Byline: ERIK SCHECHTER
Date: Friday, September 12, 2003
The 11th century Shafi jurist Abu al-Hasan al-Mawardi once found himself sitting in a prison cell after running afoul of a caliph. Mawardi's crime? He would not condone the plan of the Abassid leader to break a truce with the Byzantines, without prior notice. Nor would the jurist let the caliph forgo a prisoner exchange just so that he could keep his own Christian slaves.
This clash between religion and political expediency continues to this day in the Muslim world. But despite the wails of media pundits and terrorism experts, it is religion that is losing the contest.
In al-Baqarah 2:190, the Koran says, 'Fight in the cause of Allah those who fight you, but do not transgress limits; for Allah loveth not transgressors.' The hadith - collected medieval accounts of Muhammad's life or of what he sanctioned - and subsequent religious rulings flesh out a Muslim theory of just war which, on the whole, is quite humane.
And yet from Kashmir to Chechnya to Israel, supposedly devout Muslims engage in terrorism and other controversial acts of war that are antithetical to their religion. According to liberal Muslim scholars, the problem stems from confusion in the extra-Koranic sources; responses to the changing nature of war, and Islamic radicals who have replaced ethics with a theology of power.
Like modern-day Western conventions on warfare, Islam bans the use of certain classes of weapons. For instance, the 12th century Muslim philosopher Ibn Rushd (or Averroes, as he is known in the West) contends in his book Bidayat al-mujtahid wa Nihayat al-Muqtasib that only God may use fire as a weapon. That would rule out the use of napalm, phosphorus shells and Molotov cocktails.
Islam similarly prohibits the killing of non-combatants (women, children, monks, etc.), so tactics and weapons that killed indiscriminately were prohibited - or at the very least frowned upon. For instance, some medieval jurists even had qualms about the use of the catapult, whose pitched missiles were none too accurate. Similarly, Sheikh Hamza Yusuf, the founder and director of the California-based Zaytuna Institute, noted that 'the prophet prohibited poisoning wells,' which I think can be applied to biological warfare.
Ironically, it was the Bible that posed a moral problem for Muslims. The holy book is supposed to be a divine revelation (albeit a flawed one), but it was not particularly concerned about the lives of civilians. In the Battle of Jericho, Joshua wipes out the entire population of the Canaanite city with the exception of the prostitute Rahab and her family, and again, in Samuel 15:1-3, King Saul is ordered to exterminate the whole nation of Amalek, 'both man and woman, infant and suckling.'
ACCORDING TO UCLA Islamic law professor Khaled Abou el Fadl, Muslim scholars interpreted the different attitudes to the rules of war - not as the result of changing mores over the centuries - but as a sign of God's grace that Muslims were not obliged to carry out exterminationist battles like the ancient Israelites.
In his collection of hadith, the ninth-century scholar Sahih Bukhari relates the tale of Muhammad's kindness to enemy soldiers: 'When it was the day (of the battle) of Badr, prisoners of war were brought, including Al-Abbas, who was undressed. The Prophet looked for a shirt for him. It was found that the shirt of Abdullah bin Ubai would do, so the Prophet let him wear it.'
Muhammad then gives his own shirt as a reward to bin Ubai.
Abou el Fadl likewise notes that Islam requires that prisoners of war eat from the same rations served to Muslim troops ('from the middle of your plate,' as the hadith describes it), and this common courtesy extends to the enemy's dead with a ban against the mutilation of corpses.
And yet much of Muslim military history, especially in recent years, stands in stunning contradiction to all these religious precepts.
The Islamic government in Sudan, for example, drops napalm on African Christian and animist rebels in the southern part of the country. Closer to home, Palestinian protesters in the territories throw Molotov cocktails at soldiers - even though these theologically problematic weapons are less lethal than non-burning agents such as bullets and offer little advantage over simply slinging stones.
