A Critique of the Doctrine of Offensive Jihad

A Critique of the Doctrine of Offensive Jihad

By Maulana Waris Mazhari

(Translated by Yoginder Sikand/ Noor Mohammad Sikand)

The issue of offensive jihad has for long been a subject of heated debate among Islamic scholars. Some scholars are of the view that Islam allows for just one form of jihad, in the sense of war—defensive jihad. Others disagree, and believe that Islam permits both defensive as well as offensive jihad, in the sense of fighting. Perhaps the latter opinion enjoys the support of the majority of the ulema. In contrast to defensive jihad, which is fought in response to the aggression of an enemy, offensive jihad allows for war to be waged against a non-Islamic country in the absence of that country having taken any steps to initiate fighting against Muslims. Advocates of the doctrine of offensive jihad claim that it is a necessary means to establish the supremacy of Islam and to destroy the power of infidelity.

Proponents of offensive jihad consider it to be not just legitimate but even a farz-e kifayah or collective duty binding on the entire Muslim ummah. They go to the extent of arguing that such offensive war is binding on an Islamic state against even those non-Islamic countries that permit Muslims to freely practice and propagate Islam. The only exception that they make in this regard is in the case of those countries that have a peace treaty with the Islamic state. Even here the most fuqaha or scholars of Muslim jurisprudence regard such treaties as only temporary and as permissible only if the Islamic state lacks the power to engage in war. Defenders of this view believe that a non-Muslim state has only three options: to accept Islam, to accept Islamic supremacy and pay the Islamic state the jizya, or to be ready to accept death. The following Quranic verses are among several that are offered by the proponents of this view in order to back their claim:

“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)

“O ye who believe! fight the unbelievers who gird you about, and let them find firmness in you: and know that Allah is with those who fear Him” (9: 123)

and

“And fight them on until there is no more Tumult or oppression, and there prevail justice and faith in Allah. but if they cease, Let there be no hostility except to those who practise oppression” (2:193).

The first of these three verses is also called the ayat al-saif or the ‘verse of the sword’. Some scholars believe that this verse has abrogated almost all the previous verses that speak of gentleness with non-Muslims and avoiding conflict with them. In effect, they claim that some 140 verses of the Quran have been thereby abrogated!

In the Indian subcontinent, some ideologues of the Jamaat-e Islami are leading advocates of this position. Many of them present this position in an extremely forceful, indeed exaggerated, form. Their counterparts in the Arab world are the so-called Salafi ulema. The Internet hosts thousands of articles that project the views of these writers on offensive jihad, and they have penned scores of books on the subject. Undoubtedly, present-day radical jihadist groups have been deeply influenced by their ideas.

In contrast, as I mentioned earlier, a number of other Islamic scholars, including some from the early Islamic period, have been of the opinion that Islam allows only for defensive jihad. In recent times, the noted Egyptian scholar Mufti Muhammad Abduh and his disciple Shaikh Rashid Rida, the well-known Indian scholar Shibli Numani, Abdur Rahman Azam, Allama Mustafa Sibai, Ahmad Amin, Mahmud Aqqad, and Shaikh Muhammad al-Ghazali were among the many Islamic scholars who shared the same view. Shaikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi, one of the most prominent present-day Islamic scholars, also falls in the same category, as is evidenced in his recent book Fiqh al-Jihad or ‘The Jurisprudence of Jihad’, which has generated considerable discussion in the Arab world.

According to the proponents of the doctrine of defensive jihad, the rationale (‘illat) of war against deniers (munkarin) is not their infidelity (kufr) but, rather, their aggression or offensive violence (maharaba). In support of this position they cite those Quranic verses that give Muslims permission to engage in fighting (qital) in response to oppression and aggression, such as

“Fight in the cause of Allah those who fight you, but do not transgress limits; for Allah loveth not transgressors” (2:190)

“[And] fight the Pagans all together as they fight you all together” (9: 36)

and

“To those against whom war is made, permission is given (to fight), because they are wronged;- and verily, Allah is most powerful for their aid” (22:39).

A pivotal point in the debates between the advocates of defensive and offensive jihad is the question of what is, or should be, the basis for relations between Muslims and non-Muslims. This issue relates very directly to the question of what exactly the status of jihad, in terms of war, is in Islam. The majority of Islamic jurists and Quranic commentators (mufasirin) consider war to be the real basis of relations between Muslims and non-Muslims. They regard the infidelity of non-Muslims as the cause (‘illat) of such war. They believe that Muslims must engage in war with non-Muslims continuously till Islam establishes its supremacy over all other religions. Since, in actual fact, this, as Muslims believe, can only happen just before the Day of Judgment, they argue that Muslims must necessarily continue to wage war against non-Muslims till the Day of Judgment finally arrives. The opinion of Imam Shafi‘i and some other fuqaha is even more extreme in this regard—they argue that only Ahl-e Kitab or ‘People of the Book’ can be permitted to stay alive in exchange for paying the jizya, and that all other non-Muslims must accept either Islam or death.

This contested issue of offensive jihad needs to be seriously examined and debated today. We must ask how this doctrine can at all be compatible with the basic principles of Islam, in particular Islam’s teachings of mercy and justice. Today, when the borders of all countries have, in most cases, been determined and accepted, and there is unanimity in regarding war as an evil and independence and self-determination of peoples as a basic human right, how can offensive jihad have any legitimacy at all? What answer do those who believe that offensive jihad is the means to establish the global supremacy and sway of Islam have when their actions are producing precisely the opposite result? The doctrine of offensive jihad implies that Muslims can peacefully relate to non-Muslim countries only because and if they lack the power to fight and overpower them militarily. Obviously, those who argue on such lines make it even more difficult to promote better relations between Muslims and others.

