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Furthermore, when Muslims do fight in war, all is not “fair,” as it has been said. Islamic Law has always recognized principles of just war. Muslims are strictly forbidden to commit aggression:
“And fight for the sake of God those who fight you; but do not be brutal or commit aggression, for God does not love brutal aggression” (2:190).
The next verse also says, “slay them wherever you may come upon them,” but if the entire verse is read, it is clear that the “slaying” is in also self-defense:
“And slay them wherever you may come upon them, and drive them away from wherever they drove you away—for oppression is even worse than killing. And fight not against them near the Inviolable House of Worship [Ka’abah] unless they fight against you there first; but if they fight against you, slay them: such shall be the recompense of those who deny the truth” (2:191).
If the enemy inclines toward peace, however, Muslims must follow suit:
“But if they stop, God is most forgiving, most merciful” (2:192).
“Now if they incline toward peace, then incline to it, and place your trust in God, for God is the all-hearing, the all-knowing” (8:61).
Moreover, God insists that the Muslims should incline towards peace if their enemies do the same, even though the possibility might exist that the enemy is deceiving them:
“And if they mean to deceive you, surely you can count on God, the one who strengthened you with Divine aid and with the believers” (8:62).
Even if those who fight against the believers are other believers, the Qur’an says that they should be fought against:
“If two parties of believers contend with each other, make peace between them. Then if one of the two acts unjustly to the other, fight the side that transgresses until it goes back to the order of God…” (49:9) [emphasis added].
Again, fighting is only allowed against those who transgress, those who fight against the believers. Indeed, the Qur’an explains why fighting and warfare is even allowed in God’s Plan. An important reason is to prevent oppression on the earth, in keeping with the Qur’an’s strong insistence that justice be upheld:
“Why would you not fight in the cause of God, and oppressed men, women, and children, who say, ‘Our Lord, get us out of this town, whose people are oppressors. And provide us a protector from You, and provide us a helper from You’” (4:75).
Yet, an equally important reason—and one that may come as a surprise to the reader—is to protect the free and unfettered worship of God:
“For if God did not parry people by means of one another, then monasteries and churches and synagogues and mosques—wherein the name of God is much recited—would surely be demolished. And God will surely defend those who defend God—for God is powerful, almighty” (22:40).
This is truly remarkable. The Qur’an endorses armed conflict, as a last resort, in order to protect Christian, Jewish, and Muslim houses of worship. So much for Islam’s intolerance. This principle is further outlined in this verse:
“Hence, fight against them until there is no more oppression (lit., fitnah), 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).
The verse states that Muslims should fight them on until there is no more fitnah. In verse 2:191 above, again it says that “oppression (lit., fitnah) is even worse than killing.” What is this fitnah?
The word fitnah appears at least 28 times in the Qur’an, and its use and meaning varies depending on the verse in question. Some classical commentators, particularly Ibn Kathir, have written that fitnah, especially in verse 2:193, denotes idolatry. As a result, those who wish to smear Islam use the opinion of Ibn Kathir to speak for the text and claim that the Qur’an says: “Become Muslim or die.” Yet, despite the scholar’s opinion, the text of the Qur’an itself, and how it uses the word fitnah, does not agree with this scholar’s interpretation. For example, in quite a few verses, fitnah means “trial or tribulation”:
“And know that your possessions and your children are but a trial (lit., fitnah), and that there is a higher reward in the presence of God” (8:28).
“Every living being tastes death: and We try you with ill and good as a test (lit., fitnah); and you will be returned to Us” (21:35).
Yet another verse says:
“All the emissaries We sent before you did eat food and walked along the streets. And We made some of you a trial (lit., fitnah) for others; will you be forbearing? For your Lord is all-seeing” (25:20).
In other verses, fitnah means corruption and discord (9:47-48) Now, in verse 33:14, fitnah does indeed mean apostasy:
“But if they were invaded from the sides, then asked to dissent and join in civil war, they would do so with but little delay” (33:14).
The verse literally says “…and they were asked for fitnah, they would do so with but little delay.” The “they” in this verse refers to the Hypocrites, about whom we discussed earlier. The use of the word fitnah here, however, can not be generalized to every other verse in the Qur’an.
Verse 2:193, which exhorts the believers to “fight against them until there is no more fitnah, and all worship is devoted to God alone” must be understood in context. This verse comes after verse 2:190, which commands the believers to fight those who fight them, i.e., the hostile Arabs who stopped at nothing to be the first to draw Muslim blood. In addition, these people, especially the Meccan oligarchy, violently persecuted any new converts to Islam and prevented the free worship of God by these Muslims. It is to this religious persecution, I believe, that the word fitnah in 2:193 refers. This definition of fitnah is supported by another verse, which responded to the Meccans’ claim that the Prophet does not honor the sanctity of the Sacred Months. Recall that the Muslims mistakenly killed a Meccan during one of the Sacred Months, when fighting between enemies is strictly forbidden. The verse reads:
“They ask you [O Muhammad] about fighting in the sacred month. Say, ‘Fighting then is an offense; but more offensive to God is blocking the way to the path of God, denying God, preventing access to the sacred mosque, and driving out its people. And persecution (lit., fitnah) is worse than killing…” (2:217).
Again, here the fitnah about which the verse is speaking is the prevention of access to the path of God and His Sacred Mosque, driving out the believers from Mecca, and even denying God Himself. All this is the violent repression of religious freedom, and this must be prevented, even if it means armed conflict. Again, this whole discussion about fighting until there is no more fitnah follows the same theme of fighting only in self-defense. A more careful analysis of the Qur’an—in its proper historical, linguistic, and textual context—clearly shows that it does not give a general, time-honored exhortation to kill all non-Muslims. That Islam calls for a “war on unbelievers” is sheer fallacy and utter fantasy.