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Islam and Violence: Revisited

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Author: Rashied Omar

By A. Rashied Omar

The dramatic turn of world events at the dawn of the twenty-first century — including the collapse of the Oslo Peace process in September of 2000 in the face of a renewed and ongoing cycle of violence in the Middle East; the terrorist attacks on the United States of America a year later in September 2001, and the Bush administration’s subsequent “enduring” war on terrorism in Afghanistan and Iraq - have all served to reinforce the widespread perception that Islam is in some special way linked to terrorist violence. Even conventional academic perspectives regard Islam as having a predilection for violence. According to this view, Islam is defined as inherently violent and one of the primary sources of contemporary violence in the world.[1]

In direct opposition to this perspective, Muslims often categorically deny that Islam has anything to do with terrorist violence. In their view, all violence in which individuals or groups who claim an Islamic affiliation are implicated is a debasement and vile distortion of the noble and peaceful teachings of Islam.[2]

As with all received understandings, there are elements of truth in both of these formulations. The first one largely understates the contemporary socio-political and economic conditions under which Islam is implicated in violence, and the second one ignores the fact that virtually all Muslims accept that Islam is not a pacifist tradition and allows for and legitimates the use of violence under certain conditions, the definitions of which may differ from one Muslim scholar to the other. It is here that a large measure of the problem lies. Under what conditions does Islam condone the use of violence?

This critical dilemma is not unique to Islam. All religious traditions agonize about the question of what might constitute a “just war” and it becomes particularly acute in situations of deadly conflict. The central point that we need to bear in mind is that the religious legitimization of violence does not occur in a socio-historical vacuum.

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 socio-historical context. Since 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 they 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 were steeped in oppressive social relations and were caught up in a vicious cycle of violence. Muhammad’s egalitarian message quickly began to threaten the Makkan 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 he himself fled to the nearby city of Madina in 622 C.E. Throughout the Makkan 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.

"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 gives 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 (622-32 C.E.) Muhammad and his growing band of followers were to engage in a series of battles to defend Islam against the military aggression of their adversaries, including the critical battles of Badr, Uhud and Khandaq. Because the Qur’an was revealed in the context of deadly conflict, several passages deal with the ethics of warfare. (5:49; 8:61; 11:118-9; 49:9; 49:13). The most contentious of these was the sword verse (ayat al-sayf) which is to be found in c The Qur’an however 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 you have to fight in order to avoid the kind of persecution that Makkah inflicted on the Muslims (2: 191; 2: 217), or to preserve decent values (4: 75; 22: 40).

Warfare was a desperate affair in seventh century Arabian. 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). 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: 192-3).

During his stay in Madina, Muhammad attempted to resolve the conflict with the Makkan leaders and their allies by entering into a peace treaty at a place called al-Hudaybiyah. The treaty came to be known as Sulh al-Hudaybiyah.  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-Hudaybiyah never actually achieved its aims because the Makkan 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 Makkah, remarkably without bloodshed. This provided Muhammad with a second opportunity to instituted 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 Madinah at the age of 63.

