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On Islamic Nonviolence


By Rabia Terri Harris

Nonviolence is one of the most misunderstood words in the English language, and one of the most misunderstood ideas in the world. This confusion is not surprising, since the word means two things at the same time. And the one idea behind both meanings, though very simple, is not easy. It goes against the way many people think.

Here are the two different meanings of nonviolence.

  1. Nonviolence is the life decision to live in harmony with the order of creation by giving up the domination of other people or the planet. Today, when put into community practice, this life decision is called culture of peace or peacebuilding.
  2. Nonviolence is the method of pursuing necessary social change by relying upon the real long-term spiritual power of justice rather than the apparent short-term political power of injustice. Today, when put into community practice, this method is called unarmed struggle.

The idea behind both these meanings is that the universe is a seamless whole from which people are not separate. The order of creation is ethical and spiritual as well as a physical. Ethical and spiritual laws have necessary effects, just as physical laws have necessary effects. We can rely on these causes to produce their effects. Reality is not a chaos: something is in charge. By understanding, affirming, and moving with that which is in charge, we can reach whatever goals we have that are worth having.

So what goals have we got that are worth having? Why aim low? I’ll tell you one that I treasure, and that I expect we share: a world worth living in for everyone. That goal is one of the highest objects of all religion. Whether we might rationally hope to reach this goal is quite irrelevant. We are summoned to try — and there is no greater adventure.

The Arabic term for nonviolence as a life decision is islam. The Arabic term for nonviolence as a method is jihad. The Arabic term for the principle underlying both aspects of nonviolence is tawhid, the affirmation of the unity of God. For a Muslim, no principles are more basic — or more contested.

Because of the tremendous influence of Mohandas Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. on the course of 20th-century liberation efforts, many people, especially Muslims, assume that nonviolence must be a Hindu or a Christian concept. That’s not true. In fact, it’s a kind of a trick that keeps us from thinking clearly about nonviolence.

It is true that choosing nonviolence as a method often follows from adopting nonviolence as a life decision, and that adopting nonviolence as a life decision often follows from a strong religious faith. And it is true that Mahatma Gandhi was a Hindu and Dr. King was a Christian.

However, Gandhi’s great colleague in the struggle for the freedom of Indian peoples from British colonial rule was Abdul-Ghaffar Khan, who developed his nonviolent understanding independently of Gandhi, through reading the Qur’an in jail. Abdul-Ghaffar Khan raised an army of 100,000 unarmed soldiers, the Khudai Khidmatgar, from the same villages that today yield many fewer young men up to the Taliban. (His arguments must have been more convincing than theirs.) We don’t hear enough about Abdul-Ghaffar Khan because he opposed the partition of the Indian subcontinent, and was vilified for it afterwards. But it is past time to reconsider his work.

Later, the great counterbalance to Dr. King — the “bad cop” to Dr. King’s “good cop” in the interrogation of racial injustice in the United States — was Malcolm X. And Malcolm X famously affirmed the potentials of unarmed struggle for the first time as a result of the hajj. That al-Hajj Malik al-Shabazz was martyred soon after this affirmation has only increased its power.

The Arabic term for that which is truly in charge in the world, upon which nonviolence depends, is ALLAH. You can hear that name in your heartbeat. In English, we generally refer to God. There’s only one.

The Muslim Peace Fellowship holds that nonviolence is the core social teaching of all the great religious traditions, and has been carried by all of the Messengers of God.

An Islamic approach to nonviolence will, however, differ in important ways from other understandings. Every religious community takes its distinctive quality from the Messenger who founded it. It follows that the community of Muhammad is perfumed with the perfume of Muhammad, peace and blessings be upon him. And Muhammad {peace and blessings be upon him: PBBUH}, like all of us, possesses both a worldly and a spiritual dimension.

In the world, Muhammad {PBBUH} was the civilizer of the Arab tribes, and his heart was with all oppressed people everywhere. His historical mission was no more, and no less, than the establishment of peace and justice where cruel custom and tyranny had reigned. He worked in, and with, the substance of his times, toward a goal far beyond the horizons of his times. He used extraordinary spiritual means toward equally extraordinary political ends. Through his labor and insight, a great world culture emerged out of a fractured landscape of petty tribal wars. If we trouble to look, we easily find in Muhammad {PBBUH} a master strategist of nonviolence.

In the spirit, Muhammad {PBBUH} has three major characteristics, according to the mystical tradition.

The first characteristic is absolute servanthood: all his being was fully given over to the presence and work of God.

The second, deriving from the first, is all-encompassing perfection. This is a special kind of perfection. He was as human as we are, but in him, every single element that constitutes human nature and experience, without exception, found its true balance and rightful place. Nothing was made greater or less than it really is; nothing was excluded. All the most difficult experiences that we tend to reject, in him were transformed. Among those difficult human experiences is warfare. Not all divine messengers have integrated this.

His third characteristic is to prefer what God prefers: all-embracing compassion for the plight of creatures. Allah said in a non-Qur’anic divine report, “When I created the creation, I inscribed upon the Throne, ”˜My mercy overpowers My wrath.’” And He said of Muhammad {PBBUH} in the Qur’an, “We have not sent you save as a mercy to the worlds.”

This understanding of the nature of the Prophet provides the theological foundation for Islamic nonviolence.

Muhammad {PBBUH} began his mission by alerting his people to an imminent danger more serious than invasion: a massive ethical breakdown that put the whole community at risk. His first hearers were skeptical of this risk. Today, when global ethical failure has led us to the edge of economic and ecological collapse, it should be clearer to us what he was talking about. God willing, there is still time to listen.

The greatest Qur’anic warnings are against tyranny (zulm), against spreading corruption in the earth (fasad), against willfully obscuring the truth (kufr), and against worshiping competing narrow interests (the true meaning of idolatry, or shirk). Related to all these is the particular opponent of Prophet Muhammad {PBBUH}, known as jahiliyyah — violent ignorance. And wherever violent ignorance manifests, his struggle continues.

Which brings us to jihad.

Jihad, struggle for justice — and particularly the special form of jihad that involves fighting — is too central to the Prophetic example for us to be able to ignore it, no matter how distorted the word has become through centuries of misuse. For it is not just in recent times that low motives have baited traps with high ideals. Whatever the apologists for past empires have said, the great body of prophetic traditions on this topic simply does not apply to struggles for political power, for vengeance, or for glory, whether or not there is Arabic writing on one’s flag. Sadly, fighting “for Islam,” as it is commonly understood, almost always means nothing more than fighting for political power, vengeance, or glory. In Qur’anic terms, it does not qualify as jihad.

Qur’anically, fighting may only be undertaken in self-defense against religious persecution (“in the cause of God”) or for the benefit of oppressed people who yearn for assistance.

Were it not that God drives back some people by means of others, cloisters, churches, synagogues, and mosques, wherein God’s name is much remembered, would have been pulled down. (Surah Hajj. 40)

It has nothing to do with who belongs to what group, and everything to do with human dignity. In cases of emergency injustice, fighting is necessary. But not all forms of fighting are acceptable to Allah. Even if the motive is correct, if the means are abominable, that fighting is not jihad. The Prophetic instructions regarding means are strict, and clear. If a manner of fighting slaughters the innocent, ravages the sources of life, and sows corruption in the earth, it is abominable. Such fighting is merely jahiliyyah, even if blasphemously undertaken in the name of God.

It has been understood by Muslim scholars for some time that weapons of mass destruction, though in widespread use, violate divine law. But the situation today is more serious even than this. For the ancient noble warrior around whom the laws of war took form, who could learn and practice chivalry while fighting hand to hand, is no longer to be found on any battlefield. The devastation caused by even a simple handgun cannot be limited to the combatant at whom it is aimed. The Muslim Peace Fellowship argues, following the Thai Muslim scholar Chaiwat Satha-Anand, that all modern weapons are weapons of mass destruction, therefore religiously unlawful. What “religiously unlawful” means is intrinsically destructive of human spiritual potential; out of harmony with reality. There is only one remaining form of fighting that is lawful: the unarmed struggle.

Islam teaches over and over that lasting success is never won by employing the religiously unlawful. Our telling ourselves that the forbidden is permitted does not change the deep structure of creation. What goes around, comes around.

Meanwhile, if we long for the end of injustice so that peace may come, we’ll be waiting a very long time. Peace cannot be postponed until after some moment of victory: peace is now. Prophet Abraham {PBBUH}, in Islamic tradition found a garden in the midst of the fire. His garden is always available. A paradox: until we find peace, we will be unable to make peace.

And that is why the Community of Living Traditions interests me. We are proposing here, on a humble scale, the grandest of experiments: to live together, in each other’s presence, as our religions actually advise. This is more than worth trying. It’s practically the only solution to the world’s ills I can think of that hasn’t seriously been tried!

Until the end of days, there will always be injustice somewhere, and the struggle with injustice will always be necessary. But though the world cannot be perfect, there is nothing to prevent its being better than it is. The change does not depend on our opponent: to claim that it does, merely hands our opponent our power. The change depends on us.

And we, if we are people of faith, depend on God.

“Our God,” we Muslims are asked to recite, at the end of every formal episode of prayer, “You are peace, and peace is from You.” Peace is an intrinsic attribute of the Ultimately Real. Whoever serves peace, serves God, and will enter the infinite among the servants of God.

The Qur’an relates that longed-for divine call:

O soul at peace, return to your lord well-pleased, well pleasing: Enter among My servants; enter My garden.

If we do not plant that garden in this world, we will not be harvesting it in the next.

I can’t tell you how delighted I am at the prospect of gardening with you.

And peace be upon you all—.

Rabia Terri Harris is founder and director of the Muslim Peace Fellowship (MPF) and a Contributing Editor to Fellowship. One of a dozen religious peace fellowships affiliated with the Fellowship of Reconciliation, MPF is now based in the Anwâr as-Salâm House at the Community of Living Traditions, an emerging interfaith intentional community hosted at the Stony Point Center in Stony Point, New York. This article is based on an address Harris delivered to the Community of Living Traditions (CLT) in late 2009. For more information about CLT visit www.stonypointcenter.org.

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