The Battle of Uhud and Conflicting War Ideologies

By Spahic Omer

(Summary: Based on the episode of the battle of Uhud, this article discusses the war ideology, or paradigm, of Islam and that of non-belief. The discussion shows that Islam’s main concern was to convey the massage of Islam – the final Testament – to the world and, in the process, conquer the minds and hearts of people. Due to this principle, although the Muslims lost the Uhud battle, that in fact was part of their winning the war eventually, and was also part of many people’s winning of personal ontological both battles and wars.

The experiences of Uhud stood at the core of what later came to be known as the Islamic war ethics. The Muslims fought in the name of the Almighty Allah, converting warfare into a virtue and a form of worship. They imbued their actions with the life-force of ultimate obedience and submission to the Creator. Hence, the Muslim wars were not for the sake of securing some shallow racial, jingoistic, colonialist and imperialist benefits, but for the sake of the boons of the spiritual kingdom. 

In contrast, the war ideology, or paradigm, of non-belief was anchored in the interests of race, nation, conquest, colonization and domination, resulting in utter disregard for righteousness and humanity. Over years, the latter paradigm evolved steadily, amplifying its disposition to iniquity, so much so that nowadays in the age of globalization the paradigm brought the whole world to the brink of non-civilization, first, and extinction, second. Consequently, of the things that the modern man has perfected the most is a triumvirate of exploitation, killing and manipulation. That is a trademark of his (non-)civilization.)

The battle of Uhud was the second major military confrontation of Muslims. By then, the two diametrically opposed to each other ideological patterns of war: Islamic and the “other”, were established. Into these patterns, the major components of the fabric of the Islamic and polytheistic – as a representative of various forms of non-belief – worldviews had been subtly woven. The worldviews inspired and sustained the patterns, while, at the same time, everything kept returning to the former for ultimate authentication and endorsement.

Islam sees human conflicts and wars as “normal” as well as “human”, i.e. as an unavoidable evil, so it does not turn a deaf ear to, nor try to thwart, them, fighting a losing battle. Rather, Islam wants to regulate and humanize the matter, converting it into a virtue. The integrity of fighting is part of instrumental good, which however is engendered by intrinsic good and is aligned only with ultimate good. 

The confrontation between Adam – as the father of mankind, the first man and prophet of God on earth, and, as such, the personification of innocence, purity and goodness – and Satan (Iblis) – as a representative and leader of the forces of evil in heaven and on earth, and among the jinns and mankind – first in Paradise (Jannah) then on earth, symbolizes the universal and perennial confrontations between good and evil as an ontological principle. While the conflict between two sons of Adam on earth and for inconsequential reasons, during which one of them (Qabil) killed the other (Habil), epitomizes the “normalcy” and “humanness” of fighting among people. 

Even the angels were cognizant of this ethos of man, hence they said to Almighty Allah, upon being informed that He was going to create man as His vicegerent on earth: “Will You place upon it one who causes corruption therein and sheds blood, while we declare Your praise and sanctify You?” (al-Baqarah, 30). But Allah replied: ‘“Indeed, I know that which you do not know.’ And He taught Adam the names of all things…” (al-Baqarah, 30-31). In this conversation, the words of angels are indicative of the fighting paradigm espoused by the jurisdiction of non-belief: fighting for upholding and spreading corruption, for fighting’s sake, and for the purposes of violence and causing bloodbaths, whereas the words of Allah are symptomatic of the Islamic certainty-oriented paradigm: fighting as a means and when necessary for the sake of defending and advocating the divine truth.

As the agents of the Islamic paradigm, the Muslims came to Uhud to defend themselves: their lives, families, homes, religion, freedom and dignity. They did not want to fight; a fight was imposed on them. The Makkan idolaters came to Madinah with a solitary goal of carnage and of not letting Muslims live their lives in peace and contentment. In doing so, generally, they followed Satan in his own mistreatment of Adam and his progeny. The Makkans were yet Satan’s servants. He followed them in their battles. In this instance – on a par with everything else relating to Islam – fighting is seen as a form of worship, a trial, striving hard in Allah’s cause, and hastening to the forgiveness of Allah and to His Paradise. Fighting is part of jihad (utmost struggle by all legitimate means to make the Word of Allah the highest), yet it is its noblest manifestation. 

If there is anything worldly involved in Islamic fighting, such remains fully subservient to the interests of the spirit and heaven, playing second fiddle to them. Muslims are the last to pine for fighting, but when they are cornered and have no choice, fighting becomes an obligation. Not only that, but fighting should also be imbued with excellence, by dint of which in fighting, too, Muslims are to shine and become standard-setters. They are even to teach lessons to hawks and warmongers as to what fighting, in actual fact, is.

