Islamic Pacifism. By Maulana Wahiduddin Khan

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Some years ago, American forces organised a military operation and killed Osama bin Laden. Both when Osama was alive and when he was killed, there was much talk about him.
I’m always interested in the lesson that is contained in any incident or event. And the lesson that one learns from this event is that militancy is clearly no option at all—for anyone, for an individual, a group, a country or a superpower. Why? Because something that does not produce any result cannot be an option at all.
Let me clarify. Osama staged a massive operation through his Al-Qaeda network. It was the biggest act of terror that the world had ever seen—planes crashing into the Twin Towers in New York. No one had ever heard of such terror before. But despite this unprecedented terror operation targeted against America, America remains just as it was before. Its strength remains unimpaired.
For its part, America organized a big, well-planned operation. It identified Osama’s hideout in Pakistan and managed to kill him. But killing Osama the individual did not put an end to the ‘Osama phenomenon’. Osama is dead, but his ideology is still alive, and acts of terror continue.
What lesson can we draw from all of this? The lesson to be learnt is, as mentioned before, that violence is no option at all—for anyone, be it an individual or a state. It only results in greater destruction, in greater evil, and nothing else. The whole of human history testifies to this. And yet, strangely, violence has been present throughout human history.
There is much talk today—as before—about peace and pacifism. That we need an ideology of peace is something that every sensible person will accept. But where is that practical ideology of peace? People often say, “We must have peace. War is such a bad thing.” That is true, but for this we need a workable ideology of peace, an ideology that will effectively rule out any and every justification to resort to war.
Some people think that injustice leads to war, and that, therefore, those who have been denied justice should first be given justice and then only can there be peace. This formula is, however, wrong. You may think that you have given justice to someone, but he may not think he has received his just due. And so, he will remain dissatisfied and disgruntled and can easily take to violence, to war, at any time.
This demand for ‘just peace’ simply cannot work. It can never result in peace.
The only way to establish peace is by working for peace for its own sake, unconditionally, and not linking it with justice or human rights or anything else. If you unilaterally agree to peace, you will find that it opens the doors of many opportunities to progress, and that if you avail of these opportunities, you can obtain all those things that you call ‘justice’ too.
This is the only workable formula for peace. This is also the formula that Islam recommends. Yet, strangely, even though Islam is an ideology of peace and presents this eminently workable formula for peace, Muslims have failed to understand this. Nor have they conveyed this to others.
The Prophet and his companions embodied the Islamic model of peace, but soon after them derailment set in among Muslims, so much so that even today Muslims are engaged in violence, which they have wrongly named as ‘jihad’.
According to a hadith report, the Prophet Muhammad said that in the later period, a group among his ummah would consume wine. When some of his companions wanted to know why they would do so (when God had expressly forbidden it), the Prophet said that these people would give a new name to wine and in this way declare it lawful. (Al-Darimi)
That is what some Muslims have done in the case of terrorism, too. They have sought to declare terrorism as legitimate by changing its name and calling it ‘jihad’. In this way, they have tried to make it permissible. This is an example of making something lawful by giving it a name other than its real name.
The Prophet was born in 570 CE in Makkah and started his mission in 610 CE. The chapter Al-Muddaththir in the Quran was among the early revelations received by the Prophet. In the beginning of this chapter of the Quran, God addresses the Prophet thus: “O, you, wrapped in your cloak, arise and give warning! Proclaim the glory of your Lord; purify your garments; shun uncleanness; do not bestow a favour in the expectation of receiving more in return; and for the sake of your Lord, be patient.” (74:1-7)
Sabr or patience is not defeatism. Nor is it a passive attitude. Patience means to think over issues in a cool and calm manner—that is, without resorting to reaction, to resentment, to hate, to revenge. It means engaging in positive planning. At the very outset, this was told to the Prophet. How amazing!
The Quran (4:128) also says as-sulh khair or ‘reconciliation is best’. Sulh means ‘peace’, and as-sulh khair indicates that a peaceful settlement of disputes is the best.
This clearly indicates the importance of the peaceful method in Islam.
Another Quranic verse says: “Let them not dispute with you on this matter.” (22:67) This means that Muslims should not give others an opportunity to dispute with them. The Arabic style of expression used in this verse does not mean that Muslims should not enter into controversies and conflicts with others. Rather, it means that they should not give their opponents a chance to enter into controversy with them. For example, in Arabic it is said: La yadribannaka zaydun. This phrase literally means that ‘Zayd should surely not beat you.’ However, the sense implied in this sentence is: ‘You should surely not give Zayd an opportunity to beat you.’
