Bennett-Kunkel: Concept of Violence, War and Jihad in Islam


The Concept of Violence, War and Jihad in Islam


(published in Dialogue and Alliance, 18: 1 Spring/Summer 2004, pp 31 –51)


By Clinton Bennett, Ph.D. and Geros Kunkel M.A.



For most people in the Western world, terrorism, currently the most visible use of violence with apparent religious justification appears to have an Islamic face. Although not all believe that Islam is at root a “religion of the sword”, for many it appears that Islam does not raise its voice loudly and clearly enough against violence and the killing of innocent people. This has become an incredibly sensitive topic in the dialogue with Islam. Islamic scholars often distance themselves from violence and terrorist activities claiming these are against the teachings of the Prophet Muhammad (Peace Be Upon Him). However, this claim often encounters mistrust and disbelief among non-Muslims, who know that the perpetrators of 9/11 saw themselves as martyrs for the cause of Allah.[1] Many thinkers in the West spread the view that Islam is waging a war against the non-Muslim world and is trying to conquer and convert the western world. The term mostly used for the Islamic conquest is Jihad. They paint a picture of Islam as a religion that is fundamentally incapable of peace with its non-Muslim neighbors. (Left to right in the picture: Geros Kunkel, Dr Frank Kaufmann, editor of D & A and Clinton Bennett).


The term Jihad deserves special attention and will be looked at in detail in this article, as it awakens fears and misunderstanding. There is often the feeling that even peaceful Muslims who oppose violence somehow sympathize with the cause of Muslim fundamentalists that claim to defend the rights of the Palestinians in Israel, the Iraqi people or any Muslim victim to Western/Christian imperialism. This gives legitimacy to the view that the Western world (which is identified with Christianity, Judaism and Zionism) in its own right is leading a war to destroy or subjugate the Islamic world and that it is therefore necessary to defend Islam, since violence may be justified in self defense.


In this article we examine the Islamic concepts of war and violence and look at the inner Islamic discourse on war and the use of force. Are the current views on Islam correct or possibly outdated? Although it would be appropriate, this article will not compare Muslim with Jewish, Christian or secular democratic norms and concepts of violence. This article also probes the myths used to justify violence and how religious scholars should raise their voice to end the misuse of Islam, since it arises from the context of the authors’ own engagement in and commitment to interreligious dialogue.


Terms for War in Islam


There are several terms used in Arabic to describe war or the use of force. In this section we look at these terms, and at their use. The terms themselves say a lot about whether forceful action is justified, tolerated or whether it violates Islamic law. We will leave out more remotely connected terms such as Idhwan (aggression) or Gahzu (lootery or armed robbery).




Qital is best translated as armed combat or the fight with a weapon. The Qital is a part of the Jihad, and thereby used for the armed struggle, which is not desired but necessary and thereby justified. We will examine this closer later on when we look at Jihad in detail.




The word closest to what we understand as War is Harb (see for example Q2: 279; 8: 57; 9: 36). Harb can also be translated as aggression or unrest, or even as rebellion. Harb can be seen as the unrest or chaos caused by people not living according to the divine laws. It is often used exclusively for wars amongst non-Muslims or against Muslims by non-Muslims. It also describes a condition or state of being. It is the state of being of those not living in accordance with the divine law.


In the Qur’an it says:


…Fight in the cause of Allah (Waqatiloo fi sabil Illah) those who fight you, But do not transgress limits [wala taatadoo]

For God loveth not transgressors [or aggressors; Allaha la yuhibbu almuAAtadeena].

(Sura 2, 190)[2].


And a few verses later:


Fighting (Qital) is prescribed for you…

(Sura 2, 216).


There is no contradiction between the dislike of harb in 2: 190 and permission to fight, since the Qur’an clearly states that fighting, while permitted, is never encouraged. The permission to fight at 2: 190 is restricted to self-defense (against those who fight you) while at 2: 193 it is permitted in order to combat injustice and oppression but must cease when these have been defeated.




After Mohammad’s (PBUH) death several Arabic clans (Bedouins) left the Islamic faith. They claimed that their oath of loyalty to Muhammad (PBUH) had been to him as a political leader, and was void after his death. In other words, they had no general loyalty to the Islamic community. The Islamic community, however, considered that their loyalty had not been limited to the Prophet, and that they were therefore in violation of their contract obligations. In the Arabic tribal society it was considered a grave violation to break a contract. The first Khalif, Abu Bakr, waged wars against these disloyal clans. These wars lasted two years and led to the Islamic community establishing an army, which was the material base for ´Umar, the second Khalif, to expand the area of influence of Islam. These wars are referred to as the Riddah wars. [3] Riddah therefore came to be the term used for aggression against non-believers or people who betrayed Islam. Riddah means breaking away from the Islamic Religion. It is the war against apostasy.




Futuhat literally means “the opening”, that is, the opening for Islam. Since Islam is a universal religion (according to its self-image) with a universal revelation it regards itself obliged to bring this revelation to the whole world. The world therefore needs to be “opened” for Islam. This concept was especially important in the early phases of Islam’s geographical and territorial expansion. At this time the Islamic community engaged in a lot of Futuhat campaigns.


