A video from an Islamist
Web site shows Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and four other
hooded men before they behead U.S. busines sman Nick
Berg in May, 2004.
Nickel, National Post
Tuesday, June 13, 2006
problem of Muslim radicalization has been on the agenda of
all nations since 9/11. But Canada faces a unique dilemma
because the doctrine of multiculturalism is seen as
intrinsic to our national identity. The recent disruption of
an alleged homegrown Islamist terror plot has caused many
Canadians to ask: How can multiculturalism -- which preaches
tolerance above all else -- be squared with a militant,
intolerant creed that demonizes non-believers? This week,
the National Post presents a week-long series of articles
examining this question. In today's second instalment,
Gordon Nickel examines the claim that Islam is inherently a
'religion of peace.'
London bombings of 7/7, there has been a renewed effort
among Muslims in the West to present Islam as a religion of
peace. This has come in response to persistent probing of
the relationship between Islam and violence. Here in Canada,
this issue recently leapt to the front pages following news
that all 17 suspects in an alleged Ontario-based terror plot
Muslims, the rise of homegrown terror has meant an interest
in re-examining the foundational texts that extremists have
used to justify their attacks -- the Koran, the Hadith
(traditions of what the prophet of Islam said and did), the
Sira (earliest biography of the prophet), and works of Fiqh
(Islamic jurisprudence). Some are challenging classical
interpretations of these texts that have held sway for
Koran is cited by Muslims in response to questions about
violence, it is often discussed in such a way as to shut
down a meaningful exploration of the text. One or two mild
passages are usually offered, as if these fully represented
the contents of a scripture containing 6,000-plus verses.
But the Koran -- literally "recitation" -- is a collection
of diverse materials that include polemic, praise,
eschatology, law, narrative, battle calls, and details of
the domestic life of the Prophet.
particular, the sourcebooks contain a great deal of material
relating to violence. This article reviews that small part
of the material that is directly relevant to any debate
about the link between Islam and terror: the commands to
fight and kill.
contains five commands to kill and 12 commands to fight
(literally, "try to kill"). Most are found in the second
(verses 190, 191, 193, 244), fourth (vv. 76, 84, 89, 91) and
ninth (vv. 5, 12, 14, 29, 36, 123) suras.
commands address a number of different situations, from
"fighting those who fight you" to "fighting totally." The
objects of the fighting and killing include the unbelievers,
the "associators" (mushrikin, or polytheists) and "the
friends of Satan."
classical Muslim discussions of these verses, two verses
attracted more attention than any others. They came to be
known as "the sword verse" (9.5) and "the verse of tribute"
of tribute concerns the "people of the book" -- generally
understood by Muslims to be faith communities possessing a
scripture, especially Jews and Christians. The command is to
fight those who have been given the book "until they pay the
tribute (jizya) out of hand and have been humbled." The
command in the sword verse is to "kill the associators (mushrikin)
wherever you find them, and take them, and confine them, and
lie in wait for them at every place of ambush." At face
value, therefore, polytheists appear to be at greater risk
than Jews or Christians.
verb in all of these verses is not the verb related to jihad.
Rather, it is the verb qatala in its first ("to kill") and
third ("to fight, try to kill") forms. The Koran contains many
other verses using forms of qatala which -- though not
imperatives -- appear to encourage fighting or killing. Among
these is 61.4: "Allah loves those who fight in his way."
the commands. But what do they mean? That is, of course, a
matter of interpretation. Those who want to give a peaceful
interpretation to these verses face challenges from both the
classical medieval Muslim consensus and the interpretations of
popular figures within the 20th-century Islamic revival.
scholars have produced lively commentaries (tafsir) on the
verses of the Koran from the second Islamic century up to the
present. The earliest complete commentary on the Koran was
written by Muqatil ibn Sulayman (d. 767). Muqatil seems to
take the commands to fight and kill at face value.
One of the
interpretive principles that Muqatil and later commentators
used was to link passages in the Koran with events in the
story of Muhammad, the prophet of Islam. These events are
arranged in a continuous narrative in the Sirat Rasul Allah of
Ibn Ishaq (d. 767).
scholars assigned each of the Koran's 114 suras to initial
recitation by Muhammad in either Mecca or Medina; and within
those main divisions, they gave each sura a place in a
definite chronology. The establishment of such a chronology
permitted the concept of abrogation -- by which recitations
originating later in time took precedence over apparently
contradictory passages recited earlier.
classical Muslim understanding that developed from these
principles was that the commands to fight and kill could be
arranged chronologically in the prophet's lifetime -- from the
initial permission Muhammad gave to his followers to fight, to
instructions on defensive warfare, to conditional aggression,
to open unrestricted warfare as the Prophet's forces grew
stronger later in his life. Peaceful passages in the Koran
were considered to be superseded by materials with a warlike
tone, especially Sura 9.
