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"Jihad" (ǧihād جهاد) is an Arabic word which comes from the Arabic root word "jahada"; which means "exerting utmost effort" or "to strive." The word connotes a wide range of meanings, from an inward spiritual struggle to attain perfect faith, to holy war.

During the period of Qur'anic revelation while Muhammad was in Mecca, jihad referred essentially to nonviolent and personal struggle. Following his move from Mecca to Medina in 622, and the establishment of an Islamic state, fighting in self-defense was sanctioned by the Qur'an (22:39). The Qur'an began making distinctions between 'those who stay at home" and 'those who struggle in the cause of God with their wealth and their persons" (4:95). It also began incorporating the word qital (fighting or warfare), and two of the last verses revealed on the topic of military conflict (9:5, 29) suggest, to classical scholars such as Ibn Kathir, an ongoing war of conquest against unbeliever enemies. Among followers of liberal movements within Islam, however, the context of these late verses is that of a specific "war in progress" and not a universally binding set of instructions upon the faithful. These liberal Muslims have tended to promote an understanding of jihad that rejects or minimizes the identification of jihad with armed struggle, choosing instead to emphasize principles of non-violence. Such Muslims may cite the Qur'anic figure of Abel in support of the belief that someone who dies as a result of refusing to commit violence may attain forgiveness for sins. This is not the prevailing understanding of such matters among mainstream Muslims, however.

Regardless of the later interpretations of these portions of the Qur'an, the passages in question, at the time, clearly emphasized the importance of self-defense in the Muslim community.


As a general struggle

Muslims often refer to two meanings of jihad by citing a hadith recorded by Imam Baihaqi and al-Khatib al-Baghdadi (even though its isnad is categorized as "weak"):

  • "lesser (outer) jihad" — a military struggle, i.e. a holy war
  • "greater (inner) jihad" — the struggle of personal self-improvement against the self's base desires

Other examples of actions that could be considered jihad (on the basis of hadiths with better isnad) include:

  • Speaking out against an oppressive ruler (Sunan Abu-Dawud , Book 37, Number 4330)
  • Going to Hajj - for women, this is the best form of jihad, (Sahih Bukhari, Volume 2, Book 26, Number 595).
  • Taking care of elderly parents, as the prophet Muhammad ordered a youth to do, instead of joining a military campaign (Narrated by Bukhari, Muslim, Abu Dawud , al-Tirmidhi, and al-Nasa'i ).

The more literal meaning of the word jihad is simply "a struggle," and so it is sometimes dubbed the "inner jihad." This "inner jihad" essentially refers to all the struggles that a Muslim could go through, in adhering to the religion. For example, a scholarly study of Islam is an intellectual struggle that some may refer to as "jihad," though it is not common for a scholar of Islam to refer to his studies as "engaging in jihad." In addition, there is a dimension to the "greater jihad" that includes overcoming selfish motives, desires, emotions, and the tendency to grant primacy to earthly pleasures and rewards.

The tradition identifying interior struggle as "greater" (that is, non-military) Jihad appears to have been profoundly influenced by Sufism, an ancient and diverse mystical movement within Islam.

Today, the word jihad is used in many circles as though it had an exclusively military dimension. Yet even though this is the most common popular understanding of jihad, it is worth noting that the word is not used in this narrow sense in the Qur'an, the holy text of Islam. It is also true, however, that the word is used in both military and non-military contexts in a number of hadiths. In English, the word "crusade" also is used for both military and "spiritual" struggles.

A discussion of the military dimensions of jihad within Islam follows.

Warfare in Islam

Defensive Jihad

There are two types of armed religious warfare in Islam, namely the defensive jihad and the offensive jihad. Most Muslims consider armed struggle against foreign occupation or oppression by domestic government to be worthy of defensive jihad. Indeed, the Qur'an appears to require military defense of the besieged Islamic community.

In colonial times, Muslim populations often rose up against the colonial authorities under the banner of jihad (examples include Dagestan, Chechnya, the Indian Mutiny against England, and the Algerian War of Independence against France). In this sense, defensive jihad is no different from the right of armed resistance against occupation that is sanctioned under the UN and International Law.