The Qur’anic term most often conflated with that of violence is jihad. It is often portrayed in the Western media as being synanoumos with “holy terrorism”. The concept of jihad has become a highly contested and controversial term in contemporary discourses on Islam. In a recent book . Its author dedicates the entire second chapter to providing his readers with a vivid depiction of the diverse manner in which both classical as well as contemporary Muslim scholars have chosen to appropriate and interpret the multivalent Islamic concept of jihad. “For some it simply means, striving to lead a good Muslim life. Another might identify jihad as working hard to spread the message of Islam. For a third, it might be supporting the struggle of oppressed Muslims”, and finally, as is the case for Osama bin Laden and those of his ilk,  “jihad could mean working to overthrow governments in the Muslim world and attacking America” (p.26). However despite acknowledging that, “Jihad is often simply translated as and equated with aggressive holy war”, and consequently “For many in the West, it has come to symbolize Islam as a religion of violence and fanaticism”(p.65), our learned author himself chooses at several places to crudely translate and equate jihad with “holy war.” For example, in his preface he collapses the two words completely when he asks; “What does the Qur’an have to say about jihad or holy war?” On page 28, he questions the jihad of Osama bin Laden or other leaders of terrorists groups in the following manner; “Are they simply appropriating a tradition of holy war or are they reinventing their tradition to support their self-declared unholy wars of violence and terrorism?” Muslim scholars have long objected to the inanity of confusing the two terms jihad and holy war. They have pointed out that etymologically they are not the same, since holy war translates as al-harb al-muqaddasah in Arabic. More recently, one of America’s most vocal Islamic legal scholars, Khalid Abou-el-Fadl has emphatically stated the case when he argued that holy 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), 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-muqaddasah 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 the 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 al-qital) 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 al-nafs)”. Sufi’s 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 1983: 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 socio-historical 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 Makkan experience and predicated itself on selected verses of the Qur’an such as the following; “And fight them on until there is no more oppression and tumult (fitnah) and religion should be for God” (2:193), the 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 its 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 is that of Sufyan al-Thawri (born 715). He was of the view that jihad was only justified only in defence.  The classical doctrine of jihad has and continues to be challenged by Muslim jurists. Contemporary Muslim scholars such as Muhammad Abu Zahra, Mahmud Shaltut, Muhammad al Ghunaimi, Louay M. Safi have criticized the classical doctrine of jihad as being seriously flawed since its violates some of the essential Islamic principles on the Islamic ethics of war. Safi has recently wrote 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 2001: 44)

Safi as well as a number of other scholars hold that the hegemonic classical doctrine of jihad is historically contingent and thus have 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 co-existence or (dar-al-sulh or ‘ahd). He had in mind the long-standing cordial relationship that had existed between the early Muslims and the Abyssinia Christian state.  He recalled that the Prophet Muhammad himself had sent the earliest group of his followers from Makkah 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 Makkah. Moreover, the Prophet had advised peaceful co-existence 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 such as Louay M. Safi are currently reclaiming this third paradigm of peaceful co-existence. Others, such as Rabia Terri Harris have called on contemporary Muslims to reclaim the rich Sufi tradition on conflict transformation by relinking the lesser jihad to that of the greater jihad (Harris 1998:108). Both have profound implications for expanding Muslim resources for conflict transformation and peacebuilding efforts.

Violence and the Life of Muhammad[3]

When the prophet Muhammad (570-632 C.E.) brought the Qur’an to the Arabs in the early seventh century, pre-Islamic Arabia were steeped in oppressive social relations and were caught up in a vicious cycle of violence. Muhammad’s egalitarian message quickly began to threaten the Makkan elite. They opposed his teachings with great vehemence.     As the persecution and suffering of the early Muslims increased, Muhammad who was concerned for their welfare and security approved the migration to Africa of all those wishing to leave. The reputation for justice and tolerance of the Nazarene ruler of Abyssinia, the Negus, was well known, and so in secrecy, a total of eighty-three adults and children, set out across the Red Sea to seek refuge. The Muslim immigrants were welcomed by the Abyssinians and were further protected from their persecutors who sent a delegation to bring the Muslim refugees back to Makkah.

Having failed to secure the return of the Muslims who had fled to Africa, the Makkan elite, led by the Quraish tribe intensified their persecution of those who remained. They decided to expel Muhammad and his followers to a barren valley a few miles outside the city and instituted a boycott against them. The early Muslims were forced to live there for three long years with only limited food supplies smuggled in from sympathetic Makkans. The deprivation was so bad that Muhammad’s wife, Khadija, fell ill and died.

Shortly thereafter, Muhammad’s uncle and sole protector, Abu Talib, a nobleman from the Quraish also died. This was to mark a turning point in his history. The Makkans now felt unrestrained to kill him. In consultation with his followers he decided to flee to the nearby city of Madina in 622 C.E. In is instructive to note that throughout the Makkan period, the early Muslims responded to the mental anguishes, physical abuse and persistent threats to their lives with passive resistance.

