Islamic limits to fighting oppression

by Muhammad Farooq Khan
Peshawar, Pakistan - Whenever terrorism strikes in Pakistan and innocent lives are lost, people wonder which Islamic injunctions the perpetrators abused to justify their acts. The North West Frontier Province of Pakistan, where I reside, has been particularly volatile recently, and people are increasingly appalled by the convoluted logic used by suicide bombers to kill our families, friends and neighbours.

In the last 30 years, there has been an increase in the number of militant Muslim organisations, such as Al Qaeda and Islamic Jihad, that are engaged in self-declared wars against others–whether they be foreign nations, their own governments, or even members of other religious and ethnic groups–whom they see as oppressors. Such misconceptions result from a failure to understand the Qur'an in its proper context and the failure to read the actions and sayings of the Prophet Muhammad, or hadith, alongside the Qur'an.

Reading the Qur'an literally, many people consider some verses to be encouraging violence. Often quoted is the verse: “Sanction is given unto those who fight because they have been wronged; and God is indeed able to give them victory" (22:39). Many believe this commandment is binding on every aggrieved Muslim, individually or communally, to violently fight against perceived oppression.

The prominent 8th and 9th century Muslim jurists who founded the five schools of Islamic jurisprudence–the Hanafi, Hanbali, Shafi’i, Maliki and Jaafari schools–all argue that Muslims cannot wage war without a state or government sanctioning such action. Their argument conforms to the Prophet Muhammad’s saying: “A ruler is a shield. War has to be fought under his commandments.“

There is logic behind this precept. If each Muslim were allowed to wage war on his or her own, Muslims would be divided without any real binding authority. This would result in complete chaos and anarchy which runs counter to the very spirit of Islam. Indeed, the Qur'an says, "Work not confusion in the earth after the fair ordering" (7:56).

A state authority is necessary not only to maintain order for Muslims but also because of the importance and weight of treaties in Islam. The Qur'an advises that where there is a peace agreement between a Muslim and non-Muslim nation, the former must not wage war even if it’s to help any oppressed Muslims among the latter: “…Ye have no duty to protect them till they leave their homes; but if they seek help from you in the matters of religion then it is your duty to help (them) except against a folk between whom and you there is a treaty” (8:72).

The reason for this injunction is because positive relations between two larger entities–whether they be countries, states or communities–are vitally important for maintaining overall peace, whereas waging war against another country for the rescue of an oppressed Muslim minority unravels relations and creates discord for the majority.

It was only after the formation of the first Islamic polity in Medina, where the Prophet Muhammad travelled with his companions after leaving Mecca due to persecution, that war was allowed in defence of this emerging state against aggressors. Thus, the Qur'anic verses encouraging people to participate in war against oppressors and aggressors were revealed during the Prophet Muhammad’s time in Medina when a state was already established. At that time there was no concept of a national military, so it was imperative to persuade the common Muslim man, on behalf of the state and with its sanction, to fight in order to protect the growing Muslim community.

The Qur'an has always stressed that war is the last option and it should be fought keeping in mind all human values. It says: “God does not forbid you to deal justly and kindly with those who did not fight against you on account of your religion and did not drive you out of your homes. Verily, God loves those who deal with equity. It is only as regards those who fought against you on account of your religion, and have driven you out of your homes, and helped to drive you out, that God forbids you to befriend them. And whosoever will befriend them, then such are the wrongdoers” (60:8-9).

Ultimately, these verses demonstrate that no individuals or non-state actors are allowed to wage war in the name of Islam or on behalf of any Muslim community, local or global. Muslims would do well to return to the sources–the Qur'an and verified hadith–to better understand their key messages of respect for international law and the spirit of peace and justice that prevails in Islam.


* Dr. Muhammad Farooq Khan is an Islamic scholar, columnist and television anchor from Peshawar, Pakistan. This article is part of a series on the myth that Islam is inherently violent written for the Common Ground News Service (CGNews).

Source: Common Ground News Service (CGNews), 5 January 2010,
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Other articles in this series

The jihad to enhance oneself by Abed Z. Bhuyan
Settling the "infidels" question in Islam by Maher Y. Abu-Munshar
Is the Qur’an hostile to Jews and Christians? by Leena El-Ali
Extralegal policing criticised in Indonesia by Novriantoni Kahar
Violence against women is not a tenet of Islam by Naazish YarKhan