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A. Sajid: Syria's Current Situation and the Requirements of Sustainable Peace

Speech at the UPF Interfaith Consultation on the Crisis in Syria
Amman, Jordan, October 11-13, 2013

Published in Dialogue & Alliance, Vol. 27, No. 2, 2013

Shalom, Salaam – greetings. Bismillah Hir Rahma Nir Rahim (I begin with the name of God, the Most Kind, the Most Merciful). I greet you with the greetings of Islam). Assalamu Alaykum wa Rahmatullah wa Barakathu (May God’s blessing and peace be with us all).

I am honored and humbled to be asked to contribute in this very important consultation for peace in Syria by the Universal Peace Federation (UPF) in an important city, Amman, in Middle East.

Let me make it clear that I fully support and endorse the Universal Peace Federation (UPF) statement of 11 September 2013 for peace and saving innocent lives. Another total war in the Middle East will be a total disaster. I am convinced that among the community of peacebuilding and conflict-resolution practitioners, UPF has important roles to play in the noble task of establishing sustainable World Peace.

Today, we perceive religion as a connecting force for our Earth. At the same time, it interprets and clarifies the meaning of our lives and its connection with World Peace, which will not be built on pre-conditions.

Throughout the world’s most volatile regions, academics and practitioners are proposing that novel approaches to peace-building should now incorporate indigenous and local cultural methods of interventions and analysis. Islam as a religion and a tradition is replete with teachings and practices of nonviolence and peace-building. Since its formative years, Muslim communities have been empowered by various Islamic values and principles of peace.

Nevertheless, since the September 11 attacks of 2001, a large number of studies have ignored the Islamic tradition of peace and nonviolence and focused mainly on Islamic fundamentalism and the recent emergence of radical Islamic movements. So how to resolve their conflicts peacefully and establish just social, political and economic systems?

Accept and respect diversity of all creation 

All religious teachings foster peace, because only peace gives a chance to people to save their own souls and live in harmony with each other.

The Holy Qur’an teaches that two of God’s names are the Peace-Giver and the Overseer (Qur’an Al-Hashr, 23).

The Holy Qur’an says that God created Adam from the first substance of its existence: We created man from an extract of clay (49:12). The Holy Qur’an says:

And if two factions among the believers should fight, then make settlement between the two. But if one of them oppresses the other, then fight against the one that oppresses until it returns to the ordinance of Allah. And if it returns, then make settlement between them in justice and act justly. Indeed, Allah loves those who act justly.

The believers are but brothers, so make settlement between your brothers. And fear Allah that you may receive mercy.

O you who have believed, let not a people ridicule [another] people; perhaps they may be better than them; nor let women ridicule [other] women; perhaps they may be better than them. And do not insult one another and do not call each other by [offensive] nicknames. Wretched is the name of disobedience after [one’s] faith. And whoever does not repent – then it is those who are the wrongdoers.

O you who have believed, avoid much [negative] assumption. Indeed, some assumption is sin. And do not spy or backbite each other. Would one of you like to eat the flesh of his brother when dead? You would detest it. And fear Allah; indeed, Allah is Accepting of repentance and Merciful. (49:9-12)

The Prophet of Islam said: You are the sons of Adam, and Adam was created from clay (Al Tirnidhi, Sunen).

God did not create people to fight one another and shed the blood of each other nor to live in such triviality and be driven by such frivolous urges. That was the simple message of UN International Day of Peace on 21 September 2013, throughout the world.

Establishing inner-peace through interfaith co-operation

In my faith tradition the Holy Qur’an commands believers to establish inner peace through interfaith cooperation “to come to common grounds.” (3:64) As a Muslim I have been ordered to build good relations with all people of the world (49:13 and 16:40); work for peace everywhere and whenever possible with others (2:208 and 8:61); cooperate with others in furthering virtue and God-consciousness (5:2); seek and secure human welfare, promote justice and peace (4:114); do good to others (28:77) and not to break promises made to others (16:91). The Holy Qur’an tells believers that those who do good deeds and help others are the best creation (98:6). The Holy Prophet of Islam made it clear that “Religion is man’s treatment of other fellow-beings” (Bukhari and Muslim), and “The best among you is he who does good deeds in serving other people” (Ahmad & Tabrani).

