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.
Those with whom thou didst make a covenant; then they break their covenant every time, and they do not fear God. (8:57)
So, if thou catchest them in war, then by routing them strike fear in those that are behind them, that they may be admonished. (8:58)
And if thou fearest treachery from a people, throw back to them their covenant with equity. Surely, Allah loves not the treacherous. (8:59)
And let not those who disbelieve think that they have outstripped Us. Surely, they cannot frustrate God’s purpose. (8:60)
And make ready for them whatever you can of armed force and of mounted pickets at the frontier, whereby you may frighten the enemy of Allah and your enemy and others besides them whom you know not, but Allah knows them. And whatever you spend in the way of Allah, it shall be repaid to you in full and you shall not be wronged. (8:61)
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. (8:62)
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; (8:63)
And He has put affection between their hearts. If thou hadst expended all that is in the earth, thou couldst not have put affection between their hearts, but Allah has put affection between them. Surely, He is Mighty, Wise. (8:64)
O Prophet, Allah is sufficient for thee and for those who follow thee of the believers.(8:65)
O Prophet, urge the believers to fight. If there be of you twenty who are steadfast, they shall overcome two hundred; and if there be a hundred of you, they shall overcome a thousand of those who disbelieve, because they are a people who do not understand. (8:66)
Verses 8:58, 8:60 and 8:66 are often brought forth as an allegation that the Holy Quran advocates or promotes violence against disbelievers. These verses are very close to each other and form part of a slightly longer series of verses 8:57-8:66 as given above. As one can easily determine with a basic reading of this series that the engagement being sanctioned in these verses are with those groups who held covenants with the Muslims during wartime and broke these covenants either by way of conspiracy, treason or by openly siding with the enemy. Verse 8:57 clarifies that the engagement in the following verses is with those who broke their covenants. Then verse 8:58 clearly states that the encounter has to be during a wartime conflict.
It is often alleged that verse 8:58 calls on Muslims to strike ‘terror’ or ‘fear’ into the hearts of the non-Muslims and that extremists and terrorists base their ideology and actions on this verse. Firstly, as stated above this series of verses refers to a group who broke its covenant in wartime circumstances, not terrorizing innocent people. The part of verse 8:58 that speaks to striking ‘fear’ into the heart of the enemy is telling Muslims that they will have to fight valiantly in the cause freedom and justice. The Muslims are engaging in war on the justifiable pretext of being pursued by the enemy on the basis of their religion. Therefore they should have the confidence and the valor of someone fighting for the right cause. The Muslims were also outnumbered against their enemies in these battles as given in verse 8:66, thus courage and valor is emphasized. The level of confidence and valor would strike fear in the heart of the enemy which is what any army would aim to achieve.
Verse 8:61 is emphasizing that Muslims should make full preparations and employ all their energy and intelligence on stratagem in order to be able to overcome the larger enemy. Of course, this must happen within the context of a just war, the breaking of a covenant, treason or conspiracy and not naked aggression against infidels.
Verses 8:62 and 8:63, which are part of the same series of verses as 8:58, 8:61 and 8:66, confirm that these verses are not about aggressive violence against non-Muslims or infidels on the basis of religion. 8:62 and 8:63 clearly state that if the enemy desists or inclines towards peace then Muslims must accept such an offering even if they feel that the enemy is being deceptive and offering peace for strategic reasons such as consolidating a weak position. If there is such a situation then the Muslims are asked to put their trust in Allah and work for terms of peace.
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.