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1 p. 9Jihad in the Quran and Commentary Literaturelocked

1 p. 9Jihad in the Quran and Commentary Literaturelocked

  • Asma Afsaruddin

The term “jihad” and words related to it occur several times in the Quran. The Quran (which means “Recitation” and “Reading” in Arabic) is a text divinely revealed to the Prophet Muhammad, as Muslims believe. The revelations started roughly in the year 610 CE in Mecca and continued for approximately twenty-two years until the Prophet’s death in Medina in 632 CE. Both Mecca and Medina are cities in what is now Saudi Arabia.

Each chapter of the Quran is typically assigned to either the Meccan or Medinan periods of the Prophet’s life. Chapters belonging to the Meccan period refer to the revelations that came to Muhammad while he lived in Mecca (between roughly 610 and 622). Medinan chapters date from the time when the Prophet emigrated to Medina from Mecca in 622; this event, known in Arabic as the hijra (emigration, migration), also marks the beginning of the Islamic calendar. The Medinan period ends with Muhammad’s death ten years later and refers to the years between 622 and 632.

Muslim scholars sometimes disagreed among themselves about the precise dating of individual Quranic verses. There is, however, broad agreement concerning the general attribution of the chapters to the Meccan or Medinan periods based on their connection to specific events in Muhammad’s life and on shared thematic and stylistic features. The Quranic text itself is p. 10not arranged according to chronological order but according to the length of the chapters, proceeding from the longest to the shortest. (The first short chapter, consisting of seven verses, is the exception).

The Quran is not only a written text meant to be silently read and reflected upon but is also a liturgical text that is memorized and recited orally during worship. During the month of Ramadan when Muslims fast from daybreak to sunset, the entire text of the Quran is commonly recited in mosques during special congregational prayers held at night. It is also recited during many of life’s significant occasions, such as the birth of a child, marriage, and death. The Quran is always recited in Arabic. This reflects the Muslim’s belief that the entire Quran is a transcript of God’s revelations to Muhammad; its message cannot be fully appreciated and understood except in its original language of revelation. Translations into other languages are plentiful but do not substitute for the original Arabic text. According to Islamic doctrine, God (called Allah in Arabic, a divine name also used by Arabic-speaking Christians and Jews) is the author of the Quran. This divine authorship invests its sacred text with a majesty and authoritativeness that no other text of human origin can approach.

Given the centrality of the Quran to everything Islamic, we must start our discussion by focusing on how the term “jihad” and related terms are used in various passages of the Quran. This will help us understand the original scripture-based meanings and functions of these terms. Quranic verses cited are bolded in the text to make it easier to pick them out. Translations are generally mine, although I have consulted published translations.

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What is the basic meaning of jihad?

The basic meaning of jihad is “struggle,” “striving,” “exertion.” The word “jihad” is derived from the Arabic root j-h-d. In Arabic, words typically have three consonants in their p. 11roots. These root consonants combine with vowels and certain prefixes and infixes (additional internal letters) to generate different verbal forms and a range of related meanings.

Jihad is a verbal noun from the third verbal form in Arabic, which generally implies an action extended to another person or object. The verb behind jihad is jāhada. The long vowel a in Arabic is romanized here as ā; this is a feature of the third verbal form. (Diacritics or special characters, like the macron, or dash above letters, will be used very sparingly in this book.) The verb jāhada, according to the early Arabic-language scholars, means “to strive, labor, or toil; to exert oneself or one’s power or efforts or endeavors or ability.” Jihad as the verbal noun, therefore, conveys these basic meanings of striving, exertion, effort.

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How often does the word “jihad” occur in the Quran?

Forty-one verses containing words derived from the root j-h-d, mostly as verbal forms, occur in the Quranic text. The noun jihad itself (in this exact form) occurs only four times in the Quran. The longer Arabic phrase al-jihad fi sabil allah (meaning “striving in the path of God”) does not occur in the Quran in this exact phrasing but is common in extra-Quranic literature. Instead, the Quran uses verbal forms derived from j-h-d, often in the form of commands, with the phrase fi sabil allah (in the path of/for the sake of God). For example, it commands in Arabic: wa-jāhidū bi-amwalikum wa-anfusikum fi sabil allah (Quran 9:41). This translates as “And strive with your wealth and your selves in the path of God.”

Harb, the Arabic word for “war” in general, is never used in the Quran with the phrase “in the path of God” and is not related to the concept of jihad.

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Does the Quran refer to different forms of jihad?

Yes it does. Jihad in the Quran is a broad concept and refers in general to the human struggle on earth to live and flourish p. 12through worship of God and the realization of his will. This struggle includes making the effort to cultivate and promote what is right and good and prevent what is wrong and harmful in all spheres of life through a variety of means. The duty to undertake this moral and ethical struggle is clearly established in the Quran (Quran 3:104, 3:110, 9:71, 9:112, 22:41, and others).

Two main aspects of jihad become apparent in the Quran during the Meccan and Medinan periods. The first aspect—known in Arabic as sabr—is prominent in the Meccan chapters and retains its importance in the Medinan chapters as well. The second aspect—known in Arabic as qital—makes its appearance in the Medinan period and is a conditional aspect of jihad.

Sabr can be translated into English in several ways: patience, forbearance, steadfastness, perseverance, and a kind of stoicism, among other possibilities. For the most part, I have adopted the translation “patient forbearance”; in some instances, other translations will be used in this book depending on the context. Sabr, or patient forbearance, is the constant feature of jihad throughout the Quran, since no worthwhile human endeavor can be carried out without exercising this trait.

Qital refers specifically to fighting when just cause and intention are present. The conditions during which fighting is allowed are clearly outlined in the Quran.

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Does the Quran refer to the spiritual jihad?

