Violence and Muslims
By Asghar Ali Engineer
Needless to say violence and Muslims have become
inalienable concepts for media, particularly western media. However, this will
not stand any scrutiny or critical inquiry. The media does not care to
investigate things in depth. It adopts very superficial approach based on
prejudices rather than facts. It is therefore very necessary to put things in
proper perspective through critical inquiry.
Like Muslims, Islam also associated with violence. It is not only the western
scholars and media but also Muslims themselves who are responsible for spreading
such view. They often talk about jihad very loosely without knowing the Qur’anic
position about it or its situational context. So Muslims also have to do lot of
re-thinking about jihad and its true concept. Loose talk about it harms the mage
I have often emphasized that peace is central to Islam and war (harb or qital,
not jihad) incidental but this has been reversed in popular public imagination
and war (harb, qital) has become central and peace incidental. Partly Muslim
(not Islamic) history is responsible for it. Islam, in fact, appeared in the
midst of inter-tribal war in the Arab society and so peace became its main
mission. The Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) went to Madina from Mecca as peace-maker.
The people of Madina belonging to tribes of Khazraj and Aus were tired of
inter-tribal war, which had gone on for forty years. They found ray of hope in
the Prophet of Islam and invited him to Madina to establish peace between the
two tribes. The Prophet gladly accepted the role of peace -maker as it also
allowed him to escape from violence against him and his followers in Mecca.
Prophet did not want his followers to continue to suffer as they had stood
severe persecution for last a decade. He wanted peace for all. Peace and
security were very central for him.
The Prophet was so concerned with peace that he drew up a covenant between
Muslims, Jews and pagans to coexist pursuing their respective religions. The
Qur’an stood for freedom of conscience (2:256) and so the Prophet allowed all in
Madina to follow their respective religions and coexist with each other. The
Qur’an also says that diversity is Allah’s will (5:48). Thus Islam stands for
inter-religious harmony. The main concern of the Qur’an is truth (Haq), justice
(‘adl), compassion (rahmah) and wisdom (hikmah).
The Prophet loved peace so much that at Hudaibiyah he
accepted peace even on what others thought as ‘humiliating’ conditions. The
Prophet had gone with the intention of performing Hajj accompanied by 10,000
followers who were armed as he feared attack by the Meccan unbelievers. But when
he was met with resistance by the Meccans he readily agreed to negotiate peace
instead of fighting and shedding blood. The Prophet did not make it a matter of
prestige and returned from Hudaibiyah after negotiating peace without performing
This even clearly shows how central peace was for the Prophet. He silently
tolerated persecution for years and migrated to Madina when it became
unbearable. Even when he entered Mecca finally triumphant he pardoned all his
worst enemies including Hindah who had chewed his uncle Hamza’s liver after
killing him in the battle of Badr. Qisas (retaliation) was the well -established
practice of Arabs. But the Prophet transcended that Arab social practices so as
to establish a society based on higher spirituality and morality. He set an
example before Arabs to pardon the enemy rather than seek revenge. Retaliation
may satisfy our raw emotions but pardoning results in inner cleansing and
It is true that the Qur’an, in one of its verses says there is life in
retaliation (al-Hayat fi’al qisas) but it refers to existing Arab social reality
rather than asking Muslims to practice retaliation. Allah desires Muslims to
transcend such practices and desist from retaliation as Allah is Ghafur al-Rahim
i.e. a pardoner and compassionate and a true worshipper of Allah must also
develop these qualities in himself/herself.
One has to properly understand the Qur’anic methodology and comprehend its
exhortations on different levels. First the Qur’an refers to existing realities
and then requires believers to transcend the given situation and accept higher
morality. The Qur’an adopts first a practical approach and then wants its
followers to try to establish what is ideal and desirable. It adopts same
approach as regards war. War may become necessary but is certainly not
desirable. One should transcend war and establish peace.
