Nicolas Sarkozy, the former president of France, together with three former French prime ministers and the leaders of several French Jewish and Christian organizations, recently released a declaration calling for the removal from the Qur’an of the verses on “the killing and punishing of the Jews, Christians, and infidels.” In total, there were 300 signatories to the declaration. Such actions are a result of misunderstandings about Islam. I will try to address some of these issues in this paper.
Jihad and ambiguity
The nature and meaning of jihad is one of the main concepts that has been debated since the early period of Islamic history, without coming to a consensus. While this confusion is not unique to jihad, it is certainly more complicated than other topics of dispute.
Why so complicated?
The countries that suffered under the effects of colonialism played a huge role in defining the term jihad, because they used the motivational side of Islam to inspire and mobilize the masses, calling their struggle for independence and freedom “jihad.” There is also evidence supporting this usage of the term, based on verses in the Qur’an and the Prophet’s (PBUH) discourses and actions. But this interpretation, which has been used mainly on the battlefields where military struggles were ongoing, pushed aside the real meaning, content and usage of “jihad” in different fields, and constrained it within brackets.
After terrorist groups began using the term in 1979, during the Russian occupation of Afghanistan—a phenomenon that peaked with the September 11 attacks—the ambiguity around the word “jihad” increased even more.
Different jihad classifications
In order to explain the topic better, we should have a look at the basic texts of Islam, and the founding will which was formed by The Prophet (PBUH). In the meantime, it is imperative to remind readers that there are three different classifications of jihad that exist in traditional Islamic studies. It is very important to know these classifications, since they show us on which basis they are accepted, when we discuss the verses of the Qur’an and the hadiths at the end of this article. An intensified study of the founding texts opens the door to different interpretations, since the political, social, cultural and economic backgrounds are always changing and improving. It enables us to find its place in different historical periods, with related classifications and additions.
The oldest and simplest classification of jihad known by nearly everyone is the greater and lesser jihad classification. The lesser jihad is the military struggle which calls for an eye for an eye and blood for blood on the battlefields with the enemy; the greater jihad is the fight of the person against his desires (nafs), which are considered the biggest enemy of mankind. According to the analysis of the hadith scholars and in respect of the sanad (the certainty of the names who report the hadith), this classification, which is attributed to an indisputable hadith report, is among the historically well-accepted classifications and corresponds to truth and reality.
The second classification is that made in four different fields: 1) the generation of ideas and knowledge is scientific; 2) the activities which are in favor of humanity are social; 3) the fight to reject the desires and wishes which are not welcomed by religion is called nafs; and 4) war, meaning jihad in the military field, is a last resort when there is no possibility to live in peace together through diplomatic relationships.
The third classification, made by the great Hanafi scholar al-Kasani, is one we encounter often in our books. According to this classification, the heart represents the human fight against the devil and nafs, while the tongue encourages people towards good things and keeps them away from bad ones. The hand prevents the existing malignancy and the sword represents the fight against the enemy. Preventing malignancy is the expertise of the state and the security forces reinforce this through the law. Otherwise, vigilantism will take over, bringing not order, but chaos to the community.
It is also very important to have a look at the verses of the Qur’an to see how jihad in the military field was routinely conducted during the life of the Prophet (PBUH), who served as the messenger of Allah between 610-632. There are some parts depicted of the Prophet’s (PBUH) practical life in the Qur’an. The meaning of this classification is Allah’s reflection of His divine will; He intervenes in the hadith as the “subject” himself, so to speak.
When examining the verses of the Qur’an from this point of view, there are hundreds of narratives, including those of the battles of Badr, Uhud, and Khandaq; how to treat prisoners of war; the Treaty of Hudaybiyyah; the conquest of Mecca; expeditions to Mu’ta and Tabuk; slave and odalisque law; descriptions of how to perform the prayers at war, and many more.
A number of these narratives mention the names of people living at the time. For example, the Qu’ran mentions that Khawla bint Tha’laba argues with her husband, Avs ibn al-Samit, and complains about this to the Prophet (PBUH). Allah resolves this matter with the verse He reveals. This example is important in terms of showing the dialectic relationship between the people who lived in that community with the presence of divine will. Similarly, the Qur’an mentions that Zayd ibn Haritha divorces his wife, Zaynab, who then marries our Prophet (PBUH). It also mentions a man named Abu Lahab and his wife Umm Jamil, who were hostile towards the Prophet (PBUH). These examples make it impossible to envision a Qur’an independent from real people, events, and society in general.