So, the believers should adopt a course of action that does not lead to confrontation. The believer must seek to maintain an environment of peace. Why? Because without this, it is not possible to engage in the task of calling people to God.
Now, when you reflect on the above two Quranic verses (4:128 and 22:67), you see that they tell us the method we should adopt. From this we learn that whenever you engage in your work, you will face situations that will be unpleasant for you, that will be against your desires, that will not be to your liking. This is bound to happen, because it is a law of nature. Differences are a part of nature. Given this, what should be done? Given that problems are bound to appear, because they are part of nature, what should we do?
What we should do is to learn to manage problems, rather than fight them. This is the formula that Islam gives—manage problems, rather than seek to fight them or try to eliminate them. This is also the formula of pacifism.
Many people hope for a completely problem-free life. They want that there should be no problems at all, that injustice and oppression should be completely eliminated. Only then, they say, can there be peace. This, however, will never happen.
And then what do these people do? They establish organizations in the name of peace. Some even pick up weapons in the name of attaining ‘just peace’. Others bring crowds into the streets to shout and demonstrate in the name of peace. This kind of approach creates many problems. Like physical violence, this ‘street activism’, too, produces agitation. It produces agitated minds. It fills people’s minds with hate, with the ‘us-versus-you’ mindset. It is based on opposition to others, on the belief that others are oppressors and that you are oppressed, that others have deprived you of your rights and that, therefore, you need justice, otherwise there will be no peace.
So, whether someone picks up a gun or one engages in street activism, bringing people into the streets, mobilising crowds and engaging in the politics of sloganeering, it is all the same thing. There is no difference at all.
In Islam, neither of these two methods is allowed. The Prophet never adopted the policy of agitation, of demonstrations, of slogans. This method of protest was never used by the Prophet, even though he faced many problems. For instance, many idols had been installed in the Kaaba, in Makkah, but he never agitated against this.
So, this formula of ‘just peace’ can never work. It can never bring about peace.
Why?
Because there are bound to be problems in this world since that is part of God’s Creation Plan itself. There are bound to be differences between people. People are bound to get hurt by other people’s attitudes and behaviour. All this is included in God’s Creation Plan. So, learn to accept problems as part of life. Recognise that you cannot eliminate problems. All you can do is to manage them.
According to a hadith report, the Prophet said: “God grants to rifq (non-violence) what He does not grant to unf (violence).” (Abu Dawood). The Prophet of Islam was an embodiment of this principle. In his years as a prophet while he was in Makkah, he faced all sorts of challenges. He was persecuted. His companions were beaten. He was boycotted. His opponents made it difficult for him to stay on in the town. But in this entire period of 13 long years never did he engage in agitation. Never did he take out a demonstration or start a fight. When the number of Muslims grew, some of Prophet’s companions suggested that they would fight to end oppression, but the Prophet did not allow this. He told his companions that he had not been given permission to fight and he exhorted them to keep patience. That is, he advised them to solve the problems they were facing through patient planning.
This is what is called ‘problem management’.
As mentioned earlier, many idols had been installed in the Kaaba. And what did the Prophet do? He ignored the idols and engaged in dawah among the people who used to come to the Kaaba to worship the idols. Never did he say to the Makkans that it was a matter of great injustice to keep idols in the House of the One God. He never said that.
This is an example of how the Prophet managed a grave problem.
Consider another example of how the Prophet managed problems. The Prophet’s opponents in Makkah plotted to kill him, thinking it would solve the challenge that his mission posed to them. And when this was decided in the tribal parliament, the Dar al-Nadwa, what happened? At night, the Prophet silently came out of his house, took Hazrat Abu Bakr with him, and left Makkah for Madinah so that there could be no chance for confrontation.
This was also a way of management of a challenging situation. Had the Prophet left Makkah after making an announcement of it, had he left in the day time, instead of at night, had he left the town after having a quarrel or argument with those who opposed him, it would have caused a confrontation.
This, too, is an example of how the Prophet managed a difficult situation.
You, too, must learn how to avoid confrontation and manage the problems that you will face in your life. The basic formula to bear in mind is that peaceful settlement of problems is the best way. As-sulh khair, as the Quran says.
