Chapter 6: The Responsible Use of Power

What can We Learn from Islam: The Struggle for True Religion
by Marcus Braybrooke

Chapter 6: The Responsible Use of Power

Islam is called by some of its followers ‘The Religion of Peace’. The words Islam and Salam, peace, come from the same root. Yet to many in the West, Islam seems to be identified with war and conflict. One of the sharpest contrasts between Jesus and Muhammad is in their attitude to power and the use of force. But there is less difference, as we shall see, between the teaching of Muslim jurists and Christian theologians. Here is an issue on which it is particularly important than members of both religions seek to distinguish true from false teaching. Nothing probably has done more to discredit religion that its being tainted by violence supposedly carried out in the name of God.

The Muslim world has probably seen no more conflict than Christendom. Certainly, however, Islam today is identified with some revolutionary movements, but before looking in a subsequent chapter at the contemporary scene, it is helpful to see what Islam teaches about the use of force.

It is important to recognize that in Islam the whole of life is under God’s control and that all human behavior should be in obedience to God’s will. A committed Christian might well say the same, but in the West secular society has made a distinction between the sacred and the profane. Sociologists have spoken of the ‘privatizing’ of religion in the West, by which they mean that religious adherence has become a leisure time activity -- some people go to church on a Sunday, other people go sailing or shopping. Until recently, certainly in Britain, politicians avoided talking about the moral dimension of public life, although in the last few years there has been more recognition of the fact that there are moral and spiritual dimensions to many of the most urgent issues facing society. In part, this separation of secular and sacred dates to the Enlightenment, which was an intellectual development in Western society and not fully shared elsewhere.

Muslims traditionally do not make a distinction between the sacred and the secular. It is the whole community which should submit to God. Society should be modeled on the Qur’an. In Madina, Muhammad, like Calvin later in Geneva, tried to shape a society that lived in obedience to God’s word. The logic of this position is clear. If God is God, then all life should be lived in obedience to God’s Laws.

The early caliphs, although nor successors to Muhammad as messengers of God, were his successors as ‘commander of the faithful.’ The early caliphs combined spiritual and temporal leadership -- as Christians would understand these terms. Gradually the political rulers of Islam lost their religious aura and the rulers came to be replaced, as the conscience-keepers of the community by the ulama or learned men, who had studied the holy law in depth. In time only the first four caliphs came to be regarded as truly orthodox. The Umayyad dynasty (661-750) were seen as a reversion to secular kingship. The Abbasid caliphs, who ruled in Baghdad from 750-1258, had rather more prestige and some called themselves Khalifat Allah, or God’s deputy or even ‘the shadow of God upon earth’ -- phrases that would have shocked Muhammad. With the loss of effective power by the Abbasids in the tenth century, ‘all genuine political authority in the mainstream Muslim tradition’ writes Edward Mortimer, ‘was secular’, although developments in the Shi’ite tradition were rather different. In the Sunni world ‘virtue and justice’, Mortimer adds, ‘were no longer regarded as indispensable qualifications of a ruler.’ By the eleventh century most of the ulama were teaching that obedience was an absolute duty, even to an unjust ruler, since an unjust ruler was better than none at all.

Today radical Muslims may question this divorce between state and religion. They are very critical of the life style and secular policies of some Muslim rulers and have campaigned, with success in some countries, for the introduction of Shari’a law instead of the law codes which they inherited from Western imperialist rulers. As in the early days, where possible, many Muslims expect to live in an Islamic state. Where Muslims are a minority they are taught to obey the laws of the country where they live, but some groups, like the Muslim Parliament in Britain, would hope that their country of residence would in due course become Muslim.

This concern for a society that is obedient to God goes back to the Prophet Muhammad himself. As we have seen, he met with hostility and ridicule in Mecca, but in 622 CE he was invited to become leader of the neighboring town of Madina. From there, he in due course attacked and captured Mecca. Whether or not he foresaw the quick expansion of Islam that followed his death we do not know, but Islam’s military conquests remain some of history’s most rapid and enduring victories.

