The 55th Call: The Obligation of Starting to Fight the Nearest Disbelievers
Almighty Allah says (what can be translated as): “O you who have believed, fight those adjacent to you of the disbelievers and let them find in you harshness. And know that Allah is with the righteous.” (At-Tawbah: 123)
Almighty Allah clarifies to the believers the standard method to fight disbelievers, i.e. to start with fighting the nearest disbelievers to the Muslim lands so that no place would be available for them to attack Muslims. If Muslims go to fight distant enemies then the nearest to them could find the chance to attack. This is why the Messenger (Peace Be upon Him) started with fighting the polytheists in the Arabian Peninsula and when he finished, he started to fight the People of the Scripture. He prepared an expedition to invade the Byzantines who are among the People of Scripture. This is how the Muslims progressed, whenever they conquered a nation, they moved ahead to a more distant land, then to the next oppressive tyrant people etc.
Almighty Allah commands the believers to be harsh in fighting the disbelievers and to show them toughness, hardness and roughness in battles so that they make them feel weak and those behind them. One of the qualities of the believers is being tough with the disbelievers and merciful among themselves. Almighty Allah tells the believers that He is with them and He will reinforce and support them if they fear and obey Him.
The jihad movement marched on, confronting those who were near to the land of Islam, one stage after another. When practically the whole of Arabia had adopted Islam, after Makkah itself fell to Islam, leaving only scattered individuals and groups who did not form any threat to the land of Islam, the Tabuk Expedition took place, threatening the outer areas of the Byzantine Empire which were closest to the Muslim state. This was followed by open warfare, with the Muslim armies moving far into the lands of both the Byzantine and Persian Empires, leaving no pockets behind them. The areas that were now under Islam were united, having continuous borders. It was a vast land area with solid loyalty to one authority.
Weakness only crept in after its division into different units, with artificial borders to allow the governments of certain ruling families or certain races and nationalities. This was the outcome of plans that the enemies of Islam tried hard to bring to fruition, as they still do today. The different ethnic communities which Islam united in a single nation or community in the land of Islam, superseding the divisions of race, language and color, will continue to suffer from inherent weaknesses until they return to their faith. Only when they once again follow the guidance of Allah’s Messenger, the Prophet Muhammad (Peace Be upon Him), and allow only a single banner to unite them shall they recognize the implications of divine leadership which will once again bring them power and victory. When that happens, it will ensure that they are held in awe by other nations and powers.
Let us now reflect on this verse: “O you who have believed, fight those adjacent to you of the disbelievers and let them find in you harshness. And know that Allah is with the righteous.” (Verse 123) What we find here is an order to fight those disbelievers who are near to the Muslim state, without specifying whether these have launched any aggression on the Muslims or their land. We understand that this is the final situation which makes the need to carry Islam forward the basis of the principle of jihad. This will ensure that Islam is available to mankind. It does not have a defensive outlook, as was the case with the provisional orders in the early days after the establishment of the Muslim state in Madinah.
Some of those who speak about the Islamic view of international relations or about the rulings that govern jihad, as well as those who write essays interpreting the Qur’anic verses speaking about jihad, try to show this verse, which is the final one, limited by the earlier provisional rules. Hence they impose on it a restriction, limiting its application to cases of aggression being launched or expected against the Muslim community. But this statement is general and has no restriction attached to it. Besides, it is the final one. What we have learnt is that when the Qur’an lays down legal provisions, it states them in a clear and precise way, without referring one situation to another. It resorts to precise expression, adding at the same point any exceptions, limitations or restrictions it wants the Muslim community to observe.
However, those speakers and writers find it incomprehensible that Islam lays down such an order commanding the believers to fight those disbelievers who are near to them, and to continue to do so as long as there remain disbelievers in their vicinity. Hence they try to find limits restricting this general statement, but they can only find these in the earlier statements which were, by nature, provisional.