According to the Qur’an God invites all people to join the “House of peace” or House of Islam” (Dar-al-islam).[4] Therefore it was important for Islamic rulers before attacking an “enemy” to allow the opponent to peacefully join the Islamic community. He was also to be given time to consider the offer. Only if he defies the offer is it permitted to declare war and use force. Muhammad (PBUH) therefore sent out messages to the neighboring rulers to join the Islamic community. Muhammad (PBUH) himself led wars against other Arabic clans to enlarge the area of influence of Islam. These wars are used to justify later campaigns for the expansion of Islam.





Another difficult political situation that the Islamic community faced very early was conflict within its own ranks. These conflicts are called Fitna, which literally means “unrest” or “seductive beauty” (see Q2: 193). The first Fitna, which resulted in war, was the so-called Battle of the Camel fought between Ali, the fourth Khalif, and A´aisha, Muhammad’s (PBUH) wife. It was triggered by the murder of ´Uthman, the third Khalif.


Over its history Islam experienced several Fitnas, such as the defeat of the ´Umayyads by the ´Abbasids or the fight of the Osmans against the Shiites in Iran. Fitnas are seen as tragic events, disruptive and potentially chaotic. Although usually one side defines their fight as a fight against apostasy or in defense of the true Islam, mostly these wars were between Muslims and were about power and thereby difficult to justify as a fight against apostates or even against non-believers.




The Term Jihad means to strive or to exert ones efforts. Often the term is translated or associated with “holy war”, although this translation is inaccurate. In the Qur’an, jihad has a variety of meanings, and the way in which Muslims use the term has varied from time to time, making analysis complex. Some usages of the term can be considered misuse, even though some Muslims may agree with them. There is also a need to distinguish between what the Qur’an says and how it has been and is interpreted, although it can be argued that all readings of the Qur’an are interpretations and that none can claim to be better or more accurate than any other.


In the following, we take a closer look at the term. In this analysis, the religious meaning and its practical use in history are examined.


Jihad in its contemporary context


Jihad in the Qur’an


Jihad is the personal effort of an individual for Islam. In the Qur’an, this effort can include the use of force, although when specific reference to force or to war as the means of pursuing jihad is made (later referred to as jihad bis saif, jihad of the sword) the word used in the Qur’an is usually Qital, not jihad. There are several Qur’anic verses, however, where the word jihad has been interpreted as being synonymous with the words war and fighting, as in Q2: 215, 8: 41, 49: 15, 61: 11 and 66: 9. The most commonly cited verse used to justify the equation of jihad with violence is 61: 11, which reads:


Strive (jihad) your utmost in the cause of Allah with your property and your persons.[5]


The Book of Jihad in Bukhari’s authorative (sahih) collection of Muhammad’s saying (ahadith) begins with Q9: 111 – 112 which promises paradise to those who die fighting in the cause of Allah, and almost all hadith in the Book deal with armed combat.[6]


The early chapters (Surahs) from the time when Muhammad (PBUH) was in Mecca are peaceful (see 5: 19). At this period the Muslim community was still small and had no possibility to wage wars. Later suras, from Medina, contain references and instructions to use force against those that oppose and persecute Islam, those that breach their contracts or who deny Muslims access to the holy sites. Initially, force was only permitted in self defense, based on the verse cited above, 2: 190, 22: 39 and also on Q4: 75, Q 4: 84, Q4: 90-1 and Q8: 39 which indicate that when the enemy sues for peace, fighting must cease. Later, in what is believed to have been the final revelation, permission to engage in offensive action is apparently given; ‘when the sacred months are passed, slay the unbelievers wherever you find them’ (9: 5). See also 9: 123 where the reference to the sacred months is absent, ‘O ye who believe fight the unbelievers who gird about you’. Classical jurists argue that the ‘sword verses (9: 5 and 9: 123; ayaat us-saif) abrogated or cancelled the earlier defensive or ‘peace-verses’, thus permitting unprovoked military action in the cause of Allah.[7] Action against Hudaybiyyah (6 AH) was due to breach of treaty.[8]


The first Jihad was summoned against Mecca. The killing of non-Muslims was permitted, because the threat to Islam was conceived as so dangerous that Islam’s very survival was at risk. In the Qur’an it is the duty of Muslims to undergo the Jihad with their life and possessions. However, the readiness to lay down ones life in the fight for Islam was the extreme, and one that easily lent itself to exaggeration, even though such exaggeration did build on 9: 111 and 3: 169. Thus, the Book of Jihad is full of the promise of paradise to the Mujahidun (Muslim fighters – note the clear etymological root of jihad). Thus, hadith no. 53 says that once a martyr realizes how blessed he is, he will want to return to earth ‘and get killed again’ while no. 66 says that those whose feet get covered in dust while fighting in ‘Allah’s cause will not be touched by hell fire’.  However, neither Muhammad (PBUH) nor his followers liked war (see Q2: 216) and all the evidence suggests that the Prophet was a very reluctant warrior indeed, only resorting to armed combat in the face of oppression and persecution. In his Muhammad as a Military Leader, Afzalur Rahman stresses that Muhammad (PBUH) always inclined towards peace whenever he ‘received any peace offers’, that he used minimum force to achieve maximum results, ‘never fought against peaceful people’ and was magnanimous in victory.[9] According to Rahman, the Prophet was never the aggressor, since the ‘basic principle’ of his ‘war policy was to establish peace and fight only against aggression.’[10] Muhammad (PBUH) is reported as saying, ‘Never desire aggression or war, and ask God for safety and security and know that when peace is threatened, Paradise is under the shadow of swords (Riaz-as-Salihin).’[11] Rahman does not maintain that Muhammad never attacked his enemies but that such offensive action was in the context of existing and ongoing military engagement in order to bring hostilities to a speedy end.[12]


