Christian and Muslim Reflections on Non-Violence, Non-Dominance, and Non-Compulsion

By Dave Andrews

Recently I was reflecting on Jesus’ challenge to practice revolutionary innovative non-violence. 

I have a friend called Zalman Kastel who is an orthodox Jewish Rabbi. One day I asked Zalman what he finds most confronting in the teaching of Jesus. He said it was his radical call to practice unflinching non-violence in the face of violence. I said to Zalman that many Christians aren’t even aware of how integral nonviolence is to the gospel of Jesus. And Zalman said to me that they obviously hadn’t studied the Sermon on the Mount.

Zalman says: ‘It is impossible to read the Sermon on the Mount and not realize nonviolence is central to the gospel of Jesus.’ Jesus said, “Don’t react violently against those who attack you. If anyone hits you on one cheek, turn the other cheek” (Matt. 5:39). He told his disciples to put aside their weapons, “for all who live by the sword will die by the sword” (Matt.26:52). He said “Do good to all people, even to those who do evil to you. Love those who hate you. Bless those who curse you” (Matt. 5:44).

Under his guidance, the Jesus movement became a revolutionary peace movement. For three centuries, Christianity was – more or less – a pacifist movement. The Apostles taught Christians the pacifist principle: “Love does no harm to its neighbour” (Rom.13:10). Paul taught Christ followers to “Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse. Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everybody. If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. Do not take revenge” (Rom.12:14–19). “If your enem[ies] are hungry, feed [them]; if [they] are thirsty, give [them] something to drink. Do not be overcome by evil but overcome evil with good” (Rom.12:20–21).

However, the French Christian philosopher, Jacques Ellul, reminds us we would do well to remember that, for Jesus, the practice of non-violence is derivative from, and dependent on, the practice of non-dominance. We will only be willing to “lay down our swords,” (Matt.26:52) if we are prepared to “lay down our lives” for others (John 15:13). That being so Ellul says our emphasis on the practice of non-violence, though important, should be of secondary importance, while our emphasis on the practice of non-dominance should be of primary importance.

Ellul declares: “I believe that the biblical teaching is clear. It always contests … dominion.”[i] The concept of “dominion” it always contests includes the constructs of “conquest”, “coercion” and “control” – and the exercise of “political power” over others which inevitably entails “violence”. [ii]

Ellul cites Jesus: “‘You know that the rulers of the nations lord it over them, and those in high position enslave them. It shall not be so among you; but whoever would be great among you must be the servant’. Note that he makes no distinction or reservation. All national rulers, no matter what the nation… lord it over their subjects. There can be no political power without tyranny. This is plain and certain for Jesus: when there are rulers…, there can be no such thing as good political power…. Power corrupts. Jesus does not advocate conflict with these kings. He challenges his interlocutors: “But you… it must not be the same among you.” In other words, do not be so concerned about fighting kings. Let them be. Set up a marginal society that will not be interested in such things, in which there will be no (political) power (over others), authority, or hierarchy. Do not do things as they are usually done in society, which you cannot change. Create another society on another foundation…. His counsel is that we should stay in society and set up communities that obey other rules” such as “whoever wishes to be first among you must be your servant”. (Matt.20:27) [iii]

As we renounce “dominion”, relinquish our structures, strategies, and tactics of “conquest”, “coercion” and “control”, repudiate any intention to exercise “political power” over others, and instead commit ourselves to “serve” others, and spend our lives “enabling”, “equipping”, and “empowering” them, we can begin to embrace “non-violence” – “as the Son of Man (who) did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Matt.20:28)

I was reflecting on the challenge to practice non-violence in the context of writing a chapter for a book with a Muslim colleague, Dr Adis Duderija, on “Nonviolent Interfaith Solidarity Jihad”.

The Tunisian Muslim theologian, Adnane Mokrani, says that, on the one hand, we need to acknowledge that “we do not find the word ‘non-violence’ in the Qurʾān”, but on the other hand, we need to acknowledge that we have the word for “non-compulsion” in the Qurʾān, which is the equivalent of the concept of “non-domination” – or what we have called “non-dominance”.[iv]

In Al-Baqara (2.256) in the Qurʾān, it says “Let there be no compulsion in religion: Truth stands out clear from Error: whoever rejects evil and believes in Allah hath grasped the most trustworthy hand-hold, that never breaks. And Allah heareth and knoweth all things.”

Mokrani argues that this verse suggests that not only “there shall be no compulsion in [the acceptance of] religion”, but also “there shall be no compulsion in [the practice of] religion”, consistent with the approach advocated in the Covenants of the Prophet Muhammad. “The purpose of the Covenants of the Prophet Muḥammad with the People of the Book is clear: to provide complete religious freedom, to place Jews, Samaritans, Christians, and Zoroastrians under the protection of Islām, to establish alliances, and to create a Confederation of Believers, … inviting people of faith to share the same set of rights and freedoms.’[v]

According to Mokrani, “’Non-compulsion’ is stronger and more radical than ‘non-violence’ because it rejects even psychological violence, a hidden form without shedding blood or leaving bruises, but leads to physical violence by preparing its conditions. The verse ‘No Compulsion in Religion’ is not only a fundamental moral principle, but is also in itself a definition of religion. Non-compulsion is a purification of religion from all impurities that would doubt or diminish human free choice.”[vi] Mokrani adds “Coercion is a psychological terror that enslaves and does not liberate, is anti-religious, and is contrary to the essence of belief.”[vii]

“The Syrian theologian Jawdat Said believes that Muslims have understood from the verse ‘There is no compulsion in religion,’ that if non-compulsion is a norm in religion, then it should not be compulsion a priori below it, and that includes ‘no compulsion in politics’.”[viii] “The centrality of non-compulsion makes democracy—the contemporary political expression of shūrā—a necessary condition for achieving an atmosphere of freedom and justice that allows people to choose.”[ix]

Mokrani goes on to argue that non-compulsion in religion is the basis for non-violence in politics. “Non-compulsive religion is nonviolent par excellence: ‘Those who respond to their Lord, and pray regularly, and conduct their affairs by mutual consultation, and give of what We have provided them.’ (42,38, the emphasis is mine) The believers manage their affairs through consultation, shūrā: from the family to the state; as they pray, they consult each other. Consultation is their basic social ethic. The consultation is the first social expression of non-violence and non-compulsion. Without consultation, tyranny and hypocrisy prevail.”[x]

[i] Jacques Ellul (2011) The Subversion of Christianity Eugene: Wipf and Stock p116

[ii] Jacques Ellul (2011) Anarchy and Christianity Eugene: Wipf and Stock p61-2

[iii] Jacques Ellul (2011) Anarchy and Christianity Eugene: Wipf and Stock p61-2

[iv] Adane Mokrani (2022) Toward an Islamic Theology of Nonviolence: In Dialogue with René Girard (Studies in Violence, Mimesis & Culture) Michigan State University Press, Location 1203


[vi] Adane Mokrani (2022) Location 1211

[vii] Adane Mokrani (2022) Location 1219

[viii] Adane Mokrani (2022) Location 1235

[ix] Adane Mokrani (2022) Location 1239

[x] Adane Mokrani (2022) Location 1229

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