We understand why they find it so incomprehensible. They simply forget that jihad is meant to serve Allah’s cause. It aims to establish Allah’s authority and to remove tyranny. It liberates mankind from submission to any authority other than that of Allah: “And fight them until there is no fitnah and [until] the religion, all of it, is for Allah. And if they cease - then indeed, Allah is Seeing of what they do.” (8: 39) jihad does not aim to achieve the hegemony of one philosophy or system or nation over another. It wants the system laid down by Allah to replace the systems established by His creatures. It does not wish to establish a kingdom for any one of Allah’s servants, but to establish Allah’s own kingdom. Hence it has to move forward throughout the earth in order to liberate the whole of mankind, without discrimination between those who are within the land of Islam and those who are outside it. The whole earth is populated by human beings who are being subjected to different types of tyrannical authority wielded by fellow human beings.
When they lose sight of this fact they find it odd that one system and one nation should move forward to remove all systems and dominate all communities. If things were such, that would be odd indeed. But the systems that exist today are all manmade. None of them has any right to say that it alone should dominate the others. The same does not apply to the divine system which sets out to overthrow all manmade systems in order to liberate all mankind from the humiliation of submission to other human beings, so that they can submit to Allah alone and worship Him only without any partners. Moreover, they find it odd because they face a concentrated and wicked crusade which tells them that the Islamic faith managed to spread only because it used the sword. Jihad, it claims, wanted to force other people to accept Islam, depriving them of the freedom of belief.
Had things been so, they would have been odd indeed. But the truth is totally different. Islam lays down a rule stating that “There shall be no compulsion in [acceptance of] the religion. The right course has become clear from the wrong.” (2: 256) Why does Islam, then, move forward to fight, and why has Allah bought the believers’ souls and property, so that
“They fight in the cause of Allah, so they kill and are killed.”? (Verse 111) The answer is that jihad has a reason which is totally different from compelling other people to accept Islam. Indeed jihad seeks to guarantee the freedom of belief.
As we have stated on several occasions, Islam is a declaration which liberates mankind throughout the earth from submission to human beings. As such, Islam always faces tyrannical forces and systems which seek to subjugate people and dominate their lives. These systems are backed by regimes and powers of different sorts, which deprive people of the chance to listen to the Islamic message and to adopt it if they are convinced of its truth. Or they may force people, in one way or another, to turn away from the Islamic message. That is an ugly violation of the freedom of belief. For these reasons, Islam moves forward, equipped with suitable power, to overthrow these systems and destroy their forces. What happens then? It leaves people entirely free to adopt the faith they like. If they wish to be Muslims, they will have all the rights and duties that apply to all Muslims. They will have a bond of real brotherhood with those who have been Muslims long before them. On the other hand, if they wish to maintain their religions, they may do so. They only have to pay a tribute, i.e. jizyah, which has a clear purpose: to acknowledge the freedom of movement for Islam among them, to contribute to the treasury of the Muslim state which is required to protect them against any outside aggression, and to look after those of them who are ill, disabled and elderly in the same way as Muslims are looked after.
Never in its history did Islam compel a single human being to change his faith. That is alien to Islamic beliefs and practice. On the other hand, crusades were launched to kill, slaughter and eliminate entire communities, such as the people of Andalusia in the past and the people of Zanzibar in recent history, in order to compel them to convert to Christianity. Sometimes, even conversion was not accepted. They were killed only because they were Muslims, or because they followed a brand of Christianity which was different from that of the dominating Church. For example, 12,000 Egyptian Christians were burnt alive only because they differed with the Byzantine Church over matters of detail, such as whether the soul originated with the Father alone, or with the Father and the Son together, or whether Jesus had a single divine nature or a united one in which both the divine and the human combine. These are basically the causes which make some writers about Islam find the general statement in this verse rather odd, and they try to explain it away by limiting the jihad movement to a defensive strategy only.
Moreover, the thought of moving forward to confront the disbelievers who are near to the Muslim state sounds too awesome to those defeatists who look at the world around them today and find this requirement totally impractical. Are those who have Muslim names in communities that are weak, or subject to foreign domination, to move forth in the land, challenging all nations in open warfare, until there is no more oppression and all submission is declared to Allah alone? That is totally unrealistic. It cannot be imagined that Allah would give such an order.
