Islamic non-violence

Copyright 2003 by Zeeshan Hasan. First published in Bangladesh in the February 7th, 2003 issue of Star Magazine.

Some of the most successful political movements in the twentieth century have been based upon the principle of non-violence. However, Islamic political movements have remained relatively unaffected by widespread ideological moves towards non-violence, as these were generally developed in non-Muslim contexts; Mahatma Gandhi's peaceful resistance against the British, for example, was never integrated into a Muslim religious framework. In the post 9/11 geopolitical scenario, however, it is important to remember that Islam, like all great religious traditions, contains a fundamental message of peace and tolerance; one which can in fact be developed theologically into a full-blown Muslim theory of non-violence. In examining this issue, first we need to look at particular Qur'anic passages which support non-violence. Then we may try to understand some of the historical reasons why Muslim ideals of non-violence have not been realized.

My own development of an Islamic theory of non-violence will be based on the Qur'anic story of Cain and Abel. Since Islam views itself as the fulfillment of the Judeo-Christian tradition, the Qur'an, which Muslims believe to be the word of God as revealed to his prophet Muhammad, is full of stories which are immediately recognizable from the Bible. The Qur'anic stories are often similar to the Biblical ones, but in fact it is the differences between Biblical and Qur'anic versions which are often the most interesting in theological terms. The Cain and Abel story is significant in that it tells of the first violent act in the Biblical narrative; the murder of one of the sons of Adam by the other. As it contains the prototypical act of violence, this story represents the ideal text from which to develop non-violent theology.

Let us quickly go over the story of Adam's sons Cain and Abel as told in the Bible:

'Now Abel was a keeper of sheep, and Cain a tiller of the ground. In the course of time Cain brought to the Lord an offering of the fruit of the ground, and Abel for his part brought of the firstlings of his flock, their fat portions. And the Lord had regard for Abel and his offering, but for Cain and his offering he had no regard. So Cain was very angry, and his countenance fell. The Lord said to Cain, "Why are you angry, and why has your countenance fallen? If you do well, will you not be accepted? And if you do not do well, sin is lurking at the door; its desire is for you, but you must master it." Cain said to his brother, Abel, "Let us go out to the field." And when they were in the field, Cain rose up against his brother Abel, and killed him. Then the Lord said to Cain, "Where is your brother Abel?" He said, "I do not know; am I my brother's keeper?" (Genesis 4:2-11)

Two themes of the above Biblical story bear elaboration, as they will become very significant when we look at the same story in the Qur'an. Most important is that the story is not just about murder, but about sacrifice. Ritual sacrifice was an important part of religious practice in the ancient near east. It often meant making burnt offerings of animals to the gods, thus pleasing them and warding off floods and other forms of divine punishment. For Israelite religion in particular, sacrifice involved making burnt offerings at the Temple of Jerusalem in order to be absolved of various types of uncleanliness or sin. The Cain and Abel story contains the first occurrence of sacrifice in the story of the Bible, and thus was important in establishing the Israelite ritual of sacrifice as primordial practice. The Biblical Cain and Abel story also focuses on the merit of the animal sacrifice of Abel versus the plant sacrifice of Cain, in accordance with their distinct professions. The passage thus seems to reflect social tensions between the sendentary farming and pastoral nomadic communities of Biblical times.

Another important theme of the Biblical Cain and Abel story is that of Cain's responsibility for his brother's death. This theme underlies Cain's famous words that he is not his "brother's keeper", which is simply a false denial of responsibility on his part. But in the end, Cain is punished because he is in fact responsible for Abel's death. His punishment is the loss of his ability to farm, which again returns us to the agrarian vs. pastoral tension underlying the Biblical passage. A subsequent verse, Genesis 4:20, mentions of one Cain's descendants that "he was the ancestor of those who live in tents and have livestock". So in effect Abel has a pyrrhic victory, since his animal-rearing lifestyle wins out over Cain's crop farming.

When we get to the Qur'anic account however, we find a very interesting retelling that changes particular features pertaining to sacrifice as well as the nature of Cain's responsibility for his dead brother.

