Jihad and Terrorism: What is the Difference?

(© Zubair Qamar 2013)

Jihad in Classical Sunni Islam – an Overview

Muslims define jihad in Arabic as “holy struggle/effort.” An often neglected matter is the plurality of meanings of jihad in early Islam, which includes both combative and non-combative jihadJihad takes many forms, including controlling one’s anger, studying at school, supporting one’s family financially, and any other efforts in a Muslim’s life that contributes to good. Almost all manifestations of jihad are non-combative and far more numerous than the combative form, which consists of defensive and offensive jihad.

The first jihad in Islam was non-combative for the first 13 to 14 years, in spite of the oppression endured by Prophet Muhammad and his followers by the Meccans. The Grand Imam Mahmoud Shaltut said,

“The early Muslims spent many years in Mecca suffering the worst kinds of punishment, they were not free to worship, were persecuted for believing in a creed that brought them reassurance and were terrorised with regard to property and personal safety. All this continued until they were forced to emigrate.”

(Source: HRH Prince Ghazi bin Muhammad, Professor Ibrahim Kalim, Mohammad Hashim Kamali. War and Peace in Islam: The Uses and Abuses of Jihad. Chapter: “The Qur’an and Combat.”The Islamic Texts Society, p.9)

Muslims believe that permission to fight was granted after continued oppression by the Meccans after Prophet Muhammad and his followers emigrated to Medina from Mecca.

The Sunni View of Combative Jihad: Defensive and Offensive

Scholars from the four Sunni schools of jurisprudence (Hanafi, Shafi’i, Maliki, Hanbali) differ in their views of combative jihad. According to contemporary author and Al-Azhari professor, Ahmad al-Dawoody, the majority of religious scholars in the four Sunni schools view jihad as a defense against aggression:

“Qur’anic casus belli are restricted to aggression against Muslims and fitnah, that is, persecution of Muslims because of their religious belief (Qur’an 2:190; 2:193; 4:75; 22:39-40). War and coercion are not means by which religion may be propagated because belief in a religion is only a matter of the conviction of the heart (Qur’an 2:256; 10:99; 16:93; 18:29). Fighting non-Muslims solely because they do not believe in Islam contradicts the Qur’anic injunction (Qur’an 2:256).”[[1]]

The above position on combative jihad by classical Sunni scholars should not be taken lightly, especially in view of the distorted understanding that all Sunni scholars embraced the position of offensive jihad. This position illustrates that combat was only to be waged defensively in response to aggression.

To give a specific example of an early Muslim scholar in the time of the Salaf who supported defensive (and not offensive) jihad, author Mairaj Syed of Bard College in the book, Just War in Religion and Politics: Studies in Religion and the Social Order, in the chapter, “Jihad in Classical Islamic Legal and Moral Thought,” said that the eighth century Muslim scholar and ascetic, Sufyan al-Thawri,

“held that the duty of jihad becomes incumbent only in the case of enemy attack. For this reason fighting is a duty only for defensive purposes” (p. 147).

Syed then says,

“The implication of this view is that fighting for offensive purposes is not a religiously legitimate jihad” (p. 148).

While defensive jihad was a personal obligation, offensive jihad was a communal/collective obligation proclaimed by the ruler. The latter did not always mean perpetual warfare, but also meant, in certain situations, to be in a prepared state of battle. Other Sunni scholars like the Spanish Maliki scholar, Ibn `Abd al-Barr (978-1070), says Syed,

“held that the collective duty of jihad becomes incumbent only in the presence of fear (khawf). In conditions of security (amn), it is only a praiseworthy action (nafila), and not a duty. As such, in Ibn `And al-Barr’s conception, the omission of jihad in conditions of peace and security is not sinful” (p. 148).

According to contemporary author and scholar, Asma Afsaruddin, the plurality of meanings of jihad in Islam’s earlier years gradually narrowed in meaning to the combative form due to geo-political exigencies of the time:

“By the early Abassid period – roughly the mid-to-late eighth-century CE, second century of Islam – the military aspect of jihad began to receive greater emphasis in certain official and juridical circles.”[[2]]

In other words, the pacifist school of combative jihad seems to have been gradually overshadowed by the offensive jihad school when military matters mattered more. This is not to say that defensive jihad was non-existent at a later time. Syed mentions the sixteenth century Hanafi scholar, Ibn Nujaym, who

“seems to articulate an interpretation of jihad, as motivated solely by defensive considerations, that comes close to the view propounded by al-Thawri” (p.148).

Religious jurists who focused on military matters more used the Islamic sources and resorted to abrogation, believing that Qur’anic verses calling for combat abrogated the verses calling for peace. This view, however, was not shared by all scholars, and, contrary to Islamophobes, does not represent the view of the Muslim majority today.

War as Part of the Norm

Were only Muslims prone to war? Combative jihad was adopted through Islam’s history for various reasons, including spreading what Muslims believed was God’s word. War, however, was not unique to Islam and Muslims. The Muslim expansion in early Islam, as well as later wars, is to be understood in the context of the geo-political environment in those times. Professor David Dakake says,

“When Islam spread out of Arabia in the seventh century…warfare and conflict were the normal state of affairs between nations and peoples. The state of nearly constant warfare was simply the ‘way of the world’ and peace was the extraordinary and occasional exception to the rule.”[[3]]

Similarly, Georgetown University Professor, John Esposito, in his book Unholy War: Terror in the Name of Islam, says,

“The world in which Islam emerged in the seventh century was a rough neighborhood where war was the natural state. Arabia and the city of Mecca, in which Muhammad lived and received God’s revelation, were beset by tribal raids and cycles of vengeance and vendetta. The broader Near East, in which Arabia was located, was itself divided between two warring superpowers of the day, the Byzantine (Eastern Roman) and the Persian (Sasanin) Empires. Each had competed against the other for world dominion” (p.29).

