Violence and Peace in Islam

Lamin Sanneh on Islam’s under-appreciated potential for peace

What’s Wrong with Islam?

The many attempts to explain what went wrong with the Muslim world, with its outbreaks of violent extremism against minorities, tend to fixate on Islam as the culprit and to insinuate that political turmoil stems from the culture’s failure to choose a progressive liberal agenda instead of religious intransigence. We think that we can deduce from political events how defensible Islam’s claims to be a credible faith are, and so hold the religion’s conservative teachings responsible for extremism and intolerance.

Yet disenchantment in the Muslim world with politics, whether dysfunctional or authoritarian, does not seem to be reflected in any measurable falling off from Islam, a scenario that should alert us to the realization of a de facto distinction between religion and politics despite the absence of an Islamic tradition of the separation of church and state. The conventional claim that in Islam religion and politics are united is used to justify the superficial claim that the political crisis of Muslim societies must be reflected by the religious crisis of Islam, and vice versa. The reality is very different. Religious recession is nowhere evident in Muslim countries, despite the contrasting political disaffection. The empty mosque is an uncommon phenomenon in the Muslim world, no matter the environment of popular political dissatisfaction, and this fact means that our facile conflation of religion and politics makes us no more enlightened about extremism than about Islam. The analysis based on that reasoning is equally flawed and leads to a false binary: namely, that for their sanity Muslims must choose either the West’s liberal prescription or an ancient, outmoded religious code stuck in stagnation, the one progressive and open to the world, the other backward and chauvinistic. On this account, the logic is that as progressive national forces expand, ideally with Western encouragement, the sediment of Islam’s primitive stock will be drained and the world will be safer for it.

All these claims ignore the reality of Islam’s long history of change and adaptation along with its worldwide diverse and pluralistic character, but such common analyses make one wonder whether theory here is getting in the way of fact, whether the tusk is weighing down the elephant. The prevalence of these views makes us overlook much that is of undisputed relevance in Islam’s classical heritage and its continuous, sophisticated elaboration at the hands of Muslim scholars. Extremism is not a reliable yardstick by which to measure Islam’s long-enduring, complex heritage and its future prospects.

Jihad Reappraised

It would help clear the air first to resist conflating Islam’s spiritual heritage with the extremist outbreaks that continue to weigh on the conscience of the world. Jihad is a good place to begin resisting this conflation. In its original manifestation, militant jihad was a function of the office of Muhammad the prophet, and once that office lapsed with his death jihad correspondingly lost its prophetic legitimacy. In Sunni theology, the office of the prophet cannot be inherited nor can his function as mentor and magistrate be transferred. Without the Prophet’s mantle, jihad lacked revelatory standing, and rulers could not ignore that fact by any mere theory of political obligation, and they could not ignore it for a simple reason: obligation to rulers is not on a par with obligation to God’s messenger.

As soon as feasible, following the deaths of Muhammad and of his companions (asháb), and inspired by the ascetic revolt against political corruption of figures like Hasan al-Basri, Ibrahim b. Adham, prince of Balkh, Rabi’a of Basra, and, later, Dhu al-Nun al-Misri, scholars of the post-apostolic age set up institutions and structures to ensure the preservation of Islam’s moral heritage. Accordingly, the scholars turned to the spiritual idea of the “greater jihad” as inner struggle and the fight for justice, a view distinct from the “lesser jihad” of waging war for religion. The spiritual heritage of Muhammad was identified with the greater jihad in a move that detached it from military use. This development set in train the process of downgrading the idea of armed jihad from a prescribed religious obligation with unquestioned entitlement to the collective allegiance of the ummah, the community of faith.

On the rare occasion a ruler undertook jihad, he did so against a well-rehearsed community consensus, creating in the process a moral duty to oppose him. Additionally, the widespread use of mercenary armies by rulers made it much easier for scholars to quarantine warfare as a political prerogative. Thus were planted the seeds of the distinction between religious authority and political power, a distinction that defined the independent role of religious scholars and the awliya, i.e. Sufi saints, as the rightful bearers of Muhammad’s spiritual heritage.

Interpreting Sharí‘ah

These post-apostolic scholars went on to lay the foundations of Islamic jurisprudence (fiqh), which is the enduring magisterial intellectual system set up for the conveyance of the revealed canon, i.e., Sharí‘ah. Jurisprudence is the safeguard against making Sharí‘ah rigid and immobile, something which Islam has never been, despite Sharí‘ah’s portrayal in the media today. In order to understand Sharí‘ah, we must see that fiqh is indispensable, and jurisprudence has played a crucial role in Islam’s centuries-long resilience and diversity.

