The doctrine of de-violentization in Islam: An alternative to Christian pacifism?


mahmood delkhasteh
by mahmood delkhasteh

Around five years ago, the Max Plank Institute in Freiburg asked me to write a chapter for a book exploring whether there is an Islamic doctrine of pacifism that is comparable to the Christian one.  I don't know whether the book will actually be published, but in any case I thought that given the symbiosis between Christian and Muslim fundamentalists, whose systematic provocations of and violent reactions to each other are increasingly having a negative effect on international politics, it is a good time to increase public awareness of the alternative Islamic discourses of freedom which are based on tolerance and liberty. It is time to develop understandings of Islam which strive to reduce and eventually abolish all forms of power and violence through processes of de-violentisation throughout society, and hence to open more spaces for freedom and peace, which are the preconditions of human development.


The doctrine of de-violentization in Islam:

An alternative to Christian pacifism?

Dr Mahmood Delkhasteh

February 2007

Pacifism, particularly in the sense of its Christian doctrine, is often thought to be incompatible with Islamic approaches to resistance to power. Islam, on the other hand, is assumed to legitimate violent resistance to power or even to promote aggressive violence. This paper challenges both assumptions by arguing that Islam presents a method of ‘de-violentization’ that values peace and pacifist resistance but does not assume that pacifism is appropriate or effective in all circumstances. This paper introduces the doctrine of de-violentization in Islam by comparing it with the Christian doctrine of pacifism.  It takes a critical approach, demonstrating the common denominator between the two doctrines as well as their differences, and seeks to explain their theological bases as well as their domains of action. 

The theological roots of pacifism in Christianity

The doctrine of pacifism in its most radical form, which was developed by Anabaptists[1] in the sixteenth century, is understood as the refusal to use violence irrespective of circumstances.  The doctrine is based on a marginalised Christian tradition that dates well before Anabaptism, and is often justified through the pacifist practices of the historical

Jesus, who is assumed to have been absolutely non-violent. Anabaptists particularly focus their doctrine on Jesus’ prayers for the peacemakers:

Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God….Do not resist the evil man but whoever slaps you on the right cheek turn to him the other also. And if anyone wants to sue you for your shirt, let him have your coat as well. Love your enemies. Give to everyone who asks you; when a man takes what is yours, do not demand it back (Luke 6:30 and Matthew 5:9-44).

However, while we know very little about Jesus, the gospel of John narrates one well-known occasion on which he applied violence in order to achieve a goal:

The Passover of the Jews was near, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. In the temple he found those who were selling cattle, sheep, and doves, and the money changers seated at their tables. Making a whip of cords, he drove all of them out of the temple, both the sheep and the cattle. He also poured out the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables. He told those who were selling the doves, “Take these things out of here! Stop making my Father's house a marketplace!” (John 2:13)

There are many interpretations of this event: a statement against capitalism, a condemnation of the Jewish priestly hierarchy, or even a judgment on animal sacrifice.  However, there is little serious debate about the nature of the act itself, which, without stretching the imagination, can be defined as seriously violent.  It is not, however, typically seen as such, and in the context of the violent society in which Jesus lived is often understood as a non-violent act rather than an act of lesser violence. Taking into account the various narratives of this event, however, we can be sure of two facts regarding the act. First, Jesus was outraged that the temple had been transferred into a marketplace and he demonstrated his anger physically. Second, his physical expression of violence was sufficiently strong to lead to the closure of the entire market. 

Here we can ask a Sartrean-like question: if Jesus allowed himself to use violence to evict money lenders from the temple, what would he have done if he saw in front of him a man about to kill a child with a sword?  Based on his reaction in the temple, we might with a high degree of certainty assume that he would intervene, even if this meant resorting to violence in order to neutralise the violence of the man.  In other words, Jesus could not have been an advocate of absolute pacifism as the doctrine would have come into conflict with his actual practice. Furthermore, the absolute rejection of violence would have contributed to the spread of violence rather than to the creation of peace and harmony, and to the domination of those who advocated pacifism itself. This pattern is visible across societies: if one does not use ‘defensive violence’ to neutralize ‘aggressive violence’, then one submits to the latter, naked form of power, which will exert itself until it reaches its goal of total domination and control.  Societies that are less resistant to domination have historically been exploited more brutally than those that resisted. An example was the German invasion of neighbouring countries during World War II.  What would have happened if Hitler’s war of aggression were not resisted? It is hard to imagine that this would have provided him with further opportunities to pursue his aggressive policy.  The failed appeasement policy implemented by Britain provides a reasonable basis for this assumption.

