From Defensive to Offensive Warfare:The Use and Abuse of Jihad in the Muslim World

From Defensive to Offensive Warfare:The Use and Abuse of Jihad in the Muslim World

Dr. Abdulaziz Sachedina

University of Virginia


The purpose of this paper is to demonstrate that although one must avoid highly essentialist interpretations of the classical Muslim juristic formulations, so common in contemporary studies on jiha>d, one cannot ignore their systematic retrieval by extremist Muslims for justifying activist and even armed response to aggression and oppression by Muslim and non-Muslim forces. Numerous places and events have provided occasions when extremist Muslim groups have formed and called for jiha>d in tones, and often in terms, that have articulated rationales for greater violence against enemies than the language of classical juristic discourse and modern definitions of jiha>d would seem to sanction. The post-colonial conditions in the Muslim world have affected modern understandings of jiha>d, rendering it at times meaningless violence that achieves none of the goals of Islamic tradition in building an ideal just society. My central argument in this paper is that the Muslim legal-theological discourses were articulated in order to highlight the Qur’anic message about “isla>m” (`submission’) being the only true religion with God” (3:19) and the only one desired by God (3:85) in the context of successful and dominant political and social position of the community. This interaction between the exclusivist idea of Islam being the religion for the entire humanity and the existing predominance of Muslim empire created the specific juridical-theological language that provided the normative justification to extend the notion of jiha>d beyond its strictly defensive meaning in the Qur’an to its being an offensive device for the hegemonic expansion of the Muslim empire.

Introductory Remarks

In this paper I use the word “Islam” in three senses. In the Western studies of Islam, the term “Islam” is primarily used in the meaning of a religious tradition with fundamental principles of the creed that provide authoritative perspectives for interpreting contradictions and tensions in human existence. I have retained this usage whenever I deal with normative sources for the derivation of justifications as well as criteria for jiha>d. But I also use the term “Islam” signifying an important ingredient in the internal structure of cultural values that permeate dispositions and practices connected with jiha>d among Muslims within a specific time and place. Finally, I use the term to convey an overarching ideological system related to the power in the name of a sacred authority that aims in providing justifications for the creation of the state as a means to promoting the common good. In a way, the three senses covering the beliefs, attitudes, and practices of the community demonstrate the intricate developing relationship within the context of sociopolitical history between the authoritative and determinative teachings of Islam and emerging power of the state that undertakes to implement these teachings for the creation of an ideal public order.

To be sure, belief about an ideal public order as much determines as it is determined by the way in which Muslims deal with the questions of resistance and opposition to the abuse of power or submission to it. The ultimate outcome of this historical interplay between Islam as a religion and Islam as a source of power is also reflected in the way the community has responded to the need to confront the obstacles to the realization of the idealized vision of a religious polity on earth. In other words, the idea of jiha>d (in its essential meaning of ‘struggle’ and ‘striving’) as an instrument of realizing the Islamic ideal on earth has had to interact with the sociopolitical realities that confronted the Muslims when responding to its call to take arms in the name of a sacred authority. Like Judaism and Christianity, Islam emphasized concern for the ordinary moral needs and abilities of the common people to undertake to work for an ideal just society. This outlook stressed active involvement of the people in creating its own public order that would reflect the moral and social teachings of Islam. In this sense, Islam in its primary meaning of being a religious tradition, inherently functioned as an “activist” ideology within a specific social-political order that it evaluated, calling upon its followers to defend and preserve or to overthrow and transform it. However, in its third signification of being an important source of legitimate power, Islam was understood as a divine blueprint that awaits implementation to realize God’s will on earth to the fullest extent possible and, if necessary, through force, that is, jiha>d.

Inasmuch as the Qur’an, the foundational source for Muslim social-political consciousness, introduced the injunction legitimizing the use of force through the instrumentality of jiha>d, it was responding to the pre-Islamic Arab tribal culture, which had institutionalized military power on which depended the security of a tribe and even its existence. Primacy among the tribes belonged to those that were able to protect all their clients and to avenge all insults, injuries, and deaths through their military strength. The Semitic system of retaliatory justice based on “a life for a life” in the circumstances of desert life could not always ensure that crime would not be committed lightly and irresponsibly. Against this background, the legitimate use of force prescribed by the Qur’an was merely to provide appropriate moral restrictions on the use of military power to resolve conflicts. Legitimation of jiha>d in the meaning of ‘fighting’ appears in the context of defending the community and bringing the breakdown of the public order to a halt so that “there is no persecution and the religion be only for God” (K. 2:193).

