In the new millennium, the term ‘holy war’ has come in such a frequent use that nearly everyone is ready to offer its interpretation. In her book “Holy War”, Karen Armstrong, a renowned modern religion writer, takes a detailed look at the history of the three Monotheistic religions – Judaism, Christianity and Islam – in order to find the origins of war in all three religions. She also discusses the effects these religions have on the current ideas of ‘holy war’ and political situation in general. In the previous two articles in this series, we took a look at the origins of war in Judaism and Christianity. This time, we will search for the roots of the concept of war in Islam, as interpreted by Karen Armstrong.
Armstrong starts her discussion of Islam with a historical look at its founding and early formative years. She describes the situation of the Arabs just before the advent of Islam as a time of crisis for Arabia. The increasing trade had brought prosperity to Hejaz, which facilitated formation of elitist lifestyle among the rich Arabs. The old tribal values of sharing of resources and generosity were breaking down, creating a vast gap in the society between the rich and the poor. Along with this social disaster also came the political disorders in the form of increasing tribal warfare and crisis of faith, which left Arabs feeling inferior in front of the Jews and Christians living along with them. This is because, unlike the other two religions, they had received no revelation of their own.
Islam came as a solution to the many problems Arabs faced at the time, which was reflected in the early commands Allah (swt) gave to Muslims through Prophet Muhammad (sa): they were to believe in One God only, prepare for the imminent Last Judgement and care for the poor and oppressed in the society. Islam, however, was seen not as a new religion but as the ultimate revelation of the Jewish-Christian tradition.
As can be concluded from the above, in the initial years of Islam, there was no concept of war as such. The focus of Prophet Muhammad (sa) was on spreading the message of Islam among his people. The anti-elitist nature of Islam attracted people from the lower classes of society first. But it was only when the nobles of Makkah started to convert that the rich Makkans began to see this new religion as a potential threat to their regime. Soon the Quraish, the ruling clan of Makkah, started persecutions of Muslims and inflicted upon them numerous hardships. However, even at this point Muslims received no command from Allah (swt) to oppose the oppressors. They were to hold onto their faith with patience and perseverance, until finally, in 622 C.E., they received the permission to migrate from Makkah to Madinah – the city, where Muslims would have the chance to build the first Islamic society.
With the support of the inhabitants of Madinah, Muslims started gaining strength and popularity. In fact, according to Armstrong, conversion to this new faith, which raised the self-esteem of the Arabs as recipients of God’s ultimate revelation, became an irresistible trend in the peninsula. The peaceful spread of the influence of Islam was further facilitated by the treaties the Prophet (sa) made with the neighbouring tribes, without forcing conversion upon them, as that would mean denial of freedom of belief, which was one of the central beliefs of Islam. Non-Muslims were granted protection by the Muslim state, in return for paying a Jizya tax.
As the Muslim state grew, Makkans started to see a serious threat in it. They began using their trade caravans for inciting the neighbouring tribes of Madinah to fight against the Muslims. Since these caravans were usually accompanied by an army, they themselves bore a threat to the security of Madinah. Armstrong points out that this was the time, when the Prophet (sa) received revelation that justified the use of violence as a means of self-defence. (Al-Hajj, 22:39-40) However, Muslims were not allowed to open hostilities. If the ancient Israelites were commanded by God to exterminate the Canaanites living in the Promised Land, and Christians denied violence as such, even for self-defence, then the concept of self-defence stood central in the Islamic view of warfare since the very beginning.
According to Armstrong, at the time, the practice of making a Razzia (raid) on an enemy tribe was deemed normal and acceptable. The code of Razzia was such that the raiders attacked only their enemies, capturing their cattle, animals and booty, without killing people. This is what Muslims started to practice against the Makkan caravans. One day in 624 CE, a small group of 313 Muslims went out to Badr for just that – to attack a particularly important Makkan trade caravan, which was accompanied by most of the Quraish leadership. As Muslims attacked the caravan, they were not aware of the fact that Makkans had requested from back home additional forces for support. However, although Muslims found themselves vastly outnumbered, they won the encounter, which later became known as the Battle of Badr – the first battle in the history of Islam.
Comparing the concepts of war in the three religions, Armstrong maintains that out of all three, Islam has the most realistic view of the warfare. Islam neither justifies a total aggressive war of extermination, as was practiced by ancient Israelites, nor insists on complete pacifism, as was advocated by the early followers of Christianity. According to Armstrong, Islam recognizes that war is inevitable and sometimes a positive duty in order to end oppression and suffering. Moreover, the limits and extent of warfare in Islam are clearly defined and must be followed, in order for war to be legitimate.
Although, for centuries, in the West Islam has been described as ‘the religion of the sword,’ Armstrong says such a perception is inaccurate and has been inherited from the time of the Crusades. It is certainly true that war played a role in the establishment and spread of Islam, but it is not correct to see Islam as a bloodthirsty and aggressive religion.
Compiled from Karen Armstrong’s “Holy War: The Crusades and Their Impact on Today’s World” published by Anchor Books (www.anchorbooks.com)