Legitimate and Illegitimate Violence in Modern Islamic Thought

2-3 September 2013

Institute of Arab and Islamic Studies, University of Exeter

Conference Report


Discussions about the legitimacy of violence within the Muslim intellectual tradition are not ONLY about violence – more often than not these discussions reflect broader debates amongst Muslim scholars.  An upsurge in traditionalism, or a movement to reform supposedly decadent practices, or an assertion of a particular doctrinal orthodoxy can all be reflected in the precise discussions around whether this or that act of violence is necessary, or obligatory, or legitimate.  Our conference in Exeter reflected this, as modern discussions around violence were dominated by a number of more general interlinked themes, which are challenges to the development of Islamic thought in the modern period.  Authority was a recurrent issue in papers and discussions: who can call a jihad, and who can end one – and who legitimates a violent act as lawful?  Also, the ambivalence of the text was debated regularly – the variety of textual interpretations hints at the inability of texts to control how they are used – to legitimate violence, or to denounce it.  The two are linked, of course.  The one who has the authority to interpret effectively controls textual meaning, and hence its ability to act as a legitimating factor.  The final, frequent discussion point was the link between the intellectual justification of violence and the contextual understanding of that justification.  So discussions of violence in the movements of Hizbullah, HAMAS, the Muslim Brotherhood or al-Qa’ida are difficult to assess outside of their context – more importantly, what counts as violence, and whether there are modes of argumentation particular to it, has been a focus of the LIVIT project generally.  It came up in the course of the conference regularly.


These are the general themes we discussed – and all the papers touched on one or more of these notions.  We are grateful to Ruud Peters and to Bruce Lawrence for providing such marvellous opening lectures on the two days of the conference.  Their contribution set the scene for subsequent discussions.  And we are grateful also to the many speakers, some of whom had travelled some distance to participate in the workshop.  This was the final LIVIT conference – and this time was held in combination with the Islamic Reformulations project – the team will be working on editing the proceedings, which will be, hopefully, in the form of a three volume set, reflecting the early, middle and modern period themes. The conference contributions have raised the central questions of violence in Islamic thought – and many have provided details and thorough answers.  There is still more work to do, but we hope that the work done to date will help make for better informed future discussions.