Islamic tradition holds that when Muslims are attacked, then it becomes obligatory for all Muslims to defend against the attack; to participate in jihad. When the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in 1979, the prominent militant Islamist, Dr. Abdullah Yusuf Azzam, issued a fatwa, Defense of the Muslim Lands, the First Obligation after Faith [1], declaring that both the Afghan and Palestinian struggles were jihads in which military action against kuffar (unbelievers) was fard ayn (a personal obligation) for all Muslims. The edict was supported by Saudi Arabia's Grand Mufti (highest religious scholar), Abd al-Aziz Bin Bazz . In his fatwa, Dr. Azzam explained:

... the Ulama [pious scholars] of the four Mathhabs (Maliki, Hanafi, Shaffie and Hanbali), the Muhadditheen, and the Tafseer commentators [classical Muslim commentators of the Qur'an], are agreed that in all Islamic ages, Jihad under this condition becomes Fard Ayn [personal religious obligation] upon the Muslims of the land which the Kuffar [infidels] have attacked and upon the Muslims close by, where the children will march forth without the permission of the parents, the wife without the permission of her husband and the debtor without the permission of the creditor. And, if the Muslims of this land cannot expel the Kuffar because of lack of forces, because they slacken, are indolent or simply do not act, then the Fard Ayn obligation spreads in the shape of a circle from the nearest to the next nearest. If they too slacken or there is again a shortage of manpower, then it is upon the people behind them, and on the people behind them, to march forward. This process continues until it becomes Fard Ayn [a personal religious obligation] upon the whole world. [2]

Although such edicts from contemporary scholars can influence some communities of believers, the world's 1.2 billion Muslims are today so diverse that unified action on instructions like these is, as a practical matter, impossible to attain.

Among the objectives of some groups promoting Islamism is the re-establishment of a caliph with global political and military authority to implement (among other things) such large-scale military campaigns. The question of whether, when, and how to implement a military defense of an oppressed Muslim community remains an emotional and divisive one among Muslims.

Offensive Jihad

Offensive jihad is the waging of wars of aggression and conquest against non-Muslims in order to bring them and their territories under Islamic rule. According to the Encylopedia of the Orient , "offensive jihad, i.e. attacking, is fully permissible in Sunni Islam." [3]. An Islamic theologian considered the father of the modern Islamist movement, Dr. Abdullah Yusuf Azzam, declared in his fatwa, Defense of the Muslim Lands; the First Obligation after Faith that:

"Jihad Against the Kuffar is of two Types: Offensive Jihad (where the enemy is attacked in his own territory) ... [and] Defensive Jihad. This is expelling the Kuffar from our land, and it is Fard Ayn [personal religious obligation on Muslim individuals], a compulsory duty upon all...
Where the Kuffar [infidels] are not gathering to fight the Muslims, the fighting becomes Fard Kifaya [religious obligation on Muslim society] with the minimum requirement of appointing believers to guard borders, and the sending of an army at least once a year to terrorise the enemies of Allah. It is a duty of the Imam to assemble and send out an army unit into the land of war once or twice every year. Moreover, it is the responsibility of the Muslim population to assist him, and if he does not send an army he is in sin. - And the Ulama have mentioned that this type of jihad is for maintaining the payment of Jizya. The scholars of the principles of religion have also said: "Jihad is Daw'ah with a force, and is obligatory to perform with all available capabilities, until there remains only Muslims or people who submit to Islam." [4]

Liberal Muslims who do not subscribe to this militant interpretation of Jihad dispute the necessity and obligation of the offensive Jihad in contemporary times. They argue that the traditional "land of war" referenced in Shaikh Azzam's fatwa refers to the hostile regimes and empires surrounding early Islamic communities. Under this interpretation, offensive Jihad was practiced only to preserve Islam from destruction and is now obsolete.

In support of this view, those who reject militant Islamism are likely to resist the claim that Islam as a whole is under hostile attack. While acknowledging both political turbulence and suffering, they point out that Muslim pilgrims come and go as they wish to the annual Hajj pilgrimage, that religious freedom for Muslims to practice their faith exists in most countries, and that sizeable Muslim communities have emerged in countries like the United States and England. They are also likely to emphasize Islamic traditions that endorse tolerance for other religious and social groups.

The militant interpretation of jihad, on the other hand, is likely to suggest a world-view in which hostile anti-Islamic forces are currently preventing Islam from realizing its full potential for peaceful global expansion--a world-view in which Islam will eventually be adopted by all mankind if these hostile forces are confronted socially and militarily.

