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From the Mangonel to Mustard Gas: Weapons Capable of Mass Destruction in Islam

From the Mangonel to Mustard Gas: Weapons Capable of Mass Destruction in Islam

In part 6 of our Religion & violence blog series Sasan Aghlani examines the Islamic approach to weapons of mass destruction in Iran. 24/08/2018

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In discussions over violence and religion it is a sad feature of today’s debate that Islamic extremist–inspired terrorism is at the forefront of much debate. Islam has more to say on the nature of violence than the familiar debates about radicalisation and jihad. One example is the high level of sophistication in Islamic debates about the use of weapons capable of mass destruction. Nor is this a purely academic discussion. To a far greater extent than Christian equivalents, Islamic law has direct policy consequences for a number of Islamic states, perhaps most significantly Iran.

Prior to the Iran nuclear deal being signed in 2015, Western analysis of Iranian intentions would waver between a crude analysis of hard power and regional factors said to drive Iran’s strategic choices, and a familiar set of outdated discourses about Islam – rooted in a long history of orientalism – which have long coloured our view of Iranian strategy.

Sadly, little effort was made to shift the focus away from the rather narrow and Eurocentric framework for understanding how the Islamic Republic of Iran – a state which justifies much of its policies with reference to Islam and the idea of ‘just’ rulership – views nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction (WMD).

Better analysis of the Islamic approach to weapons of mass destruction might have provided answers which transcend Iran. From trebuchets and weaponised biological pathogens to nuclear weapons, the views of Muslim scholars on weapons capable of mass destruction are most revealing when we consider them in a wider context than just a single issue. This however demands that we ask questions about how and why rulings have come about, the circumstances under which they endure, and situations in which they change.

This is partly why the category weapons capable of mass destruction is a more useful starting point for understanding these views than WMD. While the latter refer strictly to four categories of weaponry considered unique – chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear – the former encompasses any weapon which has the capacity to inflict mass destruction of human life. One can question the use of chemical weapons should be any more evil or unlawful from an Islamic perspective than the prolonged death and destruction – often of far more people, and over a much longer period of time – caused by explosive weapons.

In this regard, there are few reasons for Muslim scholars to approach the legality of certain weapons any differently to issues such as IVF or stem cell research. Where the Qur’an and sunnah (practises of or examples set by the Prophet) are silent on issues like these, Muslim scholars will utilise qiyas (analogy) or mantiq (logic) to identify common threads with other matters that have already been addressed in Islamic law.

Consequently, WMD – rather than being a wholly unique category of weapons – have certain characteristics which make them more likely to kill or maim non–combatants, and cause undue harm to animal life and the environment. It is this parallel of which makes rulings from the 10th century on ‘Greek Fire’ (naft, or flaming projectiles) relevant to a Muslim scholar judging on the legality of nuclear weapons today.

The specific context of war does of course expose rulings on weapons capable of mass destruction to profound theological and even political dilemmas. Are there exceptional circumstances, for instance, which demand that laws be abrogated in order to defend a higher interest of the Muslim community, or even ‘Islam’ itself?

For the Shi’a ulama in Iran since the Revolution, the answer has largely been yes. Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s articulation of wilayat al–faqih – ‘Guardianship of the Jurist’; a theory and principle of government in place in Iran – reconciled traditional Twelver Shi’i belief in the absolute overriding authority (religious, social, and political) of the Twelve Imams with the necessity for temporal leadership by those ‘most learned’ in Islamic law. It is in this context that Khomeini fashioned a notion of ‘public interest’ within Shi’i lexicon – namely, the existence of the Islamic Republic.

During Iraq’s eight–year war against Iran in the 1980s, Saddam Hussein repeatedly used chemical weapons, killing approximately 20,000 citizens and leaving over 100,000 others with serious (and in many cases, permanent) injuries. As Iran’s Supreme Leader, Khomeini was pressed by his advisors on several occasions to permit the development of chemical and nuclear weapons so that Iran could reciprocate in kind with the former, and deter future aggression with the latter.

One would expect that this would be the ideal proving ground for the national interest to trump Islamic law for the Shi’a. There were some legal precedents which could have supported preference for national interest over concern for human life – for example, the great 13th century scholar Allamah al–Hilli permitted the use of siege weaponry against urban areas if it would enable Muslims to achieve victory. Yet Khomeini remained opposed to the use of chemical weapons even as the territorial integrity of Iran was severely endangered. When pressed on the issue by Mohsen Rafighdoost, a lead military official, Khomeini is reported to have urged for Iranian troops to instead be provided with gas masks. “If we produce chemical weapons, what is the difference between me and Saddam?”[1]

A lesson from all of this is that both provenance and personality are crucial for understanding the potential impact that Islamic law could have on the behaviour of a state like Iran. Here, legal rulings are less useful as definitive evidence of whether or not Muslims are bound by certain limits on the battlefield than they are as a window into how Muslims are constantly negotiating the national interest with certain first principles.

There is a tendency to assume that all societies respond to innovations in military technology the same way. Equally, the caricature of Iran’s leadership as ‘mad mullahs’ continues to be invoked as evidence for why the state is on a course towards aggression and destruction. Our view of Islam as a potential influence over state behaviour need not be defined by such a narrow dichotomy.


Image by Overcrew available under a Shutterstock license.

Sasan Aghlani

Sasan Aghlani

Sasan Aghlani received his doctorate from the School of Oriental and African Studies in 2017, where he also taught comparative politics and security. His thesis explored the potential impact that Islam could have on Iran’s policies towards nuclear weapons. He is a research associate at the Shi’ah Institute, and was previously a researcher at Chatham House in the International Security Department. He writes in an individual capacity, and as such all of the views expressed in his articles are his own and do not reflect those of his employer. @Aghlani

Watch, listen to or read more from Sasan Aghlani

Posted 24 August 2018

Activism, Extremism, Religion, Terrorism


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