Be peaceful in all aspects of life. The word Islam is itself derived from the word peace (i.e., salaam). And Muslim is the best description of those who believe in this religion:

It is the religion of your father Abraham. It is He (Allah) Who has named you Muslims both before and in this (the Holy Qur’an), that the Messenger be a witness over you and you be a witness over mankind! (22:78)

The essence of this religion is peaceful submission to the Lord of the worlds:

Yes, but whoever submits his face (himself) to Allah (i.e., follows Allah’s religion of Islamic monotheism) and he is a good-doer, then his reward is with the Lord, on such shall be no fear, nor shall they grieve. (2:112)

When his Lord said to him, “Submit (i.e., Be a Muslim)!” he said, “I have submitted myself to the Lord of the worlds.” (2:131) 

“And we were ordered to submit to the Lord of the worlds.” (6:71) 

Even the greeting between Muslims is “May the peace and blessings of Allah be upon you.” Prayer itself is concluded with the announcement of peace – once to the right, once to the left and once to the front if there is an Imam in front – as if to greet his brothers after he had left them during the brief moments that he turned completely to Allah.

Paradise is itself a place of peace: 

For them will be the home of peace (paradise) with their Lord. And He will be their Helper and Protector because of what they used to do. (16:127) 

Allah calls to the home of peace and guides whom He wills to a Straight path. (10:25)

Allah, the High, the Blessed, has named Himself “Peace”:

He is Allah other than Whom there is none (that has the right to be worshipped) the King, the Holy, the Peace.... (59:23) 

Of course the Muslim would not hesitate to answer this call to peace, and will never reject it:

But if they incline to peace, you also incline to it, and put your trust in Allah. Verily, he is the All-Hearer, the All-Knower. (8:62) 

And say not to he who seeks to make peace with you, “You are not a believer,” seeking the perishable goods of the worldly life. There are many more profits with Allah. (4:94)

Be merciful and be patient. Mercy is the companion of peace in the salutation of Muslims. The Messenger of Islam is a Mercy to the worlds. And the slogan of Islam, repeated in every utterance and action is “In The Name of Allah, the Most Gracious, Most Merciful.”

The behavior between the believers is one of patience and mercy:

Then he became one of those who believed and recommended one another to perseverance and patience, and (also) recommended one another to piety and compassion. (19:17) 

The verses of the Holy Qur’an and sayings and practices of Muhammad, peace be upon him (PBUH), exemplify the high position of love and mercy.

Long before any animal rights organizations were founded in the west, compassion towards animals was, and will always be, a characteristic of Islam and the commandment of Muhammad (PBUH) to every Muslim. Abu Hurairah (RA) said that the Prophet (PBUH) said:

Do not use the backs of your camels as pulpits, for Allah ordained them to take you to places you would only otherwise reach with great suffering, and created the earth for you, so on it carry out your business. (Narrated by Abu Dawood)

Ibn Al-Haakim relates, regarding the life of Umar Ibn Abdul Aziz (the fifth Khalifah of Islam), that he prohibited the riding of horses except for a need, and wrote to Hiyaan, his governor in Egypt, that he had received news that some caravan camels in Egypt were used to carry up to 1,000 pounds in weight at a time. He warned Hiyaan that if he (Hiyaan) received his letter, he should not allow a camel to carry more than 600 pounds. The Fustaat (an ancient village south of Cairo) was named so because during the conquest of Egypt by ‘Amr Ibn Al-’Aas (RA) a dove built a nest at the top of his tent (Fustaat). When the time to leave the city came, he left the tent exactly where it was so as not to disturb the resident dove. People started building around this tent, eventually leading to the growth of the city of Fustaat.

All this is but a small example of the mercy of Islam towards Animals that can be found within the hearts of the believers. For Islam is indeed a religion of mercy and peace.

Justice and peace for everyone. In the Holy Qur’an the Divine demands from the follower of His message to work for peace and justice through peaceful means, not through violence or anger.