The theological roots of de-violentization in Islam

The question is, does a similar tradition of pacifism exist in Islam?  If not, is there an Islamic alternative to the Christian doctrine of pacifism?  In order to answer this, we first have to understand and define violence.  One type of definition confines violence solely to acts of physical violence; in its most brutal expression, as war. Another understands violence as any action, behaviour or belief that violates human dignity and rights.  If we adopt the latter meaning, we can argue that Islam advocates a doctrine of de-violentization[2] in order to decrease and eliminate violence in all forms and manifestations.  ‘De-violentization’ refers to the implementation of policies, which can lead to decreasing and eventually eliminating violence: of individuals towards themselves, towards each other, and towards the environment. Although this doctrine prioritizes pacifism, it also recognizes the possibility that controlled and limited use of ‘defensive violence’ may be necessary in order to neutralise ‘aggressive violence’ if the conditions for its total elimination are not in place. 

The theological roots of this doctrine are based on a Koranic understanding of human nature, which is that individuals are born with a Godly nature or fetrah. ‘(establish) God’s handiwork according to the pattern on which he has made humans’, it states (Koran, 30/30). This nature or fetrah is Tawhid, meaning most simply ‘Oneness of God’. The concept, however, has far-reaching consequences – something recognized by Islamic Sufis but unfortunately lost in traditional Islamic theology, which has limited the meaning of Tawhid to mere monotheism.  More broadly, Tawhid can be understood as the unification of humans with God, with other humans and with nature.  It is a reflection of human freedom and the absence of all types of power relations.[3] Tawhid refers to a lack of separation between everything existing, a unity of self and other, individual and society, God and human, human and nature; it disrupts these dichotomies and makes them untrue.  Tawhid is the “motion toward a great and multi-faceted revolution, which leads to the establishment of new social relations and new relations with nature and the individual self.  In such relations, nature, society, and the thinking mind are not factors that limit human freedom, but that expand them”.[4]

From this perspective, human nature is free from force and violence, and the concept of de-violentization is thus located in a worldview based on Tawhid. It is rather through entering a world filled with conflict and antagonism that people become alienated from their nature and even become accustomed or addicted to the use of violence.  The acceptance of power and violence in human society as being normal and inevitable, however, has been institutionalized in much Greek philosophy, which is without exception based on a principle of dichotomy. As Water Benjamin, the German philosopher argued, “it is often said that western philosophy consists of footnotes to Plato”.[5]  It is thus not surprising that philosophers like Hobbes could view humans as naturally brutal and solitary, or that Machiavelli’s approach to politics was based on achieving and maintaining power through any means.[6] Their ideas had social consequences: the fear of total destruction by the very nature of human beings compelled them to want to control and regulate social relations, and from this emerged the vision of a powerful and regulatory state.[7] Also, until recently, nature was seen as a threat to humans’ “natural” expansionist tendencies and treated as an enemy that had to be dominated, conquered and exploited.  The core of this belief is still alive; in contemporary calls to halt environmental destruction, we can trace a Hobbesian logic that we must preserve nature simply to forestall our own destruction.  

Within this context of the ubiquity of dichotomous understandings of power and the widespread acceptance of violence as a natural phenomenon, we can see the important role of both Tawhid and de-violentization.  The latter aims to return humans to their original nature, which is free from force and based on freedom, and to reverse the alienation of the human psyche. ‘De-violentization’ advocates systematic approaches to removing the causes, changing the relationships and alleviating the effects of the production and consumption of violence at socio-economic, cultural and political levels, which may or may not be pacifist in form. The following section explains how this can be done through de-violentizing knowledge and belief.

De-violentizing knowledge and belief

For instance, in the political domain, de-violentization confronts dictatorial regimes with democratic practices. Participant democracy is the ideal model of ‘de-violentized’ political process, as it directly activates the talent of leadership, which is one of many human talents.[8] However, representative democracy may be acceptable if and when the system works towards establishing conditions for the development of participant democracy.  This striving towards democratic inclusion also has implications for freedom of expression. Since participation in social leadership is not possible without the free flow of information and knowledge, media in a ‘de-violentizing’ society must be free from governmental and other forms of external interference, including commercial monopolization.  Similarly, in the economic domain, there should be no censorship on any information and knowledge that contributes to economic progress, job creation and job satisfaction.  The economic system should aim to further and serve human development, and economic progress should be achieved through human development.  In other words, economic development becomes a dependent variable rather than a condition of human development.

