Non-Violence in Islamic Teachings

Non-Violence in Islamic Teachings

In this paper Imam Muhammad Shirazi addresses the issue of non-violence as prescribed in the teachings of Islam; that violence is severely condemned and non-violence is encouraged. The author then goes on to classify violence, and non-violence, into three categories. The author shows how non-violence produces the desired results in all aspects of life, and it is therefore incumbent for all Islamic reform movements to adhere to non-violence if they want to achieve reforms in their societies successfully.

This paper is an extract from Imam Shirazi’s book, The Islamic Government, pp 66-88, volume 102 of the “Al-Fiqh series.

One of the most important principles that the forthcoming Islamic government, as well as the Islamic movement, must adhere to is the condition of non-violence.  A substantial body of the holy tradition and reports condemns violence as may be found in “The Shi’a Guide to Shari’ah (Islamic Law)” [1] and “Supplement to The Shi’a Guide to the Shari’ah” [2] .  It is also reported that “Violence is also part of the army of ignorance”.  Furthermore, there is equally substantial evidence in the holy traditions and reports encouraging and promoting non-violence, leniency and kindness.

To show the correlation between violence and non-violence the following introduction is presented. 

Ancient philosophers considered the universe to be composed of four elements; namely water, earth, fire and air.  Furthermore all four elements were considered to be the derivatives of one entity called primordial matter.  The four elements were considered to have interchangeable states, just as different shapes and structures can be made from clay whereas the basic substance, clay, remains the same.

Sociologists make similar statements in relation to power.  To them power is an essence that may manifest itself in a tribe, or in wealth, or knowledge, or in the nation state, or in public opinion and so on, all of which may be fluctual.  For example the tribal chief may transfer his power and influence to the domain of public opinion, and from there to the nation state.  As seen in the case of an individual who gains power through the support and vote of public opinion. 

The legislators state a similar argument regarding law and custom.  They are both of the same essence, and one may be transmuted into the other and vice versa.  For example if it was a custom to drive on the right hand side of the road, members of parliament are pressured to make that convention a law.  On the other hand, if the traffic regulation states that cars must stop at the red traffic light, people would abide by that and it becomes common custom. 

As for Islamic law, Allah states; “Allah will change their evil (deed) into good.” [3]

This is because the essence is one.  Another example is the concept of the tree in heaven and in hell.  They both are of the same essence but one gives dates and grapes and the other gives fire and fruits like the heads of demons.  The example of this (transmutability) in this world is:

“Have you not seen those who have changed the favour of Allah into blasphemy?” [4] where grapes are turned into wine or, on the other hand, wine is turned into vinegar.

Having given this introduction I would state that violence and non-violence are of the same essence.  They reflect the human will in repelling harm and attracting good, whether in wealth, honour, or the self.  The human will may be released either through violence or non-violence and the latter is the desirable of the two options. 

Therefore it is imperative upon Islamist activists and the Islamic government to opt for non-violence to reach their objectives, which are the establishment of the Islamic government, as far as the activists are concerned, or its survival as far the established government is concerned, so that it (the state) may expand and develop quantitively and qualitatively.

As for the kind of non-violence that must be adopted, it must be the kind adopted ‘by nature’ and not that adopted ‘by coercion’.  Non-violence may be categorised in three classes:

Non-violence by nature:
In this category an individual is by nature non-violent, just as he may have other character traits such as bravery, nobility, justness, chastity…

Non-violence by coercion:
This is a kind of non-violence that is adopted by an individual due to his weakness.  The weak person resorts to non-violence to achieve his objectives.  Therefore if bullying tyrant slaps an individual in the face, the latter would not respond because he is unable to do so as he is no match to the former.  This is the worst kind of non-violence.  This is similar to the case of one who refrains from swearing back since he is dumb.

Non-violence by design:
In this case non-violence is adopted in preference to violence on the basis of priorities.  In this case one is able to resort to violence, unlike the one in the second kind above, but non-violence is not his ‘second nature’ as in the first case.  Here non-violence is preferred over violence since it serves as a strategy to achieve his objectives.

It may be argued that the second category should not be called non-violence as it is not applicable!  For example, can we say that an infant baby who is unable to respond back if hit is a case of non-violence?

The answer would be that this is not what it is meant by the second category.  What is meant is the capacity for violence, where the use of violence would bring about the downfall of one’s aims.  For example swearing at someone who had slapped him or slapping someone who had shot him.

Just as non-violence is defined in three categories, violence is also classified in three categories, according to the law of pairs.  And given that the probability that nonentity is one, therefore there cannot be several nonentities versus many existences, absolute existence is opposed by absolute nihility.  As for external existences, they are opposed by specific nihility.  Therefore the existence of X is opposed by the non-existence of X, but not opposed by absolute nihility.  Just as absolute existence is opposed by absolute nihility and not the non-existence of X.  Either of the two absolutes have respective entities; just as they (the absolutes) oppose one another, their entities do too.  Needless to say, two opposing entities should equal in every aspect except in existence and non-existence.  Therefore the existence of X is not opposed by the non-existence Y.  This is a philosophical debate that is beyond the scope of this writing.