Some Muslims refer to certain verses, which permit war and ignore the Qur’anic
emphasis on ideal of peace. Even paradise according to the Qur’an is place of
peace and security as the Quran says enter it (the Paradise be salamin aaminin
i.e. in peace and security 15:46). Thus the earth can become paradise only when
there is peace ad security for all. It will become hell if there is violence and
insecurity. Thus the Qur’an clearly aims at higher level of existence and not at
animal level of revenge and retaliation.
In Qur’anic text one finds this tension between what is given and what is
desirable. Without understanding this tension one cannot begin to understand the
true spirit of Qur’an. The Muslim youth who are lured by powerful vested
interests to declare “jihad” and court martyrdom are totally unaware of the
higher level of Qur'anic teachings. In all situations one cannot simply talk of
courting martyrdom. It could be done after exhausting all other alternatives and
with minimum use of violence, even where very necessary.
But what we witness is abhorrent use of indiscriminate violence killing scores
of innocent people. In fact violence is being used to terrorize rather than
fighting for justice. Also, who can decide whether all other avenues to solve
the matter have been exhausted? Not a self appointed group but concerned people
at large through given democratic institutions. However, various jihadi outfits
have become self -appointed guardians of whole community and anyone who opposes
them is eliminated. They readily kill for personal revenge or motives, totally
ignoring Qur’anic morality.
Here I would like to give one example. When Ali, the son- in -law of the Prophet
defeated an Arab wrestler in a duel in the battle he was about to behead him and
the wrestler spat upon him. Ali, instead of beheading him, got off his chest and
let him go. He was very surprised as he thought that since he spat upon Ali, he
will kill him with more brutality. He asked Ali why did he get off his body
instead of killing him greater severity? Ali coolly replied if he had killed him
after he spat upon him it would have been for personal revenge rather than for
the sake of Allah.
Thus it will be seen that Islam, even in the situation of war, does not give up
higher morality. Any war or killing for personal revenge or motive is totally
unacceptable. One also has to go into ideological as well as empirical causes of
violence. Ideologically speaking, Islam, as pointed out above, does not
reconcile with violence. It is therefore necessary go into empirical causes of
violence. Only where it is ideological, one can relate it to Islam or Qur’an but
there it is empirical, one cannot hitch it to Islamic wagon.
In most cases one will find that violence in Muslim society is empirically
related. One can well argue how can one convincingly distinguish between
ideological and empirical as people often invoke ideology to cover up their
motives. It is very valid objection and it is this invocation of ideological for
extra-ideological motives that causes all the confusion. The only answer to this
is rigorously critical examination of use of violence. There is bound to be a
grey area and there can be differences about defining this grey area. But
nevertheless some acceptable criteria can be laid down. There is no escape from
grey areas in such matters.
Also, violence is more often related to political situation rather than to
religious teachings. Violence is thought to be necessary in certain situations:
where there is complete breakdown of law and order for whatever reason and in an
authoritarian society where any dissent is not permissible at all. In early
Muslim society anarchy broke out after murder of the third Caliph Uthman and it
took proportion of civil war. More than 70,000 people were killed.
Thus Muslims fought against Muslims and some battles which were part of power
struggle were fought. The battle of Camel and battle of Siffin were fought among
Muslims themselves and had nothing to do with ideological reasons. In these
battles important companions of the Prophet (PBUH) were involved on both the
sides of battle lines. Such battles of interest also contributed to the
impression that Islam and violence are two sides of a coin.
Thus one must distinguish between what are religious teachings and what are
historical developments. What happened in history cannot be ascribed to religion
or in other words religion cannot be held responsible for historical
developments. But even scholars of ten confuse between the two. It is also
necessary to read religious text in proper context. Normally no religion ever
prescribes violence; it stresses peace. So is with Islam. The core teaching of
Islam is peace, not violence. However, violence is prescribed only in certain
situation for defence and Qur’an strictly prohibits violence for aggressive
It is true that certain groups like Al-Qaida are using violence and invoke the
concept of jihad and martyrdom for the purpose. It is highly misleading, to say
the least. Young Muslims, often unemployed and without any thorough Islamic
background can be easily induced in the name of Islam, jihad and martyrdom to
kill and to die. Those who induce them to do so have their own motives.