Due to the spiritual character of fighting in Islam, the highest grades in the spiritual kingdom are obtained thereby. Allah reveals in the Qur’an, against the background of the Uhud narrative: “And never think of those who have been killed in the cause of Allah as dead. Rather, they are alive with their Lord, receiving provision, rejoicing in what Allah has bestowed upon them of His bounty, and they receive good tidings about those (to be martyred) after them who have not yet joined them – that there will be no fear concerning them, nor will they grieve. They receive good tidings of favour from Allah and bounty and (of the fact) that Allah does not allow the reward of believers to be lost” (Alu ‘Imran, 169-171).

Conveying the message of Islam and conquering the hearts and minds of people

The Prophet is reported to have said: “I have been ordered to fight the people until they say ‘la ilaha illAllah’ (there is no god except Allah), and if they say that, then their blood and wealth will be protected from me, except for a right, and their reckoning is up to Allah” (Jami’ al-Tirmidhi). There was a divine instruction that must have weighed heavily on the Prophet’s mind: “O Messenger, announce (balligh, i.e., announce, deliver, proclaim and preach) that which has been revealed to you from your Lord, and if you do not, then you have not conveyed His message. And Allah will protect you from the people. Indeed, Allah does not guide the disbelieving people” (al-Ma’idah, 67). The Qur’an also informs the Prophet that he was not responsible for whatever happened after his proclamation and conveyance of Islam to the world, for he was not people’s guardian (hafidh), nor controller or overseer (musaytir): “And if they submit (in Islam), they are rightly guided; but if they turn away – then upon you is only the (duty of) notification (the delivery of the message)” (Alu ‘Imran, 20).

The Prophet was instructed to convey the Islamic message revealed to him to the world, not to conquer and convert the world, nor to create kingdoms. Enlightening the minds and purifying the hearts was the Prophet’s primary focus from the first day and remained so down the line. Both the world and people belong to the Almighty Allah. They are part of a grander and more consequential dominion. The record was required to be set straight, in particular with regard to who is who and what is what exactly in the grand scheme of things. People were to be shown the way as to why and how not to worship creation but the Creator, and why and how not to deify people but the Lord of people.

What specifically people needed on earth was liberation from the yokes of sorts of falsehood – polytheism being only one of them – setting them then on the road to self-affirmation and self-fulfilment; resultant freedom as a lifestyle due to which people will be able to make their free choices honourably living and as honourably dying by them; and finally people were in need of a new sense of direction towards the servitude of the Creator only, in lieu of servitude to the idols of the mind, animalism and matter. Putting it another way, people needed to be acquainted with the final Messenger and the final message given to him (the final and ultimate Testament). They needed conducive socio-political milieus where they will be capable of freely accepting or rejecting Islam, i.e., to take responsibility for their thoughts and actions and their outcomes, to be in charge of their destinies. To be a believer (Muslim and mu’min) or otherwise (kafir) one must undergo this emancipation process and must perform the crucial affirmation duty. The Qur’an accordingly asserts: “And say: ‘The truth is from your Lord, so whoever wills – let him believe; and whoever wills – let him disbelieve” (al-Kahf, 29).

The Prophet and the subsequent generations of his followers were desirous of giving the world what it needed, making a stand against the inhibitions of despotism, inequity and institutionalized falsehood. They were determined upon “opening” (fath) countries and territories and their diverse contexts to the rays of the Islamic monotheistic faith, seeking in turn to “open” the minds and hearts of people with the same end in view. Instead of conquering cities and villages, the Muslims only wished to “unlock” and “open” them for the conveyance of the truth and for the further communication, interaction and dialogue purposes; and instead of conquering and enslaving people, the Muslims only wished to liberate and “conquer” their spiritual and cerebral capacities. 

The Muslims wished to win over and capture hearts and minds, for there is no authentic Islam without freedom, and no Islamic fraternity – nay, Islamic civilization – is possible without truly free and enlightened individuals. To be sure, Islamic civilization was at its finest when the spiritual, moral and enlightening determinants were at the helm. However, as soon as the priorities became muddled up, when conquering for conquest’s sake and building empires for expansionism’s sake became an obsession, Islamic civilization, and with it all goodness associated with the miraculous Islamic ideals and tenets, started to tumble.

