Thank you very much for your question. It is a pleasure to answer it because there are so many misconceptions out there about Islam.
The idea of Muslims fighting non-believers is one of the most widely-spread misconceptions, partly because those who have a dislike for Islam and Muslims confuse people with this idea.
In truth, Muslims are to have great respect for what others believe.
I am also pleased to answer your question because my family, too, is Christian and I have a lot of friends who are of different religions. Perhaps I can start to answer by telling you of an event I was involved in during the summer.
It is my great privilege to be invited to speak about Islam in many places around the world. I spoke to Muslim university students in Malaysia about, amongst other things, differences between Christian and Muslim ways of spreading the faith.
I was also delighted to be present in Scotland, where I shared a platform in Saint John’s Episcopal Church, Edinburgh, with a Jesuit priest. We were involved in a dialogue called, “Holy War”. The event was part of the Edinburgh Festival. The Jesuit priest and I spoke to a mostly Christian audience about the attitudes of Islam and Christianity towards war.
Since it gets so much coverage in the media at the moment, I chose to begin by explaining the term “Jihad”. I told the audience that in Islam there is no concept of “holy war.” War is either just or unjust. It is not holy.
True Meaning of Jihad
The much-misunderstood term, “jihad,” comes from an Arabic root word, “juhd,” which means to exert one’s utmost efforts. There are two kinds of jihad. The first is known as the lesser jihad and this is the duty incumbent upon all Muslims to fight in defense of what is right.
This is defensive and it means fighting back where there is injustice or oppression. Such jihad must be called for by the legitimate authority. In other words, it cannot be called for just by any man in the street or even any Sheikh in the street.
The other jihad is known as the greater jihad. This would suggest how important it is compared to the other jihad. It means that each Muslim must struggle daily and exert his utmost efforts to struggle inwardly to combat all those things in his life and in his personality which keep him from being a good Muslim.
Historical Context Behind Command of Self-Defense
In the earliest days of Islam, when Muslims were constantly under threat of being wiped out, Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) showed the early Muslim community how they should act towards those of other faiths.
In the city of Madinah, for example, which became the very first Muslim state, he drew up a treaty between the Muslims and the other two groups who lived there: the polytheists and the Jews. Each group was free to practice its own religion and each group was to defend the other under attack.
There are also many quotations in the Quran which show how the Muslims have much in common with the “People of the Book,” namely Christians and Jews, and even enjoin the Muslims to fight in their defense if they are being persecuted, or if their religious buildings or holy men are under attack.
However, in those first days of Islam, not everyone kept to the terms of treaties they had signed. Different groups banded together to attack the early Muslim community, as they saw in it a great threat.
In such a circumstance, the polytheists and the Jews attacked the Muslims. On other occasions, Christian armies marched against the early Muslim community. In such particular circumstances, it was revealed that the Muslims should fight back against these groups. Therefore, the verse which reads
Fight those who believe not in Allah nor the Last Day. (At-Tawbah 9:29)
refers specifically to such circumstances. It most certainly does not mean that Muslims should always be at war with Christians and Jews. It was revealed for a particular situation. For it to mean otherwise would contradict everything the Prophet had done.
Historical Precedents of Peace in Islamic History
If you look at what is known as the “Golden Age” of Islam in Southern Spain, where Muslims ruled for nearly eight hundred years, you will not only see a very refined civilization in which education and learning were promoted, but you also see that Christians, Muslims and Jews lived together in peace. Christians and Jews were free to practice their own religion.
It was only in 1492, when the Catholic monarchs Ferdinand and Isabella finally defeated the Muslims that persecution began. Muslims and Jews were forced to convert and mosques and synagogues were ransacked and burned.
Similarly, when Jerusalem was taken by Caliph Umar ibn Al-Khattab he signed a treaty with the Christian Patriarch guaranteeing the rights of the Christians there to their lives, their property and their worship. No lives were lost.
It was only when the Crusader armies retook the city that 70,000 men, women and children were indiscriminately slaughtered.
So, you see, there are people who have deliberately chosen to twist the facts to make it seem as though Muslims are forever called upon to fight Christians and Jews. They quote the verse which reads:
And slay them wherever ye catch them. (Al-Baqarah 2:191)
However, this is to quote out of context; It referred to the Muslims under attack and the same quote goes on to say:
and turn them out from where they have turned you out. (Al-Baqarah 2: 191)
In traveling around the world to speak about the sweet and gentle message of Islam, I can assure you that Islam does not ask us to fight those who believe something different to us.
How could the world’s religion of peace do otherwise? The meaning of the word Islam in Arabic comes from the lexical root s-l-m, from which the Arabic word meaning “peace” is derived.
I hope this answers your question. Please keep in touch.
This response is from About Islam’s archive and was originally published at an earlier date
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