What role does violence play in human life? In what conditions Islam permits violence to take the form of a full-fledged war? In that case, what norms has Islam set for war? When is violence considered terrorism? Does Islam permit terrorism in any specific conditions?

In many places Muslims are being made the target of violence and terrorism and many other places even Muslims are adopting the ways of violence and terrorism. Is it permissible for Muslims to indulge in all this? Have they achieved any good by doing so? Will the counter violence by the Muslims be able to stop the violence being perpetrated against them?

Violence and Ethics

In principle, violence is an unethical act. Violence can be permitted in a civilized society only as a punishment for crime (so that crime is rooted out) and for defence (so that one can protect oneself against the violence of others). Barring this, violence is not fair under any circumstances. The way to achieve any objective is discourse, proselytisation and encouragement rather than violence. The use of violence for religious purposes is altogether inappropriate because violence is a tool for repression whereas in Deen (faith), there is no scope for compulsion or repression.

 “There is no compulsion in religion; truly the right way has become clearly distinct from error; therefore, whoever disbelieves in Satan and believes in Allah he indeed has laid hold on the firmest handle, which shall not break off, and Allah is Hearing, Knowing”. (Surah Baqra 2: 256)

Islam is based on compassion, affection, tolerance and forgiveness. Strife, vandalism, rudeness and rigidity do not conform to its spirit. Allah says:

“Keep to forgiveness (O Muhammad), and enjoin kindness, and turn away from the ignorant”. (Al Araf: 199)

The Prophet (s) stressed on soft heartedness and also said that effrontery and extremism do not produce results.

“Aisha (r) narrates that the holy Prophet (s) said, ‘Allah is gracious and likes graciousness. He gives what he does not give on harshness nor does He give on any other method.’ This Hadith has been narrated by Muslim. He has also narrated another hadith that says, “Aisha (r) said, Observe compassion and abstain from violence and vulgar acts. Compassion makes a place magnificent while a place devoid of care becomes disgraced.”

This is why counter violence has also been discouraged along with prohibiting violent ways as an offensive as Quran has stated:

“The good deed and the evil deed are not alike. Repel the evil deed with one which is better, then lo! he, between whom and thee there was enmity, (will become) as though he was a bosom friend”  (Ha Meem Sajdah: 34-35)

There is no denying the fact that in religion, violence also has a place as is in the case of defence and punishment but we should try to use violence as less as possible and the real picture of Islam which is based  on love, compassion, grace and forgiveness,  is presented before the humanity. That is why, the holy Quran has presented before us precedents when counter violence could have been resorted to but was not.

“But recite unto them with truth the tale of the two sons of Adam, how they offered each a sacrifice, and it was accepted from the one of them and it was not accepted from the other. (The one) said: I will surely kill thee. (The other) answered: Allah accepteth only from those who ward off (evil). (5: 27)

Even if thou stretch out thy hand against me to kill me, I shall not stretch out my hand against thee to kill thee, lo! I fear Allah, the Lord of the Worlds. (5: 28)

Lo! I would rather thou shouldst bear the punishment of the sin against me and thine own sin and become one of the owners of the fire. That is the reward of evil-doers. (5: 29)

But (the other’s) mind imposed on him the killing of his brother, so he slew him and became one of the losers. (5: 30)

Then Allah sent a raven scratching up the ground, to show him how to hide his brother’s naked corpse. He said: Woe unto me! Am I not able to be as this raven and so hide my brother’s naked corpse? And he became repentant. (5: 31)

For that cause We decreed for the Children of Israel that whosoever killeth a human being for other than manslaughter or corruption in the earth, it shall be as if he had killed all mankind, and whoso saveth the life of one, it shall be as if he had saved the life of all mankind. Our messengers came unto them of old with clear proofs (of Allah’s Sovereignty), but afterwards lo! many of them became prodigals in the earth” (5:32). 