'And recite thou to them the story of the two sons of Adam truthfully, when they offered a sacrifice, and it was accepted of one of them, and not accepted of the other. "I will surely slay thee," said one. "God accepts only the godfearing," said the other. "Yet if thou stretchest out thy hand against me, to slay me, I will not stretch out my hand against thee, to slay thee; I fear God, the Lord of all Being. I desire that thou shouldst be laden with my sin and thy sin, and so become an inhabitant of the Fire; that is the recompense of the evildoers." Then his soul prompted him to slay his brother, and he slew him, and became one of the losers.' (Qur'an 5:31-33)

In fact, the retelling of the Cain and Abel story in the Qur'an introduces a new theological meaning to it; that of forgiveness of sin through non-violent death. This interpretation hinges on the words that Abel utters when he explains why he does not kill his brother rather than be killed by him: "I desire that thou shouldst be laden with my sin and thy sin." The second part of this statement is very clear; by killing Abel, Cain is committing the sin of murder. Obviously, this is what Abel refers to as Cain's sin. But Abel's first phrase, "I desire that thou shouldst be laden with my sin", is altogether remarkable. How can Cain bear Abel's sin? The Qur'anic message on ethics and moral responsibility is very clear and repeated over and over; each person is responsible for his or her own actions, and will be judged by God accordingly for any wrongdoing.

God charges no soul save to its capacity; standing to its account is what is has earned, and against its account what it has merited. (Qur'an 2:286)

If each person can only be responsible for their own sins, what on earth is Abel talking about? Interpretation does allow a way out of this, if we realize that Cain's bearing of Abel's sin does not mean that Cain will be punished for Abel's wrongdoing. Rather, Cain's bearing of Abel's sin seems to mean that Abel, by allowing his brother to kill him and not raising his hand in retaliation, is forgiven of his sins. The Cain and Abel story in the Qur'an is thus transformed from a Biblical story about the relative merits of Cain and Abel's plant and animal sacrifices into a story about Abel's sacrifice of himself in order to be forgiven of his own sins.

This is a really remarkable theological development. Among other things, it has the interesting consequence of bringing an element into Qur'anic theology which is reminiscent of the Christian concept that Jesus accepted death on the cross in order that humanity be forgiven of its sins through the sacrifice of his life. The Qur'an never mentions this Christian doctrine of forgiveness of humanity's sin through the crucifixion of Jesus. Although this belief forms the basis of Christianity, Muslims tend to find it quite bizarre as Qur'an explicitly denies the divinity of Jesus, and in fact views him, Moses and Muhammad simply as human prophets of God. As a result, there is no reason in Islam for Jesus' crucifixion to have the huge theological impact that it does in the New Testament. Nonetheless, what we see in the Qur'anic story of Cain and Abel is something very similar to the sacrifice of Jesus wiping out the sins of humanity; but here the figure of Abel is both the sacrifice and the recipient of divine forgiveness.

And Abel, of course, is the child of Adam, just as all people are meant to be; so by extension, any other child of Adam should also be able to avail of divine forgiveness by accepting death through non-violence. So the Qur'anic Cain and Abel story gives us an interpretation of Islam which holds that all of one's sins can be forgiven by acceptance of non-violent death. This a far cry from common Western stereotyping of Islam, which routinely "explains" terrorism and suicide bombing by citing the beliefs of the radical fringe that such acts of violence result in the perpetrator's access to heaven.

