Is Islam a conquest ideology more than an actual religion, as some now claim? Is Jihad identical to ‘perpetual war’ in Islam’s grand political scheme of things? And is the life of the Prophet Muhammad ﷺ mostly about blood and gore and body counts? These are the issues addressed here.
Muslim scholars have long identified two types of jihad (lit. “striving” in God’s cause): an outer form of jihad and an inner one. The outer usually refers to state-sanctioned military force (i.e. armed combat), which is waged to defend both religion and realm, fight preemptively, or guard the vulnerable against unjustified aggression. As for the inner jihad (jihad al-nafs), it is the struggle to oppose one’s ego (nafs) and false desires, until they are in submission to God. This inner jihad is known as the “greater” jihad, as per mainstream Sunni scholarship, and can be read about here.
What follows is a perusal through the reality of the outer jihad – as per Islam’s source texts and the words of classical and contemporary Muslim jurists:
1. The outer jihad connotes a wide range of meanings which embraces: (i) the tongue, (ii) the hand and (iii) the sword. It can refer to the act of enjoining others to good and forbidding them from evil, as in the hadith: ‘So whoever strives against them with his hand is a believer; whoever strives against them with his tongue is a believer; whoever strives against them with his heart is a believer. Beyond this, there is not even a grain of faith.’1 It includes speaking truth to power: ‘The greatest jihad is to speak a word of truth in front of a tyrannical ruler.’2 Striving in dutiful service of our parents is also a form of jihad, as in the Prophet’s reply ﷺ to a young man who desired to participate in armed combat, and whose parents were still alive: ‘Strive in their service – fa fihima fa jahid.’3 Then there is that all-important mode of jihad: da‘wah – inviting others to Islam by conveying its teaching: Strive against them with it [the Qur’an], with the utmost striving. [25:52] And of course there is fighting in war. In brief: not all jihad is fighting, but nor is all fighting jihad.
2. Without doubt, jihad in the sense of qital (“fighting”, “military war”) is enjoined on the faithful at numerous places in the Qur’an and is seen as a highly meritorious form of duty and sacrifice in Islam. Al-Raghib wrote about the schematics of jihad in these terms: ‘Jihad is of three types: jihad against the apparent enemy; against the devil; and against the ego (nafs). All three types are included in Allah’s words, exalted is He: And wage jihad in Allah’s path with all the striving that is due to Him. [22:78] And wage jihad with your wealth and your lives in the way of Allah. [9:41] … Jihad is to be waged with the hand and the tongue, as he [the Prophet] ﷺ said: “Wage jihad against the unbelievers with your hands and your tongues.”4‘5 That said, the idea of jihad being a ‘holy war’ is alien to the Islamic vocabulary. When rendered into Arabic, the term reads: al-harb al-muqaddas, which doesn’t exist in any form in the Islamic teachings. War in Islam may be sanctioned or unsanctioned; but never holy.
3. Islam’s overall take on warfare can best be seen in these words of our Prophet ﷺ: ‘Never wish to meet your enemy, but ask Allah for safety. If you do meet them, be firm and know that Paradise lies beneath the shades of swords.’6 That is to say, pursue the path of peace and reconciliation; if such a path be denied by hostile intentions, then be prepared to act differently. The next hadith might also be used as a support: ‘After me there will be conflicts and affairs. If you are able, resolve them peacefully.’7 Also revealing are these words expressed by the Prophet ﷺ: ‘The most detested of names to Allah are War (harb) and Bitterness (murrah).’8 Given the above; and given also the numerous peace accords or ententes the Prophet ﷺ initiated so as to halt or mitigate the woes of war; let alone how he forgave and pardoned mortal enemies wherever he could, it’s simply fictitious, mischievous or fallacious to describe the Prophet as a ‘war monger’. A reluctant warrior, and a leader who took to combat to safeguard his nation from extinction or subjugation, are far truer descriptions of him ﷺ.