The purpose of this debate is that it is imperative for the Islamic movement and government to be characterised by non-violence of the first category, i.e. non-violence by nature.  This is because in addition to reaching the pleasant goal that will be characterised by continual existence, non-violence is a virtue that comforts the soul too.  And what a difference there is between one who does something or refrains from something willingly and one who does so reluctantly.

It may be asked, “If this is the case, then why do we see that the prophets and imams engaged in violence, as stated in the Qur’an?

“How many of the Prophets fought (in Allah’s way), and with them (fought) large bands of godly men?” [5] and

“O Prophet! Fight the Unbelievers and the Hypocrites, . . .” [6] ,

And why did the imams Ali, Hassan and Hussain participate in wars?”  The reply to this is that this was based on a question of priorities.  The issue was to choose the lesser of two evils; just as when a patient reluctantly agrees to undergo a surgical operation to amputate a limb in order to prevent greater harm to his body and health.  If the Messenger of Allah, peace be upon him (pbuh), had ignored the pagans and their mischievous deeds and had left them to their own accords, that would have resulted in the loss of thousands, if not millions, of lives, whereas the given response of the Messenger of Allah (pbuh) limited it to less than fourteen hundred. [7]  So on the one hand we have violence with tens of thousands or millions, and on the other violence with less than fourteen hundred.  Clearly the latter would not be called violence compared to the first.

Nevertheless, the virtue of non-violence requires a substantial and, very often, a strenuous psychological and character forming education and training. 

“None shall be accorded this rank except one blessed with great good fortune.” [8]

Non-violence has many manifestations.  It is not merely to refrain from swearing back at someone who swore at you, or to abstain from hitting back at whoever hit you or shot you.  To stubbornly hold on to your views when amongst a group who have opposite views to yours, refusing the majority opinion, is also a manifestation of violence.  Stubbornness is a kind of violence.  Another kind of violence is to frown at others, and another is to pass by someone without greeting him.  All of these, amongst others, are manifestation of violence.  Hence Islam actively encourages desirable behaviour and practices such as “making a bond with whoever severed with you, and giving generously to he who denied you”.  Examples of some of the reported traditions that encourage such virtues are as follows:

The Messenger of Allah (pbuh) is quoted as saying, “Shall I inform you of the best morals of this world and the hereafter?  (They are) To forgive he who oppresses you, to make a bond with he who severs from you, to be kind to he who insults you, and to give to he who deprives you.”

Imam Zayn el-Abidin [9] (pbuh) is quoted as saying: “On the day of Judgement Allah the Almighty assembles all the people in one location and then it is announced, “Where are the noble people?”  A group of people rise, who are then asked, “What distinguishes you from the rest?”  In reply they say: “We used to make bonds with he who broke off with us, We used to give to he who deprived us, We used to forgive he who used to oppress us.” They are then told; “You have said the truth, so enter the heaven.”

In another tradition, Imam Saadiq [10] (pbuh) is reported as saying: “Three noble qualities belong to this world and the hereafter: To forgive he who oppresses you, To make bonds with he who breaks off with you, To forbear when insulted.”

In another tradition Imam Baaqir [11] (pbuh) is reported as saying: “Allah the Almighty gives nothing but honour and esteem to the Muslim who has three qualities: Forgiving he who has oppressed him, Giving to he who has deprived him, and Making bonds with he who has severed links with him.”

In another tradition, Imam Ridha (pbuh) quotes the Messenger of Allah (pbuh) as saying: “Let it be a duty upon you to observe the most noble of ethics, for my Lord has sent me to teach them.  Of them are: To forgive he who has oppressed you, To give to he who has deprived you, To make bonds with he who has severed from you, and to visit he (when ill) who does not visit you (when you are ill)”

Imam Ali [12] (pbuh) in his will to Muhammad ibn al-Hanafeyyah states: “Make sure that your brother is not stronger in his abandonment of you than your endeavour to keep your bond with him, and that he is not more persistent in his insult to you than your kindness to him.”

Imam Saadiq (pbuh) is reported as saying: “The magnanimity of us the Ahl-ul-Bayt is to forgive he who oppresses us.” 

The above is a small sample of the enormous collection of traditions reported in this respect.

As an insight into the “Islamic wars”, with a view to study the violence or the non-violence of them, here we quote form the book “The Spread of Islam”.  The author of this book states:

“History books which study the battles and wars over the course of history reveal that violence is an inherent phenomenon in wars.  When the armies invade a country, atrocities are their normal practice.  They know no mercy or compassion, they do not respect women, they do not distinguish the young from the old, and even animals and trees are not spared.  This is because their aim is vengeance and revenge, and to quell any voice which opposes them.  And these are not only the characteristics of invading armies, who act for economical and political objectives, but that kind of violence has even prevailed in some pre-Islamic religions.