So it is certainly possible to develop an Qur'anic theory of non-violence. The next question to ask is what problems arise in an Islamic context when we try to apply non-violence as a religious principle? The difficulty that one comes across is "jihad", which everyone is most likely familiar with. Jihad is commonly translated as "holy war", and if such a concept as holy war exists in Islam, any Muslim theory of non-violence will have to deal with it. Let's take a quick look at the word "jihad". It comes from the Arabic verbal root jahada, which means "to strive", or "to struggle", and not just in a military sense. The Arabic word for Qur'anic interpretation, ijtihad, is a derivative of the same root, since the act of interpretation implies a debate within one's mind for the true or correct meaning of a scriptural verse. In particular, the word jihad, commonly translated as "holy war", simply means to struggle with another, and can be used to describe a debate or disagreement as well as a physical struggle. So the "holy war" interpretation of jihad comes not just from the linguistic background of the word, but from its historical usage. Jihad is used in the Qur'an to describe the conflicts which Muhammad and the early Muslim community found themselves in. Its historical usage was later extended beyond the lifetime of Muhammad, and applied to justify the expansionary conquests of the early Islamic empire. Now the question to be answered is, how "Islamic" were the wars of the early Muslim community, and the subsequent Muslim empire-building? Is jihad in the sense of "holy war" a necessary part of Islam?

This becomes a complex question, because the legacy of Islam is difficult to separate from the religion's associations with statehood and empire. The problem begins with Muhammad's own lifetime, during which he and his early Muslim community were engaged in conflict with both pagan Arab tribes of Mecca as well as Jewish tribes around Medina. Since these battles were fought by Muhammad himself, and since Muslims regard the example of his life in high esteem as the deeds of a divinely-guided prophet, the battles of this formative period of Islam might seem to justify a concept of "holy war" in Islam. However, when we look at the Qur'anic verses which justified these battles, we do not find an unequivocal justification of warfare.

Fight in the way of God with those who fight with you, but aggress not; God loves not the aggressors. And slay them wherever you come upon them, and expel them from where they expelled you; persecution is more grievous than slaying. (Qur'an 2:186-187)

If they withdraw from you, and do not fight you, and offer you peace, then God assigns not any way to you against them. (Qur'an 4:92)

In the first verses quoted above, the right to engage in battle is contingent upon a greater good being served. In particular, the criterion which must be met is the existence of "persecution" which can be ended by war. It is made explicit that wars of aggression are not justified. The second verse quoted is also explicit in denying justification to violence if peace is offered as an alternative.

Given these Qur'anic restrictions on violence, an Islamic ideal of non-violence is still feasible. In fact, any responsible ethic of non-violence must deal with the fact that one's choice to be non-violent involves not only to leaving oneself open to violent attack, but also in the vulnerability of others who may be unable to defend themselves without one's forceful assistance. Any ideal of non-violence will have to leave this judgement to be made according to circumstances. In the case of Muhammad and his early Muslim community, it is apparent that the Qur'anic view is that the circumstances of persecution which resulted in the flight of Muslims from Mecca to Medina constituted sufficient persecution to justify the subsequent state of war between the two cities. However, this only means that some wars (in particular, Muhammad's wars) may be justified under some circumstances. But this is simply a commonsense observation. It certainly does not imply that there is a general Qur'anic principal of "jihad" by which any war against non-Muslims becomes a justified as a "holy war". The citing of Muhammad's wars and warlike Qur'anic verses out of their historical context by both Muslim radicals and Western Islamophobes should accordingly be treated with skepticism.

Next, let us look at the question of whether or not holy war, as used to describe the early Muslim imperial expansion after Muhammad, should be considered "Islamic". The Muslim empire expanded rapidly after Muhammad's death, and there can be no doubt that this expansion found the history of Muhammad's wars to be a convenient example. The resulting development of the concept of jihad as imperialist holy war allowed huge accumulation of wealth and territories by expansionist caliphs.

It should be recalled, however, that early Muslim empire-building was also not a purely religious expansion. In fact, conquering Arab armies in the early years of Islam tended to stay aloof and isolated in military encampments from the people whom they conquered. Religious conversion of the local populace was not the issue. The separation of the conquering Muslims from the conquered non-Muslims allowed the populace considerable freedom to continuing practicing their religion as they saw fit. All that was demanded of them was a higher rate of tax, which reveals the real motive of medieval Muslim "jihad"; namely extraction of wealth from conquered territories. Since the primary objective of the early Islamic wars was not correcting any situation of "persecution", and especially since the motive was not to convert conquered people to Islam in any case, the early Islamic empires obviously had no legitimate claim to jihad.

