By Shaykh Ahmad Hendricks

In recent years, the Iraq conflict, the Afghanistan-Soviet war, the Intifadah and the Gulf Crisis have all highlighted the necessity for Muslims to understand what exactly Jihad is and how it works.

Jihad is an emotional topic for Muslims who, as the 90’s develop into an era of conflict, poverty and deprivation, have had to look hard at where they must stand. In almost every corner of the globe - and in our own backyards - we stare issues in the face that need an educated Islamic application if they are to be resolved at all. It is all very well shouting "Allahu Akbar" and firing shots into the air when what actually needs to be accomplished is communication and tolerance. Islam is not a rhetorical religion,it is based on unity, love and rational action.

Soon after the Prophet’s (may the peace and blessings of Allah be upon him) death, Islam radiated outwardly from its earthly centre, the Ka’aba, implacable symbol of the faith. Jihad was the dynamic of this expansion. Outwardly; it embodied the power of Islam against error and falsehood while inwardly; it represented the means of spiritual awakening and of transcending the self. Referring to this, the Prophet (may the peace and blessings of Allah be upon him) said while returning from battle: "We are now returning from the lesser Jihad to the greater Jihad, the Jihad against the self".

The means of the initial Jihad, the sword, was adopted and internalised by Islam as the charismatic symbol of sacred warfare. It also symbolised the qualities of strength and vigilance, indispensable for the spiritual wayfarer in his quest for illumination and the beatific vision. This symbolism deeply inspired Muslim artists and craftsmen. In calligraphy, for example, one finds the sword-motif embossed in gold and silver as the initial letter of the Shahadah. Historical evidence and current practice indicate that the sword formed a central feature of the important cultural events of the Muslim world. Folk-dancers sporting gleaming blades as they moved and chanted to rhythmic Sufic tunes is an example of this.

The western visitor to the Islamic world in earlier times was evidently terrified by the scenes he witnessed. The imaginations of travellers and authors were inspired and mostly tormented. The images they absorbed there, formed the substance of the tales they told to their equally shocked compatriots. The symbolism of this spontaneous theatre seem to have escaped the Europeans. Instead of appreciating this as a cultural expression of a unique spirituality it was seen as a threat to Europe itself. This is well exemplified in the tales of Marco Polo and Washington Irving. Along with this cultural negativism the massive defeats suffered by the Crusaders at the hands of the Muslims during the Crusader Wars, further compounded and accelerated the demonisation and stereotyping of Islam. The negative results of these initial contacts between Islam and the West can even now be seen in western perceptions of Islam.

The critics of Islam, however, insist that Islam and Muslims are openly hostile and intolerant towards communities other than their own. They refer to the Qur’anic verses that exhort the believers to fight the infidels, they point to the battles of early Islam and the eventual confrontation between the Crusaders and the Saracens, and now, the stereotype of the Arab "terrorist".

It must be noted that many Orientalists might object to this characterisation of their views on the question. Indeed many of them subscribe to more nuanced positions. More recent scholarship has completely abandoned the emotionally charged vocabulary of earlier Orientalism. It remains true, however, that Islam is still imagined as threatening, fanatical, violent and alien by significant sections of the worlds media. In formulating an answer to all of this it is crucial to focus on a general definition of Islam, so as not to fall into any misunderstanding about Jihad and its place within the Din. The common expression that Islam is a "way of life" has become hackneyed to the point where we can well do without it. Islam is more accurately described as "the total human condition guided by the Prophet Muhammad (may the peace and blessings of Allah be upon him) into an equilibrium where man conforms to the nature of things".

This latter statement must be carefully understood if we are to avoid the superficial moralising or equally misleading literalism that characterises much contemporary thinking about Islam. It is far from desirable to simply quote, as an apparent show of understanding, scriptural support for this or that personal opinion we may have about a particular subject. Neither is it enough to use Qur’anic or Prophetic texts without adequate knowledge of the human situation and cultural milieu in which they were revealed and first applied. In other words, context and circumstance of Quranic revelation and Hadith are crucial in coming to terms with Jihad. It is an error to judge Islam and Muslims in the light of the kind of "Jihad" that has fallen victim to ideological tendencies. The critic also has to be wary of the interpretation of "Jihad" projected, and sometimes imposed, by the selective "religious reformism" so rampant today. They ignore central aspects of Islam’s intellectual heritage and selectively repress important figures.

