Conflict and Violence

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In the contemporary period, Islam is frequently depicted as predisposed to conflict and violence. The intractable Middle East conflict and recent events in which Muslim extremists have been implicated in acts of terror have only served to reinforce this widespread perception. To discern the veracity of the assertion that in some special way Islam is related to deadly conflict, it is important to situate the discussion within a concrete sociohistorical context. Islam, conflict, and violence do not occur in a social vacuum. Moreover, in order to correctly understand the ethical norms of Islam represented in the Muslim sacred scripture, the Qur˒an, and in the exemplary conduct of the prophet Muhammad, it is necessary to analyze the historical milieu within which such norms were negotiated.

When the prophet Muhammad (570–632 c.e.) brought the Qur˒an to the Arabs in the early seventh century, pre-Islamic Arabia was steeped in oppressive social relations and caught up in a vicious cycle of violence. Muhammad's egalitarian message quickly began to threaten the Meccan elite. They opposed his teachings with great vehemence. He was forced to send some of his early followers to seek refuge in Abyssinia and later, in 622 c.e., he himself fled to the nearby city of Medina. Throughout the Meccan period, the early Muslims responded to the mental anguishes, physical abuse, and persistent threats to their lives with passive resistance. It was only thirteen years into his prophetic mission that Muhammad and the early Muslims were permitted to engage in armed resistance, but only under certain stringent conditions, as specified in the Qur˒an.

Permission [to fight] is given to those against whom war is being wrongfully waged. God has indeed the power to succor them: those who have been driven from their homelands against all right for no other reason than their saying, "Our Lord and Sustainer is God! For, if God had not enabled people to defend themselves against one another, monasteries and churches and synagogues and mosques—in which God's name is abundantly extolled—would surely have been destroyed." (22:39–40)

It is interesting to note that the above verses give precedence to the protection of monasteries, churches, and synagogues over that of mosques in order to underline their inviolability and the duty of the Muslim to safeguard them against any desecration or abuse, and protect freedom of belief. The aim of fighting according to this critical verse is the defense of not only Islam, but also of religious freedom in general.

In the succeeding decade (622–632 c.e.) Muhammad and his growing band of followers engaged in a series of battles to defend Islam against the military aggression of their adversaries, including the critical battles of Badr, Uhud, and Khandaq. Warfare was a desperate affair in seventh-century Arabia. A chieftain was not expected to display weakness to his enemies in a battle, and some of the Qur˒anic injunctions seem to share this spirit (4:90). Because the Qur˒an was revealed in the context of deadly conflict, several passages deal with the ethics of warfare. (5:49; 8:61; 11:118–119; 49:9; 49:13). The most contentious of these is the so-called sword verse (ayat al-sayf).

Once the sacred months have passed, you may kill the idolaters when you encounter them, and take them [captive], and besiege them, and prepare for them each ambush. But if they repent and establish worship and pay the poor-due, then leave their way free. Lo! God is Forgiving, Merciful. (9:5)

Some classical Muslim commentators have construed this verse to imply that Muslims are obligated to fight non-Muslims until they embrace Islam in the case of polytheists, or pay a special tax known as jizya, in the case of Jews and Christians who are referred to as the "people of the book."

Yet other verses include exhortations to peace: "Thus, if they let you be, and do not make war on you, and offer you peace, God does not allow you to harm them" (4:90). The Qur˒an quotes the Torah, the Jewish scriptures, which permits people to retaliate eye for eye, tooth for tooth, but like the Gospels, the Qur˒an suggests that it is meritorious to forgo revenge in a spirit of charity (5:45). Hostilities must be brought to an end as quickly as possible and must cease the minute the enemy sues for peace (2:192–193). The Qur˒an, moreover, makes it emphatically clear that conflict can only be successfully ameliorated through the establishment of justice, which transcends sectarian self-interests. (4:135; 7:29)

O Believers! Stand firmly for justice, as witnesses for God, even it is means testifying against yourselves, or your parents, or your kin, and whether it is against the rich or the poor, for God prevails upon all. Follow not the lusts of your hearts, lest you swerve, and if you distort justice or decline to do justice, verily God knows what you do. (4:135)

The just war is always evil, but sometimes one has to fight in order to avoid the kind of persecution that Mecca inflicted on the Muslims (2:191; 2:217), or to preserve decent values (4:75; 22:40). During his stay in Medina, Muhammad attempted to resolve the conflict with the Meccan leaders and their allies by entering into a peace treaty at a place called al-Hudaybiya. The treaty came to be known as sulh al-Hudaybiya. Sulh is an important term in Islamic law (shari˓a). The purpose of sulh is to end conflict and hostility among adversaries so that they may conduct their relationships in peace and amity (49:9). The word itself has been used to refer both to the process of restorative justice and peacemaking and to the actual outcome of that process. Even though sulh al-Hudaybiya never actually achieved its aims because the Meccan tribesmen violated its conditions, it remains as an instructive conflict-intervention strategy.

In 630 c.e., the Muslims gained their most significant victory when they captured the city of Mecca, remarkably without bloodshed. This provided Muhammad with a second opportunity to institute a genuine sulh process. In a spirit of magnanimity, he forgave his enemies and enacted a process of reconciliation. A general amnesty was proclaimed in which all tribal claims to vengeance were abolished. Three years later Muhammad died in Medina at the age of sixty-three.