4. In classical Islam, warfare is regulated by an all-important shari‘ah dictum that says about jihad: wujubuhu wujubu’l-wasa’il la al-maqasid – ‘Its necessity is the necessity of means, not of ends.’9 That is, jihad of the military kind is not the goal; it’s a means to a goal. That goal being: the free and unhindered invitation to Islam and the summons to worship God alone. Islam treats war, given the harm, destruction or loss of life that takes place, as a necessary ‘evil’ of sorts: For had it not been for God’s checking some men by means of others, monasteries, churches, synagogues and mosques wherein God’s name is often mentioned, would have been destroyed. [22:40] Two or three centuries after Islam’s birth, its jurists would define jihad in terms of armed combat against disbelievers who did not have a peace treaty, for advancing the religion. Al-Kasani said it is: ‘Expending one’s utmost abilities and strength to fight in Allah’s way, with one’s person, property, tongue, or other than this.’10 And al-Qastalani defined it as: ‘Fighting the disbelievers, so as to support Islam and make the word of God supreme.’11
5. This martial jihad has rules and codes of conduct too. Among them is that the head of state carefully evaluate the potential pros and cons of war; ensure non-combatants [civilians] are not killed or wilfully targeted; abide by any peace treaty or international agreement it has signed up to; and keep in mind receptivity to the call of Islam. The classical Islamic doctrine which forbids killing civilians in a military jihad takes its cue from the Prophet’s saying ﷺ: ‘March forth in the name of God, trusting in God and adhering to the religion of God. Do not kill elderly men, infants, young children nor women.’12 And Ibn ‘Umar narrates that the Prophet ﷺ ‘forbade the killing of women and children.’13 After quoting the last hadith, al-Nawawi stated: ‘Scholars agree upon acting by this hadith and forbid the killing of women and children, provided that they do not engage in combat. If they do, the great majority of scholars (jamahir al-‘ulema) hold that they can be fought.’14 And al-Buhuti reminds us: ‘Declaring jihad or not is entrusted to the head of state and his decision, for he best knows the condition of the Muslims and of the enemy.’15 I’ve discussed the difference between acts of terror and a bonafide jihad in: Terrorism is to Jihad as Adultery is to Marriage.
6. This brings us to another vital aspect about jihad in Islam: who may be fought? Are Muslims required to wage jihad against disbelievers due to their disbelief (kufr)? Imam Ibn Taymiyyah takes up the issue, stating: ‘The disbelievers, they are only to be fought on condition of them waging war first – as is the view of the majority of scholars; and as is proven by the Book and the Sunnah.‘16 Which is to say, Islam permits fighting disbelievers, not because of their disbelief, but only if they initiate war against Muslim societies, or manifest belligerence towards them. The Qur’an says: Fight for God’s sake those that fight against you, but do not transgress the limits. [2:190] Along similar lines, Ibn al-Qayyim, another medieval jurist, held that: ‘Fighting is only a duty in response to being fought against, not in response to disbelief. This is why women, children, the elderly and infirm, the blind, and monks who stay out of the fighting are not fought. Instead, we only fight those who wage war against us.’17
7. Ibn al-Qayyim also said about the Prophet ﷺ: ‘Never did he force the religion upon anyone, and he only fought those who waged war against him and fought him. As for those who entered into a peace treaty with him, or concluded a truce, he never fought them, nor ever coerced them to enter his religion, abiding by his Lord’s order: There is no compulsion in religion. True guidance has become distinct from error. [2:256] … It will be clear to whoever ponders the life of the Prophet ﷺ, that he never coerced anyone to enter his religion and that he only fought those who fought against him first. As for those who ratified a peace treaty with him, he never fought them, provided they kept to their covenant and did not violate its terms.’18 Such was the majority juristic view, that jihad is waged due to hostility; not religious affiliations, and eventually prevailed within Sunni Islam. Thus, the Prophet’s defensive battles, like Badr, Uhud, Ahzab and Hunayn, were where the enemy launched an offensive against the Muslims who then had to defend religion and realm. While battles like Khaybar, Mu‘tah or Tabuk, where the Muslim state was aware of the enemy’s impending aggression, resulted in a need to strike pre-emptively as a form of defence.
