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Islam, Peace and Jihad

Wednesday, June 24, 2009, Maulvi Yahya Nomani

Translated from Urdu by Dr. Yoginder Sikand


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The basic law underlying inter-community relations in Islam is peace and reconciliation (sulh). Ideally, the relations that a Muslim state should enjoy with other states in the world should be based on peaceful reconciliation. At the same time, however, the Quran gives Muslims permission to fight under some circumstances. It mentions that fighting is permitted to those who have been made the target of war by others and because they are oppressed.


As the Quran very rightly points out, ‘Tumult and oppression are worse than slaughter.’ (Quran 2:217). In the same Quranic verse, Muslims were for the first time instructed to take to fighting in the following words:


Fight in the cause of Allah those who fight you but do not transgress limits; for Allah loveth not transgressors. And slay them wherever ye catch them, and turn them out from where they have turned you out; for tumult and oppression are worse than slaughter.


From these Quranic verses, it very clearly emerges that Islam regards war as, being in essence, something bad or negative. At the same time, it concedes that war might sometimes become essential for eliminating what it calls fitna. This is why, following the Battle of Badr, the Quran, in Surah Anfal, ordered Muslims to fight the pagans of Mecca so that the religious persecution and oppression by the latter came to an end and the hurdles that the Meccans had put in the path of inviting people to Islam in Arabia were removed. The Quran went further in exhorting Muslims to wage war:


“Against them make ready your strength to the utmost of your power, including steeds of war, to strike terror into (the hearts of) the enemies of Allah and your enemies and others besides whom ye may not know but whom Allah doth know.” (Quran 8:60).


After this, the Quran exhorted Muslims to spend their wealth in making preparations for war, but, at the same time as it inspired them to take to the battlefield, it also proclaimed:


“But if the enemy incline towards peace, do thou (also) incline towards peace, and trust in Allah: for He is the one that heareth and knoweth (all things). Should they intend to deceive thee― verily Allah sufficeth thee.” (Quran 8:61-62).


The particular background and specific context of the revelation of the above-quote verse needs to be noted. Just before this verse, other verses exhorted the believers to make preparations to wage war against the oppressors. On the other hand, this verse instructed them to accept peace if their enemy inclined towards it. Now, it could be possible that doubts could arise as to the intention of the enemy in suing for peace, for the enemy might use this as a deceptive stratagem. In response to this, this verse says that Muslims should incline towards peace and place total trust (tawwakul) in God, adding that this trust alone is the true support for the believers.


These verses of the Quran were revealed with regard to the Jewish tribes of Medina or the pagans of Mecca with whom the Muslims were then at war with. They were stiff opponents of Islam. They had conspired to extirpate Islam and destroy the citadel of Islam, Medina. The Jewish tribes were hand-in-glove with the Meccan pagans in this venture. The actual aim of these verses was to exhort Muslims to go to war in defence, but yet, in the same context, the Quran advised Muslims that if their enemies inclined towards peace, they must do the same, and place their trust in God. At the same time, it also suggested that, despite this, Muslims should make suitable preparations since the enemy was untrustworthy and that it was possible that it could renege on its promise and betray them.


On the basis of these verses, we can say that it is wrong to suppose that peace between Muslims and others is conceivable only when the Muslims’ position is so weak that they are unable to wage war. The background of these verses that speak about the need to accept the offer of peace of the enemy indicates that the Muslims’ position at that time was certainly not weak. In fact, the verses exhorted Muslims to fight. One of these verses even declares:


O Prophet! Rouse the Believers to the fight. If there are twenty amongst you, patient and persevering, they will vanquish two hundred: if a hundred, they will vanquish a thousand of the Unbelievers: for these are a people without understanding (Quran 8:65)


It must be remembered that these verses were revealed after the grand victory of the Muslims at the Battle of Badr. So, if at such a time Muslims were ordered to accept the offer of peace made by such a fierce enemy, it obviously indicates that it is completely wrong to believe that peace can only be accepted when Muslims are weak and that it should not be accepted when Muslims are in a strong position. This argument is completely bogus, because at the time when this Quranic verse was revealed the Muslims were not under any compulsion.


Why, then is Peace Considered to be Merely Temporary in the Corpus of Fiqh?


The above-mentioned verses clearly indicate that when the possibilities for peace exist, Islam teaches that peace must be accepted. Yet, at the same time, the corpus of fiqh or Muslim jurisprudence developed by Muslim scholars after the Prophet does not, in general, reflect this notion that the basic principle of Islam underlying inter-community relations is peace. Instead, the books of fiqh create the impression that peace is something to be accepted only as a temporary measure.


The reason for this must be located in the particular historical context when the corpus of fiqh came to be developed, including the then prevailing level of civilization and inter-communal and political situation. It must be remembered that at that time the concept of permanent peace simply did not exist anywhere in the world. In both practical as well as ideological terms, the notion of such a peace was completely foreign for governments and states in that age. The state of human civilization at that time was such that if any state found it possible or feasible to declare war and capture the territory of another state, it considered it its duty to do so.