Given its hard-won, assiduously guarded tradition of the separation of church and state, the West should have an instinctive sympathy for this distinction in Islam, particularly given just how much the Muslim world has embraced with beneficial consequences many of the institutions of the West, transcending thereby the West’s controversial colonial legacy; but for reasons hard to fathom the West seems uncomprehending of this important intercultural advance. We must overcome this Western incomprehension in order to shed light on the gains that have been made in the concourse between two great civilizations. Colonialism means neither culture is unchanged.

We can see this by understanding the historical role of jihad. Its historical advocates, prevented by the weight of the religious code from usurping the unique authority and status of Muhammad, came across as implausible, isolated, and disjointed, their message splintering into distortion and division, until finally it fell into the hands of fugitive extremists. This history shows how in the long run Muhammad’s spiritual achievement survived exposure to harsh political intrusion. And jurisprudence played an important role. As the tradition of interpretation, it helped to educate the community to guard what the prophet bequeathed, and periodically to inspire a mujaddid (renewer) to retrieve that spiritual legacy from abuse and ignorance.

Muslim West Africa

Examples abound of the studied relation of religion to power, and Muslim West Africa offers some of the most striking instances—instances that should allow the West to reassess Islam’s relation to jihad. Islam grew rapidly in West Africa, and under the scholars Timbuktu achieved the status of an inviolable religious sanctuary, a status immune to political interference. The ruler was granted access to the city as a pilgrim only during Ramadan. Askiya Muhammad (ruled 1493-1538), the founder of the askiya Muslim dynasty of Songhay, antagonized the city’s religious leaders when he demanded that the qádí submit to the message bearers the king sent. The action was in breach of Timbuktu’s standing as a religious sanctuary. The qádí, accordingly, refused, prompting the king to set out in person to confront him. Once in the city he asked the qádí for an explanation, which was not slow in coming. The qádí asked whether the king had forgotten or was feigning ignorance about how once, crawling before the qádí and hanging onto his garments, he beseeched the qádí to “place yourself in safety between me and the fire of damnation. Help me and hold me by the hand lest I stumble into hell fire.” At this point Askiya Muhammad came to, begged for forgiveness, and asked for the qádí’s continued intercession.

Another instance is telling. Askiya Da‘wúd (reigned 1549-1582) appointed, as was his royal prerogative, the highly revered Muhammad Baghayogho as the qádí of Timbuktu, but Baghayogho refused the appointment for fear of being tainted. After a yearlong period of protracted intervention by the city’s leading jurists and the threat by the king to offer the job to an ignoramus, Baghayogho relented and acceded to the request. In yet another incident, the king is said to have felt slighted when the prestigious Sankore mosque of Timbuktu was under construction without his being told. He sent a generous donation, but his gift was used not for the mosque but on repairs to an adjoining cemetery. The symbolism was clear: the king’s contribution should be a goodwill token for the repose of faithful souls rather than a stake in the merits of the faith community. The clerics were determined to demonstrate their independence and to put it about that religion may not be treated as mere political sport.

Likewise, another case makes this clear. While in forced exile in Morocco, Ahmad Baba, a star in Timbuktu’s intellectual firmament, recalled for his contemporaries a well-established injunction that warned the religious scholars “against being close to tyrants and befriending them or seeking them out and entertaining companionship with them. Such quest after the rulers of this passing world and its lowly and waning rewards is reprehensible.” Going back at least to Sufyan al-Thawri, an eighth-century Iraqi jurist, this admonition—and others like it—burdened the consciences of wayward, recalcitrant scholars and removed from those who nursed theocratic ambition the possibility of religious anointment. The significant intellectual and cultural advantage of these arguments should not be lost on us in the confrontation with extremism today, including the potential for securing in the Muslim world at large allies in the cause of peace. Somewhat inexplicably, not many people pay heed to this kind of material, including even those whose interests it would serve.

Jihad Exposed

Was Ahmad Baba’s admonition heeded? It took some two hundred years before Islam’s peaceful course was put to the test, with much remorse for the ensuing negative fallout, and the events forced Muslims to question whether it was worth the price to break with the tradition of accommodation and tolerance. The case of those who, despite the hazards, threw caution to the wind and pursued warfare in the name of religion troubled the consciences of scholars and forced a review of the subject.

