Islam and War

September 11, 2001. The world became aware of another type of war. Books, articles have been written to try to understand what happened and especially why it happened. The world started to understand in depth Islam, and its conception of jihad or holy war. John’s Keslay book, ‘Islam and war, a study in comparative ethics’, is one of those books written some years before September 11 to help us understand the concept of holy war in both Islamic society and Christian western societies. We will give a summary of the book bringing out the main assertions of the author. Then we will make some personal reflection on the use of violence accepted by both religious traditions.

The book is a 150-page book. It is published in 1993. The book was written after the gulf war of 1992. It is essentially concerned with ethics in war. We find some scholarly information about religious aspects of war especially in Islam; just war doctrine; the religious aspects of the Persian gulf war of 1991; Saddam Hussein and his views on Islam and war; the moral and ethical aspects of war[1]. The author is from the United States of America. He teaches in the Department of Religion in Florida State University. The author is interested in promoting deeper understanding of the relationship that prevails between ethics, war, and the practice of politics. The method used is comparative dialogue in the mind. Thus, the reader is brought to a deeper understanding of the classical and contemporary Islamic notions on the justification and conduct of war. We learn from his study that the Christian just war tradition or the rules of jihad are “military portion of a cultural tradition reflecting specific views of the nature and purposes of human society”[2].

A Summary of the main ideas of the book

Although the gulf war was conducted for some political and economic reasons, the use of Islamic symbols to justify it made it religious in tones. Sadam Hussein simply convinced many Muslims that it was time to fight the imperialistic domination of western powers on the dar al-Islam, the territory of Islam. It was his duty and the duty of all Muslims to rise and fight against oppression, exploitation, and dishonour and to re-establish a just social order according to Allah’s injunctions. Sadam Hussein thus reminded Muslim of their divine mission to “demonstrate to the world the values associated with pure monotheism; to command good, forbid evil; and bring about justice in the earth.”[3]

His endeavour can be understood from the nature of Islam itself. Islam is a religious tradition based of the life and work of Muhammad, who as prophet and political leader restored belief in the one God and established a community of God. Islam is the natural religion of humanity calling all human beings to submission to the one and only God and to his rule. Finally, Islam is a world civilization desired by God as best for human beings. When Sadam Hussein declared his war a jihad, he was strong of his religious convictions of establishing a peaceful Islamic society.
Indeed peace in Islam is a key notion. It includes the absence of conflict and a just social order. It is strongly connected to justice. Peace is the just social order. All Muslims must struggle for it even by force. Force can be used to create a just society under four conditions: a conception of human responsibility; a judgement about the human situation; a political entity that recognizes the judgement; and a program of action to extend physically of spiritually the boundaries of Islam.

Consequently, we have to recognize that Islam constitutes the rightful cause for war. At the same time Islam can limit the occasion and conduct of war. In general, the only legitimate wars in Islam are those “in the path of God”. The aim of such wars is to extend Islamic supremacy, thus allowing people to live together in peace and justice. It is also to defend and establish Islamic society against all sorts of aggression that might destroy the Islamic norms.

Comparatively to Christian tradition, Islam does not develop much on the question of justice in war with regard to the fighters and those who do not fight. The notions of “justice” and “innocence” have a distinctive meaning in Islamic thought. It reflects more cultural consensus on the conduct of war than theological. In general adult, able-bodied males are obliged to fight. The fight occurs when a people resists or opposes the rightful goals of Islam. Muslims fight people who refuse to submit. Islam has also some rules of war in case of rebellion. Rebellious or dissenters Muslims can be fought but the response to them should be limited since they remain Muslims.

Islamic rules of war are not always respected to the letter. Some individuals or groups of Muslims have judged for themselves a particular situation then they have declared war on their enemies. Those “soldiers without portfolio” are willing to use nonconvential tactics. They fight irregular wars that are a challenged to the official Islamic rulers. Their actions can be directed towards their own Muslim leaders considering them as apostate, renegade or traitors or towards some powers considered as oppressors. Those militant groups are not representatives of Islam in general but they express Islamic feelings about a particular situation. Moreover a certain rebellion against an unjust Muslim ruler can be accepted in Islam if three conditions are met: there must be a concrete act of resistance (al-khuruj); the cause must be based on al-ta`wil (a just legitimate islamic cause); and there must be a relevant and organised group.[4]

Just war tradition and the rules for jihad indicate a mission to build a world in which peace, order, and justice prevail according to God. An understanding of both religious visions on war can help in bringing about a new world order. Since the two traditions are evolving in the same world, they need to meet somewhere and bring their contributions to the world civilisation that is prevailing. Muslims cannot live in the world like a sectarian ghetto. They need to participate more fully with their precious values to a peaceful world. We should all strive for a new world order through deep understanding of the wisdom of a tradition that related war, ethics and statecraft.