Justification for war found religious justification as jihad in Islam, just as “Just War” was formulated to justify war in Christianity. Muslims were not unique in their times when it came to war.

Non-Muslims Under Muslim Rule

The promotion of combative jihad notwithstanding, this did not mean forced conversion. Contemporary scholar, Shaykh Muhammad Hisham Kabbani, said,

“As for forced conversion, no reliable evidence exists that Muslims ever intended or attempted to impose the specific rites and beliefs of Islam. The histories of Central Asia, Spain, India, the Balkans and all of Southeast Asia are concrete proof of this” (p.61).

The norm, therefore, was to let conquered people practice their own religions. There were, however, aberrations from the norm that should not be described as the norm as Islamophobes frequently do. Mustafa Akyol says,

“with the exception of a few cases – such as the fanatic Almohavids in North Africa – forced conversion remained anathema to Islamdom.”[[4]]

Similarly, Youssef Courbage and Philippe Fargues in their book, Christians and Jews Under Islam, say,

“It is known that coercion, although it was occasionally used, was rare in the history of Arab Islam” (p.21).

Courbage and Fargues also say,

“There were some violent episodes, some spectacular explosions of popular fanaticism, but the state was almost never a persecutor” (p.24).

Other authors and historians have similar understandings. For example, historian Ira Lapidus says,

“…the Arab-Muslims did not, contrary to reputation, attempt to convert people to Islam. Muhammad had set the precedent of permitting Jews and Christians in Arabia to keep their religions, if they paid tribute; the Caliphate extended the same privileges to Middle Eastern Jews, Christians, and Zoroastrians, whom they considered ‘People of the Book,’ the adherents of earlier written revelations […].”[[5]]

Author Thomas Arnold says,

“These stupendous conquests which laid the foundations of the Arab empire, were certainly not the outcome of a holy war […].”[[6]]

Similarly, historian Marshall Hodgson says,

“There was no attempt at converting the peoples of the imperial territories, who practically adhered to some form of confessional religion already.”[[7]]

This, however, did not mean that non-Muslims under Muslim rule were living in bliss, but neither did it mean they were living under untold oppression – two extreme views that do not line with historical facts. They were not annihilated but tolerated. Christians and Jews, deemed “People of the Book” by Muslims, were permitted to practice their religion in their places of worship while paying a tax to receive exemption from joining the army and to receive full protection by the Muslim government in the event of an attack. In practice, protection by the Muslim state was not only offered to Christians and Jews, but also to followers of other religions, including Zoroastrians, Buddhists, and Hindus.

“The poll-tax or jizya,” professor David Dakake says, “was required to be paid by the People of the Book to the Islamic state” and “unlike feudal taxation in Europe, did not constitute an economic hardship for non-Muslims living under Muslim rule.” He continues, “The tax was seen as the legitimate right of the Islamic state, given that all peoples – Muslim and non-Muslim – benefited from the military protection of the state, the freedom of the roads, and trade, etc.” Muslims also had to contribute. “Although the jizya was paid by non-Muslims, Muslims were also taxed through the zakat, a required religious tax not levied on other communities.”[[8]]

This, however, does not mean that all non-Muslims had to pay jizya under Muslim rule, as many people incorrectly understand. Mohammad Hashim Kamali in the book War and Peace in Islam: The Uses and Abuses of Jihad, in the chapter “Dhimmi and Musta’min: A Juristic and Historical Perspective,” says, “The contract of dhimmah that Muslim jurists later formalised was neither uniform nor well defined” (p.309). Kamali says on page-310:

“Early Muslim rulers have at times entered dhimmah agreements which eliminated the jizyah altogether — as in the agreement entered during the time of the second caliph `Umar with the Turkish tribe of Jarajimah which welcomed the Muslim forces and declared its dislike of the Romans, but stipulated that its members be allowed to remain Christian; this was agreed”

Kamali continues,

“The tribe also agreed to help the Muslims in the event of any military engagement with the Romans. The Muslim party agreed in return to protect the tribe and also relieved its members from payment of jizyah.”

Kamali then describes a similar situation when Muslims took over Cyprus:

“A similar example of a variant dhimmah arrangement was the peace agreement that the Muslims signed with the people of Cyprus, who did not offer resistance. In return the Muslim party agreed not to levy the jizyah on them.”

The Copts of Egypt were also exempt, according to Kamali:

“Another example of this was the agreement that `Amr b. al-As, Caliph `Umar’s governor, signed with the Copts of Egypt when his forces besieged and eventually conquered Egypt. There was no mention of jizyah in the treaty that was subsequently signed.”

Such nuances are important to understand to avoid simplistic generalizations of how Muslim rulers treated non-Muslims in history.

The Petering Out of Offensive Jihad

Offensive jihad or perpetual warfare was also not the preferred choice for rulers after a certain period. Author and scholar Khalid Blankenship says that wars became unsustainable over time, which  was partially responsible for the demise of the Umayyad state during the reign of Hisham ibn `Abd al-Malik. This led to a “permanent restructuring of Muslim political praxis away from a scheme of permanent warfare against non-Muslims, to one which came, over time, to include protracted truces, formal diplomatic relations, and, in the modern world, membership in the international community of nation-states.”[[9]]. Kamali in the previous section’s source says,

“There is … no dhimmah in the Muslim state of today, as it has to all intents and purposes been replaced by muwatanah (citizenship)…” (p. 311).