In these verses, it has been stated that the noble son of Adam could have raised his hands for murder in self defence but he did not; and that when it is permissible to kill someone as punishment. They also say what a grave crime it is killing someone who is not guilty of the crime of murder and causing mischief on earth. The verse is immediately followed by the verse in which severe punishment has been prescribed for those who cause mischief on earth and violate the laws and wage war against God and his Prophet (s).

Permission for physical war

It has become evident that violence that causes the loss of life is permissible only in circumstances that have been specified. Now we will try to know when and under what circumstances Quran has permitted such violence that claims human life.

As long as Muslims remained in Makkah, they were not permitted to use such violence though they were constantly being tortured. In some conditions, the violence perpetrated against them had taken very inhuman forms, even causing the loss of lives as happened with Sumaiyah. It can be opined that during the initial years, the number of Muslims was small and they were weak. How could they reply to violence with violence? But  in about the 6th year of Prophethood when powerful and influential people like Umar Farooq  and Hamzah bin Abdul Muttalib had professed faith  and were seeking permission to confront the oppressors, Muslims did not get the permission to use violence in retaliation of violence. On the contrary, they were advised to migrate to Habsha to escape growing violence and torture. Therefore, more than hundred Muslims migrated to Habsha.

Muslims got the permission to use violence and kill the attackers after they came to Madinah when a state had come into existence under the leadership of the Prophet (s) which was governed by the directives of Allah and His Prophet (s). When even there they were not allowed to live in peace and were attacked and the Muslims who could not migrate from Makkah due to some compulsion or weakness were constantly tortured, Allah permitted them to kill those who were killing them in the following words:

“Sanction (to fight) is given unto those who fight because they have been wronged; and Allah is indeed Able to give them victory. Those who have been driven from their homes unjustly only because they said: Our Lord is Allah” (22:39-40). 

“Fight in the way of Allah against those who fight against you, but begin not hostilities. Lo! Allah loveth not aggressors” (2:190). 

The war the Muslims were permitted was not an offensive one, only to attack other territories to annex them in their own state. It was a defensive war started with the purpose of defeating the aggressors and deterring them against further attacks. The aggressors had not only besieged the safe sanctuary of Muslims, the Islamic state of Madina, but were also hell-bent on depriving people of their fundamental human rights of accepting the invitation to embrace Islam by using force and violence. That’s why, one objective of the war of the Muslims was also to root out the mischief (fitnah) and the obedience of God becomes possible for whoever wanted to accept the Deen of God.

“And fight them until persecution is no more, and religion is for Allah. But if they desist, then let there be no hostility except against wrong-doers” (2:193)

“How should ye not fight for the cause of Allah and of the feeble among men and of the women and the children who are crying: Our Lord! Bring us forth from out of this town of which the people are oppressors! Oh, give us from thy presence some protecting friend! Oh, give us from Thy presence some defender!” (4:75)

As has been explained in the Quran, by unleashing the chain of life and death, Allah wanted to put human beings on trial to see who adopted the noble ways and who adopted the evil ways.

“[He] who created death and life to test you [as to] which of you is best in deed – and He is the Exalted in Might, the Forgiving” – (Al Mulk: 2)

‘Mischief’ alters this atmosphere in which this trial takes place as some oppressors start preventing people from adopting their chosen ways forcefully. On the one hand the purpose of the Islamic jihad is to protect the life and property of the Muslims and to protect the areas under their rule, on the other, it is to remove the use of force from above the people who have been deprived of their fundamental rights mentioned in the verse quoted above. One objective of Islamic jihad is the restoration of the freedom of choice of the human beings.

The use of violence whether it is for punishment for crime, for the survival and protection of Islam and Muslims or for the restoration of the human right for freedom of choice, violence and fighting is permitted only to the extent it is necessary for a task otherwise it will come under the category of transgression and atrocity which has been strictly prohibited.

The use of violence, especially the violence that claims life is not permissible except the defensive war and punishment for crime which includes the harshest punishment for the harshest crime of Mahariba (rebellion).

