War and Peace in the Qur’an

Has Modern Warfare any Place in the Holy Book of Islam?
In Islam, nothing can legitimize the killing of civilians, regardless of the community or religion they belong to. From an Islamic perspective, everything is not fair in war: Qur’an sets very strict rules for battle.
| Nazia Nazar | Issue 146 (Mar - Apr 2022)

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War and Peace in the Qur’an

In This Article

  • Many verses in the Qur’an propose strategies for conflict prevention, ethics for defensive battle, and guidelines for humanitarian interventions
  • Islam sanctions fighting when the opponent violates peace agreements, disrespects the sovereignty of a state by carrying out an aggressive attack, or persecutes a weak and helpless community.
  • The Muslims under Prophet Muhammad (peace be on him) not only ensured the safety of non-combatants but also took special care to protect the environment from the hazards of war.

One of the reasons for widespread Islamophobia is the wrong understanding of the Qur’an, Islam’s Holy Book. There is a general perception that the Qur’an contains references to war and violence, inciting Muslims to take up arms against non-Muslims. Ironically, most people who criticize the Qur’an are those who have not read it. They mislead the ignorant by quoting cherry-picked verses to incite Islamophobic feelings.

Still, it’s worth asking: why does the Qur’an contain references to battles and the battlefield? The answer is simple. War has been a part of human civilization since dawn of humanity. The history of pre-Islamic Arabia also reflects the same reality. It is a well-known fact that the ancient Arab tribal system lacked any central government or political institutions, such as courts or police. As a result, warfare was the only institution for settling scores [1]. The enmity between tribes over trivial issues could exist for decades, resulting in seemingly endless wars. Battlefield atrocities and inhuman war practices were also part of Arab culture before the advent of Islam. It is not an exaggeration to say that fighting was a kind of sport for Arab tribes [2]. Keeping this in mind, many verses in the Qur’an propose strategies for conflict prevention, ethics for defensive battle, and guidelines for humanitarian interventions—and these were revolutionary at the time.

A deep study of the Qur’an reveals that the verses 4:140 and 6:68 relate to conflict prevention in the case of a blasphemous encounter. Verse 140 of Surah Nisa states, “When you hear the Revelations of God being rejected and mocked, no longer sit with them until they engage in some other talk” (4:140). The same theme is discussed in Surah Anam verse 68: “When you meet such as indulge in (blasphemous) talk about Our Revelations, turn away from them until they enter into some other discourse” (6:68).

By commanding Muslims to stay away, the Qur’an suggests a pragmatic strategy for diffusing the situation in order to prevent anger and aggression. However, a general message from the above verses is to control one’s negative emotions and make all efforts to prevent a possible conflict. It is true that the Qur’an sanctions fighting in self-defense, but only as the last resort to survival.

It’s unfair to analyze battle-related Quranic verses without knowing the context of these verses. In the early years of Islam, Prophet Muhammad (peace be on him), his family, and his followers faced deadly opposition from the pagans of Mecca, who prohibited Muslims from practicing their religion. The non-Muslim chieftains tortured the new Muslims beyond the limits of human endurance. They were brutally beaten, dragged with ropes around the neck, and forced to lie down on burning sand in the very hot desert climate. The pagans left no stone unturned in their harassment of the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) [3]. At one point, they hatched an unsuccessful conspiracy to murder him. They also imposed a brutal social and economic boycott on the Prophet and his followers, who were forced to eat tree leaves for months. The cries of the hungry children and suckling babies could not move the heart of the pagans [4]. The Prophet and his companions non-violently bore these hardships for 12 years and did not retaliate. To avoid the devastating persecution, the Muslims migrated first to Abyssinia and then finally to Medina. However, the pagans of Mecca kept chasing the Muslims and put all their efforts into destroying them in Medina. Consequently, the Muslims were left with no other option than to perish or to fight back. In this context, the permission to fight back in self-defense was granted in the Qur’an and the battle-related verses were revealed [5].

Islam sanctions fighting when the opponent violates peace agreements, disrespects the sovereignty of a state by carrying out an aggressive attack, or persecutes a weak and helpless community. The verse 190 of Surah Baqara clearly highlights this defensive mode: “Fight in God's cause against those who fight against you, but do not exceed the bounds (set by God), for surely God loves not those who exceed the bounds” (2:190). In addition, the following verses clearly mention the legitimate reasons for fighting:

“The believers against whom war is waged are given permission to fight in response, for they have been wronged” (22:39).

“Will you not fight against the people who have broken their pledges and have done all they could to drive the Messenger, and initiated hostilities against you?” (9:13).

“The route (of blame and retaliation) is only against those who wrong people and behave rebelliously on earth, offending against all right” (42:42).

“…. drive them out from where they drove you out; disorder is worse than killing.” (2:191).

Article 51 of the UN Charter also sanctions the same rights by explaining that: “Nothing in the present Charter shall impair the inherent right of collective or individual self-defense if an armed attack occurs against a member of the United Nations” [6].

Islam not only sanctions the right to self-defense but also ordains the protection of persecuted populations. The Qur’an’s idea of war and peace hinges upon the ideal of social justice. Peace and justice are inseparable in the Qur’an. Leaving a persecuted population at the mercy of the aggressors is contrary to the concept of social justice the Qur’an propagates. How can peace prevail if a large number of people are ill-treated or tormented? Hence, the Qur’an does not support leaving the helpless at the mercy of oppressors, which is explicit in Surah Nisa: “Why, then, should you not fight in the cause of God and of the oppressed, helpless men, women, and children, who cry out: ‘O Lord! Bring us out of this land whose people are oppressors, and appoint for us from Your Presence a protector, and appoint for us from Your Presence a helper!’” (4:75). This highlights the circumstances when humanitarian intervention becomes a moral obligation. Furthermore, the phrase “fight in the cause of Allah” should not be mistaken as fighting to promote Islam; the above verse clearly states that fighting in the way of Allah is synonymous with fighting for the rights of the weak and vulnerable.

The Qur’an does not differentiate between Muslims and non-Muslims as far as justice is concerned. It says, “If two parties of believers fall to fighting, make peace between them (and act promptly). But if one of them aggressively encroaches the rights of the other, then fight you all against the aggressive side until they comply with God's decree (concerning the matter). If they comply, then make peace between them with justice and be scrupulously equitable. Surely God loves the scrupulously equitable” (49:9).

Another crucial matter is that, in Islam, only a state has the right to fight external aggression. Non-state actors cannot lead such expeditions [7]. Furthermore, peace must be given preference and sought at every step. The Qur’an prohibits continuing the battle if the opponent inclined to peace: “Then if they desist (from fighting), surely God is All-Forgiving, All-Compassionate” (2:192).

 “If they desist, then there is no hostility except to the wrongdoers” (2:193).

 “And if they (the enemies) incline to peace, incline to it also” (8:61).

Seeking peace is more important than winning a war.

As for battle, the Qur’an clearly states that all noncombatants need to be treated kindly and justly. It is clearly stated: “God does not forbid you, as regards those who do not make war against you on account of your Religion, nor drive you away from your homes, to be kindly to them, and act towards them with equity. God surely loves the scrupulously equitable” (60:8).

It is clear that Islam does not approve of war for selfish motives, worldly gain, and satisfaction of the ego. Verse 190 of Surah Baqarah says, “fight those who fight you,” clearly highlighting two important points: the first is that fighting is only allowed in self-defense or against persecution; and second, war can only be waged against enemy combatants. The nonbelligerent, civilians, and non-combatants belonging to the enemy group cannot be harmed as it goes against the Qur’anic and Islamic conception of justice. Islam warns its believers that “by no means let your detestation for a people (or their detestation for you) move you to (commit the sin of) deviating from justice” (5:8). Furthermore, the verse 5:32 describes the sanctity of an innocent human life, leaving no room for terrorism, genocide, massacres, or activities which cause harm to civilian populations. According to the verse, “He who kills a soul unless it be (in legal punishment) for murder or for causing disorder and corruption on the earth will be as if he had killed all humankind; and he who saves a life will be as if he had saved the lives of all humankind” (5:32).

In Islam, nothing can legitimize the killing of civilians, regardless of the community or religion they belong to. From an Islamic perspective, everything is not fair in war: Qur’an sets very strict rules for battle.

Modern warfare

Fourteen centuries ago, the wars were fought with swords, and the Muslims under Prophet Muhammad (peace be on him) not only ensured the safety of non-combatants but also took special care to protect the environment from the hazards of war. Unfortunately, this seems impossible in modern warfare. With the invention of gunpowder, wars often result in the indiscriminate killing of combatants and noncombatants. As military industries grew and produced advanced weapons—like nuclear bombs, missiles, and drones—civilian deaths increased to unprecedented levels. It is almost impossible to ensure the safety of a civilian population, which is one of the integral Islamic ethics of war. Hence, it goes without saying that modern warfare has no place in Islam, which is implicit in the Qur’an (2:190, 5:32 and 60:8).

Islam taught the ancient nomadic Arab tribes the ethics of war and the sanctity of innocent human life. If verse 5:32 alone were implemented, it could save the world from destructive warfare and the madness of nuclear weapons. Unfortunately,  Muslims and non-Muslims alike are deaf to the Qur’an’s message.

Endnotes

  1. Sayyid Ali Asghar Razwy,“A Restatement of the History of Islam and Muslims”. Al-Islam. Accessed October 15, 2021. https://www.al-islam.org/restatement-history-islam-and-muslims-sayyid-ali-asghar-razwy/arabia-islam#political-conditions-arabia
  2. Marisa Farrugia, “War and peace in pre-Islamic Arabic poetry,” Humanitas: Journal of the Faculty of Arts, 2 (2003): 143-153.
  3. Ibn Ishāq, Sīratu Rasūlillāh, trans. Alfred Guillaume (Oxford: University Press, 2004), 146.
  4. Safiurrahman. Al-Mubarakfuri, Ar-Raheeq Al-Makhtum, trans. The Sealed Nectar (Al-Riyadh: Dar-us-Salam Publications 1996), 75.
  5. Al-Mubarakfuri, 125-126.
  6. United Nations, "The Charter of the United Nations," 51 (VII) A (Paris, 1945), https://www.un.org/en/about-us/un-charter/chapter-7
  7. Niaz A. Shah, “The Use of Force under Islamic Law,” European Journal of International Law 24, no. 1(2013):343-65.

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