Doctrine of Jihad


In the years after Muhammad (PBUH), during the Futuhat campaigns under the first four Khalifs and the ´Umayyad dynasty, the so-called Jihad-doctrine was developed. This can be found in the writings of Shafi´i (d. 819 CE)[13] for example. The two-world-doctrine defines the Islamic understanding of peace and war. It divides the world into two “houses”, namely, the Dar-al-islam, the house of peace or the house of Islam and the Dar-al-harb, the house of war or unrest. Dar-al-islam is the realm in which people live according to the Islamic law, the Shari´a, and Islam is the defining religion (din). The area outside of this is called Dar-al-Harb. Several thinkers even concede that places where Muslims can practice Islam, even if the Shari´a is not the general norm cannot be considered Dar-al-Harb, at least not for Muslims who live there. Dar-al-harb is a latter construction, and is not a Qur’anic term.[14] Khadduri, in his now classic War and Peace in the Law of Islam (1955) traces the doctrine to the Muslim defeat at Tours in 732 CE, which halted the Islamic advance further North into Europe.


This worldview of course created a contrast between the Islamic world and the non-Islamic world and was the base of the desire to bring the Dar-al-Harb into the realm of peace through the duty of bringing Islam to the world. The Futuhat expansion was the consequence, and jihad was the instrument used to prosecute this mission of brining the whole world under Divine Law, as Khadduri puts it: ‘On the assumption that the ultimate aim of Islam was worldwide, the dar-al-Islam was always, in theory, at war with the dar-al-harb … Thus the jihad, reflecting the normal war relations existing between Muslims and non-Muslims, was the state’s instrument for transforming the dar-al-harb into the dar-al-Islam’ with the eventual aim of bringing peace to all people.[15] However, the jihad did not have to be violent and could involve other means of propagating Islam, such as preaching and even diplomatic negotiation to convince non-Muslims of the superiority of the Islamic system. According to Lewis, this was the dominating view until the failure to conquer Constantinople in 718 AD.[16] This failure triggered a crisis of this simple worldview. The Islamic world had to accept the limits to its expansion and started to face divisions within the Umma, the Dar-al-Islam. The idea of an armistice (sulh) with the non-Islamic world came up and some thinkers conceptualized a third house, the Dar-al-ahd, the house of the contract. This term was for areas where Muslims could live in peace, even if not under explicit Muslim law. This was not often seen as a stable house, though, but was a temporary state, as the over all goal of bringing such an area under the Dar-al-Islam remained. According to Khadduri, in classical theory, non-Muslim government was only regarded as pragmatically necessary and any treaty must be temporary, ‘Islam takes cognizance of the authority or authorities that exist in non-Muslim countries … But this cognizance does not represent recognition [it] … merely means that authority is, by nature, necessary for the survival of society.’[17] Many contemporary Muslims prefer to term the non-Muslim world as the dar-al-da´wa (house of invitation) and regard this as a place for dialogue and even for inter-religious collaboration to promote peace and justice.[18]


Jihad in History


As we can see Jihad was regarded as the duty of the Muslim to defend and expand the Islamic community. In this sense the Expansion wars were Jihad-wars. The ´Umayyad and later the Ottomans, who relied on the resources gained through the expansion of their territory for their governance, used this doctrine as a central state doctrine. The ´Abbasids, on the other hand, didn’t rely so heavily on these resources. In later periods the Jihad was used more in its defensive meaning, to defend Islam from external incursions such as the crusades or colonialism. Especially as a response to western Colonialism, Jihad was rediscovered and utilized as anti-colonialism, as we will see later on.


The greater(Akbar) and lesser (Asghar) Jihad


In the middle ages there was a rethinking of the Jihad concept. The fight for Islam was only considered to be the lesser Jihad. The greater Jihad was seen as the struggle to defeat evil and wrong doings within oneself and to live a life of goodness and to witness to the teaching of Islam. Q29:6 says ‘and if any strive [jihad] they do so for their own souls’. The greater Jihad was also seen as the effort to act against injustice and to be charitable. Jihad thereby is the spiritual strife to live according to the spirit and teaching of Islam. The need to defend Islam with force is only the lesser Jihad. In the modern context also, the strife in ones studies or in ones job is regarded as part of the greater Jihad and some states have used this new Jihad concept to call for a Jihad against their own underdevelopment.


