Justification for Violence in Islam: III: Jih_d as a Defensive Strategy or a Means of “Calling”?

Previous: Justification for Violence in Islam, Part II: The Interplay between Religion and Power in Islam

[15] Long before the Muslim jurists undertook to provide religious rationale for the historical practice of jih_d by developing political-legal terminology like d_r al-isl_m (the sphere of “submission” [to God]) and d_r al-harb (the sphere of war), the Qur’an had implicitly divided the world into d_r al-im_n (the sphere of belief) and d_r al-kufr (the sphere of disbelief). There is, however, a difference in the way the revealed law, the Shari’a, defined the two spheres and the way the Qur’an projected the realm of “belief” and “disbelief.” For Islamic law the division of the world into the spheres of “submission to God” and “war” was in terms of spatial-temporal as well as religious hegemony of Islam; whereas for the Qur’an the spatial division was simply in terms of spiritual and moral distinction between the spheres of “belief” and “disbelief.”

[16] Mecca was regarded as the sphere of “disbelief” as long as the people of Mecca had not accepted Islam. The “submission” of the people to the Islamic order brought about the conversion of Mecca to the sphere of “belief.” The religious distinction is thus attached to the spiritual-moral condition of the people, and not necessarily to the land where everyone should aspire to return as part of the divine promise. There are no prophetic promises in Islam, resembling those in Judaism, for instance, that would make Muslims undertake jih_d to return from the “diaspora” to their “holy land” located somewhere in Arabia. Moreover, there are no divine guarantees that once the sphere of “belief” is established it will not revert to the sphere of “disbelief.” The maintenance of the sphere of “belief” from turning into a corrupt and tyrannical sphere of “disbelief” is a human responsibility. Furthermore, there is no covenant between God and Muslims that certain parts of earth will be immune from becoming corrupt and unjust. Ultimately, human response to the divine challenge of becoming morally and spiritually attentive would decide the sacredness or otherwise of any part of earth. It was in such a conception of Islam as a political ideology for the entire world that the tension between the Qur’anic sanction of jih_d as a defensive strategy in the face of persecution, and jih_d as a means of “calling” (al-da’wa) people to divine path was discernible.1 The tension is between the religious destiny of humanity which must be negotiated between God and individuals without coercion from any human agency, including that of the Prophet, and the moral responsibility of living as a member of a society with well defined rights and obligations. Muslim jurists and exegetes were engaged in legitimizing the jih_d for purposes of “calling” persons to Islam – thus rendering the jih_d a form of holy war. On the one hand, there was the problem of reconciling an evident discrepancy between the Qur’anic treatment of the jih_d as means to make “God’s cause succeed” (8:39) and the manipulation of jih_d by the de facto Muslim authorities to increase the “sphere of submission [to God]” by engaging in territorial expansion. There is, further, the tension between religious and moral justifications for the jih_d, which although not explicitly distinguished in Islamic jurisprudence are, at any rate, alluded to in the Qur’an. Undoubtedly, tangible political circumstances forced the jurists to be pragmatic and realistic in their formulation of the justifications for undertaking jih_d, especially if the de facto rulers were willing to uphold the supremacy of Islamic law in a Muslim public order. In the process of providing a religious legitimation for the territorial expansionism of the Muslim rulers, the jurists preferred on many occasions to overlook those passages of the Qur’an that point toward moral justifications of jih_d (‘fight until there is no persecution’). Consequently, their rationalization of the jih_d as the means by which the entire world might be converted to the “sphere of Islam” obscures the Qur’anic concept of the jih_d in the meaning of a defensive war fought to stop persecution.

