Probably the one Islamic term more Americans know than any other is jihad. However, what this word means and its implications for Islam are often misunderstood. To many Americans, it means “holy war,” and it is the motto of Islamic terrorism. In this post we I will examine what the Quran actually says about jihad, warfare, and terrorism.
The Meaning of Jihad
Jihad comes from the Arabic root jahada, “putting forth a great effort to achieve a goal.” Those who practice jihad are called mujahidin. The word jihad actually occurs only four times in the Quran (9:24; 22:77-78; 25:48-52; 60:1), and in none of these instances is it explicitly about violence. For most Muslims, jihad refers to the spiritual struggle to live according to the teachings of God.
Warfare in the Quran
There are many references to literal warfare and combat in the Quran, and in Islamic tradition. But is it true that terrorists like Usama bin Laden are simply obeying the Quran?
According to some critics, the answer is yes. “Islam does in fact have an essential and indispensable tenet of militaristic conquest. The terrorists were not some fringe group that changed the Qur'an to suit political ends. They understood the Qur'an quite well and followed the teachings of jihad to the letter." (Unveiling Islam, p. 184).
It is especially common to find websites which isolate verses in the Quran that talk about making war against unbelievers, sometimes called the “sword verses.” The most widely quoted is Surah 9:5:
5 When the [four] forbidden months are over, wherever you encounter the idolaters, kill them, seize them, besiege them, wait for them at every lookout post…
Curiously, many critics of Islam fail to quote Surah 9:5 in its entirety. Here is the rest of the verse, along with the following verse:
but if they turn [to God], maintain the prayer, and pay the prescribed alms, let them go on their way, for God is most forgiving and merciful. 6 If any one of the idolaters should seek your protection [Prophet], grant it to him so that he may hear the word of God, then take him to a place safe for him, for they are people with no knowledge [of it].
Interestingly, Usama bin Laden quoted only the first part of this verse in his fatwah against the United States:
Praise be to God, who revealed the Book, controls the clouds, defeats factionalism, and says in His Book: "But when the forbidden months are past, then fight and slay the pagans wherever ye find them, seize them, beleaguer them, and lie in wait for them in every stratagem (of war)".
These sorts of selective quotations do not do full justice to what the Quran actually says, which in reality is far more complicated.
There are several categories of statements in the Quran:
- Passages that encourage tolerance (2:256; 18:29; 10:100; 109:6).
- Passages which permit defensive warfare only (2:190; 9:36; 22:39-40).
- Passages which speak of unconditional, unlimited war against non-Muslims (2:191; 2:190-195; 2:217; 8:39; 9:73; 66:9; 9:123).
The crucial issue is, which of these passages apply today? Some Muslims have argued that the passages speaking of tolerance were abrogated, and that the prevailing view of the Quran for today is war. This is known as the “classical doctrine of jihad,” and was formulated in response to the Crusades. Such interpreters divided the world into the “House of Islam” (dar al-Islam) and the “House of War” (dar al-Harb).
This school of thought was opposed by other Muslim scholars, such as Ibn Taymiyya (1263-1328), who argued that it violated the example of Muhammad and the principles of non-compulsion.
As the Muslim community grew, questions quickly emerged as to what was proper behavior during times of war. The Quran provided detailed guidelines and regulations regarding the conduct of war: who is to fight and who is exempted (48:17, 9:91), when hostilities must cease (2:192), and how prisoners should be treated (47:4). Most important, verses such as 2:294 emphasized that warfare and the response to violence and aggression must be proportional: “Whoever transgresses against you, respond in kind.” Esposito, John L. . "Violence and Terrorism." John Espisito, in Oxford Islamic Studies Online. 26-Nov-2011.
Muhammad and his followers created the first “rules of war” in Arabia, rules that:
Exempted women, children, monks, rabbis, and the elderly.
Prohibited mutilation of the dead.
Prohibited sexual violence.
Prohibited killing diplomats.
Prohibited wanton destruction of property.
Prohibited demolition of religious or medical institutions.
The prevailing opinion of Muslims is that passages like Surah 9:5 applied only to the polytheists of the Quraysh tribe that Muhammad fought, and does not have modern application.
Although the medieval and modern anti-abrogationists have not explicitly opposed the sword verse or the imperative to fight in God's path, they have certainly opened the door to a more irenic interpretation. Normally, they specify that the sword verses were directed only at the Arabian polytheists and that they have no general application beyond that.
Yahya Blankinship, Khalid . "Sword Verses." In The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Islamic World.
"Islam's history and Holy Scriptures clearly supply support for violent aggression against non-Muslims in order to establish Allah's right way on the earth. Several groups of modern radical Muslims attest to this practice today. Most modern Muslims, however, believe that the season of fierce, hostile invasion of other lands and peoples pertained only to the initial spread of Islam, and should not be practiced today." (Understand My Muslim People, p. 199-200).
Given what we have studied about the rules of war in Islam, it is obvious that terrorists like Usama bin Laden operate under beliefs that are contrary to the teaching of Islam. In his 1998 fatwah against the U.S., bin Laden quoted Surah 2:193: “Fight them until there is no more persecution, and worship is devoted to God.” But he omitted the second half of the verse - at precisely the point that it is not permitted to pause or stop reading according to tajwid, the rules of recitation.
“If they cease hostilities, there can be no [further] hostility, except towards aggressors.”
Terrorism is the deliberate and random use of violence against civilians for political goals. Islamic terrorism has the same features of other forms of terrorism, but it is certainly not the only belief system to spawn terrorism. And for all of its pious sounding protests, the primary victims of Muslim extremism and terrorism, such as that fueled by bin Laden, have been Muslims.