Where does the problem begin?
The problem is not with the verses written in the Qur’an, but in the perspectives of Muslims and the way they would like to approach the verses. In the most general sense, some Muslim interpretations of the Qur’an are troubled. The way in which they give meaning and apply the verses to real life is wrong. According to one such approach, the Qur’an is above history, universal, and all of the verses of the Qur’an that have orders or bans are always legitimate for every place, and every human being until the end of time. Not everyone thinks like this, however. The best evidence we have is our method books for the Qur’an, hadith, kalam, and Islamic law. Their interpretation is the subject of many discussions among experts.
A mentality that tries to make every single letter, every single verse, functional through a totalitarian approach divorced from its purpose, is troubled. It begets evaluations like “the kalam means the verses of the Qur’an and the statements of the Prophet (PBUH). Living based on these is better than not living based on them” and “it does not mean that the verse was revealed for that particular incident. The same provision could be valid for similar incidents.” This approach is the starting point of the declaration in France mentioned at the beginning of this paper.
As a matter of fact, it is quite easy to believe the evaluations generated by this approach and put them into words. Moreover, it gives believers a great pleasure to be followers of the last religion. But we face major difficulties when we personally try to apply every single verse in the Qur’an to real life. For example, the exhortation to “Kill the polytheists whenever you see them.” Why are we not killing the polytheists despite the fact that the Qur’an has ordered us to do so? Why haven’t Muslims declared war against the polytheists throughout history? Many more questions could be raised and we could go back to the era of the Prophet (PBUH). We might say that since it is a direct order in the Qur’an to kill the unbelievers, not killing them makes the Muslims sinners. And since the polytheists were actually living in the city-state of Medina, where our Prophet (PBUH) was the head of the city-state, does this fact allow us to say that our Prophet—perish the thought—was a sinner?
How are we supposed to interpret and implement the Surah Al-Mumtahanah which reads, “Allah does not forbid you from those who do not fight you because of religion and do not expel you from your homes—from being righteous toward them and acting justly toward them. Indeed, Allah loves those who act justly”? Should we say it is extinct, meaning it is not valid anymore? Are we going to practice the naskh theory, which could be described as “nullifying a provision of sharia with a subsequent evidence/provision”? Or announcing the nullification of the fifth verse from the Surah At-Tawbah, also known as the “sayf” or “sword” verse, together with the hundreds of other verses which focus on peace? This is the way ISIL thinks.
It is, however, an interpretation style. It might provide satisfactory results for some people for particular verses, giving them comfort and a clear conscience. But I must emphasize, considering the importance of the subject, that you cannot interpret the discrepancies in the verses by giving them implicit meanings taken out of context only by using the naskh theory.
Hence, the ulama who were aware of this tried different solutions using the concept of preference as well as concepts and interpretations in Islamic law such as taqyid, tahsis, ta’lik, and maqasid. Briefly, taqyid means to limit a provision with an incident and tahsis makes the provision peculiar to an incident, while ta’lik means to link the provision with a condition or a reason. In fact, if all of these concepts are embraced that Allah actually intervened history between 610-632, and would be considered according to the context by concentrating on the lines of “gai” (purpose, teleological) and “maqasid” (wish, intention, aim), and finally if the interpretation is made on this basis, the divine message would serve the purpose of the revelation better than the one mentioned above.
Is the subject related to historicism?
I would like to note that the ideas I am trying to convey are not related to historicism or the approach which is qualified as historicism. There could, however, be an overlap and this is quite normal. The point I wish to emphasize is that this is an evaluation to understand the very first intellectual efforts towards showing the importance of why the verses were revealed and how they were then interpreted and applied to specific incidents during the ongoing revelation of the Qur’an.
Together, the discourse, actions, and approval of the Prophet (PBUH) and the verses of the Qur’an were sufficient, until Islam encountered foreign cultures bent on conquest. In other words, no new interpretations were required until the revelation-period geography started to be in harmony with the social, political, economic, and moral living conditions. Although the verses and the hadiths were applied with their implicit meanings to the problems of the period, when change and transformation took decades contrary to rapid developments nowadays, they mostly provided case-by-case guidance. On occasions where this was not enough, the ulama stepped in and started to look for solutions through the accepted methodologies.