The importance of freedom is extended to even the most intimate spheres of life. Sexuality should neither function as a tool of power nor fulfill the needs of power, and should not be exploited for purposes of consumption. Otherwise it may become another cause for the production and consumption of violence. In order to prevent this it is therefore necessary to remove all forms of sexual taboo that prevent sexual satisfaction between consenting partners, as well as lifting restrictions which lead to sexual tension and frustration that may have violent implications in both private and public relations.  It also becomes necessary to prevent natural sexual needs and desires from being exploited by economic and political powers that aim to increase consumption or social control.

Force should also be absent from all belief systems. The Koranic verse “There is no compulsion in religion”[9] does not simply mean that no one should be forced to hold a certain belief, but indicates that there is no compulsion within the religion itself. [10]  In other words, no person or group can force another to do something under the pretext of religion; religion is for people and not vice-versa.  In this understanding, no war could ever be waged or legitimized for religious purposes. 

In intellectual life, the practice of de-violentization systematically encourages people to reflect and be curious in ways that facilitate the development of cultures of dialogue and debate. In the Koran, there is a verse that announces ‘good news’: that “those who listen to the word, then chose the best of it” are God’s favoured people.[11] Fulfillment of this verse requires internal freedom or open-mindedness as well as external freedom, or the freedom of knowledge and information that allows an individual to choose freely between different belief systems.  Furthermore, since no authority can impose this choice, no one can be stigmatized for having an “incorrect” belief.  After all, since humans are born with a fetrah that is Godly and free, as Imam Ali stated: “You are born free, so do not give yourself to the humiliation of slavery”.[12] This freedom is also the basis for morality, as we must not only choose between good and better, but also between good and bad. “Then He gave him”, reads the Koran, “the talent of virtue and sin”.[13]

From this perspective, society must be based on the total freedom of expression and the freedom to choose one’s beliefs.  This is why Mohammad argued that the ways to God are as numerous as people themselves, and why multiple interpretations of Islam and other belief systems create a dynamic spiritual and intellectual society.  This refers not only to believers of different perspectives and faiths, but also to the right not to believe in God.  No one is obliged to think like others, and Islamic doctrine aims at transforming the “masses” into a group of thinking individuals who are not confined by society but enhanced by it. The Koran explicitly delineates the foundations of a pluralistic society on this basis:

Say: O unbelievers!
I do not worship not that which ye worship,
Nor will ye worship that which I worship.
And I will not worship that which ye have been wont to worship.
Nor will ye worship that which I worship.
You shall have your religion and I shall have my religion.[14]

It is important to note that the verse does not refer to different interpretations of Islam but to the relationship between believers and non-believers. Even within the context of Islam, this creates space for multiple interpretations of the belief system. It thus cannot be argued that since the Koran is considered to be the word of God it cannot be interpreted. In fact, Ali made a distinctly hermeneutical argument when he stated, “this Koran is the written line and situated between two covers.  It does not talk for itself and inevitably has to be interpreted”.[15]


A new basis for pluralism in Islamic societies


The above argument provides part of a religious rationale for social pluralism, but pluralistic society only becomes dynamic and progressive when it develops reflexive people. Hence, there are numerous verses in the Koran that encourage people to reflect and criticize those who do not.[16]  Thinking people have a duty to activate their human talent of leadership.  One cannot accept the main pillars of Islam (i.e., the oneness of God, Mohammad’s prophecy and resurrection) on the basis of belief alone, as any belief that is devoid of reflection is inevitably filled with fear or blind love, both of which defeat the purpose of being a Moslem.  Contrary to conceptualizations of faith as obedience, reflexive faith depends on being able to observe and criticize the behavior of one’s leaders.  In fact, in Ali’s first public speech made after he was elected as the fourth caliph of Islamic lands, he stated that it was his right as leader to be criticized. During his leadership, he consistently exercised this right.

The invitation to criticism and the absence of compulsion in belief are fundamental to the development of free and pluralistic societies. Within the Koran, there are in fact a number of examples of how de-violentization might be pursued in regard to racial, gender and class inequalities within society.

