Beliefnet

For about five years, there was war and the Muslims narrowly escaped extermination. Terrible things were done on both sides. But when Muhammad sensed that the tide had just begun turn in his favor, he completely changed tack. He concentrated on building a peaceful coalition of tribes, and initiated an inspired, brave and ingenious policy of non-violence. This proved so successful that eventually Mecca opened its gates to the Muslims voluntarily, without a single drop of blood being shed.

Because the Qu'ran was revealed in the context of an all-out war, several passages deal with the conduct of armed conflict. Warfare was a desperate business in Arabia. An Arab chieftain was not expected to take prisoners; it was a given that he would simply kill everybody he could get his hands on. Muhammad knew that if the Muslims were defeated they would all be slaughtered to the last man or woman.

Sometimes the Qu'ran seems to have imbibed this spirit. Muslims are ordered by God to "slay [the enemy] wherever you find them. (4:89). Muslim extremists like Bin Laden like to quote these verses, but they do so selectively, never quoting the exhortations to peace and forbearance that in almost every case mitigate these ferocious injunctions in the verses immediately following. Thus "If they leave you alone and offer to make peace with you, God does not allow you to harm them." (4:90)

Therefore the only war condoned by the Qu'ran is a war of self-defense. "Warfare is an awesome evil" (2:217), but sometimes it is necessary to fight in order to bring the kind of persecution suffered by the Muslims to an end [2:217] or to preserve decent values [22:40]. But Muslims may never initiate hostilities, and aggression is forbidden by God [2:190] While the fighting continues, Muslims must dedicate themselves wholly to the war in order to bring things back to normal as quickly as possible, but the second the enemy sues for peace, hostilities must cease. [2:192]

The word jihad is much misunderstood. It is rarely used as a noun in the Qu'ran, but in a verbal form, meaning striving, struggle or effort. This jihad denotes the determined effort that Muslims must make to put God's commands into practice in a terrible and evil world. Sometimes this will mean armed struggle, but the jihad also refers to a spiritual, moral, intellectual, social, domestic or purely personal effort. There is a very famous and much quoted hadith or "tradition" about the Prophet Muhammad, which describes him returning home after a battle and saying to his Companions; "We are returning from the Lesser Jihad [the battle] to the Greater Jihad," which is the far more important and urgent struggle to reform one's own heart and one's own society.

Consequently, the Qu'ran is quite clear that warfare is not the best way of dealing with difficulties. It is much better to sit down and reason with people who disagree with us, and to "argue [with unbelievers] in the most kindly manner, with wisdom and goodly exhortation." If Muslims are forced to respond to an attack, their retaliation must be appropriate and proportionate to the wrong suffered, but forbearance is preferable: "To bear yourselves with patience is far better for you, since God is with those who are patient in adversity." (16:125-127]

The Quran also quotes the Jewish Torah, which permits the lex talionis--an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth--but adds that it is a meritorious act to be charitable and to refrain from retaliation. [5;45]

Muslims must be realistic. If God had wanted all peoples to be the same and have identical opinions and policies, then he would have made them into one nation and made them all Muslims. But God has not chosen to do this, so Muslims must accept his will. [10:99;11:118]. If there is an irreconcilable difference, Muslims must simply go their own way, as the Prophet himself did when he found that he could not agree with the Meccan establishment, saying: "Unto you your moral law, and unto me, mine." [109:6] You go your way, and I'll go mine.

Above all "There must be no coercion in matters of faith." {2:256]. The grammar here is very strong, very absolute. (La ikra fi'l-din) It is similar in form to the Shehadah, the Muslim profession of Faith: "There is no God but Allah!" ("La illaha `l Allah!" The Unity of God is the basis of all Muslim morality and spirituality. The principle of tawhid ["making one"] is the Muslim task par excellence. Nothing must rival God ~ no ideology, material goods, or personal ambitions. A Muslim must try to integrate his entire personality and his whole life to ensure that God is his top priority, and in the unity that she will discover within herself when this is achieved, she will have intimations of that Unity which is God. It is, therefore, significant that in the Quran, the prohibition of force and compulsion in religious matters is made as emphatically as the assertion of the Unity of God. The principle is as sacred as that.

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