This is the visible reality of the differences between the “ahl al-ra’y” (the person who reaches a conclusion and opinion through better functionalizing the wisdom, including the verses and hadiths, by considering the changing conditions) and “ahl al-hadith” (the person who believes in putting the verses and hadiths into practice together with their norms and forms, without considering the changing conditions). Ahl al-ra’y is a group generally formed by the Hanafis, Malikis, Maturidis, and Mutazilas, who approached the people by supporting the maqasid al-Shariah (the purposes of the law) and maslahat al-nas (benefits provided by the people) and functionalized wisdom, while the group of ahl al-hadith concentrate more on virtual approaches, and believe that the verses and hadiths constitute a fixed answer to the problems faced in daily life.
To make it clearer, we should lay emphasis on the verses that include words derived from the “j-h-d” roots such as “jihad,” “yucahidi,” “jahid,” “jahiduu,” “jahd,” “juhd,” “mujahidun,” “mujahidin,” etc.
As a method, we are going to focus on these verses in the order of their revelation and by the reason for their revelation. Because any study of their meaning that does not consider when and why they were revealed is the main reason for the semantic shift which we are highlighting. Since Allah intervened in the incidents with the verses in question during the revelation period, we need to first know and understand what the divine will says (not what it intends to say).
Without a doubt, it is not enough to only know the order of and reason for revelation to understand the verses correctly. Most of the Qur’an interpretation books, especially the quotation interpretations, mention the related hadiths, if the reason for revelation is known, but they do not provide enough background knowledge. However, the background, which reveals the social, political, cultural, and economic context surrounding the incidents, is as important as the reason for revelation.
Because the verse was revealed specifically to refer to, address, or provide advice towards a solution; to give orders; or impose a ban regarding the incident that took place, in the context of that place and time. In this respect, we are obliged to know the Arabic community before Islam in all its aspects. Pushing aside that era by calling it the “jahiliyyah” (pre-Islamic age of ignorance) era is wrong. It is not a correct approach to glorify Islam by denigrating the pre-Islamic age with a generalized approach. It is not possible to interpret and explain the Qur’an without the data from studies of hadiths, history, seerah and maghazi.
After understanding what the verses say, the next step is to examine what they actually want to say, especially to us, in this day and age. The first source of knowledge is without a doubt the practices of the Prophet (PBUH), and then the interpretations and practices of the ulama throughout history. We are obliged to consider how the matter has been understood and practiced, and what theories were developed around these understandings since the time of the companions of the Prophet (PBUH) until today, which is simply called “tradition” in the scientific literature.
Perspective of early period ulama towards war and peace
After putting these two elements in the center, when we check the literature from the Islamic law books we come across many different classifications of jihad made by the ulama. The most meaningful classification to comprehend jihad as a military concept is the one which answers the question, “Is peace or war essential in Islam for international relations?” Could we call this a theory of international relations? Of course, the answer is yes. We are indeed talking about such a theory. The following concepts both form the building blocks of the theory and reveal the results of it: “holy war, continuous war, war of defense, dhimmi, harbi, dar al-harb, dar al-islam, dar al-sulh, dar al-aman, ahl aI-harb, ahl al-bagy, hudna (temporary ceasefire agreement), jizya.” More importantly, these theories were formed around the doctrines over the practices of the Prophet (PBUH) and his companions.
There are two different opinions with a rough classification in these theories generated by the ulama of the early period: war and peace. The Islamic scholars of the time interpreted the concepts in terms of the religious, political, cultural, military, and economic lives of individuals, the community, and the state, in consideration of various kinds of potential incidents and realities. For example, the people who supported the idea that the dominant factor must be war in international relations (such as Imam al-Shafi’i), came to this conclusion on the basis of the belief that non-Muslims always create a frontier against Muslims, and that they are perpetually fighting a war against Muslims to exterminate them.
When war coincides with the idea that religious identification is the key element in the conflict, supporters of this idea can take another step and identify the cause of war as “blasphemy” and “being a non-Muslim.” As a matter of fact, when confronted with the counter-argument that the Prophet (PBUH) made an agreement with the polytheists, they do not disagree, but show the Treaty of Hudaybiyyah as evidence because it was only valid for ten years, which they use to defend the argument that a peace treaty cannot be longer than ten years.
Others take the argument even further and say that to keep the warfare ability of the armies of Islam sharp, war must be declared on those countries listed under dar al-harb every ten years.
