7 p. 148Jihad As Nonviolent Struggle and Peacemaking
- Asma Afsaruddin
Modern thinkers and practitioners in different religious traditions have begun to emphasize the notion of nonviolent struggle against social and political injustices to bring about long-term sociopolitical changes. They argue that the prospect of armed conflict in a modern, globally connected world, where various nation-states are in possession of stockpiles of deadly weapons, threatens humankind with extinction. In such circumstances, nonviolent attempts to resolve conflicts and preserve the peace should be the preferred option.
These arguments resonate with a number of thinkers and activists within the Islamic tradition. They typically state that peacemaking is mandated by Islam and that the Quran exhorts Muslims to embrace peace over conflict whenever possible. Muslims may invoke peace even on those who harass them for their beliefs and cause them mental anguish. Quran 25:63 praises “the servants of the All-Merciful who walk humbly on earth; and when the foolish jeer at them, they reply, ‘Peace!’” This is bolstered by Quran 8:61, the quintessential peace verse, which commands Muslims to accept peaceful overtures even from the most hardened enemy, for the pursuit of peace is a noble end in itself. In the contemporary world—vastly different from the premodern one—one can imagine nonviolent alternatives to conflict resolution at local, national, and global levels. This creates an imperative p. 149↵for Muslims to give priority to jihad as a tool for advancing nonviolent struggle against wrongdoing and against various forms of sociopolitical injustices.
This chapter will discuss the thinking of some of the more prominent Muslim advocates of peace and how they draw from religious texts, as well as lived experience, to make the case for nonviolent struggle and peacemaking as the best expression of jihad in the modern world.
Is there pacifism in Islam?
The concept of peace is a central one in Islamic thought and is woven throughout the basic vocabulary and practices of Islam. The Arabic word salam means “peace”; it shares its root with Islam, the name for the religion itself. Embrace of Islam is equated with entering a peaceful state in Quran 2:108 and entering the “realm of peace” (Dar al-Salam) in Quran 10:25. As-salam is one of the ninety-nine names for God in Arabic that are invoked by pious Muslims. Muslims traditionally greet one another by saying “Peace be on you” (As-salam alaykum) to which the response is “And peace be on you” (Wa-alaykum as-salam). The hadith literature similarly emphasizes the importance of the concepts of nonviolence, peace, and cordiality in relation to the daily life of the pious Muslim. In a report recorded by al-Bukhari, Muhammad commands Muslims to “spread peace among the people.” The prevalent attitude among Muslim thinkers is that the divinely revealed ethical principles and laws contained in the Sharia, when properly interpreted and applied, will ultimately lead to the desired goal: a just and peaceful social order.
While peace, peaceableness, and peacemaking are central concepts in Islam, the religion cannot be described as pacifist in its fundamental orientation. Pacifism in its absolute sense is generally understood to mean an unconditional avoidance of violence under any and every circumstance. In general, the Islamic moral landscape is not receptive to the p. 150↵idea of pursuing nonviolence as an ideological end in itself, divorced from the requirement of fulfilling the conditions of social and political justice. Nonviolence, after all, can be (and has been) forcibly imposed by the strong on the weak in violation of the latter’s rights and dignity. Pacifism, when defined as nonviolence under all circumstances and the unconditional rejection of armed combat, even in the face of violent aggression, would be regarded in specific situations as facilitating injustice and contributing to social instability. Such a situation would be morally and ethically unacceptable.
The relatively newly coined word “pacificism,” on the other hand, better describes traditional Islamic attitudes toward peacemaking. Pacificism refers to a preference for peaceful conditions over war but accepts that armed combat for defensive purposes may, on occasion, be necessary to advance the cause of peace. Conditional pacifism may be another way of referring to this position. In contrast, absolute pacifism harbors the possibility of submitting to injustice and wrongdoing to avoid violence at all costs, a moral scenario that cannot be defended within the Islamic ethos.
Can jihad be understood as nonviolent struggle and peacemaking?