This was a prescriptive measure to arrest the harm caused to the people at large and to redress the wrongs suffered by the weak at the hands of those who perpetrated immoralities in order to defeat the divine purposes on earth. The use of force, as far as the Qur’an is concerned, is defensive and limited to the violation of interpersonal human conduct. For the Qur’an it is crucial to emphasize its defensive strategy in dealing with the problem of violence stemming from human rejection of faith. My categorization of the Qur’anic jiha>d as strictly defensive jiha>d is based on absolute absence of any reference to an offensive jiha>d in the Qur’an, that is, jiha>d, undertaken to convert all humanity to Islam. Nonetheless, as the historical development of the relationship between Islam and power progressed, Muslim jurists regarded this explicitly Qur’anic principle of defensive warfare as abrogated by the verse, which has been dubbed as “the sword verse” (Q. 9:5) that declares war on the unbelievers:“slay them wherever you find them, and take them, and confine them, and lie in wait for them at every place of ambush.” They maintained that fighting was obligatory for Muslims, even when the unbelievers had not begun hostilities. This accommodation with the historical practice of jiha>d is not uncommon in the works of the jurists. In the wake of the phenomenal conquests achieved by Muslim armies during the seventh century, the jurists began to apply the term jiha>d to military action and to efforts to expand the Muslim empire through the extension of the boundaries of the Islamic polity.

However, the Qur’an does not stop at this duty of self-defense against hostile forces. It leaves the possibility of offensive jiha>d when it requires the Prophet to strive to create an ideal public order. At this point, the jiha>d becomes an offensive struggle to bring about the kind of world order Islam envisions. The requirement of offensive jiha>d as a means in the creation of the Islamic world order gives rise to the tension between the tolerance advocated in matters relating to the religious destiny of human beings, and the active response required against those disbelievers who engage in persecution of Muslims. The development of Muslim political power provides a warrant for wars of expansion, depending upon how one interprets the passages of the Qur’an that speak about fighting the hostile unbelievers “until there is no persecution and the religion be only for God” (K. 2:191).

Jiha>d in Modern Times

In the recent history the call for jiha>d has been heard coming from both religious as well as secular Muslim leaders, fighting sometimes external aggression or domination, and at other times internal enemies of the Muslim state. The use of the word jiha>d for these wars of national liberation or internal rebellion among Muslim nations raises serious questions about inappropriate use of religiously sanctioned jiha>d. A number of Muslim scholars have questioned the pre-modern juridical formulations about jiha>d and declared them incompatible with the international norms that govern laws of war. At the same time, some Muslim scholars have argued that the antecedents for the just war tradition’s concerns with proportionality and discrimination in war, which in turn contributed to the rise of humanitarian law, are embedded in Islamic conceptions of jiha>d. The focus of pre-modern juridical discussion of jiha>d was on jus in bello - concerns with the principles of discrimination (or non-combatant immunity) and proportionality in use of force in warfare. The legality - jus ad bellum - of engaging in warfare was taken as established through the historical precedents which showed jiha>d to be both a war of defense as well as a war for territorial expansion. The focus of modern writers, on the other hand, is on jus ad bellum, with little attention on the conduct of war. This lack of interest in jus in bello raises serious questions about the ethics of war in modern appropriation of jiha>d.

Today jiha>d as a divinely sanctioned means to combat the enemy provides justifications for going to war for reasons of realpolitik without concern for limitations upon the means. This means that overemphasis on the jus ad bellum criteria at the expense of undermining the jus in bello, which formed the major focus of the classic discussions of jiha>d and served to justify wars fought for advancing Muslim hegemony, has served to justify even the use of terrorism and individual acts of violence against those deemed “the enemy.”

