The Koran on Holy War: On the One Hand...
There are verses in the Koran favorable to tolerance, like the admirable
"Let there be no compulsion in Religion."
(Koran Sura 2:257).
Mohammed was told at one point that he had fulfilled his duty by warning:
"If they shall dispute with thee, then say: I have surrendered myself
to God, as have they who follow me. Say to those who have received the
Book, and to the common folk, Do ye surrender yourselves unto God? If they
become Muslims, then are they guided aright: but if they turn away -- thy duty is only preaching; and God's eye is on His
servants." (Koran Sura 3:18-19).
Both kinds of statements are found in the Koran, those favorable to tolerance and
those quite adverse, and they are not evenly or randomly distributed
along the time line. The chapters of the Koran are arranged not chronologically, but basically according to length; however, it is
possible to set them in rough chronological order. In Mecca, Mohammed
spoke as a seeker, in Medina as a warlord. So long as the faithful numbered only a few, Mohammed preached tolerance.
But after he stands at the head of an army, the message changes.
It is only common sense not to fight when one's side is weak, as even
the pagans realized: "Agesilaus,
when he was the stronger, always forced his enemy to fight, and when
weaker, always avoided a battle. By always practicing this, the highest
art of a general, he passed through his life without a single defeat. .
." (Plutarch's Lives, Comparison of Agesilaus with Pompey, Chapter IV,
Volume III, p. 319). Initially permission was given the faithful to fight in self-defense:
"A sanction is given to those who, because they have suffered
outrages, have taken up arms; and verily, God is well able to succor them: Those who have been driven forth from their homes wrongfully, only
because they say 'Our Lord is the God.' And if God had not repelled some men by others, cloisters, and churches, and oratories, and mosques,
wherein the name of God is ever commemorated, would surely have been destroyed. And him who helpeth God will God surely help: for God is right
Strong, Mighty:..." (Sura 22:40-42).
Secular movements like communism display a familiar pattern: so long as
the party represents a minority viewpoint, it preaches tolerance; once
it acquires the means, it practices something else. Ultimately military
force would become for Mohammed, not means of self-defense only, but the
preferred means for propagating his religion throughout the Arabian peninsula,
as tradition records:
"The Prophet (peace be upon him) said: I am commanded to fight with
men till they testify that there is no god but Allah, and that Mohammed
is His servant and His Apostle, face our qiblah (direction of prayer),
eat what we slaughter, and pray like us. When they do that, their life
and property are unlawful for us except what is due to them. They will
have the same rights as the Muslims have, and have the same responsibilities
as the Muslims have." (Hadith, Sunan Abu Dawud, Book 14, Number 2635:
Narrated Anas ibn Malik.)
It is in connection with this latter enterprise that verses of quite a different tenor from "Let there be no compulsion in
Religion" start to appear, such as...
On the Other...
"And kill them wherever ye shall find them, and eject them from whatever
place they have ejected you; for civil discord is worse than carnage: yet attack them not at the
sacred Mosque, unless they attack you therein; but if they attack you, slay them. Such the reward of
the infidels...Fight therefore against them until there be no more civil discord, and the only
worship be that of God: but if they desist, then let there be no hostility, save against the
wicked." (Sura 2:187-189).
"Only, the recompense of those who war against God and his Apostle, and go about to commit disorders on the earth, shall
be that they shall be slain or crucified, or have their alternate hands and feet cut off, or be banished the land: This their disgrace
in this world, and in the next a great torment shall be theirs -- Except those who, ere you have them in your power, shall repent; for
know that God is Forgiving, Merciful." (Sura 5:37-38).
"Strike off their heads then, and strike off from them every finger-tip.
This, because they have opposed God and his apostle: And whoso shall oppose
God and his apostle. . .Verily, God will be severe in punishment."
"O ye who believe! when ye meet the marshalled hosts of the infidels, turn
not your backs to them: Whoso shall turn his back to them on that day, unless he turn aside to fight,
or to rally to some other troop, shall incur wrath from God: Hell shall be his abode and wretched the
journey thither!" (Sura 8:16).
"Say to the infidels: If they desist from their unbelief, what is
now past shall be forgiven them; but if they return to it, they have already
before them the doom of the ancients! Fight then against them till strife
be at an end, and the religion be all of it God's. If they desist,
verily God beholdeth what they do..." (Sura 8:39-40).
