Why Muslims should care about war studies

Esra N. Kandur

The post-9/11 era has witnessed an entire generation of Muslims reach adulthood with a heightened sense of political awareness. With increased public scrutiny of Muslims around the world and greater coverage of events in Muslim countries, the news is often a subject of constant discussion at home. Whether rooted in an ummatic consciousness or feelings of conflicted identity, young Muslims in several countries are more likely to be aware of current affairs or politically engaged than their parents[1].

Whilst this is, in some ways, a positive step forward for our community, there is often very little engagement with the framework in which our political consciousness is rooted. Unfortunately, when it comes to world politics, we are often quick to internalise a nationalistic lens. This is somewhat understandable given the dominant international system today; I too would be lying if I said I do not also resort to this frame of mind by default. However, the study of international relations and war/conflict studies has prompted me to question these frameworks.

War studies is an academic field that examines conflict from historical, political, geopolitical, legal, ethical and moral perspectives. I initially entered this field with a very specific research interest. Growing up in Turkey, identity was a subject of constant debate and one that is studied from several perspectives. One could look at the national identity construction in the post-Ottoman republican era and the role played by Islam and ethnicity, or EU-Turkey relations and the different identities being (re)constructed around the Turkish accession process, or the Turkish-Kurdish conflict and how it both shapes and is shaped by national identity.

However, during my studies I realised that as much as identity and geopolitics interest me, it was moral and ethical questions that were the real root of many conflicts today. Almost all forms of destruction have been justified on some kind of ethical grounds, both before and after the actual atrocity takes place. Human morality has been stretched to its limits in the justifications of colonialism, slavery and the use of nuclear weapons by the perpetrators, even if they are condemned by popular opinion today. 

It was these discussions that made me realise that theoretical principles are, at best, tools in understanding the world, but are no replacement for a divinely inspired moral code. This is especially clear for us as Muslims, as we know that the only perfection is in our religion:

“Today I have perfected your faith for you, completed My favour upon you, and chosen Islam as your way.” 

Al-Qur’an 5:3

It was in particular a discussion on collateral damage and civilian casualties that led me towards adopting Islam and its teachings in my studies. Collateral damage is defined by a US military paper as the “unintentional or incidental injury or damage to persons or objects that would not be lawful military targets in the circumstances ruling at the time”[2]. There are three types of collateral damage: i) a genuine accident, ii) systemic, when the damage is unintended but foreseeable, and iii) proportionality killing, when the damage is foreseen but is accepted as necessary in order to achieve the desired end result[3]. The latter in particular presents a mind-boggling conundrum: how can an act that was foreseeable and preventable at the same time be unintended? 

Yet this is the justification used today by states participating in drone warfare that deliberately targets weddings and schools; the avoidable killing of innocent men, women and children is still somehow recorded as unintentional.

Integrating Islam

These questionable moral foundations prompted me to look at the Islamic of Law of warfare, Fiqh al-Jihad, in which there are strict guidelines to minimise and even eliminate civilian deaths. This is laid out clearly in one of the many verses on this topic, where Allah ﷻ says,

“And fight in the way of God with those who fight against you but aggress not; God loves not the aggressors.”

Al-Qur’an 2:190

This perspective is supported by the many statements of the Prophet Muhammad ﷺ that forbade the targeting of civilians and causing unnecessary damage to the environment:

Make a holy war, do not embezzle the spoils; do not break your pledge; and do not mutilate (the dead) bodies; do not kill the children. 

Sahih Muslim, Kitab al-Jihad wa Siyar, 1731

It is narrated by Ibn ‘Umar that a woman was found killed in one of these battles; so the Messenger of Allah (ﷺ) forbade the killing of women and children.

Sahih Muslim, Kitab al-Jihad wa Siyar 1744

These instructions do not only ensure the safety of civilians, but also the protection of the livelihoods of people. During his khilafah (term as Caliph), Abu Bakr al-Siddiq (ra) gave ten instructions to his armies before combat: to not kill women, children, the old and ill; to not cut down trees; to not destroy any towns; to not kill any animals unless it is to eat; to not burn or harm trees, to not steal and to not be cowardly. 

