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Islamic Concept of Jihad Is Fundamentally Different From the Holy War Used In the Context of Crusades: Concept and Contours of Jihad In Islam -I

By Prof. Noor Ahmad Baba

June 3, 2019

One concept that is being generally misunderstood and misrepresented is the term Jihad that in common discourse is wrongly seen something like free for all kind of a holy war. As we will see below the concept in its linguistic sense, in terms of the Qur’anic references and the prophetic practices carries a much broader and considerably nuanced meanings. In literal sense the word means striving and struggling. Thus, in its broadest sense it implies striving for pursuing good. The good within Islamic tradition includes the pursuit of knowledge, helping weak, saying and standing by truth in trying situations and times and bearing with persecution in the cause of faith, righteousness and justice with patience and perseverance.  All this and much more in a civil and peaceful manner is always required of a good Muslim.

Dr. Yusuf al-Qaradawi (b.1926) one of the widely acknowledged contemporary Islamic scholar on the authority of Ibn al-Qayyim (2102-1350), (student of Ibn Taimiyya, 1263-1328), enumerates 14 forms of Jihad out of which 13 relate to peaceful, non-fighting types of it. All these forms are discerned from their mention in Quran, tradition of the Prophet or both. According to one such tradition the first and foremost, in all these is jihad al-Nafs (jihad of the self) resisting one’s own tendency to drift from the right path. “A struggle against one’s own base impulses….”Similarly, he (SAW) is also reported to have said the best Jihad is stating and standing by word of truth and Justice in front of an oppressive ruler (Musnad Amad18449). Jihad in the sense of fighting (battling out in a violent interface) is only one of these 14 forms. While as Jihad has a broader/wider connotation, Qital (or Al-Harb), is preferred (technical) expression used in Qur’an to refer to fighting.  Ahmed al-Dawoody, in his book Islamic Law of War, (2011) enumerates that jihad, in its seventeen derivatives; occur altogether forty-one times in Quran. Out of these only 12 references deal with fighting/war. Remaining 29 times these refer to various forms of non-violent civil-peaceful forms of struggle and actions.

Thus, Islamic concept of Jihad is fundamentally different from the holy war used in the context of crusades under the authority of the holy Church. Jihad as seen above has much wider connotations and is not restricted to only to a violent interface. 

While jihad in its broader sense of day to day striving/struggling/exerting in the righteous path, with a degree of perseverance, is without an exception an all-time obligation for all Muslims, in the sense of Qital (fighting) it is contextual, has certain prerequisites, applies under certain conditions with variation in its applications and within specified norms (rules and regulations) that are defined in Quran, within the traditions of the prophet and clearly codified in Islamic Law of War.

 The Prophet (SAW) and his companions strived with dignity, patience and resilience in the face of tremendous odds in their unwavering commitment to their faith right from the day of the initial declaration of the prophethood made in Makkah. The Muslims in Makkah where told to

“… listen not to the Unbelievers, but strive against them   with the utmost strenuousness, with the Qur’an (25:52).

 It is jihad of preaching. Striving with God’s word is taken to imply “using beauty, power and persuasive eloquence of the Qur’an to win people to faith”. The ‘command to engage in jihad, has remained a constant theme of revelation all through from its beginning in Makkah. But there was no permission for them to undertake Qital (fighting) even in self-defence.’

It was not permitted to Muslims for initial 14 years of the prophetic mission. Therefore, there is a ‘clear distinction between jihad, striving as a civil peaceful/nonviolent effort/movement and jihad as Qital, fighting in a violent encounter necessitated under certain conditions. God, in His absolute wisdom, did not grant permission of Qital (violent action/fighting/war/fight back) till Muslims migrated to Medina, established a polity relatively within the safe zones of the city and had consolidated their position and resources.

The Prophet and his followers suffered oppression with dignity, perseverance, without compromising their mission, and under the divine command remained patient to all provocation from the hostile Makkans. In Islamic understanding it all is Jihad, in the path of God, all through a peaceful but with sustained perseverance.

