This blog, published on the anniversary of their deaths, is in memory of the victims of the Charlie Hebdo massacre. It also coincides with news about a Saudi woman who was allowed to stay in Thailand after she revealed that she was fleeing her own family, who she feared would try to kill her.
One of the most shocking and vulgar elements of Islam that has been made evident in recent years–with ISIS, 9/11, and the many terrorist acts in which Muslims have offered thousands of human sacrifices to Allah–is the very real problem of Islamic violence. While reading the Qur’an, I wanted to see a clearer picture of the earliest examples of this violence, and to see to what extent Muhammad was a warlord–and to what extent he was a just one or a cruel one. Only by understanding the context of the wars, can this be done.
Law of Talion
(The servants of the Merciful are those who …) do not kill the soul which God has made sacred—except in the pursuit of justice… – Qur’an 25:68
Whoever kills a person—unless it is for murder or corruption on earth—it is as if he killed the whole of mankind; and whoever saves it, it is as if he saved the whole of mankind. – Qur’an 5:32
The first instance where killing is just is in the case of retaliation. Verse 17:33 repeats that it is unjust to kill, except for heirs who exert justice by legal means–for instance, if someone kills my father unjustly, as an heir I have a right to his killer’s head. It is not clear to me what “corruption on earth” means in verse 5:32. If it can be construed to mean atheism or freethinking, then this is clearly an abhorrent teaching. Verse 18:80-81 tells an anecdote of a “wise” man of God who killed a Pagan boy “justly” because “his parents were believers, and we feared he would overwhelm them with oppression and disbelief.” This verse could easily be used to justify theocratic oppression, rather than avoid secular oppression. Here, the lack of clarity and specificity is problematic.
But if this is merely the codification of the code of honor that exists in many traditional societies, which gives family members the right to decide the fate of whoever killed one of theirs, then this is fair enough.
If you were to retaliate, retaliate to the same degree as the injury done to you. But if you resort to patience—it is better for the patient. – Qur’an 16:126
Verse 17:31 says “don’t kill your children for fear of poverty“, and 2:178 provides the details for the law of retaliation for murder: a freeman for a freeman, a slave for a slave, a female for a female. It appears that the family members who were wronged decide who dies, rather than have the guilty punished. If this is the case, it is unjust and contradicts the Qur’an elsewhere, where it claims that each person will only carry guilt for his or her own crimes.
Rules of Warfare
Islamic warfare has its origins in the expulsion / exile of Muslims from Mecca in order to avoid problems with the local polytheists. This started a migration to the city of Medina, which then became the first Islamic city. There are Quranic verses where it seems that Muhammad was actively encouraging people to migrate at this time.
But as Islam spread, the hostilities persisted, and it seems that many Muslims had been campaigning for jihad and asking Muhammad for permission to fight in self-defense. Finally, in Qur’an 22:39-40, Muhammad relented and gave permission to fight back in self defense. Apparently some Muslims had been kicked out of their homes because of their faith.
Permission is given to those who are fought against, and God is Able to give them victory. Those who were unjustly evicted from their homes, merely for saying, “Our Lord is God.” Were it not that God repels people by means of others: monasteries, churches, synagogues, and mosques—where the name of God is mentioned much—would have been demolished.
It is here that we can insert the rules for warfare in 2:190-194 that say: “kill them wherever you find them“. This is immediately followed by “expel them from where they had expelled you“, meaning that this was authorized in the context of Muslims regaining lost property after being expelled from their homes. Thus contextualized, let’s read this verse:
And fight in the cause of God those who fight you, but do not commit aggression; God does not love the aggressors. And kill them wherever you overtake them, and expel them from where they had expelled you. Oppression is more serious than murder.
But do not fight them at the Sacred Mosque, unless they fight you there. If they fight you, then kill them. Such is the retribution of the disbelievers. But if they cease, then God is Forgiving and Merciful.
