Clarifications About the Concept of Jihad in Islam
Posted Jun 17, 2009

Clarifications About the Concept of Jihad in Islam


By Maulvi Yahya Nomani


(Translated from Urdu by Yoginder Sikand)




Critics of Islam allege that the notion of jihad, as contained in the Quran and Hadith, is a license for cold-blooded murder and indiscriminate killing. Ironically, among the most bitter opponents of Islam who are today in the forefront of a concerted campaign to depict Islam as a bloody religion are influential intellectuals and leaders in the West, the very same West that, for the last three centuries and more has drowned the rest of the world in seas of blood. The West, which has such a bloody record, has today chosen to portray Muslims, who have suffered the greatest loss of innocent lives at its hands, as purveyors of terror.


Had the brutal Western imperialists not been able to craftily manipulate world opinion through their control over the media, the world would have demanded to know how they could arrogate to themselves the right to talk about peace before giving a full record of the brutal crimes that they have been responsible for over the last three centuries. The Westerners killed off almost all the aborigines of Australia and North America, and dealt with the Africans in a manner even worse than wild animals. And now the West has the gumption to ask the rest of the world to uphold human rights! As if the rest of the world has forgotten the history of Western barbarities! The world will not let the West continue trumpeting its rhetoric about human rights, which it is craftily using as a cover to hide its own blood-stained record.



There is a limit to the oppression that people can endure. If unceasing oppression and killing provokes feelings of revenge among some members of an oppressed community and instigates them to exceed the limits and to take wrong steps, it is an indication of the intolerable suffering that the community faces. In the face of enormous and sustained oppression heaped on their community, some Muslims have reacted in an unwise fashion, based on a completely wrong interpretation of ‘struggle in the path of God’ (jihad fi sabil Allah), one that is totally contradictory to the shariah and that violates the limits for jihad that the shariah sets down. Deviating from the opinion of the ulema, they have adopted the path of extremism. This has given Islam and Muslims a bad name. They have given their opponents an excuse to heap even more oppression on the Muslims.


It is true that the number of Muslims who have taken to extremism is relatively small, but that they do exist is an undeniable fact. We must admit that they have engaged in wrong and immoral activities. At the same time, we cannot deny that in several countries, including in the West, ruling establishments and their secret service agencies have been behind some acts of terror which they have wrongly attributed to Muslims.


The situation facing us today is extremely complex. On the one hand is the mounting wave of Islamophobia, based on a false projection of Islamic jihad, which aims to create hatred in the minds of people, Muslims as well as others, for the Quran and Islamic teachings. On the other hand, faced with unenviable conditions and driven by a desire for revenge or having fallen prey to an extremist ideology, are those ignorant Muslims who are either being used by global agencies or are acting on their own, and who, by their actions, are defaming the concept of jihad and creating major problems for the Muslims themselves. It is these people who have provided the pretext to America and their own governments, whom they brand as agents of the West, to clamp down on Islamic movements and institutions.


And there is a third category of people, who, under the pressure of present circumstances and cowed down by the torrent of allegations against Muslims are now altogether denying jihad, a very important part of Islam, or else interpreting it in such a way as to please the West and its client regimes. All this, then, has created an absurd confusion.


The situation thus demands that the Islamic teachings about jihad be properly explained. Islamic teachings are based on wisdom and justice, and this includes jihad as well. In actual fact, jihad, if construed correctly, can be a source of mercy for all humankind, Muslims as well as others.


Reacting to anti-Islamic propaganda by adopting an apologetic stance with regard to the doctrine of jihad is not the right approach. The Quran teaches us that the upholders of the truth are not concerned about fame or insult, their mission being to sincerely communicate God’s message. As the Quran says:


Who delivered the messages of Allah and feared Him, and feared none save Allah. Allah keepeth good account. (Quran 33: 39).


