(Islam and Modern Age, April 2010)
The title might come as a surprise for many readers as the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) has been very frequently projected as the Prophet of violence by media and religious extremists. A Danish cartoonist even showed bombs in his turban. But here in this paper I want to show the Prophet (PBUH) was indeed a Prophet of non-violence. For this I would not fall on traditional sources as Maulanas and muftis (who give religious opinion) but use Qur'anic values and discuss circumstances in which the Prophet lived. And on these grounds there are no disagreements among Islamic scholars.
First of all a question what is non-violence and is absolute non-violence possible? It is crucial to discuss these questions if we want to form opinion about any personality whether he is violent or non-violent. Also, in order to be non-violent what are crucial pre-conditions? Can non-violence be practiced in any given circumstances? Also, can non-violence depend on one person's philosophy?
Let us take these questions now. What is non-violence? Non-violence is not mere act of non-aggression. A meek or a person totally lacking courage can also apparently be non-aggressive but this meekness or lack of courage becomes a store of aggression within him or her and strikes in devious ways including conspiracies and even can deliver mortal blow. Thus absence of violence cannot be treated as non-violence.
Non-violence is based on deeper inner conviction of a person even if he cannot control all forces operating around him. We must remember that a non-violent person without such deeper conviction cannot be truly non-violent person. This is a crucial point here. A person without such deeper conviction may not ever resort to violence if circumstances do not so dictate to him and a person with deeper conviction about non-violence may, in certain extreme circumstances, have to resort to violence. We have several examples of this in history.
This leads us to second crucial question: Is absolute non-violence possible in society? I think answer, contrary to my desire, is in the negative. Society around us is an extremely complex entity. Around us operate highly contradictory forces which go into dictating themselves on us. As it is said human beings are neither absolutely free to act nor totally dependent on others.
A human being is a complex mixture of freedom and unfreedom. To the extent there is unfreedom our deeper conviction also cannot help. Thus whether a person is non-violent or not will have to be judged by his/her deeper conviction and to an extent what strenuous efforts he/she put in to check violence and simply not by whether one succeeded in creating non-violent society.
Thus a modern historian knows even persons like Mahatma Gandhi who undoubtedly had very deep conviction for non-violence failed to create non-violent India and Independence accompanied by partition saw unprecedented violence. Yet he is known as apostle of non-violence. Much before him Christ, who is known as price of peace and love, ended violently himself nor his followers except for first three centuries during which there were highly persecuted minority, remain peaceful and even Church participated in crusades bringing about killing of thousands of innocent people or Church even allowed burning at stakes of all those who deviated from the Church fiats.
Also, the question whether one can create non-violent society out of one which is based on acute injustices and unequal distribution of economic resources? Of course one can certainly launch non-violent struggles to achieve the aim and that is what it should be, but the question is those whose interests are hit would remain non-violent allow you to achieve your aim. Certainly not. Many peace activists who worked ceaselessly for non-violent struggle were killed at the hands of vested interests.
All this is not to argue even for moment that we should resort to violence and give up non-violent, peaceful struggles. Far from it. But it should be accompanied by deeper understanding for various forces working in the society and the extent they can go to ward off all threats to their interests. I would like to stress here that non-violence as a value, is absolute, not ensuring it in the society - society as a whole which is beyond our control.
To create a non-violent society we have to create a just society and creating just society itself evokes at times rivers of blood as it happened in Muslim history (which I do not refer to it as Islamic history which creates needless confusion). As we will see all this was deliberately or otherwise, though to be result of Islamic teachings and some Muslim scholars and historians are no less responsible for this. Jihad became much misunderstood word right from beginning of Muslim history.
In the light of all this let us now turn to the Prophet (PBUH) of Islam and examine his convictions and his struggles and understand him whether he ever preached violent revolution or tried to employ violent methods to bring about transformation of Arab society. As I pointed out above, I am using here interpretative historical, social and political analysis to understand this rather that traditional sources which often Muslim scholars do.
We must divide the Prophet's struggle in two main phases and others before me have done that. First is the Meccan phase from his birth to his migration to Medina which became his ultimate resting point. Second phase is his stay in Madina until his death. Some point out that Meccan phase was of peaceful nature and that of Madina of rather violent nature. I do not agree with this categorization of one phase being peaceful and the other violent. Basically as far as the Prophet (PBUH) there is no such contradiction, Contradiction is of circumstances, not of choice.