The guiding principles of fighting in Islam 

What follows are the Qur’anic verses wherein Muslims were permitted to fight for the first time, resulting in the battle of Badr and, one year later, the battle of Uhud: “Fight in the way of Allah those who fight you but do not transgress. Indeed, Allah does not like transgressors. And kill them wherever you overtake them and expel them from wherever they have expelled you, and fitnah is worse than killing. And do not fight them at al-Masjid al- Haram until they fight you there. But if they fight you, then kill them. Such is the recompense of the disbelievers. And if they cease, then indeed, Allah is Forgiving and Merciful. Fight them until there is no (more) fitnah and (until) worship is (acknowledged to be) for Allah. But if they cease, then there is to be no aggression except against the oppressors” (al-Baqarah, 190-193).

These are the guiding principles on fighting that can be extracted from the cited verses:

First, Muslims fight only in the way of Allah, not for any personal, tribal, national, political, economic, expansionist, or imperialist interests. Secondary concerns must be aligned with the utmost concern of “rendering the Word of Allah supreme on earth.” If not, fitnah and fitnah-mongers will be ubiquitous. No life, property, honour and sanctity will be safe then. Besides, there is another Qur’anic verse that reinforces this norm: “Those who believe fight in the cause of Allah, and those who disbelieve fight in the cause of Taghut (evil or Satan). So fight against the allies of Satan. Indeed, the plot of Satan has ever been weak” (al-Nisa’, 76). 

That is why the Prophet said that he had been ordered to fight the people – whenever fighting becomes a necessity – only for the sake of the monotheistic principle  “la ilaha illAllah” (there is no god except Allah), rather than for the sake of the shallow benefits related to race, tribe, nation, conquest, colonization and domination. The obstacles of injustice, oppression and duress, getting in the way of the conveyance of the Islamic message, were also to be attended to by whatever means necessary, including fighting. This nonetheless was not with the intention of forcing people to accept Islam, but instead to liberate and unshackle them, enabling them to make their own free choices. Fighting was a means, not an end. If people were forced to become Muslims at sword’s point, that would have been just another form of cruelty and coercion replacing an erstwhile one. That would not have been Islam. As an old adage goes to the effect that two wrongs do not make a right.

Second, Muslims do not fight until they are forced to do so. But when they do, the Islamic concept of comprehensive distinction must apply. Muslims should fight their enemies with such determination and proficiency that they – and other prospective enemies – would think twice before waging wars against Muslims. Muslims ought to strive to make an example of their enemies (“and kill them wherever you overtake them”, “but if they fight you, then kill them (instead of merely fighting them).”

Third, Muslims fight only those who fight them. Muslims must defend themselves, taking back what is theirs: freedom, property, honour and prospects.

Fourth, Muslims do not fight save oppressors and tyrants, and their minions. These are the tormenters of people, freedom and thought. They stand for the exact opposite of everything a beautiful, dynamic, purposeful and progressive life entails. Their actions are more loathsome and more hurtful than killing.

Fifth, this whole thing notwithstanding, no sooner do the motives for fighting end, than fighting itself ceases. Establishing legitimacy for fighting is anything but easy. Just like in case of other pursuits, fighting, similarly, is a domain where as much sins as rewards can be procured.

Sixth, Islam introduced a comprehensive and fair war ethics that eliminates the unjust use of power. There is no other moral code of war – in classical and modern times – that can rival it. Muslims are bound by the stipulations of their war ethics both when winning and when losing. Either way, Muslims are no more than the servants of a divine exemplar. Other considerations stay in the background. This ethics is encapsulated in the imperative: “do not transgress (in fighting), for indeed, Allah does not like transgressors”, and in the words that Allah is “Forgiving and Merciful” which are placed before another imperative “fight them…” and after alluding to the possibility of ending hostilities. This means that, no matter the odds, if Allah is Compassionate, Generous and Forgiving vis-à-vis all people, Muslims too should be just, considerate, tolerant and forbearing when conducting themselves towards their enemies. As instructed in another Qur’anic verse: “O you who have believed, be persistently standing firm for Allah , witnesses in justice, and do not let the hatred of a people prevent you from being just. Be just; that is nearer to righteousness. And fear Allah; indeed, Allah is Acquainted with what you do” (al-Ma’idah, 8).

Fighting in the cause of Satan

As the agents of the paradigm that championed fighting in the cause of Taghut (Satan), the Makkan polytheists arrived at Uhud as Satan’s allies and servants of their personal, together with national, interests. They were driven by hatred, bigotry, desire to avenge the fiasco of Badr – in which they participated for the same hedonistic and chauvinistic motives – and by the prospect of a massacre. The causes that induced the Makkans to fight at Uhud could be summed up as follows: gratifying a vengeful demon, restoring the personal pride, and rebuilding the blemished national prestige. It is thus rightly said that “the defeat at Badr was an ignominy which the Qurayshites pride could not leave unavenged. Revenge was, therefore, the catchword all over Makkah. The Makkans even forbade lamenting over their murdered people, or ransoming their captives at Badr battle lest the Muslims should realize the grave degree of sadness and feeling of tragedy they were experiencing. In the wake of Badr event, Quraysh was in common consent and started fresh preparations to launch an overall war against the Muslims in order to restore their blemished prestige and wounded pride” (Safi-ur-Rahman al-Mubarakpuri, The Sealed Nectar).

