Holy war - Religion and Violence

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Is Religion a cause of intolerance and violence? Can there be a holy war? When, if ever, is violence justified?

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18 January 2007




Professor Keith Ward



In this series of lectures I am looking at some of the main problems that arise in considering the relation of religion and morality in the modern world. The moral dilemmas that exist in the modern world are unprecedented in their complexity and diversity. It may seem that the ancient religious traditions of our world are unprepared to face these problems, and to some it even seems that religion stands in the way of finding an acceptable solution to such problems.

Religious traditions, however, are themselves complex and diverse, and they can offer moral resources that may be surprisingly relevant to the modern age. So I want to look at both the problems raised for some by religious traditions and at the insights that religions may bring to some of the moral issues of our day. In this way it is possible that we may achieve a new understanding both of religion and of morality, and of their very varied forms of relationship.

In the first lecture I introduced the topic of religion and morality in a general way, and spoke of the new light that evolutionary biology can throw upon the origins of religious and moral belief. Some evolutionary biologists have suggested that both moral and religious beliefs are founded on illusion, and I showed that there is little reason to accept such a negative judgment. There are, however, good reasons for thinking that both altruism and belief in a transcendent personal reality evolved naturally in human beings. I suggested that the sense of an objectively existing reality in which supreme values are realised - the sense of God - provides a strong motivation and support for altruistic moral commitment. Such a sense, especially strong in the saints and sages of religion, is the experiential basis for belief in God. Where it exists or is given credence, it provides morality with strong rational support, rooting morality in an objective and goal-oriented reality.  Morality, however, is needed to monitor and interpret religious experience so that religious belief is truly conducive to ultimate human flourishing.

That is my general position. But I need to examine some specific pressing moral issues to see how this might work out in detail. In this lecture I will address the topic of religion and violence. Some writers - for example, Richard Dawkins in his book ‘The God Delusion’ - have recently argued that religion is the major cause of violence and war in the world. This is a view which it is impossible to justify if one looks at human history. Our history is a tragic story of violence and warfare, and religious issues have quite often been involved in wars. But by far the vast majority of wars have been fought over non-religious issues of territory, ethnic hatred, or in the pursuit of power. The first half of the twentieth century was probably the most violent period in the history of the world. More people were killed in the first and second World Wars than in the whole of the rest of human history. But those wars were not religious. The majority of conflicts that disfigure the world today are not religious. They are conflicts rooted in differences of language, culture and race. It would be surprising if religion alone escaped this violence, since religion is often associated with a particular culture or ethnic group. But the facts do not support the view that religion is the major cause of warfare.

Nevertheless, critics of religion can point out that there have been religious wars and persecutions, and that in the modern world there are groups who perpetrate violence in the name of religion. The best known are groups like Al Qaida, groups which claim that true Islam - that is, of course, their own version of Islam - is committed to war against all unbelievers. Such a war is a ‘Holy War’, and its followers call it a ‘Jihad’. However much most Muslims protest that Islam is a religion of peace, their voices are drowned out by Islamic Jihadists who call on Muslims to kill unbelievers, innocent and guilty alike. Here, at least, are people whose religion promotes intolerance and violence.

What are we to make of that? How are we to explain it? Does it provide ammunition for those who say that religion is a cause of violence? Can there ever be a ‘holy war’, a war carried out in the name of God? Can the threat of violence be eliminated from religion?


The idea of ‘jihad’ is central to the Qur’an, which is believed by Muslims to be the actal words of God given to Mohammed in a uniquely authoritative form of revelation - tanzil. In reflecting upon the Qur'anic doctrine of jihad, it is important to realise that it is positively misleading to quote texts out of context. We need to try to discern remarks about the legitimate use of violence in the context of the wider and more basic message of justice, mercy, charity and brotherhood that is the main thrust of the Qur'an.
The word Jihad means 'striving', and refers to striving in the way of God. This is not essentially connected with the use of force at all. But there is no doubt that Islam has a doctrine of the legitimate use of force. I will try to say what that is, and to show that it is in fact part of the function of religion to help to lay down the limits of a legitimate use of force. My argument will be that the Qur’anic doctrine is very similar to the Christian doctrine of the 'just war'. Though the doctrine can be misused, it is basically concerned with the question of when the use of force is justified or required, and it places firm limits on the justifiable use of force. In the violent times in which the Prophet's mission originated, it is not surprising that the idea of jihad - 'striving in the way of God' - is important, and involves the idea of military conflict.

