From Issue: 968 [Read full issue]
History over millennia testifies to the fact that war and conflict are simply a part of human nature. This presents a challenge to both those involved and those who witness it. To understand the Islamic values related to the use of military force, one must understand the depth and complexity of our moral obligation to struggle for the preservation of truth and justice.
The Islamic concept of struggle (jihad) is of two main types: internal, also termed the greater struggle, and external, known as the lesser struggle. The objective of both is to facilitate the recognition and preservation of truth by removing obstacles. The internal struggle (jihad) is against one's own ego (nafs), passions, and weaknesses. This is the greater of the two. It requires struggling against Satanic insinuations and the destructive vices towards which our egos tend. The internal struggle can be thought of as a prerequisite to the external, or lesser, struggle. Only a serene soul purified of destructive vices can be trusted to use military force without going to excess.
The external form of struggle (jihad) refers to the use of armed force either for self-defense or to remove oppression. It is the use of state-sanctioned martial force to restore harmony and equilibrium to society because, as the Quran tells us, "persecution is worse than killing" (2: 217). It is not vengeful vigilantism, but a regulated use of force by which states can remove agents of belligerence and tyranny. It is a matter of necessity by which persistent violence and oppression is prevented and eliminated.
Prophet Muhammad also established many guidelines to regulate the use of such force. Civilians and non-combatants are never to be attacked. Prophet Muhammad strictly forbade the killing of women and children. Islam forbids the destruction of the environment in war, as well as the use of fire as a weapon, which some scholars say would render the use of nuclear weapons forbidden (haram). Monasteries and other places of worship should not be attacked. Such restrictions, forbidding indiscriminate killing and the destruction of the land, were unprecedented in their time and speak to the spirit, method, and purpose of the regulated use of violence in Islam.
It is important to maintain balance in understanding these guidelines. Many have attempted to use them to justify blood-lust and revenge, while others have erred on the other side in neglecting to intervene against oppression. We should struggle on all levels against oppression while following the guidelines set by God and staying mindful of the ego's ability to lead us astray. We should conquer our own ego (nafs) before presuming to answer the call of sacrifice and service in defense of others. Noble warriors who are selfless and fight valiantly in defense of the weak are celebrated in every culture and society— Islam is no exception.
"Being Muslim" - Asad Tarsin, pp. 212-213