As we all know non-violence is not possible without truth. Truth and non-violence are non-separable from each other. And there is complete unanimity among Muslim scholars, historians and non-Muslim historians that the Prophet's reputation was that of very honest and trust-worthy (amen). Thus a truthful person cannot become violent at any stage of life. He was as peaceful and non-violent in Madina as in Mecca though of course in Medinese state circumstances changed drastically which we will take note of. Any discussion without proper social and political context becomes bereft of its roots and at best remains doctrinal, The Prophet, when he appeared on the scene at Mecca was in his prime youth and very sensitive soul.
He was greatly distressed to see Meccan scene - complete turmoil, social anarchy, sharp class differences between poor and dispossessed on one hand, and powerful international business corporations owned by some tribal and clan chiefs. They were indulging in international trade exchanged at Mecca. Slavery added to the acuteness of the scene. Women were at their worst except some powerful elite women
The Prophet was so distressed by this scene that he began to retire in a cave - known as a cave of Hira on the fringes of Meccan city and would contemplate seriously on the Meccan scene. But he was no mere recluse. He wanted to actively intervene in the situation and as Muslim believe he got revelation from Allah to show the way. It was his wife Khadija, 15 years his senior who accepted him as a prophet and congratulated him.
The Prophet (PBUH), who was otherwise leading peaceful life with his wife and four daughters, now began preaching his divine message and all the hell let loose. What the Prophet preached can be summarised as follows:
- Unity of all human beings and unity of all tribes across Arabia which was causing so much conflict and bloodshed. Inter-tribal unity was greatly needed. Thus he preached ukhuwwah (brotherhood-sisterhood as the word is inclusive of both the genders). This could best be realized by tawhid (oneness of Allah). It became basic doctrine of Islam. So many gods and goddesses were source of all kinds of inter-tribal conflicts and superstition at the cost of direct rational thinking. To relieve distress of the poor, orphans, widows slaves and other weaker sections of society and several Meccan chapters and verses of Qur'an are proof enough of this He wanted to bring about redistribution of wealth to realize social peace and gave us the institution of zakat (though Qur'an did not set its quantum, the Prophet said it should be two and half percent of ones wealth at the end of the year.
- Uplift of women by giving them dignity and individual rights. He wanted to bring about social revolution in this respect. What we say 'empowerment of women' was achieved by the Prophet but later, as usually happens sabotaged by powerful and conservative Ulama. What Qur'an did to enhance empowerment of women was indeed revolutionary.
- To establish just, peaceful and non-violent society through these means and give every human equal dignity and rights irrespective of ethnic, religious, linguistic or cultural differences. Since the Prophet's teachings deeply disturbed the vested interests in Mecca who were engrossed in accumulating profits, neglecting all their tribal social obligations and perpetuating gross injustices. Also, a section of youth and the poor enthusiastically flocked around the Prophet (PBUH), these powerful traders and tribal chiefs gathered together to silence the Prophet. When they failed they approached his uncle Abu Talib who, according to tribal tradition, was his chief protector.
When Abu Talib conveyed to him what those tribal chiefs wanted he replied: if they put sun in one hand, and moon on the other and ask me to shut up, I would not. When Abu Talib saw his deep moral conviction he assured his nephew of full protection and give him full liberty to preach his ideas. Not succeeding in that the tribal chiefs started insulting the Prophet, mocking him and persecuting, in many cases of weaker unprotected sections, severely.
One of his followers was an Ethiopian slave Bilal Habshi who had embraced Islam right in the beginning. He was one of his most loyal followers as he saw in the Prophet a great liberator of slaves. The Prophet too, never neglected him and often showed preference to him above more powerful and richer of his followers. He appointed him as his mu'addhin (caller for prayer) which was great honour to which many of his companions were aspiring for.