[17] The difficulty of keeping the moral and religious justifications for engaging in jih_d separate in Islamic jurisprudence was inevitable because at no point did Muslim jurists ever undertake to distinctly define the ethical and religious foundations of the Islamic legal thought. Moreover, because of the interdependence between religion and politics in the creation of an Islamic world order, Muslim legal authority was envisaged as a comprehensive power that exacted moral and civil obedience in the name of God. The promise of the creation of a just and equitable public order under the normative Shari’a that embodied the will of God was central to Islamic revelation and also to the social, political, and economic activity of the Muslim community. The connection between the divine will and the creation of such an order was fundamental in the jurists’ regarding of the jih_d as an instrument in the fulfillment of the ideal Muslim society. Thus, it was not difficult to interpret the Qur’an in such a way that the relatively limited justification for jih_d contained in the sacred text was broadened to associate jih_d with the concept of justice and divine guidance and with the desire to secure the well-being of the entire humanity.

[18] In the wake of the phenomenal conquests achieved by Muslims during the 1st/7th century, the jurists began to apply the term jih_d to military action and to efforts to expand the “sphere of Islam” through the extension of the boundaries of the Islamic polity. The juridical works produced during the 2nd/8th century provide the evidence that the treatment of the jih_d in connection with the task of converting the “sphere of war” (d_r al-harb) to the sphere of Islam was, in effect, an ex post facto legitimation of the early conquests. In fact, the division of the world into two spheres of “war” and “peace (isl_m)” was a legal construct based on the Muslim jurists’ inference from the implicit Qur’anic division of the world into the spheres of “belief” (im_n) and “disbelief” (kufr).

[19] That there is a relationship between the “call to faith” (al-da’wa) and the undertaking of jih_d is supported by the insistence of the Qur’an that it has been revealed for the purpose of making the entire world aware of the divine path, and of requiring humanity to obey God and the Prophet. But what are the means that the Prophet may use to exact this obedience? Does the Qur’an justify jih_d in this connection?

[20] The Qur’an gives the Prophet, in his capacity as the leader of the Muslim community, the right to control “discord on earth” by means of jih_d. This right points to the possibility -even obligation- for the Prophet to resort to jih_d when, in his judgement, such action is necessary as a means to combat a breakdown of the public order. In particular, the Prophet may resort to the sword in response to a situation of general lawlessness that results from someone’s “taking up arms against God and His messenger” (9:33-34), that is, from a rebellion against the established Islamic order. The repeated injunction to eradicate “corruption on earth,” taken together with the Qur’anic justification of a human institution that has the power to carry out the function of “enjoining the good and forbidding the evil,” (3:104, 110; 9:71) represents a religiously sanctioned basic moral-civil requirement to protect the well-being of a human community.

[21] In the light of the need to eradicate “corruption on earth” and to “command the good and forbid the evil,” the Qur’an provides a sort of rationally derived moral basis for jih_d in Islam. To be sure, the permission to use force in any form occurred, according to the jurists, during the Medina period of the Prophet’s ministry (622 CE) when Muslims were given permission to fight back against the “folk who broke their solemn pledges”:

Will ye not fight a folk who broke their solemn pledges, and purposed to drive out the Messenger and did attack you first? (9:13)

If they withdraw not from you, and offer you not peace, and refrain not their hand take them, and slay them wherever you come to them; against them We have given you a clear authority. (4:91-93)

[22] It is not difficult to adduce strictly defensive warfare, justified on moral grounds (breach of contract, retaliation, self-defense and so on), from this permission given to the Muslims to use force. That is, the permission is to respond to the rationally derived obligation to fight in retaliation for attacks upon Muslims. Hence, the Qur’an justifies defensive jih_d, allowing the Muslims to fight against and subdue hostile unbelievers who are dangerous to the community, and whose actions show them to be inimical to the success of God’s cause. My categorization of the Qur’anic jih_d as strictly a “defensive” jihad is based on the absolute absence of any reference in the Qur’an that would justify an “offensive” jih_d, that is, a jih_d undertaken to “convert” all of humanity to Islam. As I shall demonstrate, the Muslim jurists, especially the Shi’ites, had great difficulty in justifying the “offensive” jih_d without the presence of a legitimate, divinely designated authority of the infallible Imam who could protect against the shedding of innocent blood.