There is no compulsion in religion. Surely, the right way has become distinct from error; so whosoever refuses to be led by those who transgress, and believes in Allah, has surely grasped a strong handle, which knows no breaking. (2:256)

And worship Allah and associate naught with Him, and show kindness to parents, and to kindred, and orphans, and the needy, and to the neighbour who is a kinsman, and the neighbour who is a stranger, and the companion by your side, and the wayfarer, and those whom your right hands possess. Surely, Allah loves not the arrogant and the boastful. (4:36)’

Ye who believe! Be steadfast in the cause of Allah, bearing witness in equity; and let not a people’s enmity incite you to act otherwise than with justice. Be always just. That is nearer to righteousness. And fear Allah. Surely, Allah is Aware of what you do. (5:8)

And abuse not those whom they call upon besides Allah, lest they, out of spite, abuse Allah in their ignorance. Thus unto every people have We caused their doings to seem fair. Then unto their Lord is their return; And He will inform them of what they used to do. (6:108)

And if any one of the idolaters seeks protection of thee, grant him protection so that he may hear the Word of Allah; then convey him to his place of security. That is because they are a people who have no knowledge. (9:6)

Peace is not an alternative; it is a necessity for the true comprehension of the divine message. One does not attack those who are the intended recipients of the divine message. If we want to show our commitment to peace, then we must go beyond words and rhetoric. The least that we can do is to express our condemnation of the killing done in the name of religion regardless of the victims and perpetrators. The killing that is directed deliberately at innocent people is not part of the divine faith: “None despairs of God’s grace except the disbelieving people” (12:87)

Peaceful coexistence: an early example. The relationship between Abyssinia and the early Islamic state is an excellent case study for rebutting the classical conception of the two territories (Dar al Islam and Dar al harb), which calls for a permanent war against non-Muslim political communities. Malik ibn Anas, the founder of the Maliki school of law, advised that the Muslims should not conquer Abyssinia, predicating his opinion on a Hadith of the Prophet: “Leave the Abyssinians in peace so long as they leave you in peace.” He acknowledged that he was not sure of the authenticity of the statement, but said: “People still avoid attacking them.”

Abyssinia had maintained its Christian identity long after Islam was established in Arabia and North Africa. Few Muslim families could be found in the fourth Hijri century. From the beginning, Abyssinians showed their good will to the early Muslims who, escaping the persecution of Quraysh, had sought refuge in Abyssinia. The Muslims were welcomed by the Abyssinians and were further protected from their persecutors, who sent a delegation to bring the Muslim escapees back home. Good relations between Abyssinia and the Muslims of Arabia continued, the former being the only nation to acknowledge Islam at that time.

The peaceful relationship between Abyssinia and the Islamic state is very significant for rebutting the concept of the two territorial divisions of the world and its corollary conception of a permanent state of war, which does not permit the recognition of any non-Muslim state as a sovereign entity. Some Muslim sources claim that al Najashi, the king of Abyssinia during the time of the Prophet, had embraced Islam after receiving the invitation of the Prophet. Ibn al Athir, for instance, wrote in this regard: “When al Najashi received the letter of the Prophet, he believed in him, following his (instructions), and embraced Islam in the presence of Ja’far ibn Abu-Talib.” The story about al Najashi’s accepting Islam did not affect the status of Abyssinia as a territory in which Islam did not rule.

The principles of peace and its strategy. If war is justified in the situations described above, a question arises as to whether Muslims are obligated to fight in these situations, no matter what the circumstances are, or whether it is simply a matter of permissibility or choices, and hence up to the Muslim community to exercise its right to declare war in such situations? To answer this question we need to differentiate between the principle of Jihad Fi Sabil Allah as a permanent obligation incumbent upon Muslims, and the method of Jihad Fi Sabil Allah, which is to be determined after assessing the prevailing conditions of the moment and selecting the most appropriate method of Jihad Fi Sabil Allah to effectively deal with these conditions. In other words, while the Muslim Ummah (world community) is obliged to uphold the principle of Jihad and satisfy its requirements, the method of honoring this principle is a question of strategy. Eliminating oppression and protecting human life, defending Muslim sovereignty and upholding the Islamic law, are objectives of the Islamic Ummah. The principle of Jihad Fi Sabil Allah obligates the Muslims to maintain and achieve these objectives. The best way to achieve these objectives and most appropriate method of upholding the principle of Jihad Fi Sabil Allah is, however, a question of leadership and strategy.

