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Islamic Rulings on Warfare

Islamic Rulings on Warfare - Cover

Authored by Dr. Sherifa D. Zuhur, LTCDR Youssef H Aboul-Enein.

November 2004

51 Pages

Brief Synopsis

The global war on terror (GWOT) and the battles with specific Islamist groups is, to some degree, a war of ideas. With a better understanding of Islamic concepts of war, peace, and Muslim relations with non-Muslims, those fighting the GWOT may gain support and increase their efficacy. The authors explain the principles of jihad and war and their conduct as found in key Islamic texts, the controversies that have emerged from the Quranic verses of war and peace, and the conflict between liberal or moderate Islamic voices and the extremists on matters such as the definition of combatants, treatment of hostages, and suicide attacks.


The authors of this monograph share their respective connections with the topic.

Lieutenant Commander Aboul-Enein: In 2000, I encountered Dr. Bernard Lewis, a famous Princeton scholar of Islamic history and author of many books on Islam, delivering a speech on Capitol Hill. He stressed the importance of classic Arabic and Islamic texts. Later, when confronting extremist interpretations of Islam, I saw the importance of these texts, especially the Quran (the Islamic book of divine revelation), the hadith (Prophet’s Muhammad’s sayings and deeds), and the 1,400 plus years of commentary, which essentially run counter to current jihadist ideology.

Dr. Zuhur: For 20 years, I have interviewed Egyptian, Syrian, Jordanian, Palestinian, Saudi, and other Islamists who cite verses from the Quran to support their worldview of necessary and continuous conflict between Islam and the West. Yet, throughout my own education, I was exposed to liberal and humanistic interpretations of Islamic doctrine and law. Now we ask: Which Islamic vision is to prevail?

Muslim education in many schools has been reduced to the memorization of slogans and parroting of particular interpretations, and lacks deep inquiry and debate. The main perpetrator of the September 11, 2001 (9/11), attacks, Mohammed Atta, left a last will and testament in which he declared a desire for paradise, virgins, and self-gratification through martyrdom. It is doubtful that he spent a considerable time studying Islamic classic texts that reveal the history and methodology of warfare, or exploring the intricacies of the debate over morality in war in which early Muslims engaged. His version of Islam is one of misguided faith and misplaced loyalty to those who hide Islam’s rich 14 centuries of discussion, debate, and intellectual exploration. To Atta and the others who perpetrated the 9/11 atrocities, intellectual inquisitiveness is considered troublesome, for it produces a powerful alternative to the radical vision of the Islamic mission. In fact, radicals deem liberal Islamic readings of scripture and teachings “heretical.”

Since 9/11, the United States has grappled with how to counter the abuse of Islam by militants who inspire indiscriminate mass murder and suicide. Some studies argue that solving the Israeli- Palestinian dispute or addressing poverty would offer immediate relief from Islamic militancy. Certainly, programs addressing the political and economic crises in the area should be undertaken. But these alone will not solve the expansion of Islamic radicalism.

Islamic radicalism does not stem solely from desperation, nor from a sense of inferiority, as some theorists maintain. Instead, in the 3 1/2 decades of this recent period of Islamic revival and militancy, we have seen that radicals come from a variety of social and educational backgrounds and political circumstances.

Hence, we also need a long-term strategy that involves discrediting Islamic militant thought, such as that propagated by al- Qaeda’s strategist Ayman al-Zawahiri in several books that draw upon a combination of the Quran, the hadith, and radical Islamic texts written from the 13th to the late 20th century.

The al-Azhar University in Egypt is an intellectual center of Sunni Islam. The leading scholars of al-Azhar, along with many other Islamic scholars in other countries, have produced more liberal interpretations of Islamic rulings. They have issued opinions that promote rethinking and reform of many social issues, and have condemned beheadings and suicide attacks. Unfortunately, the liberal and establishment clerics attract less attention and media coverage on the world stage than the radical voices. They may not be as popular with the Muslim public due to their identification with undemocratic states, or their previous efforts to legitimize the actions of certain governments. Modern nation-states, such as Egypt, Syria, and Iraq, incorporated long-standing religious institutions and clerics into their states and official apparatuses. The muftis (person responsible for interpreting Muslim law) of cities or entire countries became subject to governmental policy, as did the control over religious endowments (awqaf).

Some rulers or political leaders expected their clerical appointees or other sympathetic clerics to issue rulings that sanctioned unpopular positions or bolstered the power of said political leaders. Other clerics and many Muslims felt that this new modern entanglement of state and religion contravened the special intellectual freedom and political independence that religious scholars had guarded. Radical Islamists then claimed, with some justification, that other, often esteemed clerics were tools of corrupt or secular governments. However, radical interpretations of Islamic scripture fail to present the full range of opinion on important issues and mislead their admirers.

This monograph reviews Islamic scripture and the complexity of Islamic rules of war. It notes that classical Islamic scholars wrote about truces, types of combat, prisoners of war, division of spoils, and debated and developed principles that are very similar to St. Thomas Aquinas’ precepts of just war. A glossary of Islamic terms, personalities, and organizations is provided at the end of this monograph for readers less familiar with Islamic terminology.

The monograph encourages moderate Muslims to mount a major ideological campaign to counter those who have hijacked Islam with their destructive interpretation of Islamic scripture. Comprehending this endeavor will be vital to any strategy that seeks to dissuade young Muslims from the nihilism of Islamic militancy.

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