De-violentizing race and racism   

In the Koran, races and ethnic groups are viewed as intrinsically equal, with none being superior or inferior to another and none able to claim “chosen” status. It argues that differences between nations and tribes exist for purposes of recognition and identity, not as sources of division and inequality.

O you people! We created you from a single (pair) of a male and female, and made you into nations and tribes that ye may recognize each other.  Verily the most honored of you in the sight of God is who is the most righteous of you.[17]

The essentialisation and prioritization of race is in fact defined as satanic:

(God) said: What hindered you so from bowing down [to humans] when I commanded you?

He (Satan) said: I am better than he: Thou hast created me of fire, while him Thou didst create of dust.[18]

In other words, Satan was the first being to enter power relations by essentializing race, and for this he was banished. 

Based on this principle of equality and recognition, the Koran provides grounds for the eradication of racism, which is one of the worst forms of social violence.  The doctrine of de-violentization aims to establish harmonious social relations by removing this type of discrimination, which has historically plagued many societies and undermined the creation of democratic communities.


De-violentizing gender and sexism in society


Gender relations can and must also be de-violentized, as the success of this doctrine depends on the eradication of all forms of discrimination.  The Koran challenges the historically dominant definition of women as being inferior to men. Unlike the traditionalists’ belief, which is heavily affected by an Aristotelian view of women,[19] the Koran views men and women as essentially equal[20]:

O people! be careful of (your duty to) your Lord, Who created you from a single being and created its mate of the same (kind) and spread from these two, many men and women.[21]

Furthermore, the relationship between men and women is based not on power relations, which are necessarily conflictual, but rather on love and compassion:

And one of His signs is that He created mates for you from yourselves that you may find rest in them, and He put between you love and compassion; most surely there are signs in this for a people who reflect.[22]


De-violentizing class and economic inequality


In addition to eliminating gender and racial inequalities, the structural causes of economic inequality also have to be removed in order to ‘de-violentize’ society. This includes above all the right to own one’s labour.  No one should be denied access to the means of production, land and resources needed to exercise her/his right to work, nor should he/she appropriate more than this necessity: “The human should have nothing but what he strives for”.[23] Furthermore, since social and individual development are interrelated, individuals have the right to be provided with conditions and resources that enable their right to work.  An ‘Islamic society’ must therefore be a communal society in which people share their surplus wealth with others.  It is the duty of society to provide a dignified life for those who work but are unable to make a dignified living, as well as those who are unable to work. Those who earn their living through their own labour and those who share the fruits of their labour with others are granted the highest positions by God, and ridiculing them is declared an unforgivable sin:

Those who slander such of the Believers as give themselves freely to charity, as well as such as can find nothing to give but the fruits of their labour, and throw ridicule on them, God will throw back their ridicule to them: And they shall have a grievous penalty.[24]

‘Believers’, in other words, are people who share their wealth with others:

And collect (wealth) and hide it.  Surely man was created very impatient…And niggardly when wealth and good reaches him, except those who devoted to prayer and those who the needy and deprived have fixed portion of right over it.[25]

This is also true at the global level, for if development is not universal it will grind to a halt; uneven development will inevitably increase global levels of violence and destruction.  Societies must cooperate so that growth and development become global rather than regional or local phenomena:

and help one another in goodness and piety, and do not help one another in sin and aggression.[26]

One precondition for the right to labour in any society is the prevention of the exploitation or theft of labour, a phenomenon that is deeply embedded in feudalist and capitalist economies.  The right to demand compensation is therefore a universal right. The Koran cites forty-two types of material exploitation, many of which will be familiar to contemporary readers, including “monopoly”; “confiscation”; “the concentration of jobs”; “the exercise of political power”; “forced marriage in order to take the control of one’s wealth”; “deduction from one’s labour”; “war with the aim of taking any form of booty”; “the devaluation of currency”; and “enforcing taxes which aim at flow of wealth to the wealthy”.[27]

We can see that the doctrine of de-violentization emphasizes the removal of the causes of violence.  However, it does not assume that this alone will diminish its effects.  Instead, it recognizes that socio-political, cultural and economic violence is the result of structural conditions that creates their own dynamism, and that the relationships between the causes and effects of violence are often complex (in some cases, the effect may even reinforce the cause).  Hence de-violentization also aims at neutralizing the effects of violence.