This doctrine of war must be built on a solid theoretical basis. At this stage, the first source that comes to mind is without a doubt the Qur’an. The verses of the Qur’an are classified according to this perspective; thus, the human opinion finds a foundation for justification. So, does this mean that the Qur’an is being instrumentalized? The answer is both yes and no. Yes, because the verses could occasionally be interpreted out of context in order to support the theory. The reason for the revelation might be forgotten, while the Prophet’s (PBUH) different practices regarding the same matter might be disregarded. But also no, because the actual state designates the perspective and methodology. This is the result when the Prophet’s (PBUH) practice matches with the revelation order of the verses.
The verses classification of the view that war is essential in Islam
The testing of this classification of the verses which read “war is essential in Islam” belongs to Profesor Talip Türcan. Türcan focuses on the life of the Prophet (PBUH) as a whole in his presentation of “Evolving from War to Peace” at the Jihad symposium on 21-22 April 2016 at the Centre of Qur’anic Researches (KURAMER). This reading model is based on both the order of and reason for revelation, as well as the tradition. The theory of this model is “war is essential in international relations.”
1– Early Mecca period: “There shall be no compulsion in [acceptance of] the religion” (2/256); “Turn away from the polytheists” (15/94). The emphasis on the freedom of religion is dominant here. The command was revealed during the time when the balance of power was in favor of the polytheists, to announce the religion without enforcing it and to avoid any conflict, even verbal.
2– Late Mecca period: “And do not argue with the People of the Scripture except in a way that is best, except for those who commit injustice among them” (29/46); “Invite to the way of your Lord with wisdom and good instruction, and argue with them in a way that is best” (16/125). At this point, the Prophet (PBUH) was living in Mecca and Muslims were equal to the polytheists, and the command was revealed to have discourse with both the polytheists and the people of the book. And this continued until the hegira.
3– After the hegira to Medina: War was allowed for the first time during this period. The people who had oppressed Muslims back in Mecca continued their oppression in Medina as well. Therefore, “Permission [to fight] has been given to those who are being fought, because they were wronged” (22/39). However, should the oppressors choose peace, the Muslims must accept it.
4– Declaration of war when war was allowed in the non-sacred months: “And when the sacred months have passed, then kill the polytheists wherever you find them and capture them and besiege them and sit in wait for them at every place of ambush. But if they should repent, establish prayer, and give zakah, let them [go] on their way. Indeed, Allah is Forgiving and Merciful.” The people who support the idea that “war is essential in Islam” accept this verse, which is also known as the “sayf” or “sword” verse not in self-defense, but as the beginning of a wider offensive war, directed not only against the people who fight with the Muslims, but also the people who do not.
5– The limitation on war in the sacred months was removed, and absolute war was ordered: “Fight them until there is no [more] fitnah and [until] worship is [acknowledged to be] for Allah.” The Prophet’s (PBUH) statement, “I have been instructed not to stop fighting until the people say ‘La Ilaha Illallah’” is a hadith which supports the verse revealed in this period.
Briefly, this is a chronological, text-based reading made without consideration of the reasons for revelation and especially the context in which they were made. By the end of the classification, Muslims were obliged to fight nonstop and unconditionally with the infidels and the polytheists. This total warfare approach was justified when the non-Muslims were at war against the Muslims.
So, is this interpretation correct? Could such a methodology give us correct results over the lines of maqasid al-Shariah and maslahat al-nas towards approaching and interpreting the Qur’an and the Prophet (PBUH)? If your answer is yes, that means you are saying just like Imam Al-Sarakhsi, “If the Muslims are not strong enough to fight with their enemies, they can make a peace treaty, otherwise they cannot.” If you really support this view, you believe that “not believing” is a cause of war. Therefore, you have no right to complain about the actions of organizations such as ISIL and Al-Qaeda, and their acts of terrorism.
You could shout “Islam is a religion of war, religion of sword,” just like the enemies of Islam nowadays. With emphasis on the “sayf” verse, hundreds of other verses which focus on peace are abrogated. You could comment on this by saying, “The peaceful relationship of the Prophet (PBUH) throughout his life with non-Muslims and the verses of the Qur’an which instruct us to live by accepting the differences, focusing on peace and pacta sunt servanda (agreements must be kept), are all cyclical.”
