What is Islam?

by James William Lovegrove (Habeeb-Ullah)

Use of the Sword in Islam

The world has never been free from the sword. Even the Prince of Peace [Jesus Christ] could see the necessity for the sword when he said:

“I come not to bring peace but a sword.” [Matthew 10:34]

I wish the Master could have left us some guidance as to the proper use of sword and fire so that Christendom might have been freed from the bloodshed which it has caused in the name of religion. Christianity was all meekness and modesty as long as it was the religion of slaves and the very poor; but no sooner had it secured a royal conversion in the person of Constantine, than streams of blood began to flow. The adherents of no other religion have shown more intolerance, cruelty and persecution than the followers of the one who preached “Love thine enemy.” Enemies apart, the followers of the same Master cut one another’s throats simply because some units of his following did not worship and adore him in the same way as the others. The Church of the Holy Sepulchre caused so much bloodshed in the days of the Crusades, that if its custody had not been given into the hands of Muslims, it would have been reduced to dust. Muslims under Quranic teachings are bound to preserve and protect every house where God is worshipped no matter what religion is practised, while the hatred which the Greek Church bears towards the Catholic Church is well known.

The keys of the Holy Sepulchre had to remain in the hands of the Muslims until today, not to protect the place, but to prevent the warring factions of Christianity from tearing at one another’s throats. War is not yet done with. The civilized West spent all her ingenuity and culture only in producing weapons of war. The world needed some ethics of war to enlighten man as to its when, where, and how, and Muhammad came to meet the need. Here I take the liberty of quoting our Imam, Khwaja Kamal-ud-Din, of the Mosque, Woking, from whose pen the subject has received a very lucid exposition in his recent publication, The House Divided, in the following words:

“The apparent contradictions in the recorded teaching of Jesus as to the use of the sword, perplexing as they may be to the student of the Gospels, are consistent in Muslim eyes—nay, they are to him the teachings of very truth itself.

“Occasions, as they arise, must be dealt with by appropriate methods; and what may be objectionable in one case becomes indispensable in another. Hence, the apparently conflicting nature of the Master’s words, which are, in fact, intended to meet different situations—situations the nature of which he would no doubt have explained had it not been for the very brief duration of his ministry. He had not time enough at his disposal, and so he promised the coming of another Teacher (St. John 16); and we Muslims find that other Teacher in the Prophet Muhammad. It was Muhammad who enlightened mankind on this all-important phase of human life. He showed—in precept as well as in practice—under what circumstance a Son of God shall send fire and sword into the world and under what his love goes out even to his enemies. Read the sacred words of the Master in the light of the Quran, and they embody the very truth; otherwise they seem impracticable and inconsistent. Christian preachers are often themselves at a loss to make out the precise purport of these teachings. They elect to regard them as abstract idealism. But they are not so to a Muslim. To him they are quite intelligible—in fact, the only true and practical teaching.

“It will not be out of place here to make a passing reference to the Muslim ethics of war. Mr. Bonar Law, the new Prime Minister, has held out a policy of peace to the world, and for that, all must be profoundly thankful. But none can foretell when the havoc of a new war may burst upon humanity. Perhaps some prospective Lloyd George—if not that gentleman in person—may find the shadow of a suggestion in these lines. If a Christian Government unsheathe the sword in defence of Christians, then a Muslim, on the principles which we indicate below on the authority of the Quran, will stand shoulder to shoulder with it, even though, in so doing, he be acting in opposition to a Muslim Power.

“The Quran sanctions the use of the sword under certain circumstances. First and foremost, in the cause of religion—religion as such, it must be borne in mind, and not Islam exclusively. For this, two distinct occasions have been mentioned. First, when a house of worship is in danger—be it Christian, Jewish, Hindu, Buddhist, Muslim, or any other—a Muslim is enjoined to shed his very blood to save it from demolition. Says the Quran:

‘Permission (to fight) is given to those upon whom war is made because they are oppressed, and most surely Allah is well able to assist them; those who have been expelled from their homes without a just cause except that they say: Our Lord is Allah. And had there not been Allah’s repelling some people by others, certainly there would have been pulled down cloisters and churches and synagogues and mosques in which Allah’s name is much remembered; and surely Allah will help him who helps His cause; most surely Allah is Strong, Mighty’ (The Holy Quran, 22:39–40).

