Michael KreponIslam and the Bomb

faiqaThis 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.

Read the previous post in this series.


  1. Michael Krepon (History)

    comment from Dave:

    A relevant exposition on this topic is the well known fatwa by Saudi Sheikh Nasir al-Fahd on the permissibility of WMD including nuclear and the covering of this fatwa by Sheikh Zawahiri in his book Exoneration.

    • SQ (History)

      Michael, those are al-Qaida figures.

  2. SQ (History)

    Most striking about this analysis is Ms. Mahmood’s direct resort to Quran and Hadith; compare it to Hannah Haegeland’s essay on Catholic perspectives, which explores a relatively rich literature on the subject of nuclear deterrence, not pausing to quote the Bible even once. Partly the difference may be structural, since the Catholic Church has a formal hierarchy that asserts the exclusive authority to interpret scripture, but it also probably has something to do with how long different societies have been forced with live with the Bomb. The first of Ms. Haegeland’s sources is from 1983, almost four full decades into the nuclear age. That’s about when Pakistan was first amassing fissile material!

    And there’s the rub. The only nuclear-armed state with a Muslim majority is Pakistan, the most openly pro-nuclear country in the world, dominated by its military, swarming with armed Muslim organizations, and frequently at odds with non-Muslim enemies, allies, and bystanders. Should this be the setting for the development of Muslim religious thought on nuclear weapons? Perhaps it would be better for the time being if it remained underdeveloped, or as Ms. Mahmood puts it, superficial.

    In tackling the nuclear question in the early 1980s, the Catholic Church had something else going for it; an awareness that the lives of Catholics and Christians on both sides of the Cold War confrontation were at stake. The Catholic materials, starting with the American bishops’ letter, are suffused with awareness of common humanity across the geopolitical chasm. Perhaps it’s no coincidence that this process emerged under a Polish pope, not to mention during the same time as the Euromissiles controversy and the nuclear freeze movement in the United States. Pakistan today seems very far from that atmosphere, perhaps diametrically opposite.

    In principle, at least, all Muslims are affected by the Bomb, and Muslims live everywhere around the world. But Pakistan’s special intensity on the question creates a difficulty.

    There is also Iran. Shiism is the most Catholic-like branch of Islam, with a similar inclination to hierarchy and interpretive authority; in the abstract, Iran therefore might be a more favorable locus for the development of religious thought on nuclear weapons than Pakistan. But the reality is less promising. We are mired in the fog of Ayatollah Khamenei’s famous fatwa, which apparently has no official date, text, or rationale. Is the possession of nuclear weapons forbidden, or just the use? If it’s the use, how about in retaliation? All is unclear, and the fatwa, like all fatwas not otherwise renewed, dies with its originator. In practice, the fatwa is a bit like the JCPOA; it’s a positive development, but allows Ayat. Khamenei to hand off the issue to his successor without a decisive, permanent resolution.

    Ms. Mahmood makes no reference to states and their interests, and perhaps that is her wise way of suggesting that disinterested religious authorities ought to interpret the question apart from geopolitical matters, if that’s possible. And indeed, silence could simply leave the genocidal ideologues of al-Qaida and ISIS to fill the void. But who will take up that challenge?

    • Behravesh (History)

      Khamenei is not the only, or the most learned, Shi’i scholar who has condemend nuclear weapons. On this point, he represents a view upheld by many other Shi’i scholars.

      The point that a fatwa is not set in stone for the rest of history is certainly valid. Sunnism and Shiism both have mechanisms for adapting to changing times and values. Some of these mechanisms are structural (such as the lack of a rigid hierarchy in either) and some are doctrinal/dogmatic (such as recognizing that a ruling may change if the objective facts it presupposes change).

      So, when people (e.g., Yousaf, below) say it is dangerous to resort to an old text, they overlook the fact that interpretations of fixed, binding texts change over time; so that “reading” texts like the Qur’an and the US constitution often requires projecting assumptions and values upon the text. The reader’s prior inclinations are fundamental to the act of interpretation. If an interpreter denies that, it is only because people often make the mistake of taking currently prevailing values as transcendent and self-evident, not realizing that they may not have been self-evidemt to an earlier generation.

      By the way, I view Mahmood’s piece as one person’s (admittedly reasonable) interpretation of the Qur’an, but the questions of what most Muslim scholars say today about fighting or what most of them said in previous centuries are ones on which not enough rigorous historical work has been done. The best work I have seen so far concerns the Muslim doctrinal responses to the protracted conflict in Spain.

