There are verses in the Qur’an instructing Muslims to use force in some circumstances. Along with being a religious and political leader, Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) was a military leader. So when does Islam require Muslims to use force?
Are Muslims required to use force if they are attacked, or if other Muslims are attacked? Are Muslims required to use force to spread Islamic rule? Did the Prophet initiate violence, or did he only respond to it?
Muslims have answered these questions in various ways throughout Islamic history. Some Muslims have argued that Islam requires fighting when Muslims are physically attacked, or when Muslims are prevented from practicing Islam, or when Muslims are prevented from teaching others about Islam. Other Muslims have argued that Islam requires Muslims to fight until the world has come under Islamic rule. (This is different from forcing people to convert to Islam.)
The Prophet himself fought in various circumstances after migrating to Medina. Early on, based on commands from God, the Prophet fought the Meccan pagans who had forced Muslims to leave Mecca. Later on, based on commands from God, the Prophet fought some other pagans and some People of the Book. Some Muslims argue that God’s commands to fight applied only to the holy land of the Arabian Peninsula at a time when it was necessary to solidify the foundation of the new Islamic state, and that these commands cannot be used to justify fighting today. Other Muslims argue that these commands to fight apply everywhere for all time.
The following is a sampling of Qur’anic verses, translated by Yusuf Ali, relating to when Muslims should fight. (All of these verses were revealed after the Prophet left Mecca; Muslims were not permitted to use force before they left Mecca, despite the physical and economic oppression they faced while they lived in Mecca.)
“Fight in the cause of Allah those who fight you, but do not transgress limits; for Allah loveth not transgressors. And slay them wherever ye catch them, and turn them out from where they have Turned you out; for tumult and oppression are worse than slaughter; but fight them not at the Sacred Mosque, unless they (first) fight you there; but if they fight you, slay them. Such is the reward of those who suppress faith. But if they cease, Allah is Oft-forgiving, Most Merciful. And fight them on until there is no more Tumult or oppression, and there prevail justice and faith in Allah; but if they cease, Let there be no hostility except to those who practice oppression.” (2:190-193)
Do these verses apply only when someone attacks Muslims to prevent the practice of Islam (i.e. “suppress faith”), or do these verses apply anytime Muslims are attacked for any reason? Should Muslims only fight those who physically attack them, or should Muslims also fight those who provide financial and political support for attacks on Muslims? Should Muslims fight only if they are personally attacked, or should all Muslims fight when any Muslim is attacked? Should Muslims fight until the attackers accept Islam? Until Islamic rule is established everywhere? Until Muslims are free to practice their faith?
“And why should ye not fight in the cause of Allah and of those who, being weak, are ill-treated (and oppressed)? Men, women, and children, whose cry is: ‘Our Lord! Rescue us from this town, whose people are oppressors; and raise for us from thee one who will protect; and raise for us from thee one who will help!’” (4:75)
Does this verse mean that whenever people are oppressed, all Muslims should fight the oppressors? Should Muslims fight until there is no more oppression in the world?
“On that account: We ordained for the Children of Israel that if any one slew a person – unless it be for murder or for spreading mischief in the land – it would be as if he slew the whole people: and if any one saved a life, it would be as if he saved the life of the whole people.” (5:32)
Does this verse mean that anyone who has committed murder or spread “mischief” in the land may be killed? What is “mischief”? Who decides whether someone has spread “mischief” in the land? Can any Muslim determine that someone else has spread “mischief”? Can any Muslim kill those who spread “mischief”?
“And fight them on until there is no more tumult or oppression, and there prevail justice and faith in Allah altogether and everywhere; but if they cease, verily Allah doth see all that they do.” (8:39)
This verse appears during a series of verses about “unbelievers.” Which “unbelievers” does this verse refer to? Only “unbelievers” in the Arabian Peninsula at the time of the Prophet, or all “unbelievers” everywhere at all times? What sort of “tumult or oppression” does this verse refer to? Does this verse mean that Muslims should fight “unbelievers” until everyone accepts Islam? Until Islamic rule is established everywhere? Until Muslims are free to practice their faith?
“But when the forbidden months are past, then fight and slay the Pagans wherever ye find them, and seize them, beleaguer them, and lie in wait for them in every stratagem (of war); but if they repent, and establish regular prayers and practice regular charity, then open the way for them: for Allah is Oft-forgiving, Most Merciful.” (9:5)
Which “forbidden months” does this verse refer to? Which “pagans” does this verse refer to? Only “pagans” in the Arabian Peninsula at the time of the Prophet, or all “pagans” everywhere at all times? Only “pagans” who plot against Muslims or attack Muslims? Must Muslims fight these “pagans” until these “pagans” become Muslim?
“Fight those who believe not in Allah nor the Last Day, nor hold that forbidden which hath been forbidden by Allah and His Messenger, nor acknowledge the religion of Truth, (even if they are) of the People of the Book, until they pay the Jizya with willing submission, and feel themselves subdued.” (9:29)
Which “People of the Book” does this verse refer to? Only “People of the Book” in the Arabian Peninsula at the time of the Prophet, or all “People of the Book” everywhere at all times? Does this verse mean that Muslims should fight and subdue “People of the Book,” simply on the basis of the beliefs and religious practices of those “People of the Book”? Are Muslims required to fight only until “People of the Book” accept the political authority of the Islamic state and agree to pay taxes (Jizya) to the state, or does “subdued” mean something more than that?
“O ye who believe! fight the unbelievers who gird you about, and let them find firmness in you: and know that Allah is with those who fear Him.” (9:123)
[NOTE: "who gird you about" means "who are near to you."] Which “unbelievers” does this verse refer to? Should Muslims fight all “unbelievers,” or just “unbelievers” who attack Muslims?
“To those against whom war is made, permission is given (to fight), because they are wronged; and verily, Allah is most powerful for their aid; (They are) those who have been expelled from their homes in defiance of right, (for no cause) except that they say, ‘Our Lord is Allah.’” (22:39-40)
These verses clearly say that Muslims can fight if they are personally expelled from their homes for religious reasons. But are Muslims also allowed to fight if they are expelled from their homes for non-religious reasons? Should all Muslims fight if any Muslim is expelled from her home for religious (or non-religious) reasons? Should Muslims fight only those who directly expel Muslims from their homes, or also those who assist with the expulsion?
Kamran Memon is the founder of Muslims For A Safe America, a 501(c)(3) organization based in Chicago. Muslims For A Safe America encourages honest and informed discussion about how to make Muslims and America safer. Kamran can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.