Skip to main content
Does the Qur'an Sanction War?
Sep 1, 2011

In Islamic jurisprudence, no divinely ordained clergy rule on religious matters. There are only scholars, learned people that undertake the extensive study of the Islamic sciences. No official post decides who is eligible to be considered a scholar qualified to give opinions on religious matters. Although believers are encouraged to consult others, especially scholars, everyone is individually responsible for their beliefs and actions.

Like law in the United States, historically Islamic jurisprudence is based on precedence. Each ruling or reform was based on the decisions and interpretations of previous jurists and scholars. But many movements that emerged in the last century disregarded this practice, and invented brand-new interpretations and rulings that were at odds with centuries of accumulated knowledge of Islamic jurisprudence and theology. Moreover, they refute all other interpretations. The most controversial among these questionable views concerns the meaning of jihad. The soundest method of discerning the meaning of this much-debated word is to refer back to the original text that is the source of all Islamic jurisprudence and theology.

What is jihad, according to the Qur’an? What does the Qur’an say about war? According to the consensus of classical and contemporary exegetes, the following Qur’anic verses indicate that there is no "holy war" but there is only "just war" or "unjust war" in Islam. The verses also clarify that jihad does not mean war or fighting; rather it means "to strive hard in the righteous cause."

Some Qur'anic principles

The science of hermeneutics requires that the interpretation of any text should take into account the writer, the intent of the writer, the addressee, and the context. This is the method to understand the message of the Qur’an. Taking a single verse out of context, and interpreting it without taking into consideration the entire text, would inevitably distort the meaning of the verse. The following are some general Qur’anic principles that should underlie the interpretation of individual verses.

"There shall be no coercion faith." (2:256)

"And had your Lord so willed, all those who live on earth would surely have attained to faith, all of them: do you then think that you could compel people to believe..." (10:99)

"And say: ‘The truth [has now come] from your Lord: Then, whoever wills (to believe), let him believe; and whoever wills (to disbelieve), let him disbelieve. ..." (18:29)

"Goodness and evil can never be equal. Repel evil with what is better (or best). Then see: the one between whom and you there was enmity has become a bosom friend." (41:34)

"...and [they who] repel the evil with good. Such are those for whom there is the ultimate (everlasting) abode." (13:22)

"...for peace is best..." (4:128)

"... He who kills a soul unless it be (in legal punishment) for murder or for causing disorder and corruption on the earth will be as if he had killed all humankind; and he who saves a life will be as if he had saved the lives of all humankind." (5:32)

"Do not kill any soul, which God has made sacred, except in just cause. If anyone has been killed wrongfully and intentionally, We have given his heir the authority (to claim retaliation or damages or to forgive outright). But let him (the heir) not exceed the legitimate bounds in (retaliatory) killing. Indeed he has been helped (already and sufficiently by the provisions and procedures of the Law)." (17:33)

"Just War" in the Qur’an

Here are some verses dealing with fighting (qital) on the battlefield. All these verses should be read and understood only when there is a Just War already in progress.

"And fight in God’s cause against those who wage war against you, but do not commit aggression—for, verily, God does not love aggressors." (2:190)

This verse makes war permissible only in self-defense and even then, aggression is not permitted during the fight.

"Permission [to fight] is given to those against whom war is being wrongfully waged and, verily, God has indeed the power to succor them." (22:39)

Again, fighting is declared permissible against a wrongfully waged war.

"God does not forbid you, as regards those who do not make war against you on account of your Religion, nor drive you away from your homes, to be kindly to them, and act towards them with equity. God surely loves the scrupulously equitable." (60:8)

Believers are asked here to be kind to any people who do not fight against them regardless of their faith.

"God only forbids you, as regards those who make war against you on account of your Religion and drive you away from your homes, or support others to drive you away, to take them for friends and guardians. Whoever takes them for friends and guardians, those are the wrongdoers." (60:9)

As clearly listed in the verse, fighting is permitted only when a) a war is waged against the believers because of their faith, b) the believers are driven away from their homelands, c) aid is given to those who drive the believers away from their homelands.

"Fight (therefore, O Messenger) in God's cause—for (in the same way that every individual is responsible for himself) you are (first of all) responsible for none except yourself. (Even left by yourself alone, fulfill your responsibility)—and urge on the believers (to take their responsibility). It may be that God will (thereby) restrain the force of those who disbelieve. Indeed God is strongest in might, and strongest in repressing and punishing." (4:84)

Urging on the believers to take their responsibility is valid only during a war already in progress to deter the oppressors, not as an incitement to war.

"When (whether traveling or at home, or in war or at peace) you are greeted with a greeting (of peace and goodwill), answer with one better, or (at least) with the same. Surely God keeps account of all things." (4:86)

The aim of war must be to prevent the oppression, not to be triumphant. When peace is offered, it is to be accepted with no reserve.

"Except those who seek refuge in a people between whom and you there is a treaty (of peace or alliance), or (those who) come to you with hearts shrinking from fighting against you, as well as fighting against their own people. Had God willed, He would certainly have given them power over you and they would have fought against you. If they withdraw from you and do not fight against you, and offer you peace, then God allows you no way (to war) against them." (4:90)

Fighting is allowed only when a war is waged against the believers. Otherwise, there is no permission to declare a war unilaterally.