During his stay in Madina, Muhammad attempted to resolve the conflict with the Makkan leaders and their allies by entering into a peace treaty at a place called al-Hudaybiyah. The treaty came to be known as Sulh al-Hudaybiyah.  Sulh or reconciliation 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 (Qur’an, 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-Hudaybiyah never actually achieved its aims because the Makkan tribesmen violated its conditions, it remains as an instructive conflict intervention strategy.

In the succeeding decade (622-32 C.E.), Muhammad and his growing band of followers were to engage in a series of battles to defend Islam against the military aggression of their adversaries, including the critical battles of Badr, Uhud and Khandaq.

In 630 C.E., the Muslims gained their most significant victory when they captured the city of Makkah, 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 (632 C.E) Muhammad died in Madinah at the age of 63.

In appraising the question of violence in the life of Muhammad it is critical to bear in mind that it was only thirteen years into his prophetic mission the early Muslims were permitted to engage in armed resistance but only under certain stringent conditions, as specified by the Qur’an.

The Qur’an on Violence

It might be expedient to begin our analysis with the two definitive verses in the Qur’an, verses 39 and 40 of Surah al-Hajj, which marks the change from the thirteen years of passive resistance in Makkah to that of armed defense in Madina in the early history of Islam.

"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". 0000

It is interesting to note that the above verses gives 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 above verses, clearly stipulates that the defense of religious freedom for all is the foremost just cause for which arms may be undertaken, as a last resort.

Because the Qur’an was revealed in the context of deadly conflict, several passages deal with the ethics of warfare. (5:49; 8:61; 11:118-9; 49:9; 49:13).[4]  The just war is always evil, but sometimes you have to fight in order to avoid the kind of persecution that Makkah inflicted on the Muslims (2: 191; 2: 217), or to preserve decent values (4: 75; 22: 40). Warfare was a desperate affair in seventh century Arabian. 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). The most contentious of these is the so-called sword verse (ayat al-sayf) located in Surah al-Tawba (9:5).

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.

This passage has received considerable exegetical attention from classical Muslim scholars. The majority of jurists argue that this verse cannot be generalized and that it relates to a limited context. They point out that the verse was revealed at a time when hostilities between Muhammad and his enemies were frozen for a three month period. During this phase Muhammad encouraged the combatants to join the Muslim ranks, or leave the Muslim controlled areas in peace. If however they rejected both of these options and chose instead to continue with their aggression then the Muslims would have to fight back until victory. The latter part of the verse provides still another opportunity for forgiveness and mercy. In the conclusion of these jurists it is only right to kill non-Muslims if they pose a clear threat to Islam and Muslims. A minority of jurists have however construed the “sword verse” to mean 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.”[5]

Yet other Qur’anic 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: 192-3). The Qur’an however 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 Concept of Jihad and its Relationship to Violence

The Islamic term most often conflated with that of violence is jihad. The Arabic word jahada from which the verbal noun jihad is derived literally means “to strive hard, to exert strenuous effort and struggle.” Jihad is often incorrectly translated as and equated with aggressive “holy war”, and consequently for many in the West, it has come to symbolize Islam as a religion of violence and terrorism. Muslim scholars have long objected to the inanity of confusing the two terms jihad and holy war. More recently, one of America’s most vocal Islamic legal scholars, Khalid Abou-el-Fadl has emphatically stated the case when he argued that “The Islamic concept of jihad should not be confused with the medieval concept of holy war since the actual word al-harb al-muqaddasah is never used by the Qur’anic text or Muslim theologians. In Islamic theology, war is never holy; either it is justified or not.”[6]  (Boston Review 2/25/2002)

The persistence of Western scholars in employing categories of thought such as “holy war” which are rooted in Western Christian paradigms, does not help in interpreting present –day movements within Islam. In fact it obscures reality even further and remains as yet another obstacle in the critical task facing Muslim and Christians in the aftermath of September 11, namely that of  “building bridges of understanding” between the two communities.

As a multivalent Islamic concept, jihad denotes any effort in pursuit of a commendable aim. Jihad is a comprehensive concept embracing peaceful persuasion (16:125), passive resistance (13:22; 23:96; 41:34) as well as armed struggle against oppression and injustice (2:193; 4:75; 8:39). Moreover, jihad is not directed at the 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. As we have already seen the permission for armed struggle (jihad al-qital) was in the context of protecting religious freedom for all. (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 al-nafs [disciplining the self]. Sufi’s 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”[7] (Chittick 1983: 151).