But if your answer is no, and you say “Different evaluations and readings can be made in accordance with the revelation order, reasons for revelation, the holism of Qur’an, and the practices of the Prophet (PBUH), and further theories can be developed other than war,” then I am with you.
Is peace essential in Islam?
First, let’s point out the reason for revelation of a group of six verses (190-195) in the Surah Al-Baqarah. At the time, according to the Treaty of Hudaybiyyah, the polytheists would allow the Muslims to return to Mecca to perform umrah (minor hajj) for three days, starting exactly one year after the Treaty was signed. During these three days, the polytheists would leave Mecca. When the time came for the first umrah under the Treaty, some of the Muslims were concerned because of the possibility that the polytheists in Mecca, who did not recognize the tradition of Muslims not fighting during the sacred months, would try and prevent their entrance into Mecca, like the previous year. This is the exact reason why this group of six verses was revealed. Especially in the 195th verse, it was clearly specified that the Muslims should retaliate if the polytheists violated the not-attacking rule, and reciprocally to respect the sacred months. Now, let’s take a look at these verses in order.
The meaning of the first verse of the group is: “Fight in the way of Allah those who fight you but do not transgress (Do not kill the children, women, and elders). Indeed. Allah does not like transgressors.” (2/190). When this verse is considered together with the reason for revelation, it is clear that it is referring to a potential incident, which is highly likely to happen. If it actually takes place, the verse clearly explains what attitude the Muslims should assume, without leaving room for doubt or hesitation.
The second important point in the verse is the part which reads, “Those who fight you, skirmish with you, and try to kill you in the battlefield.” This verse means that the diplomatic ways to achieve a peaceful solution are no longer available, and the war has already started. Certainly, in a war which has already started, the Muslims need to defend themselves. This is called maqasid al-khamsa, which means it is legitimate in all religions and justice systems in general to fight for religion, wisdom, property, lives, and generations. This is what the verse dictates. But afterwards, together with the “but do not transgress. Indeed. Allah does not like transgressors” verse, it restrains feelings such as anger, resentment, and hatred which can form a basis for hostility or hostile behavior. It asks Muslims to guard justice and truth, and to comply with the basics which are included in the law of war.
Another important point is the phrase, “Fight in the way of Allah.” This is a theological language which we can see in many verses of the Qur’an. We are talking about a religion which imposes principles, provisions and a foundation, based on real life facts and its book which will be valid until the end of time. Certainly, the language used in this book will differ from the language used in political theories, economic doctrines, or legal regulations. As a matter of fact, when one speaks of being “In the way of Allah,” it evokes the almighty and divine purposes in the mind of a Muslim. You can observe the same thing within the hadith of the Prophet (PBUH). For example, the Prophet (PBUH) was asked who would be “in the way of Allah” and show usefulness at war, and he replied, “Whoever wants the word of Allah to be the most almighty and the highest.”
Interestingly, from this point of view, many scholars throughout history have stated that Muslims cannot declare war for reasons such as land occupation, passion for the spoils of war, the urge to outclass, or political power. The remaining five verses will clearly support this meaning. The reason I said “interestingly” was because unfortunately this idealpolitik cannot be put into practice. The process started with the selection of the first caliph after the death of the Prophet (PBUH); the incidents that happened in Karbala, Siffin, Jamal, and Mihna were the starting points of this.
I will discuss the second verse, 191st verse of Surah Al-Baqarah, sentence by sentence, but first, let me give you the whole verse: “And kill them wherever you overtake them and expel them from wherever they have expelled you, and fitnah is worse than killing. And do not fight them at al-Masjid al- Haram until they fight you there. But if they fight you, then kill them. Such is the recompense of the disbelievers.” (2/191)
If you interpret this verse and designate policies for international relations without considering the context and order of and reason for revelation, as well as the siyaq-sibaq (before-after) relationship of these sentences with the previous and following verses—the intra-textual or inter-textual relationship—you can end up with an interpretation like, “Nonstop war with the polytheists is essential and they must be killed wherever they are overtaken.” Those who put war in the center focus on this. Their evidence is the sentence, “Kill them wherever you overtake them.”
