Of Jihad, Terrorism, and Pacifism: Scripting Islam in the Transnational Sphere


SHAFAQNA – Is Islam an inherently peaceful religion or is it a religion essentially predisposed to violence? Questions of this nature have preoccupied Western public discourse in the aftermath of 11 September 2001, and interlocutors have demanded easy, pat responses to such dichotomous queries. Islam, understood as a reified essence, can apparently only be one or the other in such discursive treatments.

That Islam, like any other faith tradition, is a complex phenomenon and is often what its adherents choose to make of it, is a proposition that eludes many. More often than not, Islam is encountered through the crucial principle of jihad, a multivalent Arabic term and manifesto for action whose inflections have varied across time and place. This essay will consider the various ways in which Islam has been scripted and staged after 11 September, bringing to the fore key concepts such as jihad, “terrorism”, and “pacifism” that are often linked with it by diverse commentators. These concepts thus encapsulate contemporary dialectics on the perceived essence of Islam and its presumed influence on the conduct of a broad segment of the transnational Muslim population.

The semantic and cognitive purview of these concepts and of related notions, such as “martyrdom”, will be critically scrutinised to determine their relevance to the Islamic tradition as it historically developed and as it is now being negotiated and interrogated by Muslims and non-Muslims from various perspectives. The essay further reflects on whether these evocative concepts, whatever their historical utility in the construction of an Islamic worldview, can continue to serve as a useful springboard for meaningful discussion on the future of Islam and Muslims and to what uncharted territory they point as arenas of continuing fruitful engagement.

Two Fraught Terms

The contested semantics of the term jihad were dramatically highlighted roughly a year after the tragic 11 September attacks in connection with activities at Harvard University to mark commencement day, when university degrees are conferred. Harvard senior Zayed Yasin, an American Muslim, announced that his speech, chosen by a special Harvard committee to be delivered during commencement 2002, was entitled “My AmericanJihad”. No one was quite prepared for the controversy that subsequently erupted. A number of students voiced outrage over the use of the word jihad, deemed offensive on account of its association in their minds with religious militancy. Yasin, in turn, asserted that he was merely using the word in its general signification of a moral and spiritual struggle and had not intended to give offence. He had his share of supporters: the administration backed his right and his intention to carry on as planned, as did some students. Some of the major US newspapers considered the event worthy of note and published accounts of the brouhaha. A last-minute compromise was reached: the title was dropped from the programme and Yasin delivered his original, prepared speech on commencement day. The Harvard Crimson, the university’s student newspaper, reported the next day that Yasin’s speech was warmly received. Severed from the emotive title, the speech appeared little different from a regular, inspirational commencement address.

This incident recalls an earlier one involving President George W. Bush and his mission of reprisal against the perpetrators of the Twin Towers atrocities. To the dismay of most Muslims, American and non-American, and some non-Muslims, Bush initially described his military campaign as a “crusade” to rid the world of terrorism. He, too, was unprepared for the furore that ensued. Muslims, above all, were gravely affronted by the use of a word that harked back to the brutal holy wars waged by European Christians from the eleventh century onwards against Muslims, non-Latin Christians, and Jews in Syria–Palestine. The term “crusade” also implied that, contrary to Bush’s public assertions, the US administration was preparing to launch a military offensive against the world of Islam rather than against a precisely defined enemy from a fringe group disowned by most Muslims. A number of non-Muslim Americans voiced similar misgivings. As a consequence, Ariel Fleischer, Bush’s spokesman, delivered a public mea culpa (of a sort) and the highly charged word did not recur in the president’s speeches.

These incidents bring into relief the chequered careers of these two terms—jihad and “crusade”—and their contested significations. Whereas Yasin was protesting against the annexation of the term jihad by religious extremists to describe their violent deeds, his detractors, regarding themselves as victims of religious extremism, could not see beyond the immediate, “newspaper” meaning of the word. George W. Bush also succumbed to “presentism” when he could not see beyond contemporary sanitised meanings of the word “crusade”, forgetting its historical, deadly connotations for the faith community which was on the receiving end of the medieval European militant enterprise the term invokes.

The Semantic Evolution of Jihad

The classical conceptions of jihad and their limitations may be brought out by a survey of the ways in which the term has been used in multiple historical and social contexts. Without understanding the historical underpinnings of the discourse on jihad as it evolved through the first three centuries of Islam, one cannot begin meaningfully to explain this term and its diverse inflections in different time periods. Those who would understandjihad as armed combat only are wittingly or unwittingly ignoring a considerable body of literature that challenges this monovalent and later understanding of the term.

