The Humble "I"

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Uhud & Hunayn: Lessons from the Frontline

Arab-Horsemen-by-a-Watering-HoleIn The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien puts these words into the mouth of the brave though modest Faramir (younger brother to the brave but impulsive Boromir): ‘War must be, while we defend our lives against a destroyer who would devour all; but I do not love the bright sword for its sharpness, nor the arrow for its swiftness, nor the warrior for his glory. I only love that which they defend …’

In classical Islam, warfare is regulated by an all-important shari‘ah dictum that states about jihad: wujubuhu wujubu’l-wasa’il la al-maqasid – ‘Its necessity is the necessity of means, not of ends.’1 Indeed, Islam’s overall take on war is best seen in the following words of the Prophet, peace be upon him: ‘Do not wish to meet your enemy, but ask God for safety. When you do meet them, be firm and know that Paradise lies beneath the shades of swords.’2 In other words, pursue the path of peace, with the presence of justice; if such a path be denied by belligerence or hostile intent, then be prepared to act differently.

War, invariably, can and does throw up immense carnage and destruction, and brings untold human loss and suffering. Yet it is also where some of the profoundest acts of courage, bravery and heroism are found, as well as invaluable lessons for life. In what follows, we shall look at two battles in the life of the Prophet, peace be upon him, and their core lessons that need internalising:

The first lesson is from the Battle of Uhud. It began at dawn on Friday, March 25th, 2H/624AD, a year on from the Battle of Badr. The Muslims numbered seven hundred against an enemy three-thousand strong. The prestige of the Makkan idolaters was at stake for the crushing defeat they suffered at Badr – including seventy deaths and just as many taken captive. The Prophet, peace be upon him, positioned his men so that Mount Uhud was behind them. The only way the Makkan cavalry could attack them now was from infront, so the Prophet posted fifty archers on a rise with strict orders to stay put, no matter what happened. This would be an excellent strategy, provided the archers obeyed their orders. But by nightfall, and due to the archers abandoning their post (thus leaving the rear of the army unguarded), the fortunes of war changed and disaster befell the Muslims: the Prophet would be wounded and seventy Muslims would be killed. But it didn’t have to be that way.

The Companion, Bara’ b. ‘Azib, recounts: We encountered the pagans on that day [of Uhud]. The Prophet, peace be upon him, positioned a group of archers and appointed ‘Abd Allah [b. Jubayr] as their leader, saying: ‘Do not leave this position. If you should see us defeat them, do not leave this position; if you should see them defeating us, do not come to our aid.’ When we met the enemy they fled on their heels, to the extent that we saw their women fleeing to the mountains, lifting their dresses and revealing their anklets. Some people started saying: ‘The booty, the booty!’ But ‘Abd Allah said: ‘The Prophet took an oath from me to not leave this post.’ His companions, however, disobeyed. So when they disobeyed, Allah confused them, so they did not know where to go, and because of which they suffered seventy deaths.3

Ibn al-Qayyim comments: ‘This calamity that struck them was as a result of their own actions. Allah said: When a disaster befell you after you had yourself inflicted [losses] twice as heavy, you exclaimed: ‘How did this happen?’ Say: ‘It is from yourselves. Allah is able to do all things.’ [3:165] And He mentioned this very same matter in that which is more general than this, in one of the Makkan chapters: Whatever misfortune befalls you, is for what your own hands have earned, and He pardons much. [42:30] And He said: Whatever good befalls you is from Allah, and whatever calamity befalls you is from yourself. [4:79] So the good and bad mentioned here refer to blessings and misfortunes: Blessings are what Allah favours you with, while misfortunes occur because of your own selves and your misdeeds. The first is from His grace (fadl); the second, His justice (‘adl).’4

So the single most important lesson to learn from Uhud is that whenever we Muslims suffer defeat – be it on the battlefield of swords, ideas, or hearts and minds – we are to blame ourselves, take account of our souls and repent for our sins. There being no other way to correct our course. For despite the enemy attacking the Muslims from their unprotected rear and being the reason why one believer after another was cut down and killed; and despite the enemy being the reason for Muslim flight turning to full-scale panic as the Prophet, peace be upon him, was knocked down by a crushing blow to the head – the Qur’an still laid the blame for these calamities squarely at the feet of the Muslims: When a disaster befell you after you had yourself inflicted losses twice as heavy, you exclaimed: ‘How did this happen?’ Say: ‘It is from yourselves.’ [3:165]

Nor was the defeat the result of the entire army’s disobedience, or even the majority; but because of less than fifty men among a total of seven-hundred! If such can be the consequences of a sin of a tiny minority, what then about the plethora of sins or acts of disobedience committed by a heedless, unrepentant, transgressing majority!