There are various economic, social and political factors which contributed to the Prophet’s victory and to subsequent Muslim expansion. Our interest here, however, is in his acceptance of power and the use of force. The command of God was ‘Recite . . . ’ ‘Your only duty is to deliver (the message)’ , God told the Prophet (42, 48). Yet his preaching met with a meager response. Is it sufficient to proclaim God’s message and accept its rejection or should a person use the means available to them to ensure its success?

If you are convinced that you have been commissioned by God, it is understandable that you try to effect that divine commission. As Kenneth Cragg has put it, ‘After thirteen years of sustained and patient witness by word alone, and of relatively scant response within a community proudly resistant and incorrigible, Muhammad determined on emigration. The divine word could not be allowed to fail of "manifest victory". If this was manifestly not attained by preaching, then the very loyalty that preached must pass beyond its verbal task into an active accomplishment of "victory."’ The Muslim writer Fazlur Rahman, said, ‘Muhammad never lost the hope of success nor, indeed, the dire and stark realization that he was duty-bound to succeed. . . . It is part of the Qur’anic doctrine that simply to deliver the message, to suffer frustration, and not to succeed, is immature spirituality.’ It needs, however, to be stressed that force was only to be used in self-defense not in propagation of the faith.

Islam condemns strife, fasad, and many Muslim writers insist that violence should only be a last resort. It has also been pointed out that the battles of that time were quite small affairs in which probably less than two hundred people in all lost their lives. The Prophet is said not to have spent more than one and a half days in actual fighting in a missionary career of twenty three years.

One can compare Muhammad’s choice to that of Jesus who rejected the use of political power and taught the way of non-resistance, although it has to be noted that the political context of their ministries was very different. Cragg notes that the Qur’an makes mention of Moses, David and Abraham as exponents of prophetic action, but that there is no mention of Amos, Hosea, Isaiah or Jeremiah -- prophets who chose to suffer rather than compromise with political power. Jesus followed in the tradition of the Suffering Servant. In the Qur’an Isa (Jesus) is a faithful teacher and witness and warner to his people, but he is not externally ‘successful’, although he was rescued from death and vindicated by the action of God. Some Muslims see Jesus’ failure as evidence of Jesus’ lesser status as compared to Muhammad.

A comparison to the early history of Sikhism is also interesting. The first Sikh Gurus were pacifists. They suffered intense persecution. Two Gurus and many of their followers were martyred. The tenth Guru, Guru Gobind Singh, however, created the Khalsa and organized the community to defend itself. Rather than see themselves and their faith community destroyed, the Sikhs chose to defend themselves and their faith by force.

Muhammad’s choice was similar. This highlights the complex question of when and whether it is right for those who are God-fearing to use force. Here is an area which Muslims and Christians need to explore more fully together. Does Truth need to be upheld by force with the inevitable compromises that this entails or is its purity and vulnerability more powerful? Jesus embodies a love that suffers. The only victory is the change of heart won by such self-giving love. The comparison of the choice made by Muhammad and Jesus has clarified my own thinking and deepened my commitment to the way of the Cross, the path of non-resistant suffering love. But I am aware of the painful choices this too entails. Does it make one appear to stand aside in the face of evil and terrible suffering? This would be the criticism of many Muslims. Ibn Khaldun (1332-1402), who was born in Tunis and moved to Granada and then to Cairo, a distinguished historian and philosopher, who has been called ‘the father of sociology’, said that verbal propagation of a faith is incomplete. He did not consider Christianity to be a ‘missionary’ religion precisely because it had no jihad.

The majority of Christians have rejected the way of Christ as unrealistic. The early Christians were pacifist and in every age some Christians, usually a minority, have held to this belief. The majority, however, have accepted the doctrine, in various forms, of the just war. The theory requires, first, that there is a just cause, which may be self-defense, the protection of the weak and vulnerable, the recovery of something wrongfully taken or the punishment of evil. Secondly, war should be initiated by a legitimate authority. Thirdly, those involved should have a right intention. Fourthly, the force should be proportional to the objectives. The teaching also tried to limit the cruelties of war. At the time of the Reformation, there was considerable debate about whether revolution could be justified. Some Christians held that it was right to rebel against a tyrant.

