The Qurʾānic concept of aggression is encapsulated through two terms: iʿtadā and ʿudwān. Both are derived from the root ʿ-d-w/y, which carries the following meanings: “aggression; animosity; enmity; corruption; the two sides of a valley; to cross from one side to the other; to run” (Farāhīdī, ʿAyn; Ibn Fāris, Maqāyīs; Fayrūzābādī, Qāmūs; Zabīdī, Tāj; Ibn Manẓūr, Lisān).
Definitions and Usage
Derivatives of ʿ-d-w/y occur 105 times in the Qurʾān. Al-Rāghib al-Aṣfahānī (d. 502/ca.1108) explains that al-ʿadw means “transgressing proper limits; when this overstepping is related to a state of the heart, it is called ʿadāwa and muʿāda; when related to walking, it is called ʿadw; when related to infringement or violation of justice (fī-l-ikhlāli bil-ʿadāla), it is called ʿudwān and ʿadw…iʿtadā is to transgress, to commit an aggression” (Mufradāt, sub ʿ-d-w). Al-Jawharī (d. 393/1002) defines the infinitive noun ʿudwān as “sheer wrongful conduct” (Ṣiḥāḥ, sub ʿ-d-w).
Aggression is categorically forbidden even during times of war: And fight in the cause of Allah against those who wage war against you, but do not commit aggression (lā taʿtadū), for verily, Allah does not love aggressors (al-muʿtadīn). Abū Muḥammad al-Makkī (355-437/966-ca.1045) explains that Do not commit aggression relates to those “who do not fight against you…that is, do not kill the elderly, women, children, and those who accept Islam…if you kill them, you commit injustice (ẓulm). Those who wage war against you means those who have the strength to fight against you and those who habitually fight; thus, do not fight against those who do not possess these qualities. This includes monks as well as those who pay the jizya (Hidāya).
Al-Qurṭubī (d. 671/1273) cites a hadith narrated by Ibn ʿUmar (d. 74/693), may Allah be pleased with him, who said: “A woman was found killed in one of the battles, and so the Prophet forbade the killing of women and children” (Bukhārī, Jihād wal-siyar, qatl al-ṣibyān fī-l-ḥarb; Muslim, Jihād wal-siyar, taḥrīm qatl al-nisāʾ wal-ṣibyān fī-l-ḥarb). Al-Nawawī (d. 676/1277) says in his commentary on this hadith that “to act on it is the consensus of the scholars: it is categorically forbidden to kill women and children if they are not in direct combat” (Sharḥ Muslim).
Abū al-Layth al-Samarqandī (d. 373/983) and Ibn ʿAṭiyya (d. ca.542/1147) include the breaking of pacts and instigating hostilities during the Sacred Months (ashhur al-ḥurum) or within the boundaries of the Sacred Precinct (al-ḥaram) in the Qurʾānic concept of aggression (cf. Baḥr and Muḥarrar, sub Q 9:10). Additional actions are included under the category of aggression by other exegetes. For instance, al-Zamakhsharī (467-538/ca.1074-1143) holds that aggression includes punitive measures taken for revenge, instigating war, transgressing the boundaries of justice out of sheer enmity toward polytheists, and other unlawful acts such as mutilation and breaking treaties (see Alliance and Treaty) (Kashshāf).
In Q 5:2, the believers are enjoined not to commit aggression (lā taʿtadū) against those who prevented them from visiting the Inviolable House: Do not let your wrath against the people who have barred you from the Inviolable Mosque move you to commit aggression; rather, help one another in acts of righteousness and piety, and do not help one another in sin and aggression; and remain conscious of Allah; for truly Allah is severe in retribution. Ibn ʿAṭiyya (d. ca.542/1147) explains that this verse was revealed in 8/629, the year of the “Conquest of Makka” (fatḥ al-Makka) (see Conquest), when some Muslims meant to exact revenge against the Quraysh and other tribes who had prevented them from visiting the House of Allah. Allah Most High here commanded them not to commit aggression, because His Will for them was benevolent (khayr) and, moreover, it was in His knowledge that some of them would accept Islam (Muḥarrar).
The exegetical tradition also interprets Q 5:8 as forbidding aggression: Do not let the enmity of any people incite you to deviate from justice. Act justly! That is nearer to being God-fearing. And be conscious of Allah: surely Allah is well aware of what you do. Al-Zamakhsharī comments on the priority of the injunctions in the verse: “First Allah Most High warns against letting enmity lead to injustice, and then emphatically commands justice. This is a great warning, for if justice is required even when dealing with disbelievers (who are enemies of Allah), how then when dealing with believers (who are the friends of Allah and beloved by Him)?” (Kashshāf). Al-Rāghib explains iʿtidāʾ by quoting the Qurʾānic phrase allā taʿdilū (“ceasing to be just”), and says, “but the latter is more eloquent” (Tafsīr).
Retribution is permitted in response to aggression, but is differentiated from aggression: Sacred month for sacred month, for a violation of sanctity is [subject to] just retribution; if anyone commits aggression (iʿtadā) against you, aggress (fa-ʿtadū) against him just as he aggressed against you (bi-mithli mā-ʿtadā)—but remain conscious of Allah, and know that Allah is with those who are conscious of Him (Q 2:194). Explaining the usage of “aggression” in the verse, al-Ṭabarī (224-310/839-ca.922) says: “Only the words are the same [in the two instances], but the meanings are different: the first ʿudwān in the verse is injustice (ẓulm); the second is retribution, which is not injustice but justice, as it is punishment of the unjust for committing injustice” (Tafsīr; also Samarqandī, Baḥr, sub Q 2:15).
Al-Akhfash al-Awsaṭ (d. 215/830) further elucidates: “Allah has not commanded aggression; rather, He enjoins what is called iʿtidāʾ, that is, a response in kind” (Maʿānī al-Qurʾān, sub Q 2:194). Likewise, Ibn al-Jawzī (d. 597/1200) explains that the response to aggression is also called “aggression” because the substantive action is the same, although one is a sin (maʿṣiya) and the other obedience to a command (ṭāʿa). The context of the action is of paramount relevance; hence this Qurʾānic expression parallels the Arab proverb “So-and-so dealt unjustly with me, so I dealt unjustly with him” (Zād).
Al-Rāghib explains this usage further in his Tafsīr:
If it be asked: “How can permission for aggression be granted [in Q 2:194], even though it is a form of injustice (ẓulm) which has been forbidden [in Q 2:190]?” The answer is: aggression (iʿtidāʾ) [literally] means “approaching and almost transgressing the limit” (mujāwarat al-ḥadd). (...) Here [the word] is borrowed [metaphorically] for “injustice” (ẓulm) because ẓulm [also] means “to exceed the limit,” be it a limit set by the intellect (ʿaql) or Law (sharīʿa). Allah, Who has earlier (in Q 2:190) ordered against transgressing the limit, now allows it as retribution for one who has suffered injustice. Hence there are two kinds of aggression: (i) initial aggression (iʿtidāʾ ʿalā sabīl al-ibtidāʾ), which is injustice (ẓulm) and is the kind referred to in His saying do not commit aggression (Q 2:190); and (ii) just retribution (iʿtidāʾ ʿalā sabīl al-qiṣāṣ), which is justice, and this is what is meant here (Q 2:178). (Tafsīr, sub Q 2:194)
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