Husayn Haykal also wrote that not only the men, but also the women of the Quraysh tribe in Makkah were incited to go to Uhud for the battle. They insisted on accompanying the army in order to witness and to enjoy the awaited and long prepared-for revenge. They wanted to indulge in and literally feast on the spectacle. “In deliberating whether or not to permit them to do so, some argued that for the women to march alongside the men and sing the songs of war would remind the soldiers of their fallen relatives and further arouse them to fight. Those who argued in this vein were truly desperate, for they were unwilling to return to their homes without either avenging themselves or perishing in the process” (Mohammad Husayn Haykal, Life of Muhammad).

The Satanic war paradigm was further emphasized by the behaviour of the Makkans, both the soldiers and their women. “Some of them involved themselves in mutilating the killed Muslims. Women and men cut off the ears, the noses, the genitals of the martyrs. They even cut open their bellies. Hind bin ‘Utbah – for instance – ripped open the liver of Hamzah and chewed it; but finding it unpleasant, she spat it out. She even made the ears and noses of Muslims into anklets and necklaces.” The Prophet divulged that on the Uhud day there was Satan (Iblis) at the battlefield trying his best to influence the proceedings. His targeted groups were the idolaters as his comrades and the weak Muslims (Safi-ur-Rahman al-Mubarakpuri, The Sealed Nectar).

If the contrast between the two war ideologies manifested itself in preparation for and throughout the battle, it did not fade away in its aftermath either. The mutilation of the bodies of Muslim martyrs was one thing, tilting to the applied dimension of the matter, but several other incidents that occurred soon afterwards underlined the opposing ideological underpinnings of the two fighting paradigms. 

When after the battle the preparations of the Makkan idolaters for departure came to an end, their leader, Abu Sufyan, went up the Uhud Mountain where the Prophet and some of the closest companions of his had fled and where they were hiding, and called out the Prophet, Abu Bakr and ‘Umar bin al-Khattab to see if they had been killed in the battle. ‘Umar replied: “O enemy of Allah, those whom you have just mentioned, I tell you that they are still alive. Allah has maintained what you hate.” ‘Umar’s reply connotes that to Muslims, Abu Sufyan and the rest of the Makkans were adversaries and were fought against because, in their capacity as the enemies of Allah and His revealed truth, they went beyond the pale. Whereas to the Makkans, Muslims were enemies because they rose up against the totality of falsehood and injustice – including, and particularly, those brands as were followed by the Makkans – posing the threat to the latter’s personal, tribal and national concerns. There was a sort of private and clannish vendetta against the Prophet and certain Muslims, too.

As part of his verbal harassment of the Muslims at the foot of the Uhud Mountain, Abu Sufyan shouted: “Superior may be Hubal (the biggest and most honoured national god in Makkah)!” to which the Muslims replied, following the Prophet’s instruction: “Allah is more Elevated and more Majestic!” Abu Sufyan added: “We have al-‘Uzza (another, albeit smaller, national idol), whereas you have no ‘Uzza!” to which the Muslims responded, again at the Prophet’s behest: “Allah is our Protector and you have no protector!” Finally, Abu Sufyan said: “Well deeds! Today is a vengeance for Badr day. This for that. War is attended with alternate success.” ‘Umar replied on behalf of the Muslims: “No. They (Badr and Uhud, and your dead and our dead) are not the same. Our killed men are housed in Paradise; but yours are in Fire” (Safi-ur-Rahman al-Mubarakpuri, The Sealed Nectar; Sahih al-Bukhari).

The prohibition of revenge 

Later the Muslims returned to the Uhud battlefield to bury their dead. The Prophet sought out the body of his uncle, Hamzah. When he saw that his body was mutilated, the Prophet “felt profoundly sad and vowed that he would never allow such a hateful thing to happen again and that he would someday avenge these evil deeds. It was on this occasion that the revelation was made: ‘And if you punish (an enemy, O believers), punish with an equivalent of that with which you were harmed. But if you are patient – it is better for those who are patient. And be patient, (O Muhammad), and your patience is not but through Allah. And do not grieve over them and do not be in distress over what they conspire’ (al-Nahl, 126-127). The Prophet of God then pardoned, bore patiently, and laid down an absolute prohibition against mutilation” (Mohammad Husayn Haykal, Life of Muhammad).