8. In light of the above, how do we explain jihad talab – “offensive” war? Classical law manuals almost invariably include the likes of the following statement in their martial codes: ‘Jihad in Allah’s path [is to be waged] every year.’19 Also: ‘It is a communal duty once each year.’20 So how does this square with what’s previously been stated? Well, jihad doctrines were based on defence, not only in terms of actual hostilities launched against Muslims, but also preemptively in cases of likely aggression. This doctrine was devised at a time when the Islamic state was surrounded by other states with whom there was no peace treaty, or who were openly belligerent to it. In such a dog eat dog world, one either attacked first, or else was attacked first. Such was the state of affairs throughout the pre-modern world. The twentieth century, however, changed all that. The U.N. Peace Charter has effectively made peace the default between nation states. As such, Muslim juristic voices began to reflect this new reality: ‘It is essential to note that the world today is united under a single organisation where each member [state] adheres to its terms and conditions. The Islamic ruling in this case is that it is obliged to fulfil all agreements and treaties that the Islamic lands commit themselves to, as is stipulated by the law of fulfilling treaties endorsed by the Qur’an. Based on this, those non-Muslim countries that are members of this world organisation are not deemed as the Abode of War (dar al-harb). Instead, they should be seen as Abodes of Truce (dar al-‘ahd).’21
9. Most qualified jurists and recognised fatwa committees of our age hold – and their word in shari‘ah affairs is authoritative and represents orthodoxy – that a state of war shall not exist between Muslims and others except if hostility against a Muslim land is initiated or barriers to da‘wah erected. Al-Khallaf wrote: ‘The legislated jihad is there to carry the Islamic call and to defend the Muslims against any belligerency. Whoever does not respond to the call, nor resists its taking place, nor initiate hostilities against Muslim polities, then it is not permissible to fight them. A state of security cannot be altered for that of fear … A state of war will not exist between the Muslims and others except in cases where hostility towards Muslims is initiated, or barriers to da‘wah are erected, or harm is perpetrated towards the callers or the call.’22 Inarguably, in an age of the Internet and social media, as well as global movement or displacement, it’s nigh on impossible for countries to erect barriers to prevent the da‘wah to Islam.
10. As for when the Muslim army is in the thick of a religiously-sanctioned war, this is where the following passages of the Qur’an (and their like) come into play: Slay them wherever you find them; drive them out of the places from which they drove you. [2:190-91] Also: Slay the idolaters wherever you find them, and take them [captive] and besiege them, and lie in ambush for them everywhere. [9:5] And then, of course, there is this: But if they incline towards peace, incline to it too. [8:61] Observing peace accords with non-Muslim polities again demonstrates Islam’s willingness to live peacefully with its neighbours, regardless of their religion. When Muslims are instructed to fight treaty-breakers, it is the breaking of a treaty that invites conflict, not the fact that the treaty-breakers are disbelievers: Will you not fight a people who have broken their pacts and desired to drive out the Messenger and attacked you first? [9:13]
11. If any Muslim state contracts a truce with a non-Muslim one, other Muslim states aren’t bound by this peace treaty. For each Muslim country has its own peace accords and foreign policies that are specific to itself. The cue for this is taken from the Treaty of Hudaybiyah where the persecuted Makkan Muslim fugitives, like Abu Busayr, Abu Jandal and their men, weren’t bound by the treaty ratified by the Prophet ﷺ with the Makkans. Nor was their guerrilla warfare against the non-Muslim Makkans, or their raids against their caravans, seen as a breach of the Prophet’s truce ﷺ: for they were tantamount to being a self-governing state not bound by the political jurisdiction of the Prophet ﷺ. Ibn al-Qayyim stated: ‘The peace treaty between the Prophet ﷺ and the [Makkan] idolaters wasn’t a treaty that included Abu Busayr or his followers.’23 In other words, each Muslim state is required to honour its own international accords, and not aid or support other Muslim states against those with whom they have a pact of non-aggression. Such is the weight that the Qur’an places on covenants of security and peace accords and truces, as Allah says: But if they seek help from you in the affair of religion then it is your duty to help them, except against a people between whom and you there exists a treaty. [8:72]
