Islam's attitude towards war

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Can you make a comparison of the attitudes toward war of Islam, other religions' and modern civilization's?

Some have tended to criticize Islam for allowing war and even ordering it to put an end to the domination of injustice and oppression, and to help the oppressed and establish a social atmosphere of freedom where the truth can be preached. This criticism is completely unjust, for first of all it is not Islam that introduced war into the human history. Second, if this criticism comes from the Christians, it should be remembered that Matthew (10: 34-36) records Jesus to have said: “Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have to turn a man against his father, a daughter against her mother, a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law—a man’s enemies will be the members of his own household.” Since Christianity brought no rules for war, wars in Christendom have been much more bloody and ruthless. It can also be said that, apart from the Crusades, Christianity provided a means for the merciless colonization of two thirds of the world by the Western powers in previous centuries. Graham Fuller and Lesser (Graham E. Fuller, Ian O. Lesser, Kuşatılanlar-Islam ve Batı’nin Jeopolitiği, trans. Ö. Arikan, Istanbul, 1996, pp. 41-42) records that the Christians killed by Muslims during Islam’s history of 14 centuries are fewer in number than the Muslims killed by Christians in only the 20th century. Christianity began its assaults on Islam when the latter was a still a bud in Madina. The first generation of Muslims had to encounter a Byzantine army of 100,000 soldiers in Mu’ta with only 3.000 warriors in the 8th year of Hijra. One year later, the Messenger had to muster all his power against them, which was recorded by history as the Campaign to Tabuk; and three years later, the Muslim and Byzantine forces encountered once more in Yarmuk, which ended in a decisive defeat of the Byzantines.

As for Judaism, a few quotations from the Bible are enough to see its position on war and compare this position with that of Islam: “When Sihon and all his army came out to meet us in battle at Jahaz, the Lord our God delivered him over to us and we struck him down, together with his sons and his whole army. At that time we took all his towns and completely destroyed them – men, women and children. We left no survivors. But the livestock and the plunder from the towns we had captured we carried off for ourselves... So the Lord our God also gave into our lands Og king of Bashan and all his army. We struck them down, leaving no survivors. At that time we took all his cities. There was not one of the sixty cities that we did not take from them... We completely destroyed them, as we had done with Sihon king of Heshbon, destroying every city – men, women and children.” (Deuteronomy, 2:32-35; 3:3-4, 6) The crimes that have been committed for years by modern Israel are known to everybody in the world.

As for other religions such as those in the south, east and south-eastern Asia, since they lack in the rules to govern the social and economic life of people, they resemble more esoteric philosophies, and yet their followers have not withdrawn from waging wars.

As for modern civilization, it is not Islam which is responsible for the millions of deaths in the Soviet Union and communist China; it is not Islam which caused the Soviet/Russian massacres in Afghanistan and Chechnya and the brutal suppression of freedom movements in Hungary and Czechoslovakia. It is not Islam which is responsible for the killing of more than one million people during France’s war to deny Algeria its freedom. It is not Islam which urged America to its adventure in Vietnam, which cost more than a million lives during the war and indirectly many more since. It is not Islam which caused the death of more than 60 million people, mainly civilians, and forced countless millions more to remain homeless, widowed and orphaned, during and after the two world wars. It is not Islam which is responsible for using scientific knowledge to make nuclear and other weapons of mass destruction with which to intimidate poor and weak nations, and maintain global hegemony. It is not Islam which is responsible for the extermination of natives in the American Continent and Australia. It is not Islam which is responsible for mass massacres in Africa. Islam is neither responsible for world-wide colonialism which lasted centuries and is still continuing in disguise. Nor is Islam responsible for the slave trade which cost the lives of tens of millions of people. It is not Islam which is responsible for raising war-mongers like Hitler, Stalin and Mussolini. They were not brought up by Muslims. Likewise, it is not Islam, nor Muslims, that are responsible for the establishment of despotic kings and presidents over the Muslim countries and their oppression, injustices and massacres. It is not Islam which is responsible for modern terrorism, mafia organizations, and the world-wide smuggling of weapons and drugs, despite all opposing claims and plots staged to make us believe that it is so.

Islam and war, and why people accept Islam or how Islam spreads?

Islam, which declares, “Peace is what is the best,” aims at establishing peace throughout the world. However, war is a reality in human history. It is a manifestation in the social life of humanity of the inner world of those who have not been able to attain the human perfection in intellect, spirit and morality. Or it is a manifestation of the war between the spirit and the carnal soul, or Satan and the human values of perfection. What is important and necessary is, rather than overlooking a reality in a meaningless idealistic manner, to bring rules to make war just and for the benefit of people in general. It must be like disciplining and training a person or performing, when necessary, an operation on him/her to restore him/her to health after illness or giving the due punishment to a criminal. This is what Islam has done.