The term jiha>d, with its long and complex history in Islam as it interacted with political power, has been used and abused to justify endless violence that has plagued many of these countries in the Middle East. The frequent abuse of the term by the religious leaders has led many Western observers to treat jiha>d essentially in the meaning of “holy war,” with an implication that Muslim international relations will continue to be conflict-ridden because, as a religious obligation to fight dark forces of disbelief and arrogance (h}}arb al-kuffa>r), jiha>d will continue to determine Muslim relations with the non-Muslim world. But jiha>d has also been used to speak about conflict among the “brother nation-states” in the “family” (al-bugha>t), and certainly this jiha>d is not the same as the one fought against non-Muslims.

To add to this complexity of the term and the circumstances of different kinds of jiha>d in Muslim history are the preconceived and historically entrenched interpretations of wars between Muslims and the Christian world which continue to loom large in Western understanding of jiha>d. Most Western attempts to explain the culture of violence in the Muslim world have connected this culture to the religious appropriation of the term jiha>d in the meaning of ‘holy war’ and as such to a Muslim political goal of extending “the sphere of Islam”(da>r al-isla>m), that is, territories administered by the Muslim state, by obliterating “the sphere of war”(da>r al-h}}arb), that is, territories to be subdued. The two phrases, as argued by these writers, highlight the theological foundation of Muslim religious convictions about forming a Muslim empire that must ultimately subdue and dominate non-Muslim world. Such an evaluation of jiha>d is essentialist and based entirely on a narrow range of theological-juridical sources that responded to the real as well as idealized history of the last fourteen centuries. The theological-juridical expression of the doctrine and the legal issues surrounding jiha>d, as well as modern interpretations required by such momentous changes for the Muslim world as colonialism and responses to modernity and the West, require us to be cautious in linking the past heritage to the contemporary Muslim responses to oppression and aggression by Muslim and non-Muslim forces.

Nevertheless, with the growing influence of the religious extremism in the last three decades it is possible to speak about the influence of a major article of faith in dealing with unjust rulers on the on-going conflicts in the Muslim world, whether that conflict involves non-Muslim or Muslim countries with illegitimate rulers in power. These rulers are perceived as the followers of the pre-Islamic system of the jahiliyya - the period that is regarded as ungodly by these ultra-pious Muslims. The belief that can be exploited to generate perpetual conflict is the one that maintains the superiority of Islam and regards it as the final and perfected message that abrogated the pre-Qur’`anic religions like Judaism and Christianity. This sense of spiritual-moral superiority also serves to instigate not only interfaith conflicts; it also provides with sufficient religiously crafted justifications for mutual condemnation and ensuing deadly conflict in the intra-faith relations between the Sunnites and the Shi>’`ites.

The Perfect Religion That Will Replace All Other Religions

The debate over the role of religious ideas in engendering deadly conflicts around the globe is still going on. In the Islamic context, my own observations lead me to affirm that religion and religious beliefs are a source of much activism in Muslim world. During the most recent conflicts, such as in Bosnia and Chechnya, the statements calling the people for jiha>d make frequent references about the world in which Muslims are increasingly under physical threat by non-Muslim governments and groups. Anti-modernism is prominent in the religious pronouncements. Closely related to discourses against modernity are theological arguments against the West, the U.S. in particular. According to John Kelsay, “The momentum of Islamic thinking about justice and war leads to an emphasis on such jus ad bellum concerns as right authority and just cause, and ultimately to a discussion of how conceptions of nature and destiny of human beings set a framework for discussions of war.”

The importance of religious beliefs in spawning conflicts among the “peoples of the Book” cannot be underestimated. The source of many a deadly conflict among Muslims has been the belief that Islam is the only true religion which will dominate all other religions, superceding them. This confinement of salvation to only one religion rules out the plurality of faiths and communities and ensuing toleration founded upon the principle of co-existence. The exclusivist belief effectively rules out peaceful coexistence among different faith communities, and within the community itself. The establishment of Da>r al-taqri>b bayna al-madha>hib (Reconciliation between various schools of thought) in Cairo, Egypt and Qumm, Iran have a single goal in mind: to understand the differences between various Muslim schools of thought, and generate a meaningful dialogue between the majority Sunnites and the minority Shi>‘ites. However, the extremists on both sides regard these attempts to reconcile the Shi>’`ites and the Sunnites as nothing less than a compromise on one’s monopoly over the religious truth. When this exclusivist doctrine is applied to determine interfaith relations, then it has the potential to disrupt peaceful relations between different faith communities. Consequently, it is important to examine in some detail the idea of perfect religion abrogating all other religions - the idea that can be retrieved by the extremists in any tradition to dehumanize the religious “other.”