According to another report, some Muslims vowed to take revenge on the Makkans and mutilate their bodies more brutally than what the latter had done at Uhud. The conquest of Makkah presented them with an opportunity. However, the above verses were then revealed and the Prophet directed everybody to exercise restraint. Narrated Ubayy bin Ka’b: “On the day of Uhud, sixty-four of the Ansar (natives of Madinah) were killed, and six from the Muhajirin (migrants from Makkah), one of whom was Hamzah, and they mutilated them, so the Ansar said: ‘If, (in the future) we are able to kill them on a day like this, we would mutilate from among them as twice as they (mutilate from among us).’” He (Ubayy bin Ka’b) said: “So on the day of the conquest of Makkah, Allah revealed: ‘And if you punish them, then punish them with the like of that with which you were afflicted. But if you have patience, then it is better for those who are patient (al-Nahl, 126). So a man said: ‘There shall be no Quraysh after today.’ But the Messenger of Allah said: ‘Leave the people, except for four’” (Jami’ al-Tirmidhi).

One of the things that the above idea proves beyond a doubt is that the only component standing between the Islamic and “other” ideologies of war is the revealed guidance. Without the revealed truth on-board, in no way could man elevate himself to such noble heights as afforded by the revelation. Quite the reverse, if detached from the divine light, man is destined but to sink ever further into the abyss of a combination of autolatry and fetishism. Positively, he who lives for high and noble ideals ends on a high and feted, but he who lives for low and dismal ranks ends at the bottom of the pile and also miserable forevermore.

History is a witness to the performances of the two war ideologies: the Islamic and the “other”. While the former was a mercy to the worlds and was obsessed exclusively with the truth: how to personify, convey and apply it at all levels of human existence, fighting only abstemiously and when really necessary, the latter stopped at nothing in trying to implement a host of racial, jingoistic, colonialist and imperialist agendas, delivering anything but coveted peace and happiness to the world. If the Islamic worldview is rooted in the premises that the believers are brothers and sisters to one another, comprising a religious brotherhood, that the whole of mankind constitutes a biological brotherhood, in that Adam and Eve were the parents of humankind, that man is Allah’s vicegerent on earth, and that the object of having different peoples and tribes is that they may discover and know each other (not that they may despise, exploit and fight each other) and that they can cooperate in matters of righteousness and common good, the worldview of non-believers – despite their numerous divisions and subdivisions, and their several laudable conceptual frameworks which nevertheless rarely or never see the light of the day – posits that a man is a wolf to another man, that the rule of the strongest applies (survival of the fittest), and that the sole objective of man’s purposeless existence is pleasure-seeking.

The profound meaning and significance of the Islamic idea of warfare was displayed time and again with respect to the Uhud battle. It was remarkable how, though challenging, many people were fast accepting and living the novelty. Many families lost some of their members, yet what they were concerned about most was the wellbeing of the Prophet and the wellbeing of the Islamic enterprise. As an illustration, when after the battle the Prophet was about to console a lady called Umm Sa‘d bin Mu‘adh for her killed son, she replied: “So long as I see you are safe, my misfortune will certainly go into oblivion.” Then the Prophet supplicated Allah for the relatives of those who were killed at Uhud and said: “Cheer up! Umm Sa‘d bin Mu‘adh and bear good tidings to their kindred that all their people killed in the battle are comrades in Paradise and they are intercessors for all their kinsfolk.” The woman replied: “O Messenger of Allah, we are satisfied. Who would cry on them after this cheerful news?” Then she resumed saying: “O Messenger of Allah, invoke Allah (for those who stayed behind).” He said: “O Allah keep sorrow off their hearts! And console them with their misfortunes. Compensate those who stayed behind with goodness and welfare” (Safi-ur-Rahman al-Mubarakpuri, The Sealed Nectar).

During the Uhud mayhem the Prophet was wounded and the blood flowed over his face. He was not disheartened or angry, but sad, feeling sorry for the evildoers. He knew that those people were blinded by their lowly obsessions. They were not in a positon to overcome the impairments and see things in their true light. What was worse was their failure to get the picture of what the future was holding for them. They were set against the truth and divinity as its source, so they and their designs were doomed to fail. Disappointed, the Prophet asked: “How can a people that do this to their Prophet (fight him so as to injure and even kill him) succeed, while he is calling them to Allah?” So the following verse of the Qur’an was revealed: “Not for you, (O Muhammad, but for Allah), is the decision whether He should (cut them down) or forgive them or punish them, for indeed, they are wrongdoers” (Alu ‘Imran, 128). Clearly, whenever disgrace and honour, myopia and vision (prescience), inclusivity and exclusivity, and virtue and vice, are obliged to face off against each other, the conclusion is foreknown.

