Just and Holy War. The Development of Jihad

Essay 2010 7 Pages

History - Miscellaneous


How did Muslim ideas of Just and Holy War develop?

When we discuss Just and Holy War, we as contemporary historians almost automatically think of the Crusades, seemingly forgetting, or indeed overlooking, the vast history of jihad that permeated the medieval world; a history it seems that now resides in the recesses of the inquisitive mind. According to Michael Bonner, jihad by definition translates neither as Holy or Just war: the Arabic word translates as “striving” (in the path of God). Throughout the Qur’an and other Islamic legal works, jihad is polarized from the concept of secular war (Harb).[1] The notion of jihad emphasizes its intrinsic religious nature, which is both ‘just’ and ‘holy’. Indeed M. Khadduri sees jihad as Islam’s bellum justum, and states “Islam prohibited war in every form save in the fulfillment of a religious purpose, the jihad”.[2] Yet, there was no codified Islamic Law before the nineteenth century, meaning there was no “normative” position stance on jihad.[3] The legal texts of the eighth and ninth centuries written by Muslim jurists (the main proponents of theories of jihad at the time) and the works written by religious lawyers of the eleventh and early twelfth centuries, such as Ali ibn Tahir Al-Sulami (d. 1106) are our main window into ideas of jihad, which will allow us to ascertain whether jihad as a concept remained static or dynamic. If indeed jihad did develop, does it resonate so strongly as to agree with Hillenbrand’s view of a ‘modification’ of jihad ?

Unlike in Christianity, Jihad is “a [fundamental] part of Muslim spirituality”.[4] The ultimate sources for jihad are the Qur’an and the Hadith, which stipulates various features of, and prerequisites for, its promulgation. An oft-quoted verse from the Qur’an ‘The Verse of the Sword’(Surah 9:5), states “…fight and slay the Pagans wherever ye find them, and seize them, beleaguer them, and lie in wait for them in every stratagem (of war)”.[5] This passage clearly justifies military combat against the enemy of God, in this case the Pagans, and is seen by many as the very essence of what jihad symbolized in early Islam. A similar viewpoint is offered in the Hadith (the sayings of the Prophet), which states “I have been commanded to fight the people [or the unbelievers] until they testify: ‘There is no God but God, and Muhammad is the messenger of God’”.[6] Clearly then, the ultimate end of jihad was to defeat the ‘unbeliever’ or the enemy of God. Indeed, Bonner advocates that this classical view of jihad reflects what he monikers “the propagation of the faith through combat”. [7] Thus from its very roots, we can see that jihad in our period has an ostensibly military, even offensive, nature. However, upon closer examination the two passages reveal an anomaly: whereas the Qur’an defines the enemy as Pagan (or polytheist), the Hadith fails to give a tangible identity of the ‘enemy’. Is this enemy a malleable entity?

The avenue into a clear understanding of post-Mohammadian jihad is rooted in the works of eighth and ninth century Muslim jurists, who adapted jihad into a ‘body of legal theory’, described as “a more precisely defined and normative theory rooted in … very specific interpretation of Qur’anic verses”. [8] The first formulation of Islamic law is contained in the Al-Muwatta of Imam Malik ibn Anas, composed around the eighth century. This text claims legal authority alongside the Qur’an, and thus is a good starting-point for our examination of jihad in this period. Throughout the section of the text devoted to jihad, the message of piety is clear. As verse 21:1:1 states “Someone who does jihad in the way of Allah is like someone who fasts and prays constantly and does not slacken from his prayer and fasting until he returns”. [9] Hence, a religious dimension is added to our early view of jihad, which aside from being purely of military nature embodies elements of spirituality, piety and devotion. Nevertheless, this is a necessary part of Muslim spirituality, and as such, encompasses the obligation to undertake the spiritual and pious act of jihad, and to enter into a perpetual and continual process of doing so. Indeed, writing at the same time, the prominent jurist al-Shafi’i (767-820) emphasizes jihad as a philanthropic enterprise, incumbent on the whole community (Umma), when he describes jihad as “obligatory for all able-bodied [believers], exempting no one, just as prayer, pilgrimage and [payment of] alms are performed …”. [10] Clearly, this dimension of formalized piety within jihad was regarded by jurists not as a product of devotion or faith, but merely as a requisite to all Muslims whose duty it was to perform jihad.