The idea that Islam is the ultimate and perfect religion in the line of Abrahamic religions is derived from the Tradition (the Sunna). One might even suggest that the idea of Islam being the only monotheistic tradition that offers the indubitable guarantee of salvation in the hereafter is post-Qur’anic. For the Qur’an saw itself as confirming rather than altering the central message of the Abrahamic religions that preceded it chronologically. More importantly, it saw itself as a conclusive revelation in the ongoing process of divine guidance from the day the earth became inhabited by the first human couple, Adam and Eve. Consequently, the Qur’an does not take up the issue of abrogation or supersession of the previous Abrahamic religions of Christianity or Judaism and prescribe the forced conversion of the followers of these religions. Quite to the contrary, it recognizes the salvific efficacy of the Abrahamic faiths, whose central doctrines are shared by Islam.

In the light of growing tensions in inter- and intra-faith relations in countries like Sudan, Pakistan and Afghanistan, an extremely important question needs to be raised about the way religions respond to the plurality of human responses to the religious impulse. How does it treat those who do not share its salvation narrative? The question should also lead us to explore the ways in which public space is negotiated and controlled by the dominant faith community. Furthermore, it should reveal the strategies that were adopted in the power-faith tradition like Islam to regulate legal-ethical relations with its non-Muslim minorities at home and maintain its international relations abroad. Theological-juridical justifications for the jiha>d with non-Muslims were provided by the Muslim jurists who had hoped that the entire world would become the “sphere of Islam.” My central thesis in this paper is that the Muslim juristic-theological discourses were articulated to justify the claim of conquering Muslim armies that “Islam as the only true religion with God” (Q. 3:19) and the only one desired by God (Q. 3:85) provided the divinely ordained mandate for the offensive jiha>d in the context of successful political and social domination of the community. This interaction between the idea of Islam being the universal religion for all humankind and the existing predominance of Muslim political power created the specific legal language that provided the justification to extend the notion of jiha>d beyond its strictly defensive meaning in the Qur’an to its being an offensive instrument for Muslim creation of a dominant political order.

Muslim juristic discourse in the area of jiha>d becomes a thoroughly legitimating discourse, justifying the undertaking of the jiha>d as a divinely ordained duty, with a prescription to expand the sphere of Muslim dominions, assuring the Muslim warriors their reward in this and the next world for fulfilling the duty of fighting in the path of God. And although one can observe the attempt to strike a balance between conservative legitimation and aspiration generated by simple fidelity to the inherited doctrines or precedents of a juristic culture, more than often this discourse tended to be based on imperfect understanding of a reality or a change of circumstances that required a practical or functional response. By “practical” I mean an outlook that tends to assess what is actually feasible, whereas by “functional” I mean an outlook oriented towards the potential function of maintaining an Islamic order. For instance, a Muslim jurist may write that a permanent state of peace may not exist between Muslims and non-Muslims, and that non-Muslims should be fought at least once a year. The jurist might believe that this describes an actual practice or that it responds to a practical concern. Yet, the jurist’s imperfect understanding of reality or a change in circumstances might reveal that, more than anything else, this statement is prescriptive in nature, that is, it lays down what is desirable. However, if the ruling is based on a reading of a context suggesting a political and social reality then it is a functional ruling to accomplish a specific result. If non-Muslims will not contravene against Muslims, or if attacking non-Muslims once a year will not produce the desired effect of inspiring fear in non-Muslims, then the rule is simply in the books waiting to be implemented. On the other hand, if the statement is a moral prescription, then regardless of the consequences or results, the rule remains valid, and non-Muslims, as desired by the lawgiver, should be attacked at least once a year.

