ON THE CAUSES OF VIOLENCE IN EARLY ISLAMIC SOCIETY
by Asghar Ali Engineer
There is great deal of misunderstanding about place of violence in Islam. It is generally thought that Islam teaches its believers to use violence against non-Muslims and thus it legitimises violence to promote itself. Nothing can be further from truth. Islam is far from being a violent religion. Its basic aim is to promote justice and peace and establish a just, non-exploitative and humane order. It denounces exploitation of one human being by the other and believes in equality of all human beings ? believers or non-believers. It teaches human actions to be based on peace (salam), compassion(rahmah), benevolence(ihsan) and wisdom(hikmah).
Such a religion cannot preach violence against others, including kafirs. Before we proceed further it is important to note that the word kafir has also been much misunderstood and much misused by certain Muslim theologians. The Qur'an uses this word very carefully and in a definite sense. However, in Islamic history this word has been often used loosely, carelessly and for denouncing rivals among Muslims, more than against non-Muslims. Had it been used strictly in the sense in which it has been used in the Qur'an, much bloodshed and conflict could have been avoided.
Qur'an uses the word kafir for those Meccans who not only refused to believe in the message brought by the Holy Prophet but also turned hostile and used violence ? both psychological and physical ? against the Prophet (PBUH) and his followers. It was not only the question of worshipping idols that qualified them to be kafirs but their rejection of entire value system of Islam (i.e. values like justice, compassion, non-violence, peace, truth, equality and human dignity and sensitivity to others suffering).
As for idol worshipping was concerned the Qur'an, though against it, had allowed the kafirs to do so (see chapter 109) as a matter of freedom of conscience. Idol worship was not the only criteria for kufr (non-belief), it was rejection of these values to constitute a humane society. Not only this these powerful tribal chiefs and their supporters severely persecuted the Prophet for preaching unity of God, His creatures and bringing about a humane social order.
In Arabia and outside Arabia there were people who followed their respective religions (either religions of the books like Torah and Bible or their traditional religions) and did not accept Islam but Muslims never insisted on their accepting Islam, let alone persecute them for doing so. They were left to follow their religions. The Prophet (PBUH) himself allowed, for example Zoroastrians of Bahrain, to follow their religion and entered into a pact with them as people of the book (ahl al-kitab). Uthman, the third caliph after the Prophet, even accepted Berbers as ahl al-kitab though they had no revealed scripture and were following traditional religion.
It is also very interesting to note that the Qur'an, the revealed word of God, does not prescribe violence against the kafirs unless they use violence against Muslims. Thus we find in the Qur'an in verse 2:190 that "And fight in the way of Allah against those who fight against you but be not aggressive. Surely Allah loves not the aggressors." This verse makes three important points. First, the fight must be only for Allah and not for personal reasons (revenge or aggrandisement); second, one should not initiate the fight but should fight only if attacked and three, one should not persist in fighting and become aggressor once the other party lays down weapons and sues for peace. Allah does not love aggressors.
If one keeps this in mind it becomes clear that the Qur'an, the main source of Islamic teachings, does not sanction violence but permits it for self-defence and in certain well defined circumstances and with rigorous conditions. It nowhere sanctions violence for spread of religion or any other religious purposes. It upholds the principle of freedom of conscience as propounded in the verse 2:256 and never deviates from it.
Thus commenting on verse 2:193 Maulana Muhammad Ali of Lahore comments as follows: "When persecution ceases, and men are not forced to accept or renounce a religion, being at liberty to profess any religion of the truth of which they are convinced, then there should be no more fighting. The words that follow make the sense quite clear. If they desist from persecution, the Muslims are at once to stop fighting against them, and hostilities are not to be continued against any except the aggressors." (Holy Qur'an, Lahore, 1973, pp- 82)
he Maulana further points out that "A comparison with 22:40 will show that this is the correct explanation. There the object of the Muslim fights is plainly set forth in the following words: ?And if Allah did not repel some people by others, cloisters and churches and synagogues and mosques in which Allah's name is much remembered would have been pulled down'. This shows clearly that the Muslims fought not only in defence of mosques, but also in that of churches and synagogues, and even of the cloisters of monks. The same object is stated here in the words religion is for Allah, so that there is no persecution on the score of religion, and everyone is at liberty to hold any belief which he likes. The verse, in fact, lays down the broad principles of religious freedom." (ibid)
Thus it is quite clear that Qur'an in no way permits violence for suppression of religious freedom; it is quite to the contrary. It permits violence even if others religious freedom is in danger. Freedom of religion and freedom of conscience should be defended and should not be allowed to be endangered. If it is in danger such a situation is referred to in verse 2:193 as fitnah (i.e. persecution). Persecution in every form should be ended and hen only a just and peaceful society could be established.
Often comparison is made with Buddhism or Christianity and it is concluded that while these religions are advocates of peace, Islam promotes violence. It is very mistaken view as violence or absence of it is ascribed to religion rather than to circumstances in which a religion comes into existence or spreads. Islam, if one goes by teachings alone, is as peaceful a religion, as Buddhism or Christianity. The violence is not borne of religious teachings but from circumstances. This is what is most important to understand. People often confuse violence present in a society for various reasons with violence produced by religious teachings.