Throughout the Makkan period, the Muslims maintained a pacifist approach in dealing with their adversaries, despite the physical abuse and mental anguishes inflicted upon them by Quraysh. Pacifism was then the best method to effectively achieve Muslim objectives. Some might argue that Muslims did not resort to violence during the Makkan period because they were not permitted to fight at that time – an argument easily overturned when we realize that the absence of the principle of self-defense during the Makkan period was a temporary suspension of the principle’s application, rather than its nullification or rejection. Certainly, the Holy Qur’an unequivocally states that the principle of self-defense and military deference is an essential element of social life and a fundamental principle around which human civilization has evolved:

. . . and had it not been (the Will of) Allah that one set of people is repelled by another, certainly the earth would have been in a state of disorder. (2:251)

. . . and had it not been (the Will of) Allah that one set of people is repelled by another, certainly there would have been pulled down monasteries, churches, synagogues, and mosques, in which the name of Allah is commemorated in abundant measure. (22:40 )

Thus, it is up to the Muslim leadership to assess the situation and weigh the circumstances as well as the capacity of the Muslim community before deciding the appropriate type of jihad. At one stage, Muslims may find that Jihad, through persuasion or peaceful resistance, is the best and most effective method to achieve just peace, as was the case during the Makkan period. Let us examine some verses of the Holy Qur’an, which unfortunately has led many to misunderstand the Islamic conduct of war. One cannot understand Qur’anic verses without knowing their reference to context and period of revelation and circumstances when the verses were revealed. Below is a clear explanation that can help clarify misconceptions. When it comes to the Islamic conduct of war, some of the verses of the Holy Qur’an that have often been quoted by enemies to “prove” Islam promotes violence and bloodshed are the following:

Fight against those who fight against you in the way of Allah, but do not transgress, for Allah does not love transgressors. Kill them whenever you confront them and drive them out from where they drove you out. (For though killing is sinful) wrongful persecution is even worse than killing. Do not fight against them near the Holy Mosque unless they fight against you; but if they fight against you kill them, for that is the reward of such unbelievers. Then if they desist, know well that Allah is Ever-Forgiving, Most Compassionate. Keep on fighting against them until mischief ends and the way prescribed by Allah prevails. But if they desist, then know that hostility is only against the wrong doers. The sacred month for the sacred month; sanctities should be respected alike (by all concerned). Thus, if someone has attacked you, attack him just as he attacked you, and fear Allah and remain conscious that he is with those who guard against violating the bounds sets Allah. (2:192-194) 

Peacebuilding is a real challenge for all: One must remember that much of the conflict in the world is because of poverty, hunger and unemployment. If these problems are solved, much of the conflict will be resolved. One should wage war against poverty in all possible ways – by increasing production, by bringing about redistribution of economic resources and by not allowing wealth to be circulated only among the rich. (59:7) Even when permission was first given to fight in the Qur’anic verse 4:77, it was basically to defend the rights of the weak – the elderly, women and children. The building of peace requires an attitude of sanctity and reverence for life, freedom and justice, the eradication of poverty, dissolution of all forms of discrimination and the protection of the environment for personal and future generations. The ideals of peace include fundamental and global directives such as:

  • Do not kill; i.e., have respect for life;
  • Do not steal; i.e., deal honestly and fairly;
  • Do not lie; i.e., speak and act truthfully;
  • Do not commit sexual immorality; i.e., respect and love one another.

The Golden Rule:

“Do not do to others what you do not want done to yourself.” It is noteworthy that most religions base their moral code on the highly effective Golden Rule:

Buddhism: Hurt not others in ways that you yourself would find hurtful. (Udana-Varga 5:18)

Judaism: What is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow man. That is the entire Law; all the rest is commentary. (Talmud, Shabbat 31a)

Hinduism: This is the sum of duty: Do naught unto others which would cause you pain if done to you. (Mahabharata 5:1517)

Confucianism: Surely it is the maxim of loving kindness: Do not unto others what you would not have them do to you. (Analects 15:23)

Zoroastrianism: That nature alone is good which refrains from doing unto another whatsoever is not good for itself. Good thoughts, good words and good deeds are the bases of good life.