As defined by Michael Walzer, Princeton University professor and author of Just and Unjust Wars, terrorism is the deliberate killing of civilians to achieve a political goal. Presumably this would put it at the very opposite pole of correct Muslim martial conduct. Nevertheless, that does not stop Chechen rebels from bombing apartment buildings in Russian cities; Muslim Kasmiris from attacking Hindu temples; Muslim separatists from burning marketplaces in the Philippines, and Palestinians from targeting buses and pizzerias.
What's more, there currently seems to be a general confusion in the Muslim world between fighting a just war and fighting a war justly (jus ad bellum and jus in bello, as the concepts are known in Christian political thought). Fighting a colonial or foreign power then becomes the all-cleansing justification to ignore what would normally be considered war crimes under international law.
'It's not a 'by the book' response,' says Khalid Turaani, executive director of the American Muslim Council for Jerusalem. Venturing a personal opinion, he says, 'The common man sees it this way: if Palestinian children are fair game for Israeli soldiers, then their kids can be fair game as well.'
'I have found very few Muslims and Arab people,' says Ebrahim Moosa, a professor of Islamic thought at Duke University, 'who consider the Palestinian struggle against Israel to be terrorism' - as if classic terrorist groups like Irish Republican Army, Basque ETA and the Kurdish Workers Party do not also fight foreign rule.
BUT WHAT happened to the voice of the religion?
There is no shortage on war commentary in the religious literature. In fact, the prominent Hanafi scholar, Muhammad bin al-Hasan al-Shaybani dedicated a whole book, Kitab al-Siyar al-Kabir, to Muslim military campaigns. The problem is more a case of too many jurists saying too much in a variety of political contexts.
'In these records, it is hard to distinguish between what is divine law and what is contingent, human-made customs,' says Abou el Fadl. 'This leads to a lot of picking and choosing.'
Adding to this difficulty, throughout the centuries, the political leadership and army of the Muslim state would often press the jurists to give laxer rulings on the laws of combat - raising questions about the legitimacy of those rulings. Says the UCLA professor: 'The army would tell the jurists 'Give us this or that ruling, or the enemy will come for you and all your dear books will go up in flames.''
Prison was also an option for obstinate scholars.
'Like all superpowers, the Muslim state became intoxicated by its own strength,' says Abou El Fadl. One caliph, whom the Druse sect venerates to this day, regarded himself the incarnation of God and helped precipitate the Crusades by destroying, in 1095 CE, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem.
But even without political interference and multiple rulings, the fact is that the nature of war has changed since the early Middle Ages.
'War is no longer two mounted knights charging each other. We have Dresden, Hiroshima and Nagasaki,' says Moosa.
He finds it curious that liberal Muslim reformers, who would want to reinterpret issues of gender in Islam, should stick with Islam's pre-modern rulings on war and peace.
'Women were protected in war because, in the seventh century, they were not seen as potential combatants,' says Moosa. 'Obviously, that is no longer the case.'
But then again, the radicals are not interested in thrashing out what is still impermissible in combat. Those who ignore the restrictions of Muslim just war theory simply cite the concept of darura, or necessity. According to this doctrine, ethics can take back seat when greater values - such as the survival of the Muslim community - are at stake.
And since the local Muslim community will naturally interpret its situation as pressing, as a result every conflict around the globe becomes an 'exception.' (Interestingly, the Prophet, whose small band of followers were far more vulnerable than Muslims today, did not resort to such dispensations).
The solution, say Moosa, is for greater intra-Muslim dialogue.
'The Organization of Islamic Countries has an Islamic law committee,' he says, 'but its rulings are not mandatory on member states. So no one pays attention to it except bored academics like me.'
Abou El Fadl says that 'Sheikh Yassin-types' blame the hair-splitting jurists for the decline of the Muslim empire. They have developed a belief that a Muslim's first priority is to be powerful and respected - an eery parallel to the theology of Rabbi Meir Kahane.
However, the Islamists cannot jettison just war theory completely; they postpone it for some future time.
'But what kind of victory do they hope to attain,' asks Abou el Fadl, 'to turn Islam into the symbol of human suffering?'
