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Rudolph Peters, Nesrine Mahmoud Badawi
The [Oxford] Encyclopedia of Islam and Law What is This? An English-language legal reference for scholars of Islamic studies and Western engaged readers presenting the history and development of Islamic Law.

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Connoting an endeavor toward a praiseworthy aim, the word jihād bears many shades of meaning in the Islamic context. It may express a struggle against one's evil inclinations or an exertion for the sake of Islam and the ummah (Islamic community), for example, in trying to convert unbelievers or working for the moral betterment of Islamic society (“jihād of the tongue” and “jihād of the pen”). In books on Islamic law and commonly in the Qurʾān, the word means an armed struggle against the unbelievers. Sometimes the “jihād of the sword” is called “the lesser jihād,” in opposition to the peaceful forms named “the greater jihād” (based on a Prophetic ḥadīth of contested reliability). Often used today without religious connotation, its meaning is roughly equivalent to the English word crusade (e.g.,“a crusade against drugs”). Either “Islamic” or “holy” is currently added to the word when it is used in a religious context (al-jihād al-Islāmī or al-jihād al-muqaddas).


The concept of jihād goes back to the wars fought by the Prophet Muḥammad and their written reflection in the Qurʾān. The concept was influenced by the ideas on war prevailing among the pre-Islamic tribes of northern Arabia, among whom war was the normal state, unless a truce had been concluded. War between tribes was regarded as lawful, especially if the war was a response to aggression. Ideas of chivalry forbade warriors from killing noncombatants, especially children, women, and the elderly. These rules were incorporated into the doctrine of jihād in the latter half of the second century A.H.

During Muslims’ thirteen years in Mecca, the Qurʾān directed them to patience and “goodly preaching” (16:125) as opposed to armed struggle. After the founding of the Muslim polity in Medina, however, the Qurʾān frequently mentions jihād and fighting (qitāl) against unbelievers. Qurʾānic verse 22:40 (“Leave is given to those who fight because they were wronged—surely God is able to help them—who were expelled from their habitations without right, except that they say ‘Our Lord is God.’ ”), revealed not long after the Hijrah, is traditionally considered to be the first verse dealing with the fighting of unbelievers. Many verses exhort the believers to take part in the fighting “with their goods and lives,” promise reward to those who are killed in jihād (3:157–158, 169–172), and threaten with severe punishments in the hereafter those who do not fight, unless exempted (9:81–82, 48:16). Other verses deal with practical matters such as exemption from military service (9:91, 48:17), fighting during the Arab holy months (2:217) and in the holy territory of Mecca (2:191), the fate of prisoners of war (47:4), safe conduct (9:6), and truce (8:61).

Examining the Qurʾān, with no external references or context, does not provide a clear picture of whether the holy book allows Muslims to fight unbelievers only as a defense against aggression or under all circumstances. In support of the first view, a number of verses can be quoted that expressly justify fighting on the strength of aggression or perfidy on the part of the unbelievers: “fight in the way of God with those who fight you, but aggress not: God loves not the aggressors” (2:190), and “if they break their oaths after their covenant and thrust at your religion, then fight the leaders of unbelief” (9:13). Those verses that seem to order the Muslims to fight the unbelievers unconditionally are often referred to as the Sword Verses: “Then, when the sacred months are drawn away, slay the idolaters wherever you find them, and take them, and confine them, and lie in wait for them at every place of ambush” (9:5) and “Fight those who believe not in God and the Last Day and do not forbid what God and His Messenger have forbidden—such men as practice not the religion of truth, being of those who have been given the Book—until they pay the tribute out of hand and have been humbled” (9:29). Those who hold the position that the Qurʾān allows only defensive warfare argue that this general condition is clear from the verses surrounding (9:5–29).

Classical juristic interpretation of the Qurʾān, however, regarded the Sword Verses, without the restrictions of context, as having abrogated all previous verses and thus constituting the definitive Qurʾānic commandment on jihād: the unconditional command to fight the unbelievers. This idea is connected with the pre-Islamic concept that war between tribes was allowed, unless there existed a truce between them, the Islamic ummah being considered to take the place of a tribe.

