[Please note: this is only a brief article on the subject. For an excellent in depth treatment, please refer to Dr. Muhammad Khair Haikal’s Al-Jihād Wal-Qitāl fī as-Siyāsah ash-Shar‘iyyah. This is a modern classic which is often referred to by contemporary scholars and, Alhamduli’Llah, the first volume has been translated into English (the paperback and Kindle versions are available from Amazon)].
Due to the actions of terrorist organisations, and especially after the 9/11 atrocity and subsequent acts of violence by these groups and their supporters, much has been said and written to try to redefine the meaning of Jihad and only emphasize the defensive aspect of warfare in Islam, while others have focused on the struggle against one’s ego and downplayed the importance of Jihad in the military sense. But what did the traditional, classical scholars say about the matter and how did they define Jihad?
The Linguistic Meaning and the Shari‘ah Definition
An example of the literal use of a word in the Arabic language and how this differs from the juristic definition in classical books of jurisprudence is the word As-Salāh (prayer), which literally means supplication (du‘a). The juristic meaning in the Shari‘ah, however, refers specifically to a defined form of ritual prayer (referred to as namaz in Turkey, the Indian subcontinent and elsewhere) or more specifically “The actions and statements which begin with al-Takbīr and end with al-Taslīm” [cf. Dr. Muhammad Khair Haikal, op. cit., p. 63]
Similarly, jihād also has a linguistic meaning and a Shari‘ah definition given by the classical jurists.
Ibn Manzur (died 711 H/1311 CE) provides the meaning of Al-Jihād in the most famous dictionary of classical Arabic, Lisān al-‘Arab as: “The utmost exertion with all that one has of ability (or effort) and capacity in relation to a statement (opinion) or actions” [see the entry under جهد (jahada) and Haikal, op. cit. p. 67]. This linguistic meaning of jihād can include the struggle against one’s ego which is the focus of tasawwuf (Sufism), the importance of which has been mentioned by several classical scholars, such as al-Qushayri (d. 376 H/986 CE) who in his Risālah on Sufism includes a chapter on Mujahada (striving). This is an important work and has been rendered into English (three different translations are available).
However, the Shari‘ah definition by classical scholars refers to military action. Qastalani (d. 923/1517), who followed the Hanafi school of jurisprudence (madhhab), defines jihād in his commentary on Bukhari: “In iṣṭilāḥ [Shari‘ah terminology]: Fighting the disbelievers to give support (victory) to Islam and to make the word of Allah supreme” [Irshād al-Sārī fī Sharḥ al-Bukhārī, 5/30]
And Ibn Hajr al-‘Asqalani (Shafi‘i school, d. 852/1449) defines it in his commentary of Bukhari: “Exerting the utmost in fighting the disbelievers” [Fatḥ al-Bārī fī Sharḥ Ṣaḥīḥ al-Bukhārī, 6/3]
It is defined by the Maliki scholar Ibn Rushd (d. 595/1198)) as: “Fighting the disbelievers with the sword” [Muqaddamāt, 1/369]
And the Hanbali scholar al-Buhuti (d. 1051/1641) defines it as: “Fighting the disbelievers” [Kashshāf al-Qinā, 3/32]
Is Jihad only Defensive?
Those who insist that the only goal of Jihad is defence of the community cite the following from the Qur’an:
“Fight in the way of Allah against those who fight you, but do not go beyond the limits. Allah does not love those who go beyond the limits” [2:190].
The tafsīr (commentary or exegesis) of this verse, derived from the narrations of the Prophet ﷺ and early exegetes, is important as it indicates that killing non-combatants is prohibited. Imam al-Qurtubi (d. 671/1273) in his tafsir states that Ibn ‘Abbas (ra), ‘Umar ibn ‘Abd al-‘Aziz and Mujahid (an early Muslim exegete) say the verse means: “Fight those who fight you and do not transgress by killing women, children, monks and the like”. Qurtubi further explains that “it is not permitted to kill anyone who does not fight or help the enemy” [Tafsir al-Qurtubi: Classical Commentary of the Holy Qur’an, translated by Aisha Bewley, Dar al-Taqwa, London, 2003, vol. 1, pp. 490-492].