Actually, this group of six verses was talking about the possibility of a declaration of war during the sacred months as a result of the polytheists violating the rules of the Treaty of Hudaybiyyah. This was the reason for revelation. Imagine you had started your journey one year ago to circumambulate the Ka‘ba, but the polytheists did not allow you to enter Mecca, so you had signed an agreement which appears to be disadvantageous to Muslims. After one year, you start your journey again for the sole purpose of worshiping Allah, and the polytheists declare war on you, ignoring the rules of the agreement and the holiness of the sacred months. In this case, these verses clarify what the Muslim reaction should be. It states, “Fight at war, but do not fight to kill at war, fight for not being killed.” Therefore, since the first addressees of the Qur’an already understood these circumstances, this meaning must be included in our interpretation. Otherwise, the readings which are taken out of context will result in us making Allah say things which He did not actually say. This is the context of, “Oh believers! Kill them whenever you face them in the battlefield.”
“Expel them from wherever they have expelled you.” This sentence already mentions the identity of the addressees. Who were the ones who had forced the Muslims to leave their homeland? The polytheists of Mecca. Who had travelled 500 kilometers to Medina, for battles like those at Badr, Uhud, and Trench? Again, the polytheists of Mecca. Therefore, the identity of the enemy was clear and obvious to the contemporaries of the Prophet (PBUH).
“Fitnah is worse than killing.” The meanings which are attributed to the word “fitnah” are as follows: “To torture someone, to have them apostatized, to inflict cruelty and to oppress, to constitute a system of shirk (polytheism), the encroachment of fundamental rights and liberties, to constitute an environment of war, chaos, cruelty, and oppression with the conditions provided by the system of shirk and blasphemy, oppression and cruelty towards religion, to create an uproar, to create trouble, blasphemy and shirk.” These are summarized from their Turkish meanings, and except the last two, none of them construe the meaning which is widely used today in Turkey. As you know, “fitnah” is seen as one of the “behaviors towards breaking the peace in social life, and disturbing the unity and solidarity, gossiping, act acting like a hypocrite.” As a matter of fact, the word “fitnah” is used in the Qur’an 34 times in the form of “fitnah” or “al-fitnah,” and an additional 26 times in derivative form. In the context in which they were used, the meanings include test, oppression, suffering and torture, trouble/calamity, perversion, insanity, torment, sin, fighting (war), and chaos. These meanings do not include shirk and blasphemy, and nowhere in the Qur’an is “fitnah” used to denote shirk or blasphemy. Moreover, there is no doubt that breaking the rules of haram, disturbing the peace, and forcing people into exile are actually included in the meanings of fitnah. As a matter of fact, despite the different usage in Turkish throughout nearly all of the meanings, we could say that this nuance is preserved, and the correct meaning is attributed. However, this verse is being used in a different sense than what we have stated above, since this change, which happened at the conceptual level, has become widely accepted and naturally led to this verse being interpreted and practiced in a way that is not compatible with the divine intention.
By analyzing the word “fitnah” together with the reason for revelation of the verse, you arrive at a more appropriate interpretation: “The oppression, cruelty, and torture they committed against you is worse than killing somebody at war.” As a matter of fact, some of the glossators interpreted “fitnah” as “To rule out both the danger of Muslims being apostatized, and the risk of the enemy to carry out a mass attack, in order to provide a valid religion and an environment where freedom of religion exists for everybody.”
The sentences of the last verse read, “And do not fight them at al-Masjid al- Haram until they fight you there. But if they fight you, then kill them. Such is the recompense of the disbelievers.” (2/191)
The polytheists in the pre-Islamic Arabic communities had attributed holiness to the Muharram, Rajab, Dhu al-Qida, and Dhu al-Hijja months and they absolutely refused to fight a war with each other during these months. Moreover, even if a person encountered the murderer of his/her father, s/he would not touch the murderer. This practice, which has roots back to the time of Abraham, was respected among the pre-Islamic Arabic community. The Qur’an requested that Muslims respect this prohibition by stating al-ashhuru’l-hurum and al-shahru’l-haram. Needless to say, this was valid until the polytheists flouted the ban.
I will provide two interpretations of the third verse, Surah Al-Baqarah 192, consecutively, to highlight the huge semantic differences between them. The first interpretation approaches the verse by ignoring the context and the reason for revelation: “And if they cease (you cease too), indeed, Allah is Forgiving and Merciful.” The second interpretation, which takes context and the reason for revelation into account, is: “If they (polytheists of Mecca) cease, you cease too. Indeed, Allah is very Forgiving and very Merciful.”