The earliest comprehensive treatises on the law of jihād were written by ʿAbd al-Raḥmān al-Awzāʿī (d. 774) of the Levant and Muḥammad b. al-Ḥasan al-Shaybānī (d. 804), a student of Abū Ḥanīfa in Iraq. The legal doctrine of jihād grew out of debates and discussions that had continued since the Prophet 's death. This period in which the doctrine of jihād was formulated coincided with the period of the great Muslim conquests, in which the conquerors were exposed to the cultures of the conquered, and the doctrine of jihād may have been influenced by the active Byzantine tradition of thinking on religious war and related notions. It is, however, difficult to identify these influences; if there are similarities, they may result from parallel developments rather than from borrowing.

Classical Doctrine.

The doctrine of jihāds in Islamic jurisprudence developed from Qurʾānic prescriptions, aḥādīth and the conduct of the first caliphs. The crux of the doctrine is the existence of a unified Islamic state, ruling the entire ummah. It is the duty of the ummah to expand the territory of this state in order to bring as many people as possible under its rule. However, this assumption is not always explicitly stated in classical juristic works, since most of these works tended to focus more on the rules regulating jihad rather than the rules determining its legitimacy. Expansionist jihād is a collective duty (farḍ kifāyah), which is fulfilled if a sufficient number of people take part in it. If this is not the case, the whole ummah is considered to be guilty of a sin. Most jurists presuppose the presence of a legitimate caliph to organize the jihād. After the early Muslim conquests had subsided, some jurists ruled that the caliph must raid enemy territory at least once a year to keep alive the idea of jihād even if no territory is gained.

Sometimes jihād becomes an individual duty (farḍ ʿayn), as when the caliph appoints certain persons to participate in a raiding expedition (ghazwah) or when someone takes an oath to fight the unbelievers. Moreover, jihād becomes obligatory for all free men capable of fighting in a certain region if this region is attacked by the enemy; in this case, jihād is defensive.

Sunnī and Shīʿī theories of jihād are similar in all but one crucial respect: Imāmī Shīʿites hold that jihād can be waged only under the leadership of the rightful imam. After the Occultation of the last (twelfth) imam in 873, theoretically no lawful expansionist jihād can be fought. But because defense remains obligatory and the ʿulamāʿ (religious scholars) are often regarded as the representatives of the Hidden Imam, several wars that Iran hasengaged in have been called jihād.

When to fight.

War against unbelievers may not be mounted without summoning them to Islam or submission to the Muslim state before the attack. A ḥadīth lays down the precise contents of the summons: Whenever the Prophet appointed a commander to an army or an expedition, he would say: “When you meet your heathen enemies, summon them to three things. Accept whatsoever they agree to and refrain then from fighting them. Summon them to become Muslims. If they agree, accept their conversion. In that case summon them to move from their territory to the Abode of the Emigrants (i.e., Medina). If they refuse that, let them know that then they are like the Muslim Bedouins and that they share only in the booty, when they fight together with the other Muslims. If they refuse conversion, then ask them to pay poll-tax (jizyah). If they agree, accept their submission. But if they refuse, then ask God for assistance and fight them” (Ṣaḥīḥ Muslim). Some jurists such as al-Shāfi‘ī (d. 820), Ibn Qudāmah (d. 1223), and Ibn Ḥazm (d. 1064), ruled that if the message of Islam has already been delivered to the enemy territory, then it is not necessary to summon its people to Islam immediately before a conflict. Other jurists, such as Mālik (d. 796), insist that people be invited to join the religion before being attacked, even if they were familiar with its message.

Regulations governing jihad in classical jurisprudence.


In case of submission, the Muslims’ enemies are entitled to keep their religion and practice it as long as they pay a poll-tax (jizyah) (see 9:29, quoted previously). Although the Qurʾān limits this option to the People of the Book, that is, Christians and Jews, a prophetic tradition extends it to Zoroastrians (Majūs). Jurists disagreed over the implication of this extension. Many jurists (primarily the Ḥanafī school) argued that the extension meant that all non-Arab polytheists may pay the jizyah. Others, such as al-Shāfiʿī and Ibn Ḥazm, argued that the extension was because Zoroastrians were People of the Book who had simply not been mentioned in the Qurʾānic verse, hence preventing payment of jizyahby adherents of other faiths. It is interesting to note that the school of law that predominated among Muslim states that ruled large polytheist populations in Central and South Asia, namely the Ḥanafī school, upheld the extension of the jizyah to all non-Muslim religious groups.