The Christian faith actually uses two complementary rules: The (ineffective) Biblical “Golden Rule” which proclaims: “All things whatsoever ye would that man should do to you, do ye even so to them; for this is the law and the prophets.” (Matt. 7:12) However, the (effective) Ten Commandments are framed in the negative, as all moral codes must be in order to be effective.

Islam: “No one is a believer until he desires for his brother that which he desires for himself.” (Sunnah) This moral code is also a version of the Golden Rule. It is very ineffective. It is obeyed very selectively and ambiguously. Clearly, it is based on the unrealistic assumption that your brother has precisely the same needs and wants as you do. If we wish to live in harmony with others and never give rise to a conflict with others, we must convert the “Golden Rule” into practice: “Don’t do to others what you don’t want done to yourself.”

Avoid war and the cycle of wars at all costs.In a war or war-like situation, the effort to avert bloodshed and find out ways and means to promote negotiated settlement is far more important. The Prophet (PBUH) always tried all possibilities of negotiated settlement and resorted to war in self-defense only if all efforts to find a negotiated settlement failed. The best example of this is what is known in the history of Islam as sulh-i-Hudaibiyah (Peace agreement made at Hudaibiyah). This is a major contribution by the Prophet of Islam in promoting a negotiated settlement and averting needless bloodshed. He even accepted terms that were not apparently favorable to Muslims. The terms of peace appeared to be even humiliating to his senior companions. The Prophet accepted these terms to avoid human slaughter and in the interest of peace.

Sulh-Hudaibiyuyah is of fundamental significance in the interest of peace. Peace is the real objective and war only a necessary evil in certain unavoidable situations. Also it is a wrong assumption that it is the duty of the Muslims to fight against all non-believers. The Holy Qur’an itself speaks about treaties with unbelievers, and according to the Holy Qur’an and hadith it is the duty of all Muslims to honor all treaties and alliances with non-believers. The Muslims must respect all such alliances until non-Muslims dishonor these.

Peace comes through total submission to and following the Will of the Lord, the Creator. This submission, of course, is submission to Muhammad and his concept of Allah in the Holy Qur’an, in other words, Islam.

The Holy Qur’an, the Hadith and other Islamic traditional sources provide plenty of evidence to support the conviction that Islam is a religion of peace and justice and that non-violent practices are well rooted in the religion. Educating both Muslims and non-Muslims on the peaceful message of Islam and eradicating the ignorance that leads to the negative stereotyping of Islam and to enmity between Muslims and non-Muslims is the first step toward peaceful and just relations between Muslim and non-Muslim communities.

The Holy Qur’an offers a very sophisticated view of peace. In many verses it promises the believer peace as a final reward for a righteous life. (5:16) It also describes the house of Islam as the abode of peace. At the behest of the Holy Qur’an, Muslims greet each other every time they meet, by wishing peace for each other. (10:25) However, the Holy Qur’an does not shy away from advocating military action in the face of persecution and religious intolerance. The strongest statement is in the chapter al-Baqarah:

And slay them wherever you find them, and drive them out of the places from where they drove you out, for persecution is worse than slaughter. (10:25)

The presence of this verse in the Holy Qur’an clearly precludes a complete prohibition of violence. The verse is important because, in spite of the enormous significance that the Holy Qur’an attaches to peace and harmony, it is categorical in its assertion that persecution is worse than killing. There is nothing allegorical in this verse: “persecution is worse than killing.” Elsewhere the Holy Qur’an states: “And fight them until persecution is no more.” (2:217)

Diplomats, officials and experts around the world are anxiously debating what the greater Middle East will look like when this current crisis finally draws to a close. It is unlikely this crisis will leave the underlying problems of the Palestinian territories, and Iraq and Afghanistan, any nearer a solution.

