Surah 9 (Al-Tawbah/Repentance): 19

Do you regard the providing of water to Hajj pilgrims and the maintenance of the Holy Mosque as similar (in worth) to someone who has faith in Allah and (believes in) the Last Day and wages jihad in the way of Allah?

They are not equal with Allah, and Allah does not guide the wrongdoing lot.


The highly charged word ‘jihād’ has a literal meaning of ‘to strive’ or ‘to struggle’. In some of the occasions in which it is used in in the Qur’an, such as {16.110}, {22.78} or {29.6}, the word may be translated in this general sense and in two instances it is used in respect of those who strive against the Qur’an-believing community. However, on other occasions and especially when used in the phrase ’jihād fī sabīl Allah’ (‘to strive in God’s way’) or ‘strive with one’s wealth and one’s self’ it carries the more specific sense of engaging in holy warfare in the cause of Islam. For example:


{2.218}: ‘Truly those who believe, and those who emigrate and strive (make jihad) in the way of God – it is they who hope for the mercy of God’, which follows immediately after {2.216 & 217}’s ‘Fighting has been prescribed for you, though it is hateful to you’ and the approval of fighting during in the sacred months, on the basis that ‘fitna is worse than slaying〈38.〉,


{3.142}: ‘Or did you suppose that you would enter the Garden without God knowing those amongst you who strived…’ which occurs within a long series of verses reproaching believers for their lack of discipline, (traditionally associated with the Battle of Uhud 〈41.〉,


three uses of the word ‘jihād’ occur in close proximity in {8.72, 74 & 75} within the context of celebrating a military victory (traditionally the Battle of Badr 〈40.〉),


{5.35}: ‘Reverence God and seek the means to approach him and strive in (God’s) way’ follows {5.33}, which prescribes death, mutilation and exile as the proper punishments for waging war against God and His Messenger and making mischief in the land 〈40.〉, and {5.34}’s caveat ‘… save for those who repent before you overpower them’, and


{5.54} requires believers to be ‘humble towards the believers, stern towards the disbelievers, striving (making jihad) in the way of God’.


Many more verses instruct religious-military action without using the word  ‘jihād’ but employing the more direct ‘qitâl’ (to fight or slay). Several of the verses that use these words, are more than merely permissions or even instructions to engage in violence but were clearly composed as rallying exhortations to motivate and embolden fighters prior to battle:


{8.65} O Prophet! Rouse the believers to fight. If there be twenty steadfast amongst you, they shall overcome two hundred. And if there by one hundred of you they shall overcome one thousand of those who disbelieve, because they are a people who understand not.


{9.36} … And fight the idolaters all together, just as they fight you all together and know that God is with the reverent.


{9.123} O you who believe! Fight those disbelievers who are near to you and let them find in you harshness. And know that God is with the reverent.


{47.34} Truly those who disbelieve and turn from the way of God, then die while they are disbelievers, God will not forgive them.

{47.35} So do not falter and call for peace while you have the upper hand. God is with you and will not deprive you of your deeds.


{61.4} Truly God loves those who fight in his way in ranks as if they were a solid structure.


Many related verses have been cited in Part IV above in relation to the traditional life of Muhammad including the supposed first permission to fight 〈36.〉, the raid at Naklah 〈38.〉, the battles of Badr 〈40.〉, Uhud 〈41.〉 and the Trench 〈43.〉, the punishment raids upon the Jewish tribes of Mecca 〈42.〉 and 〈44.〉, the capture of Kaybar 〈46.〉, the battles of Hunayn 〈48.〉 and Tabouk 〈49.〉 as well, of course, as the ‘sword verse〈51.〉


An oft-cited hadith has Muhammad contrast the ‘lesser’ military jihad with the ‘greater jihad’ of ‘striving against inner desires’ (sometimes called ‘jihad al-nafs’, literally ‘jihad with oneself’). However, this saying is not contained within any of the biographies of Muhammad, nor in any of the early collections of hadith and can only be traced back as early as the eleventh century, making it a certain forgery . A spiritual jihad is referred to in one verse, {29.6}, as does jihad ‘by means of’ the Qur’an, {25.52}, but in direct contradiction to the proposed saying of Muhammad that mastery of oneself is the ‘greater jihad’, {9.19} produced above, unambiguously lauds fighting as the superior form of devotion contrasted with non-combat service. The same point is also made in {4.95}, which states that those believers who ‘stay behind’ are not equal with those who ‘strive (make jihad) in God’s way’, ‘save for those that are disadvantaged’ (presumably meaning infirm), demonstrating that the phrase ‘jihad in God’s way‘ refers to physical rather than spiritual struggles.