What can be regarded as relevant background to the rise of Boko Haram in northeast Nigeria, the jihad leaders there in the nineteenth century had a foreboding in the middle of their military campaigns that the original moral goals were being overtaken by the lust for power and gain and by unruly conduct. They saw the bold lines of believers breaking up and degenerating into nothing more than plundering forays. ‘Abdullah dan Fodio, the brother of Usuman dan Fodio, the nineteenth-century founder of the Sokoto caliphate, was much disheartened by the widespread corruption and worldly ambition among his fellow jihadists. Having lost many close friends in the battles, he could not imagine that they gave their lives for a cause of doubtful ethical repute. Chastened, he abandoned the community and set off, saying he was intending to go on pilgrimage to Mecca.

Instead ‘Abdullah took a detour and tarried in Kano for a while. He returned to the fray a much-changed man. He bemoaned the state in which love of power had turned his fellow-believers into rapacious mercenaries whose purpose, he lamented, was none other than the desire to take land and lord it over the people, all for the sake of rank, status, and pleasure. The spectacle of the leaders of jihad jockeying for titles, appointing incompetent hangers-on to positions of authority, collecting concubines and fine clothes, riding horses to show off in towns while taking the movement in the wrong direction, devouring gifts of charity, booty and bribes, all this to the sound of lutes, flutes and drums—such a scenario proved a mere rehearsal “of the customs of the unbelievers.” Jihad degenerated into the moral “corruption brought about by worldly success, the loss of early ideals, the ebb of zeal, the decay of resolution, and the general decline in standards of conduct.”

For his part ‘Abdullah’s brother, Usuman dan Fodio, was not spared the remorse now spreading and sapping the confidence of the pious. He was constrained to issue sharp warnings about the slide into greed and disorder, all because of the betrayal of unscrupulous leaders. He complained of the corruption of justice through the taking of bribes, the predatory practices of provincial officials who rob the people of land and goods, the sale of offices, the embezzlement of public funds, and the willful disregard of ethical conduct. He accused officials of flouting the laws of marriage and concubinage, and undertaking raids to seize women as slaves. The pleasures of power were threatening to swamp the principles of religion, all this because jihad had opened the way for men of ambition to indulge their desires.

Anti-jihad feeling spread as growing dismay with the campaign erupted into recriminations directed at Dan Fodio, forcing him to assert his innocence in language fraught with the depth and urgency of the crisis. He invoked an oath in the name of God protesting his good name: “I give you proofs a thousand fold and more [that] I did not accept temporal office in any way. I have accepted nothing from the rule of temporal office.” The story is told of how one of his nephews, Hamma Ali, brought Dan Fodio gifts of gold and cowries to curry favor; Dan Fodio sternly rebuked Hamma Ali, telling him never to send him such “filth” again. Fodio was a person of high integrity, but many of the other leaders were not. The story thus shows how close the culture of corruption had come to the centers of power. It placed the architects of jihad on the defensive, and, without Dan Fodio’s personal scruples, many succumbed, provoking a growing sense of moral dismay within the ranks.

As the son and heir of Usuman Dan Fodio, Muhammad Bello described how of the ten types of people in the ummah he reckoned that nine are not genuine members. There are those who regard their ethnic identity as Fula to be sufficient criterion for membership. There are individuals even among the learned who espouse the cause because it is fashionable to do so. And then there are those who use jihad for personal gain and advantage, he felt. Experience had taught Bello that at best jihad was a liability for Islam, and, at worst, it was subversive of faith.


It was not long before a challenge materialized. In a departure from Qur’anic teaching, Dan Fodio gambled on anathematizing the dissidents as infidels despite their Muslim credentials, and his action alarmed the community. As expected, the legitimacy of his argument for jihad was challenged, and the opposition forced him to try to defend waging jihad against fellow Muslims. He was reeling, aware that he bore heavy responsibility for the shedding of Muslim blood, for “the sanctity of Muslim blood is a point over which the Revealed Law is absolutely clear and binding.” He was anguished at the thought that he was waging war against fellow Muslims in Kanem-Borno state, a Muslim country in the area straddling northeast Nigeria and present-day Chad, and so, on purely crass opportunistic grounds, he strained at the argument that Borno qualified as an apostate state. Anathematizing Borno as a renegade state simply because its Muslim ruler chose to abstain from jihad has no sanction in Islamic law, and so that scenic route could not bring Dan Fodio to a place of moral credibility. Instead it brought upon him the charge that he was being disingenuous.

