By Waris Mazhari
What was the essence of the mission of the Prophet Muhammad? Was it da‘wah, inviting, using peaceful means, people to the path of God? Or, was it jihad, in the sense of physical fighting against others? The Quran is very clear on this point. It stresses that the Prophet’s mission was essentially that of peaceful da‘wah. Thus, addressing the Prophet, God says in the Quran:
‘O Messenger! Proclaim the [message] which has been sent to you from your Lord’ (5:67).
Accordingly, the Quran addresses the prophet as preacher (da‘i), bearer of glad tidings (mubashir) and warner (nazir). It explains: ‘We have sent among you a messenger of your own, rehearsing to you Our signs, and purifying you, and instructing you in scripture and wisdom and in new knowledge’ (2: 151). In this regard, the Prophet said, ‘I have been sent as a teacher to the people’ (ini boistu mualiman). He also said, ‘I have been sent to establish pinnacle of morality’. In other words, the Prophet Muhammad was a messenger of knowledge and morality, and his aim was to provide knowledge to people so that they could walk on the straight path. Nowhere in the Quran is it mentioned that the Prophet was sent to the world in order to engage in jihad, in the sense of physical warfare (qital).
Despite this, in the early Islamic period, not long after the Prophet’s demise, the books that came to be written about his life the Prophet was presented as a warrior (mujahid or ghazi), rather than as a teacher of morals. In fact, these biographies of the Prophet were also known as maghazis, that is accounts of the battles (ghazwat) of the Prophet, despite the fact that in the course of his 23 year-long span of prophethood, warfare was only an exception, and certainly not the rule. With regard to fighting, the Prophet clearly declared ‘O people! Do not desire to confront your enemies. You should seek protection of God from this.’ Had war been a permanent feature of the mission of Islam, obviously the Prophet would not have exhorted his followers thus.
The reason why after his demise, the Prophet’s biographies presented his life as essentially that of a mujahid, in the sense of one being engaged in physical battle with non-Muslims, is to be located not in the teachings of the Quran, but, rather, in the then prevalent cultural, literary and intellectual contexts. From earliest times, all victorious communities saw their battles and conquests as the essence of their history, and that was how it was recorded by them. Their exploits on the battlefield were converted into epics, in which they took great pride. This explains why the literary heritage of powerful communities in the past consisted almost wholly of such romanticized stories of their military exploits, and the pagan Arabs were no exception to this, as is evidenced from the poetry produced in the pre-Islamic period. It was thus not surprising that, after the demise of the Prophet, and as Islam began to spread out of the Arabian peninsula and the Arabs established a vast and mighty empire, the biographies of the Prophet that began to be written projected him as a warrior and his life in terms of the wars he participated in. Consequently, his basic mission, that of peaceful da‘wah, or inviting people to the path of God, was almost wholly eclipsed in the writings about him that were penned at this time.
The prophets who were sent by God prior to the Prophet Muhammad were provided with certain miracles through divine help. The miracles of numerous prophets, such as Abraham, Moses, Jesus and David, are mentioned in the Quran. The main miracle bestowed by God to the Prophet Muhammad was none other than the Quran itself, and the Prophet was asked to engage in jihad with his enemies using the Quran. This the Quran termed as the exalted form of jihad (jihadan kabiran). As the Quran lays down: ‘Therefore, listen not to the unbelievers but strive against them with the utmost strenuousness, with the [Quran]’ (25: 52). This clearly indicates that the Prophet’s mission was one of appealing to the people to adopt God’s path, using proofs and evidence to convince them, and not one of slaughtering people who disagreed with him.
The Prophet preached in Mecca for thirteen years, during which he and his companions were brutally persecuted by their opponents. Yet, he tolerated this oppression steadfastly and exhorted his disciples not to waver but yet to stay away from revenge. Some critics argue that this was because the Prophet and his companions were a small and relatively powerless group at this time and so in any case were in no position to take on their foes through arms even if they had wanted to. This, however, is not true. Admittedly, compared to the situation of the Prophet and his followers in Medina, where he later migrated, the situation of the Muslims in Mecca, that is before the Prophet’s migration, was certainly weak. But, at the same time, even in Mecca the Prophet had numerous brave disciples who were willing to lay down their lives for him. Had he wanted to, he could easily have secretly instructed them to strike at his aggressors. But this he did not do. This was because not only had he not received permission from God for this but also because, in fact, God had prevented him from taking to arms at this time against his oppressors. After he shifted to Medina, he was granted permission to take to arms only after he had arranged for the Muslims of the town to become a strong, consolidated force, which provoked the jealousy of his opponents. It is crucial to note here that the fighting that God now permitted Muslims to engage in was simply in defense. As the Quran explained:
‘To those against whom war is made, permission is given to [fight] because they are wronged […] They are those who have been expelled from their homes in defiance of right—[for no cause] except that they say, “Our Lord is God”’ (22:39-40).