While studying the doctrine, laws and ethics of jihad it is important to bear in mind the process of evolution of civilizations and the international context. This suggests that the conditions in different ages demand that with changing contexts the regulations of jihad be reformulated (az sar-e nau tadveen) accordingly. The Quran, and, then, after it, the practice of the Prophet Muhammad, have given us certain permanent and unchangeable principles with regard to jihad. God has blessed them as sources of justice and welfare. Islamic jurisprudents developed detailed regulations on the basis of these principles, keeping in mind the social conditions and international contexts of their own times. The rules that they produced, as detailed in the books of fiqh or Muslim jurisprudence, can provide us insights, but, as in the matter of other rules of fiqh, it is possible that with the change of customs (urf), the social environment and the international context, the detailed regulations concerning jihad that are a result of the ijtihad or personal interpretation of the earlier jurists can be changed and replaced with new regulations to accord with the demands of wisdom and justice in the light of the Quran and the Prophet’s practice. God has placed this miraculous ability in the Quran and the Prophet’s practice that those who carefully study them can gain appropriate guidance in accordance with the demands of their own times so that they can deduce new regulations that are based on truth and justice. This is precisely what this book seeks to highlight.


In developing detailed regulations for every new age and on every issue it must be kept in mind that Islam champions the best and most balanced system of ethics and morality. Especially in today’s age, the twin issues of jihad and legitimate violence demand that such detailed regulations be derived in the light of the Quran and the Prophet’s practice in such a manner as to prove and reinforce our claim that the Islamic shariah is the best upholder of truth and justice, and that on other ideology and system can represent truth and justice in a better way.


The Truth About Jihad


Respect for Human Life


It must be noted that, according to the Quran and the Prophet’s practice, the doctrine of jihad is meant to promote peace, protection of human life and freedom. The Quran places great value on the life of a single human being, as indicated in the following verse:


On that account: We ordained for the Children of Israel that if anyone slew a person―unless it be for murder or for spreading mischief in the land― it would be as if he slew the whole people: and if anyone saved a life it would be as if he saved the life of the whole people. (Quran 5:32)


All the legal systems of the world consider the killing of innocent people as a grievous crime. Islam not only provides legal protection of human life, seeking to prevent killing of innocent through instilling the fear of the law, but also seeks to develop in people’s hearts a deep respect for the sanctity of human life. In a hadith mentioned in the Sahih of al-Bukhari (6871), the Prophet is said to have declared killing, along with associating partners with God (shirk) as the greatest sin. According to a report in the Sahih of Muslim (1678), the Prophet reportedly said that on the Day of Judgment, God will first settle cases of murder.


This respect for human life applies to every person, Muslim as well as non-Muslim. The Prophet very explicitly stated that if someone slays a non-Muslim who he is not engaged in an openly declared war with or who had the protection of a peace agreement with a Muslim government, that person would never even get to smell the fragrance of paradise (Sahih Bukhari 3166).


Permission to Fight


War wreaks destruction. Bloodshed is inevitable in any war. But, Islam, as has been indicated above, lays great stress on respect for human life. That is why Islam has provided for war only in certain unavoidable and exceptional circumstances. The Quran describes war as something bad or destructive, but, like other religions, it does not ignore the fact that at times groups, communities or governments do resort to such terror and oppression so that the only way to stop them is through defensive war. Such brutal oppression of innocent people is a true fact of life, and Islam is a religion of truth and is not blind to reality. It is not like the ‘Sermon on the Mount’ that insists that if someone hits you on one cheek, you must willingly offer your other cheek for him to slap. Instead, it calls for the hands of oppressors to be restrained, and considers this is a way to serve humankind and to gain God’s favour. Islam permits the oppressed whose very lives are under severe threat to take to arms to protect their lives, property and honour. Likewise, it considers it a duty for any country to react in like manner if it is invaded by any other country.


All legal systems in the world agree that it is the right, and even the duty, of every oppressed country or group to reply if it attacked. Reason and human conscience also agree to this. As the Quran lays down:


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 (Quran 22:39)


Further, the Quran instructs the believers thus:


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


These teachings are basic to the preservation of the life, respect and freedom of a community, the denial of which would spell death for it, causing it to fall prey to strife and degradation. Islam aims at character-building and shaping of morals so that people become models of virtue. How, then, can it allow them to sink into degradation by denying them the right to struggle against oppression and persecution? But, it must be remembered, mere fighting in defence against oppression does not constitute a legitimate jihad. Rather, jihad is governed by a host of spiritual and moral principles and laws, observing which alone can qualify it to be truly called ‘struggle in God’s path’ (jihad fi sabil Allah).


