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The Evolution of the Concept of Jihad in Islam

By Dr. Mahamud  M. Yahye
Saturday, February 16, 2008


            I have recently come across an interesting and educative article in the London-based Arabic daily, Al-Hayat (Life), of January 12, 2008, titled “The Evolution of Jihad Concept in Islamic Thought: A New Book on Hot Issues”.[1]  It raises some important contemporary issues, which are relevant for us, Somalis. As we are all aware of, a fundamentalist group, known as “Al-Shabab” (or the Youth) is now waging fierce guerrilla warfare in the name of Islam against the Somali Government’s army and its allied Ethiopian forces, in which mostly innocent civilians are killed. That is why I have decided to translate, summarize and share the said article with more readers.  


            The article was essentially a review of a new Arabic book by Dr. Mahir Al-Sharif, titled “The Development of Jihad Concept in Islamic Thought”. It is a book, the reviewer said, that comes in an opportune moment when people everywhere are today affected by the phenomenon of political Islam, including its extremist school that entices terrorism and the takfiri thought – something that constitutes an onerous burden and a serious danger for both the Arab and Islamic worlds [where a countless number of innocent Muslims are dying everyday in the name of this jihadi doctrine].[2]  This concept also negatively impacts, according to him, the image of Islam as a creed and religion worldwide. It has, furthermore, led to the disdain and the targeting of Islam at the international level – a factor that could have dire consequences for the unity of communities as well as the stability of governments in both Arabic and Islamic countries.


I.                   `The Early Pioneers


            In this new book, the researcher essentially tries to answer the following basic question: “If the concept of jihad finds its corroboration in the holy Qur’an and the Prophet’s hadith [his sayings], then how the exponents of Islamic thought have dealt with this concept over the course of history?” [3] Thus, the book starts, firstly, with the beginning of the jihadi thought during the Prophet Muhammad’s time and the subsequent Islamic conquests (or futuhat). The author quotes the Islamic scholar Al-Awza’i (who lived during the early Islamic conquests) as saying that it is forbidden to kill prisoners of war, the elderly, the blind, the herdsman and the monk unless they participate in war efforts. It is also not permitted, according to this ancient scholar, to shoot the unbelievers or burn them if they hide behind their women or children; it’s also forbidden to cut or burn the infidels’ trees or destroy their beehives or slaughter their livestock except for satisfying hunger. As for Imam Al-Maliki, he opposed the idea of abrupt fighting or attacking the enemy in the darkness of night; he also opposed the idea of suicidal attacks on the enemy. This is so because, according to Al-Maliki, the main purpose of Islam is to lead people to the right path and to call them to embrace that faith before militarily attacking them. As for Imam Al-Shafi’i, he is reported to have laid down the foundations for the creed of jihad through his famous book “The Message”. In it he pointed out that the main enemy of jihad is infidelity and not the aggression on Muslims. But Imam Abu Hanifa is said to have objected to the position of Al-Shafi’i, because the former adopted the position of the existence of one religion under different rules, emphasizing the fact that according to Abu Hanifa, God’s prophets were not following different religions but a single one.


II.                Ibn Taimiya and His Followers


            From this new research, it appears that the phenomenon of Islamic jihadi doctrine crystallized with the arrival of Sheikh Ibn Taimiya (who was a follower of the Hanbali school of Muslim thought). He was born in the 13th century during the period of repulsing the invasions of the Crusaders and the Tatars. Ibn Taimiya is reported to have participated in these wars and to have fought against some of the Shiite and Ismaili sects; he also denounced Sufism and declared the necessity of waging war against any group that refused to follow any rule of the Islamic faith. Ibn Taimiya is said to have rejected philosophy and was a literalist scholar, not a man of ijtihad – meaning that if there is a conflict between mind and text, the latter should be given priority in his opinion. He called for fighting against anybody whom the message of Islam has reached but did not accept it. Finally, Ibn Taimiya regarded jihad as one of the basic pillars of Islam and he considered it more important than hajj (pilgrimage), prayers or fasting, and he ordered the fight against anyone who obstructs the call of Islam.[4]  


