Chapter Two: The Cow (Al Baqara)
Fight in God’s cause against those who fight you, but do not overstep the limits: God does not love those who overstep the limits. (Chapter 2: Verse 190)
God Almighty sent one heavenly message after another in order to keep life upright and just for humanity. From Adam to Noah, Abraham, Moses, Jacob, Solomon, Jesus and Muhammad –peace be upon them all-, the heavenly messages came to fight corruption, spread justice, and protect the rights of people, animals, and nature. Sadly, the call for justice and protection of everyone’s rights always faces fierce opposition from those who benefit from the exploitation of others. The message of Islam, however, was granted a responsibility that no other message before it had. Prior to Islam, prophets and messengers would bring the heavenly curriculum and invite people to join and implement God’s teachings; however, when it came to dealing with those who actively fought against God, His prophets, and teachings, the heavens interfered to protect the believers and discipline the corrupt. Prophet Noah invited his people to faith for decades, but it was God who punished those who opposed Noah and prevented people from hearing his message. Likewise, Prophet Moses spread the word of God amongst the people, but God was the one who drowned Pharaoh and his army after they spent years torturing the Children of Israel. When it came to Islam, however, the responsibility of upholding God’s teachings and the responsibility of standing up to those who actively fight against justice was now the duty of the believers. In other words, while previously the heavens were responsible for disciplining the violators, now it is the duty of the believers.
Let’s look at a historical example from the Quran. The Children of Israel did not have a duty to fight. At one point, they had asked God to be allowed to fight their enemies. The reason behind their request was not to uphold God’s teachings; rather they had other motives in mind as the following verse illustrates:
Do you not consider what happened with the elders of the Children of Israel after Moses: once they appealed to a Prophet chosen for them, saying: "Set up for us a king and we will fight in God’s cause." He said: "Isn’t it possible that you would hold back from fighting if fighting were prescribed for you?" They said: "Why should we not fight in God’s cause when we have been driven out from our homes and separated from our children?" But when fighting was prescribed for them, they did turn away, except a few of them. God has full knowledge of wrongdoers. (02:246)
So, the Israelites didn’t ask to fight to defend their faith; they wanted to fight because they were exiled from their homes and forced to leave their children.
As for the nation of Muhammad (peace be upon him), God Almighty gave us the responsibility of restoring balance and justice. Keep in mind that this is neither a permit for aggression nor a license to force belief on anyone. To the contrary, it is a moral responsibility to preserve human dignity by assuring that people have the freedom of choice in belief and have full access to the truth that God sent. There is no compulsion in religion. Allah had legislated fighting for the nation of Muhammad not to coerce people into belief, but to protect their freedom in selecting what they see is right. It is a duty to stop tyrants and dictators –regardless of their claimed religion- and free people from being forced into that which they do not want.
Sadly, there have been many charges against Islam regarding the issues of fighting and war. Let’s consider the two most common accusations: first, it has been said that Islam was spread by the sword, implying that when the Muslims won battles, they forced their enemies into Islam. Second: Islam has been criticized for imposing taxes –called Jezia-on the nonbelievers under its rule. We answer that these charges are frail and, in fact, contradictory. By imposing a Jezia tax on the non-believers, Islam officially recognizes their faith and their right to practice it. If the Muslims had forced people to embrace Islam, then there would have been no need to legislate the Jezia tax. Hence, Islam did not impose faith on anyone; to the contrary, Islam freed the people from the powers which dominated them and allowed the free practice of their faith. Jezia guarantees the right of non-Muslims to practice their faith freely, and guarantees them the protection of the state.
Here you may ask: if that was the case, then why did the Muslims go to wars to begin with? We answer that the Islamic wars were fought for two reasons: The first was to defend the community from outside aggression. And the second was to stand against those who repressed and imposed a dictatorial rule on others. Islam fought to give people the freedom to decide the most appropriate religion for themselves. Why? Because the believers were confident that when people were free to choose, and when they saw the exemplary life of the Muslim society, they would naturally find the truth in Islam. God says:
There is no compulsion in the Religion. The right way stands there clearly distinguished from the false. Hence he who rejects the tyrant powers of evil and believes in God has indeed taken hold of the firm, unbreakable handle; and God is All-Hearing, All-Knowing. (02:256)
Often, when people read this verse they overlook the actual reason behind the statement: “There is no compulsion in the Religion.” God gave us the reason in the later part of the verse. He says: “The right way stands there clearly distinguished from the false.” In other words, when the truth is crystal clear, there is no reason to force people to choose. People naturally want what is good for themselves. God wants faith to emanate from the heart, not through fear or compulsion. Allah says to the Messenger (peace be upon him):
Are you going to worry yourself to death because they will not believe? If We had wished, We could have sent them down a sign from heaven, at which their necks would stay bowed in utter humility. (26:03-04)
God –the All-Merciful- does not want bowed heads. Had He wanted bowed heads, then no one would have been able to escape what He has decreed. Allah wants enlightened minds and loving hearts. He who forces religion upon others is not a believer. He who oppresses people into Islam is not a believer. A true believer invites people to faith through reason and, more importantly, by being an example of what is good and upright. Only then would people accept faith wholeheartedly and apply its teachings willingly.
If you take a look at the world today, you find that there are many systems and governments –Muslim and otherwise- that impose their doctrines upon people by means of force and oppression. This fosters hatred, resentment and ultimately violence. Contrast that to governments –Muslim and otherwise- who allow people to choose freely; the entire society lives in peace and harmony.
Now, let’s look at the issue of fighting from a historical point of view. Allah did not authorize fighting throughout the Meccan period of Islam which lasted for thirteen years –from the inception of the prophethood of Muhammad, until he, peace be upon him, migrated to Medina-. It was important to delay the legislation of fighting because God wanted the believers to focus first and foremost on their creed and the proper understanding and implementation of faith. More importantly, God wanted the early Muslims to become a good example for others even when they were abused and under tremendous pressure. God says:
Even after the truth has become clear to them, many of the People of the Book wish they could turn you back to disbelief after you have believed, out of their selfish envy. Forgive and forbear until God gives his command: He has power over all things. (02:109)
And in another verse:
Do not give in to the disbelievers and the hypocrites: ignore the harm they cause you and put your trust in God. God suffices as a Guardian. (33:48)