In this new concept the use of force is significantly less stressed. The lesser Jihad was primarily understood as a means of self-defense, similar to modern understanding of ones patriotic duty to defend the country. There was still some room for discussion on such matters as whether preventive war was permitted or whether force could/should be used to prevent the Islamic mission from being suppressed. Some cite hadith to justify the view that the jihad of the sword is the lesser jihad. On one occasion, Muhammad (PBUH) is reported to have said, as he returned from battle, "We have all returned from Jihad Asghar to Jihad Akbar". When his companions asked him, "What is Jihad Akbar?" he replied: "Jihad against the desires." While this hadith is not found in any of the classical collections, others interpret Bukhari Vol 4 hadith no 44 as extolling prayer and fasting above fighting.[19] It was especially among Sufis (Islamic mystics) that the concept of the lesser and greater jihads found support. One of its most influential advocates was al-Ghazzali (d 1111), who is generally credited with reconciling Sunni orthodoxy with Sufi thought.[20]


Different thinkers


One of the important questions for the Islamic thinkers concerning the Jihad was whether or not Jihad is one of the basic duties of a Muslim or pillars of the Muslim faith. Most thinkers agree that there are 5 “pillars” of the Islamic faith, which are the confession of faith (Shahada), the 5 daily prayers (Salat), the Duty to Donate to Charity (Zakat), fasting during the month of Ramadan and the Pilgrimage to Mecca (Haj). According to Bukhari Jihad is one of the basic duties of a Muslim, following the duty of prayer and that towards ones parents.[21] Classically, jihad was regarded as a collective duty (fard al-kifaya) and therefore, unlike the above five, as enforceable by the state. Nonetheless, classically it was the responsibility of the Khalif to summon jihad but the duty of able-bodied individuals to respond, as an expression of their piety and commitment. Q9: 123 advises against all Muslims marching to war; some were needed to provide food and other essential services. The Book of Jihad allows women to cook and tend the injured but not to fight. It only became an individual duty in times of grave danger to the whole community, although a minority group, the Kharijites, saw it as a sixth pillar and as an individual obligation. For the majority, too, unlike the five pillars, which are permanent obligations, jihad is temporary as once worldwide peace has been achieved, it will cease.[22] While the term ‘holy war’ as a translation for jihad is problematic, because jihad quite simply does not mean war, even though as Esack (1997) puts it ‘the term jihad has also come to mean the ‘sacralization of combat,’[23] it is nonetheless from an Islamic point of view a religious concept. Classically, the duty to prosecute jihad was one of the Khalif’s principal responsibilities and according to some Muslims forfeited his right to govern if he failed ‘to fulfill the jihad obligation.’[24] Khadduri explains that in classical Muslim thought, war had to be both just and ‘pium, that is, in accordance with the sanction of religion’. Indeed, secular wars, according to Ibn Khaldun (d. 1406), were evil and ‘to be avoided since they were inconsistent with God’s law which prohibited all forms of war except those waged for religious purposes.’[25] The goal of establishing God’s law worldwide is just because this represents the best system, God’s perfect system, for humankind. Shari´a or Divine Law governs the conduct of war. In some of the earliest rules, Abu Bakr forbade harming of women and children, and of any other civilian not engaged in combat activities, vandalism (the killing of cattle or the cutting down of trees which are the basis of survival for the local population) and the mutilation of corpses. Traditions traced to Muhammad (PBUH) forbade the destruction of Churches and Synagogues and the disturbance of monks or priests from pursuing their duties. However, the Saudi al-Qaeda cell’s beheading of captured US civilian worker Paul Johnson in Saudi Arabia on 18th June 2004 was justified by citing Q 47: 3 – 6. ‘When you encounter the infidels, strike off their heads till you have made great slaughter among them’. Q5: 32-3, however, prohibits the shedding of ‘innocent blood’. The perpetrators of 9/11 and of other terrorist activities justify their acts by claiming that the sword verses permit attacks on all non-Muslims (that is, on any unbeliever whether adult or child, civilian or combatant) and on the basis that the Western world is engaged in a war, or Crusade, against Islam. This is the argument used to justify suicide bombings in Israel-Palestine. The influential scholar, Yusef al- Qaadawi condemned 9/11 (saying that not all Americans are at war with Islam) but condones Palestinian suicide missions on the basis that all Israelis are illegally occupying Muslim land. Some cite hadith found in the Book of Jihad to justify lying, deceit and assassinations.[26]


To show how jihad has been discussed in Islam, we now look closer at some Muslim thinkers who have exerted strong influence on large parts of the Muslim community. Fig One below shows three different approaches to war in Islam, one that it does not condone war at all, one that it permits only defensive war and one that it permits offensive war.


FIG One The Verses of Fighting v the Verses of Persuasion: Some Key Qur’anic Texts

Peace Verses

(Progressive Islam)

Defensive (Just War) Verses (Moderate Islam)

Sword Verses

(Radical Islam)

Invite all to the way of the Lord with wisdom and beautiful preaching, and argue with them in ways that are best and most gracious (16: 125)


Nor can goodness and evil be equal. Repel evil with what is better and those and who were your enemy will be as your friends(41: 34)


Thou art indeed a warner (88:21)



The verses of peace represent Islam’s true stance and fighting is only permitted in the most extreme circumstances of self-defence or against oppression and injustice



To those against whom war is made (li-alladhin yuqatalun)*, permission is given to fight, because they have been wronged (22: 39-40).


Fight in the way of Allah those who fight you, but do not provoke hostility – God does not love aggressors (2: 190)


And if they incline to make peace, incline thou to it (8: 63).