The world is now confronted by a humanitarian disaster on a rapidly unfolding scale, which can barely be compared with any other in recent times, man-made or otherwise. That some super powers are thinking to drop some bombs and cure the disaster speaks volumes and reveals that nothing has been learned from the mess that has been created in Afghanistan and Iraq. In Vietnam in the 1960s, chemicals called Agent Orange and Agent Blue as well as napalm were dropped by wave after wave of ugly B52 bombers, and the impact is still being felt today. 

Despite knowledge of the horrific consequences, chemical weapons were deployed by Iraq against Iran during the 1980s, and in 1988 Saddam unleashed mustard gas and other nerve agents on the Kurdish population of Halabja in northern Iraq. All of this was done with the full knowledge of the world and permanent members of UN Security Council. The reality is that chemical weapons are being dropped on the Syrian people, and they do need help from somewhere – anywhere.

A red line was crossed when the civilian death toll exceeded 100,000, and millions of Syrian men, women and children have been listed as refugees in squalid camps in neighboring countries. Over two million Syrian minors have been uprooted within their country, where they are often attacked, recruited as fighters and deprived of their education, according to the UN refugee agency, UNHCR, and UNICEF. The one million mark was a “shameful milestone” in the two-and-a-half year conflict that has cost at least 100,000 lives, the UN agencies said. There is a huge risk of a “lost generation” of Syrian youth, including adolescents.

The former eye doctor, Bashar Hafez al-Assad, is a monster who recognizes no boundaries when it comes to killing his own people. The repressive regime of Syria has committed the most horrendous and unparalleled crimes against her own people by using chemical and poisonous gas that is banned internationally. This has left 1,400 dead and 6,000 injured in neighborhoods of Ghouta. This is the most violent incident in Syria since the uprising began two years ago and one of the worst toxic attacks in decades.

The Chemical Weapons Convention was signed [in 1993], outlawing all uses of chemical weapons in war, but that didn’t stop some countries using white phosphorus rounds against southern Lebanon in 2006 and on a civilian population in Gaza on January 3, 2009. White phosphorus is an indiscriminate killer, as gas released from the explosion burns exposed flesh and the lungs of the victims, whichever way the wind blows. It is supposed to be used to provide a smokescreen for ground troops; when it is used against civilians, it is not only extremely lethal but also extremely illegal.

What is the solution? Dialogue and diplomacy are needed urgently. Intense diplomatic lobbying in the Arab world accompanied by some serious arm-twisting must be done. The international community should jointly come to the rescue of the people of Syria and not use the Assad regime’s crimes against humanity to settle political scores at the expense of moral principles.

In the meantime, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and other kingdoms in the region need to realize that democracy is not the Devil’s spawn. China and Russia need to start showing some compassion, and maybe it is time to revisit the Syrian National Coalition’s Moaz al-Khatib’s 16-point initiative to help ensure a peaceful transition of authority and an end to the violence in Syria.

I appeal to the human conscience to make a swift move defending human rights to rein in the savagery being committed against innocent children and the elderly in Syria. I share UPF’s appeal to the United Nations and the major powers to redouble their efforts for a diplomatic solution. Meanwhile, leaders of the world’s great faith traditions, especially Muslims, Jews and Christians, should come together in the search for a solution that brings an end to the bloodshed.

Remember, remember, remember: evil is not in the body. Evil is in the mind; therefore, harm nobody. Just change the mind.

“Lord, You said and your word is true: love is stronger than hate. O God Almighty, You are peace and from You peace comes. Bestow upon all of us your peace and make our final destiny in Your eternal abode of peace. Let there be respect for the earth, peace for is people, love in our lives, and delight in the good, forgiveness for our past wrongs and from now on a new start. Amen.”

Dr. Abduljalil Sajid is Chair of the Muslim Council for Religious and Racial Harmony UK. He is President of Religions for Peace UK, Deputy President of European Religions for Peace, and an Adviser to the European Council of Religious Leaders/Religions for Peace. He is International Secretary of the World Congress of Faiths and has been an Ambassador for Peace of the Universal Peace Federation since 2000.