Arms Dealers: Islam and the Bomb


By Michael Krepon : –
This post on Islamic teachings from the Quran is written by Faiqa Mahmood, a Non-Resident Fellow at the Stimson Center. It’s another in a series on how traditional principles of the world’s major religions relate to the advent, possession and use of nuclear weapons. – MK

With a distinct and slim minority of Muslims engaged in acts of violence against noncombatants, it is important to have conversations among Muslims and between Muslims and practitioners of other religions on the use of force, and whether and when it may be justified. The most consequential use of force relates to the use of nuclear weapons.

The concept of deterrence is implied in the Quran, the highest authority in Islamic jurisprudence, in this verse:

“Prepare against them whatever forces you [believers] can muster, including warhorses, to frighten the enemies of God and of yours.” (8:60)

A majority of Islamic jurists hold that although the acquisition of nuclear weapons for deterrence is permissible, their first use can never be justified. However, it remains uncertain whether or not the use of nuclear weapons in retaliation is allowed.

This lack of clarity stems from an inherent tension is the classical Islamic principles between the protection of non-combatants and the retaliatory use of force. This tension is compounded by a lack of debate amongst Muslim scholars and leaders on the justifiable use of force, or jihad. Classical Islamic principles distinguish between the defensive use of force and the offensive use of force. The defensive use of force is contained in this Quranic commandment:

“Fight in God’s cause against those who fight you, but do not overstep the limits: God does not love those who overstep the limits.” (2:190)

The Arabic command “do not overstep the limits” (la ta’tadu) is so general that a majority of commentators agree that it includes a prohibition on starting hostilities, fighting non-combatants, and a disproportionate response to aggression. The phrase “those who fight you” underscores that classic Islamic principles do not permit Muslims to be the aggressors.

There has been debate on whether the offensive use of force is allowed in Islam. Twentieth-century thinkers such as Abul Ala Mawdudi and Syed Qutub argued that all Muslims are obligated to launch offensive jihad, in order to spread Islam. However, a majority of scholars hold that the offensive theory of jihad has no basis in the primary sources of Islamic law. Using examples from the life of Prophet Muhammad, they show that Muslims can only instigate an attack if they first entered into an agreement with an adversary, and that adversary proved to be treacherous. Thus, Muslims are allowed the anticipatory use of force against an enemy only under circumscribed conditions.

Even when force is used justifiably, classic Islamic principles call for Muslims to adhere to limitations on the use of force, i.e., force is only allowed to be used to the extent necessary to achieve military objectives. Muslims must make a distinction between the enemies, fighting only the combatants, and the force used must be proportionate to the harm suffered. Finally, all fighters and prisoners must be dealt with humanely. Prophet Muhammad said:

“Fairness is prescribed by God in every matter, so if you kill, kill in a fair way.” (Sahih Muslim, Volume 2, Page 72)

The Quran uses clear language to prohibit the killing of an innocent:

“If anyone kills a person unless ̶ in retribution for murder or spreading corruption in the land ̶ it is as if he kills all mankind, while if any saves a life, it is as if he saves the life of all mankind.” (5:32)

The question of killing a Muslim, or believer, is dealt with unequivocally in the Quran:

“If anyone kills a believer deliberately, the punishment for him is Hell, and there he will remain: God is angry with him, and rejects him, and has prepared a tremendous torment for him.” (4:93)

On numerous occasions, Prophet Muhammad is reported as saying:

“Do not kill a decrepit old man, or a young infant, or a child, or a woman.” (Sunan Abu Dawud, Book 14, Number 2608)

Abu Bakr, the first Caliph and successor to Prophet Muhammad, famously referenced this principle in a speech to the Muslim army before the invasion of what is now Syria in 632:

“Do not commit treachery or deviate from the right path. You must not mutilate dead bodies. Neither kill a child, nor a woman, nor an aged man. Bring no harm to the trees, nor burn them with fire… Slay not any of the enemy’s flock, save for food. You are likely to pass by people who have devoted their lives to monastic services, leave them alone.”

The above teachings clearly establish the inviolability of innocent life, and the environment. However, Islam also clearly sanctions the deterrence of the enemy, and retaliation, as noted above:

“Prepare against them whatever forces you [believers] can muster, including warhorses, to frighten the enemies of God and of yours.” (8:60)

This verse is invariably quoted by Muslim scholars who favor the acquisition of nuclear weapons, arguing that this requires Muslim states to acquire any means necessary to defend themselves.

Unfortunately, the Muslim debate on deterrence has yet to develop beyond this superficial level. Crucial questions remain unanswered: under Islamic teachings, how much of a nuclear arsenal is required if its cost detracts from the well-being of Muslims? What nuclear targeting strategy – whether counterforce or countervalue – is consistent with Islamic principles? If escalation cannot be controlled, is any targeting strategy that threatens entire populations consistent with Islamic principles?

The concept of retaliation is explicit in Islam, but its ramifications in the nuclear context are ambiguous. The Quran says:

“So if anyone commits aggression against you, attack him as he attacked you, but be mindful of God…” (2:194)

However, retaliation must be no more than the original harm suffered:

“If you [believers] have to respond to an attack, make your response proportionate, but it is best to stand fast.” (16:126)

“God will help those who retaliate against an aggressive act merely with its like…” (22:60)

From these principles, Islamic jurists have inferred that, in general, Muslims must not use any non-discriminatory methods in war. But these means become permissible, or even necessary, in defense if the enemy initiated their use. Al-Ghazali, the famous 12th-century theologian, believed that these moral prohibitions could only be suspended if the utter destruction of the Muslim community was at risk. Other jurists, however, held that Muslims could retaliate with non-discriminatory means as a matter of necessity, in order to prevent a Muslim defeat.

To conclude, the acquisition of nuclear weapons for deterrence may be allowed in Islam, but first use is never permitted. While a retaliatory nuclear strike may be permissible, it is unclear how the possibility of massive damage can be reconciled with the prohibition against harming women, children, the elderly, animals, and the environment. Classic Islamic principles therefore raise significant dilemmas for nuclear deterrence doctrine. If nuclear deterrence is sanctioned by Islam, targeting strategies would be significantly curtailed.

Given the current dynamics in Muslim countries, it is time for mainstream Muslim thinkers to begin a conversation on the justifiable use of force, with particular reference to attacks on noncombatants, ranging from the Paris attacks to the use of nuclear weapons.