The meaning of jihad as “holy war” is even more problematic. The term “holy war” implies a battle waged in the name of God to effect the forcible conversion of non-believers, and often a total, no-holds-barred war intended to annihilate the enemy, both of which objectives are doctrinally unacceptable in Islam. The Qur’an states categorically that “there is no compulsion in religion” (Sura 2:256), while another verse (Sura 10:99) asks, “As for you, will you force men to become believers?” With regard to righteous conduct during war (jus in bello), the Qur’an prohibits the initiation of aggression against the enemy (Sura 2:190) and resorting to unjust behaviour prompted by anger and the desire for revenge (Sura 5:8). There is no scriptural warrant, therefore, for waging war (or employing other means) to compel non‑Muslims to accept Islam.

The classical doctrine of jihad, and the theory of the “two territories” or “abodes” that it generated (“the abode of peace” and “the abode of war”, discussed further below), should be understood as the products of their time, motivated more by political exigencies than by religious considerations. This classical doctrine of war and peace would not be developed until about the third century of Islam (the ninth century of the common or Christian era) by the fuqaha’ or the jurists in the Abbasid period. This classical formulation was heavily influenced by the Realpolitik objectives of the Abbasid rulers, so much so that the original multivalent Qur’anic meaning of the term became considerably circumscribed. In order to serve the project of empire-building, some jurists engaged in what Rudolph Peters has referred to as Hineininterpretieren, an exercise in retrospective exegesis which allows one to deduce scriptural justification for legal rulings considered a priori appropriate.1

This point deserves further amplification in relation to the concept of jihad. The term jihadis used in the early, Meccan, chapters of the Qur’an in reference only to non-violent, quietist struggle against wrongdoing, its semantic content expanding to include defensive, armed combat in the later, Medinan, chapters. Actual fighting is indicated in the Qur’an, however, by the specific term qital, while quietist, non-violent struggle is specifically denoted by the term sabr, which translates into “patience” and “forbearance”. Jihad is a much broader term and encompasses both sabr and qital as its vital aspects. The full Qur’anic locution al-jihad fi sabil Allah (striving/struggling in the path of God) thus admits of a wide range of semantic and interpretive possibilities.

The scholarly literature from the first three centuries of Islam reveals that there were competing definitions of how best to strive in the path of God. Recent research establishes that there was a clear divergence of opinion regarding the nature of jihad and its imposition as a religious duty on the believer through the first century of Islam and into the second half of the second century. In an excellent discussion of the early conceptions of jihad, two distinguished historians of Islamic thought, Roy Mottahedeh and Ridwan al-Sayyid, have pointed out that during the Umayyad period (661–750 ce) there was a division on this subject between jurists from the Hijaz (the province of western Arabia that includes Mecca and Medina), and jurists from Syria.2 Hijazi jurists, like Sufyan al-Thawri (d. 778 ce) from the second generation of Muslims, tended to think of jihad primarily as defensive, and that only this defensive war may be considered obligatory on the individual. Other early Hijazi jurists tended to place greater emphasis on religious practices such as prayer and mosque attendance and did not consider jihad obligatory for all. Syrian jurists, on the other hand, like al-Awza’i (d. 773 ce), inclined to the view that even aggressive war may be considered obligatory. (Al-Awza’i was very likely influenced by the fact that the Syrian Umayyads during his time were engaged in border warfare with the Byzantines.)

The Two Abodes

These few examples clearly show that jihad was by no means a static and unitary concept in the early history of Islam; the invocation of this term and its interpretations were undoubtedly shaped by specific historical contingencies. Between the late eighth and early ninth centuries ce, the notion of the two territories or the two abodes of peace and war evolved as the classical doctrine of war and peace was progressively formulated, there being no precedent in the Qur’an or the sunna (the practices and sayings of the Prophet Mohammad) for these terms or concepts.

A dualist vision of the world that divides it into two intractably opposed domains is, of course, not uncommon in the context of religious/cultural exclusivism and of communal and national identity formation. The ancient Greeks set themselves apart from the inferior “barbarians”, a term that referred to all non-Greeks, as did the pre-Islamic Arabs from the scorned ‘Ajam (non-Arabs). The Jews separated themselves from the impure goyim; the Christians from the unsaved “infidel”. The Cold War period saw the polarisation of the world into pro-Western and pro-Soviet camps. More recently, President Bush warned in the aftermath of 11 September, “You’re either with us or you’re with the terrorists.”

This Manichaean worldview has found theoretical support in recent times in Samuel Huntington’s provocative formulation of a “clash of civilisations”. Although his hypothesis recognises more than two civilisations potentially on a collision course with one another, at centre stage are the monolithically conceived world of Islam and the West engaged in a deadly lockstep struggle for global dominion. In this conceptualisation, Huntington may even be regarded as having breathed new life into the dichotomous abodes of peace and war, with the positions of Islam and the West transposed. Clearly, civilisational or religious smugness is not the exclusive prerogative of any single group of people or nation.