It does indeed. The Quranic term “sabr” in fact refers to the internal and spiritual jihad that must be continuously carried out to fulfill one’s obligations to God and one’s fellow beings. This internal struggle indicated by sabr is the earliest aspect of jihad and an essential part of it. Those who maintain the position that there is no spiritual, noncombative dimension to jihad in the Quran have failed to recognize the importance of p. 13sabr, or patient forbearance, and its organic connection to jihad within the Quranic text.

One very important Quranic verse (3:200) highlights the importance of cultivating and practicing patient forbearance in one’s life. It states: “O those who believe, be patient and forbearing, outdo others in forbearance, be firm, and revere God so that you may succeed.”

The early Muslim scholar Abu Salama ibn Abd al-Rahman (d. ca. 722) said that this verse commands Muslims “to be vigilant concerning the performance of the prayers, one after the other.” Muslims, as is well-known, pray five times a day. Frequent daily prayers are acts that require considerable patience and effort on the part of the worshipper. Many Quran commentators, like the famous exegete Muhammad ibn Jarir al-Tabari (d. 923), commented that the general understanding of this verse is that it advises believers to be steadfast in their religion and in obedience to God. The command contained in Quran 3:200 includes “all the various forms of obedience to God regarding what He has commanded and what He has prohibited, the difficult and the exacting, the easy and the simple,” says al-Tabari. In other words, the verse emphasizes that patient forbearance is a trait that should be practiced in all spheres of life by the faithful as they struggle to obey God and carry out their religious duties.

The Quran promises generous rewards in the hereafter to the righteous who practice patient forbearance in this world. One verse, Quran 39:10, states that “those who are patient will be given their reward without measure.” Another verse, Quran 25:75, states “They will be awarded the heavenly chamber for what they bore in patience and will be met there with greetings and [words of] peace.”

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What does jihad mean in the Meccan period?

Verbs derived from the Arabic root j-h-d are used several times in Meccan verses. These verses urge the early Muslims to strive p. 14to fulfill God’s commands in their lives and to preach the faith publicly. Three of these verses are worthy of discussion: Quran 29:69; 25:52; and 22:78.

Quran 29:69 states: “As for those who struggle in regard to us [jāhadū fina], we will surely guide them to our paths.” The eighth-century exegete (Quran commentator) Muqatil ibn Sulayman (d. 767) explains this verse as referring to those who do good deeds for the sake of God and is similar to Quran 22:78. “We will guide them to our paths” means that they will be guided to Islam and that God provides help for those who do good, he says. The tenth-century exegete Ibn Atiyya (d. 993) commented that because this verse was revealed in the Medinan period before fighting was allowed, jihad in this verse must be understood to refer to a general striving to fulfill one’s religious obligations and to seek God’s satisfaction.

Exegetes in subsequent centuries tend to repeat these views. In the late twelfth century, the highly esteemed Quran commentator Fakhr al-Din al-Razi (d. 1210) emphasized that this verse urges Muslims to obey God to the best of one’s ability and to attempt to understand the truth by critically examining the divine proofs contained in the Quran. For al-Razi, jihad in this verse refers to both a spiritual and intellectual effort.

Quran 25:52 states “Do not obey the unbelievers and strive with it against them mightily [jihad kabir].” There is an overwhelming consensus among commentators that in this verse Muhammad is being divinely directed to strive against falsehood with the truths contained in the Quran—that is, by verbally proclaiming the divine message being communicated to him. The pronoun “it” used in the verse is a reference to the Quran. This kind of striving is deemed by Muslim scholars to constitute “jihad of the tongue.” These struggles on the part of the Prophet to communicate the word of God are described as “a great effort” (jihad kabir) on account of the great hardships he faced while carrying out this command.

Quran 22:78, states: “Strive in regard to God a true striving as is His due.” This verse is usually dated between p. 15the late Meccan period and the early Medinan period, when Muslims had not yet been granted permission to militarily defend themselves. In the eighth century, the Quran commentator, Muqatil ibn Sulayman, understands this verse to require humans to “do good deeds for God as is His due.” He notes that the Arabic command in this verse jāhidū (related to the noun jihad and meaning “strive!” addressed to a collectivity of people) urges humans to excel in the performance of good deeds to earn divine approval. Another early scholar Ibn al-Mubarak (d. 797) is said to have understood this verse as referring to “striving against one’s desires and the lower self.”

These three verses clearly show that jihad (and related words) in the Meccan period have the general meaning of striving to please God through worship and the carrying out of good deeds to the best of one’s abilities. However, some later scholars understood Quran 22:78 to refer additionally to striving through armed combat. Thus the well-known twelfth-century exegete al-Zamakhshari (d. 1144) understood the verse as referring to both striving against one’s base desires and striving against the enemy through military means.

There are other Meccan verses that encourage the faithful to strive actively to do good and prevent wrongdoing while practicing patient forbearance. One such verse (16:110) states: “As for those who after persecution emigrated and strove actively [jāhadū] 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.” Since this is a Meccan verse, some commentators suggest that the reference to emigration should be understood as a reference to the emigration to Abyssinia (current-day Ethiopia) by an early group of Muslims roughly around 613–614, about a decade before the historically more significant emigration to Medina took place in 622.

Another Meccan verse (Quran 29:6) states: “The one who strives [jāhada] strives for oneself; for God has no need of p. 16anything in all his creation.” These instances of jihad, or striving, in the Meccan period do not have anything to do with military activity; rather, they are references to the term’s basic meaning of personally struggling to do what is good and morally excellent as part of one’s earthly existence.

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Did jihad have a military meaning in the Meccan period?