[23] However, if the Qur’an had stopped at this duty of self-defense against hostile forces, then the possibility of offensive jih_d would have been altogether out of question. It also requires the Prophet to strive to make “God’s cause succeed.” At this point, the jih_d (the “struggle”) becomes an offensive endeavor in connection with efforts to bring about the kind of world order that the Qur’an envisions.

[24] The possibility of offensive jih_d as a means in the creation of the Islamic world order gives rise to the tension between the tolerance advocated in the matters of religious destiny of human beings, on the one hand, and active response encouraged and even required against unbelievers “until there is no persecution (fitna) and the religion be only for God,”(8:39), on the other. If the divine commandment in 8:39 is interpreted in the context provided by the general Qur’anic justification for engaging in jih_d (as a response to aggression or moral wrong), it can be construed in terms of a moral-civil duty to fight “persecution” which, according to 2:191 “is worse than slaughter.” On the other hand, if the verse is interpreted in terms of the development of Muslim political power, then it may be said to provide a warrant for wars of expansion. Undoubtedly, Sunni jurists, in providing the legitimacy of the Muslim conquests, duly regarded them as the outcome of a Qur’anic jih_d. However, Muslim political history clearly demonstrates that these conquests were undertaken with the explicit aim of expanding Islamic hegemony, not with the goal, as stated in the Qur’an, of ensuring that “the religion be only for God.” (8:39-40) This verse clearly states that fighting cannot be started until the adversaries are first invited to come to the right path. If they accept the call, there will be no fighting; but if they reject it then “know that God is your Master; the most excellent Master, and most excellent Helper.” That means their rejection of responding to the call of religion is beyond human remedy. Only God can guide them to the right path. Further evidence that the injunction to fight in this verse was morally restricted is provided by the fact that some Muslim commentators regarded it as abrogated by the more general command that requires Muslims to fight in the verse 9:29, against “those who believe not in God and the Last Day…” However, this verse refers to an entirely different group of unbelievers. It speaks about the Peoples of the Book. And, as pointed out earlier, offensive jih_d against the Jews and the Christians “until they pay jizya (poll-tax)” (9:29) points more to the complex relationship and interdependence of religious and moral considerations in the treatment of the “Peoples of the Book” than to their conversion to “God’s religion,” Islam.

[25] To recapitulate, if jih_d is understood within the notion of human responsibility to strive for the success of God’s cause, consistently maintained by the Qur’an (9:41), then legitimizing the use of force against moral and political offenses cannot be regarded as contradicting the Qur’anic dictum of 2:256: “No compulsion is there in religion.” The Qur’an justifies the use of force in the establishment of an order that protects the basic welfare of the Muslim community against “internal” and “external” enemies. The “internal” enemies include “tyrants” who, according to the Qur’an, “fight against God and His messenger, and hasten about the earth, to do corruption there” (5:33). “Fight” or “take up arms” as the Arabic verb suggests, is taken to mean “subverting a Muslim public order under God and His Messenger” leading to “chaos and lawlessness.” Hence, “tyrants” are those engaged in seditious activity against the Muslim public order. The “external” enemies include the “leaders of unbelief” who “break their oaths after their covenant and thrust at your religion” (9:12) (i.e., non-Muslim Arabs) and the Peoples of the Book (i.e., Jews and Christians), who “do not forbid what God and His messenger have forbidden” (9:29), thereby obstructing the struggle to make “God’s cause succeed.”

Next: Justification for Violence in Islam, Part IV: The Need for Legitimate Authority to Sanction Violence in the Name of God

End Notes
1 Discussion in this and the following section is based on my earlier research on “The Development of Jihad in Islamic Revelation and History,” in Cross, Crescent, and Sword: The Justification and Limitation of War in Western and Islamic Tradition, ed. James Turner Johnson and John Kelsay (New York: Greenwood Press, 1990), pp. 35-50.