When reality does not prove itself accommodating to a grandly conceived theory, the theory often has to equivocate. The worlds of Islam and Christianity were not always at military cross-purposes; they also exchanged traders, diplomats, and other emissaries. From the period of the earliest deployment of the terms dar al-islam (the abode of peace) and dar al-harb (the abode of war), the concept of aman (safe passage) had already rendered the borders of the territories of peace and war permeable to some extent. An official functionary or a visitor from dar al-harb could obtain a guarantee of safe passage (a precursor of the modern concept of the visa) from Muslim authorities for safe travel and residence within dar al-islam for a specified period of time (usually less than a year). Reciprocal arrangements allowed Muslim emissaries to travel in safety to non-Muslim lands. It is pertinent to mention here that some commentators have suggested that the members of al-Qaeda who obtained valid visas to enter the United States and then abused this privilege to plan and carry out their murderous missions were guilty of (besides other offences) a grave violation of the rulings of both the Islamic and international law of nations on this issue.

The juristic concepts of dar al-’ahd and dar al-sulh, “the abode of treaty” and “the abode of truce/conciliation” respectively, reflected further accommodation of historical realities. The jurists recognised that non-Muslim rulers could and did enter into treaties with their Muslim counterparts by paying an annual tribute to the latter and thus effectively gaining admission into the dar al-’ahd/dar al-sulh. Legal precedent for this was found in the separate treaty concluded in the seventh century by the Prophet Mohammad with the Christians of Najran in southern Arabia, according to the terms of which the latter could continue to practise their religion freely in exchange for the payment of an annual tribute. Sometimes Muslim rulers paid tribute to non-Muslims. The Umayyad ruler Mu’awiya, for example, concluded a treaty with the Byzantines and paid an annual tribute to the latter.

Tribute did not always have to be paid, however, for admission into the abode of truce/conciliation. Jurists who were advocates of making this abode even more inclusive would point to the example of the Christian Abyssinians, famous in early Islam for having harboured a group of destitute Muslims fleeing from the persecution of the pagan Meccans. Various Muslim administrations in the early period exempted the Abyssinians from the payment of any tribute and considered them as part of the abode of treaty/peace in gratitude for this exceptional act of good will. Muslim modernists are particularly heartened by this instance, which they invoke to bolster their argument that in an era of an international commonwealth of nations subscribing to shared values of human rights and peaceful coexistence, the medieval bipolar vision of the world has been rendered irrelevant and obsolete.

Over time, the term dar al-islam also underwent significant changes, so that by the twelfth century ce some jurists were of the opinion that non-Muslim territory in which Muslims were free to practise their religion could be subsumed under the rubric of dar al-islam. In fact, the worldview of Muslims from after the late Middle Ages has not been meaningfully shaped by the bipolar vision of the world, despite assertions to the contrary in Western polemical and recent militant Islamist literature. By the early modern period, reform-minded scholars such as Mohammad Abduh (d. 1905) and later his student, Rashid Rida (d. 1935), would recognise that the bipolar division of the world had long been defunct and would explicitly affirm that peaceful co-existence was the normal state of affairs between the Islamic and non-Islamic worlds. Mahmud Shaltut (d. 1963), who like Abduh became rector of al-Azhar University in Cairo, expressed a similar conviction. He further stated that Muslims and non-Muslims were equal with regard to rights and duties, and that the only permissible wars were defensive ones in response to external aggression. These developments are a far cry from the ninth-century conceptualisation of a rigidly bifurcated world and reflect, in essence, the malleable and highly contingent nature of the terms dar al-islam and dar al-harb.

The Cult of Martyrdom

The deliberate quest for martyrdom among many militants today highlights the grossly unpalatable aspects of wars waged for at least ostensibly religious purposes. Suicide is forbidden in both the Islamic and Judaeo-Christian traditions; yet adherents of these traditions have not been averse to seeking death purposely in the hope of redeeming themselves and their co-religionists. A common underlying factor in most such cases appears to be despair during times when conventional methods of resistance to what is assumed to be disproportionate evil are deemed ineffective or unavailable. Dire straits have often called forth dire measures, in contravention of ethical principles upheld in more normal, peaceful times.

With their backs to the wall, politically impotent people facing an indomitable military power have often responded by resorting to extreme means, including terror, and by glorifying the wilful courting of death as the ultimate testimony to their uncompromising fealty to their cause. The religious and national narratives constructed by their posterity frequently glorify such acts.

