Commencement of Jihad by the Sword
Now we are entering into the second year of migration. We now enter that era of Islamic history in which war between the disbelievers and Muslims commenced. The issue of Jihad by the sword, on account of which the swords of the Muslims were unsheathed, despite actually being a very straightforward and simple issue, has become very confused. Unfortunately, this is due to the contradictory notions, which have been expressed by Muslims themselves in this regard. Furthermore, the writings of various non-Muslim historians, which they have written not in their capacity as historians, but as prejudiced religious critics, have also contributed to the confusion. It is alleged that Islam was initially nurtured under the shadow of the sword, which was raised against every such individual who refused to accept Islam, and that it was made a religious obligation upon Muslims to convert people to Islam by force of the sword. How far off is this notion from the truth, and how contradictory is it to authentic historical account? The answers to this shall be provided in the following pages. The truth is that, in this early period, the actions of the Holy Prophet(saw) and his Companions were solely in security and self-defense, and evidence in support of this shall be provided ahead. Moreover, these measures were only undertaken when the Quraish of Makkah, and upon their instigation, the hostile designs of the other Arabian tribes had reached such an extent, that remaining silent in response, and refraining from physical action, was equivalent to suicide for the Muslims. No sensible individual can deem this as being worthy of praise. Then, the various measures employed by the Holy Prophet(saw) in this defensive war were not only perfectly permissible and correct in light of prevalent events; rather, the standard of the code of conduct in war, as established by the Holy Prophet(saw), is an excellent model for the world even today. As such, further inclination towards severity and punishment would have been at odds with justice, whereas a course of mercy and leniency would have proven to be a lethal poison for world peace. In truth, the claim of Islam is that it is a religion that appeals to human nature. Therefore, it does not prescribe a punishment in all circumstances for every sin and every crime, nor does it teach that evil should never be repelled, because both of these teachings are at extreme odds. Acting upon such extreme teachings can never establish peace, nor can the morality of nations and individuals be reformed. Hence, the most perfect and equitable teaching is:
The recompense of an injury or crime should be one which is most appropriate. If however, forgiveness brings about reformation, then one should forgive. A person who forgives in this manner shall be worthy of reward from Allah.1
Does Islam Permit Compulsion in the Matter of Religion?
Prior to analysing the early wars of Islam, it is incumbent upon us to first study the teachings presented by Islam regarding compulsion in religious matters. In other words, is it permissible – in light of Islamic teachings – that people should be converted to Islam by force, and that Islam be propagated by the sword? If Islam permits compulsion, then undoubtedly, the issue would become dubious. In this case, the possibility would exist that perhaps the early wars of Islam were also fought for the purpose of converting people to Islam by force. However, if it is proven that in light of the Islamic teaching compulsion in religion is prohibited, this would be a powerful argument to substantiate that these early wars of Islam were not for the purpose of converting people to Islam by force, rather, there were other reasons for them. For it is not possible in the least, nor can any sensible individual accept, that the Holy Prophet(saw) himself and his Companions could have acted so openly against that teaching, which they conveyed to the people in the name of God, and upon which their national identity was based.