Distinguishing pacifism and de-violentization in practice

Here we can draw a comparative analysis between the doctrines of de-violentization and pacifism, for the differences between them become most visible in the treatment of the effects of violence.  Pacifism in its absolute terms rejects the use of violence irrespective of circumstances, while the doctrine of de-violentization is based on the belief that power will not be neutralized without resistance.  However, this resistance can take two different forms. One is pacifism; however, if this fails then the doctrine allows the use of defensive violence in order to neutralize aggressive violence. Vivid examples of the implementation of the doctrine in its pacifist form could be seen during the 1979 Iranian revolution, while its defensive form was exemplified during the first nine months of the Iran-Iraq war.

The 1978-79 Iranian revolution:  a pacifist form of resistance to violence

The 1979 Iranian revolution aimed to remove the structural bases for the production of violence (the country’s dependent dictatorial monarchy) and replace it with a democratic system with Islam as its identity and discourse.  However, the Shah’s regime had the fifth strongest army in the world and the total support of western countries, primarily the USA and including the USSR.  If the revolutionaries had followed the revolutionary discourse current at the time and enter guerrilla warfare with the regime, it would have lead to great bloodshed. However, the revolutionaries, affected with Islamic spirituality, which was embedded in Iranian culture, spontaneously resorted to pacifist methods of struggle and refrained from responding in kind when heavy-handed violence was used against them. The pacifist method of struggle was so dominant that despite the killing of thousands of revolutionaries, neither the regime’s military personnel nor any of the tens of thousands of Americans who were living in Iran were killed. 

Many found this difficult to explain and understand. For example, then-US president Jimmy Carter once expressed his amazement as to why no American was killed in the riots, as he called the revolution. Michel Foucault was also stunned by the non-violent nature of the revolution, despite its highly charged atmosphere. After spending good time on the streets of Tehran he came to the conclusion that the Iranian revolution had the potential to offer something missing in the modern world, something “that we have forgotten, even as a possibility, since the Renaissance and the great crises of Christianity: a political spirituality”.[28] After visiting Iran during the revolution, Princeton Professor of Law Richard Falk argued that it was “amazingly non-violent in its tactics and orientation, despite extraordinary levels of provocation and incitement designed to induce violence”.[29] So here you can see that Islamic culture provided an spiritual atmosphere, in which the revolutionaries used pacifist methods in order to achieve their goal. 

Not only did the revolutionaries refuse to use violence against the violence of the army, but the majority also refused to view the army as an enemy. Instead, they showered them with flowers and constantly called them to join in resisting the Shah’s regime.  For this reason this early period of revolution, in much contradiction to its later violent phase, is known as the “victory of flower over bullet”. In this case, pacifist methods provided the condition for victory and prevented considerable bloodshed on both sides.


The implementation of de-violentization during the Iran-Iraq war


However, when the Iraqi army attacked Iran in 1980 it was clear that the aggression could not be resisted through pacifist methods and that its disastrous consequences could not be prevented without the deployment of the armed forces, obviously a violent form of resistance.  Nevertheless, then-president and commandar-in-chief of the armed forces A. H. Banisadr implemented policies of de-violentization throughout the war. Several of the most significant are discussed below.

First, Banisadr abolished the principle of “blind obedience” in the military, which was the cornerstone of army discipline during the Shah’s time (and indeed in most armies around the world today).  In other words, a soldier or officer could refuse to carry out orders that he considered inhumane, without fear of punishment.

Second, he ordered his generals to refrain from conducting any military mission, which might endanger Iraqi civilians.  In other words, the concept of “collateral damage” was not one that could be applicable within this doctrine.  As a result, during the first nine months of the war when Banisadr was in charge, there was not a single report of any Iraqi civilian casualties or destruction of civilian properties.

Third, Banisadr challenged the classic definition of military victory as inflicting the highest numbers of casualties on the enemy while sustaining the lowest amount.  He argued that the best military victory was rather achieved when both sides fighting receive the least amount of casualties.  Hence, he ordered his officers to refrain from inflicting casualties on the Iraqi army for its own sake and as a result the lives of many of Iraqi soldiers were saved.

Fourth, Banisadr issued an order to the army rank and file, in which he stated that Iraqi prisoners of war should be treated humanely and their dignity should not be violated.  For this reason he also ordered that Iraqi prisoners should not be handed to the hot-headed revolutionary guards but rather to the army police.  As a result, the treatment of Iraqi prisoners was so humane that the Red Cross praised Iran for its treatment of prisoners – despite the fact that Iranian prisoners endured harsh conditions in Iraqi camps.