Thorn in the Side

It was Muhammad al-Kánemí (d. 1835), sultan of Kanem-Borno, who brought the whole legitimacy of jihad wide into the open. He had lived and studied in Cairo and Medina before assuming the mantle of sultan of Kanem-Borno. He was distressed as he watched the spreading embers of war engulf his people and his state. He found no justification for waging war against other Muslims and pressed his objections. Dan Fodio responded, saying the religious code laid it down that “the law of the country is the law of the ruler.” But that rule was inapplicable to Kanem-Borno whose ruler was a Muslim.

Dan Fodio resorted to casuistry, arguing that by his failure to support the jihad, al-Kánemí had in effect become one of the enemies he sided with and could thus be deemed an apostate. Jihad against him was justified. Yet even Dan Fodio knew that this was specious reasoning, and it haunted him, as John Hunwick noted.

In Islam imán, faith, is a moral quality, rather than a function of worldly interest. Only extremists say that sin can cause a believer to lose faith, whereas mainstream Islam, on the other hand, sticks to faith as God’s prerogative alone, which explains why in Scripture God takes an oath irrevocably condemning any Muslim who sheds fellow Muslim blood (Qur’an 4:95).  It is therefore distracting to pursue the question of whether or not the jihadists were Khárijites or even Wahhabis, for the issue is about faith as an inalienable moral attribute. Dan Fodio and his fellow-jihadists understood well this root meaning of faith, which is why al-Kánemí’s challenge rattled them.

Al-Kánemí said war cannot decide who is or is not a Muslim and that, when difference is at issue, Muslims have to fall back on tolerance and mutual acceptance to resolve it. Without tolerance Muslims would unleash debilitating conflict that would spare not even “Egypt, Syria and all the cities of Islam…in which acts of immorality and disobedience without number have long been committed.” In that regard, Egypt and Syria and other places in Islam are like Borno, if not worse.

I find al-Kánemí’s arguments attractive as well as instructive, not simply because they evoke something of my own Catholic tradition, but especially because he drew on the shared spiritual heritage of Islam to give his argument momentum and create an effective riposte against the jihadists. He appealed to solidarity with fellow Muslims to mount a leading front against the violence and division of jihad.

Al-Kánemí was proceeding on sound ground. According to a hadith, Muhammad, asked whether Muslims should fight against bad rulers, replied simply, “No, not so long as they say their prayers.” The hadith hints at a larger issue about extremism: it is at variance with Muhammad’s teaching, and al-Kánemí pursued that line of argument. He rejected the notion that the present age is created to be “more virtuous or stronger or more learned than the first Muslims,” because that argument would impugn the faith of the early Muslims in light of their failings, and make the prophet wrongly complicit in Islam as a blemished heritage. Muslims would risk the reputation of Islam were they to press jihad into a handicap to “force the hand of God,” with the near certainty of deviation and compromise. “No age and country,” al-Kánemí claimed, “is free from its share of heresy and sin,” and drawing a line between the saved and the damned would pack more bullets into the gun: Muslim or not, neighbors would become blood enemies, the world a perpetual battlefield, and all sincere but inadequate attempts at truth and obedience would stand condemned. That would be heresy against all Islam. It is with reason that al-Ghazali admonished the community that to demand freedom from sin is to make something like an act of criticism impossible, along with acknowledgment of our shared foibles. Al-Ghazali’s words have telling resonance in our day.

Moral and Political Separation

While initiating the jihadist al-Hajj ‘Umar al-Fútí into the Tijániíyáh wird and conferring on him the status of most favored disciple in Mecca, Muhammad al-Ghálí commanded ‘Umar to “cease associating with kings or sultans,” and never to seek temporal power lest al-Ghálí in turn cease “sustaining him in his prayers and intercessions.” Al-Ghálí pressed upon ‘Umar the necessity of abjuring temporal power, reminding him of the words of the prophet: “the best emirs (rulers) are those who comply with the wishes of the ‘ulamá (scholars of religion), and the worst ‘ulamá are those who comply with the wishes of the emirs,” and “the ‘ulamá have the security of the Messenger of God as long as they spurn association with sultans. But if they associate themselves with sultans, they are unfaithful to the Messengers.” Ahmad Baba’s ears must be ringing at those words.

