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Volume 19, Number 4July/August 1968

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The Greater War

Upon his return to Medina from a campaign, the Prophet Muhammad remarked: "We have just fulfilled the lesser jihad; it is now our duty to embark on the greater jihad" "What is the greater jihad?" asked one of the companions.
"It is the struggle to save one's own soul," replied the Prophet.

Written by Majid Khadduri

To anyone who heard Cairo's muezzins calling the faithful to arms during the 1967 war, it will be exceedingly hard to believe that Islam's dreaded "holy war" is not the frightful summons to massacre that the West has historically believed. Yet the truth is that jihad—holy war—is largely a religious duty aimed as much at spiritual salvation as the protection of the Muslim state.

It is ironic that the concept of holy war as a means of extending religious influence so alarms the West. It was the nations of the West, after all, that sent Cortez to convert the Aztecs, turned Simon de Montfort loose on the Albigensians and sent army after army storming into the Holy Land and called them Crusaders. Yet it is a fact that the West does recoil from the idea of jihad and has ever since, as Gibbon colorfully but inaccurately wrote, "Muhammad, with the sword in one hand and the Koran in the other, erected his throne on the ruins of Christianity and Rome."

It would be dishonest to say that the fears have been without foundations. There is a violent aspect to jihad and recent attempts to discount the use of violence and to assert that the holy war was really no more than intensive "preaching" is hardly a balanced assessment. But the violence in jihad is not the whole story either and its role has been grossly exaggerated in western writings.

To understand the jihad it is important to understand that in the early days Islam was not only a system of religion. It was also a political community, one of two territories into which the world was divided: dar al-Islam "the territory of peace," where the faithful lived and dar al-Harb "the territory of war," where the unbelievers lived. Since Islam imposed on the faithful the duty to work for the ultimate establishment of dar al-Islam throughout the world, there existed—logically—a state of war between the territories. It was similar to the Christian concept of the helium justum, the "just war," which permitted war for such "good" causes as conversion of the pagans. And in Islam the political instrument through which the faithful could discharge this obligation was the jihad: the exertion of power, either by peaceful or violent means, to achieve ultimately a religious purpose.

It was this endorsement of violence as a legitimate means of Islamic expansion that gave rise to the belief that "infidels" were compelled to accept Islam by the sword and that Muslims were obliged to wage physical war on non-believers, and that aroused such strong reactions in the West.

Warfare, of course, was not introduced in Arabia—or anywhere else—by Islam. What Islam did was to re-direct the Arab tradition of legitimate warfare—tribal raiding for economic reasons or revenge—from inter-tribal forays to the outside world. By prohibiting all kinds of war except war for religious purposes, Islam unified the military spirit of the various Arab tribes and focussed their attention on the territories of the unbelievers. But it did so in very specific ways. For although the ultimate objectives of Islam were to establish peace and order in accordance with Islamic justice within any territory brought under its jurisdiction—and to expand the area of that validity to include, ultimately, the world—Islam was still pragmatic enough to allow for two hard facts. One was the existence of communities outside Islam with which Islam would have to live either permanently or until they could be brought under Islamic. rule. The other was the existence of peoples who had been conquered politically by Islam but who were not part of the umma, the community of believers endowed with a divine law.

This pragmatism took the form of carefully worked out rules and practices governing Islam's approach to such communities and peoples. No fighting could start, for example, until Islamic forces had first issued an invitation to the community to accept Islam or, if it could not accept Islam as a religion, to agree to accept political domination by agreeing to pay a head tax. Only when such invitation had been rejected or ignored could an attack be ordered:

"'Whenever the Prophet sent forth an army or a detachment, he charged its commander to fear God, and he enjoined the Muslims who were with him to conduct themselves properly..."

And the Prophet said:

"Fight in the name of God and in the path of God. Fight only those who disbelieve in God. Do not cheat or commit treachery, nor should you mutilate anyone or kill children. Whenever you meet your enemies, invite them first to adopt Islam. If they do so, accept it, and let them alone ...If they refuse to accept Islam, then call upon them to pay the jizya (poll tax); if they do, accept it and leave them alone..."

Furthermore the "state of I war" between Islam and the rest of the world was nowhere near as uncompromising as it sounds. Even in its formative period Islam entered into peaceful arrangements with communities beyond its frontiers. And although continuous "warfare" was obligatory, it was not necessarily warfare in the sense of military combat. It was more closely akin to today's non-recognition among states. And even then it did not rule out direct negotiations or treaties. The Islamic "state of war", in fact, embodied many aspects which are now included under the term "conditions of peace."

As to the West's belief that every Muslim is obligated to wage war against unbelievers, this is also a misinterpretation. In fact the precise definition of a Muslim's duty with regard to the jihad has engaged Muslim scholars for centuries—as this long exchange between Shafi'i, one of the greatest Muslim jurists and the founder of a school of law, and one of his disciples shows:

The disciple asked: "What is the jihad duty?"

Shafi'i replied: "God has imposed the duty of jihad as laid down in His Book and uttered by His Prophet's tongue." He stressed the calling of men to fulfill the jihad duty as follows: "God has bought from the believers their selves and their possessions the gift of Paradise. They fight in the way of God; they kill, and are killed; that is a promise binding upon God ... So rejoice in the bargain you have made with him" (Koran: IX, 112).