Fifth, when Saddam Hussein’s missiles and artilleries struck cities and killed and injured thousands of civilians, Banisadr resisted public calls for revenge. In fact, on one occasion while visiting the site of a lethal missile attack in Dezful city he was surrounded by survivors shouting for revenge, and made an historical statement that both Iranians and Iraqis are victims of Saddam’s dictatorship, and that he would hence not violate the Human Rights of Iraqis because Saddam has violated those of Iranians. The revolution, he argued, aimed at upholding these rights and he would not be one to betray these goals.[30] As a result of this policy and despite Iran’s domination of the air, Iraqi civilians felt secure during the war.  The fierce resistance of Iran’s armed forces and the humane treatment of Iraqi prisoners also had a deep psychological effect on the Iraqi army. It was thus no surprise that after nine months of war, Saddam Hussein (who had initially planned to break the record of Israel’s Six-Day War) became so desperate for a ceasefire that he accepted Iran’s conditions and offered Iran a handsome compensation of $50 billion.[31]  Were it not for the clergy’s coup in June 1981 against the elected president, the Iran-Iraq war would have ended then.

Prioritizing peace in de-violentization

In these examples we can see that the doctrine of de-violentization is based on the principle of peace as a prime right, as presented in the Koranic verse that “God invites to the home of peace”[32] and “peace is better.”[33] Ali, in fact, stated that the honor of peace should never be broken by Moslem soldiers, which is why one of his first decrees as elected leader one of his first decrees was to stop the war of aggression, which was conducted by Moslems after Mohammad’s death.  The path to this peace is through freedom and development: “whoever becomes Moslem will be freed and will develop.”[34] However, as development is impossible without freedom and free will, then, even the Prophet had no authority over the people to enforce a desired conduct: “(Prophet) tell people I am not the owner of your loss or your gain.”[35]

In order for social forces to organize themselves in the path of development, they should be freed from any form of violence. Any inflicted violence should therefore be neutralized by either pacifist resistance, or, if this method is ineffective, through controlled defensive violence.  Hence, when Moslem communities are violently attacked by external enemies, then permission is given for self-defence:

“Permission (to fight) is given to those upon whom war is made because they are oppressed, and most surely Allah is well able to assist them.”[36]

Moslems not only have the right to fight against an invading army but also have a duty to resist, as such resistance prevents them from becoming subjugated by their enemy, which is one of the worst forms of violence:

“O you who believe! when you meet those who disbelieve marching for war, then turn not your backs to them.”[37]

However, even when Moslems are left with no choice but self-defence, the fight should be conducted only to neutralize the aggression and should not be exceeded: 

“And fight in the way of Allah with those who fight with you, and do not exceed the limits, surely Allah does not love those who exceed the limits.”[38]

Furthermore, if an invading army asks for peace even in the midst of war, Moslems cannot reject the offer on the grounds that the invaders have a “false belief”:

“O you who believe! when you go to war in Allah's way, make investigation, and do not say to any one who offers you peace: You are not a believer.”[39]

Also, if non-Moslems have not been involved in a war of aggression against Moslems and have not forced Moslems out of their homes, then not only can differences in belief not be used as an excuse to fight against “non-believers”; furthermore, Moslems can have mutual respect, friendship and love for others with different beliefs:

“Allah does not forbid you respecting those who have not made war against you on account of (your) religion, and have not driven you forth from your homes, that you show them kindness and deal with them justly; surely Allah loves the doers of justice.”[40]

Additionally, defensive war is not confined to defense of one’s own community. It is the duty of Moslems to help any group of people who have been oppressed and discriminated against by other groups, but are unable to defend for themselves:

“And what reason have you that you should not fight in the way of Allah and of the weak among the men and the women and the children, (of) those who say: Our Lord! cause us to go forth from this town, whose people are oppressors, and give us from Thee a guardian and give us from Thee a helper.”[41]

Based on this principle, Ali argued that one should tread on the “right path”, neither becoming a tyrant nor bowing to tyranny, and should help defend the weak against tyrants.[42]

In these Koranic verses we can see a radical departure from a pacifist doctrine, which rejects the use of force irrespective of circumstances, for it recognizes self defense as a main principle of human rights.  Furthermore, it does not limit the concept of self-defense to preservation of one’s life when confronted with physical threat, but expands the concept to imply defense of the right to live in freedom and dignity.  Forcing an individual to live in an inferior position without rights or freedom is in gross violation of human dignity, which is sanctified by God.  Furthermore, based on this same principle, it is the duty of those who enjoy life in freedom to help those who are deprived of such a life and who are unable to defend themselves.