And the Quran also advises to not give others the chance to enter into confrontation with you. It takes two hands to clap. If you refuse to raise your hand to strike against someone else’s hand, there will not be a clap! Likewise, do not do anything that might give others the opportunity or excuse to resort to violence. That also means that you should not engage in violence yourself.
After facing years of persecution in Makkah, the Prophet shifted to Madinah. And when in Madinah he never uttered a single word against the oppression of the Makkans. But what do most people do? They rant and rave against their ‘oppressors’. They complain about human rights’ violations and injustice. These days, there is a new buzzword. It is called ‘internationalisation’. People now go about internationalising their alleged persecution. Some Muslim groups have placed their people in Europe and America to ‘internationalise’ issues, such as that of Kashmir and Palestine.
But all this was not the method of the Prophet.
This hue and cry about ‘persecution’ and the ‘internationalising’ of these issues only further exacerbates existing problems. It only further aggravates them.
The Prophet did not resort to these methods. Not once in his life in Madinah did he ever speak against the Makkans. But because they were polytheists and considered the message of tawhid or the oneness of God that he was preaching to be a threat, they themselves took to the offensive against him by unleashing battles against him. But the Prophet managed these battles in such a way that they turned into mere skirmishes. All the so-called ghazwas (wars) in which the Prophet fought were actually skirmishes, rather than full-fledged wars. They started in the afternoon and got over the same evening. That’s all! So, it is wrong to call them ‘wars’. Wars are like the First and the Second World War. Which other wars have you heard of that lasted for just half a day? The ‘battles’ of Badr and Uhud that the Prophet engaged in were such wars—they lasted half a day.
So, the ‘battles’ that the Prophet participated in were not full-fledged wars. They were all skirmishes.
Now, why, one can ask, did they turn out to be skirmishes when the Makkans wanted to unleash war? The Makkans attacked, in the hope of fighting, but due to the Prophet’s wise management, due to his peaceful policy, they were transformed into mere skirmishes.
Take, for instance, the Battle of Khandaq. It is called the ‘War of the Ditch’. But how was it a war? An army of Makkans 12,000 strong advanced towards Madinah. When the Prophet came to know of this—keeping himself informed was part of his management system—he took his companions with him and arranged for a ditch to be dug around the portion of the town of Madinah that was open to attack. The Makkans arrived at the ditch, laid a siege there for a fortnight and then returned. And there was no fighting.
This is another example of the Prophet’s method of management.
Consider yet another example of the Prophet’s policy of pacifism—his peace negotiations with the Quraysh. The Quraysh were opponents of the Prophet. They were considered the most influential tribe in Arabia. The Prophet entered into talks with them at a place called Hudaybiyyah. They finally agreed to a peace treaty. However, the Quraysh laid down some conditions that was heavily weighed against the Muslims. For instance, a clause of the treaty said that if after the signing of the treaty a Makkan accepted Islam and went to Madinah, he would have to be sent back to Makkah. There were several other conditions like this.
On the paper on which the text of the treaty was written, the Prophet was referred to as ‘Muhammad, the Prophet of God’, but the Makkans objected to this. They said that they did not believe he was a prophet of God. So, they demanded that the phrase ‘Muhammad, the Prophet of God’ be removed and that instead of this, the Prophet be referred to as ‘Muhammad, son of Abdullah’. The Prophet’s companion Ali, who was writing down the treaty on paper, was not ready to do this. Then, with his own hands, the Prophet rubbed off these words and agreed to write ‘Muhammad, son of Abdullah’.
This peace treaty that the Prophet entered into with the Makkans at Hudaybiyyah was another brilliant instance of the Prophet’s management of problems.
There is no hard-and-fast rule for management of problems. Depending on the conditions, you can learn to discern what course of action to adopt and what to do and not do in order to avoid confrontation.
Scholars generally define peace as the absence of war. This is a negative definition. Peace is a positive term, so why give it a negative definition? This is not proper. The right definition of peace must have a positive content, too. And that positive content is the presence of opportunities. So, a more complete definition of peace is: a state of the absence of war and the presence of opportunities.
