Principles of Just War in Different Religions

Prof. Shahul Hameed

Thucydides, the well-known author of The History of the Peloponnesian War wrote: "The strong do as they can, while the weak suffer what they must."

This summarizes what had been happening in the dark ages of yesteryears, and what is happening unfortunately right now at the behest of "the leaders of civilization".

In fact, soon after the Second World War, international laws were instituted by all the reigning powers, to prevent the terrible sufferings likely to be inflicted on the weak by the strong. The idea was to uphold right rather than might.

These internationally approved laws of war are codified in the UN Charter, the Geneva Conventions, and the Nuremberg principles adopted by the UN.

It is also noteworthy that all the major world religions have given edicts and precepts to tame the passions of people leading to mutual violence. It is ironical that Jesus of Nazareth who taught his disciples to "turn the other cheek" was allegedly nailed on the cross.

And the greatest advocate of Ahimsa (nonviolence) in the twentieth century — Mahatma Gandhi — was shot dead by a Hindu fanatic.

This points to the necessity of defeating the forces of evil even by the use of force; that is to say, we must be prepared to fight for peace, if need be.

Jewish Ideas About War & Justice

Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson has this to say towards the conclusion of an article entitled: "Judaism, War and Justice":

"We have examined and rejected two types of war: the Conquest and aggressive war… Only one type of warfare, defensive war, is still permitted. Only combat that is responding to an attack, only defense in order to prevent imminent killing can be vindicated morally. All other warfare is ethically unjustifiable. And it is that position which most authorities of Halakhah have asserted for almost two thousand years. Judaism has established an impressive legal edifice to reflect its ethical opposition to state-organized killing. The very simplicity of the usable law asserts the force of the moral statement — to choose to wage war is unethical." (Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson, Judaism, War and Justice, last accessed January, 25, 2009)

In the article "The Jewish Way to Wage War", we read several rules to be followed in war time. Here is one good example:

"When in battle, a Jewish army must not completely surround the enemy on all four sides. The army must leave one side open in order to allow non-combatants to flee and needless bloodshed to be avoided." (The Jewish Way to Wage War, last accessed January, 25, 2009)

Prophet Isaiah declares that the ultimate aim of war is peace:

".. And they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more." (Isaiah 2:4, The Tanakh, Jewish Virtual Library)

Yet, there are several verses of a different tenor that the Israelis of today apparently follow, such as these:

"Every one that is found shall be thrust through; and every one that is joined unto them shall fall by the sword. Their children also shall be dashed to pieces before their eyes; their houses shall be spoiled, and their wives ravished." ( Isaiah13:15-16, The Tanakh, JVL)

And read this about the war on the Medianites:

According to the source, Prophet Moses said,

"'Have you saved all the women alive? …kill every male among the little ones, and kill every woman that has known man by lying with him. But all the women children, that have not known man by lying with him, keep alive for yourselves." (Numbers 31:15, 17, 18, The Tanakh, JVL)

Paradoxically enough, this is what the Pharaoh did to the Israelites, when they were in Egypt. Now Moses, according to the Jewish Tanakh, chooses to inflict the same kind of 'holocaust' on the Medianites, who had nothing to do with Pharaoh's persecution.

The Book of Joshua (Yehoshua) is filled with verses from Yahweh (HaShem), asking him to destroy all the men, women, children and even the cattle that came his way:

"As HaShem commanded Moses His servant, so did Moses command Joshua; and so did Joshua; he left nothing undone ofall that HaShem commanded Moses.So Joshua took all that land ... and all their kings he took, and smote them, and put them to death. Joshua made war a long time with all those kings….For it was of HaShem to harden their hearts, to come against Israel in battle, that they might be utterly destroyed, that they might have no favor, but that they might be destroyed, as HaShem commanded Moses." (Yehoshua 11:15,17,18,20, The Tanakh, JVL)

Christian View of a Just War

If we search the Gospels for the teachings of Prophet Jesus about war, we may come across ideas such as:

"Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you," (Matthew 5:44, NIV),

"Do not resist an evil person. If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also." (Matthew 5:39, NIV),


"Put your sword back in its place…..for all who draw the sword will die by the sword." (Matthew 26:52, NIV)

And these ideas are hardly helpful in the waging of any war, whether just or unjust.

The Christian theory of a just war, one may note, originated with St Augustine of Hippo, some four centuries after Christ. Influenced by Paul's realism rather than by Christ's idealism, Augustine outlined conditions for waging a "just war".

According to him, the first requirement was proper authority. As he put it,

"The authority and deliberation for undertaking war should be under the control of a leader entrusted with the responsibility of governance."

The second requirement was proper cause for war. To him, justifications like the desire for revenge and the lust for domination have no place in a just war.

The third requirement that was added later to Augustine's ideas, was a reasonable chance of success, because human life is too precious and too sacred to waste.