Let us examine this further. The beginnings of Buddhism and Islam are very similar but circumstances are very different. Buddha was highly dissatisfied with conditions around him. He was greatly disturbed by the suffering of people around him. He left his house, his family in search of truth, in quest for solution. He spent number of years reflecting, brooding and meditating and came out with his eight-fold path and the values he considered most fundamental, values like compassion and sensitivity to suffering and ways to remove dukkha (suffering).
He began preaching his doctrines among the people and did not meet with strong resistance, nor was he persecuted by powerful vested interests. He was wandering monk and did not stay at one place. He did not confront any religious establishment or political power. He did have religious debates with those who upheld certain Vedic practices but faced no persecution. Thus his circumstances were very different from those of the Prophet. As Buddha did not face violence while preaching he did not refer to permissibility or otherwise of violence.
The Prophet of Islam too was greatly disturbed by what he saw around him in Mecca. There was malaise all around, suffering of weaker sections of society, slavery, maltreatment of women, absence of any higher spiritual goal and corrupt religious practices like superstitions and exploitation in the name of religion, kahins (priests) enriching themselves and worshipping idols as God and asking them to solve their problems.
Like Buddha the Prophet (PBUH) began reflecting deeply over this malaise in a cave of Hira, outside city of Mecca on a rugged mountain (now known as Mount of Light ? Jabal al-Nur). He spent great deal of time reflecting and meditating and Truth was revealed to him. He came from Cave of Hira with revelation, which continued for next 23 years until he died. Now he was spiritually enriched man and a man with a message from Allah.
But unlike Buddha when he began to preach his message he met with stiff resistance from powerful tribal chiefs who took pride not only in their tribal and social status but were arrogant of their wealth which they had acquired from international trade. Their arrogance knew no bounds. They were all the more disturbed as the Prophet Mohammad, though belonged to the clan of Hashim, a branch of tribe of Quraysh, which enjoyed highest social status but was orphan and poor. How can an orphan from a poor family claim to be the Messenger of Allah and teach them spiritual values.
Not only their pride was hurt but they were greatly disturbed since he sided with the poor and exploited sections of society and attacked accumulation of riches and warned them of dire consequences (chapter 104). He also talked of giving their slaves a dignified place in society. This was not acceptable to them at all. They considered it an attack on their social status and social hierarchy. He also opposed all their superstitions and laid emphasis on reason. This was totally unacceptable to the Arabs of Mecca. It went quite contrary to their customs, traditions and practices. Above all the Prophet's teachings challenged the vested interests of tribal leaders.
They failed to persuade the Prophet to stop preaching his religion. When he could not be dissuaded they began persecuting him and using violence against his followers. It is also important to note that violence was thought to be quite legitimate in pre-Islamic Arabia. There were long drawn wars between different tribes and violent retaliation was an accepted practice. Many tribes outside Mecca (Mecca was an urban area and had developed its own traditions) raided each other for their own sustenance. It was the only means for their sustenance. Thus the pre-Islamic Arab society was quite violent one and violence was thought to be quite legitimate instrument of settling scores. Neither there was any government nor any rule of law nor any legal corpus.
It was Islam which first gave concept of law and governance. In pre-Islamic period violence was the only instrument for having ones way. Thus the Prophet of Islam had to deal with this situation. Violence was in the air and no one could avoid violence. The concept of non-violence simply did not exist. As there was no ruler, no governmental authority only tribal customs could be invoked to settle disputed matters and tribal customs fully approved of violence.
The Prophet had very limited choices. He tried non-violent resistance while in Mecca but violence was so thick in the air that it did not have any impact on the tribal leaders and powerful vested interests. Unable to bear persecution he sent away some of his followers to Ethopia with whom Meccans had trade relations. The King of Ethopia was impressed by the teachings of new religion and its closeness to Christianity (The chapter 19 of the Qur'an on Mary was recited before him which greatly impressed him and he granted these Muslims refuge in his kingdom).
But those who remained in Mecca continued to be severely persecuted and a plot was hatched to assassinate the Prophet. On learning of this plot the Prophet migrated to Yathrib which was renamed Madinatun Nabi (city of the Prophet) but properly known as Madina. He had received good response from people of Madina many of whom converted to Islam and had promised him to help. For this reason the people of Madina were known as Ansar i.e. helpers.
In Madina too the Prophet could not rest in peace. Though he entered into a covenant with all tribal leaders of Mecca, Muslim, Jew as well as pagan giving them full freedom to follow their respective religions but to defend Madina, if attacked. The Jews however, quite apprehensive of the rising power of Muslims and began to secretly conspire with the tribal chiefs of Mecca to attack Madina. The Jews had established their leadership in Madina and had become quite influential and benefited from internecine wars of non-Jewish Arab tribes. Tired of Jewish moves to make them fight, these Arab tribals had invited the Prophet to Madina to make peace between them. The Prophet brought peace and united them. This endeared the Prophet to the Arab tribals of Madina.