  3. yousaf (History)

    In my view, it may be disingenuous and dangerous to resort to teachings (often contradictory, subjectively interpreted and not from the primary sources) from hundreds of years ago to inform the use of 20th and 21st century technology.

    What do the Books of Chilam Balam have to say about cyber-deterrence? satellite warfare?

    Let’s hope that the religious debate about these topics remains at a superficial level and that it is soon extinguished altogether.

    • Behravesh (History)

      What does the US Constitution has to say about cyber-deterrence? Satellite warfare?

      Surely, you will not conclude, “Let’s hope the legal debate about these topics is soon extinguished altogether,” will you?

      The reason why we interpret texts is precisely that they need interpretation! If they gave clear answers, then there would be no need to interpret.

    • yousaf (History)

      The US constitution is highly relevant to the debate as it is the framework of the US govt.

      Luckily it yields no role to any religion.

      e.g. Any cyber-deterrence policies that for instance were to contravene the US constitution ought not be tolerated. So it is highly relevant to the debate.

  4. JP Zanders (History)

    I have written on religious origins of the prohibition on chemical and biological weapons. Poison use has a far longer history in civilisation than the existence of today’s monotheistic religions. In my research I came across several of the passages and sources identified by Ms Mahmood.

    * International Norms Against Chemical And Biological Warfare: An Ambiguous Legacy, Journal of Conflict & Security Law, Vol. 8 No. 2 (2003). http://www.the-trench.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/06/200312-JCSL-International-norms.pdf; and
    * Iran’s Disarmament and Arms Control Policies for Biological and Chemical Weapons, and Biological Capabilities, Report FOI-R–0904–SE (Swedish Defence Research Agency: Umeå, December 2003) http://www.the-trench.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/05/200312-FOI-CBW-study.pdf

    While religions have undeniably influenced the formulation of codes of conduct on the battlefield, it should equally be recognised that they only applied to members of one’s own religious community and not to wars between members of different religions, as empiral evidence of poison use by Christians and Muslims against each other in several medieval and later wars proves.

    Perhaps the deeper point for consideration is that in monotheistic religions, followers can accept only a single source of authority. Anybody challenging that authority is a heretic, witness the bloodiness of the 100 years war in Europe, which ended in favour of the (secular) sovereign state. Legal rules apply only to entities considered equal (the “state” became the equal entity in international law and soldiers were its agents; once no longer its agents, e.g., if wounded or non-combatant, then they could no longer be targeted by war operations).

    So, if religion once again becomes a primary organising principle of societies – witness developments in the Middle East, the USA, UK, East European countries – the question of organising inter- and intrasocietal relations will likely become increasingly contentious. Weapons of any type can obtain religious sanction by those wanting to have or use them, irrespective of whether any such sanction ever existed previously in religious doctrine or teachings. Just recall the way Aum Shinrikyo built up its internal justification to provoke armageddon, inter alia by means of chemical and biological weapons. My fear is that the extreme application of such a binary view on the world is the driving logic behind a lot of what we see relating to and in response to ISIL today.

    Back to the academic analysis by Ms Mahmood: personally I would also include modern Islamic legal scholars in the analysis of religion and weapon acquisition. Some of them have served on the International Court of Justice in The Hague and contributed, among other things, to the advisory opinion regarding the legitimacy of nuclear weapon use. Also the practice of states (islamic or other) and their participation in international legal regimes ought also to be considered in today’s debates, I feel.

  5. nab (History)

