Islam as a Violence-Free Religion: the Teachings of Jawdat Said

by Bashar Humeid

Editor’s Preface: The Syrian philosopher and theologian Jawdat Said (b. 1931) is one of the most important theorists of Islamic nonviolence. There is an English language website devoted to his life and work, and also posts an English translation of his Nonviolence: the Basis of Settling Disputes in Islam that you may download for free. JG

Al Jazeera screen capture; courtesy of

Jawdat Said’s book The Doctrine of the First Son of Adam: The Problem of Violence in the Islamic World (1966) was the first publication in the modern Islamic movement to present a concept of nonviolence. Now in its fifth edition, the book is still in print. Said was born in Syria in 1931, but moved to Egypt at a young age to study Arabic language at Azhar University in Cairo. While there, he took an active part in the cultural life of Egypt, and was also closely connected to the Islamic movement of that period. Even back then, Said was already warning about the negative effects of the violence being carried out by the Islamic movement in Egypt. He wrote his book as a direct response to the writings of Sayyid Qutb, who died in 1966 and is considered the father of militant Islam. (1)

Other intellectuals of the Islamic world also disagreed with Qutb, including Hasan al-Hudaybi, the leader of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood. (2) In the early 1980s, the Muslim Brotherhood in Syria began – in spite of Said’s warnings – to rebel against the government of Hafez al-Assad. (3) However, the revolt was put down with much bloodshed, and ended in 1982 with a massacre in the city of Hama. Following this defeat, the Syrian movement began seriously entertaining the idea of demilitarization, and the writings of Jawdat Said became increasingly influential in Islamic activist circles.

Said’s concept of nonviolence

In the introduction to The Doctrine of the First Son of Adam, Said places himself in the tradition of Islamic reformers such as Abd al-Rahman al-Kawakibi (4) and Muhammad Iqbal (5), the mystic poet and philosopher from India. Said also stressed the importance of the Algerian writer Malek Bennabi (6) and his book, The Conditions for a Renaissance.

What these philosophers have in common is an emphasis on reformation within Islamic societies. They see the problems in their societies as the result more of unfortunate internal developments than of colonial intervention.

Said’s works about nonviolence are part of a series of writings that deal with personal and societal problems, and that serve as a guidepost for Islamic activists. They primarily address Islamic youth, and present an Islamic way of life that eschews violence.

Nonviolence as a divine commandment

Said sees nonviolence as grounded in the Koran. In Sure [Chapter] 5, verses 27–31, one can read how the “God-fearing Abel” declined to defend himself against his brother, although in the end Cain murdered him. Said sees this as a quest of mankind to react “like Adam’s firstborn son, who did not defend himself against the attacks of his brother.” The nonviolence exhibited by Adam’s son represents, in Said’s view, “a position to be aspired to by all mankind, and adhering to it is one of God’s commandments.”

In addition, Said refers to the stories of the various different prophets in the Koran and points out that the only charges they were accused of was their belief in the one God of creation. None of them, however, attempted to spread his ideas by means of violence. Said sees this as a clear indication that the practice of violence is incompatible with the core faith of the Koran. But how does Said explain the other verses of Koran that call the faithful to battle

Different interpretations of the Koran

According to Said’s view, the Koran specifies two prerequisites for a legitimate war. First, war may be declared only if the opponent defies the fundamental Koranic principle of “no coercion of religion,” i.e. if the enemy violates the principle of “freedom of opinion.” Second, the nation that declares war must itself adhere to this principle.

In his 1988 book Read! For The Lord Your God is Benevolent, Said supports his view of an Islam free of violence by developing an important approach to the interpretation of the Koran. He points out that the various different interpretations of the text of the Koran presented a challenge even for the early followers of the Prophet Muhammad, and he quotes the fourth Caliph, Ali ibn Abi Talib, (7) who in a disagreement with his followers demanded disregarding the texts because each group had its own way of interpreting them. Instead, practical aspects should be discussed in an effort to reach a satisfying conclusion.

Said concludes from this that the Koran challenges people to search for truth in the real world and not in the texts of the Koran. The call to “wander the earth” is repeated 13 times in the Koran. Said thus concludes that this is a part of the divine revelation: to search for knowledge about the world, its history and its societies. Therein lies for him the “profound meaning and wonder of the Koran.”

New interpretations of the Koran

The demand to “wander” is coupled with the demand to read. After all, “Read!” is the first word that was revealed to the prophet Muhammad. Said interprets this as a call to become familiar with the history of the human experience, which is primarily accessible through reading. Supporting his view with approaches from the Islamic tradition, Said thus paves the way for a new interpretation of the Koran that no longer emphasizes the analysis of the sacred texts but rather places human experience in the forefront. For this reason, Said’s interpretations were sharply attacked by conservative thinkers. One of them, Adel al-Tal, wrote a book in 1995 in which he accused Said of being a “materialist in an Islamic disguise.”

Conflict between science and violence

But to this day, Said has remained true to the text of the Koran. He quotes the Koran often to support his view of nonviolence. The passage he quotes most often is Sure 2, verses 30-33, in which the angels protest God’s decision to put a successor on earth. Their argument: This representative will do nothing but create trouble and spill blood. In response, God teaches Adam “all things and their names.” Said understands this passage as a symbolic dispute between science and violence. In the language of the verses of the Koran, this means a dispute between “naming names” and “creating trouble and spilling blood.”

Mankind, Said concludes, can and should use its God-given ability to reason to achieve peace on earth.

Endnotes: (JG)

Please note that each of the following personalities has an extensive Wikipedia page, with links to other articles and sites. 

(1) Sayyid Qutb (1906-1966) was an author, educator, Islamic theorist, and the leading member of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood in the 1950s and 1960s. In 1966 he was convicted of plotting the assassination of Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser, and was executed.

(2) Hassan al-Hudaybi (1891-1973) was the second “General Guide”, or leader, of the Muslim Brotherhood. He rose to this position in 1951 after the Brotherhood’s founder Hassan al-Banna was assassinated two years earlier.

(3) Hafez al-Assad was the Syrian president from 1971-2000, and father of the current Syrian president Bashar al-Assad.

(4) Abd al-Rahman al-Kawakibi  (1855-1902) was one of the originators of Pan-Arabism. His criticisms of the Ottoman Empire eventually lead to Arabs calling for the sovereignty of the Arab Nations.

(5) Sir Muhammad Iqbal (1877 –1938), also known as Allama Iqbal, was one of the foremost Urdu and Persian poets of his day, besides having written important philosophical tracts. His works are generally accepted as the inspiration for the Pakistan Movement.

(6) The Algerian writer and philosopher Malek Bennabi (1905 – 1973) wrote about Muslim society, and especially the reasons “behind its decline”. He is mostly known for the concept of coloniability , namely the “disposition of some societies to be colonized, Black-African particularly”.

(7) Ali ibn Abi Talib (c. 600-661) was the cousin and son-in-law of Mohammed.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Bashar Humeid is a journalist who has lived for many years in Germany. He has specialized in energy and environmental issues at The Emirates Center for Strategic Studies and Research, and has helped found a nonprofit enterprise called Meezan, which since 2011 has been experimenting with a system called “The Freedom Machine” combining renewable solar energy production with urban farming on rooftops. This article has been translated from the German by Mark Rossman and is courtesy of

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