There was another aspect of the then prevailing system of inter-community relations because of which the ulema of that period felt it their duty to warn Muslim rulers to accept peace only when they were compelled to do so. This had to do with the fact that, in those days, every state was closely allied to and identified with one or the other religion. In fact, every government was based on some or the other religious ideology. Naturally, in that period it was simply inconceivable that any non-Muslim government would open the doors to Muslims to call people in the lands they controlled to God’s path. It was simply not possible. Almost every non-Muslim government resisted, sometimes through force, this mission of Islam in their territories. In this way, they became a major hurdle between God and His slaves, preventing the latter from hearing and accepting God’s message. In such a context, accepting peace as the permanent norm would naturally have meant that Muslims would have to abstain from their duty of calling others to God’s path and His service. Obviously, it was impossible for the Muslim ummah to accept this, for that would have gone completely against the basic role and duty of the ummah. This is why the ulema and scholars of fiqh of those times expressed the view that Muslim states should accept peace with non-Muslim states only on a temporary basis and simply out of pragmatism and the compulsion of circumstance. [Obviously, the conditions in today’s age are very different, where freedom to practice and propagate religion, including Islam, is generally allowed in most countries.]


The Quran’s insistence that war can be declared to overcome the fitna of the agents of falsehood that use force to damage or block the mission of the prophets of God and that are a barrier between God and His slaves is undoubtedly correct. Other than for this, however, it must be noted, peace remains the basic principle underlying inter-community relations, according to Islam.


Some people claim that the above-quoted verse that speaks of making peace with enemies has been abrogated, and that it was replaced by other verses that were revealed after it that command Muslims to wage war against the polytheists. However, most Quranic commentators do not agree with this claim. For instance, with regard to this verse Ibn Jareer Tabari writes:


‘If they [the enemies] agree with you to stop fighting and accept peace, and, irrespective of whether they accept Islam or pay the jizya or reconcile or establish peace in any other way, you [Muslims], too, should incline towards peace and do what you want and give what you want.’


With regard to those who claim that these verses have been abrogated, Ibn Jareer Tabari writes that:


‘No proof of this [claim] can be advanced from the Quran or the Sunnah or from reason (aql) or nature (fitrat).’


In actual fact, the two different types of Quranic verses (exhorting Muslims to fight, and ordering them to make peace) were revealed for different conditions and circumstances. The verses that talk of peace relate to a situation when the opponent wishes to cease fighting and accept peace. On the other hand, the verses that exhort Muslims to fight relate to a situation when their opponents had unleashed a full-fledged war against the Muslims. In that situation, obviously, for Muslims to sit back and not take action would have been tantamount to weakness and accepting degradation. That is why this was forbidden, and the Quran declared:


Be not weary and faint-hearted, crying for peace. When ye should be Uppermost: for Allah is with you and will never put you in loss for your (good) deeds (Quran 47:35).


An Important Clarification

In the above-mentioned verses, Muslims were exhorted to fight the Meccan pagans so that fitna and religious persecution could be ended and religion was for God alone. The Arabic word fitna means to harass, oppress and to force someone. Those commentators who have wrongly interpreted fitna to mean simple shirk or polytheism have done so because, once a series of wars had broken out between the Muslims and the pagan Arabs, the Muslims were ordered to continue fighting until the very roots of polytheism were uprooted from Arabia. In actual fact, however, fitna does not mean polytheism alone.


A major clarification needs to be made here. This relates to the point made in the Quran that war should continue till religion is for God alone. This certainly does not mean that people must be forced, through war, to accept Islam. The fact that the Quran allows Muslims to take jizya from non-Muslims and then enter into a peace treaty [to protect them] clearly suggests that non-Muslims are not to be forced to become Muslim. Further, it also does not mean that the concept of jihad is based on the notion that only Muslims, and no other community, have the right to establish an independent government of their own.


In actual fact, the order of fighting the polytheists [till religion exists only for God] applied only to the Arabian Peninsula, where Muslims were told not to allow any government but that based on Islam to exist. The Quran very clearly indicated that the status of Mecca was like an ‘Abrahamic and Ismaili endowment’ [because of its historical association with the Prophet Abraham and his son Ismail] and that the entire land inhabited by the descendants of Ismail—the Arabs—must be reserved only for Islam, the religion of Abraham, so that it could be the centre for the Abrahamic call to faith (da‘wat). Accordingly, the final objective of the series of wars in the Arabian Peninsula was to make the whole of that territory to come under the religion of God.



From this detailed discussion, it clearly emerges that if any non-Muslim community sincerely wants to establish peace with Muslims, its offer of peace must be accepted. This also means that if any non-Muslim state agrees to be at peace with Muslims, and allows for the peaceful practice and propagation of Islam in its territories, and does not engage in any force or fitna in this regard, Muslims must accept this offer and use peaceful methods, exerting all their efforts in this path of inviting others to the faith, so much so that the ‘proofs’ (hujjat) of God are established. After this, in accordance with His established ways (sunnat), God will open a way. That He will certainly do when all ‘proofs’ have been established.



If something leads to distance from God,

It causes knowledge to be fitna;

Children, Wealth and Lands to be fitna;

The sword that is wielded for the oppressed to be fitna;

Not just the sword, but even the call ‘God is the Greatest’

[Allahu Akbar] to be fitna




This is a translation of excerpts from Yahya Nomani's Urdu book,

al-Jihad [Lucknow: Al-Mahad al-Ali Lil Darasat al-Islamiya, 2009.

Yahya Nomani works with

the Lucknow-based Urdu Islamic monthly, al-Furqan



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