A Reflection on the use of violence

We would like to reflect on the question of the use of violence as means to achieve peace. Both Christian and Islamic traditions accept some sort of use of violence as a means to achieve peace. Our conviction is that there can never be the peace of God when violence is used. We can use violence to “restrain an enemy who would injure the innocent”[5]. This is not peace. A deeper understanding of peace may help us.

The understanding of Christian comes from the term shalom. Shalom is a Hebrew word, which derived from the Sumerian root silim and the Akkadian root salamu, which means, “To be whole, uninjured.”[6] Shalom means ‘undivided’ when it is applied to inorganic objects. It means ‘undamaged’ when it is used for artefacts. Applied to living creatures, shalom means ‘sound’ or ‘health’. And finally when applied to the com­munity shalom refers to “well ordered as a society living in prosperity”.[7]

The shalom that emerges in the Jewish experience and as expressed in the bible means, “total harmony within the com­munity. It is founded upon order and permeated by God’s blessing, and hence makes it possible for man to develop and increase free and un­hindered on every side”. [8]

In the New Testament, the word shalom has been rendered in Greek by eirene. The term eirene refers to the opposite of war and the blessing of the city or state[9]. Peace in the NT points to its achievement in Christ: “Christ is our peace” (Eph 2: 14). Peace appears in the NT as the immediate effect of that salvation brought about by the Messiah. It is established here and now by God through his Son[10] for God is the “God of peace” (Rom15:33; 16:20; 1Cor 14:33). Life becomes the essential constituent of the Christian shalom in the sense of soundness and wholeness in body and soul. The Christian peace is the peace established by Christ between humankind and God. But it remains eschatological.

Indeed if Christ is ‘our peace’ then, peace already exists here and now as an essential element of the Kingdom of God.[11] And above all it is a completely gift from God.[12] Nevertheless Christians have the noble task of constantly seeking peace.[13]

Basing herself on the rich understanding of peace from the Holy Scriptures, the Catholic Church defined in concrete terms the nature and content of that peace and the means to attain it. In general “The Catholic tradition has always understood the meaning of peace in positive terms. Peace is both a gift of God and a human work. It must be constructed on the basis of central human values: truth, justice, freedom, and love”.[14]

In the course of history, the catholic social teachings on peace emphasized different aspects of the Christian shalom. Pope John XXIII speaks of a ‘universal peace based on truth, built according to justice, vivified and integrated by charity and put into practice in freedom’ (PT 167). Peace will be established through new methods of relationships in human society according to the ‘order established by God’ (PT 163). Those human relationships should then be based on the respect of the rights proper to each individual, and a conception of the authority as intrinsically related to God. Progressive disarmament and the stop of arm race and the development of universal common good are efficacious means to establish peace.[15] In human endeavour to foster peace prayer is essential because help from the high God is necessary (PT 168).

The second Vatican council defines peace as “an enterprise of justice” (GS78). The basis of Christian peace is Justice and love (GS77). The means proposed by Vatican II to foster peace are: “constant mastering of one’s passions” (GS78), “lawful authority that keeps vigilance” (GS78), “safeguard of personal values” (GS78), “free and trusting sharing of riches of inner spirits and talents” (GS78), “respect of human beings and peoples” (GS78), “respect of human dignity” (GS78), “practice of brotherhood” (GS78), “love of neighbour” (GS78), “renunciation of the use of violence” (GS78), “condemnation of war” (GS 79), “mutual trust between nations” (GS82), “end of the arm race” (GS82), “true disarmament” (GS82), “elimination of the danger of war” (GS82), “promotion of those who work for peace” (GS82), “taking into consideration public opinion and feeling” (GS82), “renewed education of attitudes of peace” (GS82), “honest agreements concerning world peace” (GS82).

The Catholic Church proposed then the building up of an international community as a strong means to achieve world peace.[16] The main role of this international community is to cooperate at all level to eradicate the economic, political, and social causes of dissensions between people through agencies for the promotion of peace (GS83).

The after Vatican II social catholic teaching on peace will develop the fundamental ideas expressed in Gaudium et Spes. Pope Paul VI draws the attention on the importance of development in building up a peaceful society. “The new name for peace is development” (PP87). The emphasis here is on economic justice. Promoting peace means waging war on misery and injustice in promoting the human and spiritual progress of all people (PP76).