Why de-violentization cannot be pacifist in absolute terms

In societies where certain groups of people have a tendency to resort to violence to dominate others, absolute pacifism rejects the rights of people for self-defense against violations of their rights.  Because violence will not stop until it reaches its goal of total domination, it can take total control over societies.  The presence of extreme right groups in the form of fundamentalist religious or racist organizations in western countries and violent fundamentalisms in Islamic countries are only two examples of this historical trend.  

Pacifism can be effective and lead to the spread of peace only when aggressive power is constrained from using maximum violence by internal mechanisms (i.e., conscience, humanity, or civility) or external mechanisms (i.e., international law, public opinion, or a democratic apparatus[43]).  In the absence or ineffective presence of such mechanisms, resorting to pacifism as the only method of resistance will be in sheer violation of people’s human rights since by depriving them from the right of self-defense we condemn them to accept a life under domination and the loss of their human rights.  This would be one of the worst forms of violence that this doctrine could inflict upon its followers if it would be implemented irrespective of circumstances. However, if pacifism is seen as a sub-category of de-violentization, then the doctrine will be used according to the circumstances.  

However the doctrine of de-violentization does recognize that there are grave dangers to those who commit violent acts, even in self- defense.  For regardless of its purpose, committing a violent act will have psychological and emotional consequences for the actor. One possible consequence is that the user might become addicted to and alienated by violent forms of power. Indeed, one of the ironies of history is that oppressed people sometimes end up oppressing other social groups and communities in their struggles for liberation.  This is why Mohammad called the first defensive jihad, which he undertook a “minor jihad” (Jahade Asghar), and immediately after asked the warriors to begin a “Great jihad” (Jahade Akbar), which he defined as a struggle against one’s ego.  Hence, the spiritual, emotional and psychological struggle to be cleansed of the effects of violence is given greater priority than actually fighting aggression.


The doctrine of de-violentization aims to de-alienate the human psyche and belief systems from power and power relations, and to make human beings cognizant of their Godly nature as they are God’s vicegerents on Earth.[44] This attempt to return to one’s nature is the right of all people, including oppressors.  One’s struggle against aggressive violence does not only aim at liberating the oppressed, but also to free the oppressor from violence that they have become addicted to and alienated by.  That is why Mohammad stated that oppressors should also be helped by preventing them from committing acts of oppression.

In order to achieve its goal, the doctrine addresses both the causes and effects of violence.  It aims at establishing a humanist, democratic and egalitarian system, which addresses the needs of individuals and societies for progress.   De-violentization believes that the establishment of free communities cannot be achieved without constant struggle against power in all of its forms, as it is power that undermines peace and harmony in self, society and nature.  Hence it is based on the assumption that power is the sole source of the production and consumption of systematic violence, and that this cannot be neutralized without resistance.  While resistance should initially be pacifist, if specific circumstances do not allow for the success of this method, then with utmost care de-violentization permits the use of defensive violence in order to neutralize aggressive one in order to establish peace.

[1] The Anabaptist movement began in 1525 in Zurich, Switzerland.  Its founders, Conard Grebel and Felix Mantz, aimed at rediscovering the true meaning of Christianity – one of many reactions within the Christian world to the increasing corruption of the Roman Catholic Church.  Hence, in opposition to the corruption of the Church’s teaching, their point of reference became the faith, ethics and codes of conduct of early Christianity.  For more detailed information see Claus-Peter Clasen, Anabaptism: A social history, 1525-1618 (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1972).

[2] This doctrine has been theorized particularly by A. H. Banisadr, whose work also emphasizes the importance of understanding Islam as a ‘discourse of freedom’ (see Free Intellect [Aghle azaad], Frankfurt: Engelabe Eslami Zeitung, 2005).  

[3] A. H. Banisadr, Human Rights in Islam (Arab Encyclopedia House, c1987), p. 11.

[4] A.H. Banisadr, The Guiding Principles of Islam [Osoole Raahnamaaye Eslam] (Germany: Enteshaaraate Engelaabe Eslami, 1371/1997), p. 18.

