur'an says, "Fight in the cause of God those who fight you, but don't transgress limits; for God loves not the transgressor." The verse goes on to say "And fight them on until there is no more oppression, and there prevail justice and faith in God; but if they cease let there be no hostility except to those who practice oppression." (Qur'an 2: 190-193)
Muslim scholars are of the opinion that war is permitted in self defense, when other nations have attacked an Islamic state, or if another state is oppressing a section of its own people. When Muslims were to fight a war they had to maintain great discipline, avoiding injury to the innocent and use only the minimum force needed. Striking a blow in anger, even in battle, was prohibited. The prisoners of war were to be treated in a humane fashion. However, this is only a part of Jihad that Muslims are allowed to practice. A greater Jihad is struggle against one's own inner self.
The word Jihad comes from the root Arabic word "Jahd," which means to struggle or to strive. It is understood by piety minded Muslims as a positive, noble and laudatory term. That is how most apply it in their personal, social, political and military lives. The history of the Muslim rulers, on the other hand, gives us examples of those who attempted to sanctify their wars of personal aggrandizement as wars for a noble cause by applying the label Jihad to them. A few even named their war departments as the departments of Jihad. This kind of behavior may be likened to a politician's attempt to wrap him in the flag. Such exploitation of the term should not be allowed to corrupt the original or the commonly understood meaning of the word, which is to strive for the highest possible goals, struggle against injustice and practice self denial and self control to achieve the moral purity to which all piety minded people aspire.
The "holy war" concept, for which many non-Muslims use the word Jihad, is foreign to Islam. Rather, it comes from a concept first used to justify the Crusades by the Christian Church during the middle Ages. The concept of "holy war" may even go back to the time when the emperor Constantine the Great allegedly saw a vision in the sky with the inscription on the cross, "in hoc signo vinces" (in this sign you will be the victor). The Arabic term, as has been pointed out by scholars, for "the holy war" would be al-harab al-muqaddas, which neither appears in the Qur'an or the sayings of the Prophet Muhammad (Hadith). Prophet Muhammad's wars were defensive wars against groups who sought to eradicate Islam and the Muslims.
It is interesting and useful for social scientists or philologists to study how the meaning and usage of words differ in different communities. Ironically the word "crusade," because of its association with the crusades in the middle ages, should have had a pejorative sense to it and yet the word has acquired an ennobled meaning in the West. This in spite of the fact that the Church itself, along with most historians, acknowledge the injustice of the Crusades and the atrocities done in the name of faith. On the other hand, the word "Jihad" which means for Muslims, striving for the highest possible goal, has acquired the negative connotation of the holy war.
It is clear from even a cursory study of the Qur'an that Islam does not permit, condone or promote violence. Just the opposite, it abhors violence and allows it only in self-defense. A claim to the contrary is no more than bad fiction.
Javeed Akhter is the Executive Director of The International Strategy and Policy Institute.
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