A basic Islamic principle is, as the Quran puts it, ‘Let there be no compulsion in religion’ (2: 256). Likewise, the Quran says, ‘To you be your Way, and to me mine’ (109:6). Elsewhere, it lays down, ‘Now Truth hath reached you from your Lord! those who receive guidance, do so for the good of their own souls; those who stray, do so to their own loss: and I am not (set) over you to arrange your affairs (10:108). The Quran also declares, ‘Therefore do thou give admonition, for thou art one to admonish.  Thou art not one to manage (men’s) affairs’ (88: 21-22), and, then again, ‘It is your Lord that knoweth you best: If He please, He granteth you mercy, or if He please, punishment: We have not sent thee to be a disposer of their affairs for them’ (17: 54).

To wage war against any country or community on the basis of a particular belief system or ideology and in order to establish control over that country or community is a form of oppression and coercion. The Quran very clearly exhorts Muslims to deal with people of other faiths with justice and fairness. Naturally, therefore, not just non-Muslims, but even enlightened Muslims who know their faith well cannot accept the arguments of the advocates of offensive jihad. The latter’s claims make a mockery of Islam’s insistence on justice and fairness. It is obvious that Muslims can expect freedom, rights, tolerance and acceptance from others only if they are willing to exhibit the same attitude in their relations with them. And vice versa. The Prophet Muhammad’s title of ‘Mercy to the Worlds’ (rahmat al il alamin) very obviously demands that we Muslims must strive to base our relations with other communities on peace and equality, and not on war and aggression, which can only exacerbate their hatred of, or opposition, to Islam.

The Quran specifies two forms of jihad, in the sense of war: jihad in defence, and jihad in order to end tumult and oppression (fitna). By fitna the Quran means conditions that stand as a barrier preventing the servants of God from accepting the Truth and blocking the path of inviting people to God’s way. All the wars engaged in by the Prophet Muhammad were either defensive in nature or else fought in order to end fitna. Such wars were a duty that the Prophet had to abide by, and are a collective duty (farz-e kifaya) binding on his followers as a whole as well. Most noted Islamic scholars are of the opinion that this duty binding on the Prophet related to the Quraish pagans of Mecca. They argue that the Quranic verses and statements of the Prophet (ahadith) that speak about waging war till the unbelievers accept Islam apply only to the pagan Arabs.

One of the several points of confusion and debate regarding the doctrine of jihad are those commandments relating to fighting that only concern the pagans of Mecca or Arabia. Some scholars have sought to argue that these have a general validity, and that they apply to all non-Muslims. They argue that the war that was ordained for the ending of fitna continues to apply even today. In responding to this claim, we must bear in mind that the term fitna, as used in the Quran, relates to the situation then prevailing in Arabia and most of the world at that time wherein people were robbed of their religious freedom by powerful monarchs who forbade their subjects from following the religion of their choice. However, the conditions of the world today are vastly different. Today, the freedom of religion is universally recognized as a basic human right. Every community now has the right to openly follow its religion and even to invite others to accept it. Hence, in the light of the principles of Islam, in today’s context, it could be said, there is only one form of jihad, in the sense of war, that may be regarded as permissible, and that is defensive jihad—unless, of course, the same sort of fitna that prevailed in the Prophet’s time is re-established whereby people lose their religious freedom.

To my mind, this argument is the most appropriate way of relating the conflicting opinions about defensive and offensive jihad, although one can confidently reiterate that in today’s context only defensive jihad can be regarded as permissible according to Islam, because jihad to end fitna is only an exception to a general rule. In this regard, one must also stress that references in the Quran and Hadith of establishing the supremacy of the faith denote an ideological, and not a political or military, struggle.

It is clear that traditional understandings of jihad are urgently in need of careful scrutiny, study and revision. They desperately need to be re-looked at. If Muslim scholars do not take up this task, they will only further facilitate critics who continue to claim that Islam spread throughout the world by the sword, and that it is a religion of unbridled violence. Advocates of the doctrine of offensive jihad consider such war as necessary so that, so they claim, in future non-Muslims would be unable place hurdles in the path of the advance of Islam and Islamic government. According to the noted Islamic scholar Allama Yusuf al-Qaradawi, this argument is no different from that used by imperialist powers, most notably America, in order to seek legitimacy to attack and conquer other countries. Obviously, the argument of the advocates of offensive jihad is greatly flawed. If we were to accept their line of thinking, how could we justify our opposition to the offensive wars waged against Muslim and other countries by Western imperialist powers?

It should thus be clear that the advocates of offensive jihad are not just wrong in their interpretation of Islamic teachings, but also that they play into the hands of the critics of Islam, offering them weapons that they can easily deploy against us. In actual fact, the doctrine and ideology of offensive jihad is in accordance neither with Islam’s teachings of mercy and justice, nor with reason and human nature.

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Maulana Waris Mazhari is the editor of the New Delhi-based monthly Tarjuman Dar ul-Ulum, the official organ of the Graduates’ Association of the Dar ul-Ulum, Deoband. He can be contacted on .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)

Yoginder Sikand works with the Centre for the Study of Social Exclusion and Inclusive Policy at the National Law School, Bangalore


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