The problem with limiting Jihad to only a defensive war is that this ignores other verses of the Qur’an in which Muslims are instructed to initiate war in order to spread Islam (termed jihād al-ṭalab by the classical jurists). And it also contradicts the explicit statements of the jurists in their books of fiqh.
For example, according to the Hanafi scholar al-Marghinani (d. 593/1197): “The engagement [qitāl] of the unbelievers is obligatory, even if they do not commence aggression, due to the generality of the texts (of the Qur’an and Sunnah)” [Al-Hidayah: The Guidance – A translation of Al-Hidāyah fī Sharḥ Bidāyat al-Mubtadi – The Most Authentic and Important Manual of Islamic Law, translated by Professor Imran Ahsan Khan Nyazee, Centre for Excellence in Research, Islamabad, 2016, vol. 2, p. 1086]
And the Shafi‘i scholar Imam al-Haramayn al-Juwayni (d. 478/1085) says: “I adopt the opinion of the scholars of uṣūl. They stated that Jihad is a mandatory call and must be established according to the ability until none remains in the world but a Muslim or one who has submitted to Muslims.”
[Quoted by Abi Zakaryya Al Dimashqi Al Dumyati (‘Ibn Nuhas’, d. 814/1411) in Mashāri‘ al-Ashwāq ila Maṣari‘ al-‘Ushāq wa Muthīr al-Gharām ila Dār Assalām, abridged English translation by Noor Yamani, p. 18. The book can be downloaded here]
Only 3 verses after the previously mentioned āyah [2:190], Allah commands:
“Fight them until there is no more fitna and and the dīn belongs to Allah alone. If they cease, there should be no enmity towards any but wrongdoers” [2:193]
Qurtubi comments: “It is an unqualified command to fight without any precondition of hostilities being intiated by the unbelievers. The evidence for that is the words of Allah, ‘and the dīn belongs to Allah alone.’ The Prophet said, ‘I was commanded to fight people until they say, “There is no god but Allah.” ’[Bukhari and Muslim] The āyat and ḥadīth both indicate that the reason for fighting is disbelief because Allah says, ‘until there is not more fitna,’ meaning disbelief in this case. So the goal is to abolish disbelief and that is clear.”
Explaining the second part of the verse (“If they cease…”), Imam al-Qurtubi says this means: “If they stop and become Muslim or submit by paying jizya in the case of the people of the Book. Otherwise they should be fought and they are wrongdoers and only transgress against themselves.” [op. cit., vol. 1, p. 496]
Ibn Kathir (d. 774/1373) explains in his tafsīr of this verse that “ ‘and the dīn belongs to Allah alone’ means, ‘So that the dīn of Allah becomes dominant above all other religions’ ” [cf. English translation, vol. 1, p. 531]
The Aim of Jihad
Ibn Rushd mentions in his book on comparative fiqh:
‘The condition for the declaration of war, by agreement, is the communication of the invitation to Islam, that is, it is not permitted to wage war on them unless the invitation has reached them. This is something upon which the Muslim jurists agreed because of the words of the Exalted, “We never punish until We have sent a messenger” [17:15]’
[The Distinguished Jurist’s Primer: Bidāyat al-Mujtahid wa Nihāyat al-Muqtaṣid, translated by Nyazee, Garnet, Reading, 1994, vol. 1, p. 461]
He also explains:
‘Why wage war? The Muslim jurists agreed that the purpose of fighting the People of the Book…is one of two things: it is either for their conversion to Islam or the payment of jizya. The payment of jizya is because of the words of the Exalted, “Fight against such of those who have been given the Scripture as believe not in Allah or the Last Day, and forbid not what Allah and His Messenger hath forbidden, and follow not the religion of truth, until they pay the tribute readily being brought low.” [9:29]’
[ibid., vol. 1, p. 464]
During the famous battle of Qadisiyyah, the Persian general Rustam sent word to the Muslim commander Sa‘d ibn Abi Waqqas (ra) to send an envoy for negotiations. The latter chose his fellow Ṣahābī Rib‘i bin ‘Amir (ra) as the envoy.