"And when the sacred months are passed, kill those who join other gods
with God wherever ye shall find them; and seize them, besiege them, and lay wait for them with
every kind of ambush: but if they shall convert, and observe prayer, and pay the obligatory alms,
then let them go their way, for God is Gracious, Merciful." (Sura 9:5).
"Make war upon such of those to whom the Scriptures have been given as
believe not in God, or in the last day, and who forbid not that which God and His Apostle have
forbidden, and who profess not the profession of the truth, until they pay tribute out of hand, and
they be humbled. The Jews say, 'Ezra (Ozair) is a son of God'; and the Christians say, 'The
Messiah is a son of God'. Such the sayings in their mouths! They resemble the sayings of the Infidels
of old! God do battle with them! How are they misguided!..He it is who hath sent His Apostle with
the Guidance and a religion of the truth, that He may make it victorious over every other religion,
albeit they who assign partners to God be averse from it."
- "...Bush said in a statement. 'By teaching the importance of compassion,
justice, mercy, and peace, the Koran has guided many millions of believers
across the centuries,' the president said."
- (Reuters, 'Bush Sends Greetings to Muslims as Ramadan Starts,' Fri Oct
15, 3:25 PM ET)
Certainly to call Islam a 'religion of peace' misses the mark, not
only given the history of this faith, but given the Koran's bellicose commands such as
"Believers! wage war against such of the infidels as are your neighbors,
and let them find you rigorous: and know that God is with those who fear
him." (Sura 9:124).
"When ye encounter the infidels, strike off their heads till ye have
made a great slaughter among them, and of the rest make fast the fetters."
"Be not fainthearted then; and invite not the infidels to peace when ye
have the upper hand: for God is with you, and will not defraud you of the recompense of your works."
"Say to those Arabs of the desert, who took not the field, ye shall
be called forth against a people of mighty valor. Ye shall do battle
with them, or they shall profess Islam. If ye obey, a goodly recompense
will God give you; but if ye turn back, as ye turned back aforetime, He
will chastise you with a sore chastisement." (Sura 48:16).
"It is He who hath sent His Apostle with 'the Guidance,' and the religion
of truth, that He may exalt it above every religion. And enough for thee is this
testimony on the part of God. Mohammed is the Apostle of God; and his comrades are vehement
against the infidels, but full of tenderness among themselves..."
"Verily God loveth those who, as though they were a solid wall, do
battle for his cause in serried lines!" (Sura 61:4).
"Fain would they put out the light of God with their mouths! but though
the Infidels hate it, God will perfect his light. He it is who sent his apostle with guidance
and the religion of truth, that, though they hate it who join other gods with God, He may make it
victorious over every other religion." (Sura 61:9).
"O Prophet! make war on the infidels and hypocrites, and deal rigorously
with them. Hell shall be their abode! and wretched the passage to it!"
Extra-Koranic traditions take the same martial line: “Allah 's
Apostle said, 'I have been ordered to fight with the people till they
say, “None has the right to be worshipped but Allah,” and whoever says, “None has the right to be worshipped but Allah,” his life and property
will be saved by me except for Islamic law, and his accounts will be
with Allah, (either to punish him or to forgive him.)'”
(Hadith Sahih Bukhari, Volume 4, Book 52, Number 196).
Other hadith are similarly war-minded: "Allah's Apostle said, 'Know
that Paradise is under the shades of swords.'"
(Sahih Bukhari Volume 4, Book 52, Number 73).
"Once Allah's Apostle (during a holy battle), waited till the sun
had declined and then he got up among the people and said, 'O people! Do
not wish to face the enemy (in a battle) and ask Allah to save you (from
calamities) but if you should face the enemy, then be patient and let it
be known to you that Paradise is under the shades of swords.' He then
said, 'O Allah! The Revealer of the (Holy) Book, the Mover of the
clouds, and Defeater of Al-Ahzab (i.e. the clans of infidels), defeat
the infidels and bestow victory upon us.'" (Hadith Sahih Bukhari, Volume
4, Book 52, Number 210).
"Allah's Apostle said, 'I have been sent with the shortest
expressions bearing the widest meanings, and I have been made
victorious with terror (cast in the hearts of the enemy), and while
I was sleeping, the keys of the treasures of the world were brought
to me and put in my hand.'" (Hadith Sahih Bukhari Volume 4, Book 52, Number 220).