And fight them until there is no oppression, and worship becomes devoted to God alone. But if they cease, then let there be no hostility except against the oppressors.
The sacred month for the sacred month; and sacrilege calls for retaliation. Whoever commits aggression against you, retaliate against him in the same measure as he has committed against you. And be conscious of God, and know that God is with the righteous.
Muhammad even produced verses (4:102-3) concerning prayer duty while at war and armed, so that this idea of pious warfare was entrenched in the Muslim mind from the onset.
I wanted to verify whether it really says “persecution/oppression is worse than killing“–as many English translations say–, because elsewhere (in texts cited by Atheists to demonstrate that Islam is inherently violent), this verse is translated as “non-belief is worse than killing“, which would render this a false and evil teaching.
The word used in the original is fitna, and most Islamic scholars teach that this implies non-belief (which explains the verse “fight until worship … is for God alone“). But the word originally had other meanings, and I wonder if this is a case where a belligerent clergy co-opted an unclear passage (as Christians have so often done) to advance an unwholesome agenda.
And so here we see that warfare is legitimized in the context of retaliation–the same “law of talion” that applies when an individual commits murder or theft, also applies when one community commits mass murder or mass theft of the properties of others. This is fair enough–and Epicurean doctrine is actually in accordance with this: security, including the safety and comfort of a home, is a natural and necessary good. Also, see Principal Doctrine 39. Krishna also recited the Bhagavad Gita (the Hindu Gospel) of the battlefield at Kurukshetra, ordering Arjuna to fight for righteousness.
In fairness, I sought to find context for the war-mongering verses in the Qur’an, and also sought to find verses that lacked context and could be misused. I found that, in 2:216, “fighting is obligatory“, without reference to a particular instance of oppression, and it occurred to me: “even in times of peace?”
But the verse that I found the least contextualized was 9:123, which orders Muslims to fight the disbelievers firmly. I can see how these verses can be used to recruit warriors for unnecessary causes.
O you who have believed, fight those adjacent to you of the disbelievers and let them find in you harshness. And know that Allah is with the righteous.
Within the context of these rules, Muhammad massacred the Jewish tribe of Qurayza for treason. Apparently some tribe members had sided with the Meccans against the Muslims during a battle, and Muhammad gave away the women and children of the tribe as slaves, and had the men decapitated. It would be very difficult today to evaluate the arguments of all the sides of the conflict, and impossible to hear the Qurayza version of these events, so I will refrain from doing so and invite each reader who takes an interest in this to come to his or her own conclusions.
Are Suicide Bombers Good Muslims?
Suicide is forbidden in 4:29. The verse does not provide for exceptions, for instance, if one is involved in warfare or as a war tactic–which would mean that warriors would be required to develop a battle strategy so as to not end up in a suicide mission.
And so it seems that this modern practice of suicide bombers is not supported in the Qur’an, and is the result of manipulative forces that encourage “martyrdom” with doctrinal enticements that I also didn’t find in the Qur’an (like the “72 virgins in heaven”), plus an existential crisis within the souls of terrorists themselves–many of whom I suspect have suicidal tendencies that find an outlet and justification in a certain, unwholesome interpretation of Islam.
Taking Hostages in the Qur’an
When you encounter those who disbelieve, strike at their necks. Then, when you have routed them, bind them firmly. Then, either release them by grace, or by ransom, until war lays down its burdens. Had God willed, He could have defeated them Himself, but He thus tests some of you by means of others. – Qur’an 47:4
On the other hand, the tradition of taking hostages and asking for ransom starts with Muhammad and is legitimized in the Qur’an as a war tactic. No clear context is given, but this raises the problem of war profiteering.
The Spoils of War
Those who lagged behind say when you depart to collect the gains, “Let us follow you.” – Qur’an 48:15
In 59:7-8, we see that Muhammad acted as the distributor of the spoils of war, and that he both profiteered from war, and also used it to brand himself as a Robin Hood who circulated wealth among the poor and the orphans.
