Islam, like many beliefs, religions and ideologies, is subject to interpretation and difference of opinion amongst its adherents. However, there are many things that Muslims do not differ on, like the existence of only One God, Muhammed (saaw) being His Final Prophet and Messenger, and that only God can legislate laws for man. Another thing that Muslims do not differ on, is that terrorism is against Islam. The justification for terrorism lies firmly outside Islam, and stems from a post-colonial and Western influenced way of thinking which manifests itself in the phenomenon of ‘Muslim Modernism’.
Muslim Modernists believe that, in ‘changing times’, certain laws, structures and systems of Islam do not need to be followed ‘strictly’ anymore. Generally, most Modernists today follow Liberalism and hold a secular world view when it comes to politics. Usually Modernists, whether individuals or the ruling class, focus on engineering the domestic situation in the Muslim world to imitate the Western states. During the Cold War, many Modernists were Communists (due to the proximity and perceived power of Soviet Union). However, after the Cold War, not all Modernists have fully adopted Western values. Some Modernists, whilst believing in Islamic government and politics, have been intellectually compromised into introducing ‘modern’ methodologies to realise these Islamic goals. One category of these Modernists have adopted ‘modern’ (i.e. Western) methods of warfare and struggle, which they claim will help Muslims to achieve their goals in the modern world – namely, the use of tactics that deliberately target civilians in order to try to deter Western military occupation and operations.
Does Islam justify deliberately targeting civilians in war?
Many political pundits, politicians and media commentators claim that terrorism is the result of a traditional or fundamentalist interpretation of Islam. However, according to Islamic sources this is plainly false. The taking of life is strictly forbidden in Islam:
Take not life, which God hath made sacred, except by way of justice and law: thus does He command you, that ye may learn wisdom
The verse only permits the taking of life if required by justice and law (e.g. against convicted murderers). However, when in the way of justice, such as self-defence, Islam imposes inviolable limits:
Fight in the way of Allah those who fight you but do not transgress. Indeed. Allah does not like transgressors.
This verse is clear that Muslims who fight, must not transgress when doing so. But transgress against what? Surely, if it is true that disbelievers can be killed merely for being disbelievers (as Islamophobes like to falsely assert), where is the line drawn over which Muslims cannot transgress? This line is provided here in the narrated statements of the Prophet Muhammed: The Prophet Muhammed forbade Muslims from killing non-Muslims who have a peace treaty with the Muslims:
“Whoever has killed a person having a [peace] treaty with the Muslims shall not smell the fragrance of Paradise, though its fragrance is found for a span of forty years.”
The Prophet Muhammed forbade the deliberate killing of women and children on the battlefield:
Narrated By Ibn ‘Umar : During some of the battles of Allah’s Apostle [Muhammed] a woman was found killed, so Allah’s Apostle forbade the killing of women and children.
So, if Prophet Muhammed forbade killing women on the battlefield, it would certainly apply off the battlefield too. A companion of the Prophet Muhammed reported:
“We went out for battle with the Messenger of Allah, and we came by a killed woman, and the people had gathered around her. They made way for the Prophet, who said: “This woman was not fighting amongst those who were fighting.” He then said to a man: “Go to Khalid bin al-Walid, and say to him that the Messenger of Allah orders you to say: ‘Do not kill a child, and do not kill the weak.'”
Another companion of Muhammed, Anas, reported that the Muhammed said:
“March in the name of Allah, and with the succour of Allah and over the religion of the Messenger of Allah, kill not the emaciated old, nor the young children, nor the women and deceive not; collect your booty, do good and show kindness, because Allah loves those who do good to others”
These are just some of the commandments of Prophet Muhammed which established the principle of the inviolability of non-combatants. The Prophet Muhammed also forbade the retaliation against innocent people (and living creatures) amongst those that have acted unjustly towards a Muslim: Abu Huraira reported that Muhammed said:
“When an Apostle from amongst the Apostles of Allah came to sit under a tree an ant bit him. He commanded his luggage to be removed from under the tree and he commanded it to be burnt in the fire and Allah revealed to him:” Why one ant (which had bitten you) was not killed (and why did you burn the others)?”Saheeh Muslim, Book 026, Number 5569
These texts, and others besides them, have laid out the Islamic rules and limitations for warfare, which informed Islamic government policy and scholarship ever since. Caliph Umar Abdul Aziz (r.a.) said
“About the saying of Allah [verse in the Quran]: “Fight in the way of Allah against those who fight you and do not trangress the limits. Indeed, Allaah does not love those who trangress”. (Qur’an 2:190). The killing of women and children is included within this, and so are those who are not involved in warfare”.