The Prophet and Muslims were ordered to steer clear of the pollutants of the debased motives of non-believers. Warfare was just one fertile sector where such pollutants thrived, tearing people apart. So, while bleeding wounded and feeling sad for the stubborn wickedness of his people, for a moment at the battlefield of Uhud the Prophet succumbed to his humanness and decided to curse some of the leaders of the Quraysh. He beseeched Allah: “O Allah! Curse Abu Sufyan! O Allah! Curse al-Harith bin Hisham! O Allah! Curse Safwan bin Umayyah!” But the following Qur’anic verse was revealed: “Not for you, (O Muhammad, but for Allah), is the decision whether He should (cut them down) or forgive them or punish them, for indeed, they are wrongdoers” (Alu ‘Imran, 128). True enough, “Allah turned in mercy towards those persons, they accepted Islam and their (adherence to) Islam was good” (Jami’ al-Tirmidhi).

In passing, there is no contradiction between this tradition and the one quoted in the earlier paragraph, wherein two supposedly different events are given as reasons for the revelation of the same verse, that of Alu ‘Imran, 128. In this tradition, the verse is said to have been revealed after the Prophet had cursed some members of the Quraysh leadership subsequent to him sustaining the wounds, but in the tradition referred to earlier the verse is said to have been given after the Prophet had lamented the looming fate of the tenacious evil and its characters, whose colours were at full display at Uhud and whose definite authentication were the Prophet’s wounds. In that case, the two traditions, complementing one another, essentially speak about the same circumstance, greatly enriching it by imparting extra features. That circumstance was the Prophet’s getting hurt and how he responded to the ordeal, which was recounted in several fragmented parts. The outcome was the revelation of the verse in question, which was quoted by the narrators of those different parts of the story, because, by its very nature, the verse was related to all of them.

That there still existed a fine line between the new Islamic war standards and those conventional ones of the “other”, and that fully establishing the former and getting rid of the latter was a tall order, testify the following accounts. After the battle of Uhud, people came across a person called al-Usairim, ‘Amr bin Thabit, whom they had already urged to embrace Islam but he refused. They saw him among the wounded on the verge of close death, wondering: “What has he come here for? We have parted with him and he was still too obdurate to accept Islam as his religion.” People asked him: “What made you come here? Is it out of zeal to defend your people or is it because of an inclination to Islam?” He said: “It is (certainly) an inclination to Islam. I believe in Allah and in His Messenger. I have fought with the Messenger of Allah till I have got what you see,” and then he immediately died. They told the Prophet about him. Hearing that, he said: “He is one of the inhabitants of Paradise.” This was despite the fact that the man had not offered a single prayer for Allah (Safi-ur-Rahman al-Mubarakpuri, The Sealed Nectar; Sunan Abi Dawud).

It was narrated that Abu ‘Uqbah, who was the freed slave of some Persian people, said: “I was present with the Prophet on the day of Uhud. I struck a man from among the idolaters and said: ‘Take that! And I am a Persian slave!’ News of that reached the Prophet and he said: ‘Why did not you say: ‘Take that! And I am an Ansari slave!?’” (Safi-ur-Rahman al-Mubarakpuri, The Sealed Nectar).

In this example the Prophet did not want the person to affiliate himself with an ancient tradition that entailed a racialist component. Instead, he wanted him to be affiliated with something more universal and more fulfilling, to be part of a fellowship of the supporters and helpers (servants) of a celestial cause. “Ansar” means “helpers.” The natives of Madinah were called thus because they facilitated the migration from Makkah to Madinah and helped the migrants. Their role was crucial in helping the consolidation and spread of Islam. However, in a wider sense of the word, as per the Qur’anic terminology, “ansar” stands for “ansar Allah” and “ansar ila Allah” which mean “helpers of Allah” and “helpers in the cause of Allah” respectively. Every prophet had his ansar. The Qur’an explicitly refers to the Ansar of Prophet ‘Isa (Jesus) (al-Saff, 14) and the Ansar of Prophet Muhammad (al-Tawbah, 100, 117). Being a slave or a servant of such people – and by extension, of their existential cause – was an honour. It was a means of liberation and a way forward.