Jihad, as already pointed out, is related more to spreading good and fighting
evil (read peace for good i.e. ma’ruf and evil for violence and injustice i.e.
nahi’) and not fighting with weapons. Jihad has been grossly misunderstood in
Islamic society and ignorance about real meaning of jihad is used by powerful
vested interests. In the past also many monarchs waged territorial wars and
invoked the concept of jihad to motivate their soldiers to fight.
Similarly the concept of martyrdom has equally been grossly misused. In fact
jihad and martyrdom are integrally related in popular Islam and it receives
re-enforcement from the ulama. In fact the Qur’an does not encourage giving up
ones life without a serious purpose. The Qur’an, on the contrary warns believers
not to throw themselves in tahlukat (to perish needlessly). Thus the Qur’an
says, “ and cast not yourselves to perdition with your own hands and do good (to
others). Surely Allah loves the doers of good. (2:195)
Thus the concept of martyrdom must be read in conjunction with this verse. Often
perishing needlessly is glorified as martyrdom i.e. what is in fact tahlukat is
taken as shahadat. There is great difference between shahadat (martyrdom) and
tahlukat (perishing). The above verse also talks of doing good to others
(ahsinu). If suicide bombing is examined in the light of this verse – not to
thrown oneself into perdition on one hand, and to do good to others, on the
other, it (suicide bombing) appears to be contrary to the Qur’anic teachings.
A suicide bomber is doubly guilty according to this Qur’anic verse: he throws
himself/herself into perdition and kills others with him/her. So he/she kills
himself and kills others whereas the Qur’anic verse prescribes doing good to
others. Here one is killing innocent people instead of doing good to them. In
suicide bombing which is today an important means of killing in ongoing
terrorism, only innocent people are killed including women, children and old,
something strictly prohibited by the rules of jihad prescribed by the Shari’ah
law.It is surprising that many ‘ulama justify suicide bombing as part of jihad
and describe those killed by becoming suicide bomber as ‘martyrs’. It is nothing
but their emotional response to what USA and Israel are doing rather than the
Qur’anic teachings. Through such emotional response they bring bad name to Islam
and Muslims as then Islam is equated with violence and fanaticism.
Also, we should not mechanically transplant 7th century Arabic situation to
contemporary situation. Islam and Muslims were faced with enemies from their own
society and tribes. Muslims also belonged to the tribe of Quraysh and Kafirs
(unbelievers) too belonged to that tribe. They were even blood-related and did
not belong to enemy nations. The Jews were also part of Medinan society and with
whom the Prophet (PBUH) had entered into a covenant giving them full freedom to
practice their faith and in return help Muslims defend Medina in the event of
attack from outside (i.e. Mecca).
The unbelievers of Mecca attacked Muslims of Medina and hence the Qur’an urged
upon them to defend and court martyrdom in the battle -field (it never included
killing civilians who were not in the battle field). There is no precedent in
early Islamic history of the time of the Prophet (PBUH) or during the time of
the Caliphs in which innocent civilians were ever targeted as in suicide
Martyrdom was praised as the Muslim community as a whole was in danger through
wars of aggressions launched by Meccan unbelievers. And it was fledgling Muslim
community and whole community was in danger. It was thus highly necessary to
fight for defending the Muslim community as a whole. Today the situation is very
different. Muslims are spread all over the world and are divided into separate
nations and communities. Those who are courting ‘martyrdom’ are not saving even
few; let alone, entire Muslim community. In many cases they are killing Muslims
Thus it is difficult to call suicide bombers as martyrs at all. The Qur’anic
concepts must be applied on the Qur’anic grounds only. We cannot stretch these
terms on our own conditions as the modern day suicide bombers do or those who
induce them to do so. And no Islamic country as a whole is in mortal danger as
the early Islamic community was. In fact many Muslim countries have conflicting
interests and are far from unanimous on the question of war against any
non-Muslim country like the USA.