It cannot be denied that many mistakes, indeed tragic blunders, in understanding and presenting before the world the true essence of the mission of the Prophet Muhammad have been made, by both Muslims as well as non-Muslims. The battles in which the Prophet fought were all directly or indirectly defensive in nature, but, despite this, some Islamic scholars and writers developed the completely untenable theory of offensive jihad, which has been elaborated upon in considerable detail in the books of medieval fiqh. In fact, the spurious theory of offensive jihad seems to pervade this corpus of literature, which wrongly seeks to argue that many of the battles of the Prophet were offensive wars. This literature gives the mistaken impression that the Prophet sought to exterminate all non-Muslims, or to force them to accept Islam at the point of the sword, which was not the case at all. Obviously, and needless to add, this completely wrong conception, which is so prominently present in the corpus of traditional Muslim writings, has given non-Muslim critics all the ammunition they need to criticize and even condemn Islam.
It must also be added here that the wholly un-Islamic notion of ‘offensive jihad’ is a fundamental contradiction of the Quranic dictum: ‘There is no compulsion in religion’ (la ikraha fi ad-din). The cause of revelation (shan-al nuzul) of this verse is also pertinent to our discussion here. The Prophet forbade his companion Abul Husain from compelling his young son, whom he had earlier given to a Jew allowing him to convert him to Judaism, to convert to Islam. This was the cause of this particular verse being revealed.
Once, a needy non-Muslim woman approached the Caliph Umar with a request. Thereupon, Umar invited her to accept Islam but she declined. Later, Umar felt that perhaps his invitation might be construed as compulsion—he was the Caliph after all, and so was very upset about what he had done and repented of it. If this was how a careful a close companion of the Prophet like Umar was in not compelling anyone to accept Islam, how can it be expected that the Prophet would ever use force to make others believe in Islam?
But, despite this, some Islamic scholars, including the putative founder of the Shafi’ school, Imam Shafi’, went to the extent of arguing that the reason (‘illat) for fighting the ‘infidels’ (non-Muslims other than the ‘People of the Book’) was their infidelity. That is why these scholars granted such people only two choices: Islam or death. Obviously, this stance is a gross affront to Islamic teachings and also a clear contradiction of the practice of the Prophet Muhammad, who is described in the Quran as the ‘Mercy Unto the Worlds’ (rahmat al il ‘alamin), and who said about himself that he was a ‘gift of mercy’ sent by God. How could the Prophet, who clearly forbade his followers from killing in the course of war non-Muslim women, children, the aged and worshippers who had abandoned the world ever have permitted killing non-Muslims simply because of their infidelity?
The Prophet Muhammad was a peace-loving man. That is why he agreed to enter into a peace treaty with the pagan Meccans at Hudaibiyah despite the fact that the terms of the treaty were heavily weighed against him and the Muslims, which caused considerable resentment among his companions. The Quran referred to the treaty of Hudaibiyah as ‘the clear victory’ (fateh mubin). Further clearly indicating his love of peace, the Prophet instructed his disciple Mu‘az thus:
‘Do not engage in war with your enemies till you have invited them to Islam. Then, if they refuse this invitation, do not fight them till they start fighting. Then, if they start fighting, do not fight back till they kill one of your people. Then, if they do this, show them the dead person and say to them, “Is there no better path than this?” This is because if through you someone receives true guidance from God, it is better than the whole world.’(Al-Sirakhsi:Al-Mabsoot 1/31)
Every sensible and impartial person will thus readily admit that the Prophet was a lover of peace, and that the jihad, the sense of qital, that is, in certain cases, allowed for in Islam is definitely a blessing and not a curse.