Non-Muslims Helped Muslims in Jihad

Islamophobes and “Muslim” terrorists portray a bipolar Muslim versus non-Muslim affair. However, Ian Almond, author of Two Faiths One Banner: When Muslims Marched with Christians Across Europe’s Battlegrounds, discusses the “under-reported phenomenon of Muslim-Christian military alliances,” including

“the thousands of Arabs who fought for medieval Christian emperors outside the walls of Milan and Bologna, the Castilians and Catalans who regularly allied themselves with Muslims to fight their Christian neighbors, the extraordinary level of Turkish co-operation in the last century of the Byzantine empire, the equally extraordinary number of Christian soldiers in the Ottoman armies which occupied the Balkans, and the tens of thousands of Hungarian Protestants, not to mention disaffected Hungarian peasants, who marched with the armies of the Turk on Vienna.”[[10]]

Similarly, Akyol says,

“local Christians…actively helped the Muslim conquests. When Byzantine-ruled Damascus was besieged by the Arab army in 634, the city’s Monophysite bishop secretly informed the Muslim commander, Khalid, that the east gate of the city was weakly defended, and he supplied the Muslim troops with ladders for scaling the walls.”[[11]]

Moreover, “Christian Arabs from tribes such as the Banu Tayyi of Najd, the Banu al-Namir ibn Qasit of the upper Euphrates river valley, and the Banu Lakhm participated in the jihad with the Muslim armies.”[[12]] It is important to note that many wars did not necessarily count as jihad, while many wars waged by Muslims were against other Muslims.


Caliphs Were Tolerated More Than Supported

While reasons for offensive jihad are debated by both Muslim and non-Muslim scholars, it has been established earlier that most of the caliphs who undertook combative jihad were not necessarily supported by the masses, and more than a few were not in line with Islamic teachings.

The collective actions of caliphs, therefore, should not be understood as the genuine expression of Islam. Moreover, the delicate relationship between the caliphs and religious scholars demonstrates more tension than collaboration. The religious scholars had the unenviable role of keeping the ruler in check and risking life and limb in the process. Religious scholars generally did not agree with the power-hungry goals of certain caliphs, but made decisions based on what they believed to be in the collective interests of the wider Muslim community.

Now that an overview of classical Sunni jihad has been provided, this section will compare the understanding and actions of militants today with combative jihad as understood and undertaken by classical Sunni Muslims of the past.

Jihad versus Terrorism

Advocacy of Peace Over War Today as the Norm

The geo-political context in the past hundreds of years has evolved. It is not the same as the time of Prophet Muhammad, or the time of the Crusades. Unlike most of the past 1,000-plus years, peace, not war, is generally the normal state of affairs today.

Even if offensive jihad occurred in Islam’s history, this does not mean most Muslims wish to promote combat today. Contrary to Islamophobes and “Muslim” terrorists, the Muslim majority is not interested in waging combat on others, but living peacefully like most of the world’s people.

“Gallup’s polling of Muslims worldwide determined that the vast majority of respondents (93 percent) belong to the mainstream who believe the 9/11 attacks were not justified.”

(Source: John L. Esposito. The Future of Islam. New York: Oxford University Press, 2010. p.155)

This is not just the opinion of the Muslim masses, but also of prominent contemporary Sunni scholars. Several such scholars in a Peace Conference in Turkey in 2010 discussed how Ibn Taymiyah’s Fatwa of Mardin was misunderstood and misused by militants to wage violence. Among the conclusions of the New Mardin Declaration was a declaration of peace:

“The classification of abodes in Islamic jurisprudence was a classification based on ijtihad (juristic reasoning) that was necessitated by the circumstances of the Muslim world, then and the nature of the international relations prevalent at that time. However, circumstances have changed now: The existence of recognized international treaties, which consider as crimes wars that do not involve repelling aggression or resisting occupation; the emergence of civil states which guarantee, on the whole, religious, ethnic and national rights, have necessitated declaring, instead, the entire world as a place of tolerance and peaceful co-existence between all religions, groups and factions in the context of establishing common good and justice amongst people, and wherein they enjoy safety and security with respect to their wealth, habitations and integrity. This is what the Shari‘ah has been affirming and acknowledging, and to which it has been inviting humanity, ever since the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) migrated to Madina and concluded the first treaty/peace agreement that guaranteed mutual and harmonious co-existence between the factions and various ethnic/race groups in a framework of justice and common/shared interest. Shortcomings and breaches perpetrated by certain states that happen to scar and mar this process cannot and should not be used as a means for denying its validity and creating conflict between it and the Islamic Shari‘ah.”

These scholars did not advocate perpetual warfare against non-Muslims, but peace, in the current world of nation-states. Dakake reaffirms:

Today, in the modern world, the situation is somewhat reversed: we might say that ‘peace’ is generally the norm and warfare, although not exactly extraordinary, is somewhat less of a constant that it was in ancient times. This fact has led the vast majority of Muslim scholars today to declare that continual, offensive jihad is no longer applicable to the contemporary situation and that jihad today is primarily difa’i or defensive, because the world is itself in a different state from what it was in the seventh century.”

(Source: Joseph E. B. Lumbard. (ed.) Islam, Fundamentalism, and the Betrayal of Tradition: Essays by Western Muslim Scholars. Bloomington, Ind.: World Wisdom, 2009. pg.34)

Therefore, most “Muslim” countries today live peacefully with non-Muslim countries, and most casualties by Muslim attacks today – including al-Qa’eda attacks if they are even considered Muslim – are other Muslims.

This is contrary to the views of Islamophobes who allege that classical Sunni Muslims today support violent “jihad” in some form against non-Muslims, which they strangely consider a continuation of centuries of jihad of the past. To do so is to mix geo-political contexts, to fail to distinguish the nuances of both, and is analogous to judging Christians today by the geo-political context of Christians in the times of the Crusades.

Jihad today is not proclaimed by rulers, but by “Muslim” vigilantes

The minority of violent Islamists (“jihadists”) do not follow the rules of combative jihad in classical Islam. A ruler is not necessary for them to declare jihad, and they are not members of armies. There is no leader of a nation-state in the world today calling for an offensive jihad against any government or follower of other religions. 