(“An Nawaadir wa’z-Ziyaadaat”, Vol 3, Page 57).
The famous Islamic classical scholar, Imam al-Qurtubi (d. 1273) remarks in his commentary of the Qur’an:
“The fact that someone disbelieves does not prevent us from being just to him, and that our dealing with them (in a state of war) should only be restricted to fighting or capturing them if they deserve so. And it is not permissible for us to retaliate in the same manner, even if they kill our women and children and cause sorrow to befall us, it is not permissible for us to act likewise with the intention of making them feel grief and sorrow”.
(“Al Jaami’ li Ahkaamil Qur’aan” 6/110)
Another famous Islamic scholar, Ibn Kathir (d. 1373) re-affirmed the Islamic principle of non-retaliation upon innocents, when he commented on the understanding of the general understanding of Islamic scholars of a verse of the Qur’an:
“But let him not exceed limits in the matter of taking life”. They [the scholars] said: This means the heir should not go to extremes in killing the killer, such as mutilating the body or taking revenge on persons other than the killer”.
Tafsir Ibn Kathir
That Islam forbids Muslims from targeting civilians (non-combatants) in general is not denied by terrorists professing to be Muslims. Contrary to the popular misconception, terrorists do not pretend to have an interpretation of Islam that justifies the killing of civilians:
Our religion forbids us from killing innocent people such as women and children.
Osama Bin Laden, Interview with ABC Reporter, May 1998
“They [the Muslim scholars] say that the killing of innocents is wrong and invalid, and for proof, they say that the Prophet forbade the killing of children and women, and that is true. It is valid and has been laid down by the Prophet in an authentic tradition…but this forbidding of killing children and innocents is not set in stone…if the disbelievers were to kill our children and women, then we should not feel ashamed to do the same to them, mainly to deter them from trying to kill our children and women again”
Osama Bin Laden – October 21, 2001, al-Jazeera interview quoted in ‘Messages to the World: The Statements of Osama Bin Laden’ by Bruce Lawrence
It should be noticed from Osama Bin Laden’s statement, that he expresses his willingness to dispense with the Islamic rules when he believes an enemy threatens the lives of Muslim non-combatants. Thus, Osama adds a Western Utilitarian lens to looking at Islamic law, and argues that some evil can be done in the name of a greater good. Islam, however rejects Utilitarianism outright, because it considers the life of one person to be equal to the life of many:
If anyone killed a person not in retaliation of murder, or (and) to spread mischief in the land – it would be as if he killed all mankind, and if anyone saved a life, it would be as if he saved the life of all mankind.
The Origins of Terrorist Justification
Muslims who justify terrorism are, in reality, merely Modernists who re-interpret the Qur’an and sources of Islamic thought, to justify a post-colonial mode of warfare which they learned from Western military history and experience. The motivations of terrorists like Osama Bin Laden have been well known for some time. These terrorists have never claimed, as Western politicians would have us believe, their actions are part of a fanatical ‘holy war against all infidels’ or because they hate that the people in the West live under ‘freedom’ . Osama himself said:
“Free people do not relinquish their security. This is contrary to Bush’s claim that we hate freedom. Let him tell us why we did not strike Sweden for example…your security is in your own hands. Each and every state that does not tamper with our security will have automatically assured its own security”
Osama Bin Laden (Videotape broadcast on al-Jazeera TV as reported in a BBC article 29 October 2004)
A more detailed set of reasons given by Osama Bin Laden in a letter to the American public, has been reproduced by the Guardian newspaper here. Anyone reading through the article will note that Bin Laden never claims that the destruction of Western democracy or ‘freedom’ is the reason he wages war. Instead, he describes his actions as part of a ‘defensive war’ of Muslim lands, not an agressive war to destroy ‘freedom’ and democracy.