"And God said: 'Go forth, light and heavy! Struggle in God's way with your possessions and yourselves. That is better for you, did you but know' " (Koran: IX, 41).

The disciple asked: "What does this mean?"

Shafi'i replied: "These verses may mean that the jihad, and the rising up in arms in particular, is obligatory for all able-bodied believers like prayer... or they may mean that the duty of jihad is a collective duty different from that of prayer. Those who perform it... will fulfill the duty and receive the supererogatory merit, thereby preventing those who have stayed behind from falling into error."

The disciple asked: "Where is the proof that if some people perform the duty, the others would be relieved of punishment?"

Shafi'i replied: "God said: 'It is not for the believers to go forth all together, (Koran: IX, 123). God has given precedence to those who fight with their possessions and their selves over those who sit at home. God has promised the best of things to both, and He has preferred those who fight over those who sit at home by granting them a mighty reward" (Koran: IV, 97).

Shafi'i continued: "When the Prophet went to battle he was accompanied by some of his companions while others stayed at home; for Ali ibn Abi Talib (the future caliph) stayed at home during the battle of Tabuk. Nor did God ordain that all Muslims were under obligations to go to battle, for He said: 'Why should not a party of every section of them go forth?' So He made it known that going into battle was obligatory on some, not on all, just as knowledge of the law is not obligatory on all men but on some, save the fundamental duties which should be known to all men ... If all men failed to perform the duty so that no able-bodied man went forth to battle, all, I am afraid, would fall into error (although I am certain that this would never happen) in accordance with God's saying: 'If you do not go forth, He will inflict upon you a painful punishment' " (Koran: IX, 39).

The disciple asked: "What is the meaning of this command?"

Shafi'i replied: "It means that it is not permissible that all men should fail to 'go forth' (jihad); but that if some go forth so that a sufficient number fulfills the collective duty, the others do not fall into error, because the going forth by some would fulfill the duty of 'going forth' (jihad)."

The interpretation of jihad as a community duty rather than an individual duty is very important. In the first place, it relieved from the obligation of making war those who could not or should not wage war: the crippled, the blind and the sick; women and children. In the second place, the imposition of the duty on the community rather than on the individual made it possible for the caliph—the head of state—to employ the jihad as a community or a state instrument.

All that, however, has to do with combat and the jihad as a religious duty was not to be carried out merely by fighting. In the Koran, God specified the salvation of the soul as the ultimate aim of jihad: "He who exerts himself (jahada), exerts only for his own soul" (Koran: XXIX, 5). And tradition is even more explicit on the need for the salvation of the soul. Upon his return to Medina from one of the campaigns, the Prophet Muhammad, in the course of conversation with his companions remarked:

"We have just fulfilled the lesser jihad; it is now our duty to embark on the greater jihad."

"What is the greater jihad?" asked one of the companions.

"It is the struggle to save one's own soul," replied the Prophet.

This was but one of the Prophet's utterances in which he stressed the object of the jihad to be as much the salvation of the soul as the achievement of victory in battle. Indeed, the literal meaning of the jihad is not violence, but the "exertion" of one's own power to achieve spiritual as well as material ends.

Since the 10th century, furthermore, even the attitude toward combat has changed. As Islamic relations with other nations changed, Muslim scholars began to modify the previous views on jihad. Some said, for example, that the mere preparation for the jihad would satisfy the duty. Others called for the suspension of the jihad and specified the period of suspension. And most seem to have tacitly admitted that the jihad as a permanent state of war had become obsolete and no longer compatible with Muslim interests. Since the jihad is prescribed by divine law, such changes could not imply the abandonment of the duty. But they did mean that the duty is in a dormant status. Muslims can revive it at any time they deem it necessary, the scholars said, but in practice most Muslims have come to think of the jihad—in the original sense—as permanently dormant.

Perhaps the most constructive interpretation yet offered by a Muslim writer is that of Ibn Taymiya in the 14th century. Ibn Taymiya made a clear distinction between offensive and defensive wars. He stated that the jihad was not prescribed by the sacred law for the imposition of Islam upon unbelievers solely for their disbelief. For, he argued, "If the unbeliever were to be killed unless he becomes a Muslim, such an action would constitute the greatest compulsion in religion," which would run contrary to the Koranic injunction that forbids forceful conversion. "No compulsion is prescribed in religion " (Koran: II, 257). But, Ibn Taymiya went on, unbelievers who attacked Muslims would be in a different position altogether. A distinction must be made he said, between a jihad in the defense of Islam and a jihad waged solely for aggressive purposes. The latter kind, according to Ibn Taymiya, is inconsistent with the spirit of Islam, which expressly stresses tolerance toward other religions, especially the "People of the Book": Christians and Jews. Ibn Taymiya's concept of the jihad, though offered to Muslims in the 14th century, is certainly consistent with the present Islamic attitude that the jihad is no longer a doctrine of offensive war, except in the sense that salvation of the soul requires a continuous struggle against the overwhelming forces of evil.

Professor Majid Khadduri , Director of the Center for Middle-East Studies at Johns Hopkins University, was born and raised in Iraq and is one of America's foremost authorities on Islam. Among his numerous books are Islamic Jurisprudence: Shafi'i's Risala (1961) and The Islamic Law of Nations: Shaybani's Siyar (1966).

This article appeared on pages 24-27 of the July/August 1968 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


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