Violence: Not an Islamic Ideal

God’s conceiving of man as vicegerent  thereby allowing in him with a certain degree of initiative and autonomy to operate in the world inherently carried within it possibility of mischief and conflict (potentially a bloody one) in the abode of its living. That was the apprehension that the Angels expressed when Allah declared to them that He was creating a vicegerent on the earth. It must have been this inherent nature in man that prompted Adam’s son Cain to kill his own brother Abel. In His response to the Angles Allah didn’t dispute their apprehension.  Instead He tacitly acknowledged their contention about the quarrelsome nature of man by not addressing the issue directly. While doing so He had demonstrated human potential to name things i.e. to understand their nature (2:30-33). Abdullah Yusuf Ali in the explanation of the relevant verse in Qur’an, says that according to commentators naming means grasping “the inner nature and qualities of things, and things here would include feelings. The particular qualities or feelings which were outside the nature of angels were put by Allah into the nature of man”. Man was thus able feel and understand and “thus plan and initiate”, as these were required of him in his role as viceregent.

In its broadest sense it implies grasping the nature not only of mundane and manifest but also abstract and subtle aspects of the realities. According to Dr. Iqbal (Reconstruction…) the faculty of naming things would mean “forming concepts of them and forming concepts of them is capturing them”. Capturing and forming concepts would indicate the reasoning faculty of human mind. Qur’an contains so many verses calling man to ‘observe’ the signs in the universe (& within one’s own self), apply ‘reason’, ‘reflect’, ‘ponder’, ‘understand’ and draw lessons from these. Thus, Islam does not restrict legitimate pursuit of knowledge only to the revealed texts. The essence of the belief in the unity of God is that everything in the Universe is from God, “Allah’’ and that there is nothing outside his command, scope and jurisdiction. If revelation is from Him, everything else in the Universe is also His creation and therefore reflects ‘His wisdom’.  That is what is clearly indicated in Qur’anic references, calling Man to observe and ponder the signs of Allah within him and around him. In the words of Iqbal;

The Quran sees signs of the Ultimate Reality in the ‘sun’, the ‘moon’, the ‘lengthening out of shadows’,  ‘the alternation of day and night’, ‘variety of human colour and tongues’, ‘the alternation of the days of success and reverse among peoples’, – in fact in the whole of nature as revealed to the sense-perception of man. And the Muslim’s duty is to reflect on these signs and not to pass by them ‘as if he is deaf and blind’, for he ‘who does not see these signs in this life will remain blind to the realities of the life to come’.  (Reconstruction…)

Together, all this allows human society to gain, gather and grasp information, learn through experiencing, develop perception, secure understanding and critical thought, about the issues and evolve accordingly. This intrinsic human faculty for the development of knowledge enables mankind to decipher and design its own mechanisms to regulate human conduct morally, culturally and institutionally. Islam values human wisdom gained through centuries of experience with the mundane world. That is why the prophet Muhammad (SAW) in the face of various challenging situations sought consultations with his companions and many a time acted on their suggestions based on worldly wisdom. Studying the relevant Qur’anic passage indicating human capacity to name things and decipher their nature (2 : 30-33)  in tandem  with the earliest revealed verses (96:4-5) declaring it was God who ‘taught man the use of pen and taught him that he knew not’ vindicates this understanding of the holy book. Importance of pen for Almighty is testified by the fact that Qur’an contains a chapter under the title ‘Pen’ that begins with a verse in which Allah swears in its name and of ‘what is written with it’ by men (68:1). God stresses the significance of the pen because it is the skill of writing that has allowed man to benefit from the experiences, knowledge and wisdom that he gained from the beginning of the recorded history and transmit it towards posterity in a systemic and organised fashion. Man’s capacity to know and understand was a condition for his creative role along with a degree of autonomy and freedom that he enjoys. This is how human society was/is destined to gradually evolve from its impulsive crooked existence to a more informed, culturally refined, ethically righteous and institutionally regulated conduct.

Thus, the human evolution from base primordial existence to a continuing rational-civilizational advancement has happened through a long zigzag process of self-learning and a process of self-correction in the context of an evolving environment. This is how it is human initiative that triggers change in his situation. “Verily God will not change the condition of man, till they change what is in themselves” (13:12). In this process, man (irrespective of his faith) also draws from his own intuitive sense of distinguishing between the right (piety) and wrong (evil) instinctively present within his soul (reflected in his subconscious) through a divine design (91:7-8). Beyond this God announces that his design in the creation of the life and death was ‘as to test which of you better in his deeds’ (67:2) Further, He also occasionally sent his messengers to mankind to guide man in taming his selfish-egoist nature and demonstrate the example of the right conduct. This is how God declares the mission of the Prophet (SAW) as a favour. “…We have sent among you a Messenger of your own, rehearsing to you Our Signs, and sanctifying you, and instructing you in Scripture and Wisdom, and in new knowledge.” (2:151) Therefore, as we have seen there is a direct relationship between faith (Iman) and righteous conduct in human relationships and promotion of ‘truth, patience and constancy.’ It is this that elevates man from the abyss of misfortune. “Verily Man is in loss, except such as have Faith, and do righteous deeds, and (join together) in the mutual teaching of Truth, and of Patience and Constancy.” (103:3).

Therefore, despite the mischievous nature of man (as Malaika indicated), the violence has nowhere been indicated as a desirable element of the human conduct that God enjoins man to adopt as an ideal. Instead violence per se is an act of condemnation as indicated by the example of Cain killing his brother.  Allah indicates His dislike for disorder (2:20) and enjoins the faithful, so many times in the Qur’an, to seek divine blessing and help (in response to provocations) through patience and perseverance. It is because patience gives capacity to regulate impulse to react in rage, transgression and even remain restrained to provocations which is a manifestation of that impulse. In other words, it means that while impulsive reaction or revulsion and revenge is inherent in the base nature of man, through patience he or she controls this impulsive passion and acts through reason and informed understanding guided by ethical imperatives and concerns for long term objectives even in situations of conflict. Better understanding and higher moral positioning are at the core of patience and perseverance that Allah so much and so many times indicates in Quran as one of the highest virtues. This reality is best demonstrated in the conduct of the holy prophet vis-a-vis immensely serious challenges. On large number of occasions and in situations of extreme provocation he stood firm in his restrain while many of his companions including the prominent ones would have tended to react in kind. 

The most authentic example of the best conduct for Muslims is that of the Prophet (SAW). In Allah’s own image the cardinal feature of the Prophet is the “Mercy for all the creations.” (21:107). In the words of one of the prominent Muslim scholars in contemporary times, “Islam (even in its name) is a call to peace.” Its greetings are a blessing for peace & security. The Holy Qur’an at numerous occasions emphasises the compassion, grace, mercy and forgiveness in superlative terms, as virtues of the God compared to other of his attributes. So, in a way without precluding the possibility of conflict and violence in human situations, Islam does not make it a necessary human condition or an ideal for human conduct. God values human life and declares it as ‘sacred’ (17:33) and to be safeguarded. He has decreed that ‘killing of an innocent person is equal to the killing of the whole humanity’ (5:32).