During the Meccan period, the Muslims were not given divine permission to physically retaliate against the pagan Meccans, who were severely persecuting them for their monotheistic faith. According to the commentary and biographical literature on Muhammad, the pagan Meccans instituted harsh measures against the Muslims—including an economic boycott, forced starvation, and physical torture—to make them give up their new faith and return to the idol worship of their forefathers. Verses revealed during the Meccan period advise Muslims to steadfastly endure the hostility of the Meccans while continuing to profess their monotheistic beliefs and practice their faith. Although the Quran recognizes the right to self-defense for those who are wronged, it maintains in this early period that to bear patiently the wrongdoing of others and to forgive those who cause them harm is the superior course of action. A cluster of verses (42:40–43) reveal this highly significant, non-militant dimension of struggling against wrongdoing (and, therefore, of jihad) in this early phase of Muhammad’s prophetic career. These verses state:

The recompense of evil is evil similar to it: but, whoever pardons and makes peace, his reward rests with God—for indeed, He does not love evil-doers.

As for those who defend themselves after having been wronged—there is no recourse against them: recourse is against those who oppress people and behave unjustly on earth, offending against all right; for them p. 17awaits grievous suffering. But if one is patient in adversity and forgives, then that is indeed the best way to resolve matters.

These verses emphasize the importance of practicing patient forbearance and forgiving those who cause one harm as part of the continuous jihad to promote what is right and prevent what is wrong through moral and ethical means. Military activity does not figure in these verses.

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What does jihad mean in the Medinan period?

Nonviolent struggle against injustice and persecution, as well as patient forbearance in the face of harm, continued to be endorsed in the Medinan period. One Medinan verse (47:31) states: “We shall indeed test you so that we may know the active strivers [al-mujahidin] and the quietly forbearing [al-sabirin] among you, and we will test your affairs.” Here the term “mujahidin” (those who strive actively) should be understood in the broadest sense; the context does not imply any kind of military action. The active strivers complement those who are quietly forbearing—both resort to praiseworthy ways of dealing with life’s trials and the harm others cause. It should be noted here that nonviolent struggle is not the same as passivity, which when displayed in the face of grave oppression and injustice, is clearly marked as immoral in the Quran. “Those who are passive” earn divine rebuke in Quran 4:95.

Roughly two years after Muhammad’s emigration to Medina in 622, a new feature of jihad appeared—that of defensive fighting signified by the Arabic term “qital.” The Quran provides a number of reasons for resorting to armed combat against a hostile enemy that has already carried out aggression against Muslims. Quran 22:39–40 are believed by the majority of scholars to have been the first verses revealed to p. 18Muhammad allowing fighting, which led to the Battle of Badr in 624. These verses state:

Permission is given to those against whom fighting has been initiated because they have been wronged, and God is able to help them. These are they who have been wrongfully expelled from their homes merely for saying “God is our Lord.” If God had not restrained some people by means of others, monasteries, churches, synagogues, and mosques in which God’s name is mentioned frequently would have been destroyed. Indeed God comes to the aid of those who come to his aid; indeed he is powerful and mighty.

According to these verses, the reasons for allowing fighting at this stage are threefold: (a) because fighting had already been initiated against Muslims by the pagan Meccans; (b) because Muslims had been harmed by the pagan Meccans and expelled from their homes; and (c) because the persecution of these early Muslims occurred merely on account of their religious belief and not on account of any wrongdoing on their part. Fighting (qital) in this verse is thus allowed in response to prior aggression by the Meccan polytheists and unambiguously defensive. Furthermore, the right to profess monotheism and to defend this right when it is violently opposed by others is affirmed in the verse.

A number of Quran commentators highlight the defensive nature of fighting in these verses on behalf of wronged Muslims and potentially on behalf of other monotheistic religious communities who are similarly persecuted for their faith. According to our early exegete from the eighth century, Muqatil ibn Sulayman, Quran 22:39 lifted the earlier prohibition against fighting and allowed Muslims to defend themselves against the harm inflicted on them by the pagan Meccans. Such harm included physical torture and verbal abuse as well p. 19as expulsion from their homes. The reason for the infliction of these aggressive acts was that the Muslims had publicly acknowledged their faith in God and affirmed his oneness. Muqatil understands Quran 22:40 to mean that if God had not restrained the hostile polytheists of Mecca through the agency of the Muslims, the polytheists would have gained the upper hand and killed the latter. Subsequently the monasteries and churches of the Christians, the synagogues of the Jews, and the mosques of the Muslims would all have been destroyed. These houses of worship—in which the name of God is mentioned profusely—are meant to be protected by Muslims, he says.

Some of the later commentators offer similar interpretations. In the late twelfth century, Fakhr al-Din al-Razi comments that these verses granted permission to Muslims during the Medinan period to fight those who aggressively opposed the right of “the people of religion” (ahl al-din; a reference to religious people in general, not only Muslims) to worship freely and construct their houses of worship. It is in this context, he continues, that the monasteries, churches, and synagogues are mentioned, even though they belong to non-Muslims, for they are dedicated to the worship of the one God and not of idols.

These interpretations point out that, according to the Quran, coming to the defense of other persecuted religious communities (mainly monotheists beside Muslims) and thus ensuring freedom of belief can also be a legitimate objective of the military jihad.

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Is only defensive fighting allowed in the Quran?

According to the Quran, only defensive armed combat can be legitimate. In addition to Quran 22:39–40, there is another very important verse that makes clear the defensive nature of the military jihad. This verse is found in Quran 2:190 which states: “Fight in the way of God those who fight you and do not commit aggression, for God does not love aggressors.” According to the commentators, this verse was revealed in p. 20628. In this year, the Muslims wished to perform the lesser pilgrimage known as umra in Arabic. (Umra is a shortened form of the obligatory pilgrimage [known as hajj in Arabic] that can be carried out at any time of the year. Hajj is carried out only during the official pilgrimage season, which falls during the twelfth month of the Islamic calendar, called Dhu al-hijja). Quran 2:192 verse granted Muslims divine permission to defend themselves against attack by the pagan Meccans on the sacred grounds of the Kaba, something they were previously forbidden to do. (The Kaba, according to Islamic tradition, is the shrine built by Abraham and his son, Ishmael, in Mecca to which Muslims, if they are physically and financially capable, must make a pilgrimage at least once in their lives.)