The Qur'an repeatedly calls followers to be ready for battle ('those who believe fight in the cause of God' - 4, 76), assures them that death in battle is a form of martyrdom ('If you are slain or die in the way of God, forgiveness and mercy from God are far better' - 3, 157), and berates those who hold back, seeking excuses not to fight ('Those who strive and fight hath He distinguished above those who sit (at home)' - 4, 95).  There is thus a militaristic strand in the Qur'an, and it was this strand that united the Arab tribes and led them on a campaign of conquest that was remarkably successful, extending the faith of Islam in an amazingly short time throughout the whole of the Southern and Eastern Mediterranean.

Because this success involved war with the Byzantine and Persian Empires, it has led some people to think that Islam is inherently a militaristic power, believing itself to have divine authority to subdue the world to the one true religion, by force if necessary.

There are Muslims who believe this. Sayyid Qutb, in his influential book, 'Milestones on the Road', holds that only the Law of God, based on the Qur'an, is valid, and that Islam has a mission to establish that law, by force if necessary, throughout the whole world. This includes overthrowing all nominally Muslim governments, if they do not impose Sharia on their people, in the form in which it is found on a rather literal reading of the Qur'an and the Sunnah (the example of the Prophet).

The belief that Islam is the final true religion that supersedes all others, that God wills it to be for all people, and that the use of force is justified in the cause of God, may be thought to provide a justification for such beliefs. This is, however, decisively not the belief of mainstream or traditional Muslims, who would regard it as an over-simple and indeed perverse view of Qur'anic teaching. I agree with that judgment.

But before Qutb's view is condemned outright by non-Muslims, it should be remembered that Empires like that of Alexander, Rome, Persia and Britain, were established largely by force and without any thought of establishing a divinely ordained society of justice and compassion. So it is certainly not true that Islamic imperialism is uniquely threatening to other societies. It may even plausibly be said that some subject peoples welcomed the Islamic conquests, as freeing them from greater oppression by some other imperial power. To bring justice and peace to the nations is a lofty calling, to free people from oppression is commendable, and to overthrow harsh and cruel rulers is a good cause. So jihad, even in its most militarstic forms, could be seen as a fight against tyranny and oppression, a fight indeed in the cause of God, to establish a moral, just and compassionate order and a universal brotherhood on earth.

Together with the vast majority of Muslims, I do not accept that jihad in fact recommends a positive use of force to establish one specific and rather debatable view of justice throughout the world. I am simply pointing out that at least it does not, even in Qutb's versions, express imperialistic expansion for the sake of it, or for the sake of exercising power for its own sake. It does aim at justice and freedom for the oppressed. There is a moral motivation present - though that motivation is corrupted by missing the more important Qur'anic teaching of compassion, tolerance and benevolence. It is corrupted by failing fully to see that jihad is primarily a spiritual principle, even when it has implications for the use of force. For Muslims, there are always important spiritual principles underlying the specific admonitions of the Qur'an. But those principles need to be drawn out by a process of reflection, discussion, and reference to past precedents, in the light of many other relevant texts from the Qur'an, and of the very different conditions under which Muslims in different societies live. In this way a scholarly consensus is sought, but it is generally recognised that a number of variant schools of Islamic jurisprudence can co-exist.

It is not difficult to interpret jihad spiritually. Since it means 'striving', it need not refer to war - though it undoubtedly does in many Qur'anic verses. It can refer to spiritual striving to serve God in the way of justice and compassion - after all, Allah is repeatedly said to be just, merciful and forgiving, and it is repeatedly said to be better to forgive than to exact the permitted penalty.

One verse expresses such a thought particularly well - 'Those who believe and suffer exile and strive with might and main in God's cause, with their goods and their persons, have the highest rank in the sight of God' (9, 20). To strive with one's possessions and by using one's gifts in the cause of God, even in conditions of exile or oppression, in the cause of justice, truth, kindness and benevolence, is jihad in the fullest spiritual sense.  This sense of jihad is an internal striving, exerting oneself to further the purposes of God.

But there is a second sense of jihad. We can also strive with others to be more just and merciful, more devoted to the love of God, more given to prayer and gratitude to the creator of all things. 'To each is a goal to which God turns him. Then strive together (as in a race) towards all that is good' (2, 148). Often the Qur'an sees different religions as opportunities for this sort of striving rather than for armed conflict. 'If God had so willed, he would have made you a single people...therefore strive in all virtues' (5, 51). In a mysterious way, God does not will that all should agree in religion, and differences in faith can be opportunities for 'striving in virtue', for seeking to excel in justice and mercy. This sense of jihad, too, does not involve the thought of violent conflict.

