The Lesser Jihad and the Prohibition on Terrorism

By Sumbul Ali-Karamali

Excerpted from- WISE Up- Knowledge ends Extremism 2017


The Prophet Muhammad once famously remarked, upon returning from battle, that he had returned from the lesser jihad (physical fighting) only to engage in the greater jihad (the struggle to become a better person). Jihad means “to struggle” or “to strive” in the way of God. The internal jihad, called the “greater jihad” or “jihad by the heart,” is the struggle to improve oneself; the external jihad is the struggle to improve society. The external jihad is an exhortation to social justice and can take many forms. Islamic law identifies three kinds of external jihad:

1. Jihad by the tongue, which means using verbal persuasion (such as writing letters to the editor) to correct an injustice;

2. Jihad by the hands, which means undertaking good works (such as volunteering at a homeless shelter) to improve people’s lives; and

3. Jihad by the sword, which means the use of force in self-defense or to overthrow direct oppression.

Jihad by the sword, also called military jihad, is therefore never aggressive warfare, but defensive warfare against an attack or against direct oppression. Terrorist groups such as al-Qaeda and Daesh define their terror attacks as “jihad.” But, are these terrorist groups really exercising jihad? No, for several reasons: First, terrorism has always been prohibited and severely punished in Islam. Second, neither al-Qaeda nor Daesh is acting in self-defense or to overthrow oppression as defined in Islamic law. Third, a legitimate jihad cannot be declared by just anyone, but only by a publicly recognized caliph or imam who is a leader of the worldwide Muslim community; the leaders of al-Qaeda and/or Daesh are not universally accepted caliphs or imams. And finally, even if the actions of these terrorist groups qualified as a legitimate jihad(which they do not), they would be required to follow these strict rules of engagement, which they have repeatedly violated:

1. Muslims may not attack noncombatants and civilians of any kind;

2. Muslims may not arbitrarily destroy property;

3. Muslims may not uproot trees;

4. Muslims may not kill people who are wounded or fleeing;

5. Muslims may not poison the water supply;

6. Muslims may not commit suicide;

7. Muslims may not engage in terrorism;

8. Muslims may not engage in cheating and treachery;

9. Muslims may not commit rape;

10. Muslims may not terrorize populations;

11. Muslims may not torture any people or animals; and

12. Muslims may not wage war against other Muslims.

These rules are consistent with modern international rules of warfare and, if anything, are more stringent. Therefore, al-Qaeda and Daesh are not engaging in jihad; even worse, they are violating numerous rules of jihad and established Islamic law. This makes them mass murderers and criminals under Islamic law.

According to Sheikh bin Bayyah, a professor of Islamic studies at the King Abdul Aziz University in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, and one of the most well respected Islamic scholars in the world, the crime of terrorism in Islamic law is defined as “all violent acts that aim to obliterate, sabotage, and terrorize people, kill the innocent, and destroy property . . . [including] the circulation of illegal drugs, as well as the violence of vigilantes against legitimate authorities, aimed to create sedition and anarchy and strike fear among civilians, or even with the express aim of overthrowing a legitimate government.”1 Clearly under this definition, the atrocities committed by al-Qaeda and the group known as Daesh are classified as terrorism—a punishable crime in Islam—and can never be classified as “jihad.”

Though terrorists have wrongly equated “jihad” with “waging holy war on ‘infidels,’” jihad has never meant “holy war” in Islam. On the contrary, the Arabic word for warfare is harb, not jihad. Significantly, harb is never attached to or combined with the phrase “in the way of God,” as jihad is. The Arabic word for armed combat is qital.

In Islam, war is not holy—it is either justified or unjustified. It is justified as a jihad only when waged in self-defense or to overthrow oppression. In Islamic law, the only type of warfare that is allowed is that which qualifies as a jihad.

Wars of aggression or revenge do not qualify as jihad. Neither do wars of territorial expansion. Muslims are never allowed to wage war to convert people to Islam. Neither are Muslims allowed to kill people just because they are not Muslim. Eminent Islamic scholars throughout the centuries have affirmed, and continue to affirm, that war in Islam is defensive.

Even in early Islam, jihad by nonviolent means was preferred, and violence was a last resort. Although the Qur’an allows taking up arms in self-defense, it also counsels that patience and forgiveness are a better strategy (Qur’an 16:126). Jihad can be undertaken to overthrow oppression, but the oppression must be direct and, according to some Islamic scholars, of a kind that actively prevents one’s practice of Islam.

Numerous verses in the Qur’an clarify that Muslims may not initiate warfare. The Qur’an unequivocally commands, “But do not attack them if they do not attack you first. God loves not the aggressor” (2:190). The Qur’an also insists on the following: if the enemy asks for peace you must agree to peace (4:86); if the enemy desists from fighting, you must desist from fighting (2:192); you may not treat noncombatants as the enemy, even if they are hostile to you and to Islam (4:94); and if the enemy repents, let them go on their way (9:5). The Qur’an says: “Thus, if they let you be, And do not make war on you, And offer you peace, God does not allow you to harm them” (4:90).

But what about the verses that urge Muslims to fight and slay people? These do exist in the Qur’an, but they are restricted by the verses that allow fighting only in self-defense. These verses do urge Muslims to fight and kill if they must, but only if they are attacked first. These fighting verses cannot be read while simultaneously ignoring the verses commanding Muslims not to initiate fighting; Muslims may not follow some verses of the Qur’an and ignore others. Moreover, the reason for the revelation (asbab al-nuzul) of these fighting verses was the specific ongoing war between the Muslim community and the people who had broken a treaty with the Muslims and commenced aggression against them. These verses are applicable only to that particular historical situation.