The Hebrew Bible relates that King Saul committed suicide when the Israelites were defeated in battle against the Philistines at Mount Gilboa. In conflict-ridden Israel/Palestine, the Masada fortress stands as a silent witness to the Jewish Zealots3 who circa 73 ce first killed their wives and children and then resolutely embraced death by their own hands rather than surrender to their hated Roman overlords. Abandoned by the world, as they thought, they chose mass suicide over humiliating captivity by the Roman enemy. During the First Crusade in the eleventh century, German Christians presented the Jews of the Rhine Valley with a choice between baptism and death. They chose death, first killing their children and then ending their own lives. To this day, Jewish religio-nationalist history continues to laud these martyrs, particularly the ones at Masada, for having redeemed the honour of their co-religionists. It is no surprise, therefore, that new inductees into the Israeli army today swear an oath of allegiance at Masada, sacralising self-immolation as an essential ingredient of a reconstructed Jewish national identity.

The early history of Christianity in particular is peopled with martyrs, given its inception as a minority religion in a hostile, pagan milieu. The Christian tradition reveres those early believers who bore witness to their religious commitment in the face of persecution by laying down their lives in preference to offering physical resistance. This robust tradition of embracing death as the ultimate act of religious allegiance would be even more dramatically, and violently, manifested during the Crusades of the Middle Ages. Courting martyrdom in pursuit of the infidel who had despoiled their holy lands would bring the Crusaders redemption in this world and the next. Encouraged by the conferral of plenary indulgences, these religious militants went enthusiastically to inflict wanton death and win martyrdom for themselves in Syria–Palestine. For many Western historians today, the Crusades represent an irrational, bleak episode in the history of Christendom, although an occasional apologist for them may still be found.

In our own time, Palestinian suicide bombers stage their last acts of desperate self-sacrifice against the remote possible descendants of the Masada protagonists. The actions of the suicide bombers are lauded by many of their compatriots as deeds of both political heroism and religious self-abnegation in the face of the world’s indifference to their suffering. Nationalist ideology wedded to religious rhetoric assures them of a lofty status in this world and the hereafter. Their actions, reprehensible from the viewpoint of Islamic doctrine, have been stoutly defended by a number of Arab Muslim clerics, such as Yusuf al-Qaradawi, who have issued legal opinions (fatwas) justifying the suicide missions as legitimate tactics of national self-defence. Other clerics, like the Saudi mufti ‘Abd al-’Aziz bin Baz and his successor ‘Abd al-’Aziz bin ‘Abdallah al-Shaykh, have categorically condemned such acts. Al-Qaradawi’s legal opinions, not binding in any way, are testimony to the knee-jerk solidarity some Arabs feel with their Palestinian brethren under siege, perceived as being driven to crazed violence in helpless confrontation with a much stronger military enemy. Hence the creation of the Palestinian equivalent of the Masada legends, transmuting martyrdom-seeking warriors who resort to unorthodox violence into larger-than-life symbols around whom the religio-national consciousness coalesces.

Outside the Abrahamic religions, we have seen in the last century suicidal Japanese kamikaze fighters, self-immolating Buddhist monks in South-East Asia, and the Hindu “Liberation Tigers of Tamil Elam” in Sri Lanka. Secular battles also yield self-sacrificial figures: the fighters of the Alamo at Texas, the soldiers of the Light Brigade, and others. History is indeed a grim reminder of the repetitiveness of certain human circumstances that elicit predictably similar human reactions. Alleging a presumed Palestinian and Arab exceptionalism, or more broadly, Islamic exceptionalism, to reinforce imputations of a peculiarly Muslim aberrant code of behaviour (only Muslims commit self-destructive acts) is, besides other things, simply bad history.

Explaining Militant Islam

Much ink has recently been spilled in attempts to explain how and why the 11 September atrocities could occur, and whether Islam, generically conceived, or a distorted version of it, is implicated in their commission. There are predictably two camps at loggerheads on this issue, depending on whether one holds Islam in its essence to be culpable, or alternatively, whether one blames only a certain interpretive strand within Islam.

From the first camp is Salman Rushdie, who publicly maintained in a New York Timesopinion piece that Islam itself and its intrinsic worldview, characterised as violent and intolerant, triggered the events of 11 September.4 Career Islamophobes like Daniel Pipes and Martin Kraemer, and more recently some evangelical Christian leaders like Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, and Franklin Graham, have climbed onto this bandwagon with well-documented relish. Most Muslims from various backgrounds ipso facto belong to the second camp. Also within this camp are the largely non-Muslim academic scholars of Islam in the United States and abroad who have been appalled by the invective hurled at them for taking informed positions contrary to those adopted by the first camp. Some members of the first camp have gone to great polemical lengths to discount the testimony of the academics in the second camp as mere apologetics deliberately designed to mask the true nature of an Islam that seeks to subvert the civilised world. They are so bold as to suggest that those who know Islam, its traditions, and its history best—whether as dispassionate scholars, practitioners, or both—are actually the least qualified to pronounce on the true nature of Islamic teachings and to plot deviations from them. While common sense demands that such perverse reasoning be laughed out of court, it has in fact been taken more seriously than warranted for skewed ideological reasons. It appears that today common sense itself has been derailed and replaced by fear on account of the pugnacious vigilantism indulged in by some elements of the first camp.