The war ethics of Islam

The essence of the Islamic ideology of war, based upon the Islamic transcendent and holistic worldview, is compressed in the systems of Islamic ethics in general and Islamic war ethics in particular. Instances of application of those systems are plentiful. As for example, when the Prophet appointed anyone as leader of an army or detachment, he would especially exhort him to fear Allah and to be good to the Muslims who were with him. He would then say: “Fight in the name of Allah and in the way of Allah. Fight against those who disbelieve in Allah. Make a holy war, do not embezzle the spoils; do not break your pledge; and do not mutilate (the dead) bodies; do not kill the children. When you meet your enemies who are polytheists, invite them to three courses of action. If they respond to any one of these, you also accept it and withhold yourself from doing them any harm. Invite them to (accept) Islam; if they respond to you, accept it from them and desist from fighting against them…If they refuse to accept Islam, demand from them the Jizya. If they agree to pay, accept it from them and hold off your hands. If they refuse to pay the tax, seek Allah’s help and fight the” (Sahih Muslim). 

Similarly, Abu Bakr, the first Muslim Caliph, gave an address while sending his army on the expedition to the Syrian borders: “Stop, O people, that I may give you ten rules for your guidance in the battlefield. Do not commit treachery or deviate from the right path. You must not mutilate dead bodies. Neither kill a child, nor a woman, nor an aged man. Bring no harm to the trees, nor burn them with fire, especially those which are fruitful. Slay not any of the enemy’s flock, save for your food. You are likely to pass by people who have devoted their lives to monastic services; leave them alone” (Introduction to the Translation of the Book of Jihad and Expedition from Sahih Muslim).

When the Muslim armies captured Syria and Palestine, Umar bin al-Khattab, the second Caliph, made peace with the population, highlighting scores of pledges. Among them was “an assurance of safety for the people, for their property, their churches, their crosses, their sick and their healthy, and all their rites. Their churches will not be inhabited (by the Muslims) and will not be destroyed. Neither their churches, nor the land where they stand, nor their rituals, nor their crosses, nor their property will be damaged. They will not be forcibly converted, and none of them will be harmed…As for those who will leave the city (the cities), their lives and property will be safe until they reach their place of safety; and as for those who remain, they will be safe” (The History of al-Tabari).

It was in consequence of this humane notion of fighting and this exemplary war ethics that in all confrontations between Muslims and non-Muslims during the Prophet’s era only 1018 people died on both sides: 259 Muslims and 759 non-Muslims. 

The effects of the war ideology of the “other”

Compare this to the war ideology of the “other”, which was the exact opposite of the Islamic model, thanks to which – for illustrative purposes – more than 10,000 men, women and children were massacred by the Christian crusaders only inside the area of al-Aqsa mosque (between 40,000 and 70,000 in total) after the city of Jerusalem had been captured “in the name of God.” According to eyewitness accounts, “the streets of Jerusalem were filled with blood.” However – as indicated above – when the Muslim armies captured Jerusalem and the rest of Palestine as well as Syria, they did so honourably and benignly, almost humbly. Moreover, French atrocities against Algerians within the first three decades of the conquest resulted in between 500,000 and 1,000,000 deaths. About 80,000 Libyans died as a result of the Italian pacification of Libya, and between 15,000 and 30,000 Palestinians have died since the illegal formation of Israel in 1948.  

British colonization likewise caused many millions of deaths. While according to a research, “European colonization of the Americas resulted in the killing of so many native people that it transformed the environment and caused the Earth’s climate to cool down.” Apart from mass killings, the European colonizers also brought diseases, caused large-scale depopulation, upset agriculture patterns, and generally introduced new and unknown ways for doing everything (European Colonization of Americas Killed so Many It Cooled Earth’s Climate).

And then there were World War I and World War II in which tens of millions of people perished (WW1 18-23 million, WW2 60-80 million). They were followed by the Cold (World) War, globalization (neo-colonialism, capitalism and cultural imperialism), and of late, the hypocrisy of the War on Terror and democratization of the Middle East, starving the world of authentic peace, security and, every so often, sanity. 

The list with more gruesome details can go on and on, so much so that – when all’s said and done – the foundations of the modern West-driven civilization are all soaked in blood. Its main pillars are colonization, expansionism, prejudice, cruelty, double standards and exploitation of the weak and powerless. As a result, entire nations and cultures are annihilated merely because they were and wanted to remain different. Some are threatened even today. What is shocking is that all that is done in the name of the missions to civilize, acculturate, liberate and democratize. What is going on is akin to mercy killing; it is a form of euthanasia performed at the altars of bogus civilization and progress. 