Jay Parini, Benjamin’s Crossing (NY: Henry Holt and Company, 1997), p. 74.

[6] There are debates about whether Machiavelli, as the founder of modern politics, advocated his own arguments or simply intended to expose existing political practices and hence the hypocrisy of the rulers.  In this case, however, these debates are irrelevant as the separation of ethics from politics has become a corner stone of modern politics.  For the original argument, see Niccolo Machiavelli, The Prince (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988).

[7] Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan, Chapter XIII  (1660), available online at: // instruct/phl302/texts/hobbes/leviathan-contents.html (accessed 28 December 2006).

[8] According to A. H. Banisadr, human beings possess six natural talents: leadership, love, companionship, art, science and economy (the last of which regulates the others). Author’s interview with A. H. Banisadr, 20 March 2005.

[9] Koran 2:255.

[10] A. H. Banisadr, interview with the author, 20 March 2005; see also A. H. Banisadr, “Right to Peace”, unpublished paper.

[11] Koran 39: 17-18.

[12] Imam Ali, letter to Imam Hassan in Nahjol Balaageh, translated into Persian by Ali-Naghi-Feizol-Eslam (Tehran: Entesharat Nabavi, 1996), p. 929. Ali was the fourth khalif after the Prophet Mohammad and is seen by the Shia as the legitimate successor of the Prophet and the first Shia Imam.

[13] Koran 91:8.

[14] Koran 109.

[15] Imam Ali, Sermon 125, Nahjol Balaageh, pp. 386-9.

[16] See, for example, Koran  2:219, 6:50, 10:24, 13:13, 16:12, 16:67, 23:68, 30:8, 30:21, 38:29, 39:42, 45:13

[17] Koran 49:13.

[18] Koran 7:12.

[19] One can trace the historical roots of this belief in both Christian and Islamic work to Aristotlian philosophy, in which women are viewed as inferior to men. See Aristotle, Politics, Book One, Part II, (350 B.C.), available online at: // (accessed 10 January 2007). Aristotelian and Platonic philosophy are routinely taught in religious seminars as integral elements of Islamic philosophy. Two types of philosophy are taught in Houzeh: “western” and “Islamic”.  However, ancient Greek philosophers are not considered part of the ‘western’ tradition. ‘Western’ philosophy is dated from the Enlightenment and extends to modern and post-modern philosophy.  ‘Islamic’ philosophy, on the other hand, is comprised of two schools: Aristotelian philosophy (Falsefeye Mashaei) and Intuitivism (Eshragh). Islamic teaching differentiates little between the two schools to such an extent that Aristotle is considered to be the first master of Islamic philosophy, Farabi the second and Sohrevardi the third. Interview by the author with Hassan Rezaei, 28 June 2005.

[20] For the detailed examination of the principle see: A.H.Banisadr, Woman and Marriage in Islam- Zan va Zanashooee dar Eslam- (Enteshaaraate Engelaabe Eslami, Germany, 1992) First chapter

[21] Koran 4/1

[22]  Koran 30:21.

[23] Koran 53:39.

[24] Koran 9:79.

[25] Koran 70:18-25.

[26] Koran 5:2.

[27] A. H.Banisadr, Economy of Tawhid [Egtesaade Towhidi] (1975), pp. 210-217, available online at: //

[28] See Didier Eribon, Michel Foucault, translated by Betsy Wing (Mass: Harvard University Press, 1991), p. 285

[29] Interview of professor Richard Falk at Princeton University with MERIP, February 1, 1979

[30] Interesting insight into Banisadr’s method of leadership can be found in his daily report to Iranians in his newspaper, Enghelabe Eslami.  These were later published in six volumes and can be found online at: //

[31]  Hamid Ahmadi, Darse tajrobeh [Lessons of Experience: Abol-Hassan Banisadr’s Memoir in Conversation with Hamid Ahmadi] (Enghelabe Eslami Zeitung, 2003 [1380]), pp. 125-27.


[32] Koran 10:25.

[33] Koran 2:128.

[34] Koran 72:14.

[35] Koran 72:21.

[36] Koran 22:39.

[37] Koran 8:15.

[38] Koran 2:190.

[39] Koran 4:94.

[40] Koran 60:8.

[41] Koran 4:75.

[42] Imam Ali, Nahjol Balaageh, pp. 921 and 977.

[43] The movements of pacifist resistance led by Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. are good examples of this.

[44] Koran 2:30.


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