Said Nachid

The Qur’ānic text does not stint at calling for killing and fighting. Indeed in one of its verses (Qur’ān,  II, 216) it states: Warfare is ordained for you’. Based on this clear unequivocal statement the extremist religious preacher ‘Abd al-Salām Farag deduced, in his book The Absent Obligation, that killing was an individual duty for every Muslim, for its being analogous to the verse: ‘Fasting is prescribed for you (Qur’ān II,183).

To be honest, we are faced with a jurisprudential paradox that respects the rules of logical analogy and concludes that fasting and killing enjoy the same level of legal obligation. Indeed, we find ourselves in a legislative muddle if we attempt to strike a balance between the call for killing and the obligation to fast. So what is the solution to this? Whenever we end up in a paradox we have to take another look at the premises.

The Qur’ān is not an eternal law brought down intact from the heavens

To come back to the beginning, our problem is that we think that the Qur’ān represents Almighty God’s ‘point of view’ on human affairs, including the verses on fighting. But actually the opposite is the case. More strictly what is required is that we understand that Qur’ānic incitement to killing and fighting – whatever the justification and reasons – does not reflect the ‘point of view’ of an Almighty God that is far exalted above all the worlds. Rather, it reflects quite simply the Messenger’s understanding and interpretation of ‘obscure’ divine revelations that he was constantly receiving. Quite naturally, how these were interpreted was subject to the influence of tradition, culture and the practice of warfare in the Prophet’s era, an era of violence that came before the formation of the state and consequently preceded by centuries a state of rights and law.

So the Qur’ān (and this is what we are intent on confirming) is not an eternal law brought down intact from the heavens – as those who take a magical view of religion hold – but is merely a set of emanations from the heart which the Messenger converted into a metaphorical language of worship, and subsequently Muslims turned into a recorded volume before turning that volume into a sanctified text. This took place in a specific and highly complex linguistic, cultural and political environment.

As such, we are able to grasp the concept of fighting contained in the Qur’ānic text by considering it not as a series of divine ‘military orders’, as the faqihs and the Salafists consider them, but rather as merely subsidiary measures specific to the Prophet’s environment and appropriate to the violence of a pre-state era.

Behaviour appropriate to the culture of the Messenger’s era does not represent divine law

There is no doubt that it was the habit of most ancient societies to come into conflict with each other. And we would not be wrong to say that killing in the ancient world was not simply a complementary matter, but was first and foremost a political and economic activity, in view of the income represented by seized booty, abandoned booty, and captives. Secondly it was a form of cultural output in view of the values of heroism, the epics of vengeance and vendetta and the poetry of ardour and elegy which constituted the culture of the ancient world.

Thus it is only natural that the Qur’ān should contain verses inciting to combat, such as the following:

Warfare is ordained for you, though it is hateful unto you; but it may happen that ye hate a thing which is good for you, and it may happen that ye love a thing which is bad for you. Allah knoweth, ye know not [Qur’ān II, 216]

O Prophet! Exhort the believers to fight. If there be of you twenty steadfast they shall overcome two hundred, and if there be of you a hundred steadfast they shall overcome a thousand of those who disbelieve [Qur’ān VIII,65]

Fight in the way of Allah against those who fight against you, but begin not hostilities. Lo! Allah loveth not aggressors [Qur’ān II,190]

And slay them wherever ye find them, and drive them out of the places whence they drove you out, for persecution is worse than slaughter. And fight not with them at the Inviolable Place of Worship until they first attack you there, but if they attack you (there) then slay them. Such is the reward of disbelievers [Qur’ān II,191]

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 [Qur’ān II,193]

Fight in the way of Allah, and know that Allah is Hearer, Knower [Qur’ān II,244]

But what is less logical is that we should treat these verses as if they were divine ‘military’ orders that are not to be disobeyed, and which consequently have attained to the status of an article of faith. This is a mistake that is destructive to peace and stability.

Whenever the Qur’ān loses its basic function – worship and prayer –  it becomes a cultural impediment

Verses such as these are accompanied at times with commands to avoid aggressiveness and hostility, but these are nevertheless not enough to cancel out the influence of a militarising Islamic consciousness, particularly in its jurisprudential and Salafist dimension. One must therefore choose that which is more reasonable and credible, and adopt a decisive, convinced position on independent legal reasoning.

So what am I saying here? We have to grasp the fact that not only has the Qur’ānic revelation been conveyed to us through the medium of the Messenger’s language, its discourse from first to last is the fruit of this very ‘intermediary’ – for there is no such thing as a neutral language.

We may therefore conclude that the verses in the Qur’ān that call for killing and fighting do not represent any sacred code or divine law. They are merely subsidiary recommendations appropriate to the culture of the Messenger’s era, and to an age where there was no state with its institutions, or at least not yet. It was a time when the predominant condition was one of ‘to the victor go the spoils’, when the conception of rights, laws and institutions were unknown. The religion did not as a rule address people with concerns that they knew nothing about, or that which the Messenger was not in a position to know.

For this reason, whenever the Qur’ān loses its basic function – worship and prayer – and enters into the sphere of political activism, it becomes a cultural impediment to building a state with institutions, as is happening today in Afghanistan, Somalia, Gaza and elsewhere.