The teaching of the Qur’an and of Muslim jurists is similar. The use of force in certain clearly defined situations of self-defense or to protect innocent victims is allowed, but efforts are made to limit the cruelties of war.

The Qur’an says:

To those against whom

War is made, permission

Is given (to fight), because

They are wronged; -- and verily,

Allah is Most Powerful

For their aid;--

(They are) those who have

Been expelled from their homes

In defiance of right, --

(For no cause) except

That they say, "Our Lord

Is Allah". Did not Allah

Check one set of people

By means of another,

There would surely have been

Pulled down monasteries, churches,

Synagogues, and mosques, in which

The name of Allah is commemorated

In abundant measure. Allah will

Certainly aid those who

Aid His (cause); for verily

Allah is Full of Strength,

Exalted in Might,

(Able to enforce His Will).

(They are) those who,

If We establish them

In the land, establish

regular prayer and give

Zakat, enjoin

The right and forbid wrong.

With Allah rests the end

(And decision) of (all) affairs. (22, 39-41).

The Qur’an says also that:

And did not Allah

Check one set of people

By means of another,

The earth would indeed

be full of mischief:

But Allah is full of bounty

To all the worlds’ (2, 251).

The Qur’an describes war as a conflagration and God’s aim is to put it out. ‘Every time they kindle the fire of war, Allah doth extinguish it.’ (5, 64). The Qur’an tries to limit the evils of war. Should the enemy desist from fighting, Muslims should do the same, because ‘Allah is Oft-Forgiving, Most Merciful.’(2, 191). Incidentally, this verse follows the rather chilling verse that begins:

And slay them

Wherever ye catch them,

And turn them out from

From where they have

Turned you out;

For Persecution is worse than slaughter. ( 2, 191).

This is an example of the importance of reading a verse in context. The injunction in verse 191 is only valid in the context of hostilities in progress -- rather like the military command to ‘shoot to kill’. It should be understood, as the Saudi Arabian translation comments, in the awareness that in general "Islam is the religion of peace, goodwill, mutual understanding, and good faith. But it will not acquiesce in wrong-doing, and its men will hold their lives cheap in defense of honor, justice, and the religion which they hold sacred."

Cruelty such as disfiguring the enemy dead or torturing prisoners is forbidden. Plundering was forbidden and also unnecessary damage, such as cutting down fruit trees.

When an enemy combatant was about to be killed by Usama bin Zaid, he declared his faith in Islam. Usama killed him nevertheless. The Prophet was greatly displeased and questioned Usama, who said that the man was not sincere. The Prophet retorted "Had you cut open his heart to make sure whether he was sincere or not?" Yet, Muhammad was well aware of the ambiguities of power and the insincerity that it could cause. When a group of Bedouins came to him and said, ‘We believe’, the Qur’an gives as the reply,

‘Ye have no faith; but ye

(Only) say "We have submitted

Our wills to Allah."

For not yet has Faith

Entered your hearts.’ (49, 14).

The Qur’an uses the word Islam in two senses. One is a personal and religious ‘submission’ to God. The other is a visible political ‘submission’ to Islam.

The Qur’an accepts that it is legitimate to use power in establishing a community obedient to God. God’s approval was shown by the God’s gift of victory. Success or ‘manifest victory’ was seen as a sign of God’s favor. This was evident at the battle at Badr, where, despite being heavily outnumbered, the Muslims were victorious (3,13). When the following year, the Muslims were unsuccessful at Uhud, this was explained as a result of Muslim disobedience. It did not alter the conviction that God’s will is sovereign. If, therefore, the Muslim cause is just, God will in the end uphold it -- even if for a time the Muslims suffer testing and punishment. So some religiously motivated Muslim Palestinians reject compromise with Israel, believing that their cause is just and that therefore God will in the end vindicate them.