The conflict between these two points of view can itself be seen as a "struggle", or jihad, for the soul of contemporary Islam.

Who can authorize jihad?

"Offensive jihad" is, under classical Islamic law, a campaign that can only be declared by the lawful Islamic head of state, namely the Caliph. Tradition stipulates that while only the Caliph may declare an offensive jihad on another country, no authority is necessary for initiation of "defensive jihad" -- because, in this view, when Muslims are attacked, it automatically becomes obligatory for all Muslim men of military age, within a certain radius of the attack, to defend against any foreign attack (the size the radius being determined by the military circumstances during the attack).

Due to a lack of clerical organization amongst the vast majority of Muslims, any adherent may proclaim himself an "ulama" (Islamic scholar) and proclaim a defensive jihad by way of fatwa. Recognition is at the discretion of the listener. In many Muslim countries, such as Saudi Arabia and Egypt, the state has, in theory, control over all religious preaching, and the incitement of any militant form of jihad, by anyone not authorized by the state, is punishable by law. In practice, differences of opinion and emphasis abound, even among state-sponsored clerics.

The question of which Muslim authority, if any, may carry out duties such as declaring offensive and defensive jihad has been particularly problematic since March 3, 1924, when Kemal Atatürk abolished the Caliphate, which the Ottoman sultans had held since 1517. At this point in history, the prevailing "Islamic" empire collapsed into nearly 50 different nation-states divided along various racial, ethnic, linguistic, political, geographical and historical differences.

In the modern period, given the absence of a Caliph, the only remaining "de facto" Islamic political leaders would appear to be the governments of the modern nation-states in the Muslim world. However, very large numbers of Muslims perceive their own Muslim governments as being in grave violation of the laws of shariah. For example, several Muslim countries (such as Turkey and Pakistan) are governed (in part or in whole) by democratic systems of government in which secular political parties compete for power against Islamic political parties. Such a system of government is seen by many Muslims to be heretical. Even in Islamic theocratic monarchies, such as Saudi Arabia, continuing religious violence and religious turmoil is evidence that many in Muslim countries consider the authoritarian regimes ruling over them to be in violation to their religious beliefs. Such sentiments are often fueled by the willingness of countries such as Saudi Arabia and Pakistan to cooperate and form alliances with nations that are or have been involved in warfare against Muslim countries.

Clearly, then, the modern period presents an exceptionally complex historical, legal, political and theological situation, one that has served to prevent anything resembling a uniform Muslim answer to the question "Who can authorize offensive jihad?"

Into this intellectual and political vacuum have stepped the leaders of various Islamist movements (such as Al Qaida and Hamas), who have taken it upon themselves to seize the opportunity to declare jihad, bypassing the authority of the nation-state and employing their own interpretations of Islam. Similarly, some Muslims, (particularly takfirists), have declared jihad against specific governments that they perceive as corrupt, oppressive, and anti-Islamic. Traditional scholars, however, tend to react to such pronouncements with the same brisk impatience that a senior jurist in the United States might display if told that a twenty-year-old pre-law student had issued an opinion "overturning" a recent Supreme Court ruling.

Contemporary jihadis

To Muslims and non-Muslims alike, militant attacks under the rubric of jihad may be perceived as acts of terrorism. Two Islamist groups call themselves "Islamic Jihad": Egyptian Islamic Jihad and Palestinian Islamic Jihad. Supporters of these groups perceive a strong religious justification for a militant interpretation of the term jihad as an appropriate response to the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Muslims believe that a person who dies as a part of struggle against oppression as a shahid (martyr) is assured a place in Jannah (Paradise). Descriptions of Paradise, in Islam as in Christianity, are inherently problematic. Accounts in the hadith and the Qur'an of the rewards awaiting the shahid -- the 72 "pure spirits" known as the Houris, the rivers that flow, the abundant fresh fruit -- may, depending on one's perspective, be considered as literal realities or as metaphors for an experience transcending human expression.

Even if the death of a martyr in a military operation is certain, militant Islamists consider the act martyrdom rather than suicide. If non-combatant Muslims perish in such military operations, militant Islamists consider such persons shahid who have also secured a place in paradise. Under this conception, only the enemy kaffir, or unbelievers, are harmed by martyrdom operations. Most Muslim scholars reject this interpretation. Suicide is a sin in Islam. Mainstream Muslim scholars disagree with the militant Islamist approach to these matters, and have held that martyrdom operations are equivalent to the sin of suicide, that killing civilians is a sin, and that the sunnah permits neither. To such scholars, and to the vast majority of Muslims, neither suicide missions nor attacks on civilians are considered legitimate outcomes of jihad.