Pope John Paul II relates peace with the respect of human dignity and human rights when he said, “Unconditional and effective respect for each one’s unprescriptable and inalienable rights is the necessary condition in order that peace may reign in a society.[17] The Pope will later emphasize solidarity as the path to peace (SRS39). The means the pope proposes are: “abandonment of the politics of blocs, sacrifice of all forms of economic, military, or political imperialism”, “sincere collaboration”, “spirit of togetherness”, “to build in unity a new society and a better world” (SRS 39). Echoing the whole catholic social teaching the pope reaffirms the development of the whole person and of all peoples as the necessary condition of peace. The full achievement of peace depends on “fidelity to our faith and above all on God” (SRS 47).

In his last message for the celebration of the world day of peace January 1, 2003, John Paul II gives a summary of the church’s teaching on peace by elaborating the four pillars of the Christian peace: truth, justice, love and freedom.

Truth will build peace if every individual sincerely acknowledges not only his rights, but also his own duties towards others. Justice will build peace if in practice everyone respects the rights of others and actually fulfils his duties towards them. Love will build peace if people feel the needs of others as their own and share what they have with others, especially the values of mind and spirit, which they possess. Freedom will build peace and make it thrive if, in the choice of the means to that end, people act according to reason and assume responsibility for their own actions.[18]

Such an understanding of peace cannot include the use of violence. Peace achieved through violence will always lacked that wholeness or total harmony.

It is important to notice that the words ‘Islam’ and ‘Salam’ have the same root. In the Qur’ an, Salam is most often used as the greeting of the righteous because it is the salutation of peace of Allah himself: ‘Peace! -a word (of salutation) from a Lord Most Merciful’ (Qur’an 36:58). When Allah himself greets his children ‘peace’, it means he has brought them to the highest moment of happiness. They have attained the final goal. Peace is part of God’s own nature. That is why it occurs as one of the names of Allah in Qur’an 59:23 as the preserver of peace and the peacemaker. Moreover the word has even been identified with Allah himself.[19] By greeting his children ‘peace’ Allah simply bestows on them his nature. Therefore, all the righteous can greet each other with the salutation of peace as the Qur’an says: ‘…And ‘Peace’ will be their greeting therein…’ (Qur’an 10:10; 14:23). The reason behind is that the greeting of peace is the expression of the assurance of salvation from Allah.[20]

There are two words in the Qur’an that express the concept of peace: ‘Salam’ and ‘Sakina’. The word Salam comes from Salima, which means ‘to be well, uninjured’. It is used as a substantive to mean ‘peace, health, salutation, greeting’.[21] In general the word Salam, means in its ordinary sense ‘freedom from any hardship’. A deeper sense will points to ‘a sense of security and permanence in this life’. It includes ‘soundness, perfection’ and freedom from defects’. Salam means also ‘preservation, salvation, deliverance’. It is a salutation that expresses also an ‘accord’. Lastly Salam has the sense of satisfaction.[22]

Sakina is a loan word borrowed from the Hebrew ‘shekina’. In general sakina can be translated by ‘calm, peace, security, tranquillity’. [23] When Allah pours his calm (Qur’an 9:26) on his children they are filled with a cool courage. The underlining idea is a total confidence in God that brings total peace.[24]

This total reliance on God is important in working for peace. The road to peace is in the inclination towards peace and the trust in Allah.[25] Why then shall we use violence to bring about peace? Islam proposes some ways to achieve peace. These ways include first of all faith in God.[26] Faith should be proposed never forced: “No constraint in religion” (Qur’an 2:256). And it means charity or fraternity towards the believers of other religions. Secondly, peace in Islam is achieved through peace in private life. It means observing a certain peace between personal desires and the interest of the community. The sure way to reach such peace is to do good and avoid evil. Thirdly there should be peace in the relationship between people in general. This peace can be achieved through mutual knowledge, reconciliation, considering each other as equal, and respect of people natural rights to life and liberty. Fourthly, peace will be achieved through the observance of public order based on fraternity and equality between all people. Classes, races or nationalities should be abolished when they are obstacles to the universal fraternity. Lastly, justice is a sure road to peace. Peace means assuring justice in the application of laws and equality in the enjoyment of rights.

The actual context of our world rules out the use of violence in achieving peace. The bloody civil wars have taught us about the consequences of violence. Salam should emphasize a real universal solidarity, and equality among all the human beings. It cannot be achieved by means of violence


Millions of people all over the world aspire to peace. Peace is a great value that constitutes the happiness of people. Our investigation into the Christian peace ‘Shalom’ and the Muslim peace ‘Salam’ showed that they both point above all to the integral well being of the human person and to harmony in the human society. Means to achieve such peace may differ like on the question of resort to war or fight. Although both religious traditions have set some rules for a just war, the abandon of violence will make both religions relevant in building a new peaceful society. M. Gandhi in India, Martin L. King in the USA have proved that we can change an oppressive and unjust situation without violence. The commitment to peace has to be constantly renewed. The contributions of both religions are first of all to transform themselves into religions of peace. The new commitment of both religions would be to enter in a real and effective dialogue to promote the building of a culture of peace. But ‘unless the Lord build the house, they labour in vain who build’ (Ps 127).