In Deuteronomy 13:15-16 we read:

“15 Thou shall surely smite the inhabitants of that city with the edge of the sword, destroying it utterly, and all that is therein, and the cattle thereof, with the edge of the sword.

16 And thou shall gather all the spoil of it into the midst of the street thereof, and shall burn with fire the city, and all the spoil thereof every whit, for the LORD thy God: and it shall be a heap for ever; it shall not be built again.”

And in Deuteronomy 20:11-16 we also find:

“11 And it shall be, if it make thee answer of peace, and open unto thee, then it shall be, that all the people that is found therein shall be tributaries unto thee, and they shall serve thee.

12 And if it will make no peace with thee, but will make war against thee, then thou shall besiege it:

13 And when the LORD thy God hath delivered it into thine hands, thou shall smite every male thereof with the edge of the sword:

14 But the women, and the little ones, and the cattle, and all that is in the city, even all the spoil thereof, shall thou take unto thyself; and thou shall eat the spoil of thine enemies, which the LORD thy God hath given thee.

15 Thus shall thou do unto all the cities which are very far off from thee, which are not of the cities of these nations.

16 But of the cities of these people, which the LORD thy God doth give thee for an inheritance, thou shall save alive nothing that breathe:”

In chapter 58 of his momentous book “The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire”, Edward Gibbon states: “The First Crusade recorded, in the history of mankind, the most brutal prejudice not only against the Muslims, but also against the Eastern Christians and Jews.  Once they took control of the holy city of Jerusalem, the Crusaders, who saw themselves as the servants of the Lord, decided to honour their Lord by offering a bloody sacrifice to the God of the Christians . . . they slaughtered more than 70,000 Muslims!  In the process neither age nor sex could mollify their implacable rage: the savage heroes of the cross indulged themselves three days in a promiscuous massacre; and the infection of the dead bodies produced an epidemical disease.  They smashed the heads of the children against the walls, threw the infants from the top of the city walls, grilled the men on fire and the Jews had been burnt in their synagogue.  They ripped the bellies of pregnant women to check if they had swallowed their gold.  They did not stop until they were totally exhausted.  The papal envoy witnessed this genocide as he too took part in this victory.” [13]

The famous historian, Ibn Atheer, 1160-1234, reports: “The Europeans slaughtered more than 70,000 in the al-Aqsa mosque.  Many of those murdered were women and children, as well as many Muslim imams and scholars, worshipers and pilgrims who had come from far a field to this holy site.  In the rampage, the Crusaders then plundered the mosque of its countless precious jewellery.” 

This kind of barbarity in war continues to this day.  The wars of this (twentieth) century are gruesome examples of death and destruction.  What happened in Hiroshima and Nagasaki are evidence to that, and the Zionists’ atrocities in Palestine and the Lebanon are other proofs that in the mind of non-Muslims war means annihilation and destruction, which knows no mercy and kills the combatant and the civilian population alike.

As for the Muslims, the meaning of war and their understanding of it is based upon the teachings of their religion; the religion of brotherhood, equality, truth, justice and respect for the humanity of mankind.  Therefore, in their wars they - the Muslims - were furthest of all people from violence and destruction.  This is because a true religion does not instruct its followers to practice vengeance and revenge, but it teaches them to defend themselves and their values within the limits of humanity.  The Islamic history is full of examples of Islamic ethics in war.  In these scenes one can see the manifestation of humanity in the full meaning of the word, and can see mercy in various forms.  In fact those scenes were, amongst many others, the reasons that attracted the people to accept Islam in their masses.  See how the people of Jordan addressed the Muslim army when it arrived and camped in Jordan.  They wrote:  “O Muslim folk!  We prefer you to the Romans and like you more than them, despite the fact that they have the same religion as we do.  You are more faithful to us and kinder to us than them.  You are least oppressive and better guardian over us.  But they (the Romans) invaded us and deprived us of our rights and of our houses.”

The objective of the Muslims was not to force others to accept Islam, and if the Messenger of Allah (pbuh) wanted to adopt such a policy, he would not have sanctioned treaties and signed agreements with the Jews in Medina.  What would have prevented him (pbuh) from forcing the Jews to accept Islam or from exterminating every one of them?  He (pbuh) was the head of state, and the Muslims were the strongest force in the Arabian Peninsula.  There was nothing to prevent him from doing so except the divine instruction: “There is no coercion in religion.” [14]

When the Messenger of Allah (pbuh) arrived in Medina he sanctioned a treaty with the Jews there which states:  “ . . . The Jews of ‘Bani Awf’ tribe are (part of) one community (together) with the (Muslim) faithful.  The Jews practice their religion and the Muslims practice their own.  For them shall be their own wealth, property and their persons.  Except for he who has committed oppression or transgression . . .”

This is the freedom of belief in Islam, which is manifested in the conduct of the Messenger of Allah (pbuh).  Another example is the pact that the Messenger of Allah (pbuh) gave to the Christians of the Najraan district of Yemen.  According to this pact, the Messenger of Allah (pbuh) promised them that they may live in the care of Allah and the protection of His messenger with their wealth, land, religion and selves fully safeguarded.  Furthermore there will be no interference with the positions and appointments of bishops, monks, and ministers.  In any dispute amongst themselves, if raised to the prophet, they will be dealt with according to fairness and justice without any injustice being incurred on any side.