Which one is correct? Of course the second one. Because, just like we have been pointing out, this six-verse group was revealed independently during the “qadha umra” in response to the concerns of the Muslims that the polytheists of Mecca might attack them. But if you ignore this context, and approach the verse individually, then you end up with a conclusion where you will support that “war is essential in international relations,” and make it appear as if Allah stated it.
Moreover, even if we approach the verse individually, and give the first meaning to it, there is no reference to a certain or nonstop war. Giving up attacking means to end the hostility temporarily or permanently based on an agreement, to leave the oppression, cruelty and the assaults aside, and to live together with mutual trust on the basis of the rules of the agreement in question. As a matter of fact, when we look at the Prophet’s (PBUH) life, we are able to see all of these. He, as a head of state, never refused a tribe which had requested peace, and desired to stay neutral and non-aggressive on the battlefield and during normal times. He always accepted the people who asked for forgiveness and assurance. He never treated someone who fulfilled their agreements as an enemy. Nevertheless, he did not refuse to fight to keep religion, wisdom, property, or lives safe, against those who conspired against Muslims. He answered traitors, punished those who violated the conditions of their agreements, and retaliated for attacks that could be considered acts of war.
Interestingly enough, the view which supports war as being essential has never evaluated this group of six verses that instructs peace. They nevertheless developed a doctrine for absolute war by idolizing the fourth verse, Surah Al-Baqarah 193: “Fight them until there is no more fitnah and until worship is acknowledged to be for Allah. But if they stop denying and incursion, then there is to be no aggression except against the oppressors.” Sayyid Qutb interpreted this verse as “if they stop fighting and infidelity,” thus opening the door to interpretations such as blasphemy/shirk, meaning disbelieving, to be an act of war. We can see such approaches in the quotation interpretations throughout history.
I would recall the explanation of the meaning of fitnah regarding the previous verse, “fitnah is worse than killing,” which could be summarized as “to oppress, torture, torment against the freedom of religion, to encroach upon the basic humanitarian freedom and rights, to start an uproar, to create trouble.” Fitnah prevents people from choosing their desired religion with their free will and living in accordance with their beliefs. “Religion is pertained to Allah, until worship is acknowledged to be for Allah” has the same meaning. This meaning is reinforced in the second sentence of this verse: “But if they stop denying and incursion, then there is to be no aggression…”.
Therefore, to make the divine intention more understandable and clear, the verse should be interpreted within the proper context, including the reason for revelation, and the siyaq-sibaq relationship. Thus, we come to the interpretation: “Fight until the polytheists of Mecca stop the oppression and cruelty they are inflicting, and the worshiping is acknowledged to be for Allah, meaning fight against the oppressors and the polytheists who deem the oppression proper, until the people are not exposed to oppression, torment, ordeal, exile, and cruelty. However, if they stop their aggression, and all of the individuals in the community can enjoy freedom of religion, then there is no need to attack them.” Worshiping being acknowledged to Allah does not mean that all of the non-Muslims in the world must be Muslims, contrary to some naïve interpretations.
The essence of the verse is very important. Allah says: “You should know that hostility is to be shown only towards aggressive oppressors.” The use of “zalimun” (oppressors) is critical. Instead of this, the Qur’an could have said “mushrikun/kafirun” (polytheists/infidels), and then the ones who state that the act of war is blasphemy or shirk would be right with their literal interpretations. However, although the ones who inflict cruelty and oppression are infidels, the verse does not emphasize their infidel identity, but rather their identity as oppressors. And this is a very clear evidence which explains that belief or disbelief—in other words, religious identity—is not an act of war. Nevertheless, the ones who say that blasphemy is an act of war are right about one point: nearly all of the oppressors who deemed the oppression correct were infidels or polytheists, and they all fought war against Muslims.
The fifth verse, Surah Al-Baqarah 194, reads: “[Fighting in] the sacred month is for [aggression committed in] the sacred month, and for [all] violations is legal retribution. So whoever has assaulted you, then assault him in the same way that he has assaulted you. And fear Allah and know that Allah is with those who fear Him.”
Given both the reason for revelation and the contextual information previously provided, the meaning of this verse should be clear.
The sixth verse, Surah Al-Baqarah 195, states: “The effort, struggle and fighting you are forced to face shall not be without expenses. Therefore, help with your belongings for this cause, meaning in the way of Allah. Do not let your own hands throw you into destruction by means of not providing this help. Whatever you do, bear in mind that Allah sees everything you do and how you do, and do them the best way you can. Indeed, Allah loves those who bear in mind that Allah always sees what they do, and do them the most beautiful way they can.”
