Question 15. By adopting nonviolence as part of your methodology, aren’t you violating clear injunctions of the Qur’an regarding qital as well as the Prophetic Sunnah? If Prophet Muhammad (SAW) and his companions went to war against the enemies of Islam, isn’t this idea of nonviolence an unacceptable innovation in Islam?
In the history of humanity, the practice of nonviolence as a strategy for resistance and opposition is a very recent phenomenon. During the time of Prophet Muhammad (SAW) - and for several hundred years after him - warfare was the only possible means for a political revolution or a basic transformation in social structures. However, the chances of the success of nonviolent methods have steadily improved during the last hundred years or so. In the twenty-first century, nonviolence is destined to become even more effective and sophisticated, making warfare look much like a dinosaur whose time has long past.
Let us look at the religious and ethical aspects of this issue. In Islam, warfare is always a means to an end, never an end in itself, and the taking of a human life is always an exception to the general rule of protecting and saving lives. In situations where the same end can be achieved by violent and nonviolent methods, the latter is clearly preferable over the former. Despite the emphasis on qital in the Qur’an and Hadith, there is nothing in these sources that would preclude or prohibit the adoption of nonviolence as both ethics and strategy.
We know that Prophet Muhammad (SAW) was a kind, lenient, and gentle human being; he was sent by Allah (SWT) as a “mercy to the worlds.” If such a man fought battles, it was only because there was no alternative to warfare in seventh-century Arabia. Furthermore, the Prophet (SAW) and his followers themselves set an example for us when they practiced strict nonviolence for several years in Makkah. It is well known that Muslims were ridiculed, opposed, and persecuted by the elders of Quraysh, and Muslim slaves were frequently tortured and killed. Despite this, the Prophet Muhammad (SAW) did not allow Muslims to carry out any retaliation against their tormentors; he only asked them to endure with patience while keeping their faith and continuing their struggle. The Muslim practice of patience and strict non-retaliation during the 12 years in Makkah provide us with a brilliant example of how to resist evil without causing injury.
It is true that the Prophet Muhammad (SAW) changed his strategy after the migration to Medina, and when Allah (SWT) through revelation gave Muslims the permission to fight back against their oppressors. However, the social and historical context must be kept in mind as we try to understand the battles in which early Muslims participated. From the Islamic viewpoint, warfare is not an absolute good; it is only a relative good. It is important to remember that there is nothing inherently desirable in war from a moral and religious viewpoint. Killing for the sake of killing is no act of virtue by any standard. As such, it is only the end for which one fights, and the conditions which one upholds while doing so, that makes fighting morally good or bad. Qital was made mandatory upon Muslims because it was the only possible method to serve the cause of Islam in the particular social and historical context of seventh-century Arabia. The Prophet (SAW) led the Muslims in many battles; he had to do this in order to protect his community, to defeat his enemies, and to establish Islam as a historical reality. If the establishment of Islam were possible without resorting to war, there is no doubt that this is what the Prophet (SAW) would have preferred.
In this context, it is important to dispel the common misunderstanding that nonviolent struggles are somehow “easier” than armed combat. On the contrary, it is fair to say that nonviolence is not for the fainthearted. It requires extraordinary courage, patience, and discipline to stand one’s ground in front of guns, tanks, and bulldozers. While it is relatively easy to take the life of a much hated opponent in a moment of rage, it calls for a great deal of self-control to allow oneself to be beaten to a pulp and not raise one's hand in self-defense. Indeed, the use of nonviolence does not guarantee that one will remain safe and protected. In the final analysis, there is probably equal risk of losing one’s life or limb in both kinds of conflict. Nonviolence, therefore, is not an attempt to run away from danger or confrontation. The imperatives of the Qur'an and Hadith that encourage Muslims to remain steadfast in times of conflict and to endure physical pain with patience remain as applicable in cases of nonviolent resistance as they were in the original context of warfare.