These verses, which permit only defensive war and express distaste for war qualify the verses on the right, that is, they only allow Muslims to fight unbelievers who fight them.





Fighting is prescribed for you, and you dislike it (2: 216)


And when the sacred months are passed, slay the unbelievers wherever you find them … beleaguer them, and lay in wait for them in every stratagem of war (9: 5)**


Fight those who do not believe in Allah or the Last Day… until they pay the poll tax (9: 29)



Traditional view – these verses abrogate the earlier texts and justify a perpetual war, employing all means, against unbelief. This is a corporate duty for the Muslims world (heretical Muslims also qualify as targets).

* Shaltut renders this as ‘to those who are fighting’ (li-alladhin yuqatilun) p 85 N 60

** is used by some to justify ‘terror’ tactics, that is, non-regular war against any unbeliever, civilian as well as military.


Abu`l A`la Mawdudi (1903 - 1979)


To Mawdudi the defense of Islam and the Jihad are two important elements in the practice of Islamic faith. Defending Islam is like a test of our integrity and reliability as a Muslim. If one is not ready to defend a friend against defamation or attacks, then we cannot call our self a true friend and the same is valid for Islam. One cannot call himself a true Muslim if he is not ready to defend Islam and its reputation. This has to precede one’s personal interests.


The Duty of Jihad entails the effort for Islam, which also has to precede one’s personal interest. In the Shari´a the term Jihad is primarily used for war and is directed against the enemies of Islam. Mawdudi was adamant that Muslims who restrict jihad to defensive war or to the so-called greater jihad of the pen, water Islam down. In reply to Western critics for whom the word jihad conjures up ‘the vision of a marching band of religious fanatics with savage beards and fiery eyes brandishing drawn swords and attacking infidels wherever they meet them and pressing them under the edge of the sword for the recital of Kalima,’[27] some Muslims claim that Islam has known nothing of war. So ‘taken aback’ were they when they saw ‘this picture of ours painted by foreigners’ that they ‘started offering apologies in this manner – Sir, what do we know of war and slaughter. We are pacifist preachers like the mendicants and religious divines’. In their effort to please Islam’s critics, such apologists admit of but one crime, ‘we plead guilty to one crime, though, that whenever someone else attacks us, we attacked him in self-defense’ Mawdudi says that Muslims failed to look behind the foreigner’s picture to see ‘the visage of the painter’. To restrict jihad, says Mawdudi, to ‘waging war with tongues and pen’ is tantamount to surrendering to the enemy. It concedes that ‘to fire cannons and shoot with guns is the privilege of your honour’s government’, while ‘wagging tongues and scratching with pens is our pleasure’. ‘Islam requires the earth- not just a portion of it – not because the sovereignty over the earth should be wrestled from one or several nations and vested in one particular nation – but because the entire mankind should benefit from the ideology and welfare programme or what would be truer to say from “Islam” which is the programme of well-being for all humanity.’[28] The aim of jihad is to ‘eliminate the rule of an un-Islamic system and establish in its stead an Islamic system of state rule’ (p 22). Mawdudi’s writing on jihad has been so influential that some see his thought and Qutb’s (see below) as the inspiration behind 9/11.


Sayyid Qutb(1906-1966)


Sayyid Qutb is strongly influenced by Mawdudi’s understanding. For him, Islam is not “Opium for the people”, because it does not give comfort to those that are oppressed, but instead calls for the fight against oppression. For Qutb the world is in the state of Jahiliya. The term Jahiliya is used in Islam generally to define the state of the Arabic world before Islam came to the peninsula. It is comparable to the Christian use of the term heathenism or paganism. Qutb, however, did not only mean the non-Islamic world when he spoke of Jahiliya but he also meant the Islamic states of his time. To him, these states had fallen back into the state of Jahiliya. Jihad therefore is the fight against the Jahiliya in one’s own country. Later, it was extrapolated to the western world and to the USA as colonial states cooperating with the Jahiliya regimes in the Arabic world. Qutb explicitly allowed the use of force and terror as a means to establish a new Islamic order, and more so than Mawdudi advocated the doctrine that Muslims could take the institutive. Islam is rather a total system of life, and jihad ‘a name for striving to make this system of life dominant in the world.[29] This system cannot be confined to ‘geographical and racial limits’[30] nor is it ‘a heritage of any particular race or country’ but is ‘God’s religion … for the whole world’. As such, it has the right to ‘destroy all obstacles in the form of institutions and traditions which limit man’s freedom of choice,[31] and it also has the right to ‘take the initiative’. No doubt Muslims must defend themselves against aggression, since jahili society will always ‘rise against’ Islam for its own preservation’. However, to reduce jihad to self-defence is to ‘diminish the greatness of the Islamic way of life’ and leaves open the possibility that mankind will be left ‘on the whole earth in evil, in chaos and in servitude to lords other than God’. Jihad does not have to be justified by any particular condition; rather, jihad is justifiable as the instrument of choice for establishing God’s authority on earth, for arranging human affairs according to the true guidance provided by God and for abolishing ‘all Satanic forces.[32] Its ‘reason exists in the nature of … the actual conditions it finds in human society, and not merely in the necessity for defence, which may be temporary and of limited extent.[33] Qutb sees Q3: 74 – 76, Q 8: 38-40, Q9: 5 and Q: 29-32 (pp 125 – 7) as a ‘clear’ mandate for jihad, and says that ‘taking the initiative’ is of the ‘very nature of Islam.[34] The books he wrote in jail were very popular in the Arab street and known as the “Mao-Bible of the Islamic revolution”. Qutb is still today the intellectual head of all Islamic fundamentalists,[35] in one way or another. He was executed for treason in 1966 by the Egyptian regime. However, Muslim jihadists in such places as Kashmir, Afghanistan and Chechnya are also inspired by such nineteenth century jihads against colonial influence as that of the Sudanese Mahdi (1882) who also denounced the Ottomans for ruling by law other than God’s, and of Sayyid Ahmad Shaheed Barelvi (1876 – 1831) who led a movement called the tehrik-i-mujahidin and, on the basis that India under the British was no longer dar-ul-islam, trekked to the North West on hijrah (migration). Perhaps most influential of all was Muhammad Ibn Abd al-Wahhab (1703 – 92) who led the revolt in the Saudi peninsula against what he saw as corrupt Islam and Ottoman domination of the Arab-Muslim heartland.[36] Ibn Taymiyya (d 1328 CE) is also much cited by contemporary fundamentalists, including Osama bin Laden. Taymiyya issued a legal opinion (fatwa) to the effect that it was Muslims’ duty to wage jihad against those who innovated or deviated, which justified rebellion against Muslim regimes deemed to have departed from the faith, which is how Bin Laden views the Saudis. The jihadists who assassinated Egyptian President Sadat (1980) cited Taymiyya at their trial. Like Mawdudi and Qutb, Taymiyya enjoyed times of popularity with government and periods in prison.