In those days the Prophet (PBUH) used to receive guidance from Allah in the form
of revelation (Wahi) as to what to do in certain situation. He guided Muslims
accordingly. Thus he did not take decisions as Mohammad as a man but as a
messenger of Allah. We have this guidance today in the form of Qur’an and Qur’an
is very clear on such issues which it calls muhkamat i.e. clear and firm in
meaning (3:7). We have to obtain guidance strictly on Qur’anic grounds and not
interpret them in arbitrary manner to fulfil our worldly desires. This is how
the Qur’an is unfortunately being interpreted by those who invoke it for waging
‘jihad’ and courting martyrdom’.
Thus we should not only bear the context in which the Qur’anic ahkamat
(injunctions) were revealed but also apply them with great sense of
responsibility so that arbitrary interpretation should not bring harm to anyone.
Today's context should be borne in mind while applying these injunctions. Since
the key Qur’anic values are justice (‘adl), benevolence (ihsan), compassion
(rahmah) and wisdom (hikmah) any interpretation should not injure these values.
Any arbitrary use of violence will greatly harm these values and needless to say
killing innocent people through suicide bombing does injure these values. Such
killings are against justice, benevolence, compassion and wisdom. We should not
mechanically invoke the verses on use of violence in the Qur’an or on concept of
martyrdom to justify what results in gross violation of these values. If one
carefully considers Qur’anic injunctions it permissible to use violence for
defence but never for revenge and all terrorist killings are either for revenge
or for terrorizing others. A violence, which terrorizes cannot be jihad fi
sabilillah (war in the way of Allah). All terrorist killings are totally in
violation of the Qur’anic spirit.
The young people who are induced to become human bombs are often lured through
the concept of martyrdom – i.e. if they die for the ‘cause of Allah’, they will
go to paradise as mentioned in the Qur’an. This appears to be very attractive
proposition for them and they easily accepted the self-destructive assignment.
As pointed out above such death is destruction (Halakah) rather than martyrdom.
What is martyrdom and how to define it? A martyr is one who dies in a just war,
a war which is fought in defence of human lives and in defence of deen of Allah.
All the wars fought during the Prophet’s time were the wars fought for these
purposes and it is the Messenger of Allah (PBUH) who himself decided to fight
these wars in consultation with his important companions. As far as these wars
or battles were concerned neither there was any trace of personal revenge or
anger or destruction of any innocent life. Only the combatants were killed.
Also, such wars were not motivated by any political considerations. They were
motivated only by defence of deen (religion) and defence of values Islam stood
Thus it is necessary to define the concept of martyrdom rigorously. All violent
deaths or deaths courted in any attack cannot be termed as martyrdom. The
Muslims in those days were highly oppressed and defenseless community. In Mecca
they silently bore all conceivable persecution. When the Prophet (PBUH) migrated
to Madina along with his companions who slowly joined him there, were not left
in peace. The Meccan leaders of unbelievers attacked them and it was in those
circumstances that the Prophet (PBUH) took decision to defend innocent lives and
the Qur’an described those killed in these battles as shuhadah (Martyrs) and
observed that “And speak not of those who are slain in Allah’s way as dead. Nay,
(they are) alive, but you perceive not.” (2:154)
Thus those who die in Allah’s way never die but are ever alive. Their bodies die
but their spirits remain ever alive. A suicide bomber perceives he is dying for
a cause but even if it is true he is killing innocent people who are
non-combatant and are not responsible for persecution or exploitation. In many
cases those killed are themselves victims of the system rather than running the
system. Those who order these young men to become suicide bombers themselves are
not struggling for a cause but responding to political games. Islam stresses Haq
and sabr i.e. truth and patience (as well as persistence) and only those who die
for these are entitled to be called martyr.
Seen in this light suicide bomber may not be entitled to be called a martyr. It
is the prime duty of every Muslim to see that no innocent life is harmed and
what can be achieved through peace (Salam) should never be sought to be achieved
through war. War should be the last weapon of a Mu`min (a true believer) and
what can be achieved through peaceful struggle should never be achieved through
violent means. A martyr is one who dies rather than kills.