I recently gave a seminar on Islamic Ethics at Keele University as part of an undergraduate course on Religious Ethics organized for the University by the Keele Chapel. The seminar was a broad overview that covered various topics, including justice, responsibility, human rights, and others. During the discussion that followed the seminar, one of the chaplains, who organize and run the course for the University, made the excellent observation that there were clear similarities between my discussion of the ethics of war in Islam and the Christian concept of Just War that was discussed in a previous seminar of that course. He asked me to comment on his observation. This is a more detailed comment on this question.
Relying on the biography of Jesus Christ in the Gospels and ignoring the Law of the Old Testament, Christianity has traditionally been presented as being completely peaceful and against the use of force and any form of violence. Jesus’ following words are the standard example to quote in support of this image: “But I say to you, Do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also” (Matt. 5:39). But as attractive as this pacifist image might be, it is not one that can be sustained in the real world. Christians, like any other groups, have resorted to the use of force and war for various reasons. The attempt to reconcile the unrealistic image of Christianity as completely pacifist, the impossibility of avoiding violence even when peace is the ultimate aim, and the fact that violence played no smaller part in the history of Christianity than the history of other religions led Christian theologians to develop the concept of “Just War.” This concept was first suggested by St. Augustine of Hippo (354-430 CE), who acknowledged that achieving peace may require resorting to violence. The concept was later further developed by Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) who articulated the conditions under which war would be just.
The tension between image, perception, and reality that led to the development of the concept of Just War as an addendum to Christian ethics does not exist in Islam. The Qur’an is clear that, under certain circumstances, violence can be available route to noble causes, including the pursuit of justice, the containment of violence and aggression, and the establishment of peace. As the Qur’an aims to achieve peace, allows resorting to force only as a last resort, and regulates the use of violence, the concept of Just War is built into the Qur’an and the code of conduct that it commands the Muslims to follow. I will present here some of aspects of the concept of Just war as presented in the Qur’an.
After enduring persecution in Mecca for 10 years, which led Prophet Muhammad and the other Muslims to escape to the northern city of Medina, and after the continuation of the hostility against them even after their immigration, God gave the Muslims the permission to fight back:
Surely, Allah defends those who believe. Surely, Allah does not love anyone who is unfaithful, ungrateful. (22.38) Permission [to fight] has been granted to those against whom war is waged, because they are oppressed. Surely, Allah is well capable of assisting them [to victory]. (22.39)
The use of the term “defend” indicates that the permission to fight was granted because this is a case of self-defense. Verse 22.39 goes on to elaborate more about the nature of the persecution, citing the oppression that the believers in the new religion had come under. This elaboration continues in the next verse:
[The permission is to] those who have been driven out of their homes without a just cause, only because they say: “Our Lord is Allah.”
The driving of Muslims out of their homes is a reference to their forced migration to Medina. The permission to go to war was given to allow the Muslims to defend their basic human right to choose their own faith. The verse then goes on to make the critical point that the use of violence can be unavoidable in defending this right:
Had it not been for Allah’s repelling some people by means of others, then certainly cloisters, churches, synagogues, and mosques in which Allah’s name is much remembered would have been pulled down. Surely, Allah will help him who helps His cause. Surely, Allah is Mighty, Invincible. (22.40)
It is significant that the verse mentions various houses of worship, thus emphasizing the fact that various religious groups have found themselves having to use violence to defend their right to believe in Allah.
These verses also make it clear that Muslims have the right to resort to force only to defend their rights and way or life:
Allah does not forbid you [O you who believe!] from being kind and just to those who have not waged war against you because of your religion and have not driven you out of your homes. Surely, Allah loves those who are just. (60.8) He only forbids you from taking guardians those who have waged war against you because of your religion, have driven you out of your homes, and have supported others in driving you out. As to those who take them as guardians, these are the wrongdoers. (60.9)
The Muslims are commanded to live in peace with people of other faiths. The permission to use force is strictly given to defend their rights.
The following verse explains how God expects the victorious Muslims to behave. They must practice the faith which led them to war, because otherwise the justification for the permission to go to war would be undermined:
[The permission is to] those who, should We establish them in the land, will keep up prayer, pay the obligatory alms, enjoin good, and forbid evil. Allah’s is the sequel of events. (22.41)
The verse also stresses that the victorious Muslims must behave ethically in general.
Another aspect of the concept of Just War in the Qur’an, in addition to the fact that war can be launched only in self-defense, is that war must be stopped as soon as the other side resorts to peace; peace must be given priority over war:
Therefore, if they (the disbelievers) withdraw so they do not fight you [O you who believe!]and they offer you peace, then Allah has not made for you a case [to wage war] against them. (4.90)
If they (the disbelievers) incline to peace then incline [O Muhammad!] to it, and rely on Allah. Surely, He is the Hearing, the Knowing. (8.61)
But if they (the disbelievers) desist, then surely Allah is Forgiving, Merciful. (2.192) Fight them until there is no persecution and religion is Allah’s. But if they desist, then there should be no hostility, except against the wrongdoers. (2.193)
The Qur’an also states that any violence used must be measured and proportionate:
Fight in the way of Allah those who fight you [O you who believe!], and do not transgress. Surely, Allah does not love the aggressors. (2.190)
The recompense of an act of aggression is a similar act, so whoever forgives and makes reconciliation then he will have his rewards from Allah. Surely, He does not love the wrongdoers. (42.40)
If you punish [O you who believe!], then punish like you were punished. If you show patience, then it is better for the patient. (16.126)
These verses also command the Muslims to be forgiving and to seek reconciliation after the war has ended.
Of course, the development of the Christian concept Just War did not ensure that the wars and violence that Christians got involved met the definition and conductions of that concept. The same applies to the war and violent acts that Muslims conducted. But this schism between theory and practice applies to every concept that the human being has ever used.