And tragically, as frequent as these verses appear in the Qur’an, we still choose not to internalise them or allow them to enter into our hearts. Instead, we allow our souls to be invaded by a false victim mentality and choose to play the blame game. We accuse all and sundry for our political woes and misfortunes – the West, the rulers, bankers, Zionists, along with a whole host of conspiracy theories which plague our minds and cripple our thinking – but we never accuse ourselves. We are keen to hold to account other people – in a way that contains no pity, mercy or leeway – but are not prepared to take ourselves to any serious account. And yet: Allah never changes the condition of a people unless they change what is within themselves. [13:11] Thus while we are clear about the evils of Assad and his crimes of carnage in Syria; and the shameless hypocrisy and tyranny of al-Sisi et al. in Egypt, we tend to steer shy of the all-important question of why such calamities occurred in the first place. The Quranic reply to this is very likely to be: Say: ‘It is from yourselves.’ [3:165] Isn’t it? And while this does not excuse us from raising our hands in prayer, and giving as much humanitarian aid as possible, we still need to sincerely confront the deeper question.

The second lesson we will consider is the Battle of Hunayn. It is Wednesday morning, February 2nd, 8H/630AD. The Muslim army, now twelve thousand strong, marched towards the valley of Hunayn to encounter the Hawazin tribe and their allies, whose number was perhaps a third of that of the Muslims. It is worth noting that two years earlier, when the Prophet came to Makkah for the lesser pilgrimage, or ‘umrah, only 1,400 people were with him. This was the time when the Prophet, peace be upon him, concluded the peace treaty with the Makkans at Hudaybiyah. A few months later, the same number fought alongside him at the Battle of Khaybar. And in previous battles, their numerical strength had been far smaller. But this time, many of the newcomers to Islam felt a sense of euphoria and over confidence as they observed the size of their army. They felt sure that, having previously won battle after battle with much smaller numbers, such large numbers would make victory a sure certainty. But as soon as the Muslims reached the valley, they were met with a fierce, unexpected torrent of arrows from all directions. Caught off guard, confused and overwhelmed, the Muslims were forced into a chaotic and panicked retreat. And though the Muslims would eventually prevail as victors in this battle (for the Prophet, as ever, remained calm in his wisdom, certainty and faith: he eventually rallied a hundred men and inflicted a most crushing defeat on the enemy), it wasn’t without many of them being slain in the ambush first. The Qur’an says: Allah had already helped you on many fields, and on the day of Hunayn, when you delighted in your numerical strength, it availed you nothing. And the earth, vast as it was, narrowed on you, and you turned back in retreat. [9:24]

Ibn al-Qayyim again: ‘Thus from Allah’s wisdom, transcendent is He, is that He first made them taste the bitterness of defeat and of being overcome – despite their large numbers, strength and preparation – so that heads that were raised in the Conquest of Makkah, should be lowered. For they did not enter His city and sanctuary as Allah’s Messenger, peace be upon him, had done: head bowed upon his horse; to the extent that his head almost touched the saddle out of humility to his Lord, humbleness to His glory, and submission to His might. For Allah had made lawful to him His sacred city [Makkah] and sanctuary, and had not made it lawful to anyone before him nor to anyone after him. [All this occurred] so that He could make it clear to those who said, “We will not be defeated today due to our numbers,” that help and victory come from Him alone; that whomsoever He helps, none can overcome; and that whomsoever He forsakes, none can grant victory to. [And that] it was He who took it upon Himself to give victory to His Messenger and to His religion – not because of their numbers that they revelled in. Such numbers, in fact, were of no avail to them, since they turned and fled. But when their hearts were humbled, Allah sent down the removal of their distress and a foretaste of victory by sending down His tranquility upon His Prophet and upon the believers, and by sending an army unseen. Hence from His wisdom is that He sends down His victory and gifts to them when their hearts become humbled and broken: And We desired to show favour to those who were oppressed in the earth, and to make them leaders, and make them inheritors. And to grant them power in the earth, and to show Pharaoh, Haman and their hosts that which they feared. [28:5-6]’5

