Militant Islam and the Qur'an
Fr. Herman Roborgh
One of the main characteristics of the Islamist approach to Islam is to focus on the time of revelation and on the teachings and practice of the four Rightly-Guided Caliphs as the only source of guidance for the modern world. Leaders such as Sayed Qutb and Taqi al-Din al Nabhani from Palestine (founder of the Hizb ut-Tahrir) consistently rejected democratic processes since they held that democracy does not recognize the sovereignty of God. These thinkers wanted the Muslim world to become "One Nation" (ummah) rather than existing as separate nation-states and they promoted jihad to restore the Caliphate (Q. 2.30) as the central political authority in the Muslim world. The Farahi-Islahi school of thought (on which I based my research at Aligarh Muslim University in India) also understands Islam as a political movement at the time of the Prophet in Mecca and Medina. This school of thought tries to explain the Qur'an in the light of political realities that existed at the time of revelation. Some Islamists, however, also make use of modern political concepts such as the nation-state. For example, after protesting against the formation of the separate State of Pakistan, Abu al-A'la Mawdudi acknowledged the reality of Pakistan and formed a political party (Jamaat-i-Islami).
Islam and Islamism
In a recent book in which he describes his experience of Islamism, Ed Hussain expresses the Islamist tendency to refer back to the time of the Prophet as follows:
Right from the outset, the Prophet was a master politician and devised a strategy to ensure political dominance, first of Arabian tribes and then the entire region. This, Nabhani argued, was the purpose of each and every Muslim: to regain political ascendancy by establishing a powerful Islamic state. The Prophet had established a political party to realize his aim: his own companions. The Hizb was following in his footsteps ... All this, we were convinced, was based on the sira, or the life of the Prophet Mohammed. He had bequeathed a political system for us to implement, a total ideology for global domination: Islam. This ideology would be carried to other parts of the world by means of a jihad, which was the raison d'etre of the army of the future Islamic state. More precisely, our foreign policy was to conquer and convert. If countries refused to convert, then they would pay the Islamic state a tax, known as jizyah, to ensure their safety and protection by the Islamic army.1
Perhaps it is in response to this approach to Islam (or Islamism) that Fr. Paul Stenhouse MSC, remarks:
Islamic literature is full of bellicose terms . . . especially when describing Jihads. It has persisted down to today - with consequences like September 11, 2001, and continuing radical Islamist terror against the much-mocked 'People of the Book', on the grounds of their alleged faithlessness and polytheism. There is an all-out war declared on 'unbelievers,' (Suras 2.216; 8,39; 47,4) and this term includes Christians and Jews (Sura 9.29).2
However, when we examine verses such as those mentioned by this author in the light of their proper historical context, we find that this "all-out war declared on 'unbelievers'" is not directed to the Jews and Christians at all.
Jihad in the Qur'an
Let us begin by looking at verses commonly understood as a call to jihad, namely, 2.190-191:
Fight in the way of God against those who fight you, but transgress not the limits. Truly, God does not love the transgressors (of limits). And slay them wheresoever you find them, and turn them out from where they have turned you out.
Al Tabari says these verses were revealed specifically in relation to fighting the idolaters of Makka, who are referred to in Arabic sources by the technical term mushrikun or mushrikin. The word literally means "those who take a partner unto God", that to say, "polytheists" or "idolaters". This injunction to perform jihad against polytheists does not pertain to either Jews or Christians. Neither Jews nor Christians are ever referred to in the Qur'an by the terms mushrik or mushrikun since they have the status of "People of the Book". As David Dakake, a Muslim scholar from the West, writes:
This call to jihad was revealed in relation to a specific group of people, the idolaters of Makka, and within a specific context, a context of persecution and the driving of Muslims from their homes in Makka because of their religion.3
Furthermore, the particular verse under consideration speaks of "fighting in the way of God" but also of not transgressing the "limits". Al Tabari gives many examples of these limits and they are mentioned in many Hadith collections.
