Islam and War

You must win men’s hearts before you can induce them to imperil their lives for you; and the first conquerors of Islam must have been made Muslims before they were made fighters on the Path of God.

Some have criticized Islam because it recognizes war and even commands it in order to put an end to the domination of injustice and tyranny; to rescue the oppressed; and to establish a tolerant social–political environment where Islam can be practiced freely and everyone is free to practice their own religion.

The criticism is wholly unjust insofar as, though not in so many words, it seems to be arguing that Islam introduced war into human history. The criticism is particularly inappropriate when voiced by adherents of Christianity: for although there is not a specific commandment in the Gospels to permit or prohibit war – the Gospels are silent and present no rules for instigating war nor for its proper conduct and containment – western history is replete with examples of extremely bloody wars, wide in scope and ruthless in their intensity, which were conducted in the name of Christianity.

Indeed, the religion of Christianity was often employed by Western powers in previous centuries to provide a cover and means for the colonization of two-thirds of the world’s peoples and resources. The criticism is also entirely inappropriate when voiced by adherents of Judaism, for Jewish history, too, is largely a chronicle of religiously motivated conflicts and wars, and the Old Testament is explicit in sanctioning war. As for other faith communities, such as those in south, east and southeastern Asia, their followers have surely not refrained from waging war, either. Yet in the end, the driving forces behind the “modern secularized world,” which allow and even promote war in the service of individual rulers, nations, and even commercial interests —rather than God— have caused more bloodshed and destruction in the past one hundred years than every single religious conflict combined, throughout the whole of human history before it.

Part of the very meaning of the word Islam is peace; therefore, Islam prefers peace, desires it and seeks to establish it throughout the world. However, war is a reality of human history, a manifestation in the collective life of humankind resulting from the inner condition of those who have not been able to attain excellence in mind, heart (spirit) and conduct. Or, it is a manifestation of the war between the spirit and the carnal soul, or between Satan and the perfectibility of human nature. What is important and necessary, therefore, rather than denying the reality of war in a vainly idealistic manner, is to establish rules to make war just, in respect to both its motives and purposes, as well as its means and conduct, so that the harm of it is contained, and the good in it may benefit the people in general. War may then be, while not something in itself desirable, rather something capable of serving (versus perverting) a desirable end –like disciplining and training the body to improve its strength or skill, or doing a necessary operation to save someone’s health, or administering upon a criminal the due punishment for the sake of deterrence and the health of the moral environment. Precisely such disciplining of the means and ends of war is what Islam has done.

The verses do not order war, but allow it on condition that it be in God’s cause and for defensive purposes. It also enjoins that the limits set by God must not be exceeded. Those limits are related to both the intention and the practice. For example, Islam does not permit war for motives such as conquest or plunder, or to quench a lust for revenge, or for the sake of some material advantage, or to satisfy racist persuasions. Islam does not seek to compel anyone to change his or her faith. On the contrary, it seeks an environment where all are free to accept faith freely. Islam has also set limitations on the conduct of relations before, during, and after conflict; for example:

  • Do not betray any agreements you have entered into.
  • Do not plunder.
  • Do not commit injustices or use torture.
  • Do not touch the children, the womenfolk, the elderly, or other non-combatants of the enemy.
  • Do not destroy orchards or tilled lands.
  • Do not kill livestock.
  • Treat with respect the religious persons who live in hermitages or convents, and spare their edifices. (Ibn al-Athir, 3: 227) We should also point out here that people have embraced Islam in very large numbers over very many centuries and in very diverse conditions (from the heights of political and military superiority to the depths of military collapse and subjection), while few have left it to accept another faith. In part because of the psychological difficulty this success has provoked in those who do not wish it, and in part because of prejudices derived from ignorance about Islam, combined with dogmatic conviction about one culture’s superiority over another, some individuals have claimed that Islam is a religion of the sword which was spread by the force of the sword. However, this claim has been consistently refuted by Western unbiased scholarly researchers who have solidly rejected such arguments as simply the result of cultural prejudice:

Many have sought to answer the question of why the triumph of Islam was so speedy and complete? Why have so many millions embraced the religion of Islam and scarcely a hundred ever recanted?

Some have attempted to explain the first overwhelming success of Islam by the argument of the Sword. They forget Carlyle’s laconic reply. “First get your sword.” You must win men’s hearts before you can induce them to imperil their lives for you; and the first conquerors of Islam must have been made Muslims before they were made fighters on the Path of God.

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