Hasan al-Basri, a leader from the tabi’un (the generation after the companions of the Prophet ﷺ), reiterated these points and added the following as violations of Islamic law in combat: imposing thirst, killing those who are not fighting, and killing people of religion[4]. In line with the legal and moral norms of the time, combat often took place in non-populated areas that were designated as battlegrounds, minimising collateral damage and civilian casualties.

Yet these were simpler times, when there were more unpopulated areas that could be used as battlegrounds and when the sword was the main weapon of combat, which forced not only eye contact but also physical contact. This also meant that soldiers were aware that they were fighting another human being, which would enforce a level of respect for the enemy and a recognition of their basic dignity. 

With the invention of gunpowder, weapons started to change and the mode of combat became more and more dehumanised. Guns and bombs meant that soldiers had less and less contact with those they were fighting. Carpet bombing, a method of bombing that causes damage to every part of a selected area, was used for the first time during the Second World War in major cities like Berlin and London. This meant that the targets clearly were not only combatants, but also civilians.

The dehumanisation of warfare has only increased with time with the invention of nuclear weapons and drone technology. The first and only use of atomic bombs in Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1954 remains one of the most devastating events in history, whilst civilian casualties from drone strikes carried out by the US peaked during Trump’s presidency. Drone strikes especially have been criticised for taking away responsibility from warfare. Many experts have made comparisons to computer games, as soldiers are wholly detached from the impacts of the buttons they push while watching through a screen.

These contrasting perspectives give rise to a compelling reason why Muslims must pay attention to war studies. As it currently stands, the governments of most Muslim-majority countries are involved in at least one type of war. Many of us find ourselves either supporting or criticising these conflicts, yet the language we employ is that of the modern, secular discourse of the nation-state, human rights and international law. While this may not always lead one to a wrong conclusion, it is not enough. In the West in particular, this frequently turns into an argument for pacifism and peace at any cost; yet this will not suffice, as it is said in the Qur’an:

“And what is it with you? You do not fight in the cause of Allah and for oppressed men, women, and children who cry out, ‘Our Lord! Deliver us from this land of oppressors! Appoint for us a saviour; appoint for us a helper—all by Your grace.’”

Al-Qur’an 4:75

We cannot be indifferent in the face of oppression and injustice. Justice is crucial in Islam and arguments for peace and stability are incomplete without those considerations. Using our religious worldview to evaluate these conflicts is consequently essential.

Understanding how Islam can be made relevant to modern warfare is another challenge our community must embrace. In the face of conflicts that are brutalising thousands, how can Muslims utilise the principles of the Islamic texts to navigate military decisions?  Whilst several scholars have written on this, these discussions must go beyond the condemnations of terrorism and examine what a just war would look like in the modern era.

This article aims to be the first in a series focusing on Islam and war studies. It will aim to raise debates such as what humanitarian intervention does and should mean for Muslims, how can we understand the relationship between order and justice from an Islamic perspective, and how Islamic ethics would view nuclear weapons and drone warfare. The aim here is not to provide answers to these questions, as I am by no means qualified to do so, but instead to provoke a discussion on these topics that affect us more than we realise.

Esra N. Kandur completed her undergraduate studies in political science and international relations and her masters in international conflict studies. Her interests include Islamic sciences, politics and the ethics of war. She is the co-host of Seriosity, a podcast dedicated to war and politics. You can follow her on Twitter @esnika_


[1]Ipsos Mori Social Research Institute, (2018) ,A review of Survey Research on Muslims in Britain

[2]Department of the Army, (2012) Civilian Casualty Mitigation, Army Tactics, Techniques, and Procedures, No. 3-37.31 Washington, DC: Department of the Army, p. 1-8.

[3]Crawford, N. 2013, “Accountability for Killing: Moral Responsibility for Collateral Damage in America’s Post-9/11 Wars” , Oxford University Press.

[4]Kalın, İ. & Kamali, H. 2013, “War and Peace in Islam: The Uses and Abuses of Jihad”, Islamic Texts Society.

One thought on “Why Muslims should care about war studies

  1. Assalamu alaykum,
    I don’t have much to contribute to this discussion at the moment except to say that I am excited for the rest of the series! Your point about evaluating secular pacifist movement(s) from an Islamic viewpoint is one that struck me as I find the discourse around this topic can be somewhat alienating in the absence of an Islamic understanding of war and peace.

    Liked by 1 person

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