Naturally, this invited the greed of many of his followers, who wanted to also enjoy the spoils of war, and attracted insincere fighters to jihad–common thugs pretending to believe in God for the sake of the spoils of war. In verse 4:94, we see the prohibition against fighting others who offer peace, in order to gain spoils–which is an indication that this was happening. Ironically, while preaching against the spread of corruption on the land, Muhammad created huge ideological and societal entanglements by which his religion spread corruption on the land–because there will always be greedy and evil souls who may be willing or unwilling to fight, but eager to profit from their own conflicts and the conflicts of others. By the time he saw this coming, Muhammad was too entangled in his religious-military project.
Another way to benefit from warfare is by enjoying a higher rank: in 4:95, we see that soldiers out-rank inactive believers.
Then there are the unnatural incentives: Muhammad claims that “martyrs are alive” in paradise (2:154); in 48:16 he promises heaven to those who fight and hell to those who don’t; in 4:74-77 he advises giving up this life in war for sake of next life, where there will be “victory”; in 9:63 we see that “whoever opposes God and His Messenger will have the Fire of Hell, abiding in it forever“; and in 3:140-142 and 3:156-157 he justifies jihad for the sake of heaven. And so, while suicide missions are not justified in the Qur’an, the temptation of sacrificing this life for the sake of an afterlife does exist in the Qur’an and, to this day, has produced great amounts of unnecessary waste of earthly life and pleasures.
In chapter 9, we see a message of full rejection of this world for the sake of jihad, with the claim that God will torment you for not fighting, although the verse says God doesn’t actually need you and suffers no harm from your lack of fighting. Imagine the confusion this may create in a sincere Muslim believer who wants to go to heaven, but has no reason to actually engage in a fight happening elsewhere that has nothing to do with him–particularly is he is young, chooses unwholesome association and is under peer-pressure to fight.
O you who believe! What is the matter with you, when it is said to you, “Mobilize in the cause of God,” you cling heavily to the earth? Do you prefer the present life to the Hereafter? The enjoyment of the present life, compared to the Hereafter, is only a little. Unless you mobilize, He will punish you most painfully, and will replace you with another people, and you will not harm Him at all. God has power over all things. – Qur’an 9:38
I also wish to bring attention to the theological inconsistency in this verse: Allah is said to be self-sufficient and it is asserted that he needs no protector, but Muslims are obligated to constantly fight for him and act as bodyguards to Allah? The two claims are mutually contradictory. A self-sufficient immortal being would have no need of armies, as he or she would not experience threats of any kind.
And so we see in these verses that Islam intensified the war of the Abrahamic religions against this life, this world, and the only pleasures that we have certainty of enjoying. We are reminded of the urgency in Nietzsche’s Zarathustra’s words: “I conjure you, my brethren, remain true to the earth, and believe not those who speak unto you of superearthly hopes!“.
Muhammad chose a path that involved both politics and warfare, two of the worst paths a man can choose. The constant back-and-forth hostility between Muhammad and the polytheists (they were not infidels, as they showed fidelity or loyalty to their own Gods) was sometimes overt, and sometimes passive/aggressive, where Muhammad would use “revealed” verses and veiled threats in the Qur’an as ammunition against his enemies. This both created and reflected an environment of deep distrust and constant tension.
Indeed disbelievers are your sworn enemies. – Qur’an 4:101
Enmity and hatred has surfaced between us and you, forever, until you believe in God alone. – Qur’an 60:4
It also created an environment where people followed Muhammad out of fear (as is often the case when there’s societal conflict and peer pressure to fight), and he knew many of his followers were hypocrites (9:101 and :77)–which is only natural when one attains power through methods that induce fear. In chapter 9–which is the main war-mongering chapter in the Qur’an, and is appropriately the only one that does not start with “in the name of God, the Compassionate, the Merciful“–Muhammad complains of hypocrites who won’t wage war for him or give him money. In 4:88-91, we see the same logic applied to “the hypocrites” that we saw applied to non-believers in the rules of warfare passage: seize and kill them wherever you find them, but in self-defense only.
