In this paper, I will attempt to delineate the Qur’anic position on peaceful coexistence with the “other.” I will also examine the classical juridical and exegetical pronouncements on peace and war in Islam assess the possibility of an Islamic theology of peace in modern times.
Historically, the Qur’anic view of engagement with the “other” was shaped by the socio-political milieu in which it was revealed. Islamic revelation found expression in a pluralistic world in which Muslims had to deal with Arab pagans and adherents of other monotheistic religions. To comprehend the Qur’an’s response to the Muslims’ interaction with the “other,” it is essential, at the outset, to examine the ethical basis of such interaction.
Why does the Qur’an stress ethical precepts? For the simple reason that moral principles unite human beings. All human beings, of any religious, cultural or ethnic background, recognize and cherish principles like dignity, respect, and mercy. Such principles are the beginning point of the human family. Whereas religious laws and precepts divide us (since every religious community has its own laws), principles connect us in the name of God. Hence, we do not need to share a common religion to get along, instead, we need to share moral commitments.
The Qur’anic view of peace and tolerance is interwoven to its view of a universal moral discourse that unites all human beings. According to the Qur’an, human beings are created with an innate disposition (fitra) that leads to knowledge of and belief in God. In fact, the conscience of all human beings (30:30). This suggests a universal, ethical language that all human beings can connect to and engage in. As the Qur’an states, “He (God) has inspired in [human beings] the good or evil [nature] of an act, whosoever has purified it (the soul) has succeeded, one who corrupts it has surely failed.” (91:8-10). The Qur’anic concept of a universal moral order is thus grounded in the recognition of an innate disposition engraved in the human conscience. Through this notion, Islam embraced certain universal human values that could form the basis for interaction with a diverse “other.”
The basis of such a universal moral order can also be traced to verses like the following, “Humankind, be aware of your duties to your Lord, who created you from a single soul, and from it created its mate, and from the pair of them scattered abroad many men and women (4:1).” The verse suggests a common genesis and unity of human beings based on God’s creation. It also implies that human beings have to recognize and live with their differences. On the basis of universal guidance and a common human origin, the Qur’an posits the presence of an objective and universally binding moral standard that is accessible to all intelligent beings. A striking feature of the Qur’anic discourse is the emphasis on the capacity of human beings to use their innate intelligence to comprehend universal truths. It is on the basis of their innate capacity and shared moral values that human beings can deal with others based on the principles of fairness and equity.
Furthermore, the Qur’an views human diversity as a basis for understanding and peaceful coexistence. Thus, verse 49:13 states, “O people, We have created you from one male and female (Adam and Eve), We have created you in different communities and tribes
so that you may know each other.”
God, it is He alone who has the right to decide the “spiritual destiny” of human beings. The Qur’an categorically maintains that the ultimate fate human beings be left to God, the true judge of human conduct. Not even the Prophet has the right to judge the ultimate fate of human beings. As it states, “Upon you [O Prophet] is the deliverance [of the message], upon us is the reckoning [of the deeds] (13:40).” In another verse, the Qur’an states, “Had God willed, they would not have been idolaters. We have not appointed you as a watcher over them, neither are you their guardian (6:107).” By elevating judgment to the divine realm, the Qur’an accommodates the space for coexistence on the human plane.
The tolerant and universalistic tone of the Qur'an can be further discerned from the famous verse, “There is no compulsion in religion” (2:255). The famous twentieth-century Shi‘i exegete 'Allama Muhammad al-Husayn al-Tabataba’i contends that faith is a matter of individual conscience and, as such, it cannot be created by coercion and compulsion. “Belief,” 'Allama al-Tabataba’i continues, “follows reason and understanding; and nothing but reason and understanding can create it.”1 According to Zamakhshari (d. 1144), not only the people of the book but all human beings have the right to exercise free volition in choosing Islam. The “no compulsion” verse is not to be limited to the people of the book.2 The Qur’an clearly does not advocate the use of force in matters of faith. Thus, verse 10:99 further states, “And if your Lord had willed, whoever is in the earth would have believed, all of them. Can you [O Muhammad] coerce the people to believe?” The overall emphasis in the
1 Muhammad al-Husayn al-Tabataba’i, al-Mizan fi Tafsir al-Qur’an (Qum n.d.), 3:342.
2 Mahmud b. ‘Umar al-Zamakhshari, al-Kashshaf ‘an Haqa’iq al-Ghawamiz al-Tanzil (Beirut: Dar al-Kitab al- ‘Azali, 1987), 1:387.
guidance that is engraved in all human beings.
Fundamental to the Qur’anic conception of peaceful co-existence is the view that human beings are united under one God (2:213). They are to strive towards virtuous deeds (5:48), for the most noble person in the eyes of God is the one who is most pious (49:13). These and other verses command Muslims to build bridges of understanding and cooperation with fellow human beings so as to create a just social order.
Peaceful co-existence further necessitates that people abstain from abusing those who do not share their beliefs. Deriding and mocking others can often engender violence and hatred. Therefore, the Qur’an urges the respect for the beliefs of others. The Qur’an further states, “Had God willed, they would not have been not idolaters; and We have not appointed you a watcher over them, neither are you their guardian. Abuse not those to whom they pray, apart from God, otherwise, they will abuse God in revenge without knowledge. So We have decked out fair to every community their deeds; then to their Lord they shall return, and He will tell them what they have been doing” (6:107-108).