The core lesson of Hunayn is, undoubtedly, to never overlook the real, most essential reason for victory: Allah. For victory comes from Him, not from numerical strength. (We do, however, have a duty to tie our camel, as one hadith says, and to then trust in Him.) The Muslims were initially given to taste the bitterness of defeat in order that they might remember precisely this. In fact, large numbers – in the absence of hearts feeling humbled before the majesty and might of Allah – are of little use. Having been taught a lesson in humility; having their pretensions of numerical strength shattered; and having presented their broken hearts to Allah, Allah then granted the believers victory at Hunayn at the hands of a small band of courageous, steadfast Muslims who remained dedicated to the Prophet, peace be upon him.

Allah is with the broken-hearted and will call overconfident, self-assured Muslims to account if they exult in their numbers or their material achievements – as He will call proud establishments and arrogant religiousness to account.

W’Llahu wali al-tawfiq.

1. Ibn Hajr al-Haytami citing al-Zarkashi, Tuhfat al-Muhtaj bi Sharh al-Minhaj (Beirut: Dar Sadir, 1972), 9:211.

2. Al-Bukhari, no.2991. For comparisons between Jihad theory and Western Just War theory, consult: Kelsay & Johnson (eds.), Just War and Jihad: Historical and Theoretical Perspectives on War and Peace in Western and Islamic Traditions (New York, Westport & London: Greenwood Press, 1991).

3. Al-Bukhari, no.4043.

4. Zad al-Ma’ad fi Hady Khayr al-‘Ibad (Beirut: Mu’assasah al-Risalah, 1998), 3:214.

5. ibid., 3:418-9.

Terrorism is to Jihad as Adultery is to Marriage

terror

For the past four days I had been working on the following article, which I intended to post yesterday evening. However, I then heard about the vile and sadistic act of violence carried out by two men with knives and a meat cleaver in Woolwich. So I thought it best to review the blog post in light of the event, to see if I should develop it in any way. But barring a few edits here and there, I am posting the article more or less as it was originally written.

This is a brief overview of what Islam has to say about jihad, terrorism and the sanctity of human life. It bases itself, not on the need to please policy makers or the powers to be, nor on a colonialised mindset desperate to fit Islam into some acceptable liberal mould, but upon the texts of the Qur’an and the Sunnah, and the consensus (ijma‘) and considerations of mainstream Muslim jurists.

On a personal note, combating terrorism, and its ideological underpinnings, has long been a significant part of my da‘wah or outreach programme; and all praise is for God. It was animated long before the events of 9-11 or 7-7; since 1992 in fact, when a few of my teachers in shari‘ah alerted me to its realities, dangers and its unIslamic character. What follows is, as stated earlier, a brief trek across some of that terrain:

1. The first thing to mention in this regards is Islam’s outlook concerning the sanctity (hurmah) of human life. For as Islam views it, the human creature is indeed a sacred creation; so much so that: Whoever kills a person for other than crimes of manslaughter or corruption in the earth, it shall be as if he has killed the whole of humanity; and whosoever saves the life of one person, it shall be as if he has saved the whole of humanity. [5:32] Such, then, is the extraordinary value placed on human life in the Qur’an. And thus, as will be shown, acts of terror where women, children and other civilians are intentionally targeted and killed is categorically repudiated by Islam and by the agreement of those versed in law and learning among the Muslims.

2. Jihad as a word stems from jahada, which means: to strive, to exert oneself, to take extraordinary pains. As for its religious sense, al-Raghib al-Asbahani (d.425H/1034CE) defines it thus: ‘Exerting one’s utmost ability in repelling an enemy, and it is of three kinds: namely, contending against the outward enemy, the devil, and one’s ego. Each of these enters into God’s statement, exalted is He: And strive for God as He rightly must be striven for. [22:78] And strive with your wealth and your lives in the cause of God. [9:41] Also: Those who believed and left their homes and strove with their wealth and their lives in the cause of God. [8:72]’1

3. In Islam, the decision about war and peace is not left to scholars, soldiers, or anyone else. Rather it rests with the head of state who wields executive authority. This being a cardinal rule of warfare in Islam. Ibn Qudamah al-Maqdisi (d.620H/1223CE) explains the rule like so: ‘The question of declaring war [or not] is entrusted to the head of state and his decision (amr al-jihad mawkulun ila’l-imam wa ijtihadihi). Compliance with the decision is the subject’s duty in terms of what the authorities deem fit in the matter.’2 Al-Buhuti (1051H/1641CE) echoes the principle: ‘Declaring jihad or not is entrusted to the head of state and his decision, for he best knows the condition of the Muslims and of the enemy.’3