Reasons for Jihad

Some verses of the Qur’an encourage patience and forbearance in the face of opposition, 〈83.〉 However, these are outnumbered, and, if surahs are read in their traditional chronological order, qualified or superseded by verses instructing violence in response to provocation.


The Qur’an provides at least eleven distinct reasons for fighting:

1. righteous retribution:

{22.39-41}: ‘…Permission (to fight) is granted to those who are fought, because they (the believers) have been wronged, who were expelled from their homes without right’, see 〈36.〉;


2. to rescue specific people from an unnamed town (traditionally treated as an instruction to conquer Mecca) :

{4.74-76}: ‘What ails you that you fight not in the way of God and for the weak and oppressed – men, women and children – who cry out ‘Lord bring us forth from this town whose people are oppressors…’;


3. to remove an obstacle to, or the disrespect of, the practising of religion (dīn) as taught by the Qur’an:

{2.217} 〈36.〉,


{9.12}: ‘But if they renege on their oaths after having made their treaty, and vilify your religion (dīn), then fight the leaders of disbelief … that they might desist’;


4. treachery: ‘turning one’s back’, presumably deserting, or breaking an oath:

{9.12} see above,


{4.89}: ‘They wish that you should disbelieve even as they disbelieve, that you may be on a level with them. So take them not as protectors till they migrate in the way of God.

But if they turn their backs, then seize them and slay them wherever you find them and take no helper or protector from amongst them‘;


5. as a demonstration of God’s power:

{8.7-8}: ‘God desires to verify the truth through his words and to cut off the last remnant of the unbelievers’,


{8.57}:If thou comest upon them (unbelievers) in war, use them to scatter those who will come after them that haply they might be reminded’,


{8.67}: ‘It is not for a prophet to take captives until he has overwhelmed his enemies in the land 〈40.〉,


and {48.18-20} 〈47.〉;


6. as a test for believers:

{47.4}: ‘…And if God willed, he would take vengeance upon them, but that He may test some of you by means of others….’ and


{47.31}: ‘And We shall test you until We know those amongst you who strive (make ‘jihad’) and those who are patient, and We shall test your proclamations’,


7. to reward Muslims with the spoils of war:

{3.145}: ’Whosoever desires the reward of this world, We shall give him of it … And we shall reward the thankful 〈41.〉,


{8.68-69}: ’Were it not for a decree that had already gone forth from God, a great punishment would have befallen you for what you took. So consume the spoils you have taken lawfully and in a good way and reverence God’,


{33.27}: ‘And He bequeathed unto you their land, their homes, their property and a land you have not trodden’, (traditionally related to the annihilation of the Banu Qurayza 〈44.〉 and the future capture of Kaybar 〈46.〉),


{48.15-20}:Those who stayed behind will say, when you set out to capture spoils … God has promised you abundant spoils that you will capture’, (traditionally related to the capture of Kaybar 〈46.〉);


8. to confront believers who oppress their fellow believers:

{49.9} 〈89.〉;


9. to expand the territory wherein the ’dīn’ of Islam prevails and to enforce God’s commands:

{2.191, 193 & 217}: ‘Fitna is worse than slaying〈36.〉,


{8.12-17}: ‘I shall cast terror into the hearts of those who disbelieve, …that is because they are in schism with God and His Messenger〈40.〉,


{8.39}: ‘And fight them until there is no fitna and religion is wholly for God’,


{24.55}: ‘God has promised those among you who believe and perform righteous deeds that He will surely make them vice-regents upon the earth’,


{48.28}: ‘He it is who sent His Messenger with guidance and the religion of truth to make it prevail over all religion’, and


{59.4}: ‘That is because they (the Banu Nadir? 〈42.〉) defied God and his Messenger’;


10. to compel the payment of the jizya in submission:

{9.29}: ‘Fight those who believe not in God … and who follow not the Religion of Truth among those who were given the Book till they pay the jizya with a willing hand being humbled〈50.〉


and, most commonly,

11. to punish unbelievers for their disbelief, including

{3.141}: ‘So that God may assay those who believe and blight the unbelievers’,


{4.102}: ‘Surely God has prepared for the unbelievers a humiliating punishment’,


{4.141}: ‘God will not grant the disbelievers a way over the believers’,


{9.5}: ‘Then … slay the idolaters wheresoever you find them, capture them, besiege them and lie in wait for them at every place of ambush〈51.〉,


{9.26}: ‘Then God sent down His Tranquillity upon His messenger and upon the believers and sent down hosts whom you saw not and punished those who disbelieved’, see 〈12.〉 and 〈48.〉,


{9.29 & 123}, see above,


{33.25}: ‘And God turned back those who disbelieved in their rage, … God sufficed the believers in battle


{47.4}: ‘When you meet those who disbelieve, strike at their necks; then when you have overwhelmed them tighten their bonds...’ 〈94.〉 following,


{66.9}: ‘O prophet, strive against the unbelievers and the hypocrites and be harsh with them. Their refuge is Hell‘.


To appreciate this last rationale, it should be borne in mind that in the Qur’an to be a disbeliever, ‘al-kuffār’, is not merely to entertain a sceptical intellectual stance but to be an active concealer of the truth, and to be an idolater is to be guilty of the gravest sin of all, for ‘Who does a greater wrong than one who fabricates a lie against God?〈87.〉


Offers of peace

Several verses instruct that believers should cease fighting if their opponents offer peace:

{2.192-193}: ‘But if they desist, then truly God is Forgiving, Merciful. …But if they desist there is no enmity save against the wrongdoers〈36.〉,


{4.89-91}: ‘If they turn their backs then seize them and slay them… Save those who seek refuge with people with whom you have a covenant, or those who come to you with hearts reluctant to fight you or to fight their own people

So if they withdraw from you and do not fight you and offer peace, God allows you no way against them’,


{8.38-39}: ‘Say to the disbelievers that if they desist what is past will be forgiven them but if they relapse the wont of those of old has already passed And fight them until there is no strife and religion is wholly for God. But if they desist then truly God sees whatsoever they do.’


{8.58-61}: ‘And if thou fearest treachery from a people, withdraw from them in a just way. Truly God loves not the treacherous… And if they incline towards peace incline thou towards it and trust in God.’


{9.5, 7 & 11}: ‘If they repent and perform the prayer and give the alms then let them go their way

If they remain true to you remain true to them. Truly God loves the reverent …

But if they repent and perform the prayer and give the alms then they are your brother in religion’.


It is sometimes suggested that since these verses prohibit fighting a people who have communicated an unwillingness to fight, one must infer that fighting was only permitted in the first instance as a response to aggression. Some of these verses clearly stand within a specific textual context that require some unpicking. {9.5 & 11}’s ‘if they repent and perform the prayer and give the alms’ can reasonably be read as meaning ‘if they submit to the dīn of Islam’ whilst {9.7}’s instruction to ‘remain true’ to unbelievers relates specifically to abiding by a treaty that had been made at the Masjid al-Haram.


{4.89-91} defy a single coherent explanation and must be read together with {4.92-95} which are clear in not prescribing any punishment for killing an unbeliever with whom one does not have a covenant 〈73.〉 In Surahs 4 and 9 the verses instructing the acceptance of peace terms are inserted amongst those instructing war so as to give passages a schizophrenic quality. It is reasonable to doubt that they were originally composed in that order. Looking at the ‘jihad’ verses in the round, it is unrealistic to prioritise the handful of war-limiting verses from the background of calls for the slaying of infidels and draw an irenic message of peaceful and tolerant co-existence. For one thing, such a general benign interpretation must be weighed against the eleven reasons given for waging jihad in the first place, all except two of which are inconsistent with fighting only being permitted in self-defence. For another, the verses urging the acceptance of offers of peace are, with the exception of {9.5 & 11}, silent as to terms that may or must be required of an enemy in order to treat them as having ‘desisted’ from opposition to or ‘inclined towards peace’ with the Quranic community. Should these not include the covenantor’s acceptance of the laws and punishments of sharia, a commitment to pay the jizya ‘with a willing hand having been subdued’, and an agreement not to act in a way that the Quranic ruler would regard as mischievous?