We have seen that none of the verses that pertain to fighting the mushrikun pertain to the Jews or the Christians. However, the Qur'an does speak of Jews and Christians as kafirun (unbelievers), a term whose literal meaning is "those who cover over the truth". In English the term unbelief is another word for atheism but in Arabic "kufr or "covering" does not necessarily refer to lack of faith but to a lack of correct thinking on one or more aspects of faith."4 In fact, Muslims can also be kafirun. Traditional commentaries say that Qur'an 9.49 "refers to those Muslims who refused to respond to the Prophet's call to go on an expedition to Tabuk."5 The Qur'an advocates that jihad be undertaken only with regard to certain people among (min) the kafirun, that is, those unbelievers present within the larger believing Jewish and Christian communities (e.g. Qur'an 9.29; 98.6; 5.78; and 2.105). There is no blanket condemnation of all non-Muslims or even of all People of the Book in these verses (note: Qur'an 3.113-115).
The people among (min) the Jews and Christians that the Muslims had to fight were those among the People of the Book who refused to submit to Islamic political authority, that is, who refused to pay the poll tax (jizya). As Dakake writes:
(Jihad) was not directed against a people simply because they professed a faith other than Islam. The point of the jihad was not to establish a world populated only by Muslims; it was to create a social order in which the freedom to practice the worship of God was guaranteed, for Muslims as well as for the People of the Book.6
The verse mentioned by Fr. Paul Stenhouse in his editorial can only be understood in this context. As verse 47.4 says:
Now when you meet (in war) those who are bent on denying the truth, smite their necks until you overcome them fully, and then tighten their bonds; but thereafter (set them free) either by an act of grace or against ransom, so that the burden of war may be lifted.
In his remarks on this verse, Muhammad Asad comments that this verse refers back to the phrase in verse 1 of the same Surah:
As for those who are bent on denying the truth and on barring (others) from the path of God.
Asad goes on to say that verse 47.4 lays down "the fundamental condition which alone justifies physical warfare: namely, a defence of the Faith and of freedom . . .. In other words, when 'those who are bent on denying the truth' try to deprive the Muslims of their social and political liberty and thus to make it impossible for them to live in accordance with the principles of their faith, a just war (jihad) becomes allowable and, more than that, a duty."7
Moreover, the first jihad in Islam was not martial and had nothing to do with violence. The first jihad is mentioned in Qur'an 25.52:
Hence, do not defer to (the likes and dislikes of) those who deny the truth, but strive hard against them, by means of this (divine writ), with utmost striving.
According to this verse, the Muslims were to strive against the unbelievers by preaching the message of the Qur'an (literally, "strive against them with it"). Moreover, verse 2.256 clearly states that no one can be compelled in any circumstances to accept any religion, even despite the adverse conditions that existed during the siege of the fortress of the Medinan Jewish tribe of Nadir in 625 C.E. when this verse was revealed.8 The verse I am referring to opens with the words:
There shall be no coercion in matters of faith.
The first verses that were revealed relating to military jihad are Qur'an 2.190-191. The same claim is made for verses 22.39-40:
Permission (to fight) is given to those against whom war is being wrongfully waged - and, verily, God has indeed the power to succour them - those who have been driven from their homelands against all right for no other reason than their saying, "Our Sustainer is God!"
For, if God had not enabled people to defend themselves against one another, (all) monasteries and churches and synagogues and mosques - in (all of) which God's name is abundantly extolled - would surely have been destroyed (ere now).
And God will certainly succour him who succours His cause: for, verily, God is most powerful, almighty.
Many early commentaries refer to the fact that jihad is to be understood, in its earliest sense, as a means by which "monasteries and churches and synagogues and mosques" are to be preserved and protected. According to Dakake, "The call to jihad then was not for the destruction of faiths other than Islam; rather, one of its essential aspects was the preservation of places of worship belonging to the monotheistic faiths and protecting them against those polytheists - in this case, the idolaters of Makka - who might endanger them."9
Another verse that speaks of jihad is 9.5:
And so, when the sacred months are over, slay those who ascribe divinity to aught beside God (mushrikin) wherever you may come upon them, and take them captive, and besiege them, and lie in wait for them at every conceivable place.