Powers, professor of near eastern studies at Cornell
University, has noted that Muslim scholars of abrogation such
as Ibn Salama (d. 1020) claimed the "sword verse" cited above
(9.5) had abrogating power over 124 other verses, including
"every other verse in the Koran which commands or implies
anything less than a total offensive against the
non-believers." U.S.-born historian John Wansbrough found that
the sword verse "became the scriptural prop of a formulation
designed to cover any and all situations which might arise
between the Muslim community and its enemies." Influential
Islamist authors such as 'Abd al-Salam Faraj, Maulana Maududi
and Sayyid Qutb have all expressed their agreement with the
classical interpretation of the commands to fight and kill.
illustration of this Islamist tendency is in the pre-9/11
communiques of Osama bin Laden. His "Declaration of War" of
October, 1996, makes prominent use of Koranic commands to
fight and kill. His Jihad Against Jews and Crusaders of
February, 1998, opens with the sword verse and applies it
directly to those he considers to be the modern enemies of
one of the greatest challenges facing peace advocates in
Muslim nations is that the Islamist voices that seem to have
the greatest appeal to youth are those that portray the
Koranic commands to kill as clear and unequivocal. Some of
these Islamists have already carefully processed Western
criticisms and have deliberately reasserted the classical
understandings. For instance, Egypt's Sayyid Qutb, a guiding
force of the Muslim Brotherhood (from which al-Qaeda
sprang), wrote that the tendency to interpret the Koran as
if it enjoins only defensive war is an error of Muslims
minds "defeated by the pressure of unfavourable conditions
and the treacherous propaganda of the orientalists."
need not be the only way of interpreting these texts. One
alternative -- quite common in some faith communities --
might be to decide that these were commands for a very
particular set of circumstances, but that they no longer
apply to modern believers in this time. Another option,
advanced recently by the Turkish scholar Israfil Balci, is
to reject the classical interpretations of these commands as
a product of the political tensions of the period.
are not the only scriptural community to face challenges of
interpretation. Jews and Christians who regard the Hebrew
scriptures as the Word of God must deal with the conquest of
Canaan, the commandment of total cherem destruction, the
violence of judges like Samson and the bloodshed of kings
like David -- among many other materials that suggest Godly
approval for aggressive warfare against non-believers.
Conversely, warring Christians who accept the authority of
the Gospel must deal with the apparent prohibition of
violence in the teachings and life example of Jesus. This
discussion has been going on among Christians at least since
the Crusades, when critics were heard to say "that it is not
in accordance with the Christian religion to shed blood in
this way, even that of wicked infidels. For Christ did not
Christian community, one interpretive option is to read the
Hebrew scriptures through the prism of the Gospel. According
to the Gospel, Jesus said that he had come not to abrogate
the Law and the Prophets, but to fulfill them. Jesus then
immediately replaced the law of retaliation with
non-resistance, and commanded love for enemies (Matthew
5:17, 38, 39, 44). This way of dealing with difficult
materials raises many questions, but it has allowed
Christians to pursue pacifism while holding to the authority
of the Hebrew scriptures.
Unfortunately, the Islamic principle of abrogation runs in the
opposite chronological direction in relation to violence.
Because the commands to fight and kill in the Koran are
considered by Muslims to be among the recitations made very
late in the life of the prophet of Islam -- at a time when his
conquest of Arabia was almost complete -- Muslims scholars
have been inclined to read the peaceful texts as subordinate
to the later ones.
words, Muslims seeking to find a peaceful message in the Koran
must fight not only the plain meaning of the Koran's text and
the current fashion for militancy, but also the arrow of
the words of Muslim scripture so that they pose no threat to
peaceful coexistence with non-believers thus seems a large
challenge. In view of the high stakes in the world today,
however, it is certainly a challenge worth taking up.
Otherwise, Canadian proponents of multiculturalism will have a
harder time arguing that traditional Islam is just another
peaceful element in Canada's multicultural quilt.
Nickel has a PhD in the earliest commentaries on the Koran and
teaches in British Columbia.
THE WAY OF ALLAH THOSE WHO FIGHT YOU'
are selected Koranic references to fighting and killing
(2):190 - "And fight (qaatiloo) in the way of Allah those who
(2):193 - "Fight them (qaatiloohum), till there is no
persecution and the religion is Allah's"
(2):244 - "So fight (qaatiloo) in the way of Allah, and know
that Allah is all-hearing, all-knowing."
(4):76 - "Those who are believers fight (yuqaatiloona) in the
way of Allah, and the unbelievers fight in the idols' way. So
fight (qaatiloo) the friends of Satan; surely the guile of
Satan is ever feeble."
(8):39 - "Fight them (qaatiloohum), till there is no
persecution and the religion is Allah's entirely."
(9):12 - "But if they break their oaths after their covenant
and thrust at your religion, then fight (qaatiloo) the leaders
(9):29 - "Fight (qaatiloo) those who believe not in Allah and
the Last Day and do not forbid what Allah and his messenger
have forbidden -- such men as practise not the religion of
truth, being of those who have been given the Book -- until
they pay the tribute out of hand and have been humbled."
(9):123 - "O believers, fight (qaatiloo) the unbelievers (kuffaar)
who are near to you, and let them find in you a harshness (ghilza)."
(2):191 - "And slay them (aqtuloohum) wherever you come upon
(2):191 - "But fight them not by the Holy Mosque until they
should fight you there; then if they fight you, slay them (aqtuloohum)
-- such is the recompense of unbelievers."
(4):89 - "then, if they turn their backs, take them, and slay
them (aqtuloohum) wherever you find them"
(4):91 - "If they withdraw not from you, and offer you peace,
and restrain their hands, take them, and slay them (aqtuloohum)
wherever you come on them; against them we have given you a
(9):5 - "Then when the sacred months are drawn away, slay (aqtuloo)
the idolaters wherever you find them, and take them, and
confine them, and lie in wait for them at every place of
(4):74 - "So let them fight (yuqaatil) in the way of Allah who
sell the present life for the world to come; and whosoever
fights (yuqaatil) in the way of Allah and is slain, or
conquers, we shall bring him a mighty wage."
(47):4 - "When you meet the unbelievers, smite (darba) their
necks, then, when you have made wide slaughter among them, tie
fast the bonds; then set them free, either by grace or ransom,
till the war lays down its loads."