The biggest misunderstanding about jihad is that it is a communal struggle or war of Muslims, a war that Muslims launch against other communities to capture power or territory. In actual fact, this has nothing whatsoever to do with jihad, and the Quran condemns such violence as ‘strife on earth’ (fasad fi ‘l ardh). In other words, not every war in which Muslims are involved can be called a jihad. In order for a war to be qualified as a legitimate jihad the Quran lays down that it must be for only certain purposes and conducted according to specified principles and rules. Any war engaged in by Muslims other than for the purposes laid down in the Quran or that violates the rules governing jihad, as specified in the Quran, is not jihad. Rather, it is strife and chaos (fasad), which will earn God’s wrath.


Aims of Jihad


1.  Jihad for the Sake of Freedom of Religion


The Quran declared war against the Meccans in order to end their religious oppression. The Meccans had imprisoned Muslims and subjected them to extreme torture and oppression simply because, heeding the voice of their conscience, they had accepted Islam. News of their persecution reached the Prophet in Medina. The Quran then commanded the Muslims thus:


And fight them on until there is no more tumult or oppression and there prevail justice and faith in Allah altogether and everywhere (Quran 8:39)


The Arabic word fitna is used in the above-mentioned verse with regard to oppression. The verse lays down that the aim of war is to end fitna. The word actually means ‘test’ or ‘examination’, and, according to some noted Arabic scholars, where the word is used in the Quran it mostly means, or is related to, this sense. The word fitna has consistently been used throughout Islamic history to describe efforts by the enemies of Islam to use force and oppression in an effort to cause Muslims to stray from their faith or to make to difficult for them to stay on the path of Islam. For instance, the Quran uses a derivate of the word fitna in the context of Pharoah’s use of force and oppression to seek to cause those who had accepted the teachings of the Prophet Moses to abandon their faith and return to infidelity:


But none believed in Moses except some children of his People, because of the fear of Pharaoh and his chiefs, lest they should persecute them (Quran 10: 83).


Elsewhere, the Quran says:



Those who persecute (or draw into temptation) the Believers, men and women and do not turn in repentance, will have the Penalty of Hell: they will have the Penalty of the Burning Fire. (Quran 85:10)


Some Islamic scholars, including in the past, have interpreted the term fitna or its derivatives that are mentioned in such verses to mean shirk or associating partners with God. However, in Arabic fitna does not mean just shirk or shirk without force, oppression and testing. In today’s context, fitna can be described as ‘religious persecution’. Today, the sort of religious persecution that could be called fitna, such as was the torment and testing that the early Muslims faced in Mecca or that those who believed in the Prophet Moses had to contend with, is extremely rare.


The duty of Muslims to continue fighting till religious persecution is no more, as laid down in the above-mentioned Quranic verse, is echoed in another verse of the Quran, in the Surah Baqara. With any doubt, both these verses relate to the polytheists of Mecca. But, yet, who can deny that seeking to forbid people to follow the religion of their choice by oppression or even killing them is such a heinous crime that demands that the defenders of the truth rise up against this, if they have the capacity to do so?


2.  Jihad for the Sake of Freedom of the Oppressed.


The Quran repeatedly refers to the people who engaged in fitna in Mecca, seeking to force Muslims to renounce their faith, as enemies of God who were persecuting God’s weak servants and threatening their lives. The cruelly oppressed Muslims had been crying out for help, appealing for assistance to relieve them of their torment. Finally, God permitted the Muslims of Medina to fight in defence in the face of the war that had been unleashed on them and to protect their lives, their faith and the citadel of Islam. They were informed that the conditions had so drastically changed that God’s earlier instruction to them to restrain themselves and patiently and steadfastly endure the tortures inflicted on them was no longer necessary. God now told them to fight against those Meccan opponents of theirs who had declared war on them. As indicated earlier, one of the aims of this war was to put an end to fitna, understood here as religious persecution aimed at preventing Muslims from following their faith. As the Quran says:


And why should ye not fight in the cause of Allah and of those who, being weak, are ill-treated (and oppressed)?―men, women, and children, whose cry is: “Our Lord! rescue us from this town, whose people are oppressors; and raise for us from Thee one who will protect; and raise for us from Thee one who will help!?” (Quran 4:75)



With regard to the above-mentioned verse, it can be asked if, in the face of the desperate cries for help of the oppressed, a community does not rise up to repel oppression or is indifferent to the plight of those who are suffering immense persecution, can it not be said to be totally bereft of human feelings? No divine scripture allows for its followers to sit back and relax in comfort while innocent people are being persecuted in this brutal way.