GS Gaudium et Spes

PT Pacem in Terris

SRS Sollicitudo Rei Socialis

USCCB U.S. Catholic Bishops


Dar al.Kitab, a., “La conception de L’homme en Islam et l’Aspiration des hommes vers la paix”, in Colloques de Ryad, de Paris, du Vatican, de Geneve et de Strasbourg sur le dogme musulman et les droits de l’homme en Islam, Beyrouth 1975, 147-175.

Gibb, H.A.R. – Kramers, J.H., ed., Shorter Encyclopaedia of Islam, Leiden 1995.

Gross, H., “Peace”, EBT II, 648-651.

John Paul II, Message for the Celebration of the World Day of Peace, January 1 2003.

———, Sollicitudo Rei Sociallis: Encyclical letter on social concern , in Catholic Social Thought. The Documentary Heritage, ed. D.J. O’Brien – T.A. Shannon, Maryknoll, NY 1992, 395-436.

———, World Day of Peace Message 1982.

John XXIII, Pacem in Terris. Encyclical letter on establishing universal peace in truth, justice, charity and liberty, in Catholic Social Thought. The Documentary Heritage, ed. D.J. O’Brien – T.A. Shannon, Maryknoll, NY 1992, 131-162.

KELSAY, JOHN, Islam and war A Study in Comparative Ethics, Louisville, Kentucky, 1993.

Mushaf al-Madinah, The Holy Qur-an English translation of the meanings and Commentary, Al-Madinah Al-Munawarah 1413H.

Paul VI, Gaudium et Spes: Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, in Catholic Social Thought. The Documentary Heritage, ed. D.J. O’Brien – T.A. Shannon, Maryknoll, NY 1992, 166-237.

The African Bible, Nairobi 1999.

USCB, The Challenge of Peace: God’s promise and Our Response, in Catholic Social Thought. The Documentary Heritage, ed. D.J. O’Brien – T.A. Shannon, Maryknoll, NY 1992, 492-571.

[1] KELSAY, J., Islam and war, vi.

[2] KELSAY, J., Islam and war, 111.

[3] KELSAY, J., Islam and war, 42.

[4] KELSAY, J., Islam and war, 88-90.

[5] USCB, The Challenge of peace, 81.

[6] H. GROSS, “Peace”, 648.

[7] H. GROSS, “Peace”, 648.

[8] H. GROSS, “Peace”, 648.

[9] H.GROSS, “Peace”, 650.

[10] Cf. Acts 10:36; Phil 1:2; Col 1:20.

[11] Cf. Rom 14: 17; I Cor 7: 15; Eph 4:3; 2 Tim 2:22; Jas 3: 18.

[12] Cf. Is 2:2-4; 32:17; Zech 2:4f; 14: 2; Ps 46: 9f; 85: 2.

[13] Cf. 1 Pet 3:11: “…seek peace and follow after it.”

[14] USCB, The Challenge of Peace, 68.

[15] The rights proper to each individual, the authority and conscience, disarmament, and development of universal common good are the four major themes of Pacem in Terris.

[16] See section 2 of Chapter 5 of Gaudium et Spes. Section 2 is dedicated to the building up of the International community.

[17] JOHN PAUL II, World Day of Peace Message 1982, 9.

[18] JOHN PAUL II, Message for the Celebration of the World Day of Peace2003, 3.

[19] H.A.R. GIBB and J.H. KRAMERS, Shorter Encyclopaedia of Islam, 490.

[20] MUSHAF AL-MADINAH, The Holy Qur-an, n.1025, 410.

[21] H.A.R. GIBB and J.H. KRAMERS, Shorter Encyclopaedia of Islam, 489.

[22] MUSHAF AL-MADINAH, The Holy Qur-an, n.2512, 869.

[23] H.A.R. GIBB and J.H. KRAMERS, Shorter Encyclopaedia of Islam, 489.

[24] MUSHAF AL-MADINAH, The Holy Qur-an, n.1276, 505.

[25] Cf. Qur’an 8:61.

[26] We borrow those ways to peace from the contribution of Dar Al.Kitab Allubnani to the symposium of Geneva on the Muslim dogma and human rights in Islam, October 30, 1974. His contribution was on the conception of man in Islam and the aspiration of people for peace. c.f. A. DAR AL.KITAB, “La conception de L’homme en Islam”, 149-173.

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