Now, when we cast a glance upon the Holy Qur’an, we find clear injunctions against propagation by force. Allah the Exalted states:
O Messenger! And say to the people that Islam is the truth from your Lord; wherefore let him who will believe and let him who will, disbelieve.2
Then He states:
O Messenger! Say to the people that now has the truth come to you from your Lord. So whosoever accepts the guidance, follows it only for the good of his own soul, and whosoever treads the wrong path, the consequence thereof would also befall him. And I am not a keeper over you.3
Then He states:
There should be no compulsion in the matter of religion. Right has become distinct from wrong; whosoever abandons misguidance and believes in Allah, it shall be as if he has grasped a strong handle, which knows no breaking. And Allah is All-Hearing, All-Knowing.4
In practical elaboration of this Qur’anic verse there is a Hadith as follows:
“When the Banu Nadir were exiled from Madinah, the children of the Ansar were also among them.5 The Ansar desired to keep them, but the Holy Prophet(saw) forbade them from doing so due to the Qur’anic verse: There should be no compulsion in religion.”6
Then, there is a narration related by Dathiq, the Roman, from the reign of the caliphate of Hadhrat ‘Umar(ra):
“Dathiq, the Roman narrates that, in the reign of the caliphate of Hadhrat ‘Umar(ra), I was his slave. He would often persuade me to become a Muslim, but I would refuse and Hadhrat ‘Umar(ra) would say: ‘There is no compulsion in religion.’ Then, he would remain silent. Thereafter, when the time of his demise drew near, Hadhrat ‘Umar(ra) freed me and said: “Now you may go wherever you desire.”7
Then, God the Exalted states:
O Messenger! And say to those who have been given the Book and to the unlearned, ‘Do you submit?’ [i.e., convey the message of Islam to them]. If then, they submit then know that they have been guided. But if they reject your message, then your duty is only to convey the message. And Allah is Watchful of His servants.8
These verses of the Holy Qur’an, which I have written according to the chronological order of their revelation, are a conclusive proof that in light of the Islamic teaching, compulsion in the matter of religion is not permissible. Rather, Islam has left the issue of religion to the conscience of every individual, in that every individual may choose to follow whichever religion he so desires. From among the verses just mentioned, the Verse of Surah [Chapter] Al-Kahf is from the Makkan era. Some scholars are of the opinion that the verse of Surah Yunus is from the last days of the Makkan era, whereas others believe it to be from the Medinite era. The verse of Surah Al-Baqarah is from the initial years in Madinah when the wars of Islam had begun. The verse of Surah Al-e-‘Imran is from the latter period in Madinah, when Makkah and Ta’if had been conquered, and the wars of Arabia had nearly come to a close. As such, these different verses were revealed in diverse eras during the life of the Holy Prophet(saw). The last verse was revealed close to the demise of the Holy Prophet(saw). All of these verses conclusively and definitely establish the prohibition of forceful propagation, and allude to the task of the Prophet inasmuch that he should openly convey his teaching to the people. Thereafter, to accept or not to accept is the prerogative of people themselves. Now, in the presence of this clear and lucid teaching, which was loudly announced to the people day in and day out, and to which the disbelievers were invited, is it possible for the Holy Prophet(saw) and his Companions to set out, sword in hand, so as to forcefully convert people to Islam? In this case, would the disbelievers not object saying that you preach a so-called divine word, which speaks against compulsion, yet practice coercion yourselves? Yet history proves that this allegation was never raised by the disbelievers, despite their habitual tendency to level allegations against the Holy Prophet(saw) without holding back. A multitude of allegations have been recorded in the Holy Qur’an, books of Hadith, and history.
State of Muslims at the Commencement of Jihad Refutes the Notion of Compulsion
Then we see that when Jihad was initiated by the Muslims, their state at the time also refutes the notion of compulsion. Is it possible for a war of compulsion to be waged by a mere handful of people – against whom the entire country was armed – and who could barely sleep at night due to fear? In such a state of affairs, only such a person can set out to fight who either believes that now the only means to avert death is to take up the sword in self-defense, or if he believes that now death is inevitable either way, so why not die in the field of battle like men. An individual who is not mad cannot set out to fight for any other purpose except for the two just mentioned, in such conditions as were prevalent among the Muslims at that time. This is proof of the fact that the early wars of Islam were in security and self-defense, not for the purpose of compulsion and terrorism.