12. Ibn Taymiyyah once wrote: ‘The Prophet ﷺ was the most perfect in terms of this bravery – which is appropriate for commanders in war. He did not kill anyone [in war] save Ubayy b. Khalaf; killing him on the day of Uhud. He didn’t kill anyone else before or after this.’24 Of the twenty-seven battles (ghazwat, sing. ghazwah) which took place in his life, the Prophet ﷺ participated in nine.25 The total number of deaths on both sides was one thousand and eighteen persons. Of those, seven-hundred and fifty-nine were enemy deaths; two-hundred and fifty-nine were Muslims. In fact, the number of enemy fatalities drops to three-hundred and fifty-nine when speaking of those killed on the actual battlefield.26 Such were the pious restraints that infused the spirit of jihad of the Prophet ﷺ. What’s remarkable, Gai Eaton wrote, isn’t just the rapid pace with which Islam spread across the then known world, rather ‘the fact that no rivers flowed with blood, no fields were enriched with the corpses of the vanquished … they were on a leash. There were no massacres, no rapes, no cities burned. These men feared God to a degree scarcely imaginable in our time and were in awe of His all-seeing presence, aware of it in the wind and the trees, behind every rock and in every valley … [T]here had never been a conquest like this.’27 All this being so, despite the blood-thirsty image that ISIS-like extremists; on the one hand, and Islamophobes; on the other, continue to portray about Islam and the Prophet ﷺ.
13. Speaking of death tolls in war, Dr. Naveed Sheikh’s essay: Body Count, is something of an eye-opener. It’s a statistical study which attempts to put numbers on the human death toll of religious and political violence during the last two thousand years, and relate these to religio-cultural civilisations. These civilisations, as well as their locales, are: Antitheist (former Communist block); Buddhist (East Asia, parts of South Asia); Christian (Europe, the Americas, few parts of Africa); Indic (India, Nepal, Mauritius); Islamic (Middle East, parts of Asia, parts of Africa); Primal-Indigenous (parts of Africa, the Americas before colonialism); and Sinic (China, some neighbouring states). Key findings showed that the Christian world was responsible for the highest death count in history (responsible for 31% of all deaths: 178,000,000); followed by the Antitheist (22%: 125,000,000); then the Sinic world (19%: 108,000,000); then Primal-Indigenous (8%: 46,000,000); after which came the Islamic world (5%: 31,000,000); and lastly the Indic (less than 0.5%: 2,000,000 fatalities). In contrast to the Islamic world, Buddhist civilisation has an exceptionally good press in the West. Yet the Buddhist contribution to world fatalities is three times higher than the Islamic; the Christian world’s being six times higher, while the Antitheist four times. Yet despite only the Indic civilisation having a lower death toll, the Muslim world tends to always be on the receiving end of media charges and stereotypes of violence, murder and intolerance.28
14. Lastly, let’s touch on the following: a believer’s love for martyrdom. In one hadith, we see the Prophet ﷺ relish the following: ‘By Him in whose hand is my life. I would love to be killed in Allah’s way and then be brought back to life; then be killed and be brought back to life; then be killed and be brought back to life; then be killed.’29 The Prophet ﷺ cherished martyrdom, not because of the love of blood and gore; nor for the glory of war itself; nor for the clanging of steel or the thrill of the fight. He loved it because of what it manifested of the highest service and the ultimate sacrifice for God. To surrender to Allah one’s actual life, for a cause Allah loves and honours, is the greatest possible expression of loving Allah. It’s no wonder, then, that the Prophet ﷺ said: ‘Whoever dies without partaking in a battle, or even desiring to do so, dies upon a branch of hypocrisy.’30 Believers, though, whilst they long to meet a martyr’s death, strive to live a righteous life. For how can one truly desire to die for God, if one does not sincerely try to live for God?
For much of the twentieth century the ‘ulema examined and reexamined the contents of the Sacred Law, so as to accord Muslims some principled accommodation with the emerging global consensus. Islam’s legal tools were, as it happens, well-equipped for the task at hand. The juristic practices of tahqiq al-manat (identifying the context for laws in order to ascertain their current form and application) and maslahah mursalah (taking account of public interest and utility) moved the jurists of the great centres of Muslim scholarship in the direction of acclimatization, adjustment and adaption. And while it is not Islam’s calling to conform to the age – Islam is, after all, the great global dissent – it can and must furnish Muslims with the spiritual and social technologies required to live in the age and navigate its eclectic mix of challenges. More than that, religion must offer believers insights on how best to heal modernity’s discontents and disillusionments too.
