Islam, Warfare, and Jihad

The Qur’an makes it clear that it is permissible for people to fight back against those who attack them. God says, “Fight in the cause of God those who fight you, but do not transgress limits; for God loves not transgressors.” [Qur’an 2:190]

God says, “And why should you not fight in the cause of God and of those who, being weak, are ill-treated [and oppressed]? Men, women, and children, whose cry is: ‘Our Lord! Rescue us from this town, whose people are oppressors, and raise for us from You one who will protect; and raise for us from You one who will help.’” [Qur’an 4:75]

The Qur’an also makes it clear that when the other party refrains from aggression, it is not permissible to attack them. God says, “But if they cease, God is Oft-Forgiving, Most Merciful. And fight them on until there is no more tumult or oppression and there prevail justice and faith in God. But if they cease, let there be no hostility except to those who practice oppression.” [Qur’an 2:192 – 193]

It is permissible to fight against oppression and persecution. This does not apply only to Islam and Muslims, because everyone has the right to worship God. God says, “To those against whom war is made, permission is given [to fight] because they are wronged and verily God is Most Powerful for their aid. [They are] those who have been expelled from their homes in defiance of right [for no cause] except that they say, ‘Our Lord is God.’ If God did not check one set of people by means of another, there would surely have been pulled down monasteries, churches, synagogues, and mosques, in which the name of God is commemorated in abundant measure” [Qur’an 22:39 – 40] This clearly means that Muslims must fight to protect and defend people of other faiths if they are in areas where the Muslims have effective power. The life, honor, and property of all people are considered sacred whether they are Muslim or not. All people must be free to worship God. They must be free to make their own choices. God The Guardian of Faith, explicitly says, “There is no compulsion in religion.” [Qur’an 2:256]

This brings us to the concept of jihad. The word jihad literally means struggle or exert effort, and applies to any colossal effort, not just to warfare. Jihad may even be to refrain from fighting or to resist one’s own desires or evil inclinations. Even making peace could be jihad. There is no such thing as “holy war” in Islam or in the Qur’an. This is a mistranslation of the word. Holy war is carried out to forcibly subject others to one’s religious beliefs. This is expressly forbidden in Islam.

Fighting in war can be jihad, but under what conditions? Muslims fight in defense, but so do others. What makes such fighting a jihad? The answer is that fighting only becomes jihad if it is for the sake of being obedient to God and in accordance with His divine law. It is not jihad to fight for wealth, nationalism, territory, honor, race, and so on. Jihad has a strong element of self-restraint not seen in any other forms of warfare. Even fighting against people who attacked first would not be jihad if the Muslims were to strike back in revenge.

In the life of the Prophet Muhammadp, we have a practical example of how jihad is to be carried out. When Muhammadp began peacefully calling the people of Makkah to Islam, he was strongly opposed. Because of their belief, Muhammadp and his followers were severely persecuted, sanctioned, tortured, expelled, had their property seized, and were even killed. Despite all this, Muslims did not waver from the Islamic principles of peace, nonviolence, and passive resistance. After Muhammadp peacefully taught Islam for ten years, several Makkan chiefs and leaders formed an alliance, collaborating on a plot to secretly assassinate the Prophetp of God. The angel Gabriel informed Muhammadp of their assassination plot. On the night the assassination was to take place, Muhammadp fled Makkah for Medina, and was pursued closely by the assassins for days. The situation grew continuously worse until the Muslims were forced to migrate. They were openly invited to emigrate to Medina, a city to the north, where Muhammadp was jubilantly welcomed as the Messenger of God and the leader. In Medina, the Islamic community was established, and from there the Prophet Muhammadp continued his peaceful mission of calling the people to Islam.

The Makkan alliance was intent on extinguishing Islam, Muhammadp, and his monotheistic teachings. Several major military campaigns were waged by the Makkan army to attack Medina in order to annihilate Muslims. When the well-equipped armies of aggressors were forming on the horizon, far outnumbering the Muslims, God The Wise, gave Muslims permission for the first time to bear arms in defense of their life and faith in jihad. The pagan armies of Makkah were defeated by Muslims who were far inferior in numbers and equipment though blessed with faith.