“And do not kill the soul which Allah has forbidden [to be killed] except by [legal] right. This has He instructed you that you may use reason.” (Al Anam: 151)

“And do not wrongfully kill any living being which Allah has forbidden; and for whoever is slain wrongfully, We have given the authority to his heir, so he should not cross limits in slaying; he will surely be helped” (17:33).

The last verse quoted above has opened the doors for violence in retaliation to violence, but it has neither been made mandatory nor has anyone been authorized to take the law into his own hands as can be ascertained from the ordainments of qisas (revenge) and which the verse (Bani Israel:33) hints at. In the case of intentional murder, it is the duty of the Islamic government to administer punishment to the killer as Qisas. The heir or the guardians of the victim cannot take the offensive. As a general principle, it is not the way of Islam to encourage violence in retaliation to violence. Rather Islam considers it a better alternative to find ways to root out violence and adopt a policy of forgiveness towards what has happened.

“And the retribution for an evil act is an evil one like it, but whoever pardons and makes reconciliation – his reward is [due] from Allah. Indeed, He does not like wrongdoers. And whoever avenges himself after having been wronged – those have not upon them any cause [for blame]. The cause is only against the ones who wrong the people and tyrannize upon the earth without right. Those will have a painful punishment. And whoever is patient and forgives – indeed, that is of the matters [requiring] determination. “(Ash-Shura: 40:43)

Here the attitude of the virtuous son of Adam ought to be kept in mind which has come before us through the verses 28 to 34 of Surah Baqarah.

Though the pious, God-fearing believers (momineen) are permitted to use violence in retaliation to violence, Islam also has some lofty objectives in sight which have some other expectations. This is the point that needs to be pondered over. The issue is not that it is permissible for Muslims to use violence in retaliation to the violence perpetrated against them, we should also keep in mind whether doing so will promote the work of propagating Islam or will cause a setback to the mission of being witness to humanity.

Violence and Terrorism

When some people or some group that is not in power and lives under the rule of a powerful entity resorts to retaliatory violence, the violence will sooner or later assume the form that we call terrorism today. Killing opponents without distinguishing between combatants and non-combatants, not sparing even women, children, the old people, destroying property, resorting to inhuman methods of killing like burning, slashing organs etc has been summarily prohibited by Islam as we will discuss later.

Now take a look at the present situation. On the one hand, there are nation states that have big armies thanks to the national resources, are equipped with the latest weapons for warfare and possess all the resources for causing large scale violence and bloodshed. On the other hand, there are individuals or groups that do not have the authority without the permission of their governments to keep even ordinary arms, leave aside acquiring latest weapons of warfare. It is not possible for these individuals and groups to keep an army. They cannot even organize a volunteer militia.

So whenever they decide to use violence against their own country or against any other country while living in their own country, they will have to adopt secret modes of operation. As a result, they will not be able to adhere to the norms Islam makes mandatory while attacking their opponents because they can neither choose their own battlefield nor the time for war. They are compelled to make secret preparations and use whatever opportunity they get to strike at the enemy. They cannot reach the fighter planes. Therefore, they target passenger planes.   Soldiers and uniformed combatants are out of their reach, so they kill ordinary citizens. They cannot reach the military installations of their enemies, so they attack commercial centres and so on.

The ‘organisation’ that resorts to such retaliatory violence is much different from and smaller than the ‘organisation’ that comes into operation under the leadership of states in power because powerless groups are destined to possess a limited organization. The history of secret organizations in the world tells us that they do not operate under one leadership for long, nor is the grip of any leadership on their activities in the field as strong as is that of organized state armies of the opponents. Every task has its limitations and compulsions. The compulsion on the retaliatory violence of individuals or groups (in retaliation to the state violence and terrorism) is that it finally takes the shape of terrorism. This issue is important that if these groups or individuals shun violence, what should they do? How should they defend themselves and achieve their objectives?

But before that we should come to the conclusion that terrorism is not permissible.

This article is extracted the author’s Urdu book “ikkeeswwin sadi mein Islam, Muslaman aur tehreek-e-Islami” [Islam, Muslims and Islamic Movement in the 21st century, Courtesy translation by New Age Islam Edit Desk)