Makkans after having persecuted Muslims, forcing them to seek refuge away from the comfort of their homes, rendering them homeless and impoverished, occupying their properties, creating difficulties in their migration in peace and security, continued their hostilities towards them even after their emigration to Madina. They even began to conspire with Jewish tribes living in the periphery of Madina.

Despite their contractual obligation towards the new state some of these tribes began to betray by treacherously becoming partners in these anti-Muslim conspiracies. In their common enmity against Islam they did not want Muslims to stabilise and consolidate as a community in their new home.

 Therefore, after addressing some of the urgent issues of security and rehabilitation of the displaced (Muhajir) Muslims by establishing a unique mechanism of Muakhah (brotherhood of sharing between local hosts, Ansar, and migrants from Makkah) attention began to be given to the lurking external threat to their security as a community. 

It was in this context when political community in Madina had relatively stabilised that Muslims, one year after Hijra i.e. in the 14thyear of the prophethood, were allowed to fight the enemies not as a mechanism of aggression but as a means to protect and safeguard the community of faithful. The permission from Allah came thus;

 “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)

 It indicates that permission is given in response to Muslims having been ‘wronged’. The following verse (22:40) qualifies on what the Qur’an means by wronging:

 “[They are] the ones who were expelled from their homes without any just reason, except that they say, ‘Our Lord is Allah…’”

 This position is reinforced by verse 2:190 whereby the faithful are commanded to:

 “fight in the way of Allah against those who fight you, and do not transgress. Verily, Allah does not like the transgressors….”

This verse asks Muslims to fight those who fight them. But at the same time, it prohibits aggression and allows the use of force in self-defence. Secondly, it allows only fighting combatants during actual combat (Qital). ‘Do not transgress’ means that the limits set by Allah must not be violated.  Thus, the verses 22:39 & 2:190 speak of fighting in self-defence. In the context of the continued treacherous behaviour of the Quresh, Muslims are asked to

 “… fight them until there is no persecution, and religion is professed only for Allah. But if they desist, then remember that no hostility is allowed except against the wrongdoers.”(2:193)

It is within the above indicated parameters set in Quran that the Prophet was allowed permission to fight against the aggression (Queraesh at Badr) a year after Hijra i.e. in the14thyear (i.e.H.2) of the prophethood. The Prophet used defensive tactics so that Muslims had minimum loss in life and property as they were still weak in both numerical and material terms. In the battle at Uhad Muslims suffered more because some Sahaba (companions) prematurely left the defensive placement that the prophet had entrusted them to be at. He (SAW) always guarded against any suicidal adventure. If required, he avoided a faceoff with the invading forces as a matter of defensive strategy.

 In the 5thyear of Hijra when combined Arab and Jewish tribes with several times more personnel (3000) and resources the Muslim (i.e.1000) could bring together the Prophet on the suggestion of Salmani Farsi got a trench (Ahzab) dug around the tiny city of Madina as a defence line to defeat the designs of the invading army. The invading armies exhausted through the faceoff across the trench line left without achieving anything and thus allowing Muslim resources remaining intact. They won without any significant fighting. All these campaigns under the command of the prophet indicate the optimum restraint from violence and retribution. It holds several lessons. The prophet thought it to be strategically unwise to fight in an open battle in a situation where in military parameters the adversary is stronger.

In Islam war and fighting is not a private affair. Even for an organised political community/state permission is contextual and not an all-time activity. Its conduct is subject to considerations of feasibility and principle, rules and norms. More importantly war and violence has not to be a preferred option for Muslims. The telling example for this has been the Prophet entering a peace treaty Makkans on terms that many of his colleagues’ thought were unfavourable to them.




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  1. "Jihad means striving and struggling."
    But, as generally understood, it means "holy war". The word should be made obsolete because no war is holy.
    By Ghulam Mohiyuddin 10/06/2019 12:55:14