There is, however, a third sense of jihad, for which it may involve the use of legitimate force. But it is not the case that Islam has a mission to exterminate other religions. The Qur'an clearly states, 'Let there be no compulsion in religion' (2, 256). True belief cannot be compelled. Attacks by force on Islamic faith should be resisted by force ('If any do help and defend themselves after a wrong (done) to them, against such there is no cause for blame' (42, 41). Even so, the chapter immediately continues, 'but if any show patience and forgive, that would truly be an exercise of courageous will' (42, 43).

The traditional doctrine of war in Islam is that believers have a right to defend themselves against attack. The basic rule is the law of retaliation - 'Recompense for an injury is an injury equal' (42, 40). And again the qualifying clause follows at once - 'But if a person forgives and makes reconciliation, his reward is due from God'. These verses refer primarily to personal injuries, but can be reasonably extended to cover relations between states. There are limits on the conduct of war, that must not be transgressed - 'Fight in the cause of God those who fight you, but do not transgress limits' (2, 190). And there is a place for forgiveness and reconciliation.  Nevertheless, once a war of defence has begun, Muslims should commit themselves unreservedly to it.

'Fight then on until there is no more tumult or oppression, and there prevail justice and faith in God' (2, 193). 'Seize them and slay them wherever you find them, and take no friends or helpers from their ranks' (4, 88). These two texts have been used by critics of Islam to show that Muslims believe in total war against unbelievers. But such phrases must not be taken out of context. Each verse is immediately followed by an important qualification. After the first, comes the sentence, 'But if they cease let there be no hostility except to those who practice oppression'. And after the second, 'if they withdraw from you but fight you not and (instead) send you (guarantees of) peace, then God  hath opened no way for you (to war against them)'.  It seems clear that the Qur'an does not license wars of conquest in general, and that the moral limits on warfare are very much the same as those that developed in Christianity in the Middle Ages.

In the thirteenth century, Thomas Aquinas  held that a justified war must be declared by a sovereign, must have a just cause (either self-defence or defence of the weak and oppressed), and must have a realistic prospect of success. In the sixteenth century de Vitoria added that war must be waged by proper means, and must be discriminate (not directly killing the innocent) and proportionate (using minimal force to achieve a good end). War is justified in self-defence, but the virtues of compassion and reconciliation should never be forgotten. Attempts should be made to discriminate between active combatants and innocent bystanders, the use of force should be the minimum necessary, and must bring about more good than harm - and there must be a reasonable hope of victory. The jurists of Islam agree almost completely with these principles, and so military jihad and the Catholic 'just war' tradition are almost identical. It follows that there is no reason to see Islam as more violent or militaristic than the main Christian tradition.       

HARD VERSES IN QURAN. Yet it is undeniable that modern Islam has a particular problem with violence. There are groups advocating indiscriminate slaughter just for the sake of creating terror, which give themselves names like 'Islamic Jihad'.  This is a major problem for Islam, and it does stand in need of some explanation.

In beginning to address the issue it is important to recognise that the origins of Christianity and Islam are quite different. Christianity began as a small Jewish movement devoted to non-violence, in a province of the Roman Empire. It was only when it became the official religion of that Empire, in 395 CE, that the religion had to consider questions of war and the use of force. Islam began as a reform movement in Arabia, and from the first it sought to unite the Arabic tribes in a socio-political union, in face of violent opposition. Muhammad was a social and military leader, and so rules for warfare are integral parts of the Muslim Scripture in a way that is not true of the New Testament.
It is very important to know the context in which these rules were first promulgated, and it is unfortunately easy for those who pay little attention to the juridical history of Islam, or who ignore the original contexts of specific Qur'anic revelations, to provide deviant interpretations.

The best known cases are from chapter 9 of the Qur'an, where you can find the texts, 'Fight and slay the pagans wherever you find them' (9, 5) and 'Fight those who believe not in God nor the Last Day, nor hold that forbidden which has been forbidden by God and his apostle, nor acknowledge the religion of truth (even if they are) of the People of the Book, until they pay the Jizya [the tax on non-Muslims in Muslim states] with willing submission, and feel themselves subdued' (9, 29). Taken out of context, these passages could license war on all polytheists or non-theists, and the imposition of Muslim law on all non-Muslims. Sayidd Qutb does interpret them in that way. But  chapter 9 deals with the question of what is to be done when an enemy with whom a treaty has been made breaks faith and is guilty of treachery. The general teaching of the chapter is that there should first be a breathing space of 4 months to allow for repentance and reconciliation. After that, the first quotation enjoins war - but the fuller text prohibits war agains pagans with whom a treaty remains in force (9, 4), and it continues, 'If they repent and establish regular prayers and practise regular charity, then open the way for them'. There is no license for war against those who co-exist in peace with Muslim states. 