More broadly, commentators understand Quran 2:190 as prohibiting Muslims from initiating fighting and granting them the right to defend themselves should they be attacked. This is so because God does not love “those who begin fighting, whether in sacred or non-sacred territory,” according to an early commentary attributed to Ibn Abbas, a close associate of Muhammad. Mujahid ibn Jabr (d. 722), a very early exegete who lived during the Umayyad period (which lasted between 661 and 750 CE), very simply states that, according to this verse, one may not fight until the other side commences fighting—no ifs, ands, or buts.

A number of commentators after Mujahid continued to uphold this categorical Quranic prohibition against initiating fighting. Our late twelfth-century exegete Fakhr al-Din al-Razi makes it very plain in his Quran commentary that the divine command “Do not commit aggression!” in Quran 2:190 is directed at actual, not potential, combatants, meaning that the verse allows fighting only against those who have actually started to fight and not against those who are able and prepared to fight but have not yet resorted to violence.

Other commentators, such as al-Tabari from the ninth century, also say this verse forbids deliberately attacking traditional noncombatants or civilians who do not fight, such as p. 21women, children, the elderly, the sick, the disabled, serfs or agricultural laborers, monks, hermits, and other peaceful religious functionaries; to do so would constitute a clear act of aggression.

That Muslims may resort to fighting only when attacked first by a belligerent enemy is further made clear in Quran 9:12–13. These verses state:

If they break their pacts after having concluded them and revile your religion, then fight the leaders of unbelief. Will you not fight a people who violated their oaths and had intended to expel the Messenger and began [hostilities] against you the first time?

In their commentaries on these verses, premodern and modern exegetes stress without exception that the violation of pacts by the Meccan polytheists, their denigration of Islam, hostile intentions toward Muhammad, and their initial act of aggression toward Muslims had made fighting against them necessary. Our early exegete from the late seventh century, Mujahid ibn Jabr (d. 722), comments that these verses refer to the powerful Meccan tribe of Quraysh that had started the fight against the allies of Muhammad, culminating in the battle of Badr in 624. The late eighth-century exegete Muqatil ibn Sulayman similarly holds that these verses refer to the Quraysh who began hostilities at Badr against the Muslims. Later exegetes like al-Tabari, al-Wahidi, al-Razi, and al-Qurtubi offer similar interpretations. Al-Razi draws attention to the Arabic verb badaukum in Quran 9:13—which translates contextually in English as “they initiated hostilities against you [you plural]”—which, he says, establishes that the aggressor is without doubt the greater offender.

A minority of exegetes maintained that Quran 9:12–13 refer to the Treaty of Hudaybiyya, the terms of which were violated by the pagan Meccans in 630. This was a treaty signed between p. 22the pagan Meccans and Muhammad and his followers in 628, according to which there would be no fighting for ten years between the two parties and their allies. Shortly thereafter, one of the pagan Meccan tribes violated the treaty’s terms by attacking a tribe allied with the Muslims—this is the act of aggression understood to be referenced in Quran 9:12–13 by a smaller group of commentators.

Another Quranic verse states that it is the duty of Muslims to defend those who are oppressed and who call out to them for help (4:75), except against a people with whom the Muslims have concluded a treaty (8:72).

All these verses taken together clearly establish that in the Quran, fighting is a defensive activity against an implacable enemy that initiates fighting against Muslims. Muslims may also fight to protect houses of worship belonging to other religious communities, especially the monotheistic Abrahamic ones, when they come under attack in Islamic lands. Furthermore, Muslims may fight to protect vulnerable, oppressed people who cry out to them for help. Therefore, the military jihad may be understood, first and foremost, as a moral enterprise that is undertaken for these just causes: (1) To protect the rights of those who wish to worship one God when that right is violently infringed upon by hostile forces. (2) To defend those who have been attacked wrongfully by an aggressive party and who are helpless before such violent onslaughts. Jihad in the Quran is not religious, sectarian warfare undertaken by Muslims to narrowly promote their interests over those of others. Contrary to widespread assumptions held by non-Muslims and even some Muslims as well, the Quran does not mandate fighting to spread the religion of Islam or to expand political territory belonging to Muslims. The only legitimate purpose in the Quran for fighting is to defend Muslims, their allies, and kindred religious communities when they are the victims of oppression and are targeted for hostile, violent action by an unrelenting enemy who rejects peaceful overtures. Fighting must be justified on such moral and just grounds. p. 23Military activity for any other purpose is unjustified and unlawful, according to the Quran.

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Is jihad in the Quran holy war?

The term “holy war” has no parallel in the Quran. The frequent, careless translation of jihad as “holy war” in English (and other Western languages) is inaccurate, especially on the basis of the Quran. The term “holy war” implies a battle waged in the name of a supreme being, usually to effect the forcible conversion of nonbelievers. It is a total, no-holds barred war intended to utterly destroy the enemy—men, women, and children—when they refuse to convert. Both objectives are doctrinally and morally unacceptable in Islam. In addition to the verses already discussed, which establish the military jihad as defensive in nature, a very important verse—Quran 2:256—further states clearly and without any ambiguity: “There is no compulsion in religion.” Another verse (10:99) asks, “As for you, will you force people to become believers?” There is no scriptural basis, therefore, for waging war (or employing other means) to compel non-Muslims to accept Islam.

Simply put, the Quran does not allow Muslims to attack non-Muslims on account of the latter’s religious beliefs. Nowhere is this made clearer than in Quran 60:7—9 which state:

Perhaps God will place affection between you and those who are your enemies for God is powerful and God is forgiving and merciful. God does not forbid you from being kind and equitable to those who have neither made war on you on account of your religion nor driven you from your homes; indeed God loves those who are just and fair. God forbids you however from making alliances with those who fight you on account of your religion and evict you from your homes and p. 24who support [others] in driving you out. Those who take them as allies are wrong-doers.