The use of force, therefore, in certain circumstances, is justified in Islam and it is in this context that the word jihad is to be understood. The word jihad means striving, especially striving in the cause of God. It is personal commitment to God’s service. al-Jilani, also known as Abd al-Qadir al-Jili (1077-1166), founder of the Qadiriya Sufi Order quotes the Prophet as saying , ‘We have returned from the lesser jihad to the greater jihad’ meaning that the purifying of the inner self is more important than the physical struggle against the enemies of Islam. Jihad involves a personal struggle against evil and the use of intellect and speech in support of right and truth and the correction of wrong and evil. Too often this wider meaning is forgotten and the word is confined to the use of force. War is primarily the responsibility of the community, not the individual. This is why, except by the Kharijites who were an early schismatic puritanical group, jihad is not regarded as one of the pillars of Islam.

Jihad is often taken to mean ‘religious’ war, but this is misleading. Certainly it does not imply the killing of non-believers just because of their lack of faith. The Qur’an makes clear that ‘there can be no compulsion in religion: Truth stands out clear from Error.’ (2, 256). Non-believers who were willing to submit should be accepted and as we shall see there was special provision for the Christians and Jews.

Islamic teaching normally only allows war under three conditions:

First, to oppose and expel those who attack Muslims without just cause.

‘Will you not fight people

Who violated their oaths

Plotted to expel the Messenger

And attacked you

First? (9, 13).

Secondly, to prevent oppression and persecution of the faithful. This may be extended to the protection of those who are not Muslim but who are victims of unjustified aggression.

And Why should you not

Fight in the cause of Allah

And of those who, being weak,

Are ill-treated (and oppressed)? -

Men, women, and children,

Whose cry is "Our Lord!

Rescue us from this town

Whose people are oppressors;

And raise for us from thee

One who will protect;

And raise for us from Thee

One who will help" (4, 75).

Thirdly, force could be used, as we have seen, to protect places intended for the worship of God -- not only mosques, but also churches and synagogues. ( 22, 40).

Perhaps the most influential analysis of war was made by Ibn Khaldun. He held that war was not an accidental calamity or disease but was rooted in the selfishness and anger of human beings. He distinguished four kinds of war: tribal wars, feuds and raids, jihad and wars against rebels and dissenters. The first two are wars of disobedience and not justified, whereas the other two are wars of obedience and justified. Victory, he held, depended on military preparedness and spiritual insight.

Muslim jurists submitted jihad to close analysis.

(a) Jihad against polytheists is in some verses of the Qur’an encouraged. For example, 9, 5, says, ‘fight pagans wherever you may find them’, but these are pagans who do not abide by treaties to which they have agreed. 9, 123 is similar, but as the notes in the Saudi Arabian translation say ‘When conflict becomes inevitable . . . mealy mouthed compromises are not right for soldiers of truth.’ 47, 4 says the same, but adds that when the Unbelievers have been subdued

Bind (the captives)

Firmly: therefore

(Is the time for) either

Generosity or ransom:

Until the war lays down

Its burdens.

(b) Jihad against believers was sub-divided by the jurist al-Mawardi (?dates) into:

(i) Jihad against believers. Apostates could become subject to jihad. After Muhammad’s death, some Arab tribes to secede. Abu Bakr gave them solemn warning after which they were attacked with fire and sword.

(ii) Jihad against dissension. When the Kharijites, rejecting Caliph ‘Ali’s offer of peaceful relations and permission to pray in the mosque, continued in their opposition to the Caliph, he overwhelmed them at the battle of Nahruwan in 658 CE.

(iii) Jihad against bandits, who were to be severely punished, unless they repented.

(c) Jihad against the People of the Book -- Jews, Christians and Zoroastrians. They could either embrace Islam and become full citizens or if they retained their beliefs, provided they accepted the authority of the imam and paid taxes, they would be tolerated as Dhimmis, with somewhat restricted rights of citizenship.