The Prophet, however, was quite apprehensive of the Meccan moves to attack Madina and he kept vigil and sent his men to keep watch on Meccan trade caravans. The battle of Badr was the first battle fought between Muslims and Meccan unbelievers. Though there is lot of controversy as to who attacked first but if we go by the Qur'anic verse (2:190) the Muslims must have attacked only to defend themselves.
Thus the Meccan unbelievers were keen to humiliate the Prophet in Madina too so that he and his followers did not emerge as a force. They feared Islam on two counts. Firstly because its teachings were based on justice, compassion, taking care of weaker sections of society, giving women an honourable position, equality of all human beings including of slaves and non-Arabs and the Meccans disliked these teachings as they thought Arabs are superior to all other, particularly the Quraysh of Mecca and they were not ready to accept any other code of conduct except their own. Secondly, they thought if Muhammad (PBUH) succeeds they will loose their hegemony.
Thus the Meccan Arabs would not leave Prophet in peace. Prophet did his best to promote peaceful settlement as the peace of Hudaibiyah also shows very clearly. The Meccans would not let him perform Hajj and the Prophet did not want to use force although he had more than 10,000 followers with him. The Meccans would not even agree to an honourable settlement. The Prophet could have used force but did not do so and accepted peace even on humiliating terms. His own followers opposed peaceful settlement on such humiliating terms but the Prophet persisted and signed the peace pact. The Prophet wanted to make peace as a norm and violence an exception.
However, no individual, however morally powerful and influential, can control the given circumstances and placed in a situation the Prophet was placed in. The violence was there all around him and he had to survive in those given circumstances. Also, the Arabian peninsula was surrounded by powerful empires like Sassanid and Roman empires. Islam was feared by all those who saw real threat in its moral teachings, teachings of equality of all and discrimination against none. It was seen as empowering the weak, the oppressed and exploited.
Islamic teachings were highly subversive for the powerful establishments based on exploitation and oppression. It wanted to make the weaker sections of society the leaders and inheritors of earth (28:5) and Islam wanted to bring about this revolution in most peaceful manner. Islam did not approve of feudal ownership of land. The Prophet wanted land owned only by tillers. He made it obligatory for rich to pay zakat to meet the basic needs of the poor and needy. Such a concept was not acceptable for feudal lords and their hangers on. Also, on the other hand, the rich merchants of Mecca were not ready to spend their wealth for the poor and needy.
In Mecca, as pointed out before, there was no legal governing authority and hence no taxes. They were thus not ready to pay any tax to any authority. Islam demanded that and made that obligatory. Such a concept was totally alien to them. It is also proved by the war of riddah (i.e. war on those going back on Islam). After the death of the Holy Prophet some tribes refused to pay zakat and declared that if zakat were made obligatory on them, they would rather turn away from Islam. Abubakr, the first caliph, did not agree to this and a fierce war was fought between the Islamic government and the rivals refusing to pay zakat, the poor tax.
It is important to note that zakat was highly desirable tax for removing poverty from the society and was meant to bring about redistribution of wealth in society. It was to be spent on poor and the needy, the captives and those in debt, for wayfarers and in the way of Allah (see 9:60). Thus it is meant for all weaker sections of society. In early seventh century no government was levying such tax for the weaker sections of society and no one was prepared to accept such a thing.
Islam gives primary importance to justice and all governments of time were based on injustice and exploitation. Islam was also trying to change the existing power equations in society ? power to impoverished and powerless. The powerful resisted this with all their might. Also, the powerless began to test power and organised themselves better to retain their power. And it is human psychology that when powerless becomes powerful they use violence with as much ferocity, or perhaps with greater ferocity. Thus changing power equations in a changing society develops its own dynamics in power struggle.
All this we witness in the early Islamic society in the post-prophetic phase i.e. after the death of the Prophet. Thus violence in early Islamic society was not due to the Qur'anic teachings but because of new power equations coming into existence in the early Islamic society. New vested interests began to develop in this new society and these powerful interests began to use violence to seize power.
In this power struggle more Muslims were killed by Muslims themselves than by non-Muslims. Even the Prophet's own grandson was not spared. He refused to accept authority of those who seized power in an unjust manner and was martyred in Karbala on 10th of Muharram along with his close relatives and friends. We will throw more light on this civil war among Muslims in early Islamic society in another paper.
What we intend to emphasise here is that the Prophet wanted to establish a just, peaceful and non-exploitative society in which all human beings, without distinction of low and high or of sex or of Arab and non-Arab could live in peace and harmony. However, vested interests both inside and outside the Islamic society did not allow it to happen and thus most organised and sustained efforts for the first time in history to bring about social and economic justice came to a tragic end.
In no society, as long as there are powerful vested interests, and no society is free of that, social transformation can be brought about peacefully. Vested interests sabotage all such efforts violently and peace remains only a dream. So it happened in Islamic society.