However, the Prophet never retaliated against his and his companions and followers persecution. He and his followers were urge to bear all this with patience. In fact one of the Qur'anic surahs of Meccan period dwells on virtues of patience and makes it inseparable part of truth. Truth and patience go together, it says (chapter 103 Al-Asr) in both Meccan and Medinese chapters the virtues emphasised are: truth, justice, humility, patience, compassion, wisdom and piety. Also emphasized is suppression of feeling of revenge and anger. Revenge and retaliation were main ingredient of tribal behaviour and had already led to years of bloodshed among Arabs
All of these virtues lead to non-violent conduct, in fact is most essential part of it. The Prophet showed greatest forbearance in the Arab history who desisted from retaliating at any stage. When faced with gross brutalities he would often retire to himself, reflected deeply and came out with peaceful solution. When prosecution became unbearable in Mecca both for him and his companions and tribal chiefs plotted to assassinate him while sleeping, he decided to migrate to Madina in the dark of night.
He bore all tribulations quietly, some suggest because the Prophet and his followers were a minority and dare not fight back in Mecca. This is gross distortion of Prophet's very character. He was meticulous follower of peace and non-violence. Had it been so he could have easily not only conquered Mecca earlier than he did could have taken revenge from his persecutors, killing them and shedding blood after he did. He did not order killing of any of his foe or persecutor which was allowed by tribal tradition.
When he migrated to Madina he was welcome very enthusiastically as he went there primarily as peace-maker. The inter-tribal feud had robbed Madina of peace for last forty years. He succeeded in ending this feud and establish peace between the two tribes on principles of justice and fairness to both. Thus he entered Madina as an ambassador of peace and hence got enthusiastic welcome.
In Madina situation was entirely different partly under the Prophet's control and partly beyond him. He emerged in Madina as great moral, spiritual and ethical teacher who not only brought about unity among the people of Madina but also guided them in every walk of life. Another great virtue of the Prophet was his humility. He described himself as 'abduhu was rasuluhu i.e. as servant of Allah and His messenger. He never tried to place himself above others. When he was constructing his house and mosque he himself took part, like others in constructing it. He used to say I am not above you except as a messenger of Allah. A great teacher and so humble! Some Arabs tried to bow down before him. He strictly prohibited them from doing so and said you should bow before none except Allah.
But there were certain things beyond the Prophet's control. The Prophet's (PBUH) migration to Madina gave rise to another kind of hostility among the Jews who handled trade and often functioned as arbitrators to whom the Arab tribes would refer their disputes to. The Prophet's migration changed this situation. The Jews lost their pre-eminent position and over and above this their monopoly of trade was broken which hurt them deeply. Many of the Prophet's companions like Abu Bakr, Uthman and others were expert traders and since they also came along with the Prophet, began trading and thus Jews' monopoly was over.
There in Mecca, the tribal chiefs were very angry that the Prophet escaped and is now preaching in Madina. They had vowed either to silence him or eliminate him. They had failed in both these projects. So they decided to pursue their animosity right in Madina. The Prophet was very alert to the situation. Soon the Meccan chiefs secretly established contacts with the Madinese Jews and prepared to attack Madina. The Prophet in apprehension of possible attack had sent some of his followers to keep an eye near a place called Badr which was possible site of attack.
Meanwhile the Prophet had entered into a covenant with all tribes including the Jewish tribes known as Mithaq-e-Madina and guaranteed full freedom of faith, traditions, culture and security life and property. The Jews too had full freedom to follow their religion and all traditions without any interference from any. Only condition was that if Madina was attacked all will defend it together. It was wonderful document as modern as Union or national and international declarations of today.
By this covenant Jews were obliged to join Muslims if Madina is attacked by the Meccans. And Meccans did attack Madina and Jews had advance information of it as they were in secret negotiations with the Meccans. The Jews did not defend Madina and a hostile situation arose between Jews and Muslims. The battle of Badr took place in which 313 Muslims defeated about 1000 Meccans which was great humiliation for them.
The Prophet (PBUH) cannot be in any way responsible for this battle. He left Mecca so as to avoid any violent conflict and even in Madina he and his companions were not left in peace by the vested interests.