It cannot be over-emphasised that Islam upholds the values of reason, balance and responsibility in the conduct of its worldly affairs. There is nothing arbitrary about its legal provisions relating to matters of war, peace, international relationships and the rule of law. In this area there is considerable agreement between Islamic law and the legal systems currently practised throughout the world. In addition to the real possibility that these legal systems where profoundly influenced by the legal heritage of Islam, this commonality can be explained by the fact that the protection and endorsement of basic human rights form the cornerstone of Islamic legislation. The international community has come to agree, through the institution of the United Nations, on a body of human rights and interests which Islam has always endorsed. This ought not to surprise anyone if the basic realism, rationality and pragmatism of Islamic law is recognised.

This being said, let us now consider the nature of Jihad more fully as it appears in the history and law of Islam. Now Jihad, which in Arabic means "to strive for some objective", and in the technical usage of Islamic law mean "the declaration of war against belligerent and aggressive non-Muslim powers or against fellow Muslim transgressors and tyrants", is not a hap-hazard decision taken by anybody. There is a principle in Islamic jurisprudence which states that the actions of the leader must be guided by the interests of the people and that the interests of the collectivity has, in some cases, precedence over the interests of the individual.

The ruler is completely answerable to the people and their legal apparatus, the most important representatives of whom are the scholars. The position of the law is that only when it can be reasonably proven that; 1) there are aggressive designs against Islam and; 2) there are concerted efforts to eject Muslims from their legally acquired property and; 3) that military campaigns are being launched to eradicate them, can a leader declare and execute the provisions of Jihad.

According to the scholars the Imam (political leader in this case) has the power to ratify peace treaties if they are consistent with the interests of the Muslims. Conscription has to be confined to young mean of sound health on condition that they have parental permission to engage in hostilities. The exception is where the enemy has already entered the borders of the Muslim state in which case Jihad becomes unconditionally incumbent on every able man. Naturally every community has the right to self-defence and in the case of Islam, where religion is the primary dimension of human existence, war in defence of the Ummah becomes a religious act. A lack of understanding of this quality of Islam, its non-secularism, has also contributed considerably to the fear that when Islam talks about war it means going to war to convert. This might be true in other cultures but Islam must be allowed to speak for itself.

So the other aspect of Jihad that must be briefly looked at is its role in Islamic da’wah (propagation). The question often asked is whether Islam condones and teaches the forced and armed conversion of non-Muslims. This is the image sometimes projected by western scholars and as any Muslim scholar will tell you is seriously flawed. The Quran clearly states that "there is no compulsion in religion, the path of guidance being clear of error". In this verse, the word "rushd" or "path of guidance" refers to the entire domain of human life, not just to the rites and theology of Islam. There is no debate about the fact that pre-Islamic Arabia was a misguided society dominated by tribalism and a blind obedience to custom. The clarity of Islam by contrast and its emphasis on reason and rational proofs excluded any need to impose it by force. The verse is a clear indication that the Quran is strictly opposed to the use of compulsion in religious faith.

In another verse the Quran states: "Allah does not forbid you from those who do not remove you from your homes (by force) and who do not fight you because of your religion, that you act righteously towards them ...". The reference in this verse is to the non-Muslims in general.

This verse mentions a fundamental principle of Islam regarding Muslim/Non-Muslim relationships. Muslims are enjoined to act righteously towards members of other faiths except in two circumstances; firstly, if they dispossess Muslims of their legitimate land-rights, and; secondly, if they engage in hostilities towards Muslims because of their Din with a clear intention to destroy it. Beyond these eventualities, according to the implied meanings of this verse, there exists no valid reason to hold any hostility towards them. The idea, often postulated in the media that Islam is hostile to non-Muslims because they are non-Muslims, is arrant nonsense.

It is evident from the Quran and other sources that the armed struggle against the polytheists was legislated in the context of specific circumstances. They were:

  • the persistent refusal of the Makkan leadership (the Prophet being in Madina at the time) to allow the peaceful propagation of Islam

  • the persecution of Muslims at Makkah continuing unabated triggering off an armed insurrection against Qurayshite interests in the Hejaz

  • the Makkans themselves starting off military campaigns against the Muslims at Madinah with the sole objective of eradicating Islam

  • key security pledges being abrogated unilaterally by a number of tribes allied to the Nabi (may the peace and blessing of Allah be upon him), forcing him into a vulnerable position.

The picture that emerges here is that the command to fight was given in relation too specific conditions. The declaration of war is not an arbitrary act at all. A further implication here, as the Hanafiyyah in fact argue, is that war was declared by the Prophet as the Imam, and as such no one else can legitimately declare Jihad except the Imam or head of an Islamic State. The duty lies squarely with the religious/political leadership to determine whether the conditions for Jihad exists and give the appropriate judgement.