These verses explicitly state that Muslims may fight only those who are hostile to them and who have persecuted them violently for their faith. Non-Muslims who live peacefully with them and display no hostility are to be treated kindly and fairly, regardless of what they choose to believe. This position is repeated by the major exegetes of the premodern period. Thus the well-known twelfth-century exegete al-Zamakhshari stressed that these verses require Muslims to treat non-Muslims justly and without oppression, which he describes as an excellent command. Later in the same century, al-Razi would remark that, according to these verses “kindness and charity are permissible between polytheists and Muslims,” but he disallowed military alliances. The famous Andalusian exegete from the thirteenth century, al-Qurtubi (d. 1273), was the most explicit and most insistent in maintaining that the command contained in Quran 60:8 to be kind to those who had caused Muslims no harm was applicable to everyone who belonged in this category, regardless of their religious affiliation, and that the command was valid and binding for all times.

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Can Muslims continue to fight when the enemy stops fighting and seeks peace?

No, they cannot. The Quran prohibits the continuation of fighting under such circumstances. This is made very clear in Quran 8:61—which we may call the quintessential “peace verse”—that states: “And if they should incline to peace, then incline to it [yourself] and place your trust in God; for he is all-hearing and all-knowing.” This verse creates a clear and absolute moral imperative for Muslims to abandon fighting when hostile enemy troops lay down their arms.

p. 25This message is also stressed in Quran 4:90, which states: “If they hold themselves aloof from you and do not wage war against you and offer you peace, then God does not permit you any way against them.”

These verses taken together categorically establish that fighting may continue only as long as the enemy engages in fighting and that Muslims must agree to peaceful arbitration when the other side seeks it. Such a position has nothing to do with the religious beliefs of adversaries but rather with their peaceful nature or lack thereof. In the case of the pagan Meccans who intended to wipe out the Muslims on the battlefield, the Quran exhorted the latter to fight back zealously. Under such circumstances, the Quran commanded Muslim warriors to “smite their necks” (47:4) and praised those “who kill and are killed” (9:111) in such a defensive enterprise. However, if the same enemy were to renounce its aggressive ways by laying down arms and seeking terms of peace instead, Quran 8:61 makes clear that fighting against them must cease. In general, peaceful people, regardless of their religious beliefs, cannot be attacked for any reason, as stressed in both Quran 4:90 and 60:7–9.

This perspective is the diametrical opposite of the holy war mentality. Such a mentality conceives of fighting as a cosmic, eternal duty carried out in the name of a deity who sanctions such warfare to impose on others a belief system or ideology, which alone is held to be valid. This is expressly forbidden in Quran 2:256 (also 10:99). In the ideology of holy war, the enemy has no rights; a holy war must be waged until the enemy submits to its ideology or is annihilated. This would include killing traditional noncombatants, such as women, children, and the elderly. In sharp contrast, the military jihad as depicted in the Quran is fought for the just cause of defending oneself and others against wrongful attack and not for the purpose of spreading Islam through military force. Fighting must come to an end when the opposing side lays down its arms—the directive is very clear. Peaceful people, regardless of their p. 26beliefs, cannot ever be militarily targeted. The desire for religious or ideological supremacy fuels holy war; the quest for justice is at the root of the military jihad in the Quran.

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Are the peaceful verses in the Quran abrogated by the “sword verse?”

Quran 9:5, sometimes referred to as the “sword verse,” states:

When the sacred months have lapsed, then slay the polytheists wherever you may find them. Seize them and encircle them and lie in wait for them. But if they repent and perform the prayer and give the zakat [obligatory alms], then let them go on their way, for God is forgiving and merciful.

Contemporary polemical literature that discusses Quran 9:5—whether produced by Islamist militants or by Orientalists (certain Western academics who study and write on Islam for various ideological reasons) and Islamophobes (people who fear and hate Islam and Muslims)—often claims that there is a consensus among Muslim scholars on the abrogating status of Quran 9:5. They convey the impression that Quran 9:5, all by itself, has been universally understood by Muslims to abrogate (cancel/invalidate) the meanings and applications of numerous Quranic verses that call upon Muslims to establish kind and just relations with peaceful non-Muslims.

A survey of some of the most influential Quran commentaries of the premodern period easily disproves this assertion. For example, our celebrated late ninth-century commentator al-Tabari forcefully took issue with some of his predecessors who had stated that Quran 9:5 abrogates Quran 8:61. Quran 8:61 is the peacemaking verse that states: “If they should incline to peace, you should also incline to peace.” Among al-Tabari’s predecessors was a second-generation Muslim (known as a p. 27Successor) called Qatada ibn Diama (d. 736). Qatada is said to have commented that every pact mentioned in the Quran and every truce concluded by Muslims with polytheists through which they entered peaceful relations with one another were to be understood as having been abrogated by Quran 9:5. For example, he understood Quran 9:5 to have abrogated Quran 47:4, which allows for prisoners of war to be released with or without ransom. Qatada had concluded darkly that by the revelation of Quran 9:5 God had commanded Muslims to fight non-Muslims in every situation until they said, “There is no god but God.”

Al-Tabari took great exception to such views. He commented that Qatada’s position cannot be supported on the basis of the Quran, the sunna, or reason. (The sunna refers to the practices and sayings of Muhammad). According to al-Tabari, Quran 9:5 has to do only with the Arab polytheists of seventh-century Mecca, whereas Quran 8:61 is understood to refer to the People of the Book (mainly Jews and Christians) who cannot be fought when they make peace with Muslims. Neither verse, he says, invalidates the injunction contained in the other since they concern different sets of people and different circumstances, and both therefore remain unabrogated. Al-Tabari also notes that there were early scholars, like al-Dahhak (d. 723) and al-Suddi (d. 745), who had maintained that Quran 9:5 itself had been abrogated by Quran 47:4, which allows for prisoners of war to be released from captivity. This was in direct contrast to the position espoused by Qatada.