Contemporary Pakistani scholar, Shaykh Tahir ul-Qadri, author of the most comprehensive Fatwa Against Terrorism and Suicide Bombings, said:

“Power to declare Jihad has been vested in the state and no non-state actor is allowed to do so in Islam. If it does … it would be nothing but massacre of humanity and revolt against the state”.

Shaykh Muhammad al-Afifi al-Akiti, another contemporary Sunni scholar, says the following in rebuttal to al-Muhajiroun, headed by the extremist, Omar Bakri Mohammed, who praised the 9/11 attacks:

“The upshot is, whether one likes it or not, the decision and discretion and right to declare war or jihad for Muslims lie solely with the various authorities as represented today by the respective Muslim states – and not with any individual even if he is a scholar or a soldier (and not just anyone is a soldier or a scholar) – in the same way that an authority (such as the qadi in a court of law: mahkama) is the only one with the right to excommunicate or declare someone an apostate [murtadd]. Otherwise, the killing would be extra-judicial and unauthorized.”
(Source: Aftab Malik (Editor). (2006). The State We Are In. Shaykh Muhammad al-Afifi al-Akiti. Defending the Transgressed by Censuring the Reckless Against the Killing of Civilians. Amal Press. Pg.108)

Egypt’s Mufti, Ali Gomaa, said,

“The principle in war is that it should be launched with the authorization of the Muslim ruler; it is imperative that the decision to declare war be based on his own reasoning and his subjects must obey him. A ruler is authorized to declare war due to his knowledge of evident and hidden matters, the consequences of actions and the interest of his people. For this reason, a ruler is authorized to declare wars and hold domestic or international treaties as soon as he assumes office. In turn, he does not issue decisions based on [personal] whims. He declares a war only after consulting specialists in every relevant field such as techni­cal specialists, military personnel, and political consultants who are indispensable in the military strategy.”

Contemporary Sunni American scholar, Imam Hamza Yusuf, in a 60 Minutes interview by CBS on September 30, 2001, which also included other religious figures, responded to the interviewer’s question on Osama bin Laden’s declaration of jihad in the name of Allah:

“I would say that he has no legitimate authority, that in Islam, Jihad can only be declared by legitimate state authority. And this is accepted by consensus. There is no vigilantism in Islam. Muslims believe in state authority.”

Similarly, contemporary Sunni scholar, Abdal Hakim Murad (Tim Winter), head of the Cambridge Muslim College in England, said:

“A jihad can be proclaimed only by a properly constituted state; anything else is pure vigilantism.”

The fact that militant violence does not fall into the realms of a valid jihad, as they are not in a position to proclaim it, automatically renders all other “justifications” of so-called jihad by them irrelevant and misplaced.

Militants today do not protect places of worship

Militants today do not spare but target places of worship, including churches, Buddha statues, mosques, and even graves and tombs (especially of Muslim saints) that they see as places of “worship” by millions of Muslims worldwide. The Boko Haram in Nigeria, the Afghan Taliban, and radicals in Pakistan’s tribal areas are current examples. Early examples include attacks on shrines by Wahhabi armies.

Barring a few aberrations from the norm, this is in contrast to how Muslims preserved and protected the places of worship of non-Muslims throughout Islam’s history. In this respect, militants are very unlike early Muslims and follow the historical aberration instead of the norm.

For example, when an Umayyad ruler, Walid Abd al-Malik, claimed property that belonged to a church in Damascus and turned it into a mosque, Umar bin Abd al-Aziz instructed that the portion of the mosque be destroyed and returned to Christians.[[13]]

Commenting on the following Qur’anic verse, “And had God not repelled one group of people from another, the cloisters, synagogues, churches, and mosques in which God’s name is mentioned in abundance would have been ruined” (Qur’an 22:40), Imam Abu Bakr al-Jassas quotes the famous Imam al-Hassan al-Basri:

“God uses the believers as a means of preventing the destruction of the places of worship belonging to the non-Muslim citizens.”[[14]]

Regarding non-Muslim places of worship, even Ibn al-Qayyim al-Jawziyah, the loyal student of Ibn Taymiyah, says,

“God uses the believers to defend their places of worship….Moreover, it is obligatory for him [the believer] to defend their objects of worship, even though he detests them.”[[15]]

Militants today not only clash with classical Sunni tradition in this respect, but also oppose the words of controversial scholars whom they deceitfully claim to emulate.

Militants today kill innocent civilians

Militants today target armies and civilians, have described all of their violence as “defensive,” have invented their own rules  – for example, only combatants can speak on rules of combat  – and discard or selectively and deceptively use Sunni tradition to achieve their aims. Al-Dawoody says,

“Several hadiths attributed to the Prophet [Muhammad] prohibit targeting five specific categories of enemy noncombatants, namely, women, children, the aged, the clergy, and al`Asif (any hired man)” (p.111).

The above prohibitions on targeting noncombatants are in a legitimate state of war. The deduction is that human life is even more precious in the absence of war. Prophet Muhammad in his last sermon said,

“O people, just as you regard this month, this day, this city as Sacred, so regard the life and property of every Muslim as a sacred trust.”

Conflicts today involving “Muslims” are usually against other Muslims – not non-Muslims. The majority of al-Qa’eda’s victims have been Muslim, in spite of their rhetoric of attacking the “infidel.” A 2009 study, Deadly Vanguards: A Study of al-Qa’ida’s Violence Against Muslims, by the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point, states:

“The results show that non‐Westerners are much more likely to be killed in an al‐Qa’ida attack. From 2004 to 2008, only 15% percent of the 3,010 victims were Western. During the most recent period studied the numbers skew even further. From 2006 to 2008, only 2% (12 of 661 victims) are from the West, and the remaining 98% are inhabitants of countries with Muslim majorities. During this period, a person of non‐Western origin was 54 times more likely to die in an al‐Qa’ida attack than an individual from the West. The overwhelming majority of al‐Qa’ida victims are Muslims living in Muslim countries, and many are citizens of Iraq, which suffered more al‐Qa’ida attacks than any other country courtesy of the al‐Qa’ida in Iraq (AQI) affiliate.”