Qur’anic tolerance extends protection not only to Muslims and the people of the book but even to strangers who openly declare idolatry. As it says, “If one of the idolaters seeks protection, then grant him protection so that he may hear the word of God, and after that, send him to a place of safety” (9:6). The verse instructs Muslims not only to protect but also to ensure that no harm comes to the idolaters when they leave Muslim territory, and to send them to a place of safety. The discussion above indicates that the Qur’an envisioned a diverse community that was united under common moral values. Human beings are to coexist in “Isn’t He (God) the best of judges”(95:8)?
However, the Qur’an also appreciates diversity within the overarching unity of moral precepts. Indeed, it is correct to state that differences between people are not a problem in the Qur’an. As 49:13 states, we are created in different tribes and nations so that we may know each other. Even differences in colors and languages are seen as a sign of God. Rather than being concerned about differences, the Qur’an is more worried about indifference between human beings. Indifference is a problem because it blurs moral boundaries, as human beings are not concerned about the welfare of others.
In the sectarian milieu of seventh-century Arabia, Muslims encountered other monotheists like Christians and Jews. These encounters generated inter-religious polemics, which are reflected in the Qur’anic verses, especially those that were revealed in Medina. In its discourses with the people of the book, the Qur’an invites them to the notion of a shared religious community based on the belief in one God. Thus, the Prophet is instructed to tell them, “Say! O people of the book! Come to a word common between us and you, that we serve none but God, and that we associate not aught with Him, and do not some of us take others as Lords, apart from God. And if they turn their backs, say, ‘bear witness that we are Muslims’” (3:64).
One of the most potent ways to promote peace is by engaging in inter-faith dialogue. The Qur’an also outlines the form that dialogue should take and the way in which it should be conducted. It suggests that Muslim interaction with the other should be accompanied with book except in the best way possible, apart from those who are unjust among themselves” (29:46). Furthermore, the Qur’an states, “God does not forbid you from establishing relations of generosity and just behavior with those who have not fought against you over your religion and who have not evicted you from your dwellings. God loves those who act fairly” (60:8). Verses such as these reflect the Qur’an’s response to those who claim that it prohibits Muslims from interacting with non-Muslims.
The Qur’anic vision of tolerance and peaceful coexistence is mitigated by verses that encourage Muslims to wage war. It is important therefore that we properly understand the Qur’anic pronouncements on jihad.3 The Qur’anic world-view is to bring the world under the sway of God’s guidance so as to establish a righteous order based on justice and equality. Thus, jihad is envisioned as an important tool in the community’s attempt to build a world order in which peace, justice, and equality prevail according to God’s providence. According to John Esposito, the rationale of the wars was to “spread its (Islam’s) righteous order so that ignorance and unbelief could be replaced by just societies throughout the world.”4
The Qur’anic understanding of jihad as warfare is evident in verse 2:193, “Fight them until there is no persecution (fitna) and the religion be only for God.” In another verse, the Qur’an states, “Fight in the way of God against those who fight against you, but
3 Wrongly translated as holy war, the word jihad literally means to struggle in the path of God. Muslims see the purification of the inner self as the best form of jihad.
4 John Esposito, Unholy War (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002), 33.
find them, and drive them out of the places from where they drove you out, for
persecution is worse than slaughter (2:190-191).”
The Qur’an sanctions jihad to establish a moral order that will protect the welfare of the Muslim community against both internal and external enemies. The permission to engage in hostilities was evidently a response to the threat posed by the powerful Meccan tribes. A prescriptive measure was needed to redress the harm and the wrongs suffered by the Muslims in the face of Meccan aggression. These divinely sanctioned campaigns were a response to the hostility of the Meccan pagans. The Qur’an does not state that force was to be used against all unbelievers; only those unbelievers who demonstrate their hostility to Islam by trying to undermine the Islamic polity and by persecuting Muslims were to be targeted. It is Meccan hostility, rather than their disbelief, that is the target of the Qur’anic verses on jihad.
The Qur’an does not accept the idea of unlimited or aggressive warfare. By the assiduous usage of the term la ta‘tadu (do not transgress) in the context of warfare, it can be argued that the Qur’an qualifies jihad with a moral condition of restraint. It also exhorts Muslims seek avenues of peace. Thus it restricts rather than gives free license to recourse to
The Qur’an also outlines the rules of engagement, who is to fight and who is exempted (48:17; 9:91), when hostilities should cease (2:192) and how prisoners should be
5 There are other verses in which Muslims are seemingly encouraged to kill disbelievers wherever they are found. I shall deal with the “sword verses” later on.
treated (47:4). As there is no compulsion in religion (2:256), Muslims are not to use jihad as a means to impose their beliefs on others.
Other verses stipulate that the Muhammad should accept peace overtures (8:61) from the enemy. Verses 2:192-93 command the Prophet to cease hostilities if the enemy desists. In order not to transgress, Muslims are required to respond proportionally to the injury done to them. Even here, the Qur’an urges restraint by accepting blood money and forgiveness. The Qur’an suggests that jihad is a product of an aggression by rather than initiation of hostilities against enemies (22:39-40).