Ethics of War in Shia Islam

[1]. Paper presented by Abdolrahim Gavahi at Comparative Ethics of War Workshop, Oslo, Aug. 21-23, 2008.


In Shia Islam, the sources of inferring religious commandments are: 1.the holy book (Quran); 2.the prophet’s tradition (Sunnah);
3.intellect and reasoning (Agl); and finally 4.consensus (Ijma’). Therefore, in the following discussion, all these four sources of deducting religious ordinances will be used to deduct and explain Shiite position on Ethics of War and Just War. Nevertheless, amongst Shiites, there are Fivers (Zaidi), Seveners (Ismailite), and Twelvers (Ja’fari) traditions, which we will focus on the last group only.

This paper is divided into four mains sections, namely: 1.War from the point of view of Islam; 2.Jurists’ positions on war; 3.War Rules and Regulations; and 4.Summary and Conclusion; which will be explained briefly. But, before addressing these main topics, we have included an introductory comment on the meaning of the term “Jihad” in Islam and Quran.

In the holy Quran, the term “Jihad” is used forty-two times and its general meaning is “hard and vigorous struggle” (Al-Munjid fi al-loghat) and not fighting and war. Also, in Islamic ethics and mysticism, jihad is basically used for self-discipline and self-moral cultivation. Unfortunately, with the advent of Islamic extremism and Taliban movement, the term has been widely misunderstood and misused in Western media and literature. According to Ayatullah Motahhari, a leading contemporary Shiite scholar, and jurist (faqih), whenever “war” is conducted for offensive purposes, it is wrong and unholy (Motahhari, 14).

In section one, war and Jihad have been addressed from the point of view of Quran. First, war has been divided into two main categories: 1.Defensive; 2.Offensive. Then it has been discussed whether “offensive” war is legitimate and has ever been present in Islam.

On this, three distinctive views have been expressed:

  1. That offensive war has never existed in Islam and is totally forbidden;
  2. That offensive war has always been present in Islam and is permitted by law of religion;
  3. That offensive war existed during the time of the holy Prophet (and holy Imams in Shiite tradition), but was limited to their time and is prohibited now.

Naturally, due to contradictory nature of these views and the fact that in one of them “war” is a pillar concept and in the other one “peace” is essential, traditional and modern Jurists’ views on both of them have been fully explained and exemplified.

Also, in this section, it has been argued that based on the teachings of the Quran and the Holy Prophet, the concept of “peace” is the fundamental concept in the conduct of man and society, and not vice-versa (i.e. the concept of war). This position has been substantiated through many verses of the holy Quran and juristic views of such modern renowned clergies as Motahhari, Salehi Najafabadi, and Mohaghegh Damad, all three leading scholars in contemporary Shiite tradition.

Furthermore, it has been argued that, as Quran says, “there is no compulsion in religion” (Quran 2/256), and so people are to be “invited” to the way of God by means of persuasion and free will and not to the contrary, i.e. by use of force and compulsion. Many different Quranic verses to this effect have been illustrated.

At this stage, the two different kinds of war (defensive and offensive) have been discussed in more details and the views of their advocates and opponents have been cross-examined accordingly. The interesting point is that the advocates of each of these two seemingly contradictory views refer to a different set of Quranic verses to substantiate their positions. Ayatullah Damad holds that the solution to this rather contradictory position of Quran, i.e. supporting both “offensive” and “defensive” wars, is that we interpret the general/unqualified verses to specific/qualified ones which give very specific reasons regarding waging a war. He then states four “conditions” or restrictions which, in his opinion, bond or condition Quran’s general commandments on war, namely:

  1. Fight against fight;
  2. Removing cruelty and oppression;
  3. No compulsion in accepting religion;
  4. The importance of peace and truce (Damad, 110).

At the end of this section the views of those against the legitimacy of “offensive” war in Islam and Quran, which is also what the present author holds, have been restated with more elaboration and justification. Also, in the same line, two famous traditions of the holy Prophet which sound as if his holiness supports the offensive war have been discussed and their implicit application to offensive war has been seriously questioned.

While section one basically examined divine commandments (i.e. verses of the holy Quran) on war and confrontation, in section two we have examined the views of leading “ulama” (clergies, religious scholars) on the same subject, i.e. “defensive” and “offensive” wars. Also, the views of jurists (fuqaha) maintaining that “offensive” war have been limited to the time of infallible ones (i.e. the holy Prophet and Shiite Imams), and those who believe in both offensive and defensive wars simultaneously, have been considered. In view of the importance of this subject, and also its close relation to some Shiite jurisdictions, some of the legal views of leading Sunnite jurists have also been mentioned here.

In summary of Shiite fuqahas‘ views on war, we have deliberately chosen the views of Ayatullah Salehi Najafabadi and Ayatullah Mohaghegh Damad as the leading contemporary Shiite scholars opposing the use of initial or offensive war to pursue the matter of faith, and have presented them as the most authoritative modern Shiite views on the subject matter.