The second quote also applies only to people who have 'violated their oaths, plotted to expel the Apostle, and were aggressors by being the first (to assault) you' (9, 13). Most traditional commentators note that the religious tax on non-Muslims is a nominal one, signifying that non-Muslims are content to live in a Muslim state in peace. So the call to fight in the cause of God is a call to fight only against those who are actively hostile to Islam. 

The general teaching of the Qur'an is that if people are not convinced by the superiority of Islam, then the issue must be left to God, not decided by force of arms. Indeed, to impose Islam by force might be seen as self-defeating, since true Islam is submission of the heart to God, and that cannot be compelled. The traditional Islamic view is therefore that, while forces that make Islamic practice impossible or that are actively hostile to Islam must be opposed - and that is part of jihad - Muslims should live in peace with others who are not hostile.


The history of Islam has seen the faith re-adjusting to very different sets of conditions, and that history underlies the self-understanding of many Muslims in the modern world. The first two phases of Islamic history are of victory and expansion, giving Islam a sense of world-mission and manifest destiny. The religion expanded at an amazing rate in the first few years of its existence, largely through military prowess. In its first stage, Muhammad was opposed by many tribes, and some of chapters of the Qur'an are marked by the command to fight and defeat the enemies of the Prophet, those who wished to exterminate the new faith and restore old tribal traditions. Islam was victorious, and the Arab tribes rejected their polytheistic cults and united around the religion of the Prophet.

In a second stage, which followed very quickly, Arab forces over-ran almost the whole of the Byzantine Empire, eliminating it in the African continent, establishing flourishing cultures in Al Andalus (Spain), Baghdad and the old Persian Empire, and Damascus in the Eastern Mediterranean. It must have seemed as though Islam was destined to spread throughout the world. Western Europe, after the collapse of the Western Roman Empire, was in the Dark Ages, and the Byzantine Empire, seen as corrupt and tyrannical by its subject peoples, who asked the Arab forces for help, was in decay. Turks and Mongols, who had their own programme of imperial expansion, converted to the new faith, and this led to the creation of vast Muslim empires. The world lay at the feet of Islam, or so it seemed. Then the world changed. At first, Islam was helped by the fact that potentially powerful opponents, Byzantium and Persia, were weakened by their own conflicts. The Berbers, Mongols and Turks converted to Islam, and so became allies rather than enemies. But, like all Empires, the Islamic world began to fragment internally. The Islamic empires deprived the Caliph of political power in 945 CE. The three great Muslim empires, the Ottoman, the Persian and the Mughal Empire in India, became involved in religious and political strife, between Shi'a and Sunni Islam and between different imperial contenders for domination.  And from the fourteenth century on, Europe began to emerge as a new vital world civilisation. As vast areas of the world were colonized by European Christian nations, Muslim states began to decline culturally and politically. The growth of modern science and technology in Europe after the seventeenth century led to the European colonisation of the world, and in particular of the Islamic nations. They did not participate in this scientific advance, even though some of them had been at the forefront of early medieval science, when Europe was still in 'the Dark Ages'.

So the third stage of Islamic history was one of decline and defeat, epitomised by the abolition of the Ottoman dynasty and the abolition of the Caliphate in 1924. At the nadir of Muslim political fortunes, however, European colonialism too began to collapse. As Muslim countries freed themselves from colonial control, this left a sense of resentment against the colonial powers that still smoulders. Traditional Muslim rulers are seen by some as the tools of Western imperialism. The creation of the secular state of Israel in 1948 was widely seen by Muslims as a continuation of Western colonisation, and subsequent interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq can easily be interpreted as attacks on the self-determination of Muslim nations.

In such a context, jihad can be and has been reactivated in some quarters as a military defence of Islam, under attack by Western imperialism. But in fact the situation in the modern world is much more complex that such over-simple analyses suggest. Regrettably, the Islamic world is still divided in many way - into Shi'ite and Sunni, into traditionalist, modernising and militant, into broadly secular and conservatively religious, and into various ethnic groups. Where jihad can still be interpreted as a defence of the 'true faith' under attack from 'hypocrites' or 'infidels', where relatively undeveloped countries feel themselves exploited by more dominant economic powers, where national governments are unstable or inefficient or both, and where those governments are felt to be under undue foreign influence, Islam can become a force for violent conflict. This is a special geo-political context, in which centuries of hostility and misunderstanding still have to work themselves out. But the old world of competing empires is in fact already dead, and the global society in which we all now live poses quite a new set of opportunities and also problems. We are living at a time when the sad legacy of past violence is still at work, but when the future is already ushering in quite a new world order.