All such people forget the timing and the circumstances leading to this order. It was given after Islam had established its state, and the whole of Arabia adopted the Islamic faith and started to organize its life on its basis. Prior to that a community was established which dedicated itself totally to its cause, with everyone in that community ready to sacrifice his life and property in order for Islam to triumph. This community was given victory in one battle after another, stage after stage. Today we are in a situation which is highly similar to that which prevailed at the time when Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) was sent to call on mankind to believe in Allah’s oneness and to declare that “There is no deity other than Allah, and Muhammad is His Messenger.” Together with the small band who believed in him, the Prophet (PBUH) strove hard until he managed to establish the first Muslim state in Madinah. The orders to fight the unbelievers were modified stage after stage, facing the prevailing situation at each stage, until it reached its final version.
The gulf that separates people today from that final version is wide indeed. Hence, they have to start again at the beginning, with the declaration that “There is no deity other than Allah, and Muhammad is His Messenger.” They will have to move forward on the basis of this declaration until they reach, in their own good time and with Allah’s help, the final stage. At that time they will not be the sort of powerless multitude divided by a variety of creeds and desires, and declaring their affiliation to different races and nationalities, as they are today. They will be a united Muslim community that accepts no banner, or manmade creed or system. They will only move with Allah’s blessings to serve His cause.
Encumbered with their pathetic weakness, people will not understand the rules of this religion. It is only those who strive in a movement dedicated to the establishment of Allah’s sovereignty on earth, and the removal of false deities, that fully understand its rules. Understanding this religion in its true nature cannot be taken from those who deal only with books and papers. Academic study is insufficient on its own to formulate any real understanding of Islam, unless it is coupled with striving in a movement.
Finally, this verse “O you who have believed, fight those adjacent to you of the disbelievers and let them find in you harshness. And know that Allah is with the righteous”, giving such a clear order, was revealed in circumstances that suggest that the first to be meant by it were the Byzantines, who belonged to an earlier religion, or, to use the Islamic term, People of the Book. The surah, however, has already made it clear that they had distorted their faith and obeyed man-made laws and systems, so they were truly unbelievers. We should reflect here on the line of action Islam takes towards communities of the People of the Book who have turned away from their faith and adopted manmade laws. This line of action applies to all such communities everywhere. Allah has commanded the believers to fight those disbelievers who are near to them, and to be tough on them, but then concluded the verse making this order by saying: “And know that Allah is with the righteous.” (Verse 123) This is a significant comment on the order preceding it. The type of fearing Allah that He appreciates and gives His support to those who have it is the same that emboldens believers to show toughness in fighting the disbelievers. This means that there is no compromise “until there is no more oppression and all submission is made to Allah alone.” (8: 39)
Nevertheless, everyone should know that this toughness is directed against only those who fight, and it remains controlled by Islamic ethics. Before Muslims fight, they give a warning and offer the other party a choice between three alternatives: to adopt Islam, or to pay the tribute, i.e. jizyah, or to fight. If there is a treaty between the Muslim state and another community and the Muslim state fears that there may be treachery on the latter’s part, then a notice terminating the treaty should be served on them. It is useful to mention here that treaties may be given only to communities that are ready to be bound by a peace agreement and to pay the jizyah. The only other situation where a treaty may be signed is that when the Muslim community is lacking in power. In this situation, some provisional rules are applicable to it.
The Prophet himself set out the ethics of war which must be observed by the Muslim community in any battle it may fight.
Buraydah, a Companion of the Prophet (Peace Be upon Him), reports:
When the Prophet (PBUH) appointed someone to command an army or an expedition, he would recommend him to be Allah-fearing in his public and private affairs, and to take good care of those who were under his command. Then he would tell them: ‘March by Allah’s name and to serve His cause. Fight those who deny Allah. March on; but do not be unfair, and do not commit any treachery. Do not disfigure the bodies of any enemy soldiers killed in battle. Never kill any children. When you meet your enemies, call upon them to choose one of three alternatives. If they choose one of them, accept it from them and do not fight them. Call on them first to accept Islam. If they agree, accept their pledges and do not fight them. Then ask them to move over to the land of the Muhajirin, and tell them that they would then have the same duties and privileges of the Muhajirin. If they do not wish to move from their quarters, tell them that they would then be in the same position as the bedouin Muslims. They will be subject to Allah’s orders that are applicable to all believers, but they will have no share of any booty that is gained through war or peaceful campaigns, unless they fight with the Muslims. If they refuse to accept Islam, then offer them the alternative of paying jizyah [or tribute]. If they agree, accept it from them and do not fight them. If they refuse, then seek Allah’s help and fight them.