    Ms Mahmood’s analysis is illuminating more about Islam itself than about nuclear weapons as means of attack or retaliation. She raises a more general problem about religions and their stands over this grave and humanity-threatening issue: nuclear weapons, or even more generally WMD.
    It is an age old problem to engage or disengage religion from war, conflict, conquest, retaliation, plunder, revenge, all in a massive scale by armies of political or religious motivation. The Abrahamite religions, have as it is most humanly understandable contradictory and equivocal injunctions about war.
    The Old Testament is replete with the wars of the Jewish tribes against its various enemies or occupiers. Christianity has no reference to war but the very general injunction “Give Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s”. On the other hand it demands that we should love our enemy. However, if this enemy is also Caesar’s enemy what do we do, kill him? And if his an enemy of Christianity, then what?
    Religious texts, at least those which belong to the Abrahamite religions aren’t a very good source for guidance for politics, conflict or war. They never were. What they did was to ameliorate the base and inhuman instincts of warriors, conquerors and plunderers to a more humane behavior towards the week, the non-combatants and the tax-providers.
    But there are two other points which must be of interests to all interested in this modern phenomenon of Islam, terrorism and war. The Quran is replete with verses about war. Why is this the case? Why the Quran and the Hadiths present so many cases of war?
    The second point: Ms Mahmood refers to the worlds of the first Caliph Abu Bakr. The caliph was giving instructions to the expeditionary force which moved against the Christian Byzantium. Why did the Moslems, of the newly conquered Mecca, started the attack against their Christian neighbors? In 636 AD, when Caliph Omar took the place of the assassinated Abu Bakr, the Moslem army in the battle of Ieremiax or in Arabic the battle of Yarmouk River, a tributary of Jordan, defeated the Byzantine Imperial army and thus the conquest of the Middle East and North Africa started.
    Islam is more or less a tradition of war and conquest. There is no doubt that the Arabs were the initiators of a new Civilization and a new world history. There is no doubt that Islam became a source of inspiration and spiritual guidance to millions and to many mystics, philosophers, poets, scientists. The core of Islam, though, was an ideology of expansive mission. The recent decline of Muslim states (three centuries) changed this fervor but it is obvious that today Islam is reasserting itself on the world stage. The Bible and the Quran aren’t a good source of inquiry about nuclear weapons. Jews, Christians and Moslems, do possess nuclear arms. The motivation to use them for offensive or defensive purposes may rest upon deep religious convictions of some of world leaders but unfortunately we cannot bet on this in any rational way.

    • Dan Gilchrist (History)

      First, just a headsup: ‘Moslem’ is considered offensive by a lot of Muslims. It’s the word used by the old colonial powers, and in Arabic basically means “evil person” (assuming you pronounce the ‘s’ as a ‘z’), as opposed to Muslim which means “devoted to god”.

      And second, totally agree that folk using thousand+ year old religious texts for nuclear morality is a bit … terrifying. On the other hand, though, the Quran (shorn of the Hadiths – no idea how they can be followed when they so clearly contradict the Quran) is actually pretty decent, morality-wise. Way ahead of its time in a lot of ways.

      The Jewish people were every bit as much a warrior tribe as the early Muslims. Worse, even: “kill the men and women and kids and babies and goats and sheep and camels and everything” (1 Samuel 15:3); “bash their babies’ heads in” (Psalm 137:9); “WTF? You let the women and kids live? No way: kill the little boys and the women – but totally keep the virgin girls, for they be hotties” (Numbers 31:17-18) etc.

      Moses: war criminal.

  6. Jonah Speaks (History)

    On principle not discussed in the above is the golden rule. According to Wikipedia, the Golden Rule is implicitly expressed in some verses of the Quran, and is explicitly declared in the sayings of Muhammad. It can be translated as “Wish for your brother, what you wish for yourself” or “Love your brother as you love yourself”.

    “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.” One could perhaps deduce these limits from the golden rule (via complicated reasoning), but Mahmood’s discussion also shows that classical Islam specifically sets these three limits on warfare.

    A minority of Muslims who preach and practice terrorism deliberately ignore these specific limits. In addition, they ignore the golden rule, which must be practiced both between Muslims and between Muslims and non-Muslims. Is it acceptable practice for Muslims to kill innocent non-Muslims? To find out, simply ask the reverse question, Is it acceptable practice for non-Muslims to kill innocent Muslims? The golden rule clearly condemns murder of the innocent.

    “To conclude, the acquisition of nuclear weapons for deterrence may be allowed in Islam, but first use is never permitted.” This conclusion restricts nuclear deterrence solely to retaliation against nuclear attack, not as a response to conventional attack. The conclusion also contradicts current Pakistani nuclear policy in opposition to hypothetical conventional attacks from India.

  7. jonathan granoff (History)

    A serious Imam at UN on subject:

    A interfaith event at UN with religious leaders on subject



    and another distinguished Imam on the subject:


    Suffice it to say that the article by Ms. Mahmoud is quite fuzzy compared to the above crisp presentations by highly regarded Muslim scholars cited above. If anyone is truly interested in the subject I urge their review of the presentations made at the UN. They conclude without equivocation much as the Ayatollah has concluded in his Fatwa that nuclear weapons are immoral. Warmly, jonathan granoff

  8. Rabia (History)

    Aggression means any aggression against Pakistan, whether conventional or nuclear, and full spectrum deterrence means that aggression will be responded to with nuclear weapons. With the exception of India and China, every other nuclear nation has a policy of first use of weapons to any outside misadventure taken against them.