THE NEW WORLD ORDER. The root religious cause of much violence in parts of the Muslim world - in Islamic Jihad and in Muslim insurgencies in many countries, for instance - is the difficulty some believers have in accepting a pluralistic and humane interpretation of Islam, open to interaction with a wide variety of intellectual and cultural influences. Yet just such an interpretation was the dominant one in the 'golden age' of Islam, up until the fourteenth century. In Spain (al Andalus), when Muslim culture was at its height, Muslims, Jews and Christians lived together, admittedly under Muslim oversight, but still in a greater degree of tolerance than medieval Christians managed to show. Islamic culture was sophisticated and philosophically astute, welcoming philosophers like Ibn Rushd (Averroes) and Ibn Sina (Avicenna), who carried on the traditions of Greek philosophical reflection. From the very beginning there were variant interpretations of Islam, and proclamation of the Faith was held to be important precisely because it brought unity between warring tribes, and because it taught devotion to goodness rather than tribal self-interest and personal egotism, and acceptance of diversity rather than cultural oppression. It is ironic that such is the time even militant Jihadists tend to look back upon with reverence and regret for its loss. If Islam is true to its highest expressions of its essential identity, a recovery of that tolerant, humane and open attitude is indicated, and such a recovery is possible in the modern world.

The sort of unity Islam is meant to bring has always included a variety of interpretations that co-exist in peace. The Faith is not based on, nor does it inculcate, hatred of others or the demonisation of those who differ. On the contrary, it teaches the brotherhood of all men and the co-existence of all who are prepared to live in peace. Any hope of resolving present disputes within the Islamic world rests with the growth of such a tolerant, reconciling and humane Islam, and therefore with the emphatic recognition that these, not hatred and violence, are the central teachings of the Qur'an. 

Islam has seen a new resurgence in the late twentieth century. In a newly globalised world, America has become the major global power. Europe, China, Russia, South America, Africa, India and East Asia form distinct socio-economic units alongside the block of Islamic states. But most of the non-Muslim states contain significant Muslim minorities, and Islam is now the second largest religious group in the world after Christianity, with something in excess of one thousand million adherents, and Islam is vital and growing, especially in Africa, Asia and Europe. The consequence is that many Muslims in the modern world live in a religious diaspora, not in Muslim states. In this new world, the situation is almost as far removed from the tribal society of the Prophet's Arabia as can be imagined. The political and social world in which Islam now exists requires a new application of laws that were given for a tribal pre-scientific society, and a new understanding of the spiritual principles that underlie those laws.

In the modern world, it has become clear that any form of imperial expansion or any attempt to impose one ideology on the whole world, is highly dangerous. Warfare is still regrettably a major feature of human existence - the Brookings Institution of New York recorded 127 wars (very few of them religiously motivated, incidentally) in the thirty years after the end of the Second World War, in which an estimated 23 million people were killed or wounded. Modern weapons now make the slaughter of the innocent virtually inevitable, and the existence of nuclear and biological weapons makes it possible for humans, for the first time in history, to exterminate all life on earth.

In this situation, it has become vital to find alternatives to war as a way of settling disputes or of establishing one socio-political system. We are not talking about establishing unity among warring Arabian tribes, and setting in place an order of justice and compassion among constantly bickering and untrustworthy social groups. However, it might well be said that we are still doing a rather similar thing on a global scale - seeking to establish unity and justice among quarrelsome, self-interested and competing nations.  But that cannot now be done by fighting a few decisive battles, and putting in place a social order which all people of good will can see to be just. Already the collapse of the great Muslim empires shows that size makes a crucial difference. The attempt to unite diverse ethnic and ideological groups in one universal order is vastly unlikely to succeed. The best hope is to find some form of co-existing alliance where differences are accepted, and an effort is made to find and co-operate in positive points of agreement.

In such a world, Islam can make a reasonable claim to be primarily and in its deepest intention a religion of unity - the unity of God, the brotherhood (or, more inclusively, the unity) of all humanity under God, the eternal significance of moral striving, and the the final goal of all life in God, the supreme Good.