Virtually all Muslims, however, hold that the legitimate defense of Islam carries rewards in the afterlife. The basis of shahid can be traced back to the words of Muhammad prior to the battle of Badr where he stated:

"I swear by the One in whose hand Muhammad's soul is, any man who fights them today and is killed while he is patient in the ordeal and seeks the pleasure of Allah, going forward and not backing off, Allah will enter him into Paradise."

There are some Muslim clerics who authorize martyrdom operations as a valid form of jihad, especially against Israel, its allies, and its supporters, believing that such attacks are legitimate responses to the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza [5].

Yet the impermissibility of suicide bombing operations is suggested by the following hadith:

"Whoever purposely throws himself from a mountain and kills himself, will be in the (Hell) Fire falling down into it and abiding therein perpetually forever; and whoever drinks poison and kills himself with it, he will be carrying his poison in his hand and drinking it in the (Hell) Fire wherein he will abide eternally forever; and whoever kills himself with an iron weapon, will be carrying that weapon in his hand and stabbing his abdomen with it in the (Hell) Fire wherein he will abide eternally forever." (Bukhari 7:670)

Militant Islamist organizations do not constitute an autonomous state or de facto authority; they nevertheless consider economic targets to be military targets, citing as evidence Muhammad's numerous caravan raids (see Battle of Badr for a description of one such caravan raid and the war that it led to). The fact remains, however, that the earliest Islamic tradition specifically forbids attacking women, children, elderly people, and civilian buildings during a military campaign. The Qur'an, the unquestionable source of authority in Islam, vehemently denounces the killing of innocents:

"Whosoever killed a person - unless it be for killing a person or for creating disorder in the earth - it shall be as if he killed all mankind; and whoso saved a life, it shall be as if he had saved the life of all mankind." (5:32)

Thus, according to this verse of the Qur'an, if one human being has not

1) murdered another person

2) created conflict and disorder in the world

... then that human being is innocent. To kill such an innocent human being would be the equivalent to the massacre of the entire human race, an inconceivably barbaric crime and a monumental sin. For most Muslims, this verse is quite clear enough to dispel any doubt or ambiguity about the moral standing of attacks upon civilians.

Treatment of Prisoners of War

The U.S. military's 2003 invasion of Iraq has sparked violent retaliation by Muslim partisans who have captured and executed suspected enemy agents. The beheading of civilians, even those involved with the United States military, has been unanimously denounced by even militant Islamist groups. For example, in the Muslim world, the killing of Nick Berg was strongly condemned. Scholars at Al-Azhar University in Cairo issued a declaration of condemnation [6], as did numerous Muslim groups in the West including the Council on American-Islamic Relations. Shiite Islamist group Hezbollah and Palestinian nationalist group Hamas denounced the murder. Hezbollah issued a statement calling it a "horrible act that does an immense wrong to Islam and Muslims by a group which falsely pretends to follow the precepts of the religion of pardon."

Iraqi conservative and fundamentalist religious leaders also denounced the killing. Muthanna al-Dhari, a member of the Board of Muslim Clergy, said the act "does disservice to our religion and our cause. Even if he was military personnel he should be treated as a prisoner who, according to Shari'ah, must not be killed." Iyaad Samarrai of the Islamic Party commented "This is absolutely wrong. Islam does prohibit the killing or the maltreatment of prisoners." [7]

As was the common practice in medieval times, Islam actually categorizes prisoners of war as booty. When Muhammad and his armies were victorious in a battle, the captured male POWs would either be returned to their tribes for a ransom, exchanged for Muslim prisoners of war, or they would be sold into slavery, as was the custom of the time. Women and children who were captured and made prisoners of war also ran the risk of being enslaved, although conversion to Islam was a route to freedom.