It is true that the oppressed people referred to in the above-mentioned text, whom Muslims were exhorted to help, were themselves Muslims. Because of the bond of Islamic brotherhood that they shared with the other Muslims they had an even greater claim on their help. Yet, this Quranic verse, as well as statements attributed to the Prophet, clearly indicate that it is the duty of a Muslim state to respond to the cries of any wrongfully oppressed community, no matter what its religion, if it has the power to do so and, for this purpose, to fight against the oppressors of those people. People with a proper appreciation of, and commitment to, Islam need not be reminded that Islam desires that its true followers must rush to the rescue of every wrongfully oppressed person or community, irrespective of religion, without having any other motive. As a hadith contained in the collection of Abu Daud relates, the Prophet is said to have declared:


‘Beware! By God! Keep calling people to the good and preventing them from evil. Catch the hand of the oppressor and force him to ensure justice and keep striving to bring him to the true path. (In this lies your welfare) otherwise God will cause your hearts to clash with each other’s and will curse you, just as He cursed those communities in the past who did not abide by this duty’.


With regard to this sort of jihad to end oppression, the Prophet very clearly stated, as is evidenced in numerous hadith reports, that to make any distinction between the oppressed on grounds of religion, between Muslims and others, is against the spirit of Islam. Thus, according to a hadith report contained in the Sunan of al-Tirmidhi, the Prophet is said to have instructed his followers to help their ‘brothers’, whether they were oppressed or oppressors. His followers responded, ‘We understood [the need to] help the oppressed, but how should the oppressor be helped?’ The Prophet answered, ‘Stop him from oppression. This is the help that you should give him.’



Not War, but Struggle in the Path of God (jihad fi sabil Allah)


War fought in defence and to overcome oppression is a basic human right and duty, but here one point is of extreme significance. In Medina, when the Prophet was receiving revelations and was guiding his followers, the town was attacked by the enemies of Islam. That is why God finally sent down revelations ordering the Prophet and his companions to make preparations to defend themselves in the face of these brutal assaults. Yet, at the same time, these verses made it very clear that this defensive war that the Muslims must fight was not just for their political defence or for protecting their honour or for their political freedom. Rather, the Quran repeatedly stresses that they were not like any ordinary human group that fights for worldly goods and pleasures. Instead, it describes them as a group that had turned its face from the trappings of the world and gathered round God’s Prophet in order to worship God and strive for the welfare of the whole of humankind. It depicts them as a group that had vowed to live in poverty, if needed, and to make major sacrifices so that others could be also guided to the straight path. That is why the sort of war that they were ordered to engage in was not like any war fought for worldly ends. Rather, it was termed as jihad fi sabil Allah or ‘struggle in the path of God’, a war fought for God’s sake.


Every community in the world has the right to defend itself by fighting, in accordance with accepted norms and within acceptable limits. But, the fighting that the Prophet and his followers resorted to was not for freedom or for the communal rights of Muslims. The early Muslims had become, as it were, the salt of the earth at a time when (and this remains so even today) there was no community in the world that was wholly and completely based on devotion to and service of God. Through not just their words, but their actions as well, the Prophet and his followers proved that they had no lust for the luxuries of the world. They adopted poverty for themselves, and took up as their mission the guidance of humankind and the establishment of justice. Caring nothing for worldly comforts, they led a life in service to God and in accordance with His will. So, when they were ordered to fight in defence against those who had launched a reign of terror and oppression against them, they were told by God that this was not simply to defend themselves, but, rather, to defend God’s faith on earth. This is why these wars were termed as jihad fi sabil Allah and were deemed a source of great reward.