The Qur˒anic term most often conflated with that of violence is jihad. The Arabic verb jahada from which the verbal noun jihad is derived literally means "to strive hard, to exert strenuous effort and to struggle." As a multivalent Islamic concept, it denotes any effort in pursuit of a commendable aim. Jihad is a comprehensive concept embracing peaceful persuasion (16:125) and passive resistance (13:22; 23:96; 41:34), as well as armed struggle against oppression and injustice (2:193; 4:75; 8:39). The Islamic concept of jihad should not be confused with the medieval concept of holy war since the actual word al-harb al-muqaddasa is never used in the Qur˒an. In Islam, a war is never holy; it is either justified or not. Moreover, jihad is not directed at other faiths. In a statement in which the Arabic is extremely emphatic, the Qur˒an insists, "There must be no coercion in matters of faith!" (2:256). More than this, the protection of freedom of belief and worship for followers of other religions has been made a sacred duty of Muslims. This duty was fixed at the same time when the permission for armed struggle (jihad alqital) was ordained (22:39–40).

In mystical (Sufi) traditions of Islam the greatest form of jihad, personal jihad, is to purify the soul and refine the disposition. This is regarded as the far more urgent and momentous struggle and it is based on a prophetic tradition (hadith). Muhammad is reported to have advised his companions as they return after a battle, "We are returning from the lesser jihad [physical fighting] to the greater jihad [jihad alnafs]." Sufis have traditionally understood this greater form of jihad to be the spiritual struggle to discipline the lower impulses and base instincts in human nature. The renowned thirteenth-century Sufi scholar, Jalal al-Din Rumi, articulated such an understanding of jihad when he wrote: "The prophets and saints do not avoid spiritual struggle. The first spiritual struggle they undertake is the killing of the ego and the abandonment of personal wishes and sensual desires. This is the greater jihad" (Chittick, trans., p. 151).

After the demise of the Prophet and the completion of the textual guidance of the Qur˒an, Muslims were faced with the challenge of interpreting and applying the Islamic normative principles on conflict and violence to their own peculiar sociohistorical contexts. Subsequent generations of Muslims have interpreted these normative values in such a way as to give Islam a paradoxical role in human history. In the first three centuries of Islam the classical doctrine of jihad was forged by Muslim jurists primarily in response to the imperial politics of the Abbasid caliphate on the one hand and the Byzantine Empire on the other. Abrogating the Meccan experience and predicating itself on selected verses of the Qur˒an, one finds the following: "And fight them on until there is no more oppression and tumult (fitnah) and religion should be for God" (2:193). Classical scholars developed a doctrine of jihad in which the world is simply divided into a dichotomy of abodes: the territory of Islam (dar al-islam) and the territory of war (dar al-harb). In accordance with this belligerent paradigm, a permanent state of war (jihad) characterized relations between the two abodes. The only way a non-Muslim territory could avert a jihad was either to convert to Islam or to pay an annual tribute or poll tax (jizyah). The classical belief erroneously perceived of jihad as the instrument of the Islamic caliphate to expand Muslim territories.

This controversial interpretation of jihad failed to capture the full range of the term's rich meaning. The reductionist interpretation of jihad, though not unanimous, came to dominate subsequent Muslim juristic thinking. One of the earliest scholars who represented an alternative perspective was Sufyan al-Thawri (b. 715). Al-Thawri believed that jihad was only justified in defense. The classical doctrine of jihad has and continues to be challenged by Muslim jurists. A number of modern Muslim reform movements have employed the classical doctrine of jihad to legitimate their struggles against colonial or postcolonial secular state rule. Other contemporary Muslim scholars, such as Muhammad Abu Zahra, Mahmud Shaltut, Muhammad al Ghunaimi, Louay M. Safi, and Ridwan al-Sayyid, have criticized the classical doctrine of jihad as being seriously flawed since it violates some of the essential Islamic principles on the ethics of war. Safi has written objecting to the classical doctrine: "Evidently, the classical doctrine of war and peace has not been predicated on a comprehensive theory. The doctrine describes the factual conditions that historically prevailed between the Islamic state, during the ˓Abassid and Byzantium era, and thus, renders rules which respond to specific historical needs" (Safi, p. 44).

Safi and Al-Sayyid as well as a number of other contemporary scholars hold that the classical doctrine of hegemonic jihad is contingent on a historical context and thus has a limited application. They have argued for a recovery of the alternative interpretation of classical scholars, such as Malik ibn Anas, the founder of the Maliki school of Islamic jurisprudence, who identified a third option, the territory of peaceful covenant or coexistence or (dar-al-sulh or ˓ahd). He had in mind the long-standing cordial relationship that had existed between the early Muslims and the Abyssinian Christian state. He recalled that the prophet Muhammad himself had sent the earliest group of his followers from Mecca to seek refuge from persecution in Abyssinia. They lived there peacefully for many years, and some of them did not return, even after Muslims were in power in Mecca. Moreover, the Prophet had advised peaceful coexistence with the Abyssinians, reportedly saying: "Leave the Abyssinians in peace as long as they leave you in peace." Safi contends that the fact that the early Muslims did not make any attempts to turn Abyssinia into an Islamic state is sufficient evidence that a third way, the "Abyssinian paradigm," was an Islamically sanctioned alternative.

The alternative paradigm represented by the Abyssinian model was marginalized and ignored by the partisan interpretations of the classical Muslim jurists. Contemporary Muslims are currently reclaiming this third paradigm of peaceful coexistence. Others called on contemporary Muslims to reclaim the rich Sufi tradition on conflict transformation by relinking the lesser jihad to that of the greater jihad (p. 108). Both have profound implications for expanding Muslim resources for conflict transformation and peace-building efforts.

A candid photograph appears in the color insert.

See alsoFitna ; ˓Ibadat ; Jihad ; Political Islam .


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A. Rashied Omar