Modern Islamic understanding


Other Muslims, like M. Amir Ali,[37] argue strongly that Qutb’s understanding of jihad contravenes both the letter and the spirit of the Qur’an that permits war in certain circumstances (when attacked or oppressed, or to counter injustice) but never encourages it. Two of the most influential thinkers here are Mahmud Shaltut (1898- 1963), Shaykh al-Azhar from 1958 and the Tunisian scholar, Mohamed Talbi. In his The Koran and Fighting (1948) Shaltut rejected the abrogation theory by which Q9: 5 cancels the peace-verses arguing instead that the verses that apparently permit unprovoked attack on unbelievers do no such thing. Rather, all these verses presuppose an ongoing conflict. Reference to ‘those near to you’ or to those who ‘gird about you’ (9: 123) simply gives pragmatic advice that ‘when the enemies are manifest’, you fight first those who are closest.[38] He argues that previous verses (9: 7 – 16) make clear that these ‘unbelievers’ had ‘broken their pledges and hindered and assailed the propagation of the Islamic Mission’, and that they were not to be fought simply because of their religious beliefs. Q9: 13 – 4’s ‘will you not fight against a people who have violated their oaths … and who took the initiative with you’ provides, says Shaltut, the context for 9: 29’s ‘fight against those who do not believe in Allah.’[39] In other words, the ‘unbelievers’ who are to be fought are those ‘hostile polytheists who fight the Moslems’[40] and there is no justification for the view that the Qur’an authorizes fighting ‘unbelievers in general, regardless of whether they had committed aggression or not’.


Talbi (1998) says that the Qur’an ‘warns, advises but never resorts to the sword’. Like Shaltut, he argues that while the Qur’an permits fighting in certain circumstances, it never encourages it and authorises ‘Muslims … to take up arms in only one case, self-defence, when they are attacked and their faith seriously jeopardized’. The Qur’an, he says, clearly states that fighting (al-qital) though prescribed (kutiba) is disliked (kurhun lakum) (Q2: 194). God does not love aggressors (2: 190). While Shaltut and Talbi permit war in self-defense and reject the abrogation argument, another modernist Muslim thinker, the Sudanse reformer M. M Taha (1909 – 1985) went further in rejecting jihad altogether as a legitimate Islamic concept. Taha opposed the imposition of traditional Shari´a in Sudan and was executed for apostasy. In his The Second Message of Islam he argues that the earlier, Meccan verses of peace and persuasion and the general ethical precepts of the Meccan message take priority over the verses of the sword (and the particular legal applications) of the later Madinan message. Thus, he reversed the doctrine of naksh (abrogation). For him, the later verses of the Qur’an, which contain such punishment as amputation for theft, Q5: 38, verses that arguable privilege men above women, as well as the sword-verses were a descent from the ideal of the Meccan verses ‘in accordance with the circumstances of the time and the limitations of human ability.[41] What is now needed is an ascent from the level of Islam to that of faith (iman). His Second Message calls for a return from the subsidiary verses to the original verses, which were temporarily abrogated because of circumstances and material and human limitations. We must now elevate legislation by evolving and basing it on original Qur’anic verses. In this way, we shall welcome the age of socialism and democracy and open the way to absolute individual freedom through worship and humane dealing with other people.[42]


Taha thinks it naïve to claim that all Islamic wars were defensive, however. Nonetheless, a truly Muslim society will be pacifist. He rejects the view that the term ‘muslim’ understood properly includes only Muslims, arguing that an authentically Muslim state would treat all who believe in God equally and that all discriminatory laws belong to the subsidiary verses.