Interestingly, in this respect it is very like the liberal Christianity of late nineteenth century German theologians like Harnack. But the criticism made of Harnack was that he had omitted all the distinctive doctrines of Christianity - the divinity of Christ, the Trinity, and the Atonement. So an unfriendly critic might say that this version of Islam omits the distinctive doctrines of submission to the prophet, suppression of all polytheism and atheism, and literal acceptance of the laws of the Qur'an.

There are versions of Islam that have a very exclusive view of faith. These more rigorous versions can call in aid texts like 49, 15: 'Only those are Believers who have believed in God and his apostle, and have never since doubted, but have striven with their belongings and their persons in the cause of God'. For such view, 'God is an enemy to those who reject faith' (2, 98), and faith is taken to be acceptance of the Qur'an as divinely revealed - 'We have sent down to thee manifest signs and none reject them but those who are perverse' (2, 99).

Acceptance of the Qur'an is taken to entail acceptance of Shari'a laws like those requiring flogging with 100 lashes for adultery or cutting off hands for theft. It may be overlooked that four witnesses are required of adulterous acts, and that thieves can be forgiven is they repent and make amends (5, 42).  Such an exclusivist view of Islam still does not justify aggressive violence against those non-Muslims who agree to live in peace with Islam. But it is easy to see how it can give rise to campaigns of violence by those who feel themselves, however implausibly it may seem to most observers, to be under attack from enemies of Islam.

On the other hand, there are more pluralist versions of Islam which are still rigorously Islamic, but interpret 'faith' much more widely, as faith in the sovereignty of good and in the value of human striving for good. Such a wider definition of faith is suggested by the repeated Qur'anic assertion that there is just one common faith present in all societies in some form - 'We believe in God, and the revelation given to us, and to Abraham, Ishmael, Isaac, Jacob, and the tribes, and that given to Moses and Jesus, and that given to all prophets from their Lord...we make no difference between one and another of them, and we bow to God' (2, 136).

Interpreted narrowly, the claim that Abraham, Moses and Jesus all taught the same faith in detail is implausible, even if the records of their teaching are held to be imperfect or corrupted in some way. But on a broader interpretation, the faith of Abraham was faith in the God whom he knew, who called for his loyalty. So we may well think that there is a common core doctrine among many religious teachers (prophets) in many religious traditions, which is a striving to overcome egoistic desire, and to be one with a reality of wisdom, compassion and bliss - that is spiritual jihad. Then to have faith will be to be true to the revelation of supreme goodness that has come in one's own tradition.

This interpretation seems to be confirmed by the often quoted passage concerning the People of the Book: 'Those who follow the Jewish scriptures, and the Christians and the Sabians - any who believe in God and the Last Day, and work righteousness, shall have their reward with their Lord...on them shall be no fear, nor shall they grieve' (2, 62 and 5, 72).  n thinking about Islam in the modern world, theologians have to consider what the modern analogies are to the 'People of the Book'. After all, there are vast civilisations in China and India that have no 'Book' and no prophets in the Qur'anic sense. Yet they have ancient religions and religious teachers, they have high standards of moral conduct, and they teach a spiritual striving in the way of goodness - whether it is thesanatana dharma (the eternal way) of India or the Tao of China. Perhaps a Muslim can apply to them the saying, 'To every people have we appointed rites and ceremonies, which they must follow' (22, 67).  It seems clear that they should be invited to Islam, but not compelled to submit. After that, the issue lies with God: 'If it had been God's plan, they would not have taken false gods: but we made thee not one to watch over their doings, nor art thou set over them to dispose of their affairs' 6, 107). If people conscientiously choose different paths, the Muslim may say, 'To you be your Way and to me mine' (109, 6). At the resurrection God will make clear who was correct, but until that time, conscientious difference must be accepted.


My conclusion is this: Islam originated in a situation of social conflict, in which it had to fight for its existence against hostile tribes. It succeeded in building a strong and united society in Arabia. Then it rapidly extended its rule throughout the known world by force of arms, as old Empires crumbled and as new imperial powers converted to Islam and established further great empires. Among some people this has given it the reputation of being essentially a militant faith - a reputation consolidated by many situations in the modern world in which there are a number of militant - self-styled jihadist - Muslim organisations.  These organisations, however, are forced to reject traditional Islam, with its insistence on the need for a fourfold root of faith - the Qur'an, the Sunnah or traditions of the life of the Prophet, the consensus of scholars, and analogy as a principle of applying the Law to new situations.

