Violence within Islam

An Unresolved Dilemma

Although in recent years radical Muslim preachers have increasingly been recruiting young Muslims for armed combat, till now no discourse has evolved within Islamic communities or amongst scholars surrounding the theological background to violence. By Mona Naggar

photo: AP
Verses from the Koran are being invoked in connection with today's conflicts, and to legitimize violence, and yet a theological debate on this issue is still pending, writes Mona Naggar

​​According to the classification made by the eighth century Islamic lawyer and theologian Abu Hanifa, a state such as Egypt in the 1970s would constitute an enemy land. According to Hanifa, the country would fall into the category of "Dar al-Harb" (land of war), its leaders would be seen as having abandoned Islam. In his fight against the Anwar Sadat regime, the leading light of the Egyptian Jihad group, Abdalsalam Faraj, drew heavily on Abu Hanifa's arguments in his pamphlet Al-Farida al-Ghaiba (The Neglected Duty).

According to Faraj, every Muslim man and woman was duty bound to join the fight to restore Islamic order and the law of God. The reason given was that Egypt was governed by atheistic laws and Muslims could not live there safely; the neighbouring country was a land of infidels. He drew on other Islamic scholars from the middle ages, above all Ibn Taimiyya, who lived in the thirteenth century, at the time of the Mongol Empire.

Ibn Taimiyya had already inspired the radical Wahabis, a fundamental reform movement from the eighteenth century and the official religious doctrine of Saudi Arabia, and Faraj shared many of their radical ideas.

Theological arguments in a murder trial

In the 1970s Al-Farida al-Ghaiba provided a theological justification to the radical Islamic faction aj-Jihad for the armed struggle against the Egyptian regime. In October 1981 the Egyptian president Anwar as-Sadat fell victim of an attack by the Jihad group. In court his attackers used arguments from al-Farida al-Ghaiba in their defence. They believed that the crime was in accordance with the Islamic law of Jihad.

The Mufti of Egypt at the time disagreed with the young radicals, also producing as justification classical Islamic arguments, according to which the Egyptian rulers certainly didn't count as renegades. The Mufti was able to fall back on a consensus of Sunni scholarship going back centuries.

The models of argumentation have remained unchanged to this day. Verses from the Koran (9:5, 9:29 or 9:111), the life of the prophet Muhammed, its written records and the classic Jihad literature, have all been invoked in connection with today's conflicts, and to legitimize violence.

Koranic knowledge required even of secularists

Yusuf al-Qaradawi (photo: AP)
Supported by Koran verses and by events from early Islamic history, Yusuf al-Qaradawi calls for Jihad in Palestine and in Iraq

​​The Tunisian historian Muhammed at-Talbi says that all past factions, the streams of ink and blood flowing from their pens and swords, and all modern factions, be they Wahhabi, Salafi, radical Islamists, non-radical Islamists, reformers and even secular groups, must inevitably fall back on varying readings of the Koran and the Sunnah (the sayings and model actions of the Prophet Mohammed).

This even applies to the influential preacher Yussuf al-Qaradawi, who spreads his message via the satellite station al-Jazeera and on various websites. Supported by Koran verses and by events from early Islamic history, he calls for Jihad in Palestine and in Iraq and explains the situations in which Muslims may begin a war. He is amazingly tolerant of militant factions not afraid to kill innocent people:

"Most of them have good intentions and are honest, they have just lost their way." There is no word about the influence of the Wahhabi form of Islam from Saudi Arabia, which gives central place to the practice of "Takfir" (declaring others to be non-believers), and which enjoys popularity among thousands of young Muslims worldwide.

Critical, historical analysis of holy texts

Over the last ten years countless Arab countries have been the stage for armed confrontations between state power and radical Islamic factions, who mostly come off worse. On a national level this has led to tentative attempts by certain groups to examine their use of violence critically, for instance by parts of the Gamaa al-Islamiyya in Egypt, or the Muslim Brotherhood in Syria.

Nasr Hamid Abu Zayd at a Deutsche Welle conference in Bonn, Germany (photo: Ikhlas Abbis)
Nasr Hamid Abu Zayd developed a "Koranic hermeneutics". As a consequence, he was declared a heretic, divorced from his wife and forced out of his homeland, Egypt

​​At the end of the 1990s a paper from the Syrian Brotherhood circulated addressing the failed attempt to topple the Assad regime using armed violence. In the paper the idea of a pacifist Jihad was introduced, perhaps more appropriate to the Syrian situation than the sabre-rattling verses from the Koran.

In the Muslim public sphere there has been no noticeable discussion amongst opinion formers and influential scholars which might see a problem in the Islamic justification of violence, despite almost daily attacks on mostly Muslim civilians. The western policy towards the Islamic world is invoked as the principle explanation.

For Egyptian theologian Nasr Hamid Abu Zaid, persecuted for his research into the Koran, both the religious and the political messages the terrorists send out should be taken seriously. An analysis of the religious cloaking of violence cannot ignore the critical and historical analysis of the holy texts.

Mona Naggar

© 2007

Translated from the German by Steph Morris

Nasr Hamid Abu Zaid
The Power of Dialogue
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