Abdullah ibn Omar, a Companion of the Prophet reports: “A woman was found killed in one of the Prophet’s expeditions. He immediately issued an order that no women or children may be killed.” [Related by al-Bukhari and Muslim]
The Prophet (Peace Be upon Him) sent his Companion Mu’adh ibn Jabal to the Yemen to teach the people there. As he departed the Prophet (PBUH) said to him: “You will be among people who follow earlier revelations. Call on them to believe that there is no deity other than Allah and that I am Allah’s Messenger. Should they accept that from you, then tell them that Allah has commanded them to pray five times every day. If they accept that from you, then tell them that Allah has imposed on them the payment of zakat, i.e. a charity which is to be levied from the rich and given to the poor among them. If they accept that, then do not touch their good earnings. Guard against an appeal to Allah by a person who suffers injustice, for such an appeal goes straight to Allah, without any hindrances.”
Aba Dawud relates that the Prophet (Peace Be upon Him) said: “You may fight some people and overcome them. They may then try to protect themselves and their children from you by their money, and they may make an agreement with you. Do not take anything from them over that, for it is not lawful to you.”
Al-Irbad ibn Şariyyah reports: “We arrived at Khaybar Castle with the Prophet (Peace Be upon Him) when he had a large number of Muslims with him. The chief of Khaybar, an arrogant gigantic man, came to the Prophet and said, ‘Muhammad! Do you permit yourselves to slaughter our cattle, devour our produce, and force our women?’ The Prophet was very angry. He said, Ibn Awf! Mount your horse and announce: Only believers are admitted into heaven. Then, gather around for prayers.’ They were all gathered and the Prophet (PBUH) led the prayers. When he finished, he stood up and said, ‘Does any of you think as he reclines over his couch that Allah has not forbidden anything other than what is stated in the Qur’an? I have certainly admonished you, given certain orders and forbidden certain things. These are as much prohibited as those in the Qur’an or even more so. Allah has not permitted you to go into the homes of the people of the earlier revelations without first having permission, nor has He allowed you to force their women or devour their produce when they have paid what is due from them.”
After a certain battle, it was reported to the Prophet (PBUH) that a few boys were killed during the fighting. He was very sad. Some of his Companions said, “Why are you so sad when they are only the sons of disbelievers?” The Prophet (PBUH) was angry and said words to this effect: “These were better than you, because they still had uncorrupted natures. Are you not the children of disbelievers? Never kill boys. Never kill boys.”
These instructions by the Prophet (PBUH) were strictly followed by his successors. Abu Bakr is reported to have said: “You will find people who claim that they have dedicated themselves to Allah. Leave them to their dedication. Never kill a woman, a child or an elderly man.” Zayd ibn Wahb reports that the army he had joined received written instructions from the Caliph, Omar, in which he said: “Do not be unjust; or commit treachery; or kill a young person and fear Allah in your treatment of peasants.” His instructions to his commanders always included the following: “Do not kill an elderly person, a woman or a child. Guard against accidentally killing them when you engage your enemy in battle and when you launch any attack.”
Reports are numerous which make clear the general method Islam adopts in fighting its enemies, as well as its commitment to a high standard of ethics in war, giving high respect to human dignity. Fighting is targeted only against real forces which prevent people’s liberation from subjugation by other creatures, so that they submit to Allah alone. Kind treatment is extended even to enemies. As for toughness, this applies only to fighting when Muslims are expected to fight hard. It has nothing of the barbarism against children, women and elderly people who do not fight in the first place, or the disfigurement of dead bodies. These practices are often committed by the barbaric armies of countries which these days claim to be highly civilized. Islam has given more than adequate orders to ensure the safety of those who do not fight, and to respect the humanity of the fighters. The toughness required is that sort of attitude which ensures that the confrontation does not fizzle away. As Muslims have been ordered time and again to show mercy and kindness, an exception needs to be made in the state of war, in as much as that state requires, without allowing any extreme practices of torture or disfigurement of bodies.