Islam and Protecting the Innocent

Islam and Protecting the Innocent

Why have the recent atrocities committed in the name of Islam perpetrated in the UK, France and other countries around the world taken place? Although virtually all Muslim scholars and indeed the vast majority of law-abiding Muslims the world over unreservedly and wholeheartedly condemn such outrages, this question must still also be clearly addressed. If Islam does not allow these criminal and barbaric acts – which by the consensus of the Muslims it does not - then why is it that a tiny minority of Muslims are still nonetheless implicated in them?

This question can be looked at from different perspectives. Some have argued that this is Islam or what Islam has now become; the new norm. The opinions regarding the answer to the question of ‘why?’ are many. It is a human response to try and understand that which on the face of it, is beyond comprehension. Some have sought to lay the blame squarely on Islam as the root cause of extremism.

However, as this article will seek to explain, the latter view is in reality the diametric opposite of what the faith itself teaches. Yet the counter narrative to extremism is perhaps not often or well-articulated by the majority of peaceful Muslims and when it is, it is often sidelined by more ‘newsworthy’ items.

It is argued here that if one examines the teachings of Islam beyond the twenty four hour news media coverage, one can find that there is a deeper understanding of Islam, which for some has been drowned out. The basic reality which is missed all too often and one which in the current times must seem to some to be a paradox, is that Islam is the means for ending such extremism. Islam by its true nature militates against extremism. It is at root, the solution and not the problem. In short, the faith’s law, practice, its legions of Muslim scholars, a fourteen-centuries-old classical mainstream tradition and especially its Islamic scriptures, speak in one voice and condemn such acts of barbarism masquerading as authentic Islam.

Thus, we find that despite the climate of war in the Muslim world right through the latter half of the last century, including the Arab-Israeli conflict, Afghan war, Iran-Iraq war, the Gulf wars and the current decade plus ‘War on Terror’, Muslims on the whole have not lost their moral compass, and the vast majority of them still, oppose violence against civilians, and do so in absolute terms.

In the 2013 world wide Pew survey covering 39 countries, the question of whether attacks, such as suicide bombings, on civilians are ever justified in defense of Islam, the results showed that for example in America, at a figure of 81 percent of Muslims, say such violence is never justified, a slightly higher share than the survey’s global median of 72 percent. Many of the Muslim countries surveyed were above the 72% value with clear majorities of Muslims categorically opposed to such violence in the name of Islam with about three-quarters or more in Pakistan (80%), Indonesia (92%), Turkey (78%) and Tunisia (84%), saying suicide bombings or other acts of violence that target civilians are never justified, .

It can safely be concluded, that clearly, the overwhelming majority of Muslims not only reject with conviction the narrative of extremist groups such as ISIS, Al-Qaidah etc. in targeting civilians, in fact they do so in unqualified terms. This, no ifs or buts approach, thus even rules out the possibility of  targeting civilians during a war, such as the bombing of Dresden[1], Hiroshimi and Nagasaki by the Allies in World War II.

What makes these figures all the more noteworthy and perhaps surprising to many, is that war begets war, violence begets violence and war forces people to extremes by its very brutal and brutalising nature.

Extremism induced by war, was notably analysed by the renowned war historian Clausewitz in his famous reference work 'On War', which has been described by some, as the most significant attempt in Western history to understand war:

War is an act of force, and there is no logical limit to the application of that force. Each side, therefore, compels its opponent to follow suit; a reciprocal action is started which must lead, in theory, to extremes".[2]

However, in spite of all the drivers to such extremism existing, a lurch towards extremism has been resolutely resisted by virtually all Muslims, and it has not been by accident. Rather, the very teachings of the faith, demonstrably protect civilian life, without compromise. Moreover, the sources of the faith are so clear-cut and uncompromising in their rejection of such violence, that they lay bare the extremism for what it is- an unmitigated perversion and deep distortion of the faith.

The importance of scripture matters, not least because hardly any public pronouncement is made by an extremist group without being accompanied by some token quote from the Holy texts to justify their claims. Holy texts are exploited to provide a level of succour for palpably insane actions, even if the particular text is being grossly misapplied. Thus, it is an elementary conclusion that if unscrupulous individuals for political ends are able to take advantage of the vulnerable, through the misuse of scripture, then surely in their proper light, these same Holy texts may prove to be an effective antidote as any.