There is no doubt that Islam, as a perceived essence, has become the lightning rod in the United States in particular for social and political discontents of various kinds. Certain constructs of Islam are far more revealing of those who invent them than of those who are their objects. For students of history, there should be a depressing sense of déjà vu. Whole groups of people of minority religious and/or ethnic background have been earmarked for persecution in various polities, especially in times of national anxiety and insecurity. Marginalisation and then demonisation occur through the invocation of the tediously familiar topoi of bigotry and vilification. The fabricated Protocols of the Elders of Zion, for example, encodes some of these topoi, particularly the common one of a conspiracy hatched by members of the targeted despised group to achieve world domination. Today, we note the incipient scripting of the Protocols of the Elders of Araby, if not in exact rhetoric, certainly in comparable vitriolic sentiment which, as expressed quite frequently in US newspaper columns and television commentaries, seeks to tar with as broad a brush as possible all Arabs, Middle Easterners, and Muslims.

A supposed organic link between terrorism and Islam’s foundational texts and basic orientation has been persistently asserted in public discourse in many venues in the United States and elsewhere. Some ideologues, Western and non-Western, have attempted to create a genealogy of violence for an unchanging, reified Islam and to attribute an ontologically violent core to a perceived immutable Muslim consciousness. Samuel Huntington’s calumny of Islam’s “bloody borders” certainly fosters this impression, as do Bernard Lewis’s jaundiced statements about “Muslim rage”. Likewise, Emmanuel Sivan would have us believe that every (male) Muslim every day through every era has woken up with nothing but jihad, in the sense of military combat, on his mind—so tenacious, Sivan maintains, is the hold of what he facetiously dubs “jihad culture” and “jihad mythology” over the undifferentiated Muslim psyche.5

Hostile representations like these obviate the need for assigning specific historical and political motivations—in other, words, systemic, rational causes—to the discontents of a number of Muslim polities. The negative consequences of ill-considered US foreign policies and earlier of the European colonial misadventure can then be brushed aside as of no consequence in generating a legacy of ill will because, as these ideologues would remind us, the quintessential Muslim is capable only of viscerally reacting with sullen, violent resentment to the West that has overtaken his/her culture. For centuries, the myth of the unregenerate Jew in Christendom justified the lamentable social and religious status of Jews. The myth of the unregenerate Muslim that threatens to displace it (some would claim it already has displaced it) in the West, if uncontested, will serve only too well the jingoistic, xenophobic elements of contemporary American society, now enjoying an unexpected period of resurgence.

Islam contra Extremism

The resources for combating extremism and the impetus for self-renewal on the part of Muslims today may be found in the wellsprings of Islamic thought itself. In Islam’s self-understanding, righteous Muslims constitute a middle or moderate nation—umma wasat in Qur’anic terminology. Moderation is described in the Qur’an as the hallmark of the true believer, whether Muslim or non-Muslim. Thus, righteous Jews and Christians are said by the Qur’an to constitute a “balanced community” (umma muqtasida) and an “upright nation” (umma qa’ima). Extremism in any form is looked at askance in Islamic tradition and condemned outright when it harms oneself or others. Therefore, even pious excesses such as continuous fasting that can cause harm to one’s body, or celibacy (in the absence of extenuating circumstances) that deprives an individual of the benefits of conjugal life, are deemed impermissible. In the same vein, recourse to limited violence in self-defence and as a last resort is clearly permitted in Islam. Those who would abuse this divine concession through excessive and unprincipled recourse to violence face categorical ostracism and punishment.

Medieval juristic discourse emphasised proportionality in responding to violence and established an elaborate code of military ethics that prohibited wilful harm to unarmed civilians and their property during combat. Historical documentation of the conduct of various Muslim rulers and military commanders, such as  ‘Ali ibn Abi Talib, Khalid ibn al-Walid, ‘Umar ibn ‘Abd al-’Aziz, and such, provides powerful testimony that these ideals were more often observed than not. Classical Islamic law also maintains that there is no legal and moral equivalence between a war formally declared by a recognised head of state and an ad hoc campaign of terror by a rogue militant; in this, both the Islamic and international law of nations are in complete agreement.

Historically, the Islamic Weltanschauung has been innately averse to extremism of any type and encouraging of temperate behaviour. A term of opprobrium in medieval Islam was ghuluw, Arabic for “extremism”. One who practised or was accused of ghuluw was aghali (pl. ghulat). The basic dictionary meaning of the verb behind these terms is “to exceed the proper bounds, be excessive, go too far, overdo, exaggerate”; by definition, one who is or does any of these things has clearly exited from “the middle nation”.