In my opinion, this is the clearest and most explanatory interpretation when taking the context into account. The verse does not refer to an absolute help, but it guides Muslims towards how to finance the war, which is legitimate and must be done fairly. It clearly refers to the fact that Muslims must provide this financing through material sacrifices. Furthermore, stinginess in this respect will threaten the safety of the religion, wisdom, property, lives, and the whole generation. The people must provide everything with their own hands, to protect the right to life and the safety of their properties. This process would naturally affect future generations. Failure to provide adequate financing would mean a return to the time of oppression, cruelty, torment, and torture towards living and believing in the religion. A war without financial support, and the absence of the material preparations which require financial expenses before and during the war, will definitely result in a defeat on the battlefield. The Qur’an uses the theological language used when we explained the words “In the way of Allah,” together with the sentence, “Help in the way of Allah, be generous.”
To give an example, during the conquest of Istanbul, a companion reads the verse “do not let your own hands throw you into destruction” to persuade someone who attacks the enemy without taking any security measures, to stop this behavior. In military terms, it is a correct warning, and you could say that he is attributing this warning to the verse of the Qur’an. However, the meaning attributed to this verse is taken out of context, and disconnected from its intended purpose. As a matter of fact, His Highness Abu Ayyub al-Ansari corrects this mistake, and says: “We asked the Prophet (PBUH) to let us remain with our properties when Islam and the Muslims gained enough power in Medina. That was when this verse was revealed.” Thus, he prevented a huge semantic shift and a misunderstanding of Allah’s intentions.
The key word in the second sentence of the verse mentioned above is “goodness”. Goodness means being conscious towards the relationships between Allah and a person, between two people, and between a person and an animal, keeping in mind that one will answer to Allah in the afterlife; should do good to others and act fair and accurately; be forgiving, generous, and courageous. Goodness, which is used more than 70 times as a name, verb, or infinitive in the Qur’an, covers all the meanings relating Allah’s and people’s behavior. Considering the rich meaning of the word goodness, it gives guidance in light of the fact that one will answer to Allah in the afterlife, to act fairly and balanced both in peace and at war. Thus the interpretation is given to involve both meanings.
In this paper, we have seen how those who support peace as essential to international relations answered the verses about jihad that are cited as justification for the view that war is essential. According to them, by approaching the group of six verses focused in the fifth phase between the 190th and 195th verses of Surah Al-Baqarah, without due consideration of their context, reason for revelation, and siyaq-sibaq, one cannot accurately state that these verses abrogated the previous peace-themed verses. It is not correct to interpret the meaning of the verses as, “kill them wherever you see them, fight them until there is no more fitnah and until the worship is acknowledged for Allah”, or that a “nonstop and constant state of war against the infidels and polytheists is essential in Islam in international relations; blasphemy and shirk are acts of war.” Such a political theory or doctrine of war cannot be built upon these verses. The verses do not support this view. I believe that the evidence provided by the ones who focus on peace is stronger, and for this reason I have added my comments when I quoted their points of view.
That being said, could you say that Islam is a religion of peace and peace is essential in international relations? Could you say that the verses which instruct Muslims to go to war are the verses which provided solutions for political problems at the time of revelation, and even though one cannot say they were abrogated, fighting is only limited to self-defense?
Since the jihad verses are present in the Qur’an, is it not possible to ground the theory of war or peace on the verses of the Qur’an? Of course it is possible, but only under the condition that we do not forget the relationship between facts and norms, or between realpolitik and idealpolitik. Norms and realpolitik are the verses which provide tangible solutions for the incidents that happened during the revelation period, while idealpolitik represents the values, policies, and principles obtained as a result of studying the Qur’an and the verses about jihad with a totalitarian approach. “Islam is a religion of war” or “Islam is a religion of peace” are more like slogans, instead of scientific statements. Such stereotypical reductionist discourses form a big obstacle towards understanding the true nature of the religion. War and peace are political matters regarding international relations. In this respect, it is the administrators’ duty to determine policies according to the conditions they are living in. Idealpolitik prioritizes peace, which must be the case. However, depending on the situation, a war might be fought as well. Therefore, a more appropriate interpretation of Islamic values would be a balanced politics of peace.
Dr. Ahmet Kurucan is an author and a leading scholar focusing on Islamic Law.