Traditional Islam is wholly opposed to uses of Qur'anic texts that ignore the well-established scholarly traditions of interpretation, and that act as though violence was still a possible route to world peace. Traditional Islam itself is divided (though not violently) between those who think that the 'door of ijtihad, of private interpretation' was closed at a fairly early time in Muslim history, probably in the fourteenth Christian century, and those who allow for new interpretations not bound by such ancient precedents. There are also divisions between those who support the view that Muslim States should implement Shari'a, in some form, as state law, and those who accept the necessity for a broadly secular, or non-aligned, law for the State, with Shari'a largely governing certain matters of family or religious law.

All these divisions exist within a generally traditional form of Islam, and help to clarify the sense in which any form of global Islam must be a diversity-in-unity. It cannot plausibly and does not usually seek the unrealisable ideal of a monolithic and universal state. Traditionalist Muslims stress that at heart Islam was always a movement for spiritual and moral reform, for submission to a God of justice and mercy, and to a just and charitable social order. If we think of Jihad as striving in the cause of goodness, and think of the invitation to Islam as an invitation to a universal human fellowship that co-operates in such striving, we might discern the real heart of Islam.

There will probably always exist a rigorist form of Islam, stressing obedience to Shari'a exactly as described in the Qur'an, and acceptance of the finality of the Qur'an. But even the most rigorist forms will not find Qur’anic justification for religious wars of aggression and conquest. And they will have to accept their status as minority interpretations within the wider spectrum of Islamic faith.

For most traditionalist Muslims greater stress is placed on the basic principles of unity, tolerance and justice. More flexible interpretations of Shari'a, less wedded to the letter of ancient customs and more keenly aware of the minority and diasporal status of Islam in a pluralist but globally connected world, exist. It can still be true that 'This is no less than a message to (all) the worlds' (38, 87). But the message will be one of submission to goodness, striving for goodness and the unity of all in fellowship, and hope for the fulfilment of all life in God. For such views, the vocation of Islam may be more to influence the world for good than to include all people within its own household.

Most traditional scholars stress the importance of the fact that the Qur'an was recited in various stages, its 114 chapters being 'sent down' over a period of 23 years. The first stage was at Mecca, where the preaching of the Prophet aroused opposition so great that after 13 years he moved to Medina (known as the hijra, beginning the Muslim calendar and traditionally dated to the Christian year 622 AD).  His followers were subject to attack by various groups of Jews, Christians and by the Meccan Arabs. But Muhammad formed a military force strong enough to subdue all opposition in Mecca, and returned there for the last two years of his life. Since the Qur'an was addressed to the Prophet's Arabic followers in a time of military conflict, it is natural that many of its chapters relate to specific, and changing, conditions in Mecca and Medina, and the emphases of the Meccan and Medinan chapters tend to be different. The order of chapters in the Qur'an as we have it is not the order in which they were received by the Prophet, and so a good deal of scholarship is needed to place particular chapters in specific contexts.

The context may make a great deal of difference, for example, in remarks made about relations with Jews and Christians, the 'people of the book'. Sometimes the Christians were friendly, but sometimes they were hostile, and these differences gave rise to differing recommendations about Muslim relations with them. Thus there are statements like, 'Nearest among men in love to the Believers wilt thou find those who say: we are Christian' (5, 85), possibly referring to the Abyssinian Christians who supported Muslim refugees during the time of their persecution in Mecca. But there are also statements like, 'Take not the Jews and Christians for your friends' (5, 54), promulgated when Christians had colluded with the enemies of the Prophet. It is difficult to generalise such remarks to very different times and situations. In Muslim tradition a doctrine of 'abrogation' has developed, in accordance with which scholars hold some texts to be abrogated by others, either because the abrogating texts are later in time, or because they apply to a wider set of circumstances, or because they penetrate more deeply to the heart of the Prophet's message, which may on some specific occasions have had to be temporarily qualified or set aside because of some historical difficulty.

Clearly scholars may disagree on which texts abrogate others, and on the precise reasons for abrogation. Yet there is here a decisively important point that the texts needs interpretation by those who have a good knowledge of its original contexts and of the traditions of scholarly reflection in succeeding centuries.  A good theological education in Islam will try to inculcate wise principles of interpretation and a sensitivity to what lies at the heart of the Qur'an, and what belongs to particular contexts of its promulgation that have changed in fairly basic ways. The spirit of discernment is needed for understanding the Message of God as it applies to rapidly changing situations.

