In Islam, war is not something that can be launched by members of the general public, whether individuals or groups. Rather, it is the task of a properly established government. Individuals do not have the right to engage in war on their own. Rather, war can be declared only by an established government. It is permissible for the government to call upon the general public to assist it in a war, but the latter do not have the right to declare war on their own.
The Quran lays down as a general commandment that when people hear of something fearful—and this could be of an external attack—they should not take any action on their own. The only thing they should do is take the matter to the ulul amr or those in authority (4:83)—in other words, their rulers—and it is for the latter to decide on an appropriate response.
The same point is made in a hadith report, cited in the Sahih al-Bukhari. According to this report, the rulers are like a shield. War is fought under their leadership and they protect the people. This indicates that the planning or declaration of qital or war is entirely the prerogative of a properly-established government. The Muslim populace can, remaining under the leadership of their rulers and obeying their orders, play whatever role they need to in this regard, but they cannot act independently.
From this Islamic principle, it is clear that there is no scope in Islam for non-state actors to engage in war on their own, or what is generally called guerilla war. This is because a guerilla war is fought by independent non-state actors, rather than by agencies of an established government. If agencies of an Islamic state seek to engage in defensive war, then, in accordance with the commandments of the Quran, they must first issue an open declaration of war. If the state has a treaty with the party it wants to wage war against, it must dissolve it. In Islam, war must be openly announced. Undeclared war is not permissible in Islam. Hence, according to Islam proxy war is illegitimate.
All actions in Islam have certain conditions. And so, in Islam war, too, must observe the necessary conditions. One of these conditions is that war must be limited only to, and directly only against, people who have engaged in aggression. In other words, a Muslim army is permitted to fight only against combatants. It is not permissible for it to attack non-combatants. Accordingly, the Quran lays down:
He does not forbid you to deal kindly and justly with anyone who has not fought you on account of your faith or driven you out of your homes: God loves the just. God only forbids you to make friends with those who have fought against you on account of your faith and driven you out of your homes or helped others to do so. Any of you who turn towards them in friendship will truly be transgressors.
Suppose a Muslim government is embroiled in a war with another country or people. Even if this war abides by the necessary conditions for war that Islam lays down, still, it will be illegitimate for Muslims to engage in any destructive activities against the ordinary citizens of the state with which the Muslim army is at war. In this regard, the destruction wrought on 11 September 2001 in New York and Washington is clearly and unambiguously illegitimate according to Islam.
In the same way, even in an Islamically-legitimate war, Muslims are not permitted to engage in suicide-bombing against their opponents. Islam does not allow for people to strap bombs to their bodies and barge into their opponents’ military camps or civilian settlements and deliberately kill themselves in order to kill their opponents. This sort of action is definitely not martyrdom (shahadat), nor does it exemplify the desire to attain martyrdom (istishhad).
Difference Between Enemy and Aggressor
God has, in His wisdom and in order to test us, given human beings free will. Using their God-given free will, people sometimes develop enmity among themselves. At times, it assumes the form of war. However, in Islam there is a clear distinction between enmity, on the one hand, and war, on the other.
Followers of Islam do not have the right to wage war against whomsoever they consider as their enemies. The only thing that they can do with regard to their opponents is to engage in peaceful dawah, inviting them to God’s path. They certainly cannot declare war against them. In this regard, the Quran clearly states:
Who speaks better than one who calls to God and does good works and says, I am surely of those who submit? Good and evil deeds are not equal. Repel evil with what is better; then you will see that one who was once your enemy has become your dearest friend’
This verse clearly tells us that we should engage in peaceful efforts and thereby make an opponent our friend, rather than branding him as an incorrigible enemy and declaring war against him.
It is true that Islam does give permission to engage in war, but this only when all efforts to avoid war have failed and the opposing force launches an attack, creating a situation that necessitates defensive measures. In this regard, the Quran says, ‘Permission to fight is granted to those who are attacked, because they have been wronged’ (22: 39). In the same vein, elsewhere, the Quran (9:13), permitting Muslims to participate in war, clarifies that the opposing party is the one that attacked the Muslims first. This verse reads: ‘Will you not fight against those who have broken their oaths and conspired to banish the Messenger? They were the first to attack you.’
It must be clearly understood that according to Islamic teachings, war can be resorted to, if the urgent need so arises, not against all enemies or opponents, but, rather, only against aggressors. If Muslims consider some people to be their enemies or opponents, they certainly do not have permission to attack or declare war against them. With regard to such people, the only—the first and the last—thing that Muslims can and should do is to engage in peaceful dawah work. Islam does not permit them to do anything other than this. While defensive war is permitted in Islam in the wake of the violent aggression by others, this can be resorted to only when all efforts to avoid war have failed. This is very well exemplified in practical terms in the life of the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him).