The Legitimate and Illegitimate Violence in Islamic Thought project calls for an interdisciplinary, comparative and historical approach. Before exploring our social, religious, intellectual or moral history, understanding our biological history is essential. Aristotle and his follower Porphyry constructed the foundation for all medieval philosophy, both Muslim and Christian. For them, man is a rational animal. We might prefer to think that we are purely spiritual, rational and moral beings, but we do not always behave like angels. If we misunderstand our essential nature, there is no possibility of controlling it. 
It could be argued that all violence, including interreligious and sectarian violence, is rooted in our common genetic heritage. Man is a species characterised by low individual and high group aggression. Murder is atypical, but war is typical.  Violence against personal enemies within a group is condemned, but against unknown members of another group is heroism. Whilst humans, individually, are not the strongest animals, as a group, homo sapiens forms a fearsome and superior force. A striking example is a woman giving birth. It can be a painful and long process, as she is exposed to possible attack, and subsequently human babies are dependent for years. Compare this to the birthing processes that a large animal such as a giraffe, that also lives in herd.
The weakness of the individual shows the strength of the group; its strength lies in its ability to defend its members. We are social beings, highly dependent on one another and this explains the low level of internal violence in a human group. But our violent behaviour against alien groups is also genetically coded. For most of its history, humanity lived in small groups of relatives. With expansion, these groups became rivals. Human groups are flexible and can survive and flourish in different habitats. But these habitats were also limiting.  The more aggressive groups gained a biological reward for their violence. When they chased away or massacred an adjacent group, they had the chance to acquire resources. Their descendants populated the lands of the defeated and their genes, including those responsible for the violent behaviour, thrived. Wars were carried out mainly by males, and they had the option not to exterminate all members of the rival group, but only the men, and then to take their women.  This behaviour resulted not only in the mixing of genes, but also populating the conquered land in a single generation. We might not like to acknowledge it, but men like hunting for prey, hunting for man and hunting for females. We are the descendants of those who massacred the others and we have the genetic print of hunters, warriors and rapists.  Greek (or, indeed, any other) mythology and masterpieces of art unveil this dark side of our nature.  Giambologna’s, Rape of the Sabine Women is one beautiful example, linked as it is to the myth Rome’s foundation. Another is Homer’s joyous description of how Odysseus, a man of reason, massacres indiscriminately his wife’s suitors and hangs the twelve household maids who made love with them. Islamicate culture offers uncountable examples of this mixture of sophisticated art, humour and violence – from the poems by al-Mutanabbi, to the pictures on this web-site.
We do seem to enjoy violence and we love mass murder, especially if the difference between our group and their group is obvious. The delightful efficiency with which men perform genocide indicates, perhaps, that racism is in our very nature. But the violence is not against the other race, but against the other group. The bigger the difference, the easier the kill. And if our skin and face do not sufficiently distinguish us from our neighbours, we do our best to make our appearance dissimilar to theirs, and similar to our own. Military uniforms are today more uniform, due in part to globalisation, also due to the fact that modern guns kill remotely and it is better to hide from our enemies than to scare them with bright colours as our forefathers did in hand-to-hand combat.
Violence between communities of the same species is common to many animals living in groups. Our closest relatives, the chimpanzees also make raids into the territory of an adjacent tribe with the deliberate goal of finding a solitary male and killing it. However, as far as I know, only humans have moral concerns about such acts. Why do we disapprove of this side of our deepest nature.
My next entry will be an attempt to sketch the technical, economic, social, religious-ideological and moral evolution of humankind, and its affect on our assessment of violence.
ITKN (22/7/2010) – contact.