The earliest extremists in Islamic history were the Khawarij from the seventh century cefor whom violence was the principal means of imposing their harsh, puritanical views on others. Despite appealing to scriptural warrants in an attempt to justify their stance, the Khawarij were repudiated by the vast majority of early Muslims for their violent intolerance, recognised as a gross departure from Islamic norms. The Khawarij eventually faded from the scene, as did other violent extremist groups such as the Qaramita and the Assassins of later periods. The few descendants of the Khawarij today in north Africa, known as the Ibadiyya, are quietists and part of mainstream society.

The Taliban and al-Qaeda factions have been likened to the Khawarij in particular and with good justification: they, too, have parted company with the main body of Muslims on account of their virulent extremism. And they, too, will fade from the scene, for most Muslims have rejected both their hermeneutics of terror and its weapons. A centuries-long Islamic heritage of toleration of minorities, of reasoned dissent, and accommodation of diversity, remarkable by pre-modern standards, is not about to be jettisoned overnight on account of the apoplectic fulminations of a fringe lunatic faction. And, as developments to date show, the overwhelming majority of Muslim societies have not succumbed to militant rhetoric despite alarmist predictions to the contrary, and do not seem likely to do so anytime in the near future.

A Hermeneutic of Pacifism?

Pacifism is not usually counted as one of the many projects in which Islam may be implicated. It is commonly asserted that Islam does not endorse pacifism in the sense of an absolute and unconditional eschewal of violence, and there is considerable truth to this assertion. Mainstream Islamic teachings also do not endorse resorting to violence in the absence of extreme provocation. Violence as expressed in armed combat with a precisely defined enemy becomes permissible under certain conditions; during such combat, specific rules mandating humane and ethical conduct are in effect. Detailed as they are, Islamic military and social ethics still leave certain options ultimately to the conscience and interpretive abilities of the believer, allowing for a large measure of flexibility and adaptability to specific circumstances.

This essay has adumbrated some of the more common juristic formulations of military and social ethics and indicated how these formulations may be reinterpreted and misinterpreted according to individual proclivities. Outside the legal sphere, other types of Muslim scholar and thinker have grappled with the age-old question of how best to uphold the common good, resist wrongdoing, and establish a just society on earth, a prime concern of Islamic moral and ethical thinking. Engaging with the same foundational texts, they have sometimes come up with different responses from those of the classical jurists.

Activism and Quietism

Some early pietistic thinkers, for example, often in conscious opposition to other groups which urged a more activist approach to effect social and political change, chose to privilege certain Qur’anic verses and prophetic statements which advocate quietism and patient forbearance in the face of both personal trials and political tribulations. The Qur’an, after all, equally endorses the activist and the quietist striver in the way of God (al-mujahidun and al-sabirun respectively). For example, Sura 16:110 states: “As for those who after persecution fled their homes and strove actively [jahadu] and were patient [sabaru] to the last, your Lord will be forgiving and merciful to them on the day when every soul will come pleading for itself.” Another verse (Sura 47:31) states: “We shall put you to the test until We know the active strivers [al-mujahidin] and the quietly forbearing [al-sabirin] among you.” Quietist, non-violent struggle is not to be confused with passivity, which when displayed in the face of grave oppression and injustice is clearly earmarked as immoral in the Qur’anic view (Sura 4:95).

The highly charged discourses that have grown up around the term jihad obfuscate the fact that the term sabr (patience, forbearance) occurs far more often in the Qur’an than qital(fighting, armed combat) as an element of jihad. Contrary to the recent statements of self-styled “experts”, it is not those who engage in armed combat who earn unlimited divine approbation, according to the Qur’an. Rather, heavenly reward “without measure” (Sura 39:10) and a lofty station in the next world (Sura 25:75) are reserved only for those who cultivate “patience”, understood as non-militant or quietist striving in the way of God.

The Qur’anic verse (Sura 3:169) that has been construed to refer to the special status of the military martyr runs thus: “Do not think that those who were slain in the path of God are dead. They are alive and well provided for by their Lord.” The exegetical and hadith6literature, however, makes clear that the phrase “slain in the path of God” is not restricted to those fallen in battle, but may be glossed in several ways. For example, a report found in an early work of hadith, ‘Abd al-Razzaq’s al-Musannaf from the eighth century ce, states that there are four types of shahada or martyrdom for Muslims: the plague, parturition or childbirth, drowning, and a stomach ailment, with no mention of military activity (although a variant report includes it). The Qur’an in fact has no terms for “martyr” or “martyrdom”. The term shahid, used later to refer to a martyr, occurs in the Qur’an only in the sense of a legal witness or eyewitness, and is applied both to God and humans. The development of the meaning of shahid in the sense of a martyr in extra-Qur’anic sources very likely owes something to Christian influence, since Christians had a well-developed concept of martyrdom by the time Muslims came into contact with them in the seventh century, particularly in the Levant.