“It is significant that the mosque is mentioned last of all. This single verse has since been responsible for the safety of all buildings dedicated to any form of worship. Notwithstanding a thousand years of Muslim rule, India is still the home of thousands of temples of idolatry. Can history produce a parallel to such magnanimity? Where are the great and gorgeous mosques, one may ask, that were once the glory of Spain, Sicily, Southern France, Malta, and elsewhere? To pick out a solitary instance here and there of the conversion of a non-Muslim house of worship into a mosque is to make a mountain out of a molehill. Such cases—which are too rare to deserve any serious mention at all—are exceptions, due to indiscreetness on the part of individuals, and do, actually, only tend to establish the rule.

“Again, the use of the sword is also permissible when freedom of conscience is at stake. Of all religions, Islam stands conspicuous in establishing a perfection of religious freedom. ‘There is no compulsion in matters religious’ (The Holy Quran, 2:256),proclaimed the Quran, which has since been the Magna Charta of religion for peoples of all creeds under the rule of Islam. Not only is all interference with another’s religious views forbidden, but, should such interference be enforced at the point of the sword, it is the duty of a Muslim to repel it with the sword. In the matter of religion, none may stand between man and God. It is the birth right of man to hold whatever convictions he deems right. Persecution of others must be resisted at all costs by a Muslim, irrespective of whether the aggrieved be a Jew, or a Christian, or of any other faith. For this purpose the Muslim is not only allowed, but enjoined, to fight until perfect religious liberty has been established (The Holy Quran, 2:192–193).

“As regards temporal affairs, authority to wield the sword has been limited to one, and only one case—self-defence. This permission has been further restricted by the condition that as soon as the enemy shall have suspended hostilities, and shown an inclination towards peace, then Muslims must do the same. This is a principle which Britain acted upon during the Great War; and the Church supported her. Whatever the interpretation put upon the Sermon on the Mount, the fact remains that in comporting herself as she did in the Great War, Britain followed the teaching and example of the Prophet of Arabia.

“Muhammad had to fight seven battles in all, of which the first three—the principal ones, the rest being more of the nature of skirmishes when a general state of war prevails—best illustrate the principle in question. For thirteen long years the Prophet and his comrades were the victims of inhuman persecutions at the hands of the Meccans—an historical fact admitted by friend and foe. He suffered all this without retaliation. When, however, things reached a pitch when his life itself was in imminent danger, some safeguard became necessary. The very night when the conspirators were to make away with him, he managed to escape with his life to Medina, in the company of his devoted friend Abu Bakr. But his enemies did not let him alone, even in this far-off refuge—150 miles from Mecca. Jealous of his success in his new place of sojourn, they made repeated efforts to nip the tender plant of Islam in the bud. In all these three battles the locality of the battlefield is, I think, a decisive factor, showing that the Muslims were constrained to resort to the sword in sheer self-defence.

“The first of these was fought at Badr, 120 miles distant from Mecca, the enemy headquarters, and 80 miles from Medina. And what was the comparative strength of the contending parties? 313 Muslims against 1,000 Meccans.

“Uhad was the scene of the second battle. It was still nearer the Muslim’s home of adoption—only 12 miles from Medina. The relative strength this time was about 1000 Muslims to 3,000 Meccans.

“The third was an attack on the town itself. Siege was laid to Medina with an army 10,000 strong. Do these facts and figures—the locality of the action and the relative strength of the two—not furnish conclusive testimony to the fact that self-defence was the only motive which prompted the Muslims to strike a blow?

“This is exactly the occasion when Jesus would have us sell our clothes to purchase swords. But it was left to Muhammad to illustrate also the practical application of the teaching of the Sermon on the Mount, and this he did in a manner unique in the history of the world. With 10,000 men he marched against Mecca—the same Mecca which was the scene, for long years, of Muslim persecution. The town surrendered, and was occupied without the spilling of a drop of blood. The vanquished, who had spared no ingenuity in inflicting tortures on Muslims—the ringleaders of the deadly opposition, tormentors, oppressors, and assassins—lay wholly at the mercy of the victors. No punishment would have been too hard for them, according to modern military laws.