After the Makkan alliance recognized that war was futile, Muslims initiated a nonaggression treaty which was signed between the Makkan alliance chiefs and the Prophet Muhammadp. Muslims are required by God to strive toward peace at any opportunity. This treaty allowed unarmed Muslims to perform the pilgrimage to the Ka’bah, built by Abrahamp. This peaceful period proved discouraging to Makkan leaders who saw Muslim numbers grow rapidly. Masterminding another treacherous plot, the Makkan alliance attacked and slaughtered many in betrayal of the treaty with the Muslims, in order to put a stop to Islam and peace. It was only after the Makkan alliance violated the treaty, that the Qur’anic verse ordering Muslims to jihad against this tyranny was revealed. Amazingly the Makkans did not engage in combat. Muhammadp entered Makkah humbly, and instead of taking revenge, he offered general amnesty and forgiveness to everyone. Muslims peacefully conquered Makkah without bloodshed, cleansing the Ka’bah and destroying all the idols. Muhammadp forbade any oppression, injustice, or compulsion in religion and did not allow any doors to be forced open. He graciously forgave his most bitter enemies, including those who had severely persecuted him and had even killed members of his family. This is Muhammadp, a true example of Islam, the pinnacle of humanity, and the clear example of jihad.

The following will further clarify how fighting in Islam was conducted. The Prophet Muhammadp forbade the killing of any noncombatants. Ibn `Umar, a companion of the Prophetp said, “I saw the body of a slain woman during one of the battles of the Prophetp, so he forbade the killing of women and children.” [Book of Al-Bukhari and Muslim]

Rabah b. Rabi was another companion of the Prophet Muhammadp. He gave the following account of an incident that occurred during one of the battles: “We were with God’s Messengerp during a battle and we saw people gathered together. He dispatched a man to find out why they were gathered. The man returned and said: ‘They are gathered around a slain woman.’ So God’s Messengerp said: ‘She should not have been attacked!’ Khalid b. al-Walid was leading the forces, so he dispatched a man to him saying: ‘Tell Khalid not to kill women or laborers [civilians].’” [Book of Sunan Abi Dawud]

God’s Messengerp used to say the following words to his troops before sending them to fight: “Go forward in the name of God. Do not kill an elderly person, nor a child, nor a woman, and do not exceed the bounds.” [Book of Muwatta’]

From all of this it is easy to see the position of Islam on terrorism. Terrorism is against Islamic principles. Terrorism is a form of warfare in which innocent people are specifically targeted in order to instill fear in a society. It is clear from the preceding that even during war, when the Muslims are defending against an aggressive enemy, they are never allowed to target any civilians, or to destroy crops, trees, or livestock. This is strictly prohibited by Islamic law and the clear examples of the Prophet Muhammadp. The killing of innocents is murder and a crime against God and humanity, even during times of war and even when the other side does not similarly respect civilian life. One who intentionally kills innocent people is a murderer who deserves the punishment for murder. Terrorism is categorically prohibited in Islam and Islamic law rejects the premise that a non-legitimate tactic can ever lead to a positive result.

Throughout Islamic history, the behavior of Muslims who followed the Qur’an and the Sunnah of the Prophet Muhammadp, as well as how they treated others in times of war, has been exemplary. Abu Bakr, a companion of the Prophet Muhammadp and the first Caliph (successor and leader) who came after him, sent an army to Syria to fight the aggressive Roman legions and went out to give them words of encouragement. He said: “You are going to find a group of people who have devoted themselves to the worship of God [i.e., monks], so leave them to what they are doing.”

When Umar, a companion of the Prophet Muhammadp and the second Caliph, drove the Roman legions out of Jerusalem, the Muslims were welcomed as liberators. Even though the Muslims had conquered the land, they were not allowed to look upon the inhabitants of the land as their enemies. Their enemies were only the Roman legions who had aggressed against them. When Umar entered Jerusalem as a conqueror, he came humbly. Instead of dictating harsh terms to the people, he brought a treaty that guaranteed the people of Jerusalem, who were predominantly Christian, their safety and freedom from all persecution. The following is from the treaty that he drafted for them:

“This is what Umar, the commander of the faithful, grants to the people in peace. He grants them the safety of their persons, their churches, and their crosses… their churches will not be shut down nor destroyed. Nothing will be taken from them or from their crosses. They will not be compelled to abandon their faith nor shall any one of them be abused.”

To reiterate, there is no such thing as a “holy war” in Islam. War is atrocious and can never be holy. Muslims are not allowed to force their religion on anyone. The word jihad means “struggle.” This struggle can be of a military nature. When it is, the difference between jihad and war becomes clear. Jihad can never be fought for worldly gain, for conquest, or for revenge. Muslims must fight to protect the freedom of the people to worship God when that freedom is forcibly attacked. They are never allowed to attack innocent people, even when they are themselves attacked.

Any people who go against this established principle of Islamic law are fighting in contradiction to Islamic principles. It is ludicrous for anyone to call this fighting a jihad, a word that means striving for the cause of Islam. In general, they are murderers in the light of Islamic law and should be treated as such.