Transcending Classical Notions of Jihad[8]

After the demise of the Muhammad 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 an excellent study, two historians, Roy Mottahedeh and Ridwan al-Sayyid, have demonstrated that the classical doctrine of jihad was forged by some Muslim jurists primarily in response to the imperial politics of the Ummayyad caliphate (661-750) on the one hand and their border warfare with the Byzantine Empire on the other.[9]  They point out that during this time a vociferous debate raged between jurists from the sacred cities of Makkah and Madina and those from Syria.  Makkan jurists, like Sufyan al-Thawri (d.778) was of the view that jihad was justified only in defense. They also considered devotional practices such as prayer (salah) more important than physical fighting (al-qital). Syrian jurists, on the other hand, like al-Awza’i (d.773) set about their scheme of forging a more aggressive concept of jihad by abrogating the Makkan passive resistance experience and predicated their project on selected verses of the Qur’an, one finds the following; “And fight them on until there is no more oppression and tumult (fitna) and religion should be for God” (2:193).

The two competing interpretations of jihad continued to vie with each other until the Abbasid period (750-1258). Between the late 8th and early 9th centuries the Abbasid rulers were engaged in intense border warfare with the Byzantines. Profoundly influenced by this context, jurists advocating a belligerent interpretation of jihad found an opportunity to popularize their views. As a consequence these scholars developed a doctrine of jihad in which the world is simply divided into a dichotomy of abodes: the abode of Islam (dar al-islam) and the abode 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). Still later, a third abode, the “abode of treaty (dar al-‘ahd), referring to countries which have peace treaties with the Islamic caliphate was added. This strand of classical belief erroneously perceived of jihad as the instrument of the Islamic caliphate to expand Muslim territories.

The reductionist interpretation of jihad was yet again revitalized in the late fifteenth century by Muslim jurists who witnessed the expulsion of Spanish Muslims during the Reconquista reflecting the fears and anxieties prevalent in Muslim lands at the time and came to be influential within subsequent Muslim juristic thinking. This controversial interpretation of jihad as we have shown, however, failed to capture the full range of the rich meaning of the concept of jihad.  The aggressive strand of classical doctrine of jihad has and continues to be challenged by Muslim jurists.

Towards A New Islamic Paradigm on Jihad, Violence and Peacebuilding

Contemporary Muslim scholars such as Muhammad Abu Zahra, Mahmud Shaltut, Muhammad al Ghunaimi, Louay M. Safi, Khalid Abou El-Fadl and Tariq Ramadan have criticized the classical doctrine of jihad as being seriously flawed since its violates some of the essential Islamic principles on the Islamic ethics of war. Safi objecting to the classical doctrine has argued that; “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.”[10]  Louay Safi as well as a number of other scholars, contend that the hegemonic classical doctrine of jihad is historically contingent and thus have 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 co-existence or (dar-al-sulh or ‘ahd). He had in mind the long-standing cordial relationship that had existed between the early Muslims and the Abyssinia Christian state.  He recalled that the prophet Muhammad himself had sent the earliest group of his followers from Makkah 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 Makkah. Moreover, Muhammad had advised peaceful co-existence 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.

Contemporary Muslim scholars have begun to reclaim the alternative paradigm represented by the Abyssinian model which was marginalized and ignored by the partisan interpretations of some of the mainstream classical Muslim jurists. Contemporary scholars such as Louay M. Safi are currently reclaiming this third paradigm as a beacon of peaceful co-existence for Muslims living in Europe and North America. Others, such as Tariq Ramadan have argued that since the concepts of dar al-islam and dar al-harb is neither sanctioned by the Qur’an or the prophetic tradition (sunna), and moreover since it does not help in enabling present day Muslims to live peacefully in a globalized world, the concepts are no longer useful and should therefore be abandoned.[11]  Still others, like Rabia Terri Harris have called on contemporary Muslims to reclaim the rich Sufi tradition on conflict transformation by relinking the lesser jihad to that of the greater jihad.[12]  All of these proposals have profound implications for expanding Muslim resources for conflict transformation and peacebuilding efforts.