The cold hearth of the Prophet’s house and the fact that sometimes the Prophet went to sleep without food, with a stone tied round his stomach, are testified to in the history books. Even when wealth began coming into Medina, the Prophet’s house remained empty. The Prophet passed away from this world in a state of poverty. His daughter Fatima once approached him and spoke of how her hands had become knotted due to constant use of the grinding stone and how her body was weak. She spoke about how her husband, Ali, was suffering from asthma. She asked the Prophet for financial help. His reply to her was that there were still orphans left in Medina, who had to be helped. So, instead of giving her money, he told her to recite Subhan Allah, Alhamdullillah and Allahu Akbar thirty-three times each every day, adding that this was greater than all the wealth of the world put together.


As I mentioned earlier, the sort of fighting that is regarded as legitimate in Islam has been described in the Quran as ‘struggle in the path of God’. To repeat a point I made earlier, such fighting cannot be for the communal or worldly interests or defence of Muslims or for advancing their power and glory. Rather, for a war fought by Muslims to be regarded as a jihad it must be fought, not for communal defence or the defence of Muslims’ lives and properties, but, rather to gain God’s acceptance, protect His faith, guide humanity, promote its welfare and save it from oppression and strife. This is why the Prophet explicitly announced that those who fight for their communal interests are not mujahids.


According to a narration by Hazrat Abu Musa al-Ashari, as recorded in the Sahih of al-Bukhari, once a man appeared before the Prophet and asked him to explain what fighting in the name of God was. The Prophet replied that that fighting carried out for the sake of God alone could be said to be a struggle in God’s path.


The aims of jihad that I have outlined above relate to defence in the face of extreme oppression. All legal systems in the world, as well as common sense, regard this as a reasonable justification for taking up arms. But for such a struggle to be called a jihad it is a must that the vast majority of those who participate in it should be so trained, and their hearts should be so purified by following in the path of the prophets of God, that they should not be motivated in any way by the desire to capture political power for their own community or to enslave another community. Nor should they be driven by lust for booty or for communal supremacy or by the feeling of revenge. Rather, their motive must be to win the pleasure of God, uphold His faith, communicate His guidance to humankind, and help the oppressed.


Unfortunately, in today’s age Muslims have forgotten the real aims of jihad. Their general condition does not at all indicate that in God’s eyes Muslims have anything to do with the goals of jihad that I have mentioned and elaborated upon above. Our condition is now a major cause for our own degradation, and for oppression and misfortune for the rest of humanity. Today, there is no community that genuinely follows truth and champions justice and that has made service of God its mission, for which it is willing to sacrifice its life and worldly luxuries.


The Relation Between Jihad and Faith-based Character


The Quran further specifies that those oppressed people who are given permission to fight back must be so committed to God and the welfare of humanity that if the world were given to them to rule, they would do so in a manner completely different from ordinary rulers. They would use their power and resources for promoting the good and establishing worship of God. Their system of governance would be based on belief in God and on a just distribution of wealth. They would spend on the poor, and make the promotion of virtue and the stopping of vice their guiding principle.


The chapter of the Quran that for the first time gives permission to the companions of the Prophet to engage in physical jihad also mentions:


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 (39) (They are) those who have been expelled from their homes in defiance of right― (for no cause) except that they say “Our Lord is Allah.” [ …] (They are) those who, if We establish them in the land, establish regular prayer and give regular charity, enjoin the right and forbid wrong: with Allah rests the end (and decision) of (all) affairs. (Quran 22: 39-41)


Besides purity of the aims of fighting, proper intention, and strict obedience to Islamic rules and shariah limits in the conduct of war, this verse of the Quran also indicates that those Muslims who take to the path of jihad must be so pure in their service of and commitment to God and so morally upright that, if as a result of their struggle they gain control of any territory, they would use their powers not to satisfy their lusts and base, worldly desires, but, instead, to spread goodness and the service of God and to rid the world of wickedness. Their power would be pressed into the service of God and the reform and welfare of humankind. As the Quran clearly says:



Allah hath purchased of the Believers their persons and their goods; for theirs (in return) is the Garden (of Paradise): they fight in His cause, and slay and are slain: a promise binding on Him in Truth, through the Law, the Gospel and the Qur’an: and who is more faithful to his covenant than Allah? Then rejoice in the bargain which ye have concluded: that is the achievement supreme. (111) Those that turn (to Allah) in repentance: that serve Him and praise Him; that wander in devotion to the Cause of Allah;― that bow down and prostrate themselves in prayer; that enjoin good and forbid evil; and observe the limits set by Allah; (these do rejoice). So proclaim the glad tidings to the Believers. (Quran 111-112)



Undoubtedly, jihad undertaken by such a group would be a blessing for humanity, and that is why God rewards such a struggle with great merit. To qualify as a legitimate jihad, it must be a struggle for noble aims and engaged in by a group of pure souls, to protect humanity from oppression, as a step to be taken when all other means have failed.