When peace is established, opportunities will emerge, which, if availed of, can lead to growth, to progress. That is what happened in the wake of the Hudaybiyyah no-war treaty. It led to increased, peaceful interaction between Muslims and others, which enabled others to learn about Islam. And in a mere two years, a large number of people entered the fold of Islam, so much so that when the Prophet marched towards Makkah, 10,000 companions accompanied him. This event was predicted in the Bible. ‘He came with ten thousands of saints’, the Bible (Deuteronomy 33:2) says.
This is the miracle of peace.
After this, what did the Prophet do? He sent letters to the rulers of lands adjacent to Arabia and dispatched envoys to different tribes in Arabia to convey the message of Islam to them. Entire tribes embraced Islam.
What was this? This, too, was a miracle of peace.
In this way, the Prophet provided an ideology of peace and also provided a model of peace.
Following this ideology, the Prophet established some very important principles to maintain peace. I will mention two of them here.
One such principle relates to internal revolt or khuruj, that is rebellion against an established government. The Prophet declared this to be haram or unlawful in Islam. He laid down that once a government becomes established in a country, one must accept it. One must not revolt against it.
This was not meant to encourage a passive attitude. If you do not rebel against a government, what will you instead do? You will engage in peaceful work. Instead of engaging in political confrontation, you will engage in peaceful activities, such as inviting people to God, promoting education, running businesses and so on. The political field is just 1 out of 100 fields, and when you leave it, you still have opportunities to work in the rest 99 fields. But if instead of this you involve yourself in that one political field, what happens? Your work in the remaining 99 fields comes to a complete halt. That is why the Prophet declared revolt against an established government to be unlawful.
This issue is so important that in his commentary on the Sahih Muslim (a collection of traditions attributed to the Prophet), the 13th century Islamic scholar Imam al-Nawawi says that in Islam, revolt (khuruj) is unlawful. If there is an established government, you cannot revolt against it. Imam al-Nawawi says that if you have differences with the ruler, then you should personally communicate with him (fafima baynaka wa baynahu). That is, one should take an appointment with the ruler and engage in a person-to-person conversation with him. Imam al-Nawawi further says that as far as khuruj against the ruler is concerned, it is haram or unlawful according to the consensus of the ulema, even if the ruler is fasiq (corrupt) or zalim (oppressive).
So, the Prophet laid down that with regard to internal politics of a country, once a government is established therein, one must not engage in the politics of opposition. Instead, one must engage in the politics of construction. One must avoid political confrontation and work, instead, in other fields.
This is one principle that the Prophet laid down.
Another principle that the Prophet laid down is regarding relations with other countries. He declared aggressive war against countries or states unlawful. No Muslim has the right to attack another country and invade it. However, if another country attacks a Muslim country, then the Muslim government can fight in self-defence. That is it. There is just one permissible war in Islam—and that is defensive war.
But it is not that you hear news of war and you rush out with an army to fight. No! If a Muslim state receives news that another country is advancing with its army, then it should first try to negotiate with it to not carry out aggression. You should try to enter into peaceful negotiations with it. Try and find out what its intentions are and what it wants.
So, through all these methods, try to avoid war or to minimize war. This is what you should first try to do. And if all such efforts fail and the other country attacks, then only is limited defensive war permissible, and nothing more than that. You are allowed to engage in fighting only to put an end to aggression, and nothing more than that. In other words, you are allowed to engage only in limited war, at the most.
In Islam, only defensive war is permissible, and here, too, there are conditions. A Muslim force can only kill members of the attacking army or combatants, and not non-combatants. That is, it is permissible to kill only combatants, and not others. It is unlawful to kill non-combatants.
To understand the implications of this today, you must keep in mind today’s context, which is very different from 7th century Arabia. Today, we live in the age of weapons of mass destruction. In this age of such weapons, it is simply not possible for a war to be fought in which non-combatants are not killed. This, therefore, means that according to Islam, today war is not possible at all. The condition that the Prophet laid down that non-combatants should not be killed in war could be observed in the past, but it is not possible for this condition to be observed in present times. This is because today such weapons have been developed that, when used, inevitably result in killing non-combatants, along with combatants.
So, at the internal level, the Prophet declared political revolt unlawful and stressed that Muslims should focus only on constructive activities. And at the external level, he allowed only for defensive war in the face of clear aggression. And here he specified that even in this case, it is not permissible to kill non-combatants. Since in today’s age of weapons of mass destruction it is not possible that in the event of a war non-combatants will not be killed, there is only one option for Muslims now—and that is peaceful settlement of disputes. The option of war has ended.