4. The classical Islamic doctrine that forbids killing non-combatants and civilians in an outward (military) jihad takes its cue from the Prophet’s words, peace be upon him: ‘March forth in the name of God, trusting in God and adhering to the religion of God. Do not kill elderly men, infants, young children or women.’4 And Ibn ‘Umar relates that the Prophet, peace be upon him, ‘forbade the killing of women and children.’5

5. After quoting the last hadith, Imam al-Nawawi (d.676H/1277CE) typified the juristic consensus on the issue when he said: ‘Scholars concur upon acting by this hadith and forbid the killing of women and children, provided that they do not engage in combat. But if they do, the overwhelming majority of scholars (jamahir al-‘ulema) hold that they may be fought.’6 Ibn Qudamah, explaining the logic behind the consensus about not fighting women, the elderly, children, monks or traders, writes that each of these ‘are non-combatants (laysa min ahl al-qital).’7 Again, he states: ‘It is not permissible to kill a child among them, nor the insane, nor a woman, monk, elderly man, someone with a debilitating illness, and nor a blind man – except if they fight.’8

6. Thus, as has been shown, the intentional targeting and killing of civilians, which a fringe minority now seek to pass off as a bonafide jihad, is a gross departure from the classical juristic consensus and a perversion of the prophetic teachings. The wanton carnage and urban mayhem unleashed upon civilian lives, and the twisted re-readings of Islam’s scriptural sources by the current vanguards of terrorism, must continue to be denounced, repudiated and textually exposed. In unmasking terrorism (hiraba) for what it truly is, it has been aptly contended that: ‘Terrorism is to jihad what adultery is to marriage.’9 The Qur’an says: ‘What! Have you slain an innocent soul though he has killed nobody? Truly you have done a thing most foul.’ [18:73]

7. One argument extremists use to justify their acts of terror is to allege that civilians living in a democracy aren’t innocent at all. Their logic runs like this: In a democracy the government represents the will of the people, therefore civilian populations are complicit in their government’s foreign policies and are thus legitimate targets in war. This allegation is as false as it is factually distorted. What this reductionist everyone’s-guilty-in-a-democracy argument ignores or overlooks is that large swathes of citizens in a democracy may not agree with their government’s foreign policies, or even have voted them into power! So how can such citizens be complicit in their government’s actions? The anti-war demonstrations and protests against the Iraq war, for instance, which scores of millions of ordinary citizens across Western Europe and the United States rallied behind, is enough to show the fallacy of such logic. Moreover, as we shall see below, the shariah still considers such people as not being min ahl al-qital – “actual combatants”.

8. A more direct rebuttal of this twisted logic would be to look at the context in which the Prophet, peace be upon him, prohibited the killing of women, children and other civilians in war. This injunction was given when the Prophet, peace be upon him, and the early Muslims were in the midst of war with the pagan Arabs of Makkah, whose goal was no less than the extermination of Muslims. The Makkan idolators were a tightly–knit confederacy whose tribal elders would make decisions collectively at their tribal councils. The average person in such a society had far greater access to their elders and leaders and far more influence on policies than any citizen in today’s Western democracies. In fact, it was not uncommon for women (either married or related to tribal leaders, or those with social influence) to pressurise, cajole and even threaten their husbands into war with the Muslims, on pain of family disgrace and tribal ignominy, if they did not do so. During the battle of Uhud, women, led by Hind, even went out onto the battlefield to lend moral support to the aggressors. In spite of knowing all this, the Prophet, peace be upon him, still insisted: ‘Do not kill elderly men, young children, or women.’10 And when he once saw a woman that had been killed, he said: ‘This is not one who should have been fought.’11