In another post, Sunni and other scholars explain how al-Tatarrus, the “law on using human shields,” has been manipulated by al-Qa’eda and their likes to justify their massacres of civilians.

Militants demean and target religious scholars and knowledge

Scholar and author, Joas Wagemakers, says,

“There seems to be a growing trend among jihadis to view fighters as being the most credible Muslims to comment on jihad, in spite of their lack of scholarly credentials.”[[16]]

The lack of respect to religious scholars by militants has been seen by their utmost marginalization by even peaceful Islamists.

The opposition by militants to Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi, well-known for his religious knowledge among extremist circles, illustrates the point. Scoffing at religious scholars, a central part of the militant outlook, elevates combat over belief, and ridicules Prophet Muhammad’s sayings, including:

“Scholars [of religious knowledge] are the inheritors of the Prophets.”[[17]]

He did not say that those who combat are the heirs of the prophets. Prophet Muhammad was also asked,

“`What is the best deed?’ He responded, ‘Belief in Allah and His Messenger […].’”[[18]]

Likewise, Islamists turn their backs on Sunni tradition by prioritizing politics over religion.

Many militants understand combat experience as a prerequisite to speaking about creed and other religious knowledge – a complete reversal of Sunni Islam that requires correct creed as a first priority and prerequisite to other Islamic practices. Prophet Muhammad also forbade targeting religious figures in a legitimate jihad. Abd Allah ibn Abbas said, “When the Messenger of Allah…would dispatch his troops he would say [to them], “Do not act treacherously, do not steal the spoils of war, do not disfigure the dead bodies, and do not kill children and priests.”[[19]]  This partially explains why Pakistani scholars today find it difficult to speak against terrorism waged by the Pakistani Taliban and al-Qa’eda. Their fate would be the same as Barelwi scholar, Sarfraz Na’eemi, and Deobandi scholar, Hassan Jan, who were killed by militants for speaking against terrorism, including suicide bombings.

Militants make combat a pillar of Islam

The first pillar of Islam, the Testification of Faith (“There is no God but Allah and Muhammad is the Messenger of Allah”) is replaced with so-called combative jihad as the first pillar, or is portrayed by militants as being a pillar of Islam. `Abd-al-Salam al-Faraj, for example, in “The Neglected Duty” appeared to see combative jihad as the sixth pillar of Islam.

However, jihad is not a pillar of Sunni Islam and never has been. Asma Afsaruddin says that “the Medinan scholar `Abdallah ibn `Umar, son of the second caliph `Umar ibn al-Khattab, is on record as having challenged those who had wished to elevate combative jihad to the level of a religious obligation. An Iraqi man came to Ibn `Umar and reproached him thus: “What is the matter with you that you perform the hajj and `umra but have abandoned fighting in the path of God (al-ghazu fi sabil allah)?’ To which Ibn `Umar responded, ‘Fie on you! Faith is founded on five pillars: that you worship God, perform the prayer, give zakat, perform the pilgrimage, and fast during Ramadan[…].”[[20]]

Militants kill ambassadors

Militants regularly target diplomatic institutions. This was seen in the recent 2012 attack at the US Consulate in Benghazi, Libya, where US Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens was killed, along with several other diplomatic staff. Similarly, the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania were attacked by militants in 1998. Countless examples abound.

Whereas militants target embassies, consulates, and foreign dignitaries, Abdallah bin Mas’ud, one of the closest Companions of Prophet Muhammad, and one of the first converts to Islam, said:

“It is an established Sunna that ambassadors are not to be killed.”[[21]]

It is also recorded in classical Sunni sources that when representatives of Musaylima, who claimed prophethood, visited the Prophet Muhammad as diplomats, Prophet Muhammad did not kill them or instruct others to kill them.[[22]] Author and scholar, M. Cherif Bassiouni, in his book, The Shari’ah and Islamic Criminal Justice System in Time of War and Peace, gave several other examples of diplomatic immunity granted by early communities of Muslims (p.187). For example, “…so great was the Prophet’s belief in the immunity of envoys that when Abu-Ra’fi, the emissary of Quraish, wanted to convert to Islam, the Prophet admonished him:

“I do not go back on my word and I do not detain envoys [your are an ambassador]. You must, therefore, go back, and if you still feel in your heart as strongly about Islam as you do now, come back [as a Muslim].”

Diplomatic immunity is seen in Prophet Muhammad’s exemplary treatment of a delegation from Ta’if in 9 AH/631 CE, in spite of their disrespect towards him:

“Earlier on, when the Prophet had gone to Taif to propagate Islam, the city’s residents treated him poorly. Despite their previously disrespectful conduct, the Prophet treated the Taif delegation with respect, further affirming that envoys were to be received in accordance with their privileged status, irrespective of their sending country or the nature of past relations with its people.”

Militants today do the opposite of what Prophet Muhammad and his companions did.

As illustrated above, to conflate the jihad of classical Sunni Islam with the violent actions of terrorists today, is to have an erroneous understanding.

Militants have inadequate capacity to fight

The Qur’an states,

“Now Allah has lightened your [task] for He knows that there is weakness among you. So if there are of you a hundred steadfast persons, they shall overcome two hundred, if there are a thousand of you, they shall overcome two thousand with the leave of Allah and Allah is with the patient” (8:66).