The treatment of prisoners of war under Muhammad himself appears to have been notably more humane than that of later generations of Islamic leadership. After the battle of Badr, some prisoners were executed for their earlier crimes in Mecca, but the rest were given options: They could convert to Islam and thus win their freedom; they could pay ransom and win their freedom; they could teach 10 Muslims to read and write and thus win their freedom. Even the hostile orientalist William Muir wrote of this period:

"In pursuance of Mahomet's commands the citizens of Medina and such of the refugees as possessed houses received the prisoners and treated them with much consideration. 'Blessings be on the men of Medina', said one of these prisoners in later days, 'they made us ride while they themselves walked; they gave us wheaten bread to eat when there was little of it, contenting themselves with dates." [8]

Excerpts from the Qur'an on warfare

The Qur'an uses the term jihad only four times, none of which refer definitively to armed struggle. As such, the use of the word jihad, in reference to holy Islamic war, was a latter day invention of Muslims. However, the concept of holy Islamic war was not itself a latter day invention, and the Qur'an does contain passages that correlate to specific historic events ... and that may help to illuminate the theory, and practice of armed struggle (qi'tal) for Muslims. A few examples are as follows:

“Fight in the cause of God those who fight you, but do not transgress limits; for God loveth not transgressors.” (2:190)
“And why should ye not fight in the cause of God and of those who, being weak, are ill-treated (and oppressed)?- Men, women, and children, whose cry is: "Our Lord! Rescue us from this town, whose people are oppressors; and raise for us from thee one who will protect; and raise for us from thee one who will help!"” (4:76)
“Strike terror (into the hearts of) the enemies of Allah and your enemies.; But if the enemy incline towards peace, do thou (also) incline towards peace, and trust in Allah: for He is One that heareth and knoweth (all things).” (8:60-61)
“What! will you not fight a people who broke their oaths and aimed at the expulsion of the Messenger, and they attacked you first; do you fear them? But Allah is most deserving that you should fear Him, if you are believers. Fight them, and Allah will punish (torment) them by your hands, cover them with shame.” (9:13-14)
“Remember thy Lord inspired the angels (with the message): “I am with you: give firmness to the Believers: I will instil terror into the hearts of the Unbelievers: smite ye above their necks and smite all their finger-tips off them. This because they contended against Allah and His Messenger: If any contend against Allah and His Messenger, Allah is strict in punishment.” (8:12-13)
“But when the forbidden months are past, then fight and slay the Pagans wherever ye find them, and seize them, beleaguer them, and lie in wait for them in every stratagem (of war) but if they repent, and establish regular prayers and practice regular charity, then open the way for them: for Allah is Oft-forgiving, Most Merciful. And if one of the idolaters seek protection from you, grant him protection till he hears the word of Allah, then make him attain his place of safety; this is because they are a people who do not know.” (9:5-6)
“Fight those who believe not in Allah, nor the Last Day, nor hold that forbidden which hath been forbidden by Allah and His Messenger, nor acknowledge the religion of Truth, (even if they are) of the People of the Book, until they pay the Jizya with willing submission, and feel themselves subdued.” (9:29)
"Permission (to fight) is given to those upon whom war is made because they are oppressed ... those who have been expelled from their homes without a just cause except that they say: Our Lord is Allah. "(22:39-40)
" O Prophet! We have made lawful to thee thy wives to whom thou hast paid their dowers; and those whom thy right hand possesses out of the prisoners of war whom God has assigned to thee; and daughters of thy paternal uncles and aunts, and daughters of thy maternal uncles and aunts, who migrated (from Makka) with thee; and any believing woman who dedicates her soul to the Prophet if the Prophet wishes to wed her;- this only for thee, and not for the Believers (at large); We know what We have appointed for them as to their wives and the captives whom their right hands possess;--in order that there should be no difficulty for thee. And God is Oft- Forgiving, Most Merciful." (33:50)
"Therefore, when ye meet the Unbelievers (in fight), smite at their necks; At length, when ye have thoroughly subdued them, bind a bond firmly (on them): thereafter (is the time for) either generosity or ransom: Until the war lays down its burdens. Thus (are ye commanded): but if it had been God's Will, He could certainly have exacted retribution from them (Himself); but (He lets you fight) in order to test you, some with others. But those who are slain in the Way of God,- He will never let their deeds be lost." (47:4)

See also

External links

Neutral sites

Islamic sites

Non-Islamic sites

  • by Robert Spencer: "Three certainties in human affairs, death, taxes and jihad"

Last updated: 05-06-2005 10:04:56
Last updated: 05-13-2005 07:56:04