The concept of warfare in Islam can be summed up from two decisive statements in the original Islamic texts. The first of these statements is a verse of the Quran while the second is a quotation of Prophet Muhammad ﷺ – known as a hadith. It is important to carefully understand these two statements to grasp the Islamic perspective on fighting and military activities.
The First Statement
Allah says in the Quran:
“Fight in the way of Allah those who fight you but do not transgress. Indeed, Allah does not like transgressors.” (2:190)
There are two important aspects of this verse. Firstly, it clarifies that Muslims should fight those who are bent on fighting them. If any party or country takes up arms against Muslims, they should not sit back and allow themselves to get sacked. Instead, they should put up the fiercest resistance, until the help of God prevails against the aggressors, or peace is otherwise established on equitable terms.
Secondly, the above verse admonishes the Muslims not to “transgress,” as Allah does not approve of such an attitude. This means that Muslims should not commit excesses even on the battlefield. Similarly, the Muslims should not inflict any more damage upon the enemy than what the enemy has inflicted upon the Muslims, or what would amount to oppression. This is explained by several sayings of Prophet Muhammad ﷺ in which he commanded his soldiers not to harm any children, women, elderly persons, or those in places of worship, and restrained them from cutting down the trees in enemy territory.
There seems to be a misunderstanding among many – and a deliberate misrepresentation on the part of some – that the Quran calls on Muslims to fight any and all non-Muslims. In reality, such a notion not only blatantly contradicts the above verse, but also goes against the content of the Quran in general. In fact, the Quran goes so far as to explicitly state that a Muslim community should fight only those who have persecuted the Muslims, expelled them from their homes, or fought them because of their faith:
“Allah does not forbid you from being kind and just toward those who do not fight you because of religion and do not expel you from your homes. Indeed, Allah loves those who act justly. Allah only forbids you from those who fight you because of religion and expel you from your homes and aid in your expulsion that you make allies of them. And whoever makes allies of them, then it is those who are the wrongdoers.” (60:8-9)
The Second Statement
The second decisive statement of Islam on the concept of warfare is the following saying of Prophet Muhammad ﷺ:
“Do not desire an encounter with the enemy, but when you do encounter them, be firm.” (Reported by Muslim)
Again, there are two aspects to this statement. Firstly, Muslims should not want to engage in a war. They should not be belligerent towards other communities or adopt an intimidating approach towards weaker nations. They should never look for an excuse to ransack countries or invade resource-rich lands – as some military powers do today and have done throughout history. Islam aims to create a sense of peace and security in the society where the pursuit of knowledge and commerce can thrive. Frequent military conflicts can easily derail a society from this aim, and create ill-will and resentment among peoples and nations.
In fact, the Quran goes so far as to state that if the enemy offers peace to Muslims, it should be accepted even if the Muslims have the upper hand. Muslims should not fight anyone merely on the grounds that they are non-Muslims, but should be inclined to lasting peace and security. Again, this is specifically stated in the Quran:
“O you who believe, when you go forth [to fight] in the way of Allah, be careful to discriminate, and say not to one who offers you peace: ‘You are not a believer,’ seeking the chance profits of this life. With Allah are plenteous spoils. Even thus [as he is now] were you before; but Allah has since then been gracious to you. Therefore take care to discriminate. Allah is ever Informed of what you do.” (4:94)
The second aspect of the previously quoted hadith is that it urges the Muslims to be firm in times of war. Even though Muslims should not desire to go to battle, it may sometimes be unavoidable due to hostilities by the other party, and in such situations, they should be aptly prepared. Muslims should exhibit absolute courage and determination in the battlefield, and be confident of Allah’s help against the enemy. Even if the Muslims lose their lives on the battlefield, they can be confident of Allah’s reward in the hereafter, if they truly fought for protecting His religion and His word.
To sum up, Islam rejects the idea of unnecessarily taking up arms, and instead believes in the betterment of humanity through the peaceful propagation of the word of God, and charitable works. It is thus unfortunate that certain Quranic verses revealed in times of war – against those who had killed and persecuted the helpless Muslims in Mecca and forced them into exile in Medina – are taken out of context, and misquoted, to portray a false image of Islam. The Quran, as a matter of fact, emphasizes the unity of humanity, condemns hostilities between nations, and clarifies that the only reason for God’s division of people into nations and ethnicities is to give them a clearer sense of identity, rather than to stimulate hatred among them.
“O people, We have created you from a male and a female, and made you into nations and tribes, that you may know one another. Indeed, the noblest of you in the sight of Allah is the most righteous of you. Indeed, Allah is All-Knowing, All-Aware.” (49:13)