The fundamental moral and ethical imperative within Islam is to uphold and promote what is good and prevent what is wrong. One must resist wrongdoing, even if only verbally or silently in one’s heart; refusal to do so represents a grave moral failure on the part of the individual. Communities are similarly charged with carrying out this moral and ethical rule. Peace does not evolve on its own; the establishment of a nonviolent social and world order requires conscious effort and constant vigilance, in addition to peaceful intent. The maintenance of peace requires that those who would seek to undermine it must be resisted through a variety of peaceful means at first p. 151↵and ultimately through principled violence when peaceful means are exhausted. In Islamic thought, jihad refers to this constant human struggle to promote what is essentially right and good and prevent what is evil and wrong in all spheres of life.
A number of modern and contemporary scholars and activists in Muslim-majority and Muslim-minority contexts have focused on the peaceful social activism they understand to be the predominant meaning of jihad. They typically emphasize the practice of patient forbearance (sabr) as the most important aspect of jihad, which allows for enduring nonviolent resistance to wrongdoing. This kind of peaceful resistance may be carried out at the personal, communal, state, and, increasingly today, the global level.
Which Muslim thinkers understand jihad as nonviolent struggle?
This position has been advocated by a number of well-known and less well-known figures. One of the more prominent figures from the early twentieth century is the Pashtun leader Syed Abd al-Ghaffar Khan (d. 1988), also known as Badshah Khan, from the Northwest Frontier Province in current day Pakistan. In the early twentieth century, he organized a peaceful resistance movement called the Khudai Khidmatgars (Servants of God) against the British colonizers of India, who had mounted a brutal military campaign against the Pashtuns. Khan argued that Muslims should adopt nonviolence against oppression on the basis of foundational Quranic principles, especially sabr, exemplified in the life of the Prophet and his Companions.
Similar arguments were made by two of Abd al-Ghaffar Khan’s contemporaries: the Syrian scholar and activist Jawdat Said, and the Indian Muslim thinker and prolific writer Maulana Wahiduddin Khan, who passed away in 2021. Their contemporaries in Turkey included Said Nursi (d. 1960), whose teachings continue to be followed by the contemporary p. 152↵Turkish author and social reformer Fethullah Gulen and his network of supporters.
New cohorts of contemporary Muslim peace scholars and activists are following in the footsteps of these trailblazers. Notable among them is Muhammad Abu-Nimer who is a professor of conflict resolution at American University in Washington, DC. He also directs the Salam Institute there, a nonprofit organization devoted to “research, education, and practice on issues related to conflict resolution, nonviolence, and development with a focus on bridging differences between Muslim and non-Muslim communities.” Abu-Nimer similarly emphasizes the cultivation of the Quranic trait of sabr, among other virtues, as an antidote to unprincipled violence. One of his colleagues is Ayse Kadayifci-Orellana; she also teaches conflict resolution at American University and is a founding member of the Salam Institute.
Another prominent scholar-practitioner in the field of Islamic peacebuilding is Qamarul Huda, formerly of the United States Institute of Peace in Washington, DC, who has written on Islamic peacebuilding The Moroccan-born peace activist Houda Abadi runs an organization called Transformative Peace in the United States that specializes in inclusive peace processes, with a focus on women, peace, and security. Ramin Jahanbegloo, a Canadian scholar of Iranian descent, is greatly influenced by Gandhian principles of nonviolence and follows in the footsteps of Abdul Ghaffar Khan and the Indian Muslim intellectual Mawlana Abul Kalam Azad in advocating nonviolence within an Islamic milieu. In Thailand, Chaiwat Satha-Anand (Qader Muheideen), a university professor, has long been an influential voice in the fields of nonviolence and peace studies. These names are some of the best-known ones among Muslim scholar-activists who have embraced nonviolence as the best way to realize the moral imperative of promoting what is good and just on earth and combatting injustice and wrongdoing.
p. 153What caused the modern turn toward thinking of jihad as nonviolent struggle?
Starting in the nineteenth century, European colonial occupation of a broad swath of the Muslim world provided the impetus in a number of cases for the rise of nonviolent resistance movements against foreign occupation. Although defensive military jihad also enjoyed a revival, at least at the level of rhetoric, there was an awareness that localized military resistance against a more militarily powerful enemy would prove futile.