“A Prophet for All Humanity”

The fatwas reminding Muslims about their religious duty to undertake jiha>d in the modern times shows an important shift from the way classical prescriptive rulings about engagement in the war against non-Muslims were prescribed. Whereas the classical juristic discourse reflected how Muslim jurists aspired to provide justifications for engaging in jiha>d with the non-Muslims as part of the divinely ordained activity to bring all of humanity under Islamic dominion, the modern fatwas call for radical resistance to the Western aggression against Muslim peoples. The classical rulings were established when Muslims were in power and when emphasis on the exclusivist doctrine contrived from the Qur’anic verse was seen more in political terms: “We have sent you [o Muhammad] not, except to humankind entire (ka>ffatu’n-na>s), good tidings to bear, and warning” (Q. 34:27). Under the classical juristic discourse the limitations set upon the conduct of warfare against Muslims and non-Muslims were not the same. If Muslims fight other Muslims, there are binding regulations that do not necessarily apply to Muslims fighting non-Muslims. If Muslims fight one another, the fugitive and wounded may not be dispatched. Muslim prisoners may not be executed or enslaved. Children and women may not be intentionally killed or imprisoned. Imprisoned male Muslims must be released once the fighting, or the danger of continued fighting, ends. Even more, strategies of mass destruction may not be used unless absolutely necessary. In principle Muslims are prohibited from fighting each other; if they do, they are considered to have committed a grave sin. Muslim jurists in general cautioned against the evil of rash and violent rebellions against unjust rulers. It is important to emphasize that Muslim jurists hinged the treatment of Muslim combatants on a perceived moral culpability of those who were the cause of social unrest, but most of their efforts focused on the morality of conduct and not the morality of purpose. As for issues related to the fighting against non-Muslims its legality was not discussed because the doctrine of the finality of the Islamic revelation and its universality for all humankind was taken as a given. Muslim jurists conceded the authority to the ruler to negotiate relations with foreign powers, keeping in mind the protection of Muslims and Islam under their domain. However, the rules about the conduct of war were not very different from those that applied to the Muslim rebels engaged in fighting an unjust Muslims ruler. All proper limits that applied to the “in family” Muslims fighting Muslims were articulated for conducting war against non-Muslims to whom the jurists imputed a degree of moral culpability.

In comparison to these classical formulations, modern statements on jiha>d not only argue the justifications for going to war against Western enemies, but also justify terrorism and individual acts of violence against the enemy, civilian or otherwise, wherever they may be found in the world. Thus, Usama ben Laden, the Saudi rebel, in his fatwa> of 1998 justified terrorist acts against the United States in terms of aggressive American policy towards Muslims in general, and its support of corrupt Saudi regime. He regards jiha>d an individual duty (fard} ‘`ayn), which must be performed by all male, able-bodied Muslims, and not simply a collective one (fard} kifa>ya), which, if performed by sufficient number, relieves others from performing it. Ben Laden goes even further to argue that terrorism is a legitimate and morally demanded duty so long as anti-Muslim forces are carrying arms in Muslim lands, especially Muslim holy places. This argument for terrorism as a legitimate means of conduct in war is a clear departure from the classical rulings which regard the ethics of war as important part of jiha>d.

The Crisis of Interpreting Islamic jiha>d for World Peace

It is appropriate to speak about a crisis of retrieval and interpretation of the rulings about jiha>d today. In the world of nation-states where international relations are conducted without any reference to religious affiliation (or lack thereof) of the member states, the discourse about jiha>d among the extremist groups give rise to uncompromising attitudes that render all chances of negotiated peace practically impossible. To elaborate on the seriousness of the crisis created by selective retrieval of past rulings on jiha>d and their interpretation by the leaders of radical movements, who lack the necessary training in contextualizing the past rulings to investigate their applicability in the modern times, has led to untold misery suffered by the innocent civilians caught up in the crossfire. Muslim jurists follow certain guidelines in their investigation whether rulings on an institution like jiha>d, which legitimized and provided moral limits on the conduct of war, can have relevance in the new world order. There are three basic steps that must be covered in order to derive fresh rulings on the subject of the ‘`sphere of war’ today:

(a) Investigation in the us}u>l - fundamental sources like the Qur’an and the Sunna (the Tradition) that provide direct or indirect statements describing or defining the “sphere of war” and its limits;
(b) Investigation in the furu>’` - paradigm-cases that could guide the jurist to determine a legal-ethical outcome of the present case;

(c) Investigation of the mawd}}}u>’`a>t -`objects’ or ‘`situations’ that might share similarity or variations with paradigm cases in order to understand changed “situations” and the ordinances that could be based on them to decide whether the ‘`sphere of war’ today can be described the same way as it was done in the past.

The ah}ka>m - rulings can be derived only after the above three steps have been followed in the investigation to guide the practice today.