The myths used to fuel the use of force and how they should be dissolved


Farid Esack directly addresses the contention, often repeated since 9/11, that the Qur’an and Islam are themselves ‘responsible for violence by Muslim terrorists’. In this view, the ‘text by itself is the problem.[43] He points out while on the one hand Osama bin Laden fires off Qur’anic verse after verse like ‘angry bullets at the “infidel” occupiers of the holy land and their Muslim allies’ on the other hand, the state-paid `ulama ‘fired an equal number of verses at Osama and his followers denouncing them as the ultimate destroyers of the faith.[44] Thus, some Muslims read the text of the Qur’an to justify 9/11 and it is, says Esack, plausible to argue that 9/11 was ‘inspired by Islam’, since ‘the Qur’an is open to diverse readings.[45] This is the myth that continues to dominate popular Western conception: that Islam is inherently violent; that the Qur’an serves as a terrorists’ handbook and that Muslims are ultimately intent on subverting Western values and are a threat to liberal, modern thought. The popular Western view of the Qur’an as a book full of laws is another myth, because of its 6000 or so verses no more than 300 can be said to concern legal matters. Another common myth is that the sword spread Islam, yet no Muslim army ever attacked or invaded the most populous Muslim nation in the world, Indonesia. Malaysia, too, and many predominantly Muslim areas of Africa never knew Muslim aggression. This is not to say that the sword never aided Islam’s spread. However, the evidence is that preaching and da´wa activities, not violence, are in the main responsible for Islam’s spread.  


Esack argues that the weight of the Qur’anic witness supports the peaceful resolution of differences of opinion and the openness of Islam to collaboration with all people who share a passion for justice and equality before God. Muslim scholars and thinkers need to ‘expose and oppose the theological and textual basis’ of Bin Laden’s and others’ arguments, he says. Esack encourages those who care about the earth to ‘find each other’ and to cooperate before those who do not succeed in destroying us all.[46] Esack maintains that the Qur’an supports a ‘profound commitment to life and the creation of a peaceful society based on justice and compassion’ and not violence. He is not ‘blind to what many of’ his ‘co-religionists have found’ but says that he is nonetheless ‘certain about the overall Qur’anic picture.[47] The two so-called sword verses receive undue attention. The best way to counter the myths that perpetuate enmity for the Muslim other is to give voice to such scholars as Esack, Taha and Talbi who offer an alternative picture to what Mawdudi describes as ‘the religious fanatics with savage beards and fiery eyes brandishing drawn swords and attacking infidels wherever they meetthem. Distorted perceptions occur readily in the media. Headlines such as "The Sword of Islam," "The Islamic Bomb," "The Roots of Muslim Rage," "Bombs in the Name of Allah" all serve to reinforce negatives images of Muslims, including those who live among us, so that many see them as fifth columnists. Because some Muslims believe that the Qur’an justifies violence does not mean that all do, or indeed that the Qur’an can properly be interpreted in this way.


Conclusion and present perception of Jihad


It is absurd to say that Jihad was always a peaceful concept and only misused by few fundamentalists. Most references, especially in the Shari´a, to Jihad include detailed guidelines for armed combat. For example, how to treat Prisoners of war, what to do with loot and how conquered territory should be governed. Islam always tried to constrain and avoid the use of force, and only permitted it with clear guidelines. Looking at the society in which Islam came to life, it was an incredible advancement. For example, it prohibited war for personal gain, for acquisition of wealth or for pursuit of purely secular goals. Islam nowhere justifies the use of violence out of rage, revenge, greed or other material motives. The development in history away from a military understanding of Jihad to a more spiritual and peaceful pursuit of Jihad, however, needs to be taken seriously.



Clinton Bennett taught at Westminster College, Oxford (92-98) and at Baylor University, Texas (98-01). He is currently a Visiting Fellow at Birmingham University, Academic Operations Manager at Birchfield Community School, Aston and Affiliated Lecturer, Centre for the Study of Jewish-Christian Relations, Cambridge. His 1990 Birmingham University PhD is in Islamic Studies. An ordained Baptist Minister, he served in Bangladesh 1979-1982. His books include Victorian Images of Islam (London, Grey Seal 1992), In Search of Muhammad (London and NY, Continuum, 1998) and Muslims and Modernity (also Continuum).


Geros Kungel has a M.A. in comparative Religion and Political Science. He is from Germany and is currently working for the Interreligious Federation for World Peace (IRFWP) in New York. He is an assistant editor of Dialogue and Alliance.


ã Clinton Bennett and Geros Kunkel (2004)


[1] Traditionally, however, while the martyr may expect to die at enemy hands, they do not knowingly take their own life as suicide is considered a mortal sin in Islam; see Q Q4: 29 – 30.

[2] All Qur’an Verses according to the translation by Yusuf Ali as revised by Ismail al Faruqi, The Meaning of the Holy Quran, Amana Publications, Beltsville, Maryland, 1996,

[3] Bassam Tibi, Kreuzzug und Djihad, Der Islam und die christliche Welt, Muenchen 1999, P. 58.