Al-Tabari’s was not a minority position. After him, the well-known exegetes al-Zamakhshari, al-Razi, and Ibn Kathir (d. 1373) all continued to assert that the “peace verse” (Quran 8:61) remained an unabrogated one and its meaning and ruling were not affected in any way by Quran 9:5. All these scholars stressed that the command contained in Quran 8:61 to engage in peacemaking, regardless of the religious beliefs of the parties concerned, was valid and binding for all time.

p. 28Al-Tabari was equally forceful in affirming the unabrogated status of Quran 60:7–8 against, once again, Qatada, who was of the opinion that Quran 9:5 had abrogated these verses as well. All the major exegetes after al-Tabari similarly upheld the unabrogated status of Quran 60:7–8. These verses command Muslims to be kind and fair to all those who are peaceful and cause them no harm, regardless of their religion.

Although it is found earlier, the term “sword verse” (ayat al-sayf) begins to be used for Quran 9:5 particularly by commentators during the Mamluk period (1250–1517). This was the period when the Islamic heartland was besieged by marauding Crusader armies who had started to arrive from Europe by the late eleventh century and by Mongol invaders who destroyed the city of Baghdad in 1258. Exegetes from before the Mamluk period—al-Tabari from the ninth century, al-Wahidi from the eleventh century, and al-Razi from the twelfth century, for example—do not use this term for the verse.

In his influential commentary, the fourteenth-century exegete Ibn Kathir referred to Quran 9:5 as the sword verse, after which it seems to have become more common. He also wrote a separate work in praise of the military jihad against the Crusaders who were ravaging the Syrian coast during his time. He warns that the Muslim polity must exercise great vigilance particularly along its coastal areas where they were most vulnerable to attacks by the Christian invaders. He reminds his readers of the atrocities committed by the Crusaders on capturing Jerusalem in 1099, when they massacred almost 70,000 “worshipful, abstemious, and humble Muslims.” His use of the term “sword verse” for Quran 9:5 in his commentary indicates that he is deriving a general mandate from the verse, otherwise historically restricted to the pagan Meccans of the seventh century (without, however, considering it to be a verse that abrogates the “peace verse”). This general mandate would allow Muslims to fight in self-defense the vicious new aggressors of his time as the equivalent of the seventh-century Meccan polytheists. For Ibn Kathir, the existential threat faced p. 29by Muslims during the fourteenth century was comparable to that faced by Muslims in the seventh century. Repurposing Quran 9:5 as “the sword verse” allows Ibn Kathir to link the battles of his time to those fought during the Prophet’s time and thereby similarly assured of success. This is meant to reassure the Muslims during this fraught period that they too will survive the Crusader onslaughts, as long as they fulfill their required role as defenders of Islamic lands.

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Are Christians and Jews singled out for fighting in the Quran?

Many have claimed that a particular verse—Quran 9:29—is to be understood as granting permission to Muslims to fight in general the People of the Book (as mentioned, a reference mainly to Christians and Jews; also sometimes referred to as “scriptuaries” in this work) who refuse to accept Islam or to submit to Muslim political rule. The verse states:

Fight those who do not believe in God nor in the Last Day and do not forbid what God and His messenger have forbidden and do not follow the religion of truth from among those who were given the Book until they offer the jizya with [their] hands in humility [italics added].

Jizya refers to a kind of poll tax (or head tax) levied on adult male scriptuaries (primarily Jews and Christians, but also extended in practice to Zoroastrians, Hindus, Buddhists, and others in the later period) who are financially capable of paying it in exchange for exemption from military service. If the men from these groups elected to serve in the army, they were not required to pay the jizya. The jizya was not strictly a poll/head tax since the poor, women, and minors did not pay it. Under the early Rightly-Guided Caliphs of the seventh century, poor Jews and Christians received stipends instead from p. 30the state treasury in Medina to support them financially. (The “Rightly Guided Caliphs” were the four men who, in succession, assumed leadership of the Muslim polity after the death of the Prophet: Abu Bakr, followed by Umar ibn al-Khattab, then Uthman ibn Affan, and finally Ali ibn Abi Talib. They ruled between 632 and 661.)

A survey of the commentary literature shows a discrepancy between early and late understandings of Quran 9:29 that is highly relevant to our discussion. Our very early exegete Mujahid ibn Jabr (d. 722), who lived during the Umayyad period in the late seventh and early eighth centuries, briefly remarks that this verse was revealed during the campaign of Tabuk undertaken by the Prophet in 630. Muhammad organized this military campaign when he learned that the Byzantines were assembling an army near Tabuk, a place in northwestern Arabia, in preparation for an attack. When the Muslims reached Tabuk, however, no combat took place; the Byzantine army did not materialize, and Muhammad returned to Medina shortly thereafter. Mujahid’s commentary on this verse establishes that it referred to a specific historical incident and it did not apply in general to the People of the Book.

Exegetes after Mujahid, however, routinely identify the referents in this verse as Jews and Christians in general who are required pay the jizya to be protected by their Muslim rulers. Al-Tabari in the late ninth century acknowledges that the historical context for the revelation of this verse was a possible war with Byzantium and that Mujahid had pointed to the hostile Byzantine Christians as those intended in this verse. Al-Tabari, however, understood the verse as referring to Jews and Christians in general, making no distinction between hostile and peaceful factions among them. He also considers the requirement of paying the so-called poll tax a marker of their legal subjugation and general inferiority to Muslims. These views are consistently reproduced by a majority of later exegetes and jurists in their works. There are a few exceptions—the thirteenth-century Andalusian scholar p. 31al-Qurtubi, for example, criticized this understanding of Quran 9:29 and vigorously advocated the compassionate treatment of the People of the Book under the protection of Muslims.

