Many people are turning away from religion because they perceive that it is to blame for much of the violence in the world. They see that Jews, Muslims and Christians are fighting and killing each other, and think that their religions legitimize that violence. As “World Peace” has become the dream and goal of many thinking individuals, monotheistic religions are seen as part of the problem, while peacemakers like the Dalai Lama are getting all the positive publicity.
While it is true that most wars are started for political reasons, with religion often used by governments to get legitimacy for what they wanted to do anyway, it must also be admitted that Islam is a religion which legitimizes violence in some forms. However, it is my belief that Islam does not have to continue to be associated with violence in the modern world. Islam needs a rethink and an image-change.
For me, “Islam” is what we find in the Qur’an, and its interpretation by the mujtahids of our day, who take into account the circumstances of today, rather than ignoring the fact that the world has changed since its revelation.
Does the Qur’an legitimize certain forms of violence?
The Qur’an, taken literally, legitimizes violent punishments for certain crimes/ wrongdoings, namely:
1. Hand amputation for thieves
2. Whipping for adulterers
3. Capital punishment for murderers
4. Hitting wives who are guilty of lewdness.
The Qur’an also legitimizes fighting in self defence, when people are driven out of their homes by force, and/or overrun by tyrants. The type of fighting referred to is presumably hand to hand combat between males on a battle field away from civilians, not aerial bombardment, nuclear weaponry, hidden explosives, landmines, and guided missiles, which give their victims (who are often civilians) no chance to defend themselves, and are therefore (in my opinion) unacceptable.
As these weapons had not been invented at the time the Qur’an was revealed, it is incorrect to say that Islam legitimizes their use in any circumstances. We now rely upon ijtihad to ascertain whether such weapons can be used by Muslims, in retaliation for the suffering caused by non- Muslims against them. I would hope that Muslim mujtahids are not going to legitimize these cruel weapons in any circumstances.
Does the Sunna legitimize certain forms of violence?
Other violent punishments carried out in the name of Islam, including the stoning of adulterers and capital punishment for apostates, are not backed up by Qur’anic verses, and therefore open to debate. They will not be considered part of “Islam” for the purpose of this article. Even if they were carried out during the Prophet’s lifetime (making them “sunna”), I do not believe that “sunna” equates to “Islam.” I acknowledge that most Zaidis would disagree with me on this point.
I think that, in the past, people of various religious backgrounds thought violence was a legitimate way to sort out problems because their states were carrying out violent acts in the name of justice. As long as people are taught to think that violence is a legitimate way to solve problems, and achieve justice, they will continue to use violence in their personal lives. The non violent solutions need to start at the top and they will filter down. With today’s science and technology, there are ways to punish people that do not incur violence, such as prison terms, fines, removal of privileges, hard labour, re-education and deportation. The need for state imposed violence is no longer there.
Can the Qur’an be interpreted in a non-violent way?
The Qur’an tells us that some verses can be interpreted figuratively and does not specify which ones, thereby giving a green light to liberal interpretations of any verse.
e.g. The verse saying “cut off the hand of the thief” could be interpreted to mean “disable the hand of the thief” (e.g. by imprisonment ), the verse saying “whip the adulterer” could be interpreted to mean “humiliate the adulterer” (e.g. by publicizing his/her wrong-doing and banning him/her from future employment and public posts), and the verse saying “hit” the lewd wife could be interpreted as “make her aware of her unacceptable behaviour”. When the Qur’an says “an eye for an eye” etc, the main point here is, Muslims should not use more violence than what was used against them if they are acting in self defence or punishing a murderer, and the other point here is that violence should not go unpunished. “A life for a life” could therefore be interpreted either as “a life sentence for a life” or “non- violent capital punishment for a murderer” (e.g. lethal injection).
Instead of re-interpreting the texts and coming up with a version of “Islamic Law” that is appropriate in this century, some Muslim leaders have adopted Western legal systems, leaving the old “Sharia” untouched. It sits there, looking relatively inhumane, frightening off potential converts and alienating most of the Muslim youth.
These issues were recently discussed at a conference in the UK entitled “Legitimate and Illegitimate Violence in Islamic Thought”, organized by non- Muslim academics, and attended by one of our contributors. It is a topic that inspired a lot of academic discussion, so I thought I’d raise it here and see what sort of response it gets among our readers. Can mu’tazilism re-emerge and reshape Islam? Can Zaidi mujtahids play a part in making Islam more acceptable to non Muslims and Muslim youth? Can Muslims lead the way to a more peaceful world?