Whenever the caliph deems it in the interest of the ummah, he may conclude a truce with the enemy, as the Prophet did with the Meccans at al-Ḥudaybiyyah. According to some schools of law, a truce must be concluded for a specified period of time, no longer than ten years. Others hold that this is not necessary if the caliph stipulates that he may resume war whenever he wishes.


Jurists agree that women and children may not be deliberately targeted during jihād. Many believe that monks, older men, the disabled, the blind, the insane, and others may not be targeted as well. However, al-Shāfiʿī argues in one instance that only women, children, and monks should not be targeted and in another instance that monks may be targeted. Ibn Ḥazm believes that adult men may be targeted without restriction. Most jurists, however, allow the loss of lives incurred on untargetable categories while attempting to raid a besieged city—a notion analogous to collateral damage. To justify such loss of lives, most jurists rely on a tradition claiming the prophet accepted the death of women and children inflicted during night raids (i.e., when it is difficult to distinguish between targetable and untargetable categories) and his use of catapults against the besieged city of al-Ṭā’if, near Mecca. Some jurists even allowed the killing of Muslims being used as human shields by the enemy in jihad (often with the condition that not doing so would lead to the obliteration of the Muslim army).

War captives.

There is consensus among jurists that any non-Muslim may be taken as a war captive and that women and minor captives may not be killed. However, there is extensive disagreement among scholars over killing of male captives. Mālik seems to have believed that only dangerous ones may be killed. Others, such as al-Ḥasan al-Baṣrī, ʿAṭā’ b. Abī Rabāḥ, and Sa‘īdb. al-Jubayr, held that a captive may not be killed, whereas others, such as al-Shaybānī, leaned toward expansive permissibility.


Classical Muslim scholarship does not explicitly address the legitimacy of acquisition of enemy property, but the discussion on the division of the spoils indicates a consensus that enemy property may be taken as spoils. Jurists disagree, however, over the permissibility of destruction of enemy property, especially livestock. Some scholars argue that killing enemy livestock is prohibited because of the general prohibition of taking away lives. Others argue that if such killing is aimed at depriving the enemy of a military advantage, it is legitimate. This disagreement stems from the Prophet’s commandment that the Muslim army besieging Banū Naḍīr cut down its date palms. However, the first caliph, Abū Bakr, instructed the army not to destroy trees before attacking the Levant.


Muslim jurists believed that the primary function of jihād was “the elevation of God’s word,” understood as the expansion of the rule of the Sharīʿah and the Islamic polity. The forced conversion of populations to Islam was never an objective. One could also view the classical doctrine of jihād as a doctrine legitimizing state expansion and the quest for spoils of war. It was articulated during the period of the early Islamic conquests and then during the continued raiding that followed by jurists working in the shadow of the Umayyad and Abbasid states. For Muslim states, jihād could function as making war has functioned for states throughout history: directing attention and aggression at outside forces in order to weaken internal dissent and rally the population around the ruler. Muslim rulers, whether Saladin fighting against Crusaders or the eighteenth-century Saudi-Wahhabi state attacking other Muslims (declared apostates due to practices that the Wahhabi movement considered heretical), used declarations of jihād to justify their wars.

Muslim rulers and scholars occasionally collaborated in motivating populations to support jihād, for example, the Mamluk ruler of Damascus requesting a treatise on the subject from the famous scholar Ibn Kathīr (d. 1374). This motivation is strengthened by the Qurʾānic promise that martyrs (shāhids) who die in battle will go directly to Paradise. When wars were fought against unbelievers, religious texts circulated, replete with Qurʾānic verses and aḥādīth extolling the merits of jihād and vividly describing the reward waiting in the hereafter for the slain.

The majority of scholarly writing on jihād, however, was devoted to elaborating a jihād doctrine to provide a set of rules governing warfare, including the initiation, conduct, termination of war, the determination of targetable and untargetable categories, and the treatment of prisoners of war during and after conflict.

Jihād in History.

Although the legal doctrine had not yet been fixed in all its details, the notion of jihād played a crucial role as a motivating force during the wars of conquest in the first century of Islam. It provided a unifying ideology that transcended tribal factionalism. After the early Islamic conquests, the idea of jihād was kept alive by raiding enemy territory, but this did not result in substantial territorial gains. At some points in time, the main purpose of jihād was the defense of Muslim lands. This became especially important during the Crusades (eleventh to thirteenth centuries), when many works were written exhorting the Muslims to take up jihād against the “Franks” and extolling sacred Jerusalem. At other times, jihād was used to justify state expansion. From the fourteenth century until the seventeenth, the Ottoman sultans expanded their territory in Anatolia, the Balkans at the expense of the Byzantine Empire on the basis of an extended call to holy war against the Christian unbelievers. Ottoman wars against the Muslim Safavid state in Iran were similarly declared jihād, since the Ottoman ulama deemed the Shīʿī Safavids heretics. The last instance was the call for jihād issued by the Ottoman government, directed mostly toward Britain’s Muslim subjects in India, when it entered World War I in 1914.

Changing Modern Interpretations.

The colonial experience affected the outlook of some Muslim intellectuals on jihād. Some argued that, in light of the military superiority of the colonizer, jihād was no longer obligatory. This was based on a reading of 2:195 “and cast not yourselves by your own hands into destruction” (ironically, classical Muslim jurists like the thirteenth-century al-Qurṭubī made it clear that this was a mistaken understanding of the verse). Others, however, elaborated new interpretations of the doctrine of jihād.

The first to do so was the Indian Muslim thinker Sayyid Aḥmad Khān (d. 1898). After the Mutiny of 1857, the British began favoring Hindus in the Indian army and in government service. Sayyid Aḥmad Khān wanted to show that Islam did not forbid cooperation with the British colonial government; in this he was motivated by his desire to safeguard employment for the young Muslims from the middle and upper classes. On the basis of a new reading of the Qurʾān, he asserted that jihād was obligatory for Muslims only in the case of “positive oppression or obstruction in the exercise of their faith… impair[ing] the foundation of some of the pillars of Islam” (Ahmad Khān, Review on Dr. Hunter ’s Indian Musalman: Are they bound in conscience to rebel against the Queen? Benares, 1872, pp. xviii–xix.) Because the British did not, in his opinion, interfere with the practice of Islam, jihād against them was prohibited. [See KHāN, AḥMAD.]

Middle Eastern Muslim reformers such as Muḥammad ʿAbduh (d. 1905) and Muḥammad Rashīd Riḍā (d. 1935) did not go as far as Sayyid Aḥmad Khān. On the strength of those Qurʾānic verses that make fighting against unbelievers conditional upon their aggression or perfidy, they argue that peaceful coexistence is the normal state between Islamic and non-Islamic lands and that only defensive jihād is permitted. This view, however, left open the possibility of jihād against colonial oppression, as the colonial enterprise was clearly an attack on the territory of Islam. This view was asserted by more modern commentators over the past fifty years such as Muḥammad Abū Zahra, Wahba al-Zūḥaylī, and Yūsuf al-Qaraḍāwī. All three scholars offer a contextual reading of Qurʾānic verses and prophetic traditions to argue that the sources permitting unconditional combat were responding to particular instances during the lifetime of the prophet. Those scholars, as well as participants in different al-Azhar forums, also assert new regulations of armed conflict that mirror many of the rules elaborated by the ICRC on international humanitarian law, such as the prohibition of targeting noncombatants, the refraining from using weapons of mass destruction, and the insistence on the protection of war captives.

Militant Islamists (those calling for active engagement in jihād) offer yet an alternative view of the doctrine. Some of these radical groups, such as Egyptian organizations al-Jihād and al-Jamāʿahal-Islāmīyah (before the latter’s renunciation of violence) called for the use of violence to defeat the established governments. In doing so, those groups reformulated the classical positions to grant them expansive privileges in their conflicts with their rulers. Classical Islamic jurisprudence often placed rebellion under the regime of baghy, which, though protective of rebel rights during the conflict, still acknowledged the legitimacy of the ruler and prohibited armed insurrection. This acknowledgment led many modern Islamist rebellions to disregard regulations of baghy and resort to the approach employed by Ibn Taymiyyah (d. 1328) against his Mongol adversaries. This approach offers an amalgam of jihād and ridda (apostasy) doctrines to claim heresy of the authority (takfīr, declaring someone to be a kāfir, unbeliever) as the primary basis for rebellion, which significantly expands permissible tactics employed against this authority. In modern times, these views were first propagated by fundamentalists such as Sayyid Quṭb (d. 1966) (against the Egyptian government) and Abū al-Aʿlā Mawdūdī (d. 1979) (against the newly founded Pakistani government. [See QUṭB, SAYYID AND MAWDūDī, ABū AL-AʿLā.]

The most eloquent and elaborate statement of this view can be found in a pamphlet published by the Jihad Organization (Jamāʿat al-Jihād), whose members assassinated President Anwar Sadat of Egypt in 1981. The pamphlet is called Al-Farīdḍah al-ghāʿibah (The Absent Duty), referring to the duty to wage jihād, which, according to the author, Muḥammad ʿAbd al-Salām Faraj, is no longer fulfilled. The author declares the Egyptian government apostate because it fails to implement the Shariah. Accordingly, it is an individual duty of Muslims to attack the government to liberate the country from the regime of “unbelievers.”

The Globalization of Jihād.

When the Soviet Union occupied Afghanistan in 1979, resistance was offered not only by local militias, but also by volunteers from elsewhere in the Muslim world who were motivated by the activism of Muslims such as ʿAbdallāh ʿAzzām to join in an anti-Soviet jihād. When the Soviet Union was defeated in 1989 and withdrew its troops, many of the international mujāhidūn (jihād fighters) remained. An organization that eventually emerged from the post-Soviet milieu was al-Qaeda, led by the Saudi national Osama Bin Laden. After the Gulf War of 1991 and the stationing of America troops on Saudi territory, Bin Laden became convinced that the United States was the main enemy of Muslims. In 1996, he issued a twenty-three-page declaration of war against the United States in which he exhorted all Muslims to support the Muslims struggling in Palestine and Saudi Arabia and help them defeat the enemies who occupy Islamic holy places. This was followed in 1998 by a fatwā signed by him and four other radical Muslim leaders. Its conclusions were more specific: Killing the Americans and their allies—civilians and military—is an individual duty for every Muslim who is capable of it and in every country in which it is possible to do so. This will continue until al-Aqsā Mosque [in Jerusalem] and the Holy Mosque in Mecca have been liberated from their grip, and their armies have moved out of all the lands of Islam, being defeated and unable to threaten any Muslim. This fatwā heralded the bombings of the American embassies in Dar al-Salaam and Nairobi in August 1998 and the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on 11 September 2001.

Militant ideologues often expand on classical jurisprudence to justify their approach to armed conflict. Although most of their writings frame their brand of jihād as a defensive one, since, in their view, it is directed against aggressors, the rules of armed conflict are often innovations framed as extensions of classical jurisprudence. For example, classical jurists justify the use of catapults against besieged cities even if damage was to be inflicted on women and children. Some demand that Muslims attempt as much as possible to avoid women and children when aiming. Militants rely on this view to argue that bombs, possibly even nuclear weapons, are legitimate extensions of catapults, disregarding the significant difference in the level of destruction between a primitive weapon such as catapults and widely destructive tactics, such as the ones resorted to in the 9/11 attacks. They also disregard that, whereas a level of precision and discriminate targeting is possible with a catapult, their modern weapons and approaches are inevitably indiscriminate. They also attempt to limit the applicability of regulations that could prevent many of their indiscriminate tactics, such as amān (safety pledge). According to many classical jurists, Muslims who enter the territory of the “unbelievers” on the basis of amān may not commit any acts of treachery against inhabitants of this territory. Many nonmilitant commentators, such as al-Qarāḍāwī and the Salafi Nāṣir al-Dīn al-Albānī (d. 1999), argue that an entry visa is a form of amān, hence preventing militants from waging attacks against this territory. However, militant argue that visas cannot be considered as amān, since they do not constitute a pledge of safety. But more importantly, they also argue that a democratic state is one unified legal personality because its citizens elect their representatives and pay taxes that contribute to the war effort; voters are thus responsible for the actions of their governments. Nonmilitant arguments point out how those views fail to take into account that nations fought during the early Islamic conquests also often relied on their inhabitants to support their war efforts against the Muslims, possibly more directly than in the modern state, but Muslim jurists never regarded those states as one legal personality. (For an extensive debate over the legitimacy of al-Qaeda’s tactics, see the series of commentaries published by Sayyid Imām ʿAbdul ʿAzīz, a recanted Jihad ideologue, and the responses by al- Ẓawāhirī, a leading al-Qaeda ideologue.)

[See also BIN LADEN, OSAMA.]


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