This traditional method of deriving fresh decisions has given rise to several fundamental problems related to the determination of the ‘situational’ context of jiha>d against Muslim rebels and non-Muslims. First of all, it is obvious to the jurists in the traditional centers (who are severely criticized by the radicals) that Muslims are not living under the universal caliphal state. Therefore, the legal terms used to divide the world between da>r al-isla>m and da>r al-h}arb are defunct in modern times. The use of da>r al-isla>m for any Muslim country is legally problematic. Moreover, during the Iran-Iraq and the Gulf War Muslim countries were pitted against one another, and neither of these wars could be described as jiha>d, because in both cases the rhetorical use of jiha>d had rendered the term meaningless. Hence, the classical rulings and the terminology used there proved to be irrelevant in classification of the jiha>d. The requirement to investigate changed situation prior to issuing of the legal decision affecting the status of Muslim countries under consideration remains contentious even now. The role of Muslim jurists in ascertaining the legality of jiha>d in the “Family” was circumvented by the realities of public international order where Islam was no longer a determining factor in resolving the conflict peacefully. Neither the classical heritage nor the contemporary radical interpretations of jiha>d as a means to achieve political ends of extremist factions have proven capable of providing solutions to the concerns for peace among ordinary Muslim peoples in a given Muslim state.

The prerequisite of individual rational inquiry in the situational context in Islamic legal inquiry makes it necessary that people should be involved in representing their own concerns in all matters related to their social and political well being. Implicit in this prerequisite is that any legal decision affecting not only Muslims but also non-Muslim minorities living within Muslim territories should be made while allowing the people to exercise their right to determine their general well-being in the society.

However, the granting of the protected religious minority (ahl al-dhimma) status by the law, which accorded autonomous legal status to the minority, was deduced from an ideological standpoint of the superiority of the Muslim community. There was no acknowledgement of the Qur’anic monotheistic egalitarianism in dealing with the Christians and the Jews of the empire. Lurking behind the concept of the ahl al-dhimma was the supersessionist theology of the Muslim scholars in which the only form of monotheism was the religion of Islam. Moreover, because of this theological conviction, the institutional recognition of these subject peoples as spiritually and morally inferior religious communities became one of the major factors in obstructing the integrating objects and situations that would have gradually led to the creation of an egalitarian civil society in the Muslim world.

The majority of the discriminatory rulings against non-Muslims, it must be pointed out, were derived by reference to the juristic principle that “averting causes of corruption has precedence over bringing about that which has benefit” (dar`‘u al-mafa>sid muqaddam ` ‘ala jalb al-mas}a>lih}). This and other similar juristic principles were designed to regulate inter-human relationships in the law and were more than often invoked to curb the rights of minorities to function as full citizens in Muslim societies.

The supersessionist theology notwithstanding, a cursory glance at the juridical decisions made in relation to the followers of other monotheistic faiths indicates that, relatively speaking, Muslim jurists succeeded in pursuing the Qur’anic impulse towards asserting individual rights of all the followers of the Abrahamic traditions on the basis of God-centered equality. And, although Muslims retained wide authority in the society laws were enacted to give minorities unprecedented respect and protection in the Muslim polity.

Concluding Remarks

Let me conclude by saying that Kita>b al-jiha>d (The Book on Jiha>d) section of the juridical corpus continues to exercise enormous influence in the way Muslim world conceives its relation with the non-Muslim “other.” One can hardly ignore the implications of the religious statements contained in the legal rulings and the widely circulated traditions in the formulation of policies affecting Muslim non-Muslim relations. Kitab al-jiha>d in any work on Islamic law is a key to our understanding of the way in which Muslim community related itself to the world at large, including to the tolerated minorities within its own borders. If anything, it is the rationalization of jiha>d in the jurisprudence that demonstrates the interaction between theology and politics in its most clear contours. In the final analysis, no comprehension of Christian-Muslim or Jewish-Muslim relations is possible without adequate understanding of the theology of supersession and its impact upon the Muslim treatment of its religious minorities. Recognition of religious pluralism in Islam has always been determined either by absolutist or relative claim of Islam being the “only” accepted way. And, it is the Muslim jurists who have allowed one or the other interpretation to prevail, depending on their evaluation of the perceived threat to Islam and its peoples.

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