It is alleged that several verses of the Holy Quran incite believers to commit violence against non-Muslims by way of aggression. Such verses are misused by extremists to commit acts of violence against non-Muslims. However, a holistic and consolidated study of the verses, the teachings of the Holy Quran and the historical narratives of the aggression of the opponents of Islam, as well as the broader context of the Roman-Persian wars clearly demonstrates that these wartime injunctions were defensive in nature. The conflicts occurred due to oppression of fundamental freedoms including the freedom of conscience and practicing one’s religion of choice. Islamic teachings permits military engagement as a defense and protection of fundamental human freedoms.
And fight them until there is no persecution and religion is wholly for Allah. But if they desist then surely Allah is watchful of what they do. (8:40)
The allegation against 8:40 is that it speaks to fight to end persecution but only for the purpose of imposing or enforcing Islam on others as stated in ‘religion is wholly for Allah’.
In fact, this verse is declaring that fighting is only permissible to end persecution and establish freedom of conscience. The text of the verse states that ‘religion’ is wholly for Allah (which means God) and thus would encompass all religions. Alleging that this has to mean Islam only is merely subjective implication. In fact, the religion of Islam itself declares universal freedom of religion as a core tenant of faith as is established from several other verses of the Quran given below in the section ‘Fundamental Teachings of Islam’.
The first caliph of The Ahmadiyya Muslim Community, Hakim Nooruddin (ra), has pointed out in his commentary of the Quran that the words “religion is wholly for Allah” means to be able to express the beliefs of your heart openly and that believers should not have any fear in terms of practicing their faith. Because the injunction is to Muslims, who at this very instance, were being denied their fundamental rights to freedom of religion, therefore this phrase was a direct message to them that they should fight them until they can openly express their beliefs without fear. The words “no persecution” paint a clear picture that other religions have a right to exist and propagate; no religion has the right to infringe on the freedom of other religions. If the purpose was to eliminate all other religions, this phrase would not have existed instead something along the lines of “fight until there is no other religion” would have been mentioned.
This practice of the early Muslims is attested to by historians. Peter Frankopan, Director of Byzantine studies at Oxford states: although the material for the early Islamic history is complicated, an unmistakable and striking theme can be consistently teased from the literature of this period. The Holy Prophet Muhammad (on whom be peace) and his followers went to great lengths to assuage the fears of Jews and Christians.
This can be easily established by surviving documents known as Covenants with the Christians, assuring the right to practice religion freely. The Muslims were keen to overturn the religious tyranny and oppression produced by the Roman-Persian wars and assure their new citizenry that victory by Muslims was not viewed as a matter of religious supremacy, but to battle oppression and intolerance.
Jonathan Conant’s historical review— Staying Roman: Conquest and Identity in Africa and Mediterranean— outlines the fact that new churches were built in North Africa, Egypt and Palestine during this period suggesting the new rulers saw religious pluralism as the norm. Nile Green, in his book The Survival of Zoroastrianism in Yazd (Iran), echoes a similar social theme in the conquest of Persia. When the Caliph Omar (ra) conquered Jerusalem, Roman Emperor Heraclius’s restrictions on Jews and Eastern Christians were abolished. The Caliph famously refused to pray at a Church in Jerusalem for fear that later Muslims might annex it unjustly.
Relevance to Modern Times
There are several examples in modern history where war has been undertaken to protect fundamental human rights including freedom of conscience and religion. For example, in 1992, NATO intervened in Bosnia-Herzegovina due to human rights abuses as Muslims were being targeted and killed as part of a genocide by the Serbian militia on the basis of their religion and ethnicity.
Another profound example from the modern era is America’s eventual involvement in the Second World War against the fascist forces of Nazi Germany even though Germany never directly attacked the United States. Nazi Germany was known to be aggressive and oppressed the religious freedom of Jews.
The following verses of the Holy Quran clearly state that fighting is only permitted as a defensive recourse against oppression and that fundamental freedom of religion and conscience must be maintained at all times.
