August 25, 2004,
After my article, "An Islamic Denunciation of al Qaeda Killings," appeared on NRO, Andrew C. McCarthy published a response that both welcomed and criticized my argument. I welcome his commentary as well, for it helps me elaborate my case. But I have to be critical too.
McCarthy begins by defining jihad as "violent holy war." Yet the term "jihad" does not necessarily refer to armed conflict. It simply means "effort" and it can include nonviolent struggles, such as an intellectual endeavor against atheism. Of course, there is also military jihad in the Koran and in the Islamic tradition; that is the point we have to discuss and, perhaps, redefine.
McCarthy argues that I mined some verses of the Koran and overlooked some parts that don't fit my case. It is true that, to be brief, I did not include all the verses related to the subject in my original article. Even when all of those verses are included, however, and understood in their proper contexts, my position that killing noncombatants or captives is against Islamic principles still holds.
THE KORAN IN CONTEXTContext is crucial. To understand and interpret the war verses in the Koran, one has to keep in mind that they were revealed in seventh-century Arabia, where battles were fought by swords and spears. Winning a battle meant killing a great number of your enemies. Any reluctance during the battle to attack and kill the enemy could bring defeat, and, in Muslims' case, annihilation of the whole umma, or community of believers.
The first verse that McCarthy quotes should be understood in this context. After a detailed analysis of manpower on the battlefield, the Koran states:
It is not fitting for a Prophet that he should have prisoners of war until he hath thoroughly subdued the land: Ye look for the temporal goods of this world, but Allah looketh to the Hereafter: and Allah is Mighty, Wise. (8:67)
Here we see a military strategy that was necessary in a battle of swords: If Muslims started to take prisoners in the middle of the encounter which would mean collecting ransoms or "temporal goods," later it could prove to be a grave error. The enemy would have a chance to retaliate, those captives could rejoin the fight, and the battle itself could be lost. Such an event occurred at the battle of Uhud. The pagan army had a cavalry force that stood aside during the battle, and when the Muslim army seemed victorious and started to collect the spoils, those cavalrymen hit the Muslims from behind and won. Many Muslims were killed, and the Prophet himself was injured.
So, the Koranic principle of not taking prisoners in the middle of a battle is all about assuring victory. Verse 47:4, also quoted by McCarthy, in fact confirms this conclusion:
Therefore, when ye meet the Unbelievers in fight, smite at their necks; at length, when ye have thoroughly subdued them, bind the captives firmly: therefore is the time for either generosity or ransom until the war lays down its burdens....
The phrase "when ye meet the Unbelievers in fight" clearly shows that the verse speaks about a battlefield. Both this verse and that quoted above order Muslim soldiers to kill enemy combatants in battle until the land or the enemy is "subdued" or in today's military terms, "secured." Once that military target is achieved, there need be no further killing.
Yet McCarthy finds in this a justification for the beheadings in Iraq. His reasoning goes like this: (a) When jihad is ongoing, the taking of prisoners is frowned on, and (b) jihad should be ongoing until the enemy is subdued.
Here is a crucial flaw in McCarthy's argument; a failure to distinguish between a military jihad (a war) and a battle. Early Muslims of Medina were at war with the pagans of Mecca for many years, but they took prisoners of war after the battles they won. If they thought along the lines McCarthy suggests, they should never have taken any prisoners of war, which was obviously not the case.
What was the case? As I explained in my original article, Muslims were ordered by the Koran to treat POWs well, and historical accounts about the Prophet Muhammad show that this command was honored. The Prophet is even reported to have said, "You must feed them as you feed yourselves, and clothe them as you clothe yourselves, and if you should set them a hard task, you must help them in it yourselves" (Gabrielli, Arab Historians of the Crusades, pp. 138-39).