"...You will find others who wish to be secure from you (by signing a treaty with you) and to be secure from their people (by breaking their treaty with you and joining them): every time they are called back to conspiracy and hostility against you, they plunge into it headlong. Hence, if they do not withdraw from you, nor offer you peace, nor restrain their hands (from hurting you), then seize them and kill them wherever you come upon them. It is against such that We have given you a clear sanction." (4:91)

During a war already in progress, if the aggressors do not stop attacking the believers and do not offer them peace, then the believers are given permission to seize and slay those who insist upon attacking them.

"If you meet them in war, deal with them in such a manner as to deter those behind them (who follow them, and those who will come after them), so that they may reflect and be mindful." (8:57)

The aim is again not to be triumphant in war, but to prevent the continuation of war.

"(Believers:) make ready against them whatever you can of force and horses assigned (for war), that thereby you may dismay the enemies of God and your enemies and others besides them, of whom (and the nature of whose enmity) you may be unaware. God is aware of them (and of the nature of their enmity). Whatever you spend in God's cause will be repaid to you in full, and you will not be wronged" (8:60)

The purpose of these preparations is to avoid potential future wars.

"And if they (the enemies) incline to peace, incline to it also, and put your trust in God. Surely He is the All-Hearing, the All-Knowing. And if they seek (thereby only) to deceive you (O Messenger), surely God is sufficient for you. He it is Who has strengthened you with His help and with the believers" (8:61–62)

According to the well-known Qur’anic exegete Fahruddin Razi (1149–1209), this means that even if they offer you peace to deceive you, this offer of peace must be accepted, because all judgment of their intentions must be based on outward evidence alone. In other words, mere suspicion cannot be an excuse for rejecting an offer of peace.

(While at war) kill them wherever you come upon them, and drive them out from where they drove you out (thus recovering your lands from their usurpation). (Though killing is something you feel aversion to,) disorder (rooted in rebellion against God and recognizing no laws) is worse than killing. Do not fight against them in the vicinities of the Sacred Mosque unless they fight against you there; but if they fight against you (there), kill them—such is the recompense of the (rebellious) unbelievers. (2:191)

The prerequisite for the permission to slay the oppressors is their persistence to fight against the believers and not incline toward peace. Fahruddin Razi states that the injunction in this verse is valid only within the context of hostilities already in progress, not when there is no physical hostility between the believers and the non-believers. A more recent commentator, Said Nursi (1877–1960), interprets such verses that give permission to "drive them away from wherever they drove you away" as crushing the idea of the denial of God or materialism in the field where it originated by bringing the evidences for the existence of its Creator from the matter itself.

"But if they desist—behold, God is much-forgiving, a dispenser of grace." (Qur’an 2:192)

"Hence, fight against them until there is no more oppression and all worship is devoted to God alone; but if they desist, then all hostility shall cease, save against those who [willfully] do wrong." (2:193)

Fighting is allowed again until God can be worshipped without fear of persecution and no one is compelled to bow down in awe before another human being. If persecution stops then all hostility shall cease.

"...Those who have been driven from their homeland against all right, for no other reason than that they say, "Our Lord is God. " Were it not for God's repelling some people by means of others, monasteries and churches and synagogues and mosques, where God is regularly worshipped and His Name is much mentioned, would surely have been pulled down (with the result that God is no longer worshipped and the earth becomes uninhabitable). God most certainly helps whoever helps His cause. Surely, God is All-Strong, All-Glorious with irresistible might." (22:40)

Fighting against oppression is not confined to defending the mosques only, all the places where God’s name is extolled—monasteries, churches, synagogues—are to be protected.

"And if any of those who associate partners with God seeks asylum of you (O Messenger), grant him asylum, so that he may hear the Word of God, and then convey him to his place of security. That (is how you should act) because they are a people who have no knowledge. (9:6)

This verse emphasizes granting protection to mushrikun (those associating partners with God)—not only the People of Book—when they seek protection from the believers. They can be accepted as "neighbors" of the believing community. Should they want to leave the community of the believers, it is the responsibility of the believers to convey them to a place where they can feel secure.

In conclusion

The contextual analysis of the above Qur’anic verses elucidates that the utmost priority in all circumstances is achieving permanent peace. Believers are enjoined to accept peace, even when doing so would harm their interests, and must consent to all peace offers. It is not permissible to wage war against any people unilaterally. Fighting is not desirable and should be avoided whenever possible. Permission to fight is given only in self-defense. When a believer has been attacked and is fighting in self-defense, his aim must be to stop the oppression, not to be triumphant. Fighting is permitted only against people who have:

a) waged war against the community of believers because of their faith,

b) driven the community of believers out of their homelands,

c) aided others in driving the community of believers out of their homelands,

d) threatened the security of the community of believers. This judgment about the "threat" must be based on outward evidence alone, not on suspicion, which is subjective.

Fighting is permitted in the Qur’an only for the sake of defending the truth and its followers (including defending the monasteries, churches, synagogues, and mosques where God’s name is extolled). The believers can only engage in war against oppressors who are clearly marked and designated as a military force. This military force must not be mixed in with a civilian population. A prohibited method of fighting is the use of weapons of mass destruction which indiscriminately kill civilians along with the intended target. Even then, fighting can only be declared by a leader (caliph), who is elected by the community of believers from among themselves, not self-appointed kings, rulers, or authorities. Individuals cannot declare war or try to bring about justice by their own means. This is vigilantism, which is prohibited by Islamic law. Only the state has the authority in such issues.