"Paradise is for him who holds the reins of his horse to strive in Allah's Cause,
with his hair unkempt and feet covered with dust: if he is appointed in the vanguard, he is perfectly
satisfied with his post of guarding, and if he is appointed in the rearward, he accepts his post with satisfaction.
. ." (Hadith Sahih Bukhari Volume 4, Book 52, Number 137).
These bellicose statements are very familiar, being highly publicized, and they are real:
Mohammed really did say those things, at least in so far as tradition is
reliable. While devout Muslims consider the text of the Koran to be true and
reliable to the letter, the same cannot be said of the hadith: "The Sunna
was not systematically collected and documented for at least two centuries
after the death of the Prophet. . .The late documentation of the Sunna
meant that many of the reports attributed to the Prophet are apocryphal or
at least are of dubious historical authenticity." (The Great Theft, Khaled
Abou El Fadl, p. 144). This is the ultimate license for cafeteria religion:
the hadith are included among the ultimate sources for Mohammed's
religion, but any one of them can be discounted if found objectionable. Given the undeniable historical fact that
Mohammed ibn Abdallah was a seventh century Arabian warlord, and a singularly
successful one at that, the brutal
and bellicose hadith are not among the more incredible ones.
Hobgoblin of Little Minds
"Can they not consider the Koran? Were it from any other than God,
they would surely have found in it many contradictions."
Mohammed's point is well taken; the Koran, if it were God's revelation,
should be free of contradiction. However, some readers may
suspect a hint of contradiction between "Let there be no compulsion
in Religion" (Sura 2:257) and "When ye encounter the infidels,
strike off their heads till ye have made a great slaughter among them,
and of the rest make fast the fetters." (Sura 47:4). Moreover, sharia,
Islamic law, specifies capital punishment for Muslims who abandon the faith.
If the threat of execution is not 'compulsion,' then what is? Surely no
one reports having made a 'voluntary' contribution to the thief who cries,
'Your money or your life!' Muslims resolve this evident contradiction in several ways.
A 'peace party' was in evidence even in Mohammed's day: "War is prescribed
to you: but from this ye are averse." (Sura 2:212). This constituency,
those who are averse to war, prefers to take "Let there be no compulsion in Religion" as the
general rule, and perceives those exceptions to it found in the Koran as
owing to special circumstances. In this view, infidels were treated harshly,
not because they were infidels, but because they were covenant-breakers. To
be sure, Mohammed ibn Abdallah is the pattern and example for believers;
under the same circumstances they should do as he did, but what were the
circumstances?: "The Prophet , while in a tent (on the day of the battle
of Badr) said, 'O Allah! I ask you the fulfillment of Your Covenant and
Promise. O Allah! If You wish (to destroy the believers) You will never
be worshipped after today.' Abu Bakr caught him by the hand and said,
'This is sufficient, O Allah's Apostle! You have asked Allah
pressingly.'" (Hadith Sahih Bukhari Volume 4, Book 52, Number 164). The
faithful community was facing the prospect of extinction, a circumstance
which cannot happen today.
The more bellicose party notes the time-line. The material in the
Koran is not organized chronologically; the only organizing principle
is length, the longer Suras are earliest, the briefest last. Taking
clues from context and comparing with traditions found in the Hadith
and biographies, a rough time-line can be drawn up indicating when a
given message was first promulgated. This procedure reaches a point
of diminishing returns when it is realized that the Suras themselves
are likely composite and edited. However, a fairly reliable outline
can be achieved, and once it is laid out, the confusion and
contradiction of the raw material comes into focus. So long as
Mohammed ibn Abdallah was shepherding a small flock of followers in
Mecca, who had been voluntarily converted to his cause, he preached
and practiced tolerance. He warned the people, as bidden, but left it
in God's hands to rebuke the uncompliant, as He would "at last:"
"Profess publicly then what thou hast been bidden, and withdraw from
those who join gods to God. Verily, We will maintain thy cause
against those who deride thee, Who set up gods with God: and at last
shall they know their folly." (Sura 15:94-96). And indeed, what
option but tolerance did Mohammed have at this stage in career? In
time, the 'live-and-let-live' approach was superseded by permission
for taking up arms in self-defense: "A sanction is given to those
who, because they have suffered outrages, have taken up arms; and
verily, God is well able to succor them: Those who have been driven
forth from their home wrongfully only because they say 'Our Lord is
the God.'" (Sura 22:40-41). The final, blood-curdling stage in this
progression is achieved in Sura 9:5: "And when the sacred months are
passed, kill those who join other gods with God wherever ye shall
find them; and seize them, besiege them, and lay wait for them with
every kind of ambush: but if they shall convert, and observe prayer,
and pay the obligatory alms, then let them go their way, for God is
Gracious, Merciful." On its face this calls for endless imperialist
aggression against the whole wide world.