Conclusion

To return to our central question how does one account for the many violent conflicts in the contemporary world in which Islam and Muslims are implicated. My simple answer is as follows; the contemporary global order is not by any stretch of the imagination a just one. Islam places a strong emphasis on social justice and is not a pacifist tradition.  Extremists have a disproportionate influence within the ranks of Muslims and the global communications media have “inadvertently” become the ally of Muslim extremists.

In conclusion, then, in their diagnosis of the issue of contemporary violence in which Islam is implicated scholars and analysts need to avoid simplistic analyses, but attempt instead to understand the causes of violence as a complex combination of a number of variables including the socio-economic and political, while at the same time not ignoring or underplaying the religious and spiritual dimensions. The Muslim legitimization of violence does not occur in a socio-historical vacuum, but within concrete human settings in which power dynamics are paramount and despite the violent image of Islam generated by the contemporary media as well as the very real presence of violence in parts of the Muslim world, it is important to remember that the history of Islam has certainly not been witness to any more violence than one finds in other traditions.

Footnotes:

1 For two of the most popular academic accounts that depict Islam as inherently violent see, Bernard Lewis, What Went Wrong?: The Clash Between Islam and Modernity in the Middle East. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002); and Samuel P. Huntington, The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order. (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1996). There has been an alarming amount of anti-Islamic propaganda published after 9/11.  Two particularly sinister works that attempt to demonize all politically active Muslim individuals or organizations are: Steven Emerson, American Jihad: The Terrorists Among Us (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2002); and Daniel Pipes, Militant Islam Reaches America (New York: W.W. Norton Co., 2002).  Both of these works brand all American Muslims who are critical of Israeli policies as potential terrorist threats, and they incite suspicion against American Muslims by claiming that many of those Muslims are taking part in a secret conspiracy to promote terrorism in America. 

2 Such apologetic Muslim reactions often claim that “Islam means peace” while refusing to acknowledge that violent extremist groups to indeed exist within Muslim ranks. This off course is not unique to Islam and Muslims.

3 For useful introductions to the life of Muhammad see, Martin Lings, Muhammad: His Life Based on the Earliest Sources, (Rochester: Inner Traditions International, 1983); and Karen Armstrong, Muhammad: A Biography of the Prophet (New York: HarperCollins, 1993).

4 For a detailed discussion of the Islamic Ethics of War and Peace see, Sohail H. Hashmi, “Interpreting the Islamic Ethics of War and Peace” in The Ethics of War and Peace, ed. Terry Nardin (Princeton University Press 1996).

5 For a useful discussion of various interpretations of this verse see, Louay Safi M., Peace and the Limits of War: Transcending Classical Conception of Jihad (Herndon, VA: International Institute of Islamic Thought, 2001, pp 8-15).

6 Khalid Abou El Fadl, “The Place of Tolerance in Islam,” in Boston Review, 2/25/2002.

7 Chittick William, trans. The Sufi Path of Love: The Spiritual Teachings of Rumi. (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1983).

8 For a detailed discussion of this see, Louay Safi M., Peace and the Limits of War: Transcending Classical Conception of Jihad (Herndon, VA: International Institute of Islamic Thought, 2001).

9 Roy Mottahedeh and Ridwan al-Sayyid, “The Idea of the Jihad in Islam Before the Crusades,” in The Crusades from the Perspective of Byzantium and the Muslim World, eds. Angeliki E. Laiou and Roy Parviz Mottahedeh (Washingtom, D. C., 2001).

10 Safi, Peace and the Limits of War,  44

11 See especially chapter 3 of Tariq Ramadan’s, Western Muslims and the Future of Islam. (New York, Oxford University Press, 2004).

12 Rabia Terri Harris, “Nonviolence in Islam: The Alternative Community Tradition,” in Subverting Hatred: The Challenge of Nonviolence in Religious Traditions. (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1988).

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