One of the best proofs and strongest evidences that Islam spread through persuasion, conviction and through reason, and that the sword had no role to play in the spread of Islam, is the events of the seventh century Hijri (13th century AD).  These events destroyed the Islamic entity and existence and demolished the Islamic government.  These were the consequences of the invasions of the Muslim state by the Moguls and the Tatars.  They killed and mutilated whomever they came across, and plundered everything they could get their hands on.  They destroyed every city, town, and village that they entered and annihilated every sign and symbol of civilisation that the Islamic state had instituted.  These colossal events were the greatest catastrophe ever seen by the Muslims if not by humanity at large.

The famous historian Ibn Atheer, 1160-1234, states:  “Several years passed by and I could not find the strength to write about the colossal catastrophe for it is not within the power of any writer to write about these atrocities.  There are simply not enough words to describe these horrendous events.  It is not possible to give graphic details of these most horrific sufferings of Islam and Muslims.  Is there anyone who can write about this?  I wish I was not born or I wish I had died before this catastrophe. 

However, many friends insisted that I write at least a few words about this greatest tribulation.  I was hesitant at first, but I thought that ignoring their advice would be of no use, this attempt (to write) constitutes writing about a momentous event and an almighty catastrophe the like of which the days and nights would never see again.  It affected humanity in general and the Muslims in particular.  If someone said that from the time that Allah created Adam until now the world had not suffered such genocide, he would be right.  History books do not show any event which come anywhere near this mass murder and destruction.”

Despite the fact that the Moguls slaughtered many millions of Muslim people and razed several hundred cities, towns and villages, they did not manage to quench the flame of Islam in the hearts of the remaining Muslims.  In fact, and this is the point of this article, these very Muslims, who had been severely defeated, managed to beat the Buddhist and Christian missionaries to win over the hearts and minds of those nomads who practiced Shamanism. [15]  It only took a few years filled with debates and discussion which took place between the supporters of each religions until those few whose power and might, and very existence had been broken by the Moguls were able to attract to Islam those ferocious conquerors.  In doing so they (the Muslims) destroyed all the myths and accusations propagated by the adversaries of Islam that it is a religion that spread and survived by the sword.” 

I would add: It is evident from the above quote that the Muslims did not have a sense of vengeance against their oppressors, as taught by the Messenger of Allah (pbuh).  This was the kind of behaviour and attitude the Messenger of Allah (pbuh) had shown towards his enemies whether during war times or any other times.  For the benefit of the reader some of the reports are presented here.

In a tradition it is reported that Imam Saadiq (pbuh) said:

“Before dispatching a squadron, the Messenger of Allah (pbuh) used to call everyone involved to a meeting and brief them about their duties and responsibilities saying: “Advance in the name of Allah, by the name of Allah, in the cause of Allah and in accordance with the religion of the Messenger of Allah (pbuh). . . .  Do not handcuff or tie up (the prisoners), Do not mutilate, Do not use treacherous means (with the enemy), Do not kill the old, Nor the young, Nor the women, Do not cut down the trees; unless you are forced to do so.  If any of the Muslims, whether high ranking or otherwise, give temporary refuge to any of the infidels to hear the message of Allah (to accept Islam), (let him do so).  If he follows you, (i.e. accepted Islam) then he is your brother in religion, and if he refuses, secure his safety, and seek help from Allah.”“

In another tradition, Imam Saadiq (pbuh) is also quoted as saying:

“Before their mission the Messenger of Allah (pbuh) used to order the squadron leader in particular, and the whole company in general, to fear Allah.  The Messenger of Allah (pbuh) then used to say to them: “Advance in the name of Allah and in the way of Allah.  Fight any system who denies Allah, Do not use treacherous mean (with the enemy), do not handcuff or tie up (the prisoners), do not mutilate, do not kill the young, nor he who has sought refuge to the peak of the mountain, do not burn the palm trees, nor flood them, do not cut down fruit-bearing trees, do not burn the crops, you may even need them, do not kill the animals except those you need to eat.  Then when you meet the enemies of the Muslims invite them to one of three.  If they respond (positively) to these, accept (their response) and stay your hands from them.  1. Invite them to Islam, and if they enter Islam accept it from them and stay your hands.  2. Invite them to emigrate (to Islamic cities [16] ) after they have accepted Islam.  If they do, accept it from them and refrain from any measures against them, and if they refuse to emigrate to such centres, they will be treated like any other Bedouin faithful; they will not qualify for Fay’ and Qassma [17] rewards unless they emigrate in the cause of Allah.  3. If they refuse these two options, invite them to pay tribute submissively [18] .  If they agreed to pay tribute, accept it from them, and if they refuse, then seek assistance from Allah the Almighty against them.”