As it happened, al-Hajj ‘Umar ignored the advice of his religious superior and went on to lead the jihad in West Africa. His military campaign was consumed in trying to pursue too many moving targets, fighting the Muslim Tuareg at one end of the battlefront and the French colonial forces at the other, with unresolved ethnic grievances somewhere in between. Squeezed between the Tuareg and the French, al-Hajj ‘Umar floundered, and with him his cause. Al-Ghálí, his mentor in Mecca, had seen it coming.

Ahmad al-Bakka’í, the Tuareg scholar-warrior who locked horns with al-Hajj ‘Umar and by whose hand he fell, recognized all too well the scholarly consensus on jihad as harmful to religion, specifically because jihad makes religion complicit with prevarications of power. Ahmad al-Bakka’í explained his rejection of jihad in unflattering terms, saying jihad “leads to mulk (political kingship), and mulk leads to zalm (tyranny),” emboldening people to “indulge in unlawful things.” His statement recalls a Fula proverb to the effect that, “the cleric (tcherno) begets a chief (lamďo), the chief begets an infidel (kefero).”

Without the margin of discretion that jurisprudence provides, religion would encourage blind literalism that would shackle the conscience and shrink freedom of action. Al-Kánemí cites the Qur’an in support to round off his rejection of jihad. “He who is versed in the books of fiqh,” he insisted, “and has paid attention to the talk of the imams in their disputation…will know the test of what we have said.” The “imams in their disputation” are the true and legitimate contenders of the right of title to the Prophet’s spiritual heritage.

Legacy and Opportunity

Religious moderation and tolerance have shaped the character of major parts of the Muslim world, and the idea of violent jihad failed to take root except in remote margins. In Nigeria colonial rule arrived in time to shore up the tottering caliphal structures, structures enfeebled by corruption and ineptitude, to the gratitude of Muslim leaders. H.R. Palmer, the senior British administrator of North Nigeria, assembled manuals of administration by Muslim scholars and included them in the collection of the Shahuci Judicial School, established in 1928, and in that of the School of Arabic Studies in Kano, established in 1947. The study of Islamic law and jurisprudence helped in the modernization of traditional Muslim society as learned jurists steered the religion away from theocratic goals, leaving the affairs of mulk in the hands of rulers.

Sir Abubakar Tafawa Balewa, the founding prime minister of an independent Nigeria, regretted only that the British had not breached their own rule of non-interference and pushed more for the modern education of girls, the resistance of local Muslim political authorities notwithstanding. In a speech in the Legislative Council in March 1948, Tafawa Balewa declared, “I would like to move that the British interfere in this way.”

Islam was being afforded ample opportunity to deploy its considerable spiritual influence on behalf of a more inclusive humanity without exception to women, and it was not a sign of weakness if it took European collaboration to advance that goal. The new conditions of Western administrative involvement offered the incentive to engage Islam’s capacity for inquiry and for adaptation to lived experience in the modern world – Islam is a lived religion invested in peaceful routine daily practice, with applied scholarship as stimulus and framework. Muslim society could do with allies and partners in that high endeavor, and that way transcend the complex and complicated legacy of the brief episode of colonial history.

Religion and Mulk

Islam is not a frozen creed, thanks to the science of jurisprudence that feeds off the energy of study, devotion, and daily observance, and it refreshs the religious life with a supple and subtle spirit, creating in the process a barrier against extremist incursions. The code stimulates and expands as much as it guides and frames, and professional scholars serve the cause by being an assurance against provocation – striking a path between effective mediation and moral independence. Muslims are not locked in a stockade of restraints whose intent is to make their lives miserable, as Abu Hanifa maintained. The code is not an enemy nor is religion a cage. The folds of the turban don’t have to stiffen into an encrusted encumbrance; the religious border, like the turban, needs constant tucking and adjustment to be stable. That lesson rejects the extremist doctrine that religion has a fixed unchanging core in whose defense no price is too high to exact, however repugnant to conscience. Extremism as such is enough of a radical departure from Muhammad’s spiritual heritage to be tantamount to an abandonment of his religion. Jihad leaves us only with the paltry uses of mulk.

The issues raised in this essay are discussed more fully in Beyond Jihad: The Pacifist Tradition in West African Islam, Oxford University Press, 2016, $35.00

Lamin Sanneh is D. Willis James Professor of Missions and World Christianity and Professor of History at Yale. He is the author of several books, including Disciples of All Nations: Pillars of World Christianity (OUP 2007).