If we return to the actual language of the verse, it is Mujahid’s interpretation that appears to be the more credible. The verse, after all, does not refer to all the People of the Book. As my italicization in the verse highlights, it only refers to a faction from among the People of the Book who are clearly wrongdoers. “From among those who were given the Book” is the translation for the Arabic phrase min alladhina utu al-kitab. The preposition min is partitive—meaning that it refers to a part of the whole of something. The verse, therefore, must refer only to an erring faction among the People of the Book who do not follow their own religious tenets (that require belief in God and the Last Day), who do not forbid wrongdoing, and reject the truth. Only such wrongdoers who intend harm to Muslims can be fought.

This “partitive” meaning becomes obvious when we compare Quran 9:29 to an important cluster of verses taken from the ninth chapter as well. These verses (Quran 9:113–115) state:

Not all are alike from among the People of the Book; there are those who are upright, they recite the revelations of God all night long and they prostrate [in prayer]. They believe in God and the Last Day. They enjoin what is right and forbid what is wrong and hasten to do good works. They are in the ranks of the righteous. Of the good that they do, nothing will be rejected. God is well aware of those who do good.

These verses unambiguously praise the righteous among the People of the Book who are worshipful and carry out good deeds; they clearly are not intended in Quran 9:29. Instead, their reward as upright and righteous Christians and Jews is promised in Quran 9:115 in the hereafter.

p. 32A wholesale denunciation of the People of the Book cannot be supported within the overall context of the Quran, which recognizes the piety and good works of faithful Christians and Jews. One of the most cited verses on interfaith relations is Quran 2:62 that states: “Those who believe, those who are Jews and Christians and Sabeans, whoever believes in God and the Last Day and does good deeds, surely their reward is with their Lord, and no fear shall come upon them, neither shall they grieve” (this verse is repeated almost verbatim in Quran 5:69). Elsewhere in the Quran, righteous Christians and Jews are described as constituting “a moderate, balanced community” (5:66) and being so honest that “if you were to give them a coin for safekeeping, they would return it to you” (3:75). Quran 7:159 refers to a contingent of righteous Jews who guide [others] to the truth and are just. When certain Jews and Christians fail to live up to the moral standards of their own faith traditions, however, the Quran criticizes them, sometimes severely, for their lack of righteousness and warns them of punishment in the next world (e.g., Quran 98:6). A holistic, cross-referential reading of the Quran with careful attention to the original Arabic allows us to credibly question and undermine interpretations that understand Quran 9:29 as containing a blanket condemnation of the People of the Book.

Many modern Muslim scholars readily reject some of the classical interpretations of Quran 9:29. The leading Egyptian scholar of international law Muhammad Talaat al-Ghunaimi, for example, affirms that the verse should be understood in its historical context as containing a specific reference to the Byzantine Christians of the time who were hostile to Muslims and not to the People of the Book in general. Before al-Ghunaimi, the famous Egyptian scholar and reformer Muhammad Abduh (d. 1905) had confirmed this understanding as a more credible interpretation of Quran 9:29 and rejected the interpretations of some of the premodern commentators as ahistorical and unsupported by the language of the text.

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p. 33Does the Quran tell Muslims not to be friends with Jews and Christians?

One does hear this assertion, especially in polemical contexts. To support this position, Quran 5:51 is usually cited. This verse states: “O those who believe, do not take Jews and Christians as awliya; they are awliya of one another.” I do not translate the Arabic word “awliya” because it is a polyvalent word, that is, it is a word that yields multiple meanings in different contexts. Depending on the context, awliya (singular: wali) can mean: “supporters,” “helpers,” “partners,” “allies,” “friends,” “close associates,” “patrons,” and “clients,” among others. We know that the Quran advocates kind and respectful relations with people—regardless of their religious affiliation—who are peaceful and willing to coexist with Muslims (Quran 60:8, 4:90, 8:61). The Jews and Christians referenced in Quran 5:51 must thus be those individuals or groups from these religious communities who are hostile toward Muslims.

This becomes clearer when we look at verse 57 from the same chapter (chapter five) that states: “O those who believe, do not take those among the recipients of previous scripture who mock and ridicule your religion, nor the unbelievers as your awliya. You shall reverence God, if you are really believers.” Of course such individuals or groups cannot be trusted as “allies” and “supporters,” especially in times of crises and wartime situations. Contextually, a more appropriate translation of awliya in both these verses is “military allies” and “protectors.” Jews and Christians of the seventh century who were trustworthy allies in the common struggle against injustice and oppression did fight alongside the Prophet in his army.

The Quran in general counsels Muslims not to take as allies or protectors anyone who intends them harm, even if they are close relatives. Quran 9:23 states, “Believers, do not take your fathers or your brothers as allies/protectors [awliya] if they prefer unbelief over faith. Those who take them as p. 34allies/protectors are wrongdoers.” Quran 58:22 furthermore states, “You will not find a people who believe in God and the Last Day harboring affection for those who oppose God and His Messenger, even if they are their fathers or their sons or their brothers or their kinfolk.” These verses have, of course, not been understood as broadly advising Muslims to break off relations with their fathers and brothers (and other family members) in every time and place; rather, this advice applies to only those family members and relatives who are hostile toward Muslims and cause harm to the latter in specific circumstances. The general command in the Quran is to show kindness toward parents and relatives, even if they are unbelievers, as expressed in several verses (Quran 17:23–24, 29:8, 31:14–15, etc.). The maintenance of good family relations is a high priority within Islamic ethics.

It is worth emphasizing here that, according to the Quran, how Muslims should treat other people depends on what they do and not on what they believe. In other words, only people’s actions that have consequences for others in the public sphere can be judged but not their privately-held beliefs and faith. The Quran warns that only God can make the final decision about the correctness of religious beliefs, and therefore such judgments should not exercise the human mind but rather be deferred to the next world (Quran 5:48, 9:106, 22:17, and others). Muslims may not belittle another’s religion, even if it involves idol worship (Quran 6:108) and may engage in debates with non-Muslims but only with civility and respect (16:125, 29:46, 41:34).

