By Furqan Shaikh
March 22, 2016
This is an open letter addressed to ISIS,
Al-Qaeda, Boko Haram and all other violent Islamist extremist groups; their
members, followers, and supporters…
We, the other Muslims of the world, would
like to invite you to an open debate about our respective ideas of the Islamic
ethics of war and peace.
We wish to understand how such drastically
divergent understandings have evolved from two groups who ostensibly belong to
the same religion, read the same scripture, and follow the same prophets.
With such diametrically opposed notions, it
is clear that both of us cannot be right. It is time we began a conversation to
understand each point of view, and decide who can more rightly claim to hold the
You have been invited to this discussion
many times before. Consider this letter merely one among many that challenge
you to show how you formulate your dis-ethics from within our tradition.
Although we disagree on many points, our
differences loom largest when we look to the verses in the Quran related to
striving (jihad), fighting (Qatal), and war (Harb). On a superficial reading,
several of these verses appear to convey discrepant messages. Verses that speak
of peace, forbearance, tolerance, sanctity of life, and freedom of religion are
juxtaposed against verses that speak of military aggression.
Both of us agree that the seeming
contraindications can be reconciled once a deeper exegetical interpretation is
applied. How we each pursue this reconciliation seems to be the starting point
for the vast differences in the entire ethical and jurisprudential outlooks we
To understand these resulting differences,
it is necessary to first assemble the verses relating to jihad, Qatal,
and Harb and apply to them a thematic exegesis. In doing so, Islamic
jurists and scholars have discerned that several progressive phases of Quranic
injunctions regarding the use of military force are apparent.
I. “Bear Patiently”
The first phase was characterized by
non-violence and non-confrontation. During the Meccan period, Muhammad and his
followers were forbidden by the Quran to respond with force to the persecution
that they faced under their Quraysh opponents. They were instructed to repel
aggression with forgiveness and to continue preaching their message with
against whatever they say, and take leave of them in a beautiful manner”
“Repel evil with
that which is better, then behold, the one with whom you have enmity shall be
as if he were a loyal protecting friend” (41:34) (See also 7:199, 16:125).
Such non-violent discoursing was itself
described as a jihad: “Do not listen to the unbelievers, but strive against
them (Jahidhum) with the utmost striving, with this (Quran)” (25:52).
When the oppression became unbearable, the allowed response was emigration,
again described as a jihad: “For those who emigrated after being oppressed,
then strove (Jahadu) and were patient, your Lord is forgiving, merciful”
(16:110). Of note, the word jihad was even used for striving by unbelievers:
“But if they strive (Jahadaka) to make you ascribe partners to Me that
of which you have no knowledge, then obey them not” (29:8 and 31:15).
The Meccan verses of non-confrontation are
significant for what they do not allow. They do not condone tactics of
asymmetric warfare, such as stealth attacks, poisoning, or targeting the
You and your kind believe that the Meccan
verses were merely a capitulation to political expedience. Being in the weaker
position, the early Muslims could not have affected a military response to
their opponents without being defeated. Yet, even if this perspective were
correct, the right response would be to apply the Meccan approach of patient
forbearance rather than terrorism.
Ii. “Permission to Fight”
The opposition of the Quraysh to the
Prophet’s message grew to the point that the traditional protection of tribal
relations was no longer enough to ensure the safety of the nascent Muslim
community. At this point, the Prophet and his companions migrated to Medina.
Yet the Quraysh continued their opposition, launching a series of battles
against the Muslims in Medina. The Muslims needed to know their allowable
response. The second phase, therefore, was marked by Quranic verses that gave
Muslims permission to fight.
“Fight in the way of God against those who
fight you, but do not transgress the limits; truly God loves not the
And “To those against whom war is made,
permission is given (to fight), because they have been wronged… Did not God
check one set of people by means of another, there would surely have been
pulled down monasteries, churches, synagogues, and mosques, in which the name
of God is commemorated in abundant measure” (22:39-40).
These verses established that fighting
could be launched by Muslims as self-defence in response to wrongs committed
against them. The permission of self-defence was not a call to arms, but a
right granted in the face of oppression, attack, and religious persecution.
You would probably say here that the early
battles fought by the Prophet against the Quraysh were not defensive, and that
the Prophet instigated the conflicts. Indeed, there are some history books that
support your view on this, and some that support its opposite. While history is
contested for its veracity, geography does not lie. All we need to settle our
dispute on this matter is a map of the region.
The distance between Mecca and Medina is
about three-hundred miles. The battles that were fought between the Meccan
Quraysh and the Medinan Muslims were named for their locations. They were Badr
(sixty miles from Medina), Uhud (five miles from Medina) and Khandaq (the
Trench, built at the outskirt of Medina). If the Muslim army was launching
offensive battles, one is hard-pressed to explain how the Quraysh army managed
to meet the offenders so close to their home each time.
While outlining the reasons for which force
could be permitted, the Quran was emphatic in outlining reasons for which it
could not, chief among them being matters of religion. Notably, the Quran
primarily emphasizes the freedom of religion of non-Muslims against forcible
coercion by Muslims, rather than the other way around:
“It is not required of you to set them on
the right path, but God sets on the right path whom He pleases” (2:272)
“If your Lord willed, all who are in the
earth would have believed together. Would you then compel people until they are
believers?” (10:99) “If they turn away, we sent you not as a keeper over them.
Nothing is incumbent upon you except the proclamation” (42:48). (See also
2:256, 3:20, 5:48, 6:104, 6:107, 13:31, 16:82, 16:125, 18:29, 26:4, 88:21, and
Due to the sheer volume and persistent
force of these verses, there has always been overwhelming agreement that jihad
can never be used for the forced conversion of unbelievers to Islam.
Iii. “Stand Up Firmly For Justice”
The Quran makes it clear that even Muslims
can be the source of transgression: “If two parties of the believers fall into
conflict, make peace between them; but if one of them transgresses the limits
against the other, then fight all of you together against the one that
transgresses until it complies with the command of God. But if it complies,
then make peace between them with justice and fairness” (49:9). The verse
maintains a neutral position about the merits of the two groups’ argument.
The party that is to be collectively fought
is the one that has transgressed the limits to achieve its ends. Thus, it is
behaviour, not religious identity, that justifies a military intervention.
Elsewhere, the Quran says:
“O you who
believe! Stand up firmly for justice, as witnesses to God, even if it be
against yourselves, your parents, or your kin” (4:135)
And “O you who believe! Stand out firmly
for God, as witnesses to justice, and let not the hatred of others to you make
you swerve to wrong and depart from justice” (5:8).
In a poignant Hadith, the Prophet Muhammad
is reported to have said “Help your brother, whether he is the oppressor or the
oppressed.” When his companions asked, “O messenger, it is all right to help
him if he is the oppressed, but how can we help him if he is the oppressor?”
The Prophet answered, “By preventing him from oppressing others” (Sahih
Bukhari, vol 3, number 624).
This makes it apparent that the Islamic
ethic of fighting has never supported an “us versus them” but rather a “right
versus wrong” approach.
Iv. “Do Not Transgress the Limits”
The Quranic verse that gave Muslims
permission to fight (2:190) introduced the idea that the divine revelation was
concerned not only with fighting for the right cause but also with right
conduct (“but do not transgress the limits”). A corpus of Muslim jurisprudence
and practice endeavoured to outline the restraints referred to by “the limits.”
The most important principle was
discrimination, the need to differentiate in battle between combatants and
non-combatants. The best known example is the command of the first caliph, Abu
Bakr, who is reported to have said: “Do not act treacherously, disloyally, or
neglectfully; do not mutilate; do not kill children or old men or women; do not
cut down trees; do not slaughter sheep, cows or camels except for food; leave
alone those who devote their lives to monastic services.”
The Quran talks about the just treatment
for prisoners of war in several verses (See 8:71, 9:6, 47:4, and 76:8) and
about forgiveness being superior to vengeance or even proportionality (see
16:126, 42:40, 5:45, 2:178). Muslim jurists additionally prohibit killing
emissaries, servants, traders, travellers, journalists and aid workers.
Jurists have written to disallow using
torture or abduction, using fire or flooding or poison as weapons, destroying
shrines or graves or places of worship, attacking without giving fair notice,
ignoring the risk of collateral damage (48:25), and on a vast range of other
restrictions in the conduct of war.
In recent times, the worst of extremists
among you exempt themselves from these principles by arguing that there are no
innocents. You hold that all civilians in an enemy state, even children, are
collectively responsible for the actions of their armies and governments and
thus absolved of immunity.
There is no foundation for this principle
in Islamic scripture, and it is a product only of your own rawest emotional
reactions. The Quran is categorically against any notion of collective
punishment: “No soul shall bear the burden of another” (53:38); “Every soul
draws the meed of its acts on none but itself” (6:164). (See also 2:134, 2:141;
17:15, 35:18, and 39:7).
V. “Oppression Is Worse Than Killing”
After fighting three battles with the
Quraysh, the Muslims decided that the best defence was a good peace agreement.
The Muslims met the Quraysh at the valley of Hudaybiyah and the two parties
agreed to a treaty (Sulh), stipulating an end to hostilities for ten years.
Over the following year, more people converted to Islam than had done so over
the prior eighteen years, indicating that peace time was always more conducive
to the message of Islam than conflict.
Yet peace did not last. The following year,
a tribe allied with the Quraysh massacred a tribe allied with the Muslims,
including members who sought sanctuary within the Holy Mosque. The event
signified a clear breach of the treaty.
It is in this context that the passages
often referred to as “the verses of the sword” were revealed: “And kill them
wherever you find them, and turn them out from where they have turned you out,
for oppression is worse than killing” (2:191); and “When the forbidden months
are past, then fight and kill the unbelievers wherever you find them, seize
them, beleaguer them, and lie in wait for them in every stratagem” (9:5) (see
also 8:60, 9:29, and 47:4).
These verses are the ones most often quoted
by you to make your arguments. You have latched onto them because they seem, on
a vacuous and decontextualised reading, to espouse a message of perpetual
pre-emptive warfare against all non-Muslims.
It is important to observe how the Prophet
himself implemented these verses. If he had understood them the way you
understand them, we would have expected all the Quraysh to have been killed
during the conquest of Mecca. But this did not happen. Instead, your own
history books tell us that no more than twelve Quraysh men lost their lives.
To all the other citizens of Mecca, the
“I say to you now
as Joseph said to his brothers, ‘Let there be no blame upon you this day.’ Go,
for you are free!”
Why does your interpretation produce such
drastically different results? You like to omit the qualifying verses that are
found all around the verses of the sword, which you often hide within the
ellipses of your quotations.
Verse 2:191 is preceded by “Fight in the
way of God against those who fight you, but do not transgress the limits”
(2:190), and followed by “But if they cease, God is forgiving, merciful. Fight
them until there is no more oppression (fitna) and there prevails faith in God;
but if they cease, let there be no hostility except to those who practice
Verse 9:5 is preceded by “The treaties are
not dissolved with those unbelievers who have entered into alliance with you
and have not subsequently failed you nor aided anyone against you” (9:4), and
followed by “If one among the unbelievers asks you for asylum, grant him asylum
so that he hears the word of God, then escort him to a place of safety” (9:6);
“If they remain true to you, then remain true to them” (9:7); and “Will you not
fight people who violated their oaths, plotted to expel the Messenger, and took
the aggressive by being the first (to assault) you?” (9:13). Similar qualifying
phrases are found before and after every instance of the verses commonly used
to justify violent extremism.
When viewed in totality, these verses are
understood to sanction a pre-emptive military expedition within the framework
of a defensive war against a recurrently belligerent enemy.
The enemy’s crimes were initiating
hostilities, expelling Muslims from their homes, violating treaties, and
obstructing freedom of religion. Ironically, in the current time, there is no
one more responsible for these crimes than yourselves. Your actions have
produced the largest expulsion of Muslims from their homes in human history.
But you absolve yourselves of this by saying that anyone who doesn’t agree with
your actions isn’t Muslim in the first place (takfir).
Vi. “Do You Believe In Only Part Of The
This brings us full circle to the point
with which we started this letter. We stated earlier that how we reconcile the
seeming contradictions of the war verses in the Quran determines our entire
We achieve the reconciliation by
recognizing that the Quran endorses an iterative conditional approach to war.