In later times, the Muslims engaged in warfare to establish the "Pax Islamica" or Islamic Order. The legal and political order must flow from the divine imperative (Quran, Sunnah, etc.). It alone guarantees the rights of every individual by keeping in check all the dark psychic tendencies of man and so preventing him from indulging in anti-social behaviours from political aggression right down to the commonest criminal act. No reliable evidence exists that they wanted to impose the specific rites and beliefs of Islam. The history of both Spain and India is concrete proof of this.

Another point that must be considered relates to the declaration of Jihad against Muslim tyrants. Quran refers to this in Surah Hujarat:

‘If two parties among the Believers fall into quarrel make peace between them: but if one of them transgresses beyond bounds (baghat) against the other, then fight all of you against the one that transgresses until he complies then make peace between them with justice and be fair ...".

Scholars have traditionally included this joint action against a Muslim transgressor (qital al-bughat) in the definition of Jihad. The important phrase in the verse is "transgress beyond bounds" or the Arabic word "baghy". What then, it may be asked, constitutes excessive and unjustifiable behaviour towards fellow Muslims? An even more fundamental question may be posed here, namely: is it acceptable to assume systematic hostility against a fellow Muslim? The quoted verse seems adequate scriptural proof that this is allowed in Muslim law if this fellow Muslim "transgresses beyond bounds"..

To summarise the implications of this verse - if hostilities break out between two Muslim groups within one state or between two Muslim states, we have one of two possible scenarios. In the first place if atrocities are committed by both sides against one another, a vigorous effort must be made to initiate a peace process with the goal of achieving cessation of hostilities and a just peace. However, if the two parties persist in making war and fail to come to a fair settlement, action must be taken against both of them. In the second place, if one side commits atrocities against the other and breaks all Islamic limits in matters of war, Muslims must unite against the perpetrator of aggression. In this respect the Geneva Convention, which slaps an international ban on chemical and biological warfare and deals with the fair and just treatment of prisoners of war, should enjoy wide support in the Muslims world.

Talking about internal dissension, Imam Al-Qurtubi in his commentary on the Quran says that if an armed insurrection or rebellion (al-khuruj min ta’ah al-imam) breaks out against a just authority (malik ‘adil), and the aggressive party has no basis for their actions on moral grounds, it becomes the duty of Muslims - led by the Imam - to stamp out the offending action. It is apparent from Al-Qurtubi’s analysis that there are two conditions which together justify a joint Muslim response against a rebellion within their own midst, firstly, that the Imam himself must be just, and secondly, that the rebellious party has no moral grounds for its actions. A fair question however has to be asked here. How do we characterise the resistance against an unjust political leadership? If the ordinary people have strong moral grounds to fight against and even overthrow a repressive and exploitative ruling class, is this Jihad in the technical sense?

A key to answering this question is the fact that the Prophet (may the peace and blessings of Allah be upon him) only engaged in Jihad after he became the effective head-of-state of al-Madinah and the Muslims. Jihad is therefore the preserve of the Imam of the Muslims. No one else declares Jihad in the technical shar’i sense. Armed resistance by the downtrodden of a country is armed resistance and comes under the principle of nusrah al-madhlum or assisting the oppressed. The reward for this kind of activity is well-known. It is not however a Jihad in the technical sense.

So properly speaking Jihad, in the case of internal dissension, only occurs when these two conditions - a just Imam fighting unjustifiable insurrection - are met and the Muslims fight together with the Imam against the offending parties. In Islam allegiance and obedience to a just authority is obligatory. It must be noted also that rebellions against authority and especially political authority simply for the sake of rebellion have no place in the concept of Jihad. In this age of relativism the spirit of rebellion seems to have penetrated every layer of society. Islam and its principles cannot be made the hand-maiden of these cultural trends.

In some of the contemporary "Islamic" groups, Jihad is even adapted to Marxist or Socialist concepts of class revolt aimed at overthrowing statal authority. In the often fervently materialistic milieu of political and revolutionary ideologies, Islam is inevitably reduced to nothing more than a social philosophy. This reductionism simply amounts to an abysmal misunderstanding of the essential function of Islam, which is to turn the "face" of the human receptacle away from the world of disharmony and illusion to the tranquillity and silence of Divine awareness and vision. Inward Jihad, as we alluded to at the beginning of this essay, has a key role to play in this respect.

return to topics