Already in the early twentieth century, we find the prominent voice of Abdul Ghaffar Khan, who attained legendary status for his principled nonviolent opposition to British occupation of his homeland. Khan was ethnically a Pashtun from Utmanzai in the Northwest Frontier Province of what is today Pakistan. He was born in 1890 when the Indian subcontinent was under British colonial rule. As part of its brutal policy of repression against the local inhabitants, the British would frequently send armed expeditions to the Northwest Frontier Province to attempt to “pacify” it—beating, jailing, and killing Pashtuns to achieve their goals. The Pashtuns, fabled for their martial prowess, fought back resolutely and frequently repelled the British invaders successfully. They maintained their armed resistance to the foreign occupiers for more than eighty years.
Abdul Ghaffar Khan grew up in this environment and developed a strong inclination to improve the conditions of his people through education and social reform. This desire was nurtured by his Muslim religious upbringing and by what he felt from a young age was a personal call to serve God. In 1910 he established the first non-British school in his region and embarked on a campaign to establish more schools for both males and females. He launched a campaign to dig wells and latrines for the common people and improve their hygiene. Social reform led to a desire to bring about political reform as well; the goal was to achieve self-governance for the Pashtuns. p. 154↵This was of course a highly risky venture under colonial occupation. Khan faced imprisonment and degrading treatment at the hands of the British as a result of his social and political activism. Undaunted, in 1929, he established a group that he named Khudai Khidmatgars—meaning “Servants of God”—that would resist British occupation and seek to liberate the Pashtuns through completely nonviolent means. Membership in the Khudai Khidmatgars was open to both men and women and to Hindus and Sikhs, in addition to Muslims.
Despite being repeatedly harassed, intimidated, and jailed by the British, Khan persisted in his nonviolent movement and became an ally of Mahatma Gandhi, the better-known Hindu peace activist. Khan’s “army of peace” continued to attract recruits until the end of British rule in 1947. He died in an independent Pakistan, where he faced resistance to his ideas. In recent years, Khan’s thought and movement have attracted the attention of some international proponents of nonviolent activism, who take heart from the example he set in very challenging circumstances.
A younger contemporary of Abdul Ghaffar Khan was the Indian Muslim scholar and activist Wahiduddin Khan (no relation), who was born in 1925 and recently passed away on April 21, 2021. Like Abdul Ghaffar Khan, Wahiduddin Khan was born under the British occupation of his homeland. A number of his family members were engaged in the independence struggle against the British. The campaign against political oppression and social injustice had a profound influence on him and provided the impetus for his religious and social activism. When Abul Alaa Mawdudi in 1941 established the political party called Jamaat-i Islami (The Islamic Association) in India, Khan became a member of it. Khan, however, would break with Mawdudi after fifteen years because of fundamental disagreements concerning the relation between Islam and politics. Unlike Mawdudi, Khan emphasized that belief in monotheism and peaceful submission to God were at the heart of all things Islamic. Political and economic reform was p. 155↵at best a secondary consideration and not the primary motivation for one’s commitment to Islam. In 1970 Khan established the Islamic Centre in New Delhi, which has published over two hundred of his books, a number of which have been translated from the original Urdu into English, Arabic, and other languages.
Wahiduddin Khan drew his inspiration for nonviolence from the various stages of Muhammad’s prophetic career. Examples he drew from Muhammad’s life in support of his nonviolent project include the following: (1) In the Meccan period, the Prophet was primarily concerned with challenging polytheism through peaceful, verbal means; (2) During the thirteen-year Meccan period, the Quraysh became his archenemies, and prominent members of the tribe conspired to kill him, but he avoided physical confrontation and resorted instead to emigration to Medina; (3) The “battle” of the Trench (also called Battle of Khandaq), in which no fighting actually occurred, is a stellar example of avoiding unnecessary violence; (4) As is the Treaty of al-Hudaybiyya that Muhammad signed with the pagan Meccans in 628 to avoid bloodshed; and (5) The peaceful conquest of Mecca in 630 at a time when the Muslims were militarily strong demonstrates the preference for nonviolent methods over violent ones to promote truth and justice. Khan taught his followers that nonviolence was the “weapon of the Prophet” and that it characterized the greater part of his prophetic career before he received divine revelations to defend his community militarily. Khan stressed that he understood the Islamic way of life to consist of deeds, faith, and love.
Is there a theological basis in Islam for promoting peace?
All peace advocates stress the Quranic principle of sabr—as mentioned, a word that can be variously translated as patience, forbearance, endurance, and perseverance. Furthermore, they draw inspiration from verses in the Quran that stress p. 156↵forgiveness and reconciliation and that point to the spiritual and intellectual aspects of jihad.