Terrorists, while violating many other conditions of a legitimate combative jihad, also ignore the condition of numbers in battle. Contemporary Sunni scholar, Shaykh Muhammad Hisham Kabbani, says in his book, Jihad: Principles of Leadership in War and Peace (p.82):

“Thus Allah declared that if the ratio of Muslim warriors to their opponents is half (1:2) they may fight and they will be given Divine Support in an open fight facing the enemy directly, warrior-to-warrior. This was a reduction from the original ratio, in which the believers were obligated to fight even if the ratio of Muslims to their opponents was one to ten.”

Shaykh Kabbani then says, “The above verse [referring to verse 8:66] also means if…the enemy is twice the Muslim force, then there is no possibility of success and therefore at that time you must not set forth. To do so will create nothing but fitnah — a state of hostility and turmoil” (p.83).

Terrorists violate the Qur’anic verse above by challenging entire armies who not only outnumber them, but who also possess more advanced weapons and technology to win battles. To challenge armies in this manner is foolish and jeopardizes the lives of countless Muslims, directly and indirectly. While the minority of terrorists wage their terrorism, millions of innocent people, Muslim and non-Muslim, suffer death, discrimination, and hatred.

Militants Violate Agreements 

Militants violate sacred agreements as the 9/11 hijackers violated their visas which are seen as agreements from a Sunni perspective.  Contemporary Sunni scholar,  Shaykh Muhammad ibn Adam al-Kawthari, says,

When one lives in a particular country, one agrees verbally, in writing or effectively to adhere to the rules and regulations of that country. This, according to the Shariah, is considered to be a promise, agreement and trust. One is obliged to fulfil the trust regardless of whether it is contracted with a friend, enemy, Muslim, non-Muslim or a government. The Messenger of Allah (Allah bless him & give him peace) and his Companions (Allah be pleased with them all) always stood by their word and did not breach any trust or agreement, as it is clear from the books of Sunnah and history. Thus, to break a promise or breach a trust of even a non-Muslim is absolutely unlawful and considered a sign of being a hypocrite (munafiq).

Shaykh al-Kawthari then supports his views using specific verses from the Qur’an:

“And fulfil (every) engagement (ahd), for (every) engagement will be enquired into (on the day of reckoning)” (Surah al-Isra, v. 34).

“Allah does command you to render back your trusts to those to whom they are due, and when you judge between people that you judge with justice” (Surah al-Nisa, v. 58).

Shaykh al-Kawthari then says, “And regarding the one who breaks an agreement and is guilty of treachery, Allah Almighty says”:

 “Allah loves not the treacherous” (Surah al-Anfal, v. 58).

He then quotes several sayings of Prophet Muhammad, including the following:

Sayyiduna Abu Huraira (Allah be pleased with him) narrates that the Messenger of Allah (Allah bless him & give him peace) said: “The signs of a hypocrite are three: When he speaks he lies, when he makes a promise he breaks it, and when he is given a trust he breaches it” (Sahih al-Bukhari, no. 33).

Sayyiduna Abd Allah ibn Amr (Allah be pleased with him) narrates that the Messenger of Allah (Allah bless him & give him peace) said: “Four traits, if found in an individual, then he will be a complete hypocrite (munafiq), and if an individual possesses one of these four, he will have one portion of nifaq: When he is given a trust he breaches it, when he speaks he lies, when he makes an agreement (ahd) he is guilty of treachery and disloyalty (gadar), and when he disputes he is fouled mouth” (Sahih al-Bukhari, no. 34).

The acts of militants are in direct contradiction to what the Qur’an states and what Prophet Muhammad said.

How Militants Manipulate the Islamic Sources to “Justify” the Killing of non-Muslims

Militants misinterpret and abuse the genuine meaning of evidence from the Islamic sources to justify their violence. Sunni scholar, Shaykh Faraz Khan, explains the context and correct meaning of the following hadith:

“I was ordered to fight people until they bear witness that there is no deity except Allah and that Muhammad is the Messenger of Allah; establish the ritual prayer; and pay almsgiving. So if they do that, their lives and wealth are safe from me, except for a right recognized in Islam. Their accounting, however, will be with Allah.” [Bukhari, Muslim]

Shaykh Faraz says:

“Unfortunately, this text is often grossly misinterpreted as calling for continuous “holy war” against all non-Muslims until and unless they become Muslim. But examination of context and scholarly interpretation reveals that the hadith by no means refers to all people and is not calling for any sort of war, holy or unholy. The key to understanding the hadith, then, is to understand who exactly is meant by the word ‘people’ in the statement, ‘I was ordered to fight people.’

“This same hadith has various narrations as recorded by different hadith scholars. Imam Nasa’i’s narration reads: ‘I was ordered to fight the polytheists’ rather than the word ‘people,’ and it is an established principle in hadith methodology that various narrations of the same hadith serve to clarify its actual meaning. Hence, the narration of Imam Nasa’i indicates that the word ‘people’ in the first narration does not refer to all people, but rather a specific group of people, namely, certain polytheists. This understanding is confirmed by both the Qur’an and the Sunna, as many incidents in the life of the Prophet [peace and blessings be upon him] clearly show that all of humanity was not intended in the hadith.

“This understanding is also confirmed by our codified legal tradition, which is a reflection of the Qur’an and Sunna. Imam Abu Hanifa and his legal school limited this hadith to only the polytheists among the Arabs. And Imam Malik and his legal school limited it to only the Quraysh tribe among them. [Ibn Battal, Sharh al-Bukhari] (bolded by blog’s author)

“That is to say, according to both schools of law, all non-Arabs are excluded from the hadith – whether polytheists, atheists, Jews, Christians, or otherwise. Among the Arabs, any group that does not worship idols are also excluded, whether Jews, Christians, Magians, or otherwise. Only Arab polytheists – or perhaps just the tribe of Quraysh among them – were being addressed by the Messenger [peace and blessings be upon him]. Incidentally, the Hanafi and Maliki schools historically and up to today have constituted the vast majority of the Muslim world.