The West is thought right purely on account of its might. Hence, of the things that the West has perfected the most is a triumvirate of exploitation, killing and manipulation. Muslims, perhaps more than anybody else, were at the receiving end of those Western ungodly schemes. However, barring some isolated exceptions, the rule remains that Muslims are not disposed to violence for violence’s sake. If they become like that, they would not be Muslims anymore. In any case, somebody needs to summon courage and shout that “the emperor has no clothes.”

Kwame Anthony Appiah, professor of philosophy and law at New York University, went as far as to declare that people should give up the very idea of Western civilisation. An article of his is thus entitled “There is no such thing as Western civilization. The author believes that Western civilization “is at best the source of a great deal of confusion, at worst an obstacle to facing some of the great political challenges of our time…Western civilisation is not at all a good idea, and western culture is no improvement.” What people have been taught to call Western civilisation “stumbled into a death match with itself: the Allies and the Great Central Powers hurled bodies at each other, marching young men to their deaths in order to ‘defend civilisation’.” If there was something that could be called Western civilization died at the blood-soaked fields and gas-poisoned trenches of World War I and World War II when “civilization-makers” demonstrated that “civilization” was turned into a merciless killing machine and its people into soulless servants.

In the same spirit, Albert Schweitzer, a German-French philosopher, opined that Western civilization at the outset of the 20th century was going through a severe crisis. “Most people think that the crisis is due to the war (World War I), but they are wrong. The war, with everything connected with it, is only a phenomenon of the condition of un-civilization in which we find ourselves.” Albert Schweitzer then asked: “What is the nature of this degeneration in our civilization, and why has it come about?” His answer is that Western civilization is far more developed materially than spiritually. Its balance is disturbed, making it a materialistic and hedonistic civilization. “In our enthusiasm over our progress in knowledge and power we have arrived at a defective conception of civilization itself. We value too highly its material achievements, and no longer keep in mind as vividly as is necessary the importance of the spiritual element in life,” the author added.

Albert Schweitzer then attributed the devastation of World War I to this “civilizational” propensity. Instead of cultivating and refining man, “civilization” ruined him; instead of being a productive force, “civilization” came to be a destroyer and an apocalyptic force; and instead of breeding optimism and hope, “civilization” was behind the world’s despondency and suffering. As if a global catastrophe of epic proportions was an inevitable outcome of a catastrophically flawed worldview that pitted man against himself, the rest of creation and, of course, heaven. 

Albert Schweitzer elaborated: “If we go down to rock-bottom, it was machinery and world commerce which brought about the world war (WW1), and the inventions which put into our hands such mighty power of destruction made the war of such a devastating character that conquered and conquerors alike are ruined for a period of which no one can see the end. It was also our technical achievements which put us in a position to kill at such a distance, and to annihilate men in such masses, that we sank so low as to push aside any last impulse to humanity, and were mere blind wills which made use of perfected lethal weapons of such destructive capacity that we were unable to maintain the distinction between combatants and non-combatants” (Albert Schweitzer, Civilization and Ethics).

Finally, in his book “The life of Muhammad” Husayn Haykal beautifully explained the Islamic war paradigm like so: “As for the early Muslims, during the time of the Prophet and of his immediate successors, they did not conquer for the purpose of conquest and colonization but in defence of their faith when it was threatened by Quraysh, Arab tribes, Byzantines, and Persians. Throughout their conquests, they never imposed their religion on anyone, for it was a cardinal principal of their faith that ‘there shall be no coercion in religion’ (al-Baqarah, 256). Forced by the needs of defence against persistent attack, the Muslims’ conquests were never motivated by the will to colonize. The Prophet left the kings of Arabia and her princes on their thrones with their territories, economies, and political structures virtually untouched. In conquering, the Muslims sought the freedom to preach the faith. If the Islamic faith spread, it was simply because it of itself was strong by virtue of the truth which it proclaimed, the universalist non-discrimination between Arab and non-Arab which it commanded and its adherents practiced, and the strict monotheism by which Islam enabled man to have no master except the one true God. It was because of these innate strengths of the Islamic faith that it spread throughout the earth, just as any genuine truth would spread. When the Tatar latecomers to Islam fought only for the purpose of conquest and took men by the sword, they, too, were soon taken by the sword. But Islam never took anything or anyone by the sword, and no one will take it by the sword. On the contrary, Islam conquered the minds, hearts, and consciences of the people by its innate strength. Consequently, the Muslim people have seen many governments, dictators, and tyrants, none of which has changed their faith and religion in the least.” ***

(Assoc. Prof. Dr. Spahic Omer is an academic in Department of History and Civilisation, AbdulHamid AbuSulayman Kulliyyah of Islamic Revealed Knowledge and Human Sciences. The views expressed here are those of the author/contributor and do not necessarily represent the views of IIUMToday.)