In his writings, Wahiduddin Khan emphasized Quranic verses such as 42:39, which states: “He who forgives and is reconciled, his reward is with God.” He proceeds to establish the peaceful essence of jihad by citing several additional Quranic verses as proof-texts in support of this position; among them Quran 25:52 (“Do not yield to the unbelievers, but fight them strenuously with it [i.e., with the Quran]”). Khan stresses that “fighting” with the Quran here implies a spiritual, verbal, and intellectual struggle to overcome falsehood peacefully through the propagation of truth. He also points to Quran 22:78 that exhorts the believer to “strive [jahidu] in regard to God a true striving as is His due.” The Arabic command “jahidu” used in the verse points to this earnest nonviolent struggle for the sake of God, a term, he says, that eventually came to be applied to the early battles in Islam since they were part of this overall struggle.
With regard to the hadith literature, Khan takes special note of a hadith narrated by Aisha, the Prophet’s wife, recorded in the highly regarded hadith collection by al-Bukhari. The hadith quotes Muhammad as expressing a preference for the easier of any two options when available in regard to an action. Since war is a hardship, Khan infers from this hadith that the peaceful struggle for truth, which is the easier option for humanity, should be considered superior. On the basis of another hadith found in the well-known collection of the ninth-century scholar Ahmad ibn Hanbal (d. 855), Khan identifies the mujahid (one who carries out jihad) in the following ways: as “one who struggles with himself for the sake of God”; “one who exerts himself for the cause of God”; and “one who struggles with his self in submission to the will of God.” Jihad is, therefore, essentially a peaceful struggle against one’s ego and against wrongdoing in general, he concludes.
Another well-known contemporary peace activist is the Syrian author and intellectual Jawdat Said (b. 1931), who p. 157↵studied at al-Azhar University in Cairo and obtained a degree in the Arabic language there. Having experienced the Second World War and cataclysmic political events in the Middle East during the colonial and postcolonial periods, he seems to have turned to nonviolence after a stint in the Syrian military. He wrote prolifically on the topic of nonviolence despite imprisonment and censure by the Syrian government. He continues today to live quietly in his ancestral family house in Bir Ajam in the Golan Heights in Syria.
Said grounds his nonviolent understanding of jihad in his reading of the Quran, particularly the story of Adam’s two sons, as recounted in Quran 5:27–31. These verses give an account of the violent altercation between Adam’s two sons. (Unlike the biblical version that refers to them as Cain and Abel, the two sons are not named in the Quran. Their Arabized names, Qabil and Habil, occur in the commentary literature.) The Quranic verses state:
And recite to them the story of Adam’s two sons, in truth, when they both offered a sacrifice [to God], and it was accepted from one of them but was not accepted from the other. Said [the latter], “I will surely kill you.” Said [the former], “Indeed, God only accepts from those who are righteous [who fear Him]. If you should raise your hand against me to kill me –I shall not raise my hand against you to kill you. Indeed, I fear God, Lord of the worlds. Indeed, I want you to obtain [thereby] my sin and your sin, so you will be among the companions of the Fire. And that is the recompense of wrongdoers.” And his soul permitted him to murder his brother, so he killed him and became among the losers. Then God sent a crow searching [i.e., scratching] in the ground to show him how to hide the private parts of his brother’s body. He said, “O woe to me! Have I failed to be like this crow and hide the private parts of my p. 158↵brother’s body?” And he became one of those stricken by remorse. (Translation taken from Said’s book Non-Violence: The Basis of Settling Disputes in Islam)
Among the relevant ethical and moral imperatives that Said derives from these verses are these three: (a) Muslims should not call for murder, assassination, or any kind of provocative acts that may lead to the commission of such crimes; (b) Muslims should not impose their opinions on others by force or yield to others out of fear of force; (c) Muslims in their pursuit to spread the word of God “must not diverge from the true path which was set forth by the prophets from beginning to end.” The third imperative indicates Said’s understanding of jihad as an essentially nonviolent enterprise undertaken by Muslims for the purpose of bearing witness to the truth and justice of their faith and to peacefully invite others to listen to the message of Islam.