            Secondly, the author explains the jihad concept from the point of view of the pioneers of Islamic reform, a man like Jamaluddin Al-Afghani, who emphasized the unity of mankind and the unity of religions, as well as the idea that justice is the foundation of the universe.  Al-Afghani fought against colonialist policies and urged the peoples of the Orient to struggle for freedom. But he also put emphasis on the defensive nature of the Muslim fights – defending their countries without extremism or fanaticism; he also prohibited corruption and shedding the blood of others for no reason. As to his contemporary, Sheikh Mohammed Abdo, he confirmed that one of the basic tenets of Islam is to avoid branding others as apostates; that after Allah and his Prophet [peace be upon him], nobody has authority over the belief of any other; he also emphasized that no Muslim has another source for his belief except from Allah’s book [the noble Qur’an] and the sunna [or the sayings and tradition of Prophet Muhammad] without the intercession (or shafa’a in Arabic) of either predecessors [salaf] or followers [khalaf]. Sheikh Abdo also called for the unity of the monotheistic religions [i.e., Christianity, Judaism and Islam], emphasizing the fact that Islam forbids excessiveness in religion; it guarantees the freedom of thought and belief based on the Qur’anic verses: “Let there be no compulsion in religion: Truth stands out clear from the error…  And “If it had been thy Lord’s will, they would all have believed – all who are on earth! Wilt thou then compel mankind, against their will, to believe.” [The holy Qur’an verses 2:256 and 10:99]. According to M. Abdo, jihad is a shared obligation or fard kifaya [meaning that if some Muslims carry it out, all the other Muslims are relieved from performing it].[5]  He also pointed out that the reason for wars in Islam is not due to the doctrine, but to politics, the covetousness of the rulers, their corrupted self and their love for power. 


However, the other scholar, Mr. Ali Abdurazak, sees that jihad was not just calling to the right religion, but for putting proper foundations for power and for expanding territory. He pointed out that calling for Islam could better be accomplished through explanation and through influencing the heart by means of persuasion and effectiveness. As to force and compulsion, they are not suited to a calling that aims at guiding the heart, he said. 


III.             Political Islam


            The author then talks about the views, regarding jihad, of those thinkers who advocated Islamic activism [or political Islam], like Hassan Al-Banna, Abu A’la’ Al-Mawdudi and Sayid Qutb. For instance, the late Hassan Al-Banna (an Egyptian political leader/scholar and the founder of the radical Muslim Brotherhood) saw that Islam combines religion, worship and state together. He attacked collaboration with the West or the so-called “the interaction between different civilizations”; and he argued the issue of jihad as one of the obligatory duties of Islam – making no difference between it and that of compulsory prayers or fasting during Ramadan. This is so, because it is far better for a Muslim, according to Al-Banna, to die in the battle field for carrying out jihad for the sake of Allah. He based his argument on the notion that Muslims are obliged to fight in order to protect the call for the right religion and to safeguard the spread of the divine message. Still he called those engaged in jihad [or al-mujahideen] to show mercy and justice and not to kill women, children or the elderly. In Al-Banna’s opinion, it is obligatory to fight anyone who received the call to Islam and failed to embrace that religion. (Another Egyptian Islamic ideologue by the name of Mr. Muhammad Al-Farag argues in his book, titled The Neglected Obligation, that jihad actually represents the 6th pillar of Islam, i.e., besides shahada or testifying that Allah is the only God and that Muhammad is his messenger; five obligatory daily prayers; fasting in Ramadan; performing hajj or pilgrimage; and paying zakat or alms tax/charitable donations).[6]


                With Al-Mawdudi, the jihad concept crystallized more deeply. He believed that governing mankind is for Allah alone – something that denies the eligibility of human beings to govern in this life. He further believed that Islam has erased the laws or teachings of all previous prophets and that the salvation of mankind depends on its embrace of Islam. In Al-Mawdudi’s view, jihad is at times more important than the daily prayers and fasting in Ramadan. He continued arguing that Islam is a “revolutionary concept” that aims at destroying, totally, the world’s social system in order to construct its edifice anew.