“Imam Kasani, the eminent 6th-century Hanafi jurist, explains that the reasoning of this position is based on the difference between Arab polytheists and all other peoples, including People of the Book [i.e., Jews and Christians, Arab or non-Arab] and non-Arab polytheists. With respect to peoples other than Arab polytheists, it is hoped that by mutual coexistence between them and Muslims, they will be drawn to Islam after reflecting over the beauty of the religion and its Sacred Law [shari’a]. [f: And that hope is sufficient; whether they become Muslim or not is irrelevant to the Hanafi and Maliki perspective that they are not addressed by the hadith.]

The nature of Arab polytheists, however, was to reject anything that conflicted with their customs and traditions, deeming all else to be madness and worthy of scornful ridicule. They were a people – as repeatedly mentioned in the Qur’an – that refused to reflect over anything but ‘the ways of their forefathers.’ Therefore, because the Messenger of Allah [peace and blessings be upon him] was from their same tribe and knew them intimately, he gave them no option but acceptance of Islam or fighting [f: And this statement, of course, was after years of being oppressed by those Arab polytheists]. [Kasani, Bada’i al-Sana’i].”

Similarly, Shaykh Muhammad al-Akiti says in his Fatwa (p.31),

“As for the meaning of ‘people’ [al-nās] in the above well-related Ḥadīth, it is confirmed by Ijmāʿ that it refers to the same ‘mushrikīn’ as in the Verse of Sūra al-Tawba above, and therefore what is meant there is only the Jāhilī Arabs [mushrikū l-ʿarab] during the closing days of the Final Messenger and the early years of the Righteous Caliphs and not even to any other non-Muslims” (bolded by blogger). 

The “Verse of Sūra al-Tawba” is described by some as the “Verse of the Sword” — 9:5 — discussed in the next section below.


The “Verse of the Sword” (9:5)

Verse 9:5 in the Qur’an states:

“And when the sacred months have passed, then kill the polytheists wherever you find them and capture them and besiege them and sit in wait for them at every place of ambush. But if they should repent, establish prayer, and give zakah, let them [go] on their way. Indeed, Allah is Forgiving and Merciful.”

Some militants use verse 9:5 to ‘justify’ killing non-Muslims and Islamophobes believe them. Shaykh Faraz Khan refutes this understanding from scholars of Sunni tradition and says,

“…the Verse of the Sword deals specifically with the situation of Meccan polytheists breaking peace treaties and openly declaring war on the Muslim polity. The verse, then, commands the Muslim state to take up arms and defend itself against those that breached their covenants and attacked out of treachery.

“This explanation is confirmed by the most reliable Imams of Qur’anic exegesis [tafsir], including Imam Razi, Imam Jamal, Imam Zamakhshari, Imam Baydawi, Imam Nasafi, Imam Biqa`i, and others.

[Razi, Mafatih al-Ghayb; Jamal, Hashiyat al-Jalalayn; Zamakhshari, Kashshaf; Baydawi, Anwar al-Tanzil; Nasafi, Madeira al-Tanzil; Biqa`i, Nadhm al-Durar]

“The verse, therefore, can by no means be generalized to refer to all disbelievers. Such an interpretation is not confirmed by scholars of Qur’anic interpretation. It would be both contrary to the intent of the verses as well as disastrous for the security of both Muslim and non-Muslim citizens and nation-states.”

The defense above must be taken in context. While militants sometimes use verse 9:5 to “justify” their terrorism, a July 2012 study by Jeffry R. Halverson and other authors — “How Extremists Quote the Quran” — by the  Center for Strategic Communication (Arizona State University), states that militants often do not use verse 9:5. This is in spite of frequent Islamophobic assertions against Muslims that this verse is to blame for the actions of terrorists. The study examined the most frequently cited or quoted verses in the Qur’an from over 2,000 extremist texts from 1998 to 2011 in the Center for Strategic Communication’s database, and concluded:

“…verses extremists cite from the Qur’an do not suggest an aggressive offensive foe seeking domination and conquest of unbelievers, as is commonly assumed. Instead they deal with themes of victimization, dishonor, and retribution. This shows close integration with the rhetorical vision of Islamist extremists.”

The study, commenting on the “near absence” of verse 9:5 in the texts of extremists, states:

“Other findings in the report raise questions about the veracity of claims often made by analysts. The most surprising is the near absence of the well-known “Verse of the Sword” (9:5) from the extremist texts. Widely regarded as the most militant or violent passage of the Qur’an, it is treated as a divine call for offensive warfare on a global scale. It is also regarded as a verse which supersedes over one hundred other verses of the Qur’an that counsel patience, tolerance, and forgiveness.”

Based on the analysis, the authors conclude:

“…that verses extremists cite from the Qur’an do not suggest an aggressive offensive foe seeking domination and conquest of unbelievers, as is commonly assumed. Instead they deal with themes of victimization, dishonor, and retribution. This shows close integration with the rhetorical vision of Islamist extremists.

Based on this analysis we recommend that the West abandon claims that Islamist extremists seek world domination, focus on counteracting or addressing claims of victimage, emphasize alternative means of deliverance, and work to undermine the “champion” image sought by extremists”  (bolded by blog’s author)

Militants do not follow Sunni tradition in their understanding of verse 9:5, even if some of them, and many more Islamophobes, claim otherwise.

The Varieties of “Jihad” Today

It is interesting to note how the neo-conservatives and other Islamophobes supported an offensive – pre-emptive – war against Iraq under flawed pretexts, which killed more people than all of the offensive jihads in Islam’s history. Like the militants they condemn, they also bipolarize the world into good and evil. Related to this matter, the issue of the division of the world divided into Dar al-Islam and Dar al-Kufr is important to understand.