McCarthy criticized me at this point for leaving out the account of Bani Qurayza, the Jewish tribe whose men were reportedly beheaded by order of the Prophet because they had secretly collaborated with the pagan army attacking Medina. I had a reason for leaving this out: I strongly doubt its historical accuracy. There is no reference to such a dramatic event in the Koran and it only appears in the biography of the Prophet written by Ibn Ishaq, a man who died 145 years after the event. In a detailed article that questions the accuracy of this story, scholar W. N. Arafat explains why it was probably a "later invention." Ibn Hajar, an Islamic authority, denounced it and other related stories as "odd tales." A contemporary of Ibn Ishaq, Malik the jurist, denounced Ibn Ishaq outright as "a liar" and "an impostor" just for telling such fables. Moreover, as Rabbi Brad Hirschfield of the National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership says, the "massacre... hardly shows up in Jewish literature."
I conclude that the Koranic order to not take POWs and instead continue to kill the enemy is limited to unsecured battlefields.
Moreover, that "enemy" refers only to combatants. The Koran is clear on this:
Fight in the Way of God against those who fight you, but do not go beyond the limits. God does not love those who go beyond the limits. (2:190)
Thus, war can only be waged against "those who fight" against Muslims, i.e. combatants. It is also well known that Prophet Muhammad was careful to make this distinction and strictly ordered Muslim soldiers to avoid harming women, children, the elderly, or people at temples and monasteries.
What al Qaeda did to Nick Berg, Paul Johnson, Kim Sun-il, and recently Murat Yuce a Turkish citizen working for a Jordanian company that gave service to the American army was unacceptable according to both of the criteria in question: There was no battle, thus no battleground to be secured, and the victims were noncombatants. These were cold-blooded murders and they must be condemned from a Koranic point of view.
DISCOVERING THE GOOD "UNBELIEVERS"Yet, the hateful rhetoric of the radical Islamists has blurred the distinction between enemies and friends, combatants, and civilians. In that rhetoric, all non-Muslims are labeled simply as "unbelievers" and then seen as enemies of Muslims, even as legitimate targets. Whereas in the Koran Jews and Christians are called "The People of the Book," and salvation is promised to them if they worship God sincerely (2:62). And Muslims are ordered to be kind to them, unless they behave unjustly:
Only argue with the People of the Book in the kindest way except in the case of those of them who do wrong saying, "We have faith in what has been sent down to us and what was sent down to you. Our God and your God are one and we submit to Him" (29:46).
Even if one is an unbeliever, i.e. an atheist or a pagan, that does not make him an enemy of Islam and Muslims. The Koran, after warning Muslims for being friendly to those who have persecuted the Prophet, makes an important distinction:
God does not forbid you from being good to those who have not fought you in religion or driven you from your homes, or from being just towards them. God loves those who are just. God merely forbids you from taking as friends those who have fought you in religion and driven you from your homes and who supported your expulsion. Any who take them as friends are wrongdoers (60:8-9).
Therefore, besides those who show open hostility to Islam and Muslims, all non-Muslims are to be treated graciously. The Koran hints that even those enemies can be won:
It may well be that God will restore the love between you and those of them who are now your enemies. God is All-Powerful. God is Ever-Forgiving, Most Merciful (60:7).
This is very different from what you can hear from al-Qaeda spokesmen and similar terrorists.
"THIS IS NOT OUR TRADITION"The Koranic concern for noncombatants might explain why even some of the radical clerics in Iraq object to the killings in question. British journalist James Brandon, who was kidnapped by the militias of the radical cleric Moqtada Sadr, was freed recently. Sadr, obviously no moderate, "apologized" for the initial rough treatment of Brandon and declared, "This is not our tradition, not our rules. It is not the tradition of Islam."
Similarly, Sheikh Abdullah al-Janabi, Fallujah's leading cleric, though a supporter of "resistance against occupation," said the beheadings are "not accepted or approved by the people [of Falluja]" or by himself, and the kidnappers "don't understand the concept of honest and true resistance."
I do not share the views of these radical clerics, but it is notable that even they disapprove of the beheadings. Those who commit them are even more radical groups such as al Qaeda, whose indiscriminate violence is alien to Islamic tradition. As Bernard Lewis confirms about September 11, those attacks had "no justification in Islamic doctrine or law and no precedent in Islamic history" (I>The Crisis of Islam, p. 119). The same is true for the recent beheadings in Iraq.
To argue otherwise, McCarthy mentions the legal opinion of the eleventh-century Muslim jurist al-Mawardi, who gave four options to a Muslim ruler on the treatment of POWs, one of which was beheading. Let me go further and give an example showing how this was implemented. When Saladin, the Muslim hero of the twelfth century, defeated the crusader army in the battle of Hattin in 1187, he had two important POWs brought to his tent: King Guy and Reynauld de Chatillion. Saladin spoke kindly to the king, offered the desperately thirsty man iced water, and later set him free. That was because King Guy was a noble man an enemy, but noble nevertheless. Reynauld was, on the other hand, truly evil. He slaughtered unarmed Muslim pilgrims and travelers, including the sister of Saladin, and dared to attack the holy shrine at Mecca. He tortured the Patriarch of Antioch, "massacred thousands of [Orthodox Christian] men, women and children," and cut off the noses of all Greek monks he could gather (Armstrong, Holy War, p. 242). Saladin beheaded Reynauld with his own hands because, as he explained to King Guy, he had committed "great crimes and treachery." Later, the Templars, who led the most brutal massacres against Muslim civilians in the past, were executed as well, because they had "shown themselves to be dedicated enemies of Islam" (Armstrong, p. 255).
In other words, this was about killing war criminals, not even enemy soldiers. Later on, Saladin conquered the cities of the Crusader Kingdom, including Jerusalem, and he was revered for the fact that he did not harm any of their Christian inhabitants. Even Europeans of the time respected Saladin as man of honor, generosity, and chivalry.
MUSLIM REFORMATIONStill, a coherent argument against indiscriminate violence carried out in the name of Islam should go beyond all of these examples. I have tried to explain that terrorism against civilians has no justification in mainstream Islam, but there is another major issue: Some aspects of Islamic tradition are outdated, and we have to reevaluate some of our doctrines in light of modern times.
This is a very wide issue that needs extensive work. Briefly: The Koran was revealed in the seventh century and some verses refer to events that do not or could not take place today. This means there are some parts of the Koran that we can't and aren't supposed to implement literally now. Take the verse that orders Muslims to muster "cavalry" to frighten their enemies (8:60). Today, of course, no Muslim state would think of building an army based on cavalry. The verse can't be implemented literally. We can only infer a principle such as that strong armies are necessary for national defense and apply that principle in a modern context.
The same line of reasoning can be extended to some other social and political issues in the Koran, especially to the war verses such as the ones quoted by McCarthy (2:191, 5:33, 8:12). Again, it is possible that we no longer need take all of these verses literally.
Besides that, some traditional doctrines can be abandoned completely. Take the much-disputed concepts of "House of War" and "House of Islam," developed by Muslim jurists in the 8th century. Those jurists regarded all foreign lands as enemy territories, because they could not expect tolerance and safety for Islam there. Today we live in much different world, in which religious freedom is widely established, especially in liberal democracies. Thus there is no justification to see those democracies as "House of War." That very definition is simply outdated; along with many other concepts in the Islamic tradition.
I agree, then, with McCarthy that Muslims need to have reformation to reread the Koran in today's terms, question all post-Koranic traditions, and create a new canon that will include, among other things, a doctrine of just war that leaves no excuse for terrorism and other aggressive actions. Whether we can accomplish such a reform good for both Muslims and non-Muslims alike will be a crucial question in the years and decades to come.
Mustafa Akyol is a political scientist, columnist, and writer from Turkey. He is also director at the Intercultural Dialogue Platform, based in Istanbul.