1) Conditions on permission to fight– must be defensive and to protect universal freedom of conscience
Permission to fight is given to those against whom war is made, because they have been wronged — and Allah indeed has power to help them. Those who have been driven out from their homes unjustly only because they said, ‘Our Lord is Allah’. And if Allah did not repel some men by means of others, there would surely have been pulled down cloisters and churches and synagogues and mosques, wherein the name of Allah is oft commemorated. And Allah will surely help one who helps Him. Allah is indeed Powerful, Mighty. (22:40-41)
The fundamental verses of the Quran (22:40-41) that permit Muslims to undertake military engagement clearly outline conditions which are defensive and where Muslims were being attacked and persecuted on the basis of their beliefs. Further, the verses clearly state that such undertaking must extend to a universal freedom of conscience where churches, cloisters and synagogues must be protected. This is also further validated by Holy Prophet Muhammad’s (on whom be peace) covenants with the Christians instructing Muslims to never attack Christians on the basis of religion and beliefs.
And fight them until there is no persecution and religion is wholly for Allah. But if they desist, then surely Allah is Watchful of what they do. (8:40)
Verse 8:40 above further endorses the principle that taking up an armed conflict must only be in context of protecting freedom of religion, and if the enemy desists then one should cease hostilities.
Some allegation narratives consider that ‘religion being wholly for Allah’ in this verse means that only Islam is to be enforced as a religion. However this allegation is negated by 22:40-41 above which clarifies that the principle of the Quran is freedom of religion and fighting is not permitted to enforce any one religion.
2) Peace and reconciliation with the enemy must be sought at all times
The Quran states that during wartime, seeking peace and reconciliation is a duty. This is emphasized to such a great degree that even if one fears that the enemy is seeking peace out of deception (as a strategy of war) one should still incline to it and put their trust in Allah (see 8:62-63 below).
And if they incline towards peace, incline thou also towards it, and put thy trust in Allah. Surely, it is He Who is All-Hearing, All-Knowing. And if they intend to deceive thee, then surely Allah is sufficient for thee. He it is Who has strengthened thee with His help and with the believers. (8:62-63)
And if two parties of believers fight against each other, make peace between them; then if after that one of them transgresses against the other, fight the party that transgresses until it returns to the command of Allah. Then if it returns, make peace between them with equity, and act justly. Verily, Allah loves the just. (49:10)
And fight them until there is no persecution, and religion is freely professed for Allah. But if they desist, then remember that no hostility is allowed except against the aggressors. (2:194)
3) Peace as a fundamental desired state of affairs in Quran
The term ‘Islam’ itself is derived from the root ‘Salema’ which means peace. The traditional greeting used by Muslims translated to ‘peace be with you’. Peace is a prominent theme in the Holy Quran and a fundamental desired state of affairs. Following are a few verses from the Holy Quran that illustrate the fundamental value of peace.
Peace on you-- a word of greeting from the Merciful Lord. (36:59)
And make not Allah a target for your oaths that you may thereby abstain from doing good and acting righteously and making peace between men. And Allah is All-Hearing, All-Knowing. (2:225)
Thereby does Allah guide those who seek His pleasure on the paths of peace, and leads them out of every kind of darkness into light by His will, and guides them to the right path. (5:17)
And Allah calls to the abode of peace, and guides whom He pleases to the straight path. (10:26)
And the servants of the Gracious God are those who walk on the earth in a dignified manner, and when the ignorant address them, they say, ‘Peace!’ (25:64)
He is Allah, and there is no God beside Him, the Sovereign, the Holy One, the Source of Peace, the Bestower of Security, the Protector, the Mighty, the Subduer, the Exalted. Holy is Allah far above that which they associate with Him. (59:24)
4) There can be no compulsion in religion
The Holy Quran declares in 2:257 that there can be no compulsion in religion. The meaning of any given verse of the Holy Quran must comply with this rule. Therefore, any given verse of The Holy Quran addressing armed engagement cannot be taken to mean waging war on disbelievers or infidels on account of their beliefs. This negates the assertion that Quran sanctions violence against disbelievers.