While addressing the people in (preparation for the battle of) Siffeen, Amir-ol-Mo’meneen (pbuh) said,

“Allah the Almighty has shown you a trade which delivers you from painful punishment and guides to the good; (That is) belief in Allah and struggle in the cause of Allah.  He has made his reward the forgiveness of sin and beautiful dwellings in the heavens.  The Almighty said: “Allah loves those who fight in His cause arrayed in battle, as though they were a compact structure.”  So make your arrays like compact structures.  Amir-ol-Mo’meneen continued until he said: “Do not mutilate the dead, and if you overwhelm the enemy do not violate their properties (i.e. respect their privacy), Do not enter a house, do not take anything from their property (belongings) except what you find in their barracks.  Do not agitate any woman, even if they swear at you or insult your leaders or your reverend people.  For they lack the maximum physical, psychological or mental strength.  We used to be instructed to refrain (from causing harm to them) even when they were idolaters.  Even (at that time) if a man hit a woman he would have been rebuked and ridiculed by others (and branded as coward for using force against the weaker sex) as well as his sons.

After the battle of the ‘Camel’ was started and headed by A’ishah against Amir-ul-Mu’minien Imam Ali (pbuh), during which A’ishah and her army were defeated, Imam Ali (pbuh) announced: 

“Do not kill the injured, Do not pursue those fleeing, Whoever puts down his weapon is safe (from being attacked).”

Imam Ali then rode on the mule of the Messenger of Allah and called a number of individuals by name.  Some 60 elders, all of whom were from the Hamdaan tribe, gathered around him wearing their protective helms, swords and shields.  They followed Imam Ali until he reached a big house.  He asked for the door to be opened.  Once inside Amir-ol-Mo’meneen saw women wailing and weeping.  When they saw Imam Ali (pbuh) they all shouted with one voice: He is the killer of our beloveds.  Imam Ali did not say anything to them.  He only asked for A’ishah’s apartment.  When Imam Ali entered her room, their conversation could be heard.  A’ishah was apologising to Imam Ali.  As Imam Ali left the room he saw a woman who he recognised and said to her: If I were the killer of the loved ones I would have killed those in this room, and in this room, and in this room, pointing to three different rooms.  The woman, Safeyyah, went to the wailing women to convey what Imam Ali had said.  Then they all ceased wailing.  Al-Asbagh, the narrator of this report, said: In one of the three rooms was A’eshah and her entourage, in the second was Marwaan ibn al-Hakam and the youths of Quraysh, and the in the third Abdullah ibn al-Zubair and his relatives resided.  Al-Asbagh was asked; “Why did you not arrest them?  Were they not the cause of this conspiracy and the war?  Why did you leave them free?”  Al-Asbagh replied: “We had reached for our swords, with our eyes focused on him (Imam Ali, pbuh), awaiting his command . . . but he did not issue any order except a general amnesty.”

There are countless cases like this, but we only mentioned the above few cases to hint at this point that it is imperative for the Islamic government, and the Islamic movement before that, to adhere to non-violence, even when in power. 

Just as violence is a weapon, non-violence is a weapon too.  However, the weapon of non-violence is sharper than the weapon of violence.  Just as the soul is stronger than the body, so too is non-violence, since it is the weapon of the soul, and so it is more powerful than the weapon of the body which is made of matter.  For this reason, the non-violence of the prophet Abraham (pbuh) defeated King Nimrod’s violence, and Moses’ non-violence defeated Pharaoh’s violence, and Jesus’ non-violence defeated Herod’s violence, and the non-violence of the Messenger of Allah (pbuh) defeated the violence of the pagans’ great knights.

If an individual is able to use the weapon of non-violence then it is inevitable that his adversary would succumb to him no matter how strong or ferocious his enemy may be.  So we see that Jesus (pbuh) ordered his followers to offer the right cheek of their face to he who slaps them on the left.  In doing so he does not want to encourage the offender but he wants to draw the offender to the territory of justice and virtue.  Since such a reaction would create a powerful storm in the soul of the offender in sympathy with the victim, which in turn leads the oppressor to be humble before the oppressed.  What a transcendental wisdom it is that one can sustain a continuous and satisfactory victory by enduring a little suffering and attract the intelligent foe to one’s principles. 

In the book “Towards Islamic System of Government” I have discussed this issue as follows:

Non-violence is the third stand upon which the Islamic movement bases its call for an Islamic government, and this is of utmost importance.  Non-violence requires a very strong and resilient character, which can withstand any assault with total tolerance, and without retaliating, even if the opportunity is there to do so.

Non-violence is manifested in the hand, in the tongue, and in the heart.  Each is easier than the other.  Non-violence of the hand is easier than that of the tongue and non-violence of the tongue is easier than that of the heart.

The meaning of non-violence is that an individual puts things right, whether constructive or destructive, with total leniency so that no one is harmed by this cure.  It is in fact like the Balsam that is placed on an aching part of the body so that it is healed. 