It allows non-confrontation, self-defence, humanitarian intervention, or
pre-emptive expedition within a defensive war, each option made just or unjust
by the severity of the context, and each to be guided always by strict
regulations on right conduct.
You, on the other hand, take an entirely
different approach. You believe that all of the earlier verses have been
abrogated by the later verses of the sword. You believe that God revealed the
earlier verses only as transitional options, but once the Prophet gained
political and military power in Madinah, God revealed the final permanent
option, making null and void the earlier verses.
This is a contention full of several
shortcomings. First, it is hard to justify from within the scripture itself. As
evidence for the concept of abrogation (Naskh), you frequently cite: “None of
Our revelations do We abrogate or cause to be forgotten, but We substitute
something similar or better” (2:106).
However, many scholars understand this
verse to be referring to the supersession of earlier books of revelation by
later ones. The Quran in fact contains several verses that speak against the
practice of picking from revealed texts selectively: “What, do you believe in
only part of the Book, and disbelieve the rest?” (2:85)
“They pervert words from their contexts,
and they have forgotten a portion of what they were reminded” (5:13)
reduced the Quran to shreds” (15:91)
Even those scholars who accept the
principle of abrogation disagree with the method and extent to which you apply
it. By some counts, your interpretation would require the verses of the sword
to have abrogated 124 other Quranic verses. This approach renders meaningless
the majority of Prophet Muhammad’s life, tears the Quran to shreds and leaves a
severely decimated text, and attributes to God qualities of deceit and
fickleness that would be considered repugnant even from a human.
With the single thread of abrogation you
have unravelled the entire fabric of Islamic morality. The crucial error is not
your literalism but your selective literalism.
Lastly, even if we do accept the logic of
abrogation as you propose it, it would be worth noting that verse 2:256 (“Let
there be no compulsion in religion”) is generally regarded as having been
revealed after the verses of the sword, and would therefore be considered as
having abrogated them.
The Quran seems to recognize that providing
a layered complexity to the ethical framework of war would leave it open to a
dual understanding. Is peace to be the preferred, baseline, ideal state, with
war as the conditional exception? Or is it to be the other way around?
The Quran answered this question in three
ways. First, it recommended a solution to the very problem of disagreement
among Muslims. Whenever there is a difference of opinion among the learned, the
more merciful opinion is always to be chosen: “Follow the best sense of what
has been revealed to you” (39:55);
“Those who listen
to the Word, and follow the best (meaning) of it, are the ones whom God has
Second, it established the sanctity of life
using words that could not have been more emphatic: “Whoever kills a person –
unless it be for murder or for corruption (fasad) throughout the earth – it
shall be as if he killed all of humanity. And whoever saves the life of one
person, it shall be as if he saved the life of all humanity” (5:32).
Last, the Quran answers the question in the
most unequivocal way it could possibly have chosen: by placing the ideal in the
very name of the religion itself. “Islam”, derived from the root s-l-m, does
indeed mean “peace.” It is what the word would have been understood to mean in
that region before the Quran ever used it. Its other common definition,
submission or alignment with the divine will, is its meaning in the religious
It can be understood together as “the peace
that comes when one submits his or her will to the Will of God.” In this sense,
that Islam means peace should not be understood as a description but as a
So, Let Us Ask Again: Do You Hold The
Most Authentic Interpretation Of Islam?
You have discarded the majority of Quranic
passages as abrogated, disregarded a thousand years of learned majority
opinion, declared war without legitimate authority, transgressed all bounds
regarding the proper conduct of war, failed to discriminate between combatants
and innocent civilians, used the forbidden act of suicide as a military tactic,
forced conversion upon non-Muslims, declared Takfir against Muslims, expelled
millions from their homes, violated international treaties, belied the very name
of the religion, smeared the reputation of its followers around the globe, and
plunged the Islamic world into its dark ages. In each one of these, you have
directly contravened the message of the Quran.
There is absolutely nothing authentic about
what you have done.
These are our thoughts on the matter. What
is good herein is from God. The mistakes are ours alone.
Assalam u Alaikum. Peace be upon you.
The Other Muslims