(Box 1) The duty of Jihad
In the wake of the September 11 atrocities by al-Qaida, no word still generates more heat than jihad. American Muslim organizations have been busy explaining to anyone who will listen that the Arabic term means 'striving' and can refer to the struggle for social justice, inner spiritual development and self-defense.
But as inconvenient as it may be, jihad was understood by it earliest practitioners as a military drive to expand the boundaries of God's kingdom. For Christians and Jews falling under its dominion, that meant living as second-class subjects (dhimmi) but retaining communal autonomy.
Born in 570 CE, the prophet Muhammad began preaching in Mecca against idolatry and social injustice after receiving revelations from the angel Gabriel. Unpopular with the hometown crowd, Muhammad retired for a time to neighboring Yathrib (later to be called Medina), but soon the whole Arabian peninsula would fall under the rule of Islam.
As militarily successful as the Prophet was, succeeding caliphs expanded the boundaries of the new empire at an exponential rate. Muslim armies controlled everything from Persia to Spain and were even making forays into France until repelled by Charlemagne at the Battle of Poitiers in 732 CE. Nor would that setback stop later expansion into the Balkans, India and Afghanistan.
As the fighting continued, questions of correct conduct surfaced and a Muslim version of Christian just war theory developed. Abu Hanifa, who founded the Hanafi school of jurisprudence in the ninth century CE, divided the world into two political categories: Dar al-Islam (The House of Islam) and the non-Muslim Dar al-Harb (The House of War), which would eventually have to submit to God's laws.
While such a binary worldview seems like a recipe for perpetual religious warfare, there was wiggle room: Only the proper authorities could call the Muslims to jihad. Another mitigating factor was the introduction by some medieval scholars of the concept of Dar al-Sulh (The House of Truce), allowing the Muslim empire and Christendom to coexist.
However, jurists did allow individuals to pick up arms in a case of emergency, notes James T. Johnson, an expert on just war theory at Rugers University.
'You might have a Muslim family living on the frontiers of Dar al-Harb when suddenly an invading army attacks,' he says. 'In that case, the local people would not have to await permission from the state to defend themselves.'
For Sunni Muslims, the duty of a collective, offensive jihad ended with the caliphate - which, depending on one's partisan politics, was in the 12th, 16th or early 20th century. What remains then is the individualistic jihad of emergency defense, says Johnson.
But what was intended only for the rare predicament is exploited by militant Islamist groups on a permanent basis. Thus Hamas cites, in Article 15 of its covenant, 'When our enemies usurp some Islamic lands, Jihad becomes a duty binding on all Muslims. In order to face the usurpation of Palestine by the Jews, we have no escape from raising the banner of Jihad.'
Likewise, Osama bin Laden saw himself as merely fulfilling a religious obligation of repelling modern-day Crusaders.
'United States has been occupying the lands of Islam in the holiest of places,' his fatwa reads, '...plundering its riches... and turning its bases in the Peninsula into a spearhead through which to fight the neighboring Muslim peoples.'
Of course, claiming self-defense is a tricky business. The medieval Crusaders - the scourge of Muslim history - also claimed their war was defensive: they were liberating Palestine from conquering infidels who had destroyed Jerusalem's Church of the Holy Sepulcre.
(Box 2) Heresy or heroism?
Late Tuesday evening, a devout Muslim walked up to a cafe in Jerusalem's bustling German Colony neighborhood. A minute later, the location rippled with a deafening explosion, killing seven men and women who were armed only with cappuccinos.
Now, suppose this Hamas suicide bomber's cause is just; Israel is mercilessly repressing the Palestinians without any provocation. Does that justify, according to Islam, his taking such an extreme action?
As in most religious matters, it depends on who you ask.
Suicide bombing has been condemned by a prominent Indian Muslim scholar and a former grand mufti of Saudi Arabia. By contrast, Muhammad Sayad Tantawi, the head of Egypt's venerable al-Azhar Mosque, has flipflopped on the issue, and Yusuf al-Qaradawi, dean of Islamic Studies at the University of Qatar, has lauded suicide bombing as 'the weapon of the wretched weak in the face of the powerful tyrants.'