Emile Tyan characterizes jihad as a “religious duty” that has a “perpetual character”.[11] But what was this duty of jihad? What was jihad’s ultimate goal? The perpetual nature of jihad stems from the theory proposed by various Muslim jurists of the epoch concerning the relationship between the Muslim world (defined by the responsibility of jihad) and the surrounding non-Muslim world. Jurists of the period coined two terms to describe this permanent state of religious conflict: the dar al-Islam (the House of Islam) and the dar al-Harb (the House of War, which encompassed any religious or ethnic group not subject to the doctrinal or political authority of Islam).[12] These two monoliths were, according to Carole Hillenbrand, in a permanent state of hostilities with each other due to the legal principles governing jihad.[13]. Shaybani’s Siyar discusses this jihad against non-Muslims, claiming “Fight in the name of God and in the “path of God” … Combat [only] those who disbelieve in God”.[14] In the eighth and ninth centuries perspective, jihad thus encompassed not only a struggle against non-believers, but in eschatological terms, jihad was fought in order to achieve what Khadduri sees as “Islam’s ultimate aim – the universalization of the faith and the establishment of God’s sovereignty over the world”: the union dar-al Islam and the dar al-Harb.[15]

Jihad as an eleventh and twelfth century concept remains virtually unchanged, at least doctrinally, from the concept offered in the earlier jurists’ texts. For example, al-Sulami states “the jihad against this group and their objective is incumbent on all who are capable and have no horrible illness or chronic malady, or blindness, or weakness from old age”.[16] Evidently, the same responsibility is conferred upon Muslims to embrace jihad as was done in the epoch of the Muslim jurist. Similarly, jihad remained a focal point of spiritual life, and was fulfilled on the Arab-Byzantine frontier throughout, up until the advent of the Crusades. For example, Riley-Smith gives the example of the Abbasid caliph Harun al-Rashid who led jihad against the Byzantines every other year, whilst performing the hajj to Mecca during the alternate years.[17] This anecdote is clearly suggestive of not only the importance of jihad as a pious activity alongside pilgrimage, but simultaneously displays jihad was still viewed as a corporeal obligatory responsibility.

Development is perhaps the wrong word to use to describe the progress of jihad from the epoch of the early Muslim jurists: instead a waning in jihad is more apt to describe jihad upon the advent of the Crusades. Al-Sulami states in his Kitab al-Jihad: “Know for certain that this enemy's attack on your country, and their achieving what they have over some of you is a warning from God (who is praised) to those of you that remain”.[18] Al-Sulami’s main contention is that the Muslim defeat was a “symptom of the moral and political decay of Islam and of the enfeebled state of the caliphate”. [19] Clearly, the ultimate aim of the universalization of the Dar al-Islam remains fundamental in al-Sulami’s work, his grievances reflecting the general frustration of the era of not being able to achieve what Khadduri sees as the ultimate objective of jihad. Al-Sulami expands further on his idea of God’s ‘warning’ in his claim that:


[1] Noor Mohammad, ‘The Doctrine of Jihad: An Introduction’, Journal of Law and Religion, Vol. 3, No. 2 (1985), p. 384.

[2] The Islamic law of nations. Shaybani’s Siyar, tr. M. Khadduri (Baltimore, 1966; paperback repr. 2001), p. 16.

[3] R. P. Mottahedeh & R. al-Sayyid, ‘The Idea of Jihad in Islam before the Crusades’, in: A. E. Laiou & R. P. Mottahedeh (eds.), The Crusades from the Perspective of Byzantium and the Muslim world (Washington, DC, 2001) p. 23.

[4] Mohammad, pp. 396-7.

[5] The Holy Qur’an, tr. Abdullah Yusuf Ali (Hertfordshire, 2000), p. 144.

[6] Michael Bonner, Jihad in Islamic History, (Princeton, 2006), p. 49.

[7] Ibid., p. 49.

[8] Mottahedeh & Sayyid, p. 28.

[9] Al-Muwatta of Imam Malik ibn Anas, tr. A. Abdurrahman Bewley (London, 1989; paperback: Singapore, 2005), p. 173.

[10] Carole Hillenbrand, The Crusades: Islamic perspectives (Edinburgh, 1999), pp. 96-7.

[11] Mottahedeh & Sayyid, p. 23.

[12] Peter Lock, The Routledge Companion to the Crusades (London, 2006), p. 415.

[13] Hillenbrand, p. 97.

[14] The Islamic law of nations. Shaybani’s Siyar, tr. M. Khadduri (Baltimore, 1966; paperback repr. 2001), p. 76.

[15] Ibid., p. 15.

[16] Niall Christie, ‘A Translation of Extracts from the Kitab al-Jihad of 'Ali ibn Tahir Al-Sulami (d. 1106)’, 2001 http://www.arts.cornell.edu/prh3/447/texts/Sulami.html (viewed 2. Nov 2009).

[17] Jonathan Riley-Smith, The Oxford History of the Crusades (Oxford, 2002), p. 222.

[18] Niall Christie, ‘A Translation of Extracts from the Kitab al-Jihad of 'Ali ibn Tahir Al-Sulami (d. 1106)’, 2001 http://www.arts.cornell.edu/prh3/447/texts/Sulami.html (viewed 2. Nov 2009).

[19] Riley-Smith, p. 220.


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Title: Just and Holy War. The Development of Jihad