The historical context is therefore crucial for understanding the fighting verses in the Qur’an, because these verses constituted a response to the circumstances of that seventh-century period. For the first thirteen or so years that the Prophet preached his religion in the city of Mecca, he and his followers were persecuted, verbally and physically attacked, tortured, and driven from their homes; yet they never fought back. Indeed, Qur’anic verses revealed during this time never allowed the Prophet and his followers to fight back, but instead urged them to endure the persecution with patience. Accordingly, the Muslims exercised patience and nonviolent resistance, which took the form of: (a) preaching their faith; (b) freeing slaves who had converted to Islam; and (c) emigrating to Abyssinia (today’s Ethiopia)—where they lived under its Christian ruler and respected his laws—and later to Medina.

After the Meccans attempted to assassinate the Prophet, he and his followers fled to Medina, where, at the invitation of the community, he became the political leader of the city, though he remained the religious leader of the Muslims only. Conflicts continued between the young Muslim community and the Meccans, but even then, it was another two years until the Qur’an first gave permission for the Muslims to physically fight back.

Why did the Qur’an change its message, when for approximately fifteen years the message had been one of patient endurance and nonviolent resistance? In Medina, the Prophet’s status changed from individual religious preacher to political leader of a city. He became responsible not only for himself and his own followers, but for an entire city, many of whose residents were not Muslim. In addition, the efforts of fifteen years had not resolved the conflict with the Meccans. The Qur’anic verses responded to this change of situation and allowed the Prophet to physically defend himself and his new city. Fighting in self-defense, as a last resort, was authorized.

Notably, the Qur’an’s message of defensive fighting was not limited to protecting solely Muslims, but followers of other religions as well:

Permission is given to those who fight because they have been oppressed, and God is able to help them. These are those who have been wrongfully expelled from their homes merely for saying ‘God is our Lord.’ If God had not restrained some people by means of others, monasteries, churches, synagogues, and mosques—all in which God’s name is glorified—would have been destroyed.(Qur’an 22:39–40)

These verses in the Qur’an gave permission to the Muslims to fight back against the Meccans in a situation where the Meccans had already initiated warfare. These verses were not allowing the Muslims to go start themselves a new war. This is clear because of those verses that prohibit Muslims from attacking unless they are attacked first—that is, only in self-defense.

The only significant exception to this understanding occurred during a period from about the ninth century to the twelfth century in which there was a split in authority on this issue. Islam was revealed at a time when war was a matter of survival and a method of conducting international relations. Yet the Qur’an allowed fighting only in self-defense. Therefore, to circumvent this Qur’anic restriction and to facilitate empire-building, some Muslim scholars (but not all and not enough to form a consensus) began formulating a theory of military jihad that simply ignored the Qur’anic verses that told them to “not attack unless they were attacked first” and instead focused solely on the fighting verses. Political expediency overruled religious restrictions on fighting. After a few centuries, however, this theory of self-serving warfare was abandoned. Since then, jihad by the sword has for centuries been defined as defensive war.

While some early Islamic scholars were developing a theory of military jihad, other Islamic scholars were developing the doctrine of “jihad of patient forbearance,” a jihad of nonviolent resistance. These scholars based this doctrine on (a) the example of the Prophet Muhammad, who exercised nonviolent resistance in the face of persecution for the first fifteen years of his mission and who never initiated war against anyone, and (b) the many more verses of the Qur’an that urge peace and patience than those that urge fighting.

The preeminent twelfth-century jurist Abu Hamid Al-Ghazali brought the jihad of patient forbearance into the mainstream. He noted that more than seventy verses in the Qur’an referred to patient forbearance. Asserting that patience and gratitude were the two halves of faith, he affirmed that patient forbearance was part of jihad.

There are numerous instances of the jihad of patient forbearance in history, and include recent examples. During India’s twentieth-century struggle for independence, Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan convinced 100,000 fierce Pashtun warriors to lay down their arms and march in nonviolent protest against the British—and he based his nonviolent resistance on the Qur’an. In 2007, lawyers’ peaceful but insistent protests in Pakistan eventually caused the military dictator Pervez Musharraf to step down and relinquish power to a civilian government. In 2008, peaceful resistance in Muslim-majority Maldives toppled its dictator. And nonviolent protests in Tunisia ousted that country’s dictator in 2011 and resulted in a new democracy with free and fair elections.

It is tragic that jihad has been so utterly misappropriated by media outlets and terrorists alike. Media reports carelessly use “jihad” interchangeably with “terrorism,” even though terrorism violates the rules of jihad. As a result, the media normalizes the terrorists’ definition of jihad, making it increasingly difficult for Muslims to correct this inaccurate usage, dispel stereotypes about Muslims, and keep Muslim communities safe.

Terrorists are not jihadists—they are criminals under Islamic law. If they truly wanted to exercise jihad for its real purpose of improving society, they would use the jihad of patient forbearance, jihad by the hands, and jihad by the word; these form the greater part of external jihad and are not just Islamic, but universal tools for changing our world for the better.

The Qur’an, the Prophet, and the most learned scholars of Islam throughout the centuries have urged peace and tolerance as superior to physical fighting. The Prophet lived in a time where physical violence was a way of life; nevertheless, he never instigated warfare, and was in fact often considered by his contemporaries as too lenient, too gentle, and even weak. Yet he inspired a movement that would transform nearly one-quarter of the world’s population. It’s his example and the Qur’an’s injunctions toward peace—many more than those urging violence—that we should follow.