Islamic Non-Violence

Abdul Ghaffar Khan. (Photo: Public Domain)

In contrast to the Islamist train of thought, there is a current of pacifist thought within Islam. It draws on both textual analysis and cultural norms to build theories of non-violence.

Perhaps the most famous Islamic pacifist in the modern period was Abdul Ghaffar Khan (1890-1988). He was a contemporary and close personal friend of Ghandi and pioneered non-violent resistance to British rule among Pashtuns in Afghanistan and what is now Pakistan.

The movement he pioneered was Khudai Khidmatgaran (Servants of God), a non-violent movement of tens of thousands of Pashtuns committed to passive acts of civil disobedience against British rule in what was then British India. They wore red as a symbol, earning them the nickname “red shirts.” He was a secular Muslim activist who opposed the partition of India. When he died, such was the esteem in which he was held that the communists and the mujahadeen stopped fighting to allow his burial.

Contemporary theologians such as the Syrian philosopher Jawdat Said and Maulana Wahiddudin Khan promote non-violence grounded in their understandings of the Quran and the Sunnah and which see violence as antithetical to the will of Allah.

Jawdat Said’s seminal work was The Doctrine of the First Son of Adam: The Problem of Violence in the Islamic World, which became very popular throughout the Arab world for its defense of non-violence based on Islamic principles. Said’s book was written as a direct response to Sayyid Qutb’s seminal Islamist work Milestones, which laid the groundwork for much of later jihadi thought, especially by introducing the political concept of jahilliya.

Said offered a robust refutation of Qutb’s position. In it, he cited the story of Cain killing Abel (Quran 5:27-31), calling on Muslims to be “like Adam’s firstborn son, who did not defend himself against the attacks of his brother,” and calling this reaction “a position to be aspired to by all mankind, and adhering to it is one of God’s commandments.”

He also argued that none of the prophets mentioned in the Quran used violence to spread their message.

Said did accept the possibility of war on occasion, but saw strict limitations on it, arguing war could only be conducted if the enemy had defied the principle of “no coercion in religion” (ie freedom of expression).
In The Conditions for Violence in Islam, Said wrote “Preventing aggression is the only violence allowed within a state of equity, and only when all other means have been exhausted.”

He believes that mankind has a divinely ordained duty to use reason to achieve world peace. In his 2001 book Law, Religion and the Prophetic Method of Social Change, he wrote “If a country now is devastated by an epidemic, we blame it on the lack of sufficient hygiene. So too, the wars that erupt here and there are caused by ignorance of the intellectual organisms that infect communities with hate and influence people to commit atrocities. In today’s world, relying on science, we concern ourselves with preventing germ warfare while sheltering the intellectual viruses that destroy us: our intellectual foods are still polluted. We cannot afford to continue to be confused or ignorant about these invasive germs.”

The theologian and mystic Maulana Wahhidudin Khan doesn’t merely oppose violence, but thinks of peace as something proactive that has to be fostered culturally and ideologically. Despite early associations with Indian Islamists in Jamaat e-Islami, he has spent a lifetime in pursuit of that goal.

The present problem of terrorism is based on an ideology and that cannot be countered or killed through legal action or by mere condemnation” he writes. “We have to develop a counter-ideology to overcome it. Violence begins from the mind. It must, therefore, be uprooted from the mind itself. This goes directly to the root cause of terrorism. Therefore, in order to eliminate this root cause we need to initiate our efforts by beginning from the right starting point. And this is the re-engineering of minds of individuals by taking them away from the culture of violence and bringing them closer to the culture of peace.”

The Center for Peace and Spirituality, which he heads, exports this ideology internationally from its headquarters in India. They produce books and articles and have published a translation of the Quran in English which interprets verses peacefully.

Some sects of Islam also prioritize pacifism. For example, the Ahmadiyya community has as its motto “Love for all, hatred for none” and supports non-violence as a matter of faith. The Ahmadiyya is a heterodox sect which regards its founder Mirza Ghulam Ahmad as a messiah. They are regarded as heretics by many other Muslim sects.

Not all groups which are non-violent espouse human-rights values and several Islamist groups are non-violent, including Hizb ut-Tahrir and (officially) the Muslim Brotherhood. Furthermore the question of when jihad is in self-defense is also controversial.

Nevertheless it is important to highlight the school of non-violence as it exists within Islamic philosophy and based on Islamic texts and teachings.