In a real sense, the building of early Muslim empires was simply a continuation of the economic logic of tribal warfare in seventh century Arabia. Caravan raiding and the consequent trade in prisoners and slaves were an important part of pre-Islamic desert economy. Caravan raiding was thus an integral part of tribal culture, as in 7th century arabia there were few other resources available to bedouin communities. Hence the pre-Islamic ethic of "muruwwah", literally manliness, which idealized such traits as generosity in sharing one's posessions with one's tribe as well as fearlessness and ferocity in battle. These are precisely the the attributes of the successful caravan raider who ensures the material well-being of his tribe. After Muhammad's lifetime, the multitude of local tribes had effectively been united into a single Muslim tribe, requiring that the tribal caravan raiding now had to focus on external territories; unification under the banner of the Islamic caliphate gave them the strength they needed for this. Then as now, political leaders found that religious zeal was a useful thing; hence the branding of territorial expansion and war as "jihad" which unfortunately continues to this day. Nostalgia for past influence and empire still makes Muslims prone look to the Caliphate as a romanticized, idealized past. This is understandable to the extent that the age of Islamic empire did bring about much development in the material well-being of Muslims, and consequent improvements in their arts, sciences, literature and material culture. But in fact there is nothing terribly religious or Islamic about spreading empire by conquest. The nostalgia that persists and leads to the glorification of an Empire long since gone is no more Islamic when indulged in by Muslims than by, say, the British.

So it seems that our Muslim theology of non-violence is quite robust in face of historical objections. But then how do we understand the current realities of the Muslim world? In many Muslim countries there are supposedly "Islamic" movements which often advocate violent opposition to both their own governments as well as the West. Western stereotypes tend to lay the blame for these supposedly "fundamentalist" movements on the religion of Islam, which is thus assumed to be naturally violent and regressive. But the above analysis reveals this to be a false generalization, and it would be sensible to explore alternative explanations for radical "Islamist" movements.

In fact, Muslim fundamentalism is much too complex a phenomenon to be explained away by a reductionist blaming of religion. Like most prominent social movements, it has underlying socio-economic causes which have to be considered. Most Muslim societies are stricken with the poverty, corruption and social disparities that are endemic to the developing world. The result is a tremendous amount of frustration on the part of the middle classes, who can see that they will struggle all their lives to eke out a basic existence. At the same time, in most of these societies there exists a ruling class which controls virtually all government, industrial and military institutions and supports itself lavishly by consuming a huge proportion of society's resources. In these circumstances it is only natural for class struggle to erupt through the desire to replace the ruling classes.

This is exactly the state of affairs which led to widespread Marxist agitation all over the developing world only a few decades ago. However, the end of the Cold War has made Marxism untenable as a political philosophy in most countries. In the Muslim world, it is only natural that class dissatisfaction expresses itself in religious "fundamentalist" terms, as Islamist movements also tend to support the removal of current ruling classes. There is only one difference from the Marxist case; the Islamist's explicit justification for removing the upper class is that it is composed of a Westernized elite and insufficiently "Islamic". But this is only really a rhetorical distinction. This analysis brings out the absurdity of any Western attempt to eliminate "fundamentalism" in Afghanistan, Iran or elsewhere. If "fundamentalism" is essentially a Marxist movement, then it is only successful economic development and a consequent alleviation of class inequalities in Muslim societies which will end it.

The other dimension to "fundamentalist" movements is external rather than internal. Muslims perceive the West and its new ex-Soviet allies to be responsible for imperialist policies directed at politically and economically suppressing Muslim populations. This is particularly resented in the case of US support for Israeli policies in the occupied territories, and its uncritical stance towards the brutal Russian campaign against the Chechens. The looming threat of attack on Iraq is the newest issue adding fuel to the fire of public opinion in the Muslim world. Anger at these Western policies fuels religious extremism and regressive views of jihad all over the world, which effectively silences alternative and non-violent interpretations of Islam everywhere. There will have to be peaceful and just solutions to all these conflicts to end the Muslim world's attraction to violent and anti-Western stances of Islamist "fundamentalism".