[4] Sura 10,25

[5] see Majid Khadduri (1955) War and Peace in the Law of Islam, Baltimore, John Hopkins University Press p 56.  Cited in Bukhari, translated by M. M Khan, (revised ed 1987) Sahih al Bukhari, 9 Vols, New Delhi, Kitab Bhavan Vol 4 p 37 where the rendition says, ‘strive your utmost and fight in the cause of Allah with your wealth and lives’.

[6] See Bukhari’s Book of Jihad, Vol. 4 pp 34  - 205. Bukhari died in 870CE. 

[7] See classical discussion by Ibn Rushd (d 1198 CE) p 16- 17 and p 22 in his Legal Handbook, translated by Rudolph Peters (1977) Jihad in Medieval and Modern Islam, Leiden, E. J Brill. The doctrine of abrogation is based on such verses as Q 13: 39 and 2: 106.

[8] See Yusuf Ali, p 77 FN 205 and p 243 FN 682 on treaty obligations, ´uqud.

[9] 1992, Delhi, Noor Publishing p 278 – 279.

[10] Ibid p 280

[11] ibid p 23

[12] ibid p 181

[13] See Kitab al-Umm, Cairo (AH 1321) Vol 1V.

[14] Bassma Tibi, Kreuzzug und Djihad, Der Islam und die christliche Welt, Muenchen 1999, P. 81.

[15] Khadduri (1955) p 53

[16] Bernard Lewis, Der Atem Allahs, Die islamische Welt und der WestenKampf der Kulturen?, Muenchen 1998, P. 187.

[17] Khadduri op cit p 171

[18] for example, see Shah Abdul Halim’s ‘Islam and Pluralism: A Contemporary Approach’ at

[19] Muhammad (PBUH) was asked what deed equaled jihad and replied, ‘Can you, while the Muslim fighter is in the battle field, enter the mosque and pray without cease and fast without ever breaking your fast?’ Khan, Vol 4 p 36.

[20] Ghazzali cites Muhammad as saying, " Muhammad (may God bless and preserve him) said: 'the true flight or Hijrah is the flight from evil, and the real holy war or jihad is the warfare against one's passions.'" For a recent study of al-Ghazzali’s ‘greater jihad’ concept, see Laleh Bakhtiar (2003) Al-Ghazzali: His Psychology of the Greater Struggle, Lahore, Kazi Publications

[21] Khan, Vol 4 hadith no 41 p 35

[22] Khadduri, p 141

[23] Farid Esack (1997) Qur’an, Liberation and Pluralism: An Islamic Perspective of Interreligious Solidarity against Oppression, Oxford, Oneworld

[24] Khaddiri, p 66/

[25] ibid p 57 and p 71 and see Ibn Khladun, al-Muqaddima, Paris (1858) Vol 11 pp 65-79

[26] see chapter 157, ‘War is Deceit’, chapter 158, ‘Telling Lies in War’ and chapter 159, ‘Killing non-Muslims secretly’, Khan Vol 4 pp 166 – 168.

[27] Mawdudi, Syed Abu’l A’la (1st ed, 1930; 15th ed, 1996) Jihad in Islam, Kuwait, International Islamic Federation of Student Organizations p 1

[28] ibid p 6-7

[29] Qutb, Sayyid (1964; 1988) Milestones, Delhi, Markazi Maktaba Islami (and electronically at and p 139

[30] ibid p 134

[31] ibid p 136

[32] ibid p 127

[33] ibid p 129

[34] ibid p 133

[35] Fundamentalist is a controversial term but we mean by it Muslims who want to restore traditional Shari´a, such as amputation for theft, segregation of the sexes, limited rights for non-Muslims and different rights for women and men. Many prefer the term Islamist, arguing that fundamentalist as a term derived from Christian discourse refers to theological conviction while Muslim fundamentalism is a political phenomenon while all Muslims hold to many ‘fundamentalist’ beliefs, such as in an infallible Qur’an and Jesus’ virgin birth.

[36] See the useful History of the Middle East Database section on the Wahhabi movement at by Ted Thornton.

[37] … Jihad in Islam is STRIVING IN THE WAY OF ALLAH by pen, tongue, hand, media and, if inevitable, with arms. However, jihad in Islam does not include striving for individual or national power, dominance, glory, wealth, prestige or pride. See:, Sept. 9th 2004. See also Why Terror: Is there an alternative. 19 Muslims speak out edited by Imam Abduljalil Sajid, 2004, London, Grosvenor Books.

[38] in Peters, 1977 p 49 (Peter’s translation of The Koran and Fighting is pp 26 – 79 of his text).pp 26 – 79 of Peter’s text).

[39] ibid p 47

[40] ibid p 50

[41] Taha, Mahmud Mohammad (1987) The Second Message of Islam, translated by an-Na`im, Abdullahi A, NY, Syracuse University Press p 137.

[42] Ibid p 161

[43] Esack, Farid (2002) The Qur’an: A Short Introduction, Oxford, Oneworld p 191.

[44] Ibid p 192

[45] Esack, Farid (2003) ‘In search of progressive Islam beyond 9/11’, pp 78 – 97, in Safa, Omid (ed) Progressive Muslims on justice, gender and pluralism, Oxford, Oneworld. P 92

[46] ibid p 93

[47] Esack, 2002 p 192