If anything, the terrorists appear to have more faith in democracy than people living in a democracy. Terrorists seem to believe that democratic government actually represents the will of the people under them. This leads them to falsely blame the people as either guilty themselves of commanding their public officials to engage in an aggressive foreign policy against independent Muslim countries, or that they are able to affect their government’s policies through democratic elections but not willing to. These beliefs by the terrorists, are based on a blind and naive understanding of Western democracy.
Anyone who lives in a Western democracy knows, the will of the people are not enacted by the government, nor are the politicians obliged to adhere to the people’s voice. Protests and demonstrations are just as likely to happen in a democracy, as they are in an authoritarian regime. Since Western governments act according to pursuing fixed national interests, elections mostly change faces, not policies. It is due to the terrorists belief and faith that democracy works, that they commit their terrorism:
“The American people should remember that they pay taxes to their government and that they voted for their president. Their government makes weapons and provides them to Israel, which they use to kill Palestinian Muslims. Given that the American Congress is a committee that represents the people, the fact that it agrees with the actions of the American government proves that America in its entirety is responsible for the atrocities that is is committing against Muslims. I demand the American people to take note of their government’s policy against Muslims. They described the government’s policy against Vietnam as wrong. They should now take the same stand that they did previously. The onus is on Americans to prevent Muslims from being killed at the hands of their government”.
Osama Bin Laden (Interview with Pakistani Daily Newspapers, Ausaf, 7th November 2001, and Al-Quds al Arabi, 12th November 2001)
In order to get people in the West to end the aggressive foreign policy of their governments, Osama Bin Laden, rather than trying to demolish Western democracy, is actually (as incredulous as it seems) trying to encourage Western people to participate in it! Osama wants people in the West to participate in democracy to get an end to the wars:
[ABC Reporter] “Do you have a message for the American people?”
[Osama] “We believe that this administration represents Israel inside America…We say to the Americans as people and to American mothers, if they cherish their lives and if they cherish their sons, they must elect an American patriotic government that caters to their interests not the interests of the Jews. If the present injustice continues with the wave of national consciousness, it will inevitably move the battle to American soil, just as Ramzi Yousef and others have done. This is my message to the American people. I urge them to find a serious administration that acts in their interest and does not attack people and violate their honor and pilfer their wealth”
Osama Bin Laden, Interview with ABC Reporter, May 1998
Of course, Osama doesn’t understand that there is no choice on the election cards that says ‘end the war’, and even if they voted for a candidate who said they would end the war, there is no legal obligation for the candidate to honour any of his/her promises, nor are elections only about single issues. Any candidate coming to power must contend with pursuing the national interest, informed by strategic considerations, and the imperatives of Liberalism (and it’s economic system – Capitalism). Thus the will of the people becomes subordinate to the ‘higher’ goals of Liberal political systems.
I say that it is a narrow policy to suppose that this country or that is to be marked out as the eternal ally or the perpetual enemy of England. We have no eternal allies, and we have no perpetual enemies. Our interests are eternal and perpetual, and those interests it is our duty to follow.
Lord Palmerston, British Prime Minister from 1855-1865
(Speech to the House of Commons (1 March 1848), Hansard’s Parliamentary Debates. 3rd series, vol. 97, col. 122)
We can clearly see that the acts of terrorism coming from such individuals, are not the result of a written commandment in Islamic sources to “kill all infidels”, but rather these acts of terrorism are borrowed modern methodologies that go against Islamic teachings; they are the result of Muslims adopting Western methods of war, fighting and revolutionary tactics. Osama Bin Laden was not some dark nightmare from the 7th century come to haunt the modern world, rather he merely believed he reflects a mirror image of the modern regimes he fights against:
“America has not been known to differentiate between the military and the civilians or between men and women or adults and children. Those who threw atomic bombs and used the weapons of mass destruction against Nagasaki and Hiroshima were the Americans. Can the bombs differentiate between military and women and infants and children? America has no religion that can deter her from exterminating whole peoples. Your position against Muslims in Palestine is despicable and disgraceful. America has no shame. … We believe that the worst thieves in the world today and the worst terrorists are the Americans. Nothing could stop you except perhaps retaliation in kind”.Osama Bin Laden, Interview with ABC Reporter, May 1998