Non-violent activism is not limited in its sphere. It is a course of action which may be followed in all matters. Whenever individuals, groups or communities are faced with a problem, one way to solve it is by resorting to violence. The better way is to attempt to solve the problem by peaceful means, avoiding violence and confrontation. Peaceful means may take various forms. In fact, it is the nature of the problem which will determine which of these peaceful methods is applicable to the given situation.
Islam is a religion which teaches non-violence. According to the Qur’an, God does not love fasad, violence. What is meant here by fasad is clearly expressed in verse 205 of the second Surah. Basically, fasad is that action which results in disruption of the social system, causing huge losses in terms of lives and property.
Conversely, we can say with certainty that God loves non-violence. He abhors violent activity being indulged in human society, as a result of which people have to pay the price with their possessions and lives. This is supported by other statements in the Qur’an. For instance, we are told in the Qur’an that peace is one of God’s names (59:23). Those who seek to please God are assured by verse 5 of the sixteenth surah that they will be guided by Him to "the paths of peace." Paradise, which is the final destination of the society of God’s choice, is referred to in the Qur’an as "the home of peace" (89:30), etc.
The entire spirit of the Qur’an is in consonance with this concept. For instance, the Qur’an attaches great importance to patience. In fact, patience is set above all other Islamic virtues with the exceptional promise of reward beyond measure. (39:10)
Patience implies a peaceful response or reaction, whereas impatience implies a violent response. The word Sabr exactly expresses the notion of non-violence as it is understood in modern times. That patient action is non-violent action has been clearly expressed in the Qur’an. According to one tradition, the Prophet of Islam observed: God grants to rifq (gentleness) what he does not grant to unf (violence).
The word rifq has been used in this hadith as an antithesis to unf. These terms convey exactly what is meant by violence and non-violence in present times. This hadith clearly indicates the superiority of the non-violent method.
God grants on non-violence what He does not grant to violence is no simple matter. It has very wide and deep implications. It embodies an eternal law of nature. By the very law of nature all bad things are associated with violence, while all good things are associated with non-violence.
Violent activities breed hatred in society, while non-violent activities elicit love. Violence is the way of destruction while non-violence is the way of construction. In an atmosphere of violence, it is enmity which flourishes, while in an atmosphere of non-violence, it is friendship which flourishes. The method of violence gives way to negative values while the method of non-violence is marked by positive values. The method of violence embroils people in problems, while the method of non-violence leads people to the exploiting of opportunities. In short, violence is death, non-violence is life.
Both the Qur’an and the hadith have attached great importance to jihad. What is jihad? Jihad means struggle, to struggle one’s utmost. It must be appreciated at the outset that this word is used for non-violent struggle as opposed to violent struggle. One clear proof of this is the verse of the Qur’an (25:52) which says: Perform jihad with this (i.e. the word of the Qur’an) most strenuously.
The Qur’an is not a sword or a gun. It is a book of ideology. In such a case performing jihad with the Qur’an would mean an ideological struggle to conquer peoples’ hearts and minds through Islam’s superior philosophy.
In the light of this verse of the Qur’an, jihad in actual fact is another name for peaceful activism or non-violent activism. Where qital is violent activism, jihad is non-violent activism.
When the Qur’an began to be revealed, the first verse of the revelation conveyed the injunction: ‘Read!’ (Iqra) (96:1). By perusing this verse we learn about the initiation of Islamic action. It begins from the point where there is hope of continuing the movement along peaceful lines, and not from that point where there are chances of its being marred by violence.
When the command of ‘Iqra’ was revealed, there were many options available in Mecca as starting points for a movement. For instance, one possible starting point was to launch a movement to purify the Kabah of the 360 idols installed in it. But, by pursuing such a course the Islamic movement would certainly have had to face a violent reaction from the Quraysh. An alternative starting point could have been an attempt to secure a seat in the Dar-al-Nadwa (Mecca’s parliament). At that time almost the whole of Arabia was under the direct or indirect influence of the Roman and Sasanid empires. If the freeing of Arabia from this influence had been made the starting point, this would also have been met with an immediate violent reaction on the part of the Quraysh.
Leaving aside these options, the path followed was that of reading the Qur’an, an activity that could be with certainty continued along peaceful lines: no violent reaction would ensue from engaging in such an activity.
The Prophet of Islam followed this principle throughout his life. His policy was that of adopting non-violent methods in preference to violent methods.
What are the advantages of non-violent activism over violent activism? They are briefly stated as under:
According to the Qur’an there are two faculties in every human being which are mutually antipathetic. One is the ego, and the other is the conscience called respectively nafs ammara and nafs lawwama. (The Qur’an, 12:53; 75:26)
What the violent method invariably does is to awaken the ego which necessarily results in a breakdown of social equilibrium. On the other hand, non-violent activism awakens the conscience. From this results an awakening in people of introspection and self-appraisal. And according to the Qur’an, the miraculous outcome of this is that "he who is your enemy will become your dearest friend." (41:34)
A great advantage of the non-violent method is that, by following it, no part of one’s time is wasted. The opportunities available in any given situation may then be exploited to the fullest extent—as happened after the no-war pact of Hudaybiya. This peace treaty enabled the energies of the believers to be utilized in peaceful constructive activities instead of being dissipated in a futile armed encounter. One great harm done by violent activism is the breaking of social traditions in the launching of militant movements. Conversely, the great benefit that accrues from non-violent activism is that it can be initiated and prolonged with no damage to tradition.
Generally speaking, attempts to improve or replace existing systems by violent activism are counter-productive. One coup d’état is often the signal for a series of coups and counter-coups, none of which benefit the common man. The truly desirable revolution is that which permits gradual and beneficial changes. And this can be achieved only on the basis of non-violence.
Success Through the Non-violence Method
All the great successes of the first phase of Islam as well as the succeeding periods were achieved by non-violent methods. Listed below are some examples of these successes.
Of the 23 year period of prophethood, the initial 13 years were spent by the Prophet in Mecca. The Prophet fully adopted the way of pacifism or non-violence during this time. There were many such issues in Mecca at that time which could have been the subject of clash and confrontation. But, sedulously avoiding all such issues, the Prophet of Islam strictly limited his sphere to peaceful propagation of the word of God. This resulted in Dawah work being performed in full force throughout this period. One of the great gains during these 13 years of dawah work was the entry into the Islamic fold of men of the highest moral caliber who were responsible for forming the history of Islam.
In Mecca when the Quraysh leaders were set to wage war against the Prophet, even then, instead of opting for the way of reaction and retaliation, what the Prophet did was to secretly migrate to Medina.
Migration, by its very nature, was a clear example of non-violent activism. This peaceful strategy enabled the Prophet and his followers, about two hundred in number, to form a powerful center of Islam in Medina. Had they adopted the path of confrontation instead of peaceful migration, the history of Islam might have been buried right there in Mecca shortly after its inception.
After the emigration, his antagonists took the unilateral decision to wage war against him. Consequently such bloody encounters as those of Badr and Uhud took place. Then the Prophet made a 10-year peace treaty known in history as Sulh al-Hudaybiya, by accepting all the conditions of his opponents. This has been called a ‘clear victory’ in the Qur’an.
So we must give people the opportunity to appreciate Islam in its original form, then certainly a great number of people would realise as they never had before that Islam was the most peaceful religion and they would rush to it.
Maulana Wahiduddin Khan