Muslims, continues Said, are entrusted with speaking “the words of truth under any condition.” He refers to the hadith in which Muhammad affirms that the best jihad is speaking a word of truth to a tyrannical ruler. Said further states that while bearing witness to truth in this manner, a Muslim may not resort to violence, even apparently in self-defense. He refers to the hadith in which a Companion asked the Prophet what he should do if someone enters his house and “stretches his hand to kill me?” The answer: “Be like Adam’s [first] son,” and then Muhammad recited Quran 5:27–31. (Adam’s first son was the one who refused to resist the second son when he threatened violence against the former.)
Do Muslim peace activists reject the military jihad?
Broadly speaking, Muslim peace practitioners do not reject the military jihad but consider fighting to be a secondary aspect of jihad that comes into play in very limited, specific conditions.
p. 159↵Thus, Jawdat Said does not say that fighting is always categorically prohibited; he recognizes jihad “as an ongoing process on condition that a Muslim must know exactly when to resort to armed struggle.” “Executing laws,” he says, “and carrying out Jihad must only be done by individuals who are qualified for such an important task.” The improper and excessive recourse to armed combat in the name of jihad and cynical manipulation of it by unscrupulous people have “caused more harm to Muslims than any other malpractice,” he says. Muslims are primarily charged today with preaching the message of God and reforming humans, which can never be accomplished by force. This is clearly stated in the verse “Let there be no compulsion in religion” (Quran 2:256).
Said does not deny the existence of verses that command Muslims to fight; he argues that their commands, however, are not applicable in the absence of a properly formed Islamic community, which is the situation in which Muslims now live. A properly formed Islamic community is one where truth and justice reign, inhabited by Muslims “who call for the construction of the Islamic society, its reformation or protecting it against the elements of corruption.” They are furthermore those
who have enough courage to declare their creed and everything they believe in, and who are openly denouncing what they believe to be wrong in a clear way…. They are the kind of people who, for their cause, persevere patiently with the oppression of others when they are subjected to torture and persecution.
Such patient, nonviolent activism in the face of oppression and injustice and in the absence of the properly constituted Islamic community is the only form of jihad that can be carried out by Muslims today, asserts Said. Adoption of such nonviolent struggle is to follow in the footsteps of all the prophets mentioned in the Quran who patiently endured the harm p. 160↵visited upon them by their own people on account of their preaching the truth. One of the examples Said highlights is that of Moses arguing calmly and peacefully before the Pharaoh in defense of the truth that he had been called to preach. In contrast, says Said, the Pharaoh resorted to aggression, as tyrannical rulers are apt to do, to protect their political dominion. Believers should not resort to the violent overthrow of despotic governments, he counsels, for by adopting violent methods they would be following in the footsteps of the Pharaoh. Like Moses and all the other prophets, they should attempt instead to bring about a peaceful resolution of conflict through the clear and fearless proclamation of the truth.
Similarly, Wahiduddin Khan stresses that the main purpose of Islam in its earliest days was the peaceful propagation of the faith and the spiritual reformation of people; political and social reforms were secondary concerns. He states that Muslim adoption of the principle of nonviolence today recognizes that interpretations of religious commands can change as historical circumstances change. In the premodern period, war was a way of life; now we are able to imagine and implement peaceful strategies for conflict resolution. Khan scoffs at the so-called jihad movements of the contemporary period for their glorification of violence; in these changed circumstances, “launching out on a violent course of action is not only unnecessary, but also un-Islamic.” He says derisively that a movement cannot be deemed a jihad “just because its leaders describe it as such.” A properly constituted jihad must fulfill the essential conditions decreed by Islamic law. The combative jihad, which is essentially qital (armed combat), is an activity undertaken by the state and cannot be placed in the same category as acts of worship, such as prayer and fasting. There is no room, he insists, for nonstate warfare; war, and it must be defensive war, may be declared only by the ruling government. Noncombatants may never be targeted. On this basis, Khan sternly condemns the perpetrators of the September 11 attacks. He also denounces suicide bombings, which he declares to be p. 161↵a complete departure from Islamic norms and practices. Khan comments, “According to Islam we can become martyrs, but we cannot court a martyr’s death deliberately.” He reminds us that “God calls to the Home of Peace” (Quran 10:25) and that this is the best way to realize God’s will.