The fourth and final requirement is proportionality. In waging a war, authorities must make sure that the harm caused by their response to aggression does not exceed the harm caused by the aggression itself. Annihilating the enemy in response to an attack on one of your cities is an example of disproportion.

Proportionality also came to mean that non-combatants must not be harmed. They can never be the targets of an attack. In modern warfare this is the condition most commonly violated even when there is a proper cause for war.

Justice in War as Visualized by Islam

The Quran emphasizes the balance and justice that are central to the design and order underlying God's creation as also in the Ultimate Reckoning on the Day of Judgment. Any one who ponders over the mystery of the universe cannot but arrive at some idea of the balance of justice set up by the Creator:

[And the Firmament has He raised high, and He has set up the Balance (of Justice), in order that you may not transgress (due) balance. So establish weight with justice and fall not short in the balance.] ( Ar-Rahman 55:7-9)

The divine system is one of perfect justice; and so God has sent His guidance to lay a solid foundation for a harmonious relationship between peoples. Indeed, t he basics of Islam are usually called the pillars of faith and practice; which correspond to peace and justice as noted by Charles Le Gai Eaton:

"…They are clearly connected since there can be no enduring peace without justice. The very word Islam comes from the same verbal root as-salam meaning "peace" and, since the religion is based upon total submission to the will of God, Muslims believe that real peace is out of reach unless it is based upon this submission within the universal order. They believe equally that there can be no real justice except as an aspect of submission to the source of all that is just and well ordered." (Charles Le Gai Eaton, The Concept of Justice in Islam, last accessed January, 25, 2009)

The acceptance of human equality and the recognition of human rights are religious obligations of Muslims. Absolute equality between people is an article of faith that is directly linked to the Oneness of the Creator.

Every human has the right to the safety of life. But only a proper and competent court of law can decide to take a life in retaliation for murder or as punishment for spreading corruption on earth. Only a properly established government can decide to wage war.

God commands Muslims in the Quran to do good and to avoid shameful deeds, injustice, and rebellion. He commands them to be just, even if we hate a people:

[O you who believe! stand out firmly for God, as witnesses to fair dealing, and let not the hatred of others to you make you swerve to wrong and depart from justice. Be just: that is next to piety: and fear God. For God is well-acquainted with all that ye do.] (Al-Ma'idah 5:8)

Islam is strongly opposed to all forms of injustice and takes all measures to ensure that justice prevails in every field. And one prerequisite for peace in the world is justice. Indeed Islam's stand on war is linked to its concept of justice. Given the nature of humans, one cannot imagine a world without wars.

The best we can strive for is to have a code of rules for war. It is to the merit of Islam that it does provide such rules, which remain ever nobler and more realistic than any other code existing for the conduct of war.

In war as in peace, the injunctions of Islam are to be strictly observed. Worship does not cease during times of war. Islamic jurisprudence maintains that whatever is prohibited during peace is also prohibited during war. God says in the Quran what means:

[Fight in the way of God against those who fight against you, but begin not hostilities. Lo! God loves not, aggressors.] (Al-Baqarah 2:190)

The above permission to fight clearly lays down the following conditions:

1. Never commit aggression; fighting is allowed only for self-defense.

2. Fighting must never be against non-combatants or non-fighting personnel.

The Prophet (peace be upon him) used to instruct his followers during battles to spare non-combatants, particularly children and hermits. Caliph Abu Bakr (may God be pleased with him) gave the following instructions to the commander who led the campaign to Syria:

"Do not betray, be treacherous or vindictive. Do not mutilate. Do not kill children, the aged or women. Do not cut or burn palm trees or fruit trees. Do not slay a sheep, a cow, or camel except for your food. And you will come across people who stay in hermitages for worship; leave them alone to what they devote themselves to."

For the first time in the history of warfare, it was Islam that adopted an attitude of mercy and caring for the captured enemy.

Unprecedented by previous legal systems, and long before the Geneva Convention, Islam set the rule that the captive is to be sheltered by his captivity and the wounded by his injury. Islam made it obligatory to feed prisoners.

Islam never fought civilian populations; Islamic war was one of liberation and not one of coercion. The liberated people had the freedom to choose their religion, and Muslims often fought to ensure this freedom.

One of the major shortcomings of modern international politics is its scant regard for moral obligation. Time and again, treaties and agreements are flouted. From the outset, Islam has emphatically prohibited breach of trust and treachery.

Recent examples of signing a pact with a nation with a hidden intent to attack it are diametrically opposed to the rules of combat Islam has laid down.

God in the Quran says:

[Fulfill the covenant of God when you have entered into it, and break not your oaths after you have confirmed them; indeed you have made God your surety; for God knows all that you do.] (An-Nahl 16:91)

Professor Shahul Hameed is a consultant to the Reading Islam Website. He also held the position of the President of the Kerala Islamic Mission, Calicut, India. He is the author of three books on Islam published in the Malayalam language. His books are on comparative religion, the status of women, and science and human values.

Islam Online

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