No Individual Has Ever Been Coerced to Become Muslim
Then it should also be remembered that if these wars of the Holy Prophet(saw) and his Companions were for the purpose of converting people to Islam by force, then we should be able to find examples of such people who were converted to Islam by force. After all, history has recorded the names of thousands of Muslims and disbelievers. In the very least, there should be an example of one such person who was compelled to accept Islam at the dint of the sword. The fact is that not a single example of forceful propagation can be found in history. On the contrary however, history does affirm such examples, where an idolater expressed his acceptance of Islam in the very course of fighting, but the Muslims did not consider his declaration of Islam to be true. They finished him off with the thought that his proclamation of Islam was due to fear, and that his expression of Islam was not accompanied by the affirmation of his heart. As such, historical record proves that once Usamah bin Zaid(ra), who was the son of Zaid bin Harithah(ra), the freed-slave of the Holy Prophet(saw) and was very dear to him, encountered a disbeliever in war. When the disbeliever saw that Usamah(ra) had subdued him, he said, “I become a Muslim.” However, Usamah(ra) did not care for this and speared him. After the war, when this account was related to the Holy Prophet(saw), he became extremely displeased with Usamah(ra) and said, “Why did you kill a man who professed his acceptance of Islam?” “O Messenger of Allah! He did so out of fear and was not a Muslim at heart,” was the response of Usamah(ra). The Holy Prophet(saw) said, “Did you cut open his heart to affirm this?” In other words, it is completely plausible that the truth of Islam was revealed to him at that very instance and he became Muslim at heart. For example, it is possible that in his heart, the criteria of judgment he may have set was that if he becomes victorious in this war, then it is evident that the idols that he is fighting for are truthful. If, however, he is defeated, then it would be evident that God is One. In any case, his acceptance of Islam in the very field of battle was not conclusive evidence of the fact that he had become a Muslim due to fear. Therefore, when the possibility existed that his acceptance was sincere, Usamah(ra) should have restrained his hand, and this is why the Holy Prophet(saw) was so displeased with him. Usamah(ra) relates that the Holy Prophet(saw)was so displeased with him that he desired, “O would that I had not become a Muslim prior to this occurrence. If I had become Muslim after this occurrence, I would not have been made to bear this displeasure of the Holy Prophet(saw).”9 Then, such examples can also be found in history that, if the Holy Prophet(saw) ever happened to discover himself that an individual had not become Muslim at heart, and his acceptance was merely due to fear or greed, he would not accept his declaration of Islam. As such, there is a narration in Sahih Muslim that during a war, the Companions imprisoned a disbeliever who was from among the allies of the Banu Thaqif. When the Holy Prophet(saw) passed by this prisoner, in the thought that he would be set free, he said, “O Muhammad [saw)] Why am I kept in prison when I accept Islam?” The Holy Prophet(saw) responded, “If you had come to Islam prior to this, it would have been accepted by Allah and you would have attained salvation, but not now.” After this, the Holy Prophet(saw) had two Muslim prisoners released from the Banu Thaqif, and returned him to the disbelievers.10 Therefore, not a single example can be found in history where the Companions made a person Muslim, by threat of the sword. Rather, all the examples that are found indicate the opposite and this is practical evidence that these wars of the Muslims were not for the purpose of converting people to Islam by force.
At this instance, if anyone holds the reservation that releasing a disbeliever during war only upon his acceptance of Islam is also a sort of compulsion, then this would be an ignorant allegation. To abstain from fighting when the grounds of dispute cease to exist is known as morality and benevolence, not compulsion and cruelty. The only grounds upon which the Holy Prophet(saw) fought against the disbelievers of Arabia was because they took up the sword against the Holy Prophet(saw), and desired to stop the peaceful propagation of Islam by force. In contrast, the Holy Prophet(saw) desired to establish peace and religious freedom in the land. Now, if an individual becomes Muslim, irrespective of whether his heart is opened to Islam while sitting at home or in the field of battle, whenever he accepts Islam, in the least, his expression to that affect would surely indicate that now such a person ceases to pose the threat which was the initial cause of battle. In this case, therefore, action against such a person would definitely be brought to a halt. In actuality, as shall become evident later, war was initiated by the disbelievers. Hence, when an individual became a Muslim, this naturally inferred that such a person had now abstained from war, and had inclined towards reconciliation. Hence, war against such a person was brought to a halt. The purport of the following Hadith of the Holy Prophet(saw) is also the same, where he states:
“I have been ordered to fight those disbelievers who have entered the field of battle against Islam.”11
However, various people have misunderstood this Hadith to infer that the Holy Prophet(saw) had been ordered to fight against all the disbelievers of the world, until they became Muslim. However, this inference clearly contradicts the Qur’anic teaching and historical accounts. Furthermore, it would be an utterly dishonest act to ignore that meaning of a statement of the Holy Prophet(saw), which concurs with the Holy Qur’an and history, and no objection can be levelled against it in terms of the Arabic language itself, for a meaning which is completely at odds with a clear Qur’anic teaching and evident historical accounts. Hence, the purport of this statement of the Holy Prophet(saw) is that he had been ordered to fight those disbelievers who had taken up the sword against the Muslims, and were becoming a disruption to the national peace. If however they were to become Muslim and no longer pose a threat, then he had been instructed to stop fighting. In other words, he had been ordered to fight until the natural outcome of war manifests itself, i.e., those people who have stood up against Islam are either defeated and war comes to an end, or until they become convinced of the truth of Islam and become Muslim, after which no risk of unrest on their account remains. Further evidence of this is that war was not only stopped upon the acceptance of Islam, rather, if a tribe would discontinue war against the Muslims and submit to their political rule, even if it remained fixed upon disbelief and polytheism, war would be ceased against it. Hence, there are many such examples recorded in history, which shall be presented at their appropriate place. Therefore, to desist from fighting upon the acceptance of Islam has no relation to coercion whatsoever. Quite the contrary, this is an act of good governance, which should be worthy of praise in the eyes of every sensible individual. The explanation of this Hadith, which has just been presented is not merely a logical one, rather, the Holy Qur’an itself very clearly presents the teaching that if the disbelievers refrain from their cruelties, and do not cause disorder and unrest in the land, then in this case, Muslims should immediately cease military activity against them. As such, the Holy Qur’an states:
“O Muslims! Fight those disbelievers who fight against you until there is no persecution in the land and every individual is able to profess whatever religion he so desires for the sake of Allah (not due to fear or persecution). But if these disbelievers abstain from their cruelties, you should also stand back, because you do not have the right to take military action except against the aggressors.”12
An explanation of this verse is also found in the following Hadith:
“With regards to the statement of Allah the Exalted that you should fight those disbelievers who fight against you until there is no persecution in the land, Ibni ‘Umar(ra)states that, ‘In the era of the Holy Prophet(saw) the Muslims were few in number and anyone who accepted Islam would be given grief in the way of religion. Some would be martyred while others would be taken prisoner. Thus, the manner in which we acted upon this divine command was to fight until the Muslims gained strength in number and power and new-Muslims were saved from persecution.’”13
In the presence of this clear and lucid verse as well as this clear and lucid Hadith, it is not at all an act of honesty to interpret a Hadith, which may be constructed in different ways, to substantiate a teaching of forceful propagation.
Each month we will feature a portion of a new chapter. To read the entire chapter, visit www.reviewofreligions.org
Continues in the next Edition with the start of Chapter 3.
- Ash-Shura (Ch.42:V.41)
- Al-Kahf (Ch.18:V.30)
- Yunus (Ch.10:V.109)
- Al-Baqarah (Ch.2:V.257)
- In the era of the Jahiliyyah whenever an idolater from the Aus or Khazraj was unable to attain male offspring, he would vow that if a son is born to me, I shall make him a Jew. In this manner, many children from the Aus and Khazraj had become Jewish.
- Sunan Abi Dawud, Kitabul-Jihad, Babu Fil-Asiri Yukrahu ‘Alal-Islam, Hadith No. 2682
- Izalatul-Khifa’i ‘An Khilafatil-Khulafa’i, By Shah Wali’ullah Muhaddath Dehlvi (Translated by Muhammad ‘Abdush-Shukur Faruqi), Volume 1, p. 30, Mas’alah Dar Bayan Aancheh Bar Khalifah Wajib Ast…..Masalih Muslimin, Qadimi Kutub Khanah, Aram Bagh, Karachi
- Aal-e-‘Imran (Ch.3:V.21)
- Sahihul-Muslim, Kitabul-Iman, Babu Tahrimi Qatlil-Kafiri ba‘da an Qala La Ilah….., Hadith No. 277
- Mishkatul-Masabih, Kitabul-Jihad, Babu Hukmil-Isra’i, Al-Faslul-Awwal, Hadith No. 3969, Darul-Kutubil-‘Ilmiyyah, Beirut, Lebanon, First Edition (2003)
- Sahihul-Muslim, Kitabul-Iman, Babul-Amri Bi-Qitalin-Nasi Hatta Yaqulu La Ilaha illallah….., Hadith No. 125
- Baqarah (Ch.2:V.194)
- Sahihul-Bukhari, Kitabut-Tafsir, Suratul-Anfal, Babu Wa Qatiluhum Hatta La Takunu Fitnatun….., Hadith No. 4650