Those doctors of Islamic law who are also blessed with being spiritually rooted in the realities of ihsan, teach us that God’s law exists to instantiate mercy not severity; ease not hardship; good news (tabshir) not alienation (tanfir). They insist that today’s times call for tashil – facilitation; but not tasahul – slackness and over-leniency. And that far from capitulating to the secular monoculture, as the short-sighted or fiqh-less zealots imagine, this path maintained a wise, far-sighted openness to gentleness, which long predated the advent of the modern world. Even in the fourteenth century Ibn Qayyim al-Jawziyyah pointed to this salient fact: ‘The shari‘ah is based and built upon wisdom and [achieving] public welfare, in both this life and the next. It is justice in its entirety, mercy in its entirety, welfare in its entirety, and wisdom in its entirety. Any issue that departs from justice to injustice, mercy to its opposite, public welfare to corruption, or wisdom to folly cannot be part of the shari‘ah, even if it is claimed to be so due to some interpretation.’31
The above discussion about war and peace is the outcome of how most contemporary Muslim jurists have engaged the new global paradigms. As individual Muslims, we are each part of a larger transnational ummah. We each also belong to individual nations which are all committed to the global principle of non-aggression. This arrangement is certainly not perfect. But on the whole it has been instrumental in maintaining a fragile global peace – notwithstanding a few illegal occupations, continued conflicts, and even some modern genocides.
At the turn of the second millennium, Gai Eaton wrote that the West still sees Islam as a religion of war, bent on conquest. ‘They have inherited the fear,’ he insists, ‘which obsessed their ancestors when Muslim civilization was dominant and Christendom trembled before the “heathen” threat.’32 He says that even Westerners who’ve turned their back on Christianity still share these fears and prejudices today. As for Muslims, he feels, historically they’ve seen Christianity, and now the secular West, as inherently hostile. Indeed, even today, many Muslims are convinced (and there is much rhyme and reason behind their convictions) that the ‘Christian’ West will carpet bomb them or shred them with missiles if they step out of line. ‘They react either with impotent fury or with a degree of subservience, but always with a deep sense of injustice.’33 He concluded with this sober resolve: ‘There is, then, no end to this argument, so let me leave it where it is and consider what Islam actually teaches about peace and war.’34 And this, more or less, is what I’ve tried to do here.
1. Muslim, no.50.
2. Abu Dawud, Sunan, no.4344; al-Tirmidhi, Sunan, no.2175, saying: ‘A hasan hadith.’
3. Al-Bukhari, no.3004.
4. Abu Dawud, no.2504. Its chain is sahih, as per al-Nawawi, Riyadh al-Salihin (Riyadh: Dar Ibn al-Jawzi, 2000), no.1357, but with the wording: ‘ … with your wealth, lives and tongues.’
5. Al-Raghib al-Asbahani, Mufradat Alfaz al-Qur’an (Beirut: Dar al-Qalam, 2002), 208; under the entry, j-h-d.
6. Al-Bukhari, no.3024; Muslim, no.172.
7. Ahmad, Musnad, no.695. Its chain was graded sahih by Ahmad Shakir, al-Musnad al-Imam Ahmad bin Hanbal (Egypt: Dar al-Ma‘arif, 1954), 2:84-5, despite the presence of two questionable narrators in the chain: Faysal b. Sulayman and Iyas b. ‘Amr.
8. Abu Dawud, no.4950. The hadith, with its various chains, strengthen each other to yield a final grading of sahih. Consult: al-Albani, Silsilat al-Ahadith al-Sahihah (Riyadh: Maktabah al-Ma‘arif, 1987), no.1040.