Physical Non-violence
As for physical non-violence, it is that an individual would not attempt to hurt another individual even with respect to the strongest of his adversaries and even if had the right to do so. 
Allah the Almighty states: “and if you forgive, it is closest to righteousness” [19] . 

Therefore one should not slap back his adversary if he did, and should not strike back if he did so, or use any tool or weapon in response.  Of course, non-violence does not mean not protecting one’s body from an incoming assault.  This is self-defence and not violence, and self-defence is part of non-violence.  This physical non-violence is a definite necessity for one who has no other means of ensuring the success of his mission. 

In fact this was the approach of every great reformer or any intellectual aiming at a particular goal or principle.  According to the teachings of Jesus (a), as well as the teachings of the infallible imams (a), one should not return a slap with a slap; but if slapped on the right cheek, one should be ready to receive another on the left.  Some might say that this may encourage the offender.  The reply (to this argument) would be that this will deter him.  Do you see what reaction this response creates in the offender himself?  Imagine that you hit someone and in response to this action, and with total tolerance, he says to you that you can hit him again if you wish.  Imagine what psychological reaction would result.  For anyone who is doubtful about this great wisdom, needs to go no further than to consider the state of Jesus (pbuh) who was surrounded by his adversaries while he had no option but to pursue his mission.  Furthermore, what do you say about the Messenger of Allah, Muhammad (pbuh)?  Did he want to harm the people of Makkah?  History bears witness that the Messenger of Allah (pbuh) used to fully tolerate all the insults and deplorable treatments at the hands of his opponents.  Abu Lahab used to pour sheep’s fat on the Prophet’s head while he was praying; another infidel spits in his face; another used to throw filth into his food.  On one occasion, Abu Jahl’s slave fractured the prophet’s head with a bow; and another; and another; . . . After all this the Messenger of Allah (pbuh) used to pray for these people saying “O Allah, guide my people for they are ignorant.”

And this is how Noah, Lot, Abraham, and Ismael (pbuh) were.  Have you ever heard that Noah raised his hand to hit back at he who had beaten him unconscious?  Or have you seen anywhere in the pages of history books that Lot responded to his people’s aggression with aggression?  Or that Abraham hit back in response to his uncle’s attack?  Or that Ismael raised his hand to hit back at he who sliced off some of his scalp?  This is none other than because their mission required the adoption of a non-violent approach, the first and most immediate manifestation of which is physical.

The physical non-violence is a weapon that attracts the hearts and minds to he who advocates it, and incites the people against his adversaries.  Imagine that you see someone hitting another person but the latter does not respond likewise.  Who would your sympathies lie with?  Siding with the oppressed is a universal reality that the great reformers have adopted in order to achieve their ultimate goal, which is reform.

Ghandi, one of the activists in the liberation of India, used to say: “I learnt from Imam Hussain (pbuh) how to attain victory while being oppressed.” 

Not responding to an aggression on the reformer’s side not only creates sympathy in the hearts of all other people, but it also brings about compassion in the heart of the aggressor.  When someone assaults an individual and the aggressor does not see a similar response from his victim, his heart will be filled with mercy and leniency after being filled with anger and violence.

The invitation (to Islam) needs peace extensively, specially if superpowers opposed their call, whereas the movement possesses nothing but the truth.

Consider if an individual, who is armed with a sword, slaps an activist.  If the latter were to respond in a similar manner, what is there to prevent the aggressor from using his sword to attack the activist?  Which of the two scenarios are more desirable?  To tolerate an assault in order to save his life and his mission, or to return the assault and lose his life and fail his mission?

Therefore we see that the Messenger of Allah (pbuh) used to exemplify Bilaal, Sumayyah, Ammar, and others who tolerated numerous assaults from the pagans.  This is not because it is wrong to return aggression, but since to return aggression for a man with a mission would defeat its cause.  Therefore when Islam resorted to force, this was to prevent chaos and aggression, even though it normally offered forgiveness on many occasions when deemed not harmful.  It has been mentioned previously that this (forgiveness) is based on the question of priorities.  Suppose that you are in dispute with an aggressive opponent who has taken over your house.  If he assaults you and you know that if you respond similarly, you would lose your argument against him and with that the possibility of getting back your house.  Would it not be more prudent to keep your nerve and deal with him rationally rather than returning his assault with an assault?  Rational reasoning would certainly opt for the former.  This is the common ground between the verses:

“There is no coercion in religion” [20] and

“(This is) A declaration of immunity from Allah and His Messenger, to those of the Pagans with whom you have made treaties.” [21] as well as other verses concerning fighting.

When a system-of-belief (religion) does not possess power or it aims to progress (to spread its message) then it would be absurd if it were to compel anyone to accept that belief, as this will bring about its prompt failure.  On the other hand if it possessed power or it were preoccupied with important issues, then it would also be absurd to ignore those who engage and encourage corruption and tyranny.