“But was it that the ‘Spirit’ of Truth had to perfect the teachings of the Preacher of the Sermon on the Mount—to lead people into ‘all truth’? Was it for him to illustrate, in practice, the precept of Jesus, ‘Love thine enemy’?

“Summoning their leading men, he announced his decision—a decision beyond their wildest expectations of leniency—‘This day there shall be no reproach on you.’ Such a magnanimous amnesty secured to the Muslims what could never have been gained in any other way—victory over their enemies’ hearts by love. The gulf of decades of bloodthirsty malice was bridged by a single stroke. Love was applied to anoint and heal the raw wound of hate. The great and famous dynasty of Muslim rulers—the Umayyads—to whom the world is indebted for vast treasures of art, of science and of philosophy, sprang from the descendants of the ringleader of enemies thus won over.

“So long as man is what he is, and his nature is not a true Muslim or a true Christian nature—which are at bottom one and the same—war will remain an indispensable factor of human life.

“Nevertheless, until the arrival of the millennium, much can be done to alleviate the terror and the suffering which are the outcome of wanton brutality. Consequently, Islam, recognizing war as an unavoidable evil, has at the same time laid down as far as possible, rules and regulations to reduce its evils to the minimum.

“The Hague Conferences, too, some years since, framed a code of warfare for obviating unnecessary bloodshed, loss and suffering; but how far it has succeeded in practice it is not for me to say. If, however, such restrictions had been imposed by the Hand of God, the adherents of the various religions of the world would have been more careful to abide by them. The Quran lays down:

‘Permission (to fight) is given to those upon whom war is made because they are oppressed, and most surely Allah is well able to assist them’ (The Holy Quran, 22:39).

‘And fight in the way of Allah with those who fight with you, and do not exceed the limits; surely Allah does not love those who exceed the limits. And kill them wherever you find them, and drive them out from whence they drove you out, and persecution is severer than slaughter; and do not fight with them at the sacred mosque until they fight with you in it, but if they do fight you, then slay them; such is the recompense of the unbeliever. But if they desist, then surely Allah is Forgiving, Merciful. And fight with them until there is no persecution, and religion should be only for Allah; but if they desist, then there should be no hostility except against the oppressors’ (The Holy Quran, 2:190–193).

“The Prophet Muhammad also enunciated a system of war, which I give below, in the words of his immediate successor, Abu Bakr:

‘When you meet your enemies in the fight, compose yourself as befits good Muslims, and remember to prove yourselves the true descendants of Ishmail. In the order and disposition of the host, and in all battles, be careful to follow your banners boldly, and be ever obedient to your leaders. Never yield to, or turn your backs on, your enemies; it is for the cause of good that you fight. You are incited by no less noble a desire than His glory; therefore, fear not to enter into the fight nor let the numbers of your foes alarm you even though excessive. If God should give you the victory, do not abuse your advantages, and beware how you stain your swords in the blood of him who yields; neither touch ye the children, the women, nor the infirm old men whom ye may find among your enemies. In your progress through the enemy’s land cut down no palms, or other fruit trees; destroy not the products of the earth; ravage no fields; burn no dwellings; from the stores of your enemies take only what you need for your wants. Let no destruction be made without necessity, but occupy the city of the enemy; and if there be any that may serve as an asylum to your adversaries, them do you destroy. Treat the prisoners and him who renders himself to your mercy with pity, as God shall do to you in your need; but trample down the proud and rebellious, nor fail to crush all who have broken the conditions imposed on them. Let there be no perfidy nor falsehood in your treaties with your enemies: be faithful in all things, proving yourself ever upright and noble, and maintaining your word and promise truly. Do not disturb the quiet of the monk or hermit and destroy not their abodes, but inflict the rigour of death upon all who shall refuse the conditions you may impose upon them’(The Law Quarterly Review, 1908).

“I leave it to the judgment of the reader to decide how far these regulations, if universally adopted, would have contributed to the welfare of humanity. Generally speaking, they have been observed by Muslims ever since. The most recent example has been seen in the peaceful occupation by Mustapha Kemal’s victorious army of a territory where their brethren in blood and in faith had been subjected to the utmost devastation of fire and sword.”