This is Islamic pacifism. Yet, it is very strange that Muslims have forgotten this and have been unable to deliver the message of Islamic pacifism to the world that they were supposed to. Muslims are as unaware of this ideology of peace as others are. Islam provides a very practical and effective formula of pacifism—in terms of both ideology and method. And the Prophet presented a model of this ideology in his own life.
But why have Muslims remained unaware of this? There is a reason for this. And that is that throughout history—and today, too—there has been a very big evil—and that is what is called ‘selective reporting’. At home, a mother-in-law does selective reporting of her daughter-in-law to her son, and a daughter-in-law does selective reporting of her mother-in-law to her husband. Neither of them will provide the full story about the other. This is a mentality that has been carried down over the centuries.
If you examine the historical treatises written by Muslims, all of them are characterised by selective reporting. They talk about battles and wars a great deal, but almost nothing about other issues. The Prophet engaged in dawah work, inviting people to God, and so did his companions. Following this, vast numbers of people embraced Islam, but details of the spread of Islam are not recorded in history books written by Muslims. The first book specifically on this subject was written in the 19th century by a British scholar, Professor T.W. Arnold—titled, The Preaching of Islam.
How strange it is that all the books that Muslims wrote on Muslim history suffered from this sort of selective reporting! They did not mention at all, or else very sparingly, the peaceful dawah activities that resulted in the great spread of Islam, while they focused almost wholly on wars and political victories. Even the names they gave their history books are of this sort—Futuh al-Sham (‘Conquests of Syria’), Kitab Futuh al-Buldan (‘The Book of the Conquests of the Lands’), and so on. For them, ‘Islamic history’ was a history of wars and conquests. For them, the later period of Muslim history was a chronicle of the military conquests of lands, although had the Prophet, his companions and other early Muslims not engaged in great peaceful dawah work, there would not be the more than one billion Muslims in the world today.
More than one billion Muslims! How did that happen? Can anyone embrace and willingly follow a religion at the point of a sword? No! Today, there are almost 60 countries with a Muslim majority. How did this happen? It happened due to peaceful dawah work. But in the history books written by Muslims, there is no or very little mention of this. Why? Because of selective reporting. They report only events like wars and political victories. Developments that came about through peaceful efforts are not mentioned in these books.
Even today we are victims of this kind of selective reporting. The other day, some people from a Muslim paper came to interview me. The questions they had come prepared to ask me were all about Muslims being allegedly oppressed across the world. All their questions were of this sort.
I said to them, “See, your source of information is the media. You are simply quoting what you have read or heard in the media. And what is the media? It is an industry of selective reporting. It highlights sensational reports and ignores material that is not sensational. And because of this selective reporting by the Muslim media that you read or watch, you—as well as most other Muslims—claim that they are being oppressed, that they are besieged by others, although this is totally baseless. There are 99 good things happening with Muslims, but the media you read or watch ignores all of this and focuses only on the one negative news item. And that one item alone is highlighted in the media, and in such a way that people come to think that it reflects the totality of the Muslims’ reality, although this is not the case at all. This is selective reporting and the damage that it does.”
I further said to those men, “In 1992, the Babri mosque was destroyed. The whole world knows about it. People keep talking about it. But do people know that there are still 5,50,000 mosques intact in India, where prayers are offered and where the azan, the call to prayer, is given, five times every day? No one wants to talk about this! There’s no media reporting about these 5,50,000 mosques, but there is a great furore in the media about just one mosque.”
This is selective reporting.
Once, I read in the papers about communal riots in Meerut, a city in northern India. I sat in a car and headed to Meerut. When I got there, I saw people in the streets, going around their business as usual. I had thought there would be utter chaos in the entire city, but there was nothing of the sort. I asked some people to tell me where in the city the riot had happened. They mentioned a certain locality, and I headed there.
It was a small locality. The whole of Meerut town was normal, and the violence had happened in just this one small part of it. But what did the newspapers do? They cried out, ‘Riots Rock Meerut!’
That is selective reporting.
There has been enormous selective reporting in the writing of Muslim history, and today, in the age of the media, selective reporting continues unabated. All of this keeps people away from peace. It drives them into hate, into anger, into enmity. And so, we need to work to bring about a new history, a new age. I’ll even say that we need to reprocess history. Then only will people understand what a meaningful and relevant ideology of peace is. Then only can they understand how peace can be established.
May God bless us!

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