Another thing we learn from these passages is that Muhammad had the mindset of a feudal warlord: he was deeply concerned about the loyalties of those around him, and particularly of his followers–which made him concerned about their beliefs and the sincerity with which they were held. It has always been true that strong-armed dictators amass their power in times of warfare and danger, which provide the opportunity for the acquisition of total control. Muhammad required the allegiance of his followers and their absolute obedience–in fact, there is an event in his biography known as the Pledge Under the Tree where all his followers were required to declare their allegiance to him and vowed to avenge a friend.
This Game-of-Thrones-like conception of feudal allegiance involved, among other things, pressure to engage in war (as we saw in 2:216), and the public execution of war criminals with the intent of making of them an example.
The punishment for those who fight God and His Messenger, and strive to spread corruption on earth, is that they be killed, or crucified, or have their hands and feet cut off on opposite sides, or be banished from the land. – Qur’an 5:33
Some generous and perhaps well-meaning souls have praised Muhammad for being a smart politician, or even the ideal politician. But Muhammad dealt with dissent violently. While in the eyes of someone with a feudal conception of politics he may be praiseworthy based on criteria like ability to amass power, a person versed in modern politics will likely consider him a threat to human rights and to freedom of conscience.
Violence Projected Even Against Heaven
Everyone lives in the universe that they are capable of imagining, and because warfare was part of Muhammad’s psyche and reality, he also projected it against what he imagined as the spiritual dimension. He, for instance, hired and employed sacred terror/awe in the service of earthly warfare. These are the verses that originated the word terrorism:
We will throw terror into the hearts of those who disbelieve. – Qur’an 3:151
And He brought down from their strongholds those of the People of the Book who backed them, and He threw terror into their hearts. Some of them you killed, and others you took captive. – Qur’an 33:26
We begin to see a very ugly distortion of even the angelic hosts, who–far from the rosy, innocent, winged infants of folklore–become agents of torture and violence.
Your Lord inspired the angels: “I am with you, so support those who believe. I will cast terror into the hearts of those who disbelieve. So strike above the necks, and strike off every fingertip of theirs.” – Qur’an 8:12
One other instance that strikes a modern person as extreme, and falls quite far outside the law of talion, is the law that orders that thieves have their hand cut off. This seems out of proportion with the measure of the crime, and no concession seems to be made for thieves who steal out of poverty and hunger.
To someone living in modern secular societies, there seem to be many more pragmatic and intelligent ways of dealing with theft than this–job creation, job training, and finally incarceration–rather than the cruelty of this law, particularly when perpetrated against someone young and inexperienced who may, if given the chance, have a bright future. Here is one case where the punitive nature of Islam gets in the way of pragmatic solutions to real-world problems.
As for the thief, whether male or female, cut their hands as a penalty for what they have reaped—a deterrent from God. – Qur’an 5:38
I will let each reader come to his or her own conclusions about Muhammad’s character and sense of justice, but must add one final note here on secondary sources, and on why I stick to the Qur’an: the hadiths (traditions of the prophet) are sometimes much more gruesome than the Qur’an on the matter of violence and, at times, rather petty and ludicrous. These traditions were collected over centuries after the events unfolded–which is why the Qur’an-only movement and many others question their validity–, during a time when Islam was expanding and the politics of expansion called for the justification of increased ruthlessness and hatred for non-believers. That many of these hadith still enjoy canonical status is a testament to the character of later Muslims, not necessary against Muhammad himself, except in the cases where–knowing that he enjoyed the unconditional obedience of his followers–he could have spoken more clearly against the excesses of those among his flock that thrived in conflict.
From Raif Badawi’s Blog, concerning September 11