The terrorists and their allies reflect that Mohammed's milder, more tolerant
pronouncements are earlier than the later 'strike off their heads'
approach. This they interpret to mean that tolerance is the policy while
the faithful community is too weak to wage war; holy war becomes desirable
as soon as it becomes feasible. This approach imputes insincerity to the
words of the Koran; the reader must mentally attach the stricture, 'for
now,' to the Koran's tolerant passages. Mohammed ibn Abdallah waged war, not only to
prevent the extinction of the faithful community, but to extinguish the
pagans: "The Prophet on his death-bed, gave three orders saying, 'Expel
the pagans from the Arabian Peninsula. . .'" (Hadith Sahih Bukhari,
Volume 4, Book 52, Number 288.) To do as Mohammed did means to enlarge the
Muslim household by violence.
The progression of Muslim policy respecting religious pluralism,
from initial non-violent toleration, to the permission for fighting
in self-defense, to fighting for the expansion of the faith, was
completed within Mohammed's own lifetime. It was no misunderstanding
of those who came later, which left captives with the choice of Islam
or death: "He said: 'Woe to you, Abu Sufyan, isn't it time that you
recognize that I am God's apostle?' He answered, 'As to that I still
have some doubt.' I said to him, 'Submit and testify that there is no
God but Allah and that Muhammad is the apostle for God before you
lose your head,' so he did so." (The Life of Muhammad, A Translation
of Ishaq's Sirat Rasul Allah, A. Guillaume, p. 547).
The principle of 'abrogation,' that later 'revelation' can cancel
out earlier material, is recognized by most Muslim jurists. It is one
of the best tools interpreters have for bringing into order this mass
of contradictory material. The jihadis' answer to 'no
compulsion' is abrogation:
"The puritan response to the moderate position can be
summed up in one word: abrogation. Abrogation means that all the
verses that speak about tolerance or cooperation with non-Muslims are
null and void. According to the puritans, it was God that decided to
invalidate all the Qur'anic passages that admonished Muslims to be
forgiving or to seek peaceful coexistence with non-Muslims. According
to puritans, God encouraged Muslims to be forgiving and tolerant when
Muslims were weak and could not afford to pursue a confrontational
policy with non-Muslims. But once Muslims became strong, God commanded
Muslims to seek the destruction of all non-Muslims — or, at a
minimum, to be hostile toward them." (The Great Theft, Khaled Abou El
Fadl, pp. 217-218).
Mohammed's prophetic career spanned twenty
three years, from 610 A.D. to 632 A.D. This brief but tumultuous period
saw Mohammed's rise from lonely voice in the wilderness to conqueror of
Arabia. As the Dark Ages closed in, barbarian populations all around the
Empire pressed inward, the semi-civilized Arabs no exception. Mohammed's successors
continued his policy of aggression, and their
conquests mapped out the greater part of the domain of the faithful to
this day: Muslims (with exceptions like Indonesia) are people whose
ancestors were conquered by Muslims and had these doctrines and practices imposed upon them.
Without "compulsion," Islam would have remained a small, heretical sect,
derivative from the Christians and the Jews but recognized by neither.
Mohammed's success came through a method he himself realized was illegitimate!
This variable material serves as a Rorshach inkblot test, revealing
the character of Mohammed's followers: those who love peace see in it
peace, with the martial material limited and contained, relegated to a
special case, while those who love war see in it war, with the peaceful
material relegated to a special case. For the peace party, 'no compulsion'
is the watchword: "Moderates consider this verse to be enunciating a
general, overriding principle that cannot be contradicted by isolated
traditions attributed to the Prophet." (The Great Theft, Khaled Abou El
Fadl, p. 158). But the material is genuinely and irreducibly heterogeneous. Freed from any obligation to
harmonize, the skeptical reader may notice that this man started as an
earnest seeker after God and ended as a war-lord commanding a band
of camel thieves and ethnic cleansers. Power corrupts: his commands are self-contradictory,
because he changed, and for the worse. Like the man says, "Were it from any other than God, they
would surely have found in it many contradictions."