The quietist orientation described above was wholeheartedly embraced by the mystical practitioners who grew in number through the ninth century ce, and who by the tenth century came to be recognised as constituting an organised, institutionalised movement called Sufism (tasawwuf). Sufism is notable for emphasising the internal jihad—the spiritual battle against one’s carnal self as a prelude to eventual large-scale social and moral reform.

It must not be assumed a priori, as some have, that jurists and Sufis occupied polar ends of a theological–hermeneutic spectrum. In their pragmatic concern to legislate for a rapidly expanding empire and to ensure secure borders for it, the jurists were not oblivious to the different modes of jihad, including the individual, internal one, nor did they speak with one mind on these topics. To assume a basic incompatibility between juristic and Sufi perspectives on jihad, therefore, is not always tenable. The juristic and scholarly discourse was in fact quite varied, reflecting the diverse theological and political orientations of those who contributed to it. The eleventh-century Andalusian jurist and theologian Ibn Hazm (d. 1064 ce), for example, placed a higher moral value on the defence of Islam through non-militant, verbal and scholarly means, as can be seen by his hierarchical ordering of actions which qualify as meritorious struggle in the path of God. Thus, he said,jihad is best exercised, in order of importance, through (a) invitation of people to God by means of the tongue, (b) the defence of Islam through sound judgement and carefully considered opinions, and (c) armed combat.

Sufism, too, is a variegated phenomenon; it has, in fact, meant different things to different people at different times, and continues to have a broad appeal for a large cross-section of Muslims. It may come as a surprise to many that there existed in the medieval period a close connection between Sufism and scholars from the Hanbali school of law, which is commonly depicted as hostile to Sufi thought. Hanbali jurists like Ibn ‘Aqil (d. 1119 ce) and Ibn Qudama (d. 1223 ce), for example, expressed an affinity for Sufism since it was a natural component of religious piety. It also tends to be forgotten that a particularly famous Hanbali, Ibn Taymiyya (d. 1328 ce), the ideological “godfather” of many of the Islamist groups today, was a practising Sufi himself and belonged to the Qadiri order. His critique of Sufism was limited to folk practices such as cultic devotion to Sufi masters and veneration of their tombs, considered anathema from the viewpoint of mainstream Islam.

Modern-day Wahhabis, who also belong to the Hanbali school of law, albeit to a more puritanical version of it, and who express implacable antagonism towards Sufism per se, thus represent an anomaly, there being hardly any historical precedent for this kind of uncompromising opposition in the earlier period. We must therefore be wary of positing a clear divide between what have been termed legalistic Islam and mystical Islam. The legal tradition was and remains a vital part of Islamic education; the Sufi practitioner is often as much steeped in it as scholars of any other bent. There were frequent interfaces between legal and Sufi thought in the medieval period, and the Islamic intellectual tradition is considerably short-changed when we elect to demarcate one rigidly from the other. The retrieval of “alternative” viewpoints articulated outside the standard juristic and theological treatises remains an imperative today because they so enrich the contemporary discourse on vital issues of social justice, tolerance, and pluralism. The recovery of these voices allows us to reconstruct fully the rich mosaic of opinions and interpretations that went into the creation of the diverse Islamic intellectual heritage, of which we are now only partially aware. It also considerably extends the repertoire of ideational possibilities out of which contemporary Muslims may plausibly and legitimately fashion appropriate responses to their current situation.

Concluding Thoughts

The issues of peace/pacifism, violence, and the attainment of justice (social, economic, and political) are central concerns of the global system we inhabit today. Some concluding remarks are in order on the relevance of these concerns within contemporary Islamic ethics.

Muslims are known to assert proudly that the very name of their religion, Islam, is evocative of peace (in Arabic, salam, a cognate term) and that one of the names of the Almighty in Arabic is al-Salam. Sometimes the naive assumption behind these assertions is that “proof” of this sort should be enough to convince the sceptic of the essentially peaceful nature of Islam. But, of course, peace does not devolve on its own; the establishment of a non-violent social and world order requires conscious effort and constant vigilance, in addition to peaceful intent. Paradoxically, the maintenance of peace requires that those who would seek to subvert it must be resisted, sometimes violently, when peaceful means are exhausted.

The prevalent attitude among Muslims is that the revealed laws of God, properly interpreted and implemented, will inevitably lead to the ultimate desideratum: a just and peaceful world order. In general, the Islamic moral landscape has not been receptive to the idea of pursuing non-violence as an ideological end in itself, severed from the requirement of fulfilling the conditions of social and political justice. Non-violence, after all, can be (and has been) forcibly imposed by the strong on the weak to the detriment of the latter’s rights and dignity. Thus pacifism, when defined as non-militancy under all circumstances and the unconditional avoidance of war, even in the face of violent aggression, may be regarded in specific situations as facilitating injustice and contributing to social instability.