Verbal Non-violence
As for verbal non-violence, it is far more difficult to manage than the physical non-violence.  Therefore it can be seen in many cases that someone is not prepared to hit anyone or to assault him physically but he is prepared to assault him verbally and slander him.  This is because often verbal (assault) is less prone to prosecution in this world, for the culprit to fear the outcome, and therefore the tongue is free to say anything unchecked.  Fearing the consequences, the hand is tied since it is subject to more control then the tongue.  More often than not, an individual verbally criticises the ruling regime endlessly but when in detention he receives the beatings, he does not return the assault.  Needless to say, there is a difference between non-violence on principle and for the protection of belief and mission, and that of fearing more violence and assault.  The latter is the condition of any weak individual in the claws of a powerful one, with the exception that only the weak individual would respond if he loses his rational reasoning, since no one in their right mind would do anything to cause himself more harm.  Whereas the former is a spiritual virtue which an individual uses to save his mission and not out of fear of punishment.  A non-violent individual will have a stronger character; a more composed, and in control of his conduct and has higher moral value and conscience than the aggressor. 
In any case, verbal non-violence is to curb one’s tongue and check one’s words in order to make sure one’s words do not damage the aggressor, whether his aggression was physical or verbal.

This kind of non-violence is a great virtue and it is imperative that those involved in the invitation to (Islam) practice it however rough a ride it may prove to be and however difficult it may be to control.  The strongest of all those who respond likewise to aggression is he who, when faced with a barrage of insults and accusation, seeks refuge in silence and abstains from responding likewise, in the interest of the cause and progress of Islam. 

Allah states in the holy Qur’an:

“Respond with that which is better, so that he, between whom and you there was animosity, shall be like an intimate friend. And none shall be accorded this rank except those who have stood fast, and none shall be accorded it except one blessed with great good fortune.” [22]

Such a fortune is called a ‘great fortune’ by the Lord of existence. Otherwise how can an individual respond to insult with praise (for the offending individual concerned), and to slander with commendation, and to belittlement with extolment, except if he was an individual who has stood fast, tolerated and persevered.  Imam al-Sajjaad (pbuh) in his prayer, known as Makaarem al-Akhlaaq, or the Most Noble of Ethics, says:

“O Lord have Mercy on Muhammad and his descendants . . . and help me to tender with sincerity whoever cheated me, and to reward with kindness whoever abandoned me, and to repay generously whoever denied me, and to recompense by making bond with whoever broke off with me, and to praise whoever backbite against me.  Enable me to appreciate the good deed and forgive the bad deed.” [23]

That is, Islam commissions a Muslim, for being a muslim, to give good counsel to he who cheats him, be kind to he who boycotts him, to give generously and extensively to he who denies him, to bond with he who cut him off, to praise he who slanders him.  This duty is more so for a Muslim reformer who wants to clean and revive his country from intellectual, military, economical, and cultural tyranny and corruption.  He needs this weapon (of non-violence) more than any other person.  In fact this is the only weapon for the unarmed who is confronted by those who have armed themselves to the extent that they have drowned themselves in metal, fire, nuclear and Hydrogen bombs. 

It is reported that Jesus (pbuh) along with some of his follower came across a group of Jews, the latter insulted Jesus (pbuh).  In response to them, Jesus (pbuh) praised them.  His followers said to Jesus, “O Spirit of Allah!  They swear at you and you praise them!?”  Jesus (pbuh) replied; “Yes.  Every one gives whatever he has.”  What a great word and magnificent wisdom.  He who is filled with insult and filth, nothing comes out of him except swearing and slander.  And he who embodies goodness, wisdom, virtue and high moral values, emits nothing but kindness, praise and compassion.  Thus was the teaching of the prophets with no difference between Abraham, Moses, Jesus and Muhammad as well as all other prophets (peace be upon them).  With such a policy, their calls of reform succeeded and managed to open a way in the material world of position and power and establish themselves for as long as man has existed.  When wealth and power have vanished, those teachings remain as the torch of guidance for mankind in the dark world that the tyrant and arrogant powers bring about. 

If the prophets were not to arm themselves with the weapon of non-violence, their calls and missions would have been buried in their infancy by the lords of wealth and power.  Consider, for example, the well-known story of Imam Hassan (pbuh) when a man from Shaam [24] came across the Imam and started swearing at and cursing the Imam and his father (a).  Imam Hassan (pbuh) did not respond to the man and remained silent until he finished what he had started.  When the man stopped his barrage of insults, Imam Hassan addressed the man a smile:

“O’ Sheikh!  I guess you are a stranger in this territory and you might have mistaken (me).  For if you seek contentment from us, we would gratify you, and if you ask us for anything we shall give it to you, if you seek any guidance from us we shall guide you, and if you seek vehicle from us we shall arrange one for you, if you are hungry we shall feed you, if you need any clothes we shall give you them, if you are poor we shall give you money, if you have been expelled (from your hometown) we shall accommodate you, and if you have any need we shall fulfil your need.” 

On hearing this response from Imam Hassan (pbuh), the man was so ashamed of his behaviour towards the Imam that he broke into tears and said: “I testify that you are Allah’s Deputy on this earth, Allah knows best where He places His message [25] “. 