More fundamentally, seeking in these verses an objective and coherent regime for determining when violence is justifies misses the crucial fact that the Qur’an invariably couches this issue in terms of religious exceptionalism. The rationale for violence is never expressed in terms of the behaviour of its opponents per se, but the Qur’an’s audience is urged to ‘strive in the way of God’ against an enemy defined and condemned by their lack of belief in, and either implicitly or explicitly their defiance of God, being sometimes referred to as ‘the allies of Satan’, {3.175} and {4.76}. It is the securing of obedience to God’s will that is the ultimate goal of Quranic violence and which lies behind Surah 47’s instructions to:

Do not falter and call for peace until you have the upper hand’, {47.35}, and


Then, when you have overwhelmed them, tighten their bonds’, {47.4} (〈94.〉 following),


and {8.67}’s ’It is not for a prophet to take captives until he has overwhelmed his enemy in the land.’ The Qur’an does not at any stage present a justification of violent jihad by any general regime of rights that might, in different circumstances, work to the benefit of a non-believer against a believer. Rather it appears to comprise a series of rhetorical declarations of divine authority to the ad hoc tactical decisions taken the Qur’an’s announcer. According to the traditional Islamic narrative, Muhammad’s military campaign began as a robber of caravans in which he seems to have made no effort to identify the individual owners of the property he targeted nor to have concerned himself with the culpability of those charged with its protection. He then engaged in campaigns against neighbouring Bedouin tribes and Jewish settlements that had done him no harm, and even after his conquest of Mecca persisted with campaigns of conquest to the south and north, always in the name of a God-ordered holy war against accursed and vile infidels. The example this story offers would appear to be to talk virtuously to opponents when one is weak and to become increasingly militant as one’s power grows. In truth, this traditional narrative is entirely unreliable, yet there can be no doubt that the Qur’an was announced by a man who was not merely a religious leader but a political and military leader too, who dealt with the issues of unwilling fighters, deserters, the treatment of captives, and the distribution of the spoils of war. The earliest historical accounts of Muhammad are as a warrior as much as a prophet 〈49.〉 The historical fact of the Arab conquests of the Middle East and North Africa by his closest companions and followers in the decades following his death are also relevant. Common sense dictates that great empires are not forged by those who long only for peaceful coexistence and who limit their violence to that strictly necessary for their self-defence.


Authority to conduct jihad

In classical Islamic jurisprudence it is always assumed that jihad is organised and conducted by or on behalf of an Islamic ruler, such as an emir, caliph, sultan or imam, who exercises authority over a substantial community of believers. Traditionally jihad has tended to be perceived in terms of a territorial conflict to expand the territory in which the din set out in the Qur’an prevails, the ‘dar al-Islām’ (‘Abode of Islam’), into bordering territory where it does not – the ‘dar al-Harb’ (‘Abode of War’), although the traditional Islamic narrative depicts Muhammad as conducting many raids and assassinations that were not, in themselves, aimed at the seizure of territory.


The ‘dar al-Islām’ faced the greatest crisis in its history in the thirteenth century, when the Abbasid Caliphate was swept away by Mongol invaders. A generation later the Mongol warlords became nominally Muslim, but they retained their pre-Islamic tribal laws. One scholar, who has become one of Islam’s most influential authorities, ibn Taymiyyah, issued a fatwa that whilst an offensive jihad was only to be carried out in the traditional way, from Dar al-Islam against Dar al-Harb under the leadership of an Islamic ruler, where territory had been lost to an invader who failed to follow the sharia, the duty to wage defensive jihad to repel the infidel lay upon every Muslim individually. It is in large part based upon Ibn Taymiyyah’s analysis that modern jihadi groups go to some lengths to seek to justify terrorism and insurgency as ‘defensive’ operations against targets that to lawfully attack, they must frame as guilty of the non-Islamic occupation of Muslim lands.