The neologism “pacificism”, on the other hand, more closely encapsulates traditional Islamic attitudes towards war and peace. Pacificism refers to a preference for peaceful conditions over war, but accepts that armed combat for defensive purposes may on occasion be necessary to advance the cause of peace.7 Conditional pacifism may be another way of referring to this position. In contrast, absolute pacifism harbours the possibility of acquiescing in injustice and evil, a moral infraction that is indefensible within the Islamic ethos. The Islamic principle of hisba (enjoining good and forbidding evil) instructs that refusal to resist wrong, even if only verbally, is a grave abdication of individual and collective moral responsibility.

Battles fought for worldly (and in particular, political) reasons have been dubbed jihad by some Muslims, but by no means has there been consensus on this issue. Early hadithliterature, like the Musannaf of ‘Abd al-Razzaq, records the displeasure of pious Muslims at the military adventures of unscrupulous rulers. One hadith in the Musannaf specifically warns the pious not to join in the military campaigns of those “who fight seeking [the gains of] the world”, otherwise they will forfeit their “portion in the hereafter”. Jus ad bellumconsiderations of this sort (principles concerning when it is permissible to wage war) are to be found not so much in the legal corpus as in the literature that documents the dissent of the pious “laity”, who often did not see eye-to-eye with the jurists. Very few Muslim rulers, in fact, have been deemed by the majority of Muslims as worthy of donning the Prophet’s mantle and qualified to issue a call to jihad on behalf of the polity. Shi’ites have long held the view that in the absence of their infallible Imam, the duty of jihad is in abeyance, a point of view similar to that of some Sunni modernists who are alarmed at the exploitation of this highly charged term by unscrupulous, self-appointed leaders.

In the creation of a contemporary transnational legal discourse on war and peace, the substantial Islamic juridical corpus dealing with military ethics is not openly consulted by modern Western jurists. It has been suggested, however, that the introduction of jus in bello considerations (rules about proper conduct in war) into Western international law owes a debt to the Islamic legal heritage. Hugo Grotius, the seventeenth-century Dutch legal theorist credited with the formulation of statutes dealing with just conduct during war, was said to have been influenced by two Spanish jurists, Francisco de Victoria and Francisco Suárez. The latter in turn are said to have acknowledged drawing inspiration from Islamic legal thought prevalent in Muslim Spain.8 The beneficial cross-fertilisation of ideas between these two venerable legal cultures that this genealogy indicates suggests future beneficial consequences were such a process to continue.

Recent comparative studies of jihad and “just war” have, in fact, uncovered much common ground between them.9 Shared global concerns about the containment of violence and the amelioration of conditions which breed extremism mean that consensual international norms must be developed to deal with these questions effectively. Both Western and Islamic sources which contain rich repositories of moral thinking on these issues must be consulted to find legitimate, and ultimately, just solutions to these festering problems.


1. Rudolph Peters, Jihad in Classical and Modern Islam (Princeton, N.J.: Markus Wiener, 1996), p. 28.


2. Roy P. Mottahedeh and Ridwan al-Sayyid, “The Idea of the Jihad in Islam before the Crusades”, in The Crusades from the Perspective of Byzantium and the Muslim World, ed. Angeliki E. Laiou and Roy P. Mottahedeh (Washington, D.C.: Dumbarton Oaks, 2001).


3. Or the Sicarii extremists: see Nachman Ben-Yehuda, The Masada Myth: Collective Memory and Mythmaking in Israel (Madison, Wisc.: University of Wisconsin Press, 1995).


4. Salman Rushdie, “Yes, This Is about Islam”, New York Times, 2 November 2001.


5. See Samuel Huntington, “The Clash of Civilizations?”, Foreign Affairs (summer 1993); Bernard Lewis, “The Roots of Muslim Rage”, Atlantic Monthly, September 1990; Emmanuel Sivan, “The Holy War Tradition in Islam”, Orbis 42, no. 2 (spring 1998).


6. Traditions regarding the sayings and doings of the Prophet Mohammad and his companions, second in authority only to the Qur’an itself.


7. For the distinction between “pacifism” and “pacificism”, see Martin Ceadel, Pacifism in Britain 1914–1945: The Defining of a Faith (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1980), chap. 1; see also Ceadel, Thinking about Peace and War (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987), pp. 101 ff.


8. See Marcel Boisard, “On the Probable Influence of Islam on Western Public and International Law”, International Journal of Middle East Studies 11, no. 4 (1980), p. 445.


9. See, for example, John Kelsay and James Turner Johnson, eds., Just War and Jihad: Historical and Theoretical Perspectives on War and Peace in Western and Islamic Traditions (New York: Greenwood Press, 1991).

By Asma Afsaruddin – Associate professor of Arabic and Islamic studies at the University of Notre Dame.


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