Islam does not order war, but allows it on condition that it should be in God’s way and for the defensive purposes. It also enjoins that the limits set by God must not be exceeded. Those limits are related to both the intention and exercise. For example, Islam does not allow any war for ultra motives such as conquering lands or plundering or quenching any thirst for revenge or obtaining any material advantage or satisfying racist inclinations. It does not force anyone to change his/her faith. Rather it wants there to be a social atmosphere of freedom where everyone will be able to use his/her free will to accept any faith he/she desires. It has also set up limitations in exercising it, such as those that follow:

  • Do not betray the agreements you have made.
  • Do not make any plundering.
  • Wrong no one and exercise no torture.
  • Do not touch the children, women and the old.
  • Do not destroy fruit-trees and fertile lands.
  • Do not kill sheep and cattle.
  • Respect all religious persons who live in hermitages or convents and spare their edifices. (Ibn al-Athir, al-Kami fi al-Tarikh, Vol.3, p.227.)

We should also point out here that people have embraced Islam in throngs during centuries while few have left it to accept another faith. Partly because of the complex this has caused and partly because of the prejudices coming from ignorance and dogmatic adherence to their faith, some Westerners have claimed that Islam is a religion of sword and has spread by the force of sword. However, this claim has been refuted even by unbiased Western writers and researchers. The main dynamics of the spread of Islam has already been explained in another answer. We can only mention the main religious qualities which attracted people to Islam have been:

  • the clarity of the theological doctrines of Islam based on the Divine Unity;
  • rationalism of the Islamic teachings;
  • the complete harmony of the Islamic ideals and values with human conscience;
  • the inclusiveness and comprehensiveness of Islam covering all aspects of physical, mental, and spiritual life of individuals and societies, hence the harmony of religion and life which it has established;
  • the lack of formalism and mediation;
  • the vividness, dynamism and resilience of the Islamic theology, and its creativity and universality, and its compatibility with established scientific facts;
  • the cohesion and harmony of the Islamic principles, and
  • the shortcomings of other theological systems.

To sum up:

  • The purpose for war is never killing people. Just to the contrary, Islam, which attaches great value to life and regards killing an innocent person as if killing the whole humankind and saving a life as if saving the lives of all humankind, aims at the survival of humanity and their finding the truth through education.
  • Even in warfare, Islam is ready to make peace and agreement with the opposing side.
  • A Muslim government remains faithful to the treaty it has made until the end of its term.
  • If the opposing side betrays the agreement, The Muslim government publicly and officially declares to that side that the agreement is no longer valid. Even though it can declare war as soon as the agreement loses its validity, it tends to grant them respite to make a new evaluation.
  • If the opposing side continues their hostilities and do not change their attitude even after the end of the term granted to them, this means that there is a state of war.
  • In order to force the enemy to give up hostilities or defeat them in war, the Muslims must bet powerful enough and remain steadfast. However, the Muslims must always observe the rules of war mentioned above.
  • It should be borne in mind that the expressions in some verses of the Qur’an are aimed at violent peoples who, as it can easily be inferred from the verses themselves, do recognize no rules and laws and do not understand any language other than war. Like some commandments of the Islamic Penal Law, they are also of a deterrent character. These same verses also mention repentance and God’s being All-Forgiving and All-Compassionate, which explains Islam’s purpose for war.
  • Islam never aims by war at killing people and conquering lands. So, when the enemy side inclines to peace and agreement, the Muslims should also incline to them. They should also give asylum to those who seek it and, without giving the least harm to their wealth and souls, convey to them to their place of safety. These are the rules of war openly commanded by the Qur’an and practiced by the Muslims during history.
  • War is a legal matter between nations. Islam is, first of all, a religion arranging the relation between God and humanity and is based on sincere belief. So its main adherents are the sincere believers. However, Islam also orders human individual and social life as a requirement of its basic mission. This relates to its legal aspect and includes the matter of citizenship. The main citizens of an Islamic state are the Muslims. In legal terms, a Muslim is one who professes belief and, as a type of worship demonstrating one’s being a Muslim in order to legally treat him or her as a Muslim citizen, establishing the Prescribed Prayer, and, as the financial duty of a Muslim citizen, paying the Prescribed Alms. Such a one may not be a sincere believer as well; instead, he or she may be a hypocrite. But one who professes belief and establishes the Prayer and paying the Prescribed Alms is legally regarded as a Muslim. So, when an individual or a group of persons at war with Muslims profess belief and establish the Prescribed Prayer and pay the Prescribed Alms, the state of war ends. No one is compelled to believe. One who professes belief and lives in a Muslim society is expected to see the truth and become a sincere believer. This is why even if we know that one who professes belief is in fact a hypocrite, he or she is treated as a Muslim so long as he or she does not declare unbelief and establishes the Prescribed Prayer and pay the Prescribed Alms.
  • Islam should never need to apologize to any other religion or ideology or system for its permission to fight. On the contrary, all other religions, ideologies and systems have a debt of apology and thanks to Islam. Islam aims at universal peace and, as a reality of human history, realizing this peace sometime requires fighting. As declared in the Qur’anic statements that (For though killing is something you feel aversion to) disorder (coming from rebellion to God and recognizing no laws) is even worse than killing (2:191) and disorder (coming from rebellion to God and recognizing no laws) is even graver and more sinful than killing (2:217), the conditions giving rise to war and disorder are more grievous than killing itself and therefore war is permissible to remove those conditions although it is not something good.


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