Tomorrow, March 2nd, on Here on Earth: Radio Without Borders, Jean will talk about non-violent resistance in the Middle East. The recent protests that began in Tunisia and Egypt and led to the ousting of both leaders have now spread to Yemen and Libya. What has caught the attention of the world is how peaceful, for the most part, these protests have been. When there has been violence, it has come from the government forces.
Discussions of these protests have characterized Islam–as embodied in groups like the Muslim Brotherhood— as something negative and more importantly violent, almost completely ignoring Islam’s tradition of non-violent resistance. This tradition stems from historical events, discussions about warfare, and Qur’anic verses that demonstrate the need for peaceful engagement.
There are events in the Prophet Muhammad’s life that illustrate that non-violent resistance is not foreign to Islam. For the first 13 years of preaching Islam, the Prophet Muhammad and his followers did not engage in any warfare; rather, their main mode of resistance against the Meccans–who actively persecuted them in this period–was non-violent.
Many who are critical of Islam emphasize that the Prophet Muhammad and the Muslim community did engage in warfare and that is true. However, it was after many years of persecution and when the Muslims were forced to leave their homes and had their property taken from them. In Islam, there is a strong emphasis on justice and rejection of oppression; thus, there are times where self-defensive warfare is necessary. What the verses in the Qur’an about warfare do is to provide limitations on how warfare should be carried out. But this does not preclude the possibility and desire for non-violent resistance.
A warning that is often repeated in the Qur’an relates to transgression against others and thus against the rules of God. Having said that, both non-violent resistance and self-defense are acceptable modes of engagement. However, if it is possible to achieve the goal of ending oppression without resorting to violence (because there is the possibility of transgression), that is preferred. It is worth noting that when Islam had become the established force in the Arabian Peninsula and the Muslims returned to Mecca, the Prophet Muhammad granted amnesty to all regardless of whatever actions they had taken against the Muslims.
Finally, there are verses in the Qur’an that remind human beings about how they should strive to engage with one another. A verse that is often cited to demonstrate that Muslims are required to live with others peacefully is:
O mankind! We created you from a single (pair) of a male and a female, and made you into nations and tribes, that ye may know each other (not that ye may despise each other). Verily the most honored of you in the sight of Allah is (he who is) the most righteous of you. And Allah has full knowledge and is well acquainted (with all things). (Qur’an 49:13)
From this verse, it is clear that there is a reason for the diversity of communities and the goal is to coexist and not fight each other. Another verse (among many) that is cited in relation to preserving life is:
Because of that We ordained for the Children of Israel that if anyone killed a person not in retaliation of murder, or (and) to spread mischief in the land – it would be as if he killed all mankind, and if anyone saved a life, it would be as if he saved the life of all mankind. And indeed, there came to them Our Messengers with clear proofs, evidences, and signs, even then after that many of them continued to exceed the limits (e.g. by doing oppression unjustly and exceeding beyond the limits set by Allah by committing the major sins) in the land! (Qur’an 5: 32)
Preservation of life and not transgressing the boundaries of God are the focus of this verse. Human life is sacred.
Thus, in Islam, there is a clear tradition of non-violent resistance. Fighting should always be to defend oneself and the fear of transgression sets the boundaries. Moreover, the message of the sacredness of life that is repeated throughout the Qur’an read alongside the prohibition of transgression, should always lead Muslims to first find non-violent ways to resist oppression.
Do you think all religions have a tradition of non-violent resistance? If there are rules of warfare in a faith, does that mean it does not have a tradition of peaceful resistance? Do you think of non-violent resistance when you think of Islam? Why or why not? Please share your thoughts below.