9. Another proof used to justify the killing of civilians is a hadith in which the Prophet was asked about some of the idolators whose settlements had been attacked at night and which resulted in a few women and children being killed. This led him to say: ‘They are from them (hum minhum).’12 There are two reasons why this hadith cannot be used in this manner: Firstly, a large body of jurists consider the hadith to have been abrogated by the explicit command to ‘not kill civilians in war.’13 Secondly, jurists who do permit night raids that could result in civilian loss clearly state: ‘This is provided they [women, children and other non-combatants] are not deliberately targeted.’14 It is also interesting that a leading jurist of early Islam, as well as the actual sub-narrator of this hadith, Imam al-Zuhri, would qualify the above hadith by immediately relating the hadith which forbids killing civilians. Thus: ‘Whenever al-Zuhri related this hadith, he would say: “Ka‘b b. Malik’s son narrated to me; from his uncle … that the Prophet, peace be upon him, forbade the killing of women and children.”’15

10. Another aspect of the shari‘ah which bears on the subject, but which has also come under extremism’s aberrant re-readings, is the notion of ‘aqd al-aman – “the covenant of security”. What this implies is that  Muslims residing, for instance, in a non-Muslim land – either native born, naturalised or legal resident – are under an explicit pact or contract which renders all non-Muslim life, property and honour sacrosanct. That is, Muslim citizens of non-Muslim countries cannot engage in acts of aggression against their own state of fellow citizens. Ibn Qudamah said: ‘As for treachery towards them, this is expressly forbidden. For they only granted him security on condition that he not betray them and that they be safe from his harm. If this is not stipulated in explicit terms, it is implicitly implied. …This being so, it is unlawful for us to be treacherous to them, since this is betrayal; and our religion has no place for betrayal. The Prophet, peace be upon him, said: “The Muslims fulfil their contracts.”1617

11. It isn’t possible to stress enough how seriously orthodox Islam takes the obligation to honour contracts and covenants, or how unlawful it is for a Muslim who lives or resides in a land to then attack it or its citizens. What should also be appreciated is that a Muslim may even hold the following opinion with no internal contradiction with the above ten points: that America and Britain are waging wars of aggression in the Middle East; however, Muslims who are under a pledge of security may not attack their country, nor its soldiers, nor any of its citizens. One hadith has this threat of humiliation and ignominy: ‘For every person who betrays a covenant will have a flag at his back on the Day of Judgement, which will be raised according to the level of his treachery.’18 

To conclude: the chorus of condemnation from Islam’s textual sources and religious authorities, against acts of terror, must continue to ring out urgently and loudly. If we wish to be dissenting voices on any issue of domestic or foreign policy, we must find legitimate ways within the democratic process to voice such dissent.

It is to their credit that Muslim scholars, despite differences between them on a whole array of theological and legal issues, have come out so unanimously against terrorism. What we also ask of them is to continue to strive to expose and eradicate the deviant notions and assumptions that underpin it. Our governments (British and American) also have a responsibility to act. For they can drain much of the extremists’ anger by securing a fair resolution to the Palestinian problem, closing Guantanamo Bay prison, and enacting just foreign policies. It is for the Muslim scholars, however, to vanquish the twisted fiqh-cum-theology of the terrorists.

1. Mufradat Alfaz al-Qur’an (Damascus: Dar al-Qalam, 2002), 208.

2. Al-Mughni (Saudi Arabia: Dar al-‘Alam al-Kutub, 1999), 13:11.

3. Kashshaf al-Qina‘ (Riyadh: Maktabah al-Nasr al-Hadithah, n.d.), 3:41.

4. Abu Dawud, Sunan, no.2614.

5. Al-Bukhari, no.3015; Muslim, no.1744.

6. Sharh Sahih Muslim (Beirut: Dar al-Kutub al-‘Ilmiyyah, 1995), 12:43.

7. Al-Mughni, 13:178.

8. ‘Umdat al-Fiqh (Riyadh: Dar al-Mayman, 2009), 220.

9. Abdal Hakim Murad, Contentions, 5/7, at www.masud.co.uk

10. Abu Dawud, no.2614.

11. Abu Dawud, no.2669; Ibn Majah, no.2842.

12. Al-Bukhari, no.3012.

13. See: Ibn Hajr al-‘Asqalani, Fath al-Bari Sharh Sahih al-Bukhari (Beirut: Dar al-Kutub al-‘Ilmiyyah, 1989), 6:182.

14. As per the classical Hanbali jurist, al-Buhuti, Kashshaf al-Qina‘, 3:47-8.

15. Cited in Fath al-Bari, 6:182. I am grateful to Muhammad Nizami for pointing out this report to me.

16. Al-Tirmidhi, no.1352.

17. Al-Mughni, 13:152.

18. Muslim, no.1738.

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