9. Ibn Hajr al-Haytami citing al-Zarkashi, Tuhfat al-Muhtaj bi Sharh al-Minhaj (Beirut: Dar Sadir, 1972), 9:211.
10. Al-Kasani, Bada’i‘ al-Sana’i‘ (Beirut: Dar al-Kutub al-‘Ilmiyyah, 1986), 7:97.
11. Irshad al-Sari (Egypt: Bulaq, 1887), 5:31.
12. Abu Dawud, no.2614. The chain contains Khalid b. al-Fizr, who has been criticised. Hence the hadith was declared weak (da‘if) in al-Albani, Da‘if al-Jami‘ al-Saghir (Beirut: al-Maktab al-Islami, 1990), no.1346. The ruling of not targeting civilians or other non-combatants, however, is well established in other hadiths and juristic consensus.
13. Al-Bukhari, no.3015; Muslim, no.1744.
14. Sharh Sahih Muslim (Beirut: Dar al-Kutub al-‘Ilmiyyah, 1995), 12:43.
15. Kashshaf al-Qina‘ (Riyadh: Maktabah al-Nasr al-Hadithah, n.d.), 3:41.
16. Kitab al-Nabuwwat (Beirut: Dar al-Kutub al-‘Ilmiyyah, 1985), 140.
17. Ahkam Ahl al-Dhimmah (Dammam: Ramadi li’l-Nashr, 1997), 1:110.
18. Hidayat al-Hiyara (Makkah: Dar ‘Alam al-Fawa’id, 2008), 29-30.
19. Al-Dardir, Aqrab al-Masalik (Nigeria: Maktabah Ayyub, 2000), 54.
20. Al-Ghazali, Al-Wajiz (Beirut: Sharikah Dar al-Arqam b. Abi’l-Arqam, 1997), 2:188.
21. Abu Zahrah, al-‘Alaqat al-Duwaliyyah fi’l-Islam (Cairo: Dar al-Fikr al-‘Arabi, 1995), 77. Also see: al-Jasim, Kashf al-Shubuhat fi Masa’il al-‘Ahd wa’l-Jihad (Kuwait: Jam‘iyyat Ihya al-Turath al-Islami, 2004), 49.
22. Al-Khallaf, al-Siyasat al-Shar‘iyyah (Cairo: Matba‘ah al-Salafiyyah, 1931), 75.
23. Zad al-Ma‘ad (Beirut: Mu’assasah al-Risalah, 1998), 3:274-5.
24. Minhaj al-Sunnah al-Nabawiyyah (Riyadh: Jami‘ah al-Imam Muhammad bin Sa‘ud, 1986), 8:78.
25. Cf. al-Azmi, al-Lu’lu al-Maknun fi Sirat al-Nabi al-Ma’mun (Riyadh: Dar al-Sumay‘i, 2013), 4:374. Ibn Sayyid al-Nas stated, Nur al-‘Uyun (Beirut: Dar al-Minhaj, 2010), 40-1: ‘His ﷺ battles in this period numbered twenty-five; some say twenty-seven, of which he fought in seven.’
26. Muhammad Sulayman Mansurpuri, Rahmatan li’l-‘Alamin (Riyadh: Dar al-Salam, 1997), 468. The casualties and death tolls for each side, and each battle, is tabulated on pp.433-56. In the original Urdu edition, cf. Rahmatan li’l-‘Alamin (Pakistan: Markaz al-Haramayn al-Islami, 2007), 2:462-80.
27. Islam and the Destiny of Man (Cambridge: The Islamic Texts Society, 1997), 30.
28. Consult: Sheikh, ‘Body Count: A Comparative Quantitative Study of Mass Killings in History’, in Muhammad, Kalin & Kamali (eds.), War and Peace in Islam: The Uses and Abuses of Jihad (Cambridge: MABDA & The Islamic Texts Society, 2013), 165-214.
29. Al-Bukhari, no.2797; Muslim, no.1497.
30. Muslim, no.1910.
31. I‘lam al-Muwaqqi‘in (Riyadh: Dar Ibn al-Jawzi, 2002), 4:337.
32. Remembering God: Reflections on Islam (Cambridge: The Islamic Texts Society, 2000), 101.
33. ibid., 102.
34. ibid., 102.