            The jihadi concept received another boost of extremism and takfir from the late Sayid Qutb [another Egyptian scholar/activist].[7] He saw in Islam the birth of an new human being upon whom was bestowed the leadership of mankind, emphasizing that governance is for Allah alone and advocating the necessity of the advent of an avanguard and an elite that cuts its ties, in terms of creed, with the people of “religious ignorance” (jahiliya) or infidelity days. In this regard, he even differs with Al-Banna who thought that Muslim societies suffer from inadequacy in their Islamic belief and it is, therefore, necessary to interact with them so as to change them. On the contrary, Sayid Qutb thought that Allah has chosen the Muslim nation (or Ummah) to lead mankind and he called for a legitimate war to confirm the rule of Allah over this earth, based on the notion that Islam is not a religion only but it is also a general declaration for the emancipation of mankind from servitude, and for wiping out the regimes and governments that are based on governance by human beings. [Mr. Qutb was reported to have been radicalized after studying in America for several years in the late 1940s. He was appalled by what he saw in USA: “its moral decadence, its materialism, racism and sexual depravity.”] [8] 


      IV.       Contemporary Thinkers


Towards the end of his book, the author presents some diverse religious positions with regard to the issue of jihad  as advocated by some contemporary thinkers/religious authorities, men like Sheikh Mohammed Said Al-Bouddi, who seems to be more tolerant, and Sheikh Yusuf Al-Qaradawi, who warns against extremism and calls for moderation. There is also Mohamed H. Fadlallah who asserts that jihad or struggle against oneself is more arduous than that of an external enemy. Moreover, the author presents the positions of some other scholars whom he considers as men of religious reform, such as Sheikh Mahdi Shams who advocates that “there is no compulsion in religion” and who considers armed violence as a failed approach that greatly harms the Islamic project. Sheikh Shams promotes to call for Islam, instead, with wisdom and good advice. Furthermore, the researcher presents the position of Mr. Jawad Saeed and the doctrine of non-violence in Islam, which is viewed as an extension to the trajectory of men of religious reform. Mr. Saeed opines that violence and the call to Islam are incompatible, supporting his argument by the Prophet’s hadith which declares that “the best jihad is a righteous word uttered in front of an unjust sultan or ruler” – and not fighting with a sword, spear or the like to kill others. As for the scholar Mr. Khalil Abdel Karim, he takes the jihadi groups back to their worldly origin. He thinks that they merely represent political movements with worldly political, economic, and social aims – just like any other secular party. This latter thinker also asserts that human beings differ in interpreting the sacred texts because of their differences in their understanding, tendencies, interests and their status in society.


The author finally presents some views sponsored by Mr. Mohammed Shahrour who absolved religion from dividing people – something that represents the act of human beings and religious scholars themselves. The truth is that, according to him, religion did not categorize people into the “Abode of Islam” and the “Abode of infidelity” for the sole purpose of hating the other and distancing him/her. With regard to the Muslim groups that have resorted to armed violence, Mr. Shahrour sees that they have put the stigma of terrorism on Islam. He even opposes the idea of martyrdom and suicidal operations, advising that Muslims should live their own era and not that of Al-Shafi’i, more than a thousand years ago. He also opposes the idea that there is no further research or “ijtihad” on a divine text. Further research is on divine texts, he says, because outside a text we can do whatever we like.


IV.              Conclusions


      The author concludes from all the above that the foundations of jihad were not fully laid down by the holy Qur’an and the hadith (sayings) of the noble Prophet; and that it was the religious scholars concerned who attributed them to these divine sources so as to give them legitimacy. Hence, the author (Mr. Sharif) calls for undertaking a real religious reform, which revisits our Muslim religious heritage and reads the holy Qur’an and the Prophet’s sunna (his sayings and deeds) in a new light. The author also thinks that the current environment of both education and the media plus the lack of freedom of expression, thinking and research; and the socio-economic crises; the stalemate of the peace [in the Middle East]; the Israeli and American policies there – all these constitute factors that lead to total isolation and deep animosity towards the other. Nonetheless, the writer sees that a call to real religious reform would be a good path for Arab and Muslim renaissance.