The Message remains unchangeable. But its application to new circumstances requires discrimination and wise judgment. Legal and religious scholarship are, for most Muslims, essential for interpreting the Qur'an, and where that is the case, discussion and personal judgment are always an important part of religious life. It is irresponsible to take texts out of context, and read them at face value. This is why it is vital to remember that the Qur'an is not a book of clear and straightforward rules, to be applied without much regard for social circumstances. It is the teaching of God for finding the path to Supreme Goodness, but that path needs to be discerned by the prayerful community, seeking to share in the mind of God as it is definitively expressed in the Qur’an.

Beyond traditionalist Islam, as I have described it, there are various modernist or liberal movements, that accept the applicability to the Qur'an of the methods of critical history, the need fully to accept the best findings of modern science, the necessity of working out specific moral rules on the basic Qur'anic principle of human fulfilment in God, the Supreme Good, and the importance of defending freedom of conscience in religion. These movements may seem particularly well suited to a rapidly changing, essentially pluralistic and strongly interconnected world.

Such humane and pluralist views are perfectly consistent with belief that the Qur'an is indeed the inerrant revelation of God to the Prophet, and that it will not be superseded by any subsequent inspired prophecy of the same sort. All that is required is that the verses of the Qur'an are placed in their historical contexts, and that its underlying principles are discerned and applied in new contexts, as what is believed by Muslims to be the final prophetic revelation is understood in the light of new scientific knowledge about both physical and human nature, and in a more global context.

If the right of private interpretation is granted, the danger of more intolerant interpretations cannot be wholly eliminated, but the best hope of avoiding them is to stress the prime importance of spiritual jihad, a striving for goodness which avoids all hatred and seeks always the sovereignty of good. Islam is still seeking its proper role in a world in which it will for the foreseeable future exist largely as a minority faith. Globally speaking, it will probably always only encompass a minority of the human race. But to the extent that it motivates a striving in the way of supreme goodness, a striving for justice among all people and a striving to show effective compassion for the poor of the earth, Islam can be a great force for good in the world, an umma called to be an example of mercy and devotion to the supreme Good.

The doctrine of jihad is central to Islam. It is a dangerous doctrine, in the hands of those who believe that a system of religious law should be imposed on everyone by force. But at the heart of Islam there is a very different view. Jihad may need to take physical expression, when and only when it is in defence of the oppressed and those who are unjustly attacked. But it is primarily and above all the spending of one's person and possessions in striving for that which God wills above all, the submission of one's whole self to the sovereignty of the good. This is, I think, the striving that the Qur'an seeks to evoke in its hearers. It is something which all people of good will can respect and honour, and it is in my view the distinctive witness and vocation of Islam in the contemporary world.


Violence is a major human problem. It disfigures the whole of human history. But it springs, not from religion, but from the hatred, greed and self-deceit that religion exists to combat. The doctrine of jihad is a doctrine of inner striving to replace hatred by compassion, greed by charity, and self-deceit by true self-knowledge. Such striving will not always succeed, and religion itself may be corrupted by those who use it to evoke hatred of those different from themselves, a desire to impose one set of beliefs on the world by force, or who foster a deluded belief that they are exclusively favoured by God. It is religion that contains the antidote to its own corruption, and the corruption of all human life, by teaching God’s universal compassion and the need to respect all God’s creation.

Islam teaches that violence must always be justified by its use to protect the innocent and maintain a just and compassionate society. It must always be limited by compassion and mercy. It must never spring from or inflame hatred. Violence must sometimes be used to protect the weak and oppressed of the world, for there is in the world a real battle of good against evil. But for that reason we need to be very careful that we are not harming and oppressing when we mean to protect freedom and human flourishing. Jihad should always be a striving in the way of God, who is the compassionate, the merciful, and the just, and who cares for the flourishing of all creation.

That is the basic teaching of Islam - justice and not oppression, compassion and not cruelty, benevolence and not hatred. If in the world today there are Muslim groups that seem to undermine this teaching, we all need to enquire into the factors that have allowed such corruptions to thrive. Such an enquiry, if undertaken seriously and diligently, may leave us all feeling uncomfortable. But one thing we can do is try to see Islam, not through the eyes of its corrupters and detractors, but through the eyes of those who find in it the call of God to seek justice and mercy and to devote their lives, their persons and possessions, to the service of that which is supremely good.


                                                          © Professor Keith Ward, Gresham College, 18 January 2007

This event was on Thu, 18 Jan 2007

keith ward

Professor Keith Ward DD FBA

Professor of Divinity

Professor Keith Ward was the Gresham Professor of Divinity between 2004 and 2008.  He has a BA from the University of Wales, an MA from...

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