When Rib‘i arrived at Rustam’s court, he was asked by the general through the interpreter: “What is your purpose in waging war against us?”
Rib‘i bin ‘Amir replied:
“Allah has sent us forward so that we may liberate, whomsoever He wills, from following men [and lead them] to the obedience of Allah, and pull them out of their narrow world into the broader one, and from under the suppression of [various] religions into the justice of Islam…”
[Ibn Kathir, al-Bidāyah wa al-Nihāyah, vol. 7, p. 39. Cited by Siddiqi, M N, ‘Tawḥīd: The Concept and the Process’ In Islamic Perspectives, Islamic Foundation, Leicester, 1979, pp. 20-21]
The Necessity of the Caliphate for this Type of Jihad
It is important to note that this type of Jihad is fought at the command of the caliph and is only necessitated when a bona fide Islamic State exists (which is not the case today).
Qurtubi states in his tafsīr:
“It is mandatory on the Imam to send an army of Muslims to the land of the enemy once every year and the Imam should participate himself in such expeditions. If not, then he should send someone capable whom he trusts, to call them to Islam, keep away their harm, to give victory to the religion of Allah, until they enter Islam or pay jizya.”
[Quoted by Ibn Nuhas, op. cit., p. 18]
And let us examine the tafsīr of the following verse:
“O you who believe! Fight those of the disbelievers who are close to you, and let them find firmness in you; and know that Allah are with those who have Taqwa.” [9:123]
Ibn Kathir explains:
“Allah commands the believers to fight the disbelievers, the closest in area to the Islamic state, then the farthest. This is why the Messenger of Allah ﷺ started fighting the idolators in the Arabian Peninsula. When he finished with them and Allah gave him control over Makkah, Al-Madinah, At-Ta’if, Yemen, Yamamah, Hajr, Khaybar, Hadramawt and other Arab provindes, he then started fighting the People of the Scriptures. He began preparations to fight the Romans [Byzantines] who were the closest in area to the Arabian Peninsula, and as such, had the most right to be called to Islam, especially since they were from the People of the Scriptures.”
[English translation of Ibn Kathir’s tafsīr, vol. 4, p. 546]
The Prophet ﷺ sent letters and delegations to various rulers to invite them to Islam. Copies of many of these letters have been preserved, and the image of the letter to the rulers of Oman (displayed in the National Museum of Oman) is featured above. The letter reads as follows:
In the name of Allah, the Beneficent, the Merciful.
From Muhammad, Messenger of Allah, to Jaifar and ‘Abd, sons of al-Julanda, and may peace be upon those who follow Allah’s guidance.
To proceed, I invite you both to Islam; accept Islam and you will attain salvation, for I am Allah’s Messenger to all mankind so that I may warn those who are alive and establish (Allah’s) word over the unbelievers. If you declare your Islam I will appoint you both as governors [of your lands], but if you refuse then (know that) your dominion is only fleeting, and my horsemen will dismount in your courtyard, and my Prophethood will prevail over your dominion.
NB: At the time of writing, Israeli forces have stormed Masjid al-Aqsa in Al-Quds, injuring hundreds of worshippers and the Zionists have targeted civilians in Gaza, killing many including children. In the face of our impotent rulers idly standing by, it is clear that Palestine will only be liberated by a future orthodox Caliph for whom this would be a priority. The Prophet ﷺ said:
“Verily, only the Imam is a shield behind whom they [the Muslims] fight and he protects them…”[Sahih Muslim, #1841]