      These are the main views of Muslim imams, scholars and political leaders over the years. As can be deduced from this summary, they widely differ in their positions – all based on our sacred Islamic religion. But I leave each reader to reach his/her own conclusion. On a lighter note, let me finish my article by referring to a piece which recently appeared in Newsweek magazine. It reported that some researchers at Oxford University, UK, found out – after reviewing the biographies of more than 400 Muslims accused of being terrorists – that a great number of them were engineers. (Remember Mohamed Atta, one of the leaders of 9/11 attacks on America, and who studied engineering in Hamburg, Germany?) The researchers attributed this phenomenon to the fact that the mind-set of engineers makes them “more likely to systematize and simplify the world.” [9]


 But in my considered opinion, I don’t think Newsweek’s explanation is sufficient. Perhaps because the Muslim engineers are exposed to the latest ideas and theories of modern science, which are mostly developed by non-Muslims, they become more self-conscious and spiritually dissatisfied. Add to this the fact that although the Arab/Muslim countries of these young engineers have over the last 100 years or so been exposed to the doctrines of capitalism, socialism, communism and democracy, none of these systems has fully succeeded in their countries. Some of them had also stayed for some time in the West, for studying or for other reasons, and they were alienated by what they had experienced over there, as Sayid Qutb was. Again, many of them are very angry because they believe the West is against their religion and is oppressing and killing their Muslim people in Palestine and elsewhere. All these factors perhaps leave their spiritual cravings unsatisfied and push them back to their familiar religious doctrine (Islam), or rather its extremist branch, which entices them to kill others in the name of their religion or even to sacrifice their own lives for its sake in suicidal operations.


Mahamud M. Yahye, Ph.D.
E-mail: [email protected]


[1]  See Majid Kiyali, “The Evolution of Jihad Concept in Islamic Thought: A New Book on Hot Issues”, Al-Hayat, Issue No. 16353, dated 12/01/2008,  p.16


[2]  Tafkiri refers to the idea of branding your opponent, fellow Muslim as  “kafir” or infidel or calling  him/her an apostate.


[3] Jihad is an Arabic word that literally means exerting an effort or struggle, but has been mostly used, since it entered the English language in 1869, to mean waging a holy war in the name of Islam as a religious duty.  See Merriam Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th Edition, 2003).  In one of his hadith (sayings), Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) is reported to have indicated that the hardest jihad or struggle is with one’s self which often leads him/her to vice or sin.


[4] Ibn Taimiya is believed to be the man who paved the way for the emergence of the fundamentalist Salafist/Wahhabist doctrine in Islam. See also “Understanding the Origin of Wahhabism and Salafism” by Trevor Stanley (to be accessed through Google under the title of this latter article). The word “Salaf” (or predecessors) usually refers to the first three generations of the Muslim nation.


[5]  Fardu kifaaya” is the opposite of “fardu ‘ayn”. Under Islam, the latter refers to a religious duty that is compulsory and every Muslim is obliged to perform it, such as 5 daily prayers, fasting during
Ramadan, etc. 


[6] See Meredith, Martin, The State of Africa: A History of 50 Years of Independence. (Simon Schuster, UK,  2006),  p. 446. See also Tareq and Jacqueline Ismael,  Government and Politics in Islam. (CBS Publishers & Distributors Ltd., New Delhi, India, 1991), Part II.


[7]  Sayid Qutb was executed by hanging by Gamal Abdel Nasser’s regime in Egypt in 1965 for belonging to the radical Muslim Brotherhood and for his extremist views.


[8] Martin Meredith, op. cit., p. 444


[9]   See “Jihad: Extreme Passion”, NEWSWEEK, 31/12/2007, p.5



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