Similar events have been reported in the traditions of the prophets and the infallible Imams (a) where they return insult and aggression with kindness, but are naturally beyond the scope of this brief work. 

However we can see the Qur’an puts forward a good framework for a philosophical and practical call to peace and non-violence:

“Invite (all) to the Way of thy Lord with wisdom and beautiful preaching; and argue with them in ways that are best and most gracious.” [26]

“And when the ignorant address them, they say, “Peace!”” [27]

“Do not dispute with the people of the Book but in the fairest way.” [28]

“And if they turn their backs, say: “Bear witness that we are Muslims” [29]

“Hold to forgiveness; enjoin the good and turn away from the ignorant.” [30]

“Do not curse those [deities] whom they call upon besides Allah, lest they wrongfully curse Allah without knowledge.” [31]

“It is by a mercy from Allah that you dealt leniently with them; for had you been hard-hearted, they would have dispersed from around you.  So pardon them and ask Allah’s forgiveness for them.” [32]

“Let them forgive and overlook: do you not wish that Allah should forgive you?” [33]

Non-violence by Heart
The third category of non-violence is that of the heart, which is the hardest of the three, (non-violence of the hand, tongue and heart).
The meaning of the non-violence of the heart is that one does not fill his heart with violence towards foes and adversaries.  And it is normal for what is in the heart to seep through to facial expression, and body language.  “One does not intend anything without it reflecting in the slips of his tongue or features of his face.”, as stated in a tradition.  So one may take care to eradicate physical and verbal non-violence but not of the heart.  Depicting such a condition a poet states:

As of the tongue, it is coated with honey

But the hearts (are) wasps and snakes

Furthermore is he who has violence in his heart able to hide his violence forever?  Surely no.  It is inevitable that his violence will come to the surface, even if under unusual circumstances.  Hinting at this aspect, a poet states:

Secret has two windows: drunkenness and fury.

Since keeping what is in the heart hidden forever is normally impossible, according to the poet who states:

No matter what character an individual may have,

If he wanted it hidden from the people, it would (eventually) be found out.

This paper appears in the book

War, Peace, and Non-Violence: an Islamic perspective


[1] Compiled by Hassan al-Hurr al-Aameli as “Wasaa’el al-Shi’a le Tasheel Masaa’el al-Shari’ah”.

[2] Compiled by Mirza Hussain al-Noori as “Mostadrak al-Wasaa’el”.

[3] The holy Qur’an: The Criterion (25): 70.

[4] The holy Qur’an: Abraham (14): 28.

[5] The holy Qur’an: The Family of ‘Emran (3): 146.

[6] The holy Qur’an: Repentance (9): 73.

[7] This figure includes the casualties on both sides throughout the campaigns.

[8] The holy Qur’an: Well-Expounded (41): 35.

[9] Imam Zayn el-Aabedeen, also known as Imam al-Sajjad, is the fourth infallible imam of the Muslims after the Messenger of Allah (pbuh).

[10] Imam Saadiq is the sixth infallible imam of the Muslims after the Messenger of Allah (pbuh).

[11] Imam Baaqir is the fifth infallible imam of the Muslims after the Messenger of Allah (pbuh).

[12] Imam Ali, also known by his exclusive title Amir-ul-Mu’minien, is the first infallible imam of the Muslims after the Messenger of Allah (pbuh).

[13] Edward Gibbon, 1737-1794, “The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire”, Chapter 58.

[14] The holy Qur’an: The Heifer (2): 256.

[15] Shamanism is a primitive religion practiced in northern Siberia.  It believes in a hidden world belonging to the gods, devils and the spirits of the ancestors and that their priests, Shaman, practice magic to cure illness amongst others.  Some sects of the red Indians in the Americas also practiced shamanism.

[16] This is so that they will have access to the sources of learning in those cities to educate themselves to an acceptable level.  In rural and remote locations such opportunities of learning were not available at the time being.

[17] These are government income from spoil of war and land rent.

[18] The holy Qur’an: Repentance (9): 29.

[19] The holy Qur’an, The Heifer (2): 237.

[20] The holy Qur’an: The Heifer (2): 256.

[21] The holy Qur’an: Repentance (9): 1.

[22] The holy Qur’an: Well-Expounded (41): 34-35.

[23] Extracts from the supplications of Imam al-Sajjaad (pbuh) known as Makaarem al-Akhlaaq or “The most Noble of Ethics”.

[24] Shaam was the district that included today’s Syria, Lebanon, Palestine and Jordan.

[25] The holy Qur’an: The Cattle (6): 124.

[26] The holy Qur’an: The Bee (16): 125.

[27] The holy Qur’an: The Criterion (25): 63.

[28] The holy Qur’an: The Spider (29): 46.

[29] The holy Qur’an: The Family of ‘Amraan (3): 64.

[30] The holy Qur’an: The Heights (7): 199.

[31] The holy Qur’an: The Cattle (6): 108.

[32] The holy Qur’an: The Family of ‘Amraan (3): 159.

[33] The holy Qur’an: The Light (24): 22.

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