(d) Some jurists accepted the strengthening of the frontiers -- ribat -- as allowable. This was based on the verse, 8, 60:

‘Against them [Unbelievers] make ready

Your strength to the utmost

Of your power, including

Steeds of war, to strike terror

Into (the hearts) of the enemies...

But immediately, the next verse continues,

But if the enemy

Incline towards peace,

Do thou (also) incline

Towards peace, and trust in Allah. (8, 61).

Normally ribat was interpreted defensively, in the hope that it would prevent conflict.

Although the Prophet is reported to have said that ‘He who supports a tyrant or oppressor knowing he is a tyrant casts himself outside the pale of Islam’, Al-Ash’ari (873-935) and Din ibn Jama’a (d. 1333) forbade uprisings against tyrants

There were also rules about who should participate and about the conduct of war. Fighters should be adult males who were believers. Non-combatants should be spared unless they actively helped the enemy. Before the first Syrian campaign, Abu Bakr read ten rules that limited violence. For example, soldiers were told not to slaughter a sheep or a camel except for eating, not to burn bees, and not to cut down tress with fruit on them.’ The Prophet had already forbidden killing a decrepit old man, or a small child or a woman. Some of the jurists, however, greatly limited the scope of these prohibitions and Abu Hanafi said that all is permitted against the enemy.

Arbitration was encouraged, based on verse 4, 59, especially to solve disputes within Islam. Muhammad had also submitted to arbitration in a dispute with the Jewish Banu Qurayza tribe. This provided a precedent for the use of arbitration between Muslims and non-Muslims when questions of faith were not in dispute.

It can be seen that Muslim discussion of jihad is not dissimilar to the Christian teaching about a just war. Islam accepts the use of force in self-defense, to defend religion and to protect the weak. The need now is to see how these rules apply to the United Nations’ peace-keeping role. When is it right for the international community to intervene to protect the weak and, for example, to try to prevent genocide. What cost in civilian casualties is acceptable? How do you impose sanctions without hurting the most vulnerable parts of the population of a country? To what extent can peace-keeping forces intervene in civil war? There are important issues for members of different faiths to discuss together with politicians and generals. .

Of course, the teachings of both Islam and Christianity have not always been observed and rulers have been tempted to declare a war of self-interest to be a jihad or a just war It is important also to recognize that in much of both Christian and Muslim history religion has been part of a community’s self-identity. As a result a conflict acquires religious overtones, although its cause is not really religious differences. There is, therefore, a clear responsibility on religious leaders to distance themselves from this misuse of religion. They need courage to challenge their own community when they indulge needlessly in violence or the abuse of human rights.

A step in this direction was taken at the Millennium World Peace Summit of Religious and Spiritual Leaders which met in UN General Assembly Hall in August 2000. The religious leaders agreed a ‘Commitment to Global Peace’ which included a rejection of killing in the name of God. There are, of course, those including suicide bombers who claim to fight in the name of God, but religious leaders need to make clear that they do not have the endorsement of the faithful.

There is a clear difference between Muhammad and Jesus’ attitude to the use of power, but much less difference between the teaching and practice of Christendom and the world of Islam. It may be true today that rulers in Muslim states make more specific reference to Islam than most European leaders do to Christianity, but the real causes of conflict seem to me about economic and political justice rather than primarily religion. Religion is called in to give respectability to policies decided on quite other grounds. The crimes of individuals, however, as the Muslim scholar K G Saiyadam said should not be blamed ‘on their respective religions. In judging a religion, we should do so as it is at its best and in the context of its genuine teachings.’

If both Christianity and Islam have, in some situations, accepted the use of force, their major contribution should be in creating a climate of trust and peace. The dialogue between the faiths is itself a contribution but they need also to emphasize the teachings of their respective religions which make for peace.