Of course there are some vague, even dark areas about the fight between Jews and Muslims. As far as Jewish betrayal and conspiracy with Meccan is concerned is beyond doubt. However certain narratives in Ibn Ishaq, Tabari, primary sources for the Prophet's life, have recorded certain events which need to be critically looked at. They have uncritically accepted certain Jewish historical narratives accusing the Prophet of killing more than 700 Jews after the battle of Trench (Khandaq) in which the Meccan Jews openly collaborated with the Meccan enemies of the Prophet (PBUH)
There is no place to go into details of this here but suffice it to say that this whole episode does not accord with the character of the Prophet. One psychological reason for accepting this uncritical narrative by early Muslim historians is that they wanted to establish their superiority over their enemies who betrayed them. Moreover it does not accord well with the Qur'anic description of the event, Islamic historians and scholars need to look into it very seriously and make critical appraisal of it. Unfortunately all scholars, Islamic as well as non-Islamic, keep on quoting from Ibn Ishaq, Tabari etc without seriously subjecting it to critical analyses in the light of modern historical researches.
The Prophet of Islam, it must be noted never resorted to wars of aggression. There is specific prohibition in the Qur'an for war of aggressions. The Qur'an specifically says, And fight in the way of Allah against those who fight against you but be not aggressive. Surely Allah loves not aggressors. (2:190) The Prophet of Islam never violated this Qur'anic doctrine and this 2nd chapter was revealed in Madina, not in Mecca. This is clear that war of aggression is not acceptable to Allah in any case.
I would like to give two major examples of non-violent way of resolving highly complex issues which establish the Prophet as a major exponent of peace in a region like Arabia which had witnessed blood baths on minor issues. And their revenge and anger never came to an end. One example is that the Prophet, though head of a proto-state, never raised any army throughout his life. All the fights he was forced to fight was done by voluntary participation and hence came to concept of martyrdom - dying for a higher cause. Had Prophet had any aggressive intentions and seek political power, he could have raised an army. Also funds for weapons etc. was collected through donations from his followers, never by any public tax.
Zakat money as clearly described in Qur'an was meant for distribution to the poor and weaker sections of society and was never spent on was preparations. Prophet never accepted zakat for himself or his family. It was prohibited to him. Only a person of non-violent intentions will desist from raising army while being surrounded by powerful and highly resourceful enemy.
Second proof of Prophet's peaceful intentions is what is called in Islamic history Sulh-e-Hudaibiyah (Peace of Hudaibiyah). Before he performed his last Hajj after conquering Mecca peaceful he intended to perform Hajj a year before. He was apprehensive of armed resistance by the Meccans so departed for Mecca with defensive preparations. He was stopped, as expected at Hudiabiyah on the way and asked not to proceed. Though the Prophet was fully prepared to take Meccans on, he instead started negotiations with the representative of Meccans. He accepted all these terms in the interest of peace including deleting Messenger of Allah, from his name. This angered some of his followers but he persisted and avoided unnecessary bloodshed. This peace agreement favoured Muslims ultimately and next year the Prophet could enter Mecca very peaceful without shedding a drop of blood. There cannot be greater proof that peace and non-violence was not only teaching of the Qur'an but embedded in the very character of the Prophet (PBUH).
To conclude I would like to make few observations:
- Violence in Prophet's life was highly contextual and no one like the Prophet had any control over it. Whatever violence took place was result of vested interests from Mecca and Madina not only not to allow peaceful preaching of Islam but also inflicting violence on the Prophet and his followers.
- There is no difference in Meccan and Madinese period as far as Prophet's approach is concerned. The Prophet followed consistently policy of peace and non-violence in both the phases. Whatever contradiction we find in Meccan and Madinese period is of the situation, not doctrinal, much less intentional.
- The Qur'an had to permit defensive violence without which Muslims could not have survived at all. Thus absolute non-violence can only be doctrinal and cannot work in a highly complex world full of different interests and people who want to dominate. Absolute non-violence can be applied in a different world which is perfectly just and full of people willing to coexist without contradictions and evil intentions. Such a world has remained utopia so far.
- Islam is not a political ideology but a civilizational force with strong spiritual and moral doctrines. Its main aim is to exalt the human beings to highest levels of spiritual and moral conduct. Allah has created human beings in best of mould (fi ahsan-e-taqwim) but they descend into lowest of low to fulfill their ambitions and desires to have more and dominate others.
- The Muslims must understand that Islam will emerge in its best only when they pursue these higher values, not power. Pursuit of power caused enough bloodshed and is still causing in the Muslim world. Islam has great civilizational potential and has given great civilization to the world.
- And they can call the world to way of Allah only through wisdom and good upright conduct.