Ayatullah Damad states that there are about one hundred verses in the holy Quran that invite Muslims to peace and recommends war only in self-defense or in defending one’s religion. Among the verses that he quotes, the followings are most relevant to his conclusion:

  1. “Peace and reconciliation are better” (Holy Quran 4/128).
  2. “Fight in the way of God with those who fight you …”

(Holy Quran 2/190).

  1. “But if the enemy desists, you too have to observe the truce…” (Holy Quran 2/192).
  2. “Permission to fight back is given to those who are oppressed…” (Holy Quran 22/39).
  3. “God does not forbid you respecting those who have not made war against you on account of your religion, and have not driven you out of your homes, that you treat them with kindness and deal with them Justly…” (Holy Quran 60/8).

He then cites numerous examples from the life of the holy Prophet and Shiite Imams, especially Imam Ali, to support his juristic position that peace and truce have always been the dominant position of Islam, and that war and hostility are only permitted in defensive circumstances (Damad,120-126).

Ayatullah Salehi Najafabadi, in his valuable and controversial book titled “Jihad in Islam“, argues along the same line too and states that Shiite Ulama’s view in support of “offensive” war originates from the fatwa (religious opinion or decree) of the grand Ayatullah Shaikh-e Tousi which is in turn adapted from the “wrong” fatwa of Sunni clergy Imam Shafeie Who holds that the qualified or conditioned verses of Quran which limit the war with the infidels with the condition that they should have started the war, are all abrogated or annulled by the verse that says: “Fight them until there is no more subversion and all religion belongs to God” (Quran, 2/193). Thus waging offensive war against unbelievers-even though they are not harmful to Muslim community-for the sake of spreading the rule of religion is obligatory (Salehi, 12-14). This seems to be a very distinct and courageous position taken by a Shiite faqih.

He then enumerates eight positions of Shiite fuqaha in the course of time which, in his view, are absolutely wrong fatwas in relation to issues such as war, rules of fighting, cessation of hostilities, and prisoners of war. Ayatullah Salehi then concludes that: “Inviting people to the right path should basically be accompanied with logic, reasoning, admonition, and benevolence, and is never congruent with threat and compulsion. Thus the view of some fuqaha which hold that Jihad is for imposing religion on the people by the power of the sword is neither in agreement with Quranic verses nor with intellect or very nature of human being, it also does not have any public/universal acceptance. Thus, it has to be abandoned as an irrational and unacceptable view” (Salehi, 53).

Section three deals with the rules and regulation of a just, i.e. defensive, war and counts four kinds of war which fall into this category. Then it reviews the licit or legitimate actions in a warfare vis-à-vis the illicit or illegitimate ones. Issues relating to retaliation, repelling attacks, forbidden periods and places of war, illegal actions in war, armaments, prisoners of war, war reparations, etc. , have all been discussed in this section.

The last subject discussed in this section is “the end of the war”, i.e. when the hostilities should be stopped and some kind of truce or ceasefire have prevailed. Again the advocates of “defensive” war hold that as soon as the enemy shows any sign of peace-seeking and cessation of hostilities, Muslim fighters should respond immediately and positively and welcome the truce.

Finally, section four provides a short summary and conclusion of the whole discussion, reiterating Islam’s principal position on the war, i.e. that the war should basically be defensive, and only to repel enemy’s attack on the life, territory, and property of Muslim community. Also, based on this clear and sound position, any “offensive” reading of Islamic Jihad has been strongly refuted through Quranic verses and the holy Prophet’s tradition. This argument is based on many Quranic verses, the most important of which is the famous saying: “There is no compulsion in religion” (Holy Quran 2/256).

Furthermore, it has been demonstrated that, although   traditionally most Jurists (fuqaha) have maintained that some kind of “offensivejihad is permitted in Islam, during the course of the time and the emergence of less fanatical views on matters of religion, this attitude has gradually changed to the extent that nowadays many modern, university-educated scholars hold that “offensive” jihad is against the teachings of Quran and the holy Prophet of Islam and so is never permitted in Islam nor practiced during the holy Prophet or holy Imam’s time.

Also, it has been shown that the holy Prophet of Islam has never attacked the enemies of Islam by surprise, and so such sudden/ surprise attacks or guerilla activities are more of a terroristic nature than a “Just war” activity. Nevertheless, believers are asked to help the weak and oppressed people in a proper code of conduct and not in a sort of partisan ambushes risking the lives of innocent people.

Ayatullah Salehi Najafabadi reviews some of the more extremist fatwas of Shiite and Sunnite fuqaha on offensive jihad and concludes that such kind of unwise proclamations have provided substance for western scholars and media to criticize and attack Islamic tenets and beliefs, and so have to be modified and corrected in Islamic texts as soon as possible.

Finally, at the end of this rather short summary of the Islamic/Shiite view on Jihad, it has been clearly stated that what has been discussed here is more on a conceptual level not fully applied in many Islamic societies. Thus, what one notices in most Muslim communities is somehow different from this line of argumentation. Therefore, it may well be concluded that it takes years or even decades/centuries before all these humanitarian teachings of Islam are fully implemented in Islamic societies.



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