However, the Koran is clear in its opposition to suicide. In An-Nisa 4:29, it states, 'O you who believe! Do not consume your wealth in the wrong way - rather only through trade mutually agreed to, and do not kill yourselves.'
The hadith, collected medieval accounts of Muhammad's life or of what he sanctioned, goes into greater detail on the matter. In the compilation of the ninth-century scholar Sahih Bukhari, the stated punishment for suicide is its endless repetition of the fatal act in hell. So instead of enjoying the company of 72 dark-eyed hur al-'ayn, or virgins, the suicide bomber in our imaginary scenario would spend eternity being repeatedly torn apart.
So how do Qaradawi and his fans in Hamas and the Islamic Jihad justify suicide?
They call it something else.
Palestinian Islamist groups prefer the term 'martyrdom' to 'suicide' in describing their attacks. The difference between the two, they say, is intent.
In 1997, the PA-appointed grand mufti of Jerusalem, Ikrimah Sabri, said, 'The person who sacrifices his life as a Muslim will know if God accepts it and whether it is for the right reason... The measure is whether the person is doing that for his own purposes, or for Islam.'
Similarly, Qaradawi sees suicide as a weak and selfish withdrawal from the hardships of life, while the martyr aims with his sacrifice 'to please Allah.'
In a striking parallel, the Hindu suicide bombers of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) abjure the Tamil word thatkolai, 'to kill oneself,' in describing their attacks. Instead, they call what they do thatkodai, 'self-immolation or self-gift' - or to loosely translate, martyrdom.
But even if one agrees with this distinction, there remains a second objection: attacking the innocent.
At an interfaith dialogue conference at the University of Malaya in 1997, sociologist Syed Hussein al-Attas noted that at least the Japanese Kamikaze pilots of the Second World War attacked enemy warships.
'How does anyone justify throwing a bomb into a bus filled with people who are non-belligerent, let alone kill oneself in the process?' he asked.
Indeed, al-Azhar's Tantawi has backed suicide attacks only against military targets, such as the suicide bombing outside the Tzrifin base in Rishon LeTzion.
For his part, Qaradawi has marshalled a number of rationales for what would seem to be rather unIslamic behavior. In a European conference in July, he cited both necessity and the justice of the Palestinian cause to defend the killing of civilians. He also went on to argue that, in modern war, there are no longer any innocents since all of society is mobilized behind the effort - an argument that would apply equally to the Palestinians.
Perhaps, anticipating that objection, he added that Israel was a special case: 'Anyone past childhood, man or woman, is drafted into the Israeli army. Every Israeli is a soldier in the army, either in practical terms or because he is a reservist soldier who can be summoned at any time for war...'
As such, he placed all Israelis in the legal category of ahl al-kital, 'men of war' or unarmed irregulars - ignoring the fact that the medieval jurists held that these quasi-combatants still required identifying marks, such as being shaved for battle.
In November 2002, UCLA professor of Islamic law Khaled Abou el Fadl debated Qaradawi on the issue at a Doha hotel. Abou El Fadl rejected the claim that one ceases being a civilian just by being a part of a military's reserve pool: 'If that were so, then all Egyptian men up to the age of 35 would also be considered combatants.'
The problem, says the liberal Egyptian-American scholar, is that Qaradawi, whose regular sermons are beamed by the al-Jazeera television network to 45 million viewers, only has the faintest notion of Israeli society. Qaradawi is unaware of the fact that virtually no women and only a minority of men actually perform IDF reserve duty.
'He really thinks that being in the Israeli army reserves means sleeping at home with an M-16 in your closet, ready to spring into action at a moment's notice,' says Abou el Fadl.
And most Islamists, despite their religious professions, mock the restrictive rulings of what they see as pie-in-the-sky jurists.
'The problem is we have the books,' says the UCLA professor, 'but they have the organizations.'