Here the Sufi tradition of Islam has a particular contribution to make with its emphasis on the spiritual jihad as well as the teachings of peace. Dr Hasan Askari, who worked for a time at the Center for Christian-Muslim Relations at Birmingham gave a talk some years ago on "Muslim Approaches to Religious Sources for Peace." He began by reference to Prayer which is central to a Muslim’s life. ‘To invoke the One is to become one, to rise above all division and discord... To invoke the name of God is to be in His Presence: to be in His Presence is to be in a perpetual state of prayer, and therefore ‘prayer is an actualization of peace.’ Askari then admitted that religious dogmatism is a fertile breeding ground of hatred and fear, but that acknowledgement of the transcendence of the One God brought people together beyond religious divisions. Members of different religions were called by God to strive ‘as in a race in all virtues.’ (5, 48). Striving for peace, Askari, continued is to struggle for justice, which is the prerequisite for peace, and to oppose corruption and disorder.

Muhammad Raceme Boa Muhaiyaddeen, a Sufi from Sri Lanka, in his Islam and World Peace, published after his death, also stressed the inner jihad. ‘For man to raise his sword against man, for man to kill man, is not holy war. True holy was is to praise God and to cut away the enemies of truth within our own hearts. We must cast out all that is evil within us, all that opposes God. This is the war that we must fight.’ The Oneness of God, he taught, means also that we never see another person as separate from ourselves. As Jesus said, we should love our neighbor just as much as we love ourselves.

I am not aware of ever having chosen to sing "Onward Christian Soldiers" and no doubt congregations where I have been in charge have felt deprived. The imagery of warfare applied to the spiritual life has its dangers. Too easily one identifies the enemy with opponents rather than one’s own inner temptations to sin and even more dangerously those opponents can be demonized and seen as God’s enemies as well as our own. The cruelty of the Crusades is not forgotten in the Muslim world.

If Christians are uneasy with the militant language used by some Muslims today, they need to acknowledge that some Christians in the past and still today find a similar message in Christianity. Those of us who disown that Christian tradition and emphasize the message of God’s forgiving love will be glad that in Islam too there is a similar strand. Here again the issue today is "what is true religion?" Those of every faith who believe that the divine will is love and forgiveness and that peace can only come through reconciliation have to stand together against those find in their religion a call to victory and triumph over the infidel. Evil needs to be resisted, but the true victory is the conversion of the wrong-doer.

[Editor’s note: The original manuscript contains no references for the following notes:]

Edward Mortimer, Faith and Power in the Politics of Islam, Faber and Faber 1982, p.37 Ibid.

K.Cragg, Muhammad and the Christian , DLT 1984, p. 32-3, p. 23

Fazlur Rahman, Islam, London 1961, p. 15. Quoted by Cragg, p. 43.

Ibn Khaldun (1332-1402), who was born in Tunis and moved to Granada and then to Cairo, a distinguished historian and philosopher, who has been called "the father of sociology", said that verbal propagation of a faith is incomplete. To be effective it needs the benefit of power. He wrote that "If the power of wrathfulness were no longer to exist in man, he would lose the ability to help the truth become victorious. Then there would no longer be Jihad or glorification (i.e. acknowledged establishment) of the word of God."

Wahiduddin Khan, Islam and Peace, al-Risala, New Delhi, 1999, p.201. Ibid, p. 182.

I explore this question more fully in What can We Learn from Hinduism?

Ibn Khaldun, op. cit. (n. 3), vol. i, p. 187f.

Saudi Arabian translation of The Holy Qur’an, note 205, p. 80.

Quoted by Muhammad Zafrulla Khan, Muhammad: Seal of the Prophets, Routledge and Kegan Paul 1980, p. 105.

The Holy Qur’an, note 1374, p. 541. Quoted by K G Saiyadain, ‘Islam" in World Religions and World Peace, Ed Homer A Jack, , Beacon Press, Boston 1968, pp. 53-4. Ibid p. 50.

Hasan Askari in Newsletter of the Center for the Study of Islam and Christian-Muslim Relations, report of a consultation in March 1982. Author’s italics.

Muhammad Raheem Bawa Muhaiyaddeen, Islam and World Peace, The Fellowship Press, Philadelphia, PA 19131, 1987, p. 44. p. 54.