This verse has nothing to do with the People of the Book since the term mushrikun is used only for the idolatrous Arabs of the Prophet Muhammad's time. Dakake states that, according to tradition,
... the ninth chapter of the Qur'an was revealed after the conquest of Makka by the Muslims, that is to say, at a time when there were no longer any polytheists in the city as a result of conversion to Islam. The mushrikun referred to verse 9.5 are therefore the Arab polytheists/idolaters who remained in other parts of Arabia not yet under Muslim control.
It is, therefore, clear that the verse cannot be used to apply to fighting all polytheists in the modern world or in the West in general. Similarly, other verses such as verse 9.36 ("And fight against those who ascribe divinity to aught beside God") and verse 2.193 ("fight against them until there is no more oppression and all worship is devoted to God alone")10 refer directly to fighting the mushrikun, not to Jews and Christians and certainly not to civilians in general. The sole purpose of all such jihad is to secure freedom for the Muslims to exercise their religion.
Verse 4.75 is an invitation to fight for a specific cause:
And how could you refuse to fight in the cause of God and of the utterly helpless men and women and children who are crying, "O our Sustainer! Lead us forth (to freedom) out of this land whose people are oppressors, and raise for us, out of Thy grace, a protector, and raise for us, out of Thy grace, one who will bring us succour!
This verse has been used to justify open warfare against the West and to inspire Muslims to fight America and her allies who threaten the Muslim lands in particular. According to our traditional commentators however, the reason for the revelation of verse 4.75 was
... the fact that even after the Prophet had made his migration to Medina, there were still some Muslims who remained in Makka although they could not practice their religion, and some Makkans who wished to be Muslims but would not convert out of a fear of their fellow tribesmen. . . Therefore, verse 4.75 was revealed to call the Muslims of Medina to a two-fold jihad: (1) to free their brethren who were left behind in Makka from religious oppression, and (2) to give those Makkans who desired to convert the ability to do so without fear of reprisals from the enemies of Islam.11
This verse cannot be understood as a general invitation to fight oppression in every place and in every circumstance.
The verses of the Qur'an were revealed in a specific historical context and cannot be applied in a general way to all situations without further consideration. When we place the verses of the Qur'an that advocate jihad in their proper historical context, we will notice how the Qur'an expresses acceptance and respect for non-Muslims. In short, the early Islamic community was characterized not by militancy, but primarily by moderation and restraint (cf. Qur'an 2.143 and Qur'an 55.7-8). Hence, the flaws are not "inherent in the Qur'an", as Paul Stenhouse claims in his editorial.12 The mistake is in neglecting to examine the specific historical context in which the verses of the Qur'an were revealed. This is the mistake made by the followers of Islamism and the many militant schools of Islamic jihad operating in the world today.
1. Ed Hussain, The Islamist, London, Penguin Books, 2007, pp. 92-93
2. Fr. Paul Stenhouse MSC, Annals Australasia, 3rd March 2007, p. 3.
3. Islam, Fundamentalism, and the Betrayal of Tradition, essays by Western Muslim Scholars, Edited by Joseph E.B. Lumbard, Indiana, World Wisdom, 200, p. 10.
4. Ibid, p. 11.
6. Ibid, p. 23.
7 Muhammad Asad, The Message of the Qur'an, Bristol, The Book Foundation, 2003, p. 883.
8. Islam, Fundamentalism, and the Betrayal of Tradition, p. 14.
9. Ibid, p. 16.
10. In his editorial, Fr. Stenhouse refers to Q. 8.39, which is identical to Q. 2.193.
11. Islam, Fundamentalism, and the Betrayal of Tradition, pp. 26-27.
12. Annals Australasia, p. 4.