The reason why this should be the case, is that it gets to the heart of the problem. All Muslims in general regard the Prophetic sayings and the Holy Qur’an as binding and the quintessence of the Islamic faith. Accordingly, we find the verse exhorting Muslims to abide by the Qur'anic injunction to protect innocent life: “…whoever kills an innocent person it is as if he has killed the whole of mankind, and whoever saves the life of a person it is as if he has saved the life of the whole of mankind (The Holy Qur’an Chapter 5 Verse 32).

This is a key example and proof text for establishing the universal sanctity of innocent life taught by Islam. Similarly, there are other texts giving the same message, as understood by the majority of Muslims, prescribing limits in a legitimate battle.

In a famous incident recorded by Muslim Ibn Hajjaj and similarly al-Bukhari, the Prophet (peace be upon him) once walked through a battlefield at the end of battle. As he walked, the Prophet saw the body of a woman lying lifeless among the dead. He became visibly perturbed. He did not let this enormity pass by as "collateral damage", part of the unpleasant realities of the battlefield. On the contrary, he condemned it outright, no ifs no buts, there and then by stating: “She was not to be killed”.[3] Imam al-Nawawi, an undisputed authority in Islamic law and one of the greatest jurists in the history of Islam, whilst commentating on this narration of Sahih Muslim states, that it is the consensus of the Islamic scholars that it is Haram (prohibited) to kill women and children in war.[4]

It is clear, that if in the frenzy of a battlefield, killing a non-combatant was unacceptable how then could anyone imagine targeting civilians, totally unconnected to war and still regard this as acceptable? Why not act on this narration, rather than deliberately target in cold blood, civilians not connected to the battlefield by any stretch of a sane imagination?

Thus it follows that Islam has imposed clear limits and boundaries for military action and vouched safe the lives of civilians. In short, Islam has sought to protect non-combatants well over a Millennium before the UN declarations of human rights and Geneva conventions on war etc. were thought worthy of being laid down as international laws and norms to protect the rights of civilians.

It is not a coincidence or a quirk of fate, that the vast majority of Muslims do not accept the targeting of civilians, ever. It is their understanding of the texts mentioned above and others which forms the bedrock of their understanding. This should not in any way be surprising, as the legal tradition of Islam, not only today, but throughout its history, has unequivocally sought to protect civilians.[5]

The cumulative effect and lessons to be heeded from these express texts, taken in their full context, is that once religious fervour is blinded by ignorance, willful or otherwise, any act, however preposterous, may be perceived as being justified in the name of Islam. Whilst in reality, Islam is free from such an association and indeed outright condemns such acts of extremism, in the most emphatic terms.

It is this battle of interpretations which is being played out today in the hearts and minds of Muslims. It is the consensus based textual understanding from the very first generations of Muslims until today, that is now required to be promoted once again to protect the innocent.

Fiqh Council Birmingham Resource Library Articles © 2018

[1] “Allied bombing of Dresden on Feb. 13-14 1945…The two-day incediary raid by almost 2,400 bombers created a fire storm, however, that consumed the medieval city and killed perhaps 135,000 civilians, to virtually no military purpose”. Source: Encyclopedia Britannica 2010, volume 21 page 852-853.

[2] Carl Von Clausewitz ON WAR, Edited and Translated by Michael Howard and Peter Paret, page 77, Princeton University Press, Princeton, New Jersey, 1989

[3] Sahih al-Bukhari Hadith 3014 and 3015, see also Sahih Muslim Hadith 1744 and 1755.

[4] Imam Nawawi, Sharh Sahih Muslim volume 12, page 43, Darul Kutub al-Ilmiyah, Beirut, 2000.

[5] “To put it plainly, there is no legal precedent in the history of Sunni Islam for the tactic of attacking civilians and overtly non-military targets.” Source: ‘Defending the Transgressed by Censuring the Reckless against the Killing of Civilians’, Fatwa issued by Dr Muhammad Afifi al-Akiti and published in ‘The State We Are In’ edited by Aftab Ahmad Malik, page 129, Amal Press, 2006.