The Bipolar View of “Jihadists” and Neo-conservatives

“Muslim” terrorists today do not have a sophisticated understanding of the Sunni categorization of the world and the political and related factors associated with it. Ironically and contrary to Sunni tradition, terrorists dichotomize the world simplistically just as neoconservatives do.

Indeed, the division of the world is not allegedly unique to Islam, or religion, in general.  Price says,

“…the division of the world into an in-group and an out-group…is not unique to religion, as it is also a characteristic of groups involved in ethnic conflict and secular conflicts.”[[23]]

“Religion’s dichotomizing tendency,”he continues, “was certainly present in the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union. However, competing economic systems, capitalism, and communism, not faiths, were the ideological forces that stoked a 45-year global conflict that led to the brink of nuclear war with the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, the division of Europe into competing blocs, and wars by proxy throughout the developing world.”[[24]]  The analogy of Dar al-Islam and Dar al-Kufrcan be applied to both opposing sides in the Cold War.

Similarly, scholar, author, and ex-CIA officer Graham Fuller says,

“Jihad in its more modern usage has been applied to many quite secular tasks, just as the term ‘crusade’ in English is casually applied to fighting crime or a campaign against drugs”[[25]]

Neo-conservative Islamophobes paradoxically counter Islamist ideology from an ideological perspective of their own that, some would argue, is just as extreme, and which has outlived its perceived usefulness. Their view of themselves as “good” and the Soviet Empire as “evil” (and now all Islamists as “evil”) illustrates the division of the world as two opposite extremes, similar to the views of the “jihadis” they claim to oppose.

Summary Overview

As discussed in this section, the Islamophobes and their partners — the “Muslim” terrorists — are oblivious to the differences between classical jihad and today’s terrorism, which is incorrectly described as “jihad.”They fail to note the differences between the geo-political environments in classical Islam’s time and contemporary times, omit the details of jihad and the differences with today’s so-called “jihad” by radicals, and conflate both.

Sunni tradition is not upheld by radicals, but ridiculed, marginalized, and selectively used to deceptively portray loyalty to the tradition. Islamophobes and “Muslim” terrorists are unable to distinguish between the peaceful majority of Muslims and the violent minority that claims to act in Islam’s name. Their understanding also reflects a Muslim-versus-non-Muslim conflict, whereas Muslims have battled each other and allied with non-Muslims in past and present conflicts.


[[1]] Ahmed Al-Dawoody. The Islamic Law of War: Justifications and Regulations. New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011. pg.78.

[[2]] Qamar-ul Huda. Crescent and Dove: Peace and Conflict Resolution in Islam. Washington, D.C.: United States Institute of Peace Press, 2010..p.48

[[3]] Joseph E. B. Lumbard. (ed.) Islam, Fundamentalism, and the Betrayal of Tradition: Essays by Western Muslim Scholars. Bloomington, Ind.: World Wisdom, 2009. pg.34.

[[4]] Mustafa Akyol. Islam Without Extremes: A Muslim Case for Liberty. New York, NY: W.W. Norton, 2011. p.65.

[[5]] Ira M. Lapidus. A History of Islamic Societies. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, 1988. p. 43.

[[6]] Thomas Arnold. The Spread of Islam in the World A History of Peaceful Preaching. S.l.: Goodword Books, 2001. pg.46.

[[7]] Marshall G.S. Hodgson. The Venture of Islam: Conscience and History in a World Civilization The Classical Age of Islam. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1974. pg.199

[[8]] J. Lumbard.  op. cit., p. 33

[[9]] Zaid Shakir, “Jihad is not Perpetual Warfare,” New Islamic Directions, 2008, accessed May 27, 2013, http://www.newislamicdirections.com/nid/notes/jihad_is_not_perpetual_warfare.

The original article can be read in  Shakir, Zaid. Scattered Pictures: Reflections of an American Muslim: An Anthology of Essays. Hayward, Calif.: Zaytuna Institute, 2005. pp.121-141.

[[10]] Ian, Almond. Two Faiths, One Banner: When Muslims Marched with Christians Across Europe’s Battlegrounds. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2009. pp.1-2.

[[11]] M. Akyol, op. cit., p. 67.

[[12]] J. Lumbard.  op. cit., p. 22.

[[13]] Muḥammad Tahir ul-Qadri. Fatwa on Suicide Bombings and Terrorism. London: Minhaj-ul-Quran International, 2010. p. 154.

[[14]] Ibid., p.163.

[[15]] Ibid., p.164.

[[16]] Joas Wagemakers, “Reclaiming Scholarly Authority: Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi’s Critique of Jihadi Practices,” Studies in Conflict & Terrorism 34(7) (2011): 523-539.

[[17]] This is an authentic hadith related by Tirmidhi, Abu Dawud, Nasa’i, Ibn Maja, Ahmad, Ibn Habban, and others. For an explanation of the hadith, see Faraz, Rabbani, “Is the hadith: ‘The scholars are the inheritors of the Prophets’ authentic? If so, what does it mean?” Seeker’s Guidance, March 15, 2011, accessed May 22, 2013,
http://seekersguidance.org/blog/2011/03/is-the-hadith-the-scholars-are-the-inheritors-of-the-prophets-authentic-if-so-what-does-it-mean-faraz-rabbani/

[[18]] Sahih Bukhari: Vol.2, Book 26, No. 594.

[[19]] M. ul-Qadri, op. cit., pp. 101-102.

[[20]] Q. Huda, op. cit.,p. 47.

[[21]] M. ul-Qadri, op. cit., p.101.

[[22]] Ibid., p.100.

[[23]] Daniel E. Price. Sacred Terror: How Faith Becomes Lethal. Santa Barbara, Calif.: Praeger, 2012. p.29.

[[24]] Ibid., p.28.

[[25]] G. Fuller, op. cit.,p.275.