Offensive Jihad?


I have explained the logic and rationale of jihad undertaken in defence and for ending oppression, but the question now arises if offensive jihad is also permissible. Can jihad be declared against a non-Muslim government that does not in any way oppress Muslims? Can such a government be told either to accept Islam or else hand over power to Muslims?


This is a very crucial question. It is necessary to study it in the light of the basic teachings of the shariah. Some Islamic scholars believe that jihad is permissible in self-defence and for ending fitna and oppression, as well as against forces of falsehood that are a hurdle to the spreading of the message and the accomplishment of the mission of the prophets. According to these scholars, after the demise of the Prophet, many of his companions spread out of Arabia into other lands and fought wars for this purpose.


With regard to this issue, it should be kept in mind that in those days all states were identified with one religion or the other.  Every state was strictly identified with a particular religion, and so it was simply inconceivable that any non-Muslim government would allow Muslims to invite its subjects to God’s path.  This is why the issue was never even discussed then of how Muslims should relate to a non-Muslim state that explicitly allowed Islam to be practiced in its territory or that permitted its subjects to accept Islam and follow it.


In the view of some scholars, in such a situation Muslims must adopt the path of peacefully inviting others to the faith, making use of it to the utmost extent possible so much as to that all the adequate proofs (hujjat) of God be made known. After this, God will decide, in accordance with His practice, which He invariably does after all His proofs have been clearly established, and which can take any form. My own limited understanding leads me to believe that this opinion is in closer accordance with reason, the spirit of the shariah, and the aims and wisdom of God’s revelation. This position can be backed by Hadith reports that insist on the need for peaceful propagation of Islam before fighting can at all be envisaged. And, it must be remembered, today it is no longer forbidden for Muslims to communicate their faith to non-Muslim rulers or non-Muslims in general.


Several Muslims opine that a non-Muslim government would necessarily spread faithlessness, and so God-fearing believers must provide it with just two options: to accept Islam or else to hand over power to them. These Muslims argue that the wars that took place in the early period of Islam against states outside the Arabian peninsula were fought on the basis of this principle.


Many of those who hold this view ignore some of the basic and essential conditions of jihad, and so their warped interpretation of jihad becomes unacceptable to non-Muslims as well as many faithful and pious Muslims themselves. I believe that a careful study of the Quran and the Prophet’s practice can supply an adequate answer to this issue.


It must be kept in mind that Islam’s teachings about jihad have not been revealed for any community named as ‘Muslims’. The basic cause of misunderstanding about jihad stems from conceiving of Muslims as a community, like any other, whose main purpose in life is to lead a life of luxury and grandeur. Unfortunately, like others, many of us, too, define the Muslim ummah in this narrow, communal sense, so much so that it is even reflected in the writings of many Islamic scholars. In contrast, as the Quran conceives it, the Muslim ummah is a group of people who are motivated by success in the life after death, by the desire to serve God and humankind, and by a concern to guide others to God’s path, being ready to exert themselves to the utmost for this purpose.


When this ummah came into being under the leadership of the Prophet Muhammad, it was founded with the following declaration:


Ye are the best of peoples, evolved for mankind, enjoining what is right, forbidding what is wrong, and believing in Allah [Quran 3:110]


The Muslim ummah referred to here was that group that came into being, not on the basis of colour or race or region or land, but, rather for the purpose of promoting the welfare of the whole of humankind and service of God. This ummah was described as ‘the best ummah’ (khair-e ummat) not just because it had the Quran in its hands, but also because, as the above-quoted verse indicates, their character was noble and they led the life of those who had truly submitted to God, as expressed in their words and deeds. It was through this nobility of character and purity of faith that they were able to communicate to others the necessary proofs of God. In other words, this ummah of Muslims, who had truly submitted fully to God, rose to the position of a group charged with the mission of establishing God’s proofs before humankind and upholding the truth. This is indicated in the following Quranic verse:


Thus have We made of you an ummah justly balanced That ye might be witnesses over the nations and the Messenger a witness over yourselves (Quran 2:142)


In other words, the status of the ummah of Muslims, understood here as a group that has sincerely and wholly submitted to God, is that of being witness to the truth and herald of welfare and beneficence. By bearing such witness with regard to God’s path they leave no room for differences or doubts. The Quran explains that this witness of theirs is like the witness established before the Muslims with the advent of the Prophet such that he cleared all their doubts.


Elsewhere, the Quran repeats the same point:


It is He Who has named you Muslims, both before and in this (Revelation); that the Messenger may be a witness for you, and ye be witnesses for mankind! (Quran 22:78)



It is the fulfilling of this mission of bearing witness that is the real aim of true jihad. This is why the companions of the Prophet addressed the Iranians, saying that they had been sent by God in order to deliver humanity from servitude to other beings and guide them to serve God instead.


The crux of this argument is that this ummah of Muslims that had been formed as the deputy of the Prophet to guide and reform humankind and work for its welfare was willing to make every sacrifice for this purpose. If such a group were told that, if they had the capacity, they should demand from the governments of the world to accept their invitation and thereby be allowed to remain in power, or else, if they opposed them, they should forcibly remove them from power so that God’s creatures could be served in accordance with God’s will, would there by anything wrong with this?


The trouble, however, arises from the fact that the Muslims of today are not the same as that pure ummah of true believers of the time of the Prophet. Hence, it is wrong for Muslims today, despite not living up to the high standards of faith and piety of the early Muslims, to interpret jihad in such a way as to demand that if a non-Muslim state does not accept Islam they should declare war against it and replace it with a government of their own. No one can at all doubt that the Muslims of today do not at all measure up to the standard of being witnesses unto humankind, unlike the companions of the Prophet. On the other hand, their condition is so pathetic as to make other people develop negative feelings for Islam. They are almost wholly bereft of faith in God. In contrast to Islamic teachings, they give greater stress to this world than the world to come after death. In fact, the vast majority of those who call themselves Muslims today lead lives that represent revolt against God and open disobedience of Him. In fact, as far as efforts to establish justice and serve humanity are concerned, which are the basic aims of jihad, many non-Muslim communities are far better than them. It cannot be denied that in causing this sorry decline from what should have been their status the biggest culprits have been Muslims themselves. Like other people, we have become slaves of the glitter and glamour of this world. Our general state is not that of a community driven by service to God and the desire for success in the Hereafter. In fact, in terms of morals, we are much worse off than many other communities.


In such a situation, who can at all accept the claim that if the reigns of power be taken away from others and given to the Muslims, the latter would put an end to oppression and conflict, and replace them with genuine human welfare? In fact, if others think that all our talk about disinterested service of humanity and sincere obedience to God is nothing but verbal falsehood, we must accept that our collective hypocritical character alone is responsible for this. Glance at the communal character of Muslims today, at their countries and societies, and think if anyone will at all believe that Muslims actually want to fight other communities in order to end strife on earth and replace it with welfare!


In such a situation, this sort of interpretation of jihad and Islam clearly reflects a very superficial understanding of Islam, a very dangerous violation of the limits set by the shariah. Lamentably, in the recent past several Muslim thinkers and leaders of Muslim movements widely propagated this wrong interpretation of jihad.



Those who have studied the Quran and the Prophet’s practice well know that whenever Muslims betray their role of being witnesses to the truth, stray from the path of Islam and earn God’s anger, they can never get the sort of power or honor needed to launch any offensive struggle. Today, the Muslims are unable to defend even their own freedoms, let alone being able to win God’s pleasure. In other words, according to the shariah, in this period, when the present-day Muslims have strayed away from God, a period characterized by much tumult and destruction, they are not qualified to engage in this sort of offensive jihad. The Quran very clearly and explicitly explains this.



(This is a translation of excerpts from Yahya Nomani’s Urdu book, al-Jihad [Lucknow: Al-Mahad al-Ali Lil Darasat al-Islamiya, 2009)