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Does the Quran support offensive military activity to spread Islam?

One verse that could be and has been understood by certain authorities as allowing fighting for the sake of Islam is Quran 8:39 that states: “And fight them until there is no more persecution/trials [fitna] and religion is entirely for God. But if p. 35they cease, then indeed God sees what they do” (a very similar statement is found in Quran 2:193).

From the rich commentary literature on the Quran, we learn that early scholars of the first and second centuries of Islam (seventh and eighth centuries CE) understood the Arabic word “fitna” in Quran 8:39 (as well as in Quran 2:193) to refer to the “trials and persecution” visited upon the early Muslims by the pagan Meccans. These scholars include the famous al-Hasan al-Basri (d. 728) who commented that “fitna” refers to persecution and tribulations. According to this verse, fighting is legitimate when undertaken to defend oneself against oppression and torture.

Another early scholar by the name of Urwa ibn al-Zubayr (d. ca. 713) also interpreted “fitna” in Quran 8:39 to refer to the trials and persecution faced by the early Muslims in Mecca which were intended “to lure them away from God’s religion.” He says that after the hijra (emigration) to Medina, Muslims were given the divine command to fight the polytheists because they were persecuting Muslims and violently preventing them from freely practicing their religion. According to Urwa: “So that religion may be entirely for God” expresses the purpose of this sanctioned fighting, which is to ensure the free and unfettered practice of religion by Muslims without persecution—and not for the purpose of spreading Islam.

However, after the eighth century, a majority of exegetes preferred to understand “fitna” in Quran 8:39 as a reference to polytheism that must be uprooted so that Islam may prevail. The phrase “if they cease” in this verse is, therefore, understood by them to mean “cease to practice polytheism” and not “cease to fight.” This is, for example, al-Tabari’s preferred understanding in the late ninth century, although he records the early eighth-century scholar al-Hasan al-Basri’s understanding of “fitna” as “tribulations” and is aware that this is the general meaning of the word. Al-Tabari also alludes to a group of earlier exegetes who were of the view that the phrase “if they cease” refers to pagan Arabs who desist from fighting, not from p. 36polytheism. Al-Tabari disagrees with this position without offering a rationale for doing so. Al-Tabari’s interpretation of “fitna” as “polytheism” was adopted by several exegetes after him, an interpretation that—dangerously—allowed the military jihad to be waged for a religious/theological purpose rather than strictly for self-defense against those who have committed a prior act of aggression.

Many modern Muslim scholars, however, agree with the interpretation of the early authorities. These modern scholars reject the later understanding of “fitna” as “polytheism” as a forced, theological (mis)interpretation that is not in accordance with the general and obvious meaning of the term. Such an interpretation also violates the overall spirit of the Quran, they maintain. Thus the Egyptian scholar Muhammad Abduh in the late nineteenth century emphasized that both Quran 8:39 and 2:193 have to do specifically with the circumstances during the Prophet’s time when he and his Companions were subjected to much hardship because they had publicly professed their faith. (The term “Companions” refers to the close associates and followers—male and female—of Muhammad after his call to prophethood.) In both these verses, “fitna” refers to the persecution of the early Muslims by the Meccan polytheists; this persecution was intended to force Muslims to abandon their religious beliefs and worship. The phrase “so that religion may be for God,” which occurs in Quran 2:193, is compared to “so that religion may be wholly for God” in Quran 8:39 and understood to mean that an individual’s religious allegiance should be sincerely and wholly for the sake of God and not motivated by the fear of any human being.

The believers of the seventh century had the right not to be enticed away from their religion nor to be persecuted on account of it, says Abduh. He reminds us that the historical context must be kept in mind: Mecca at the time of the revelation of the Quran was the stronghold of polytheism and the Kaba the storehouse of idols. While the polytheist was free and unrestricted in the practice of his religion, the monotheist p. 37believer was in a state of subjugation and oppression. If the polytheist were to refrain from fighting and violence, then hostility against him would also cease; aggression against him is carried out only to make him renounce his violent, oppressive ways and for no other reason, states Abduh. Fighting commanded in these verses was intended to put an end to this hardship and thus “to ensure freedom of religion,” so that no one may be forced to abandon his or her religion and/or face persecution on account of it. This position, he comments, is in full conformity with Quran 2:256 which states: “There is no compulsion in religion.” Abduh, like Urwa and al-Hasan al-Basri in the first and second centuries of Islam, thus does not understand this verse to contain a broad mandate to wage war so that Islam eventually replaces polytheism (and possibly, by extension, all other religions).

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Is the military jihad a permanent religious obligation in the Quran?

During the Medinan period, when fighting was allowed for justified reasons and authorized by the Prophet as the legitimate head of state, it became a moral and religious obligation that no adult (male) believer of sound mind and body could shirk without justification (a few female Companions also fought in the early battles). This obligation is stated in Quran 2:216:

Fighting has been prescribed for you [plural] even though you find it displeasing. Perhaps you dislike something in which there is good for you and perhaps you find pleasing that which causes you harm. But God knows and you do not.

It is not clear whether this Quranic verse imposed a permanent religious obligation to undertake the military jihad on Muslims of later generations. If we carry out a survey of Quran p. 38commentaries composed roughly between the eighth and twelfth centuries, we find that Quran 2:216 prompted discussion among the exegetes as to who exactly was being addressed in the Arabic second-person plural object suffix kum, for whom fighting has been prescribed. Early scholars from the seventh and eighth centuries, like Abd Allah ibn Umar (d. 693), Ata ibn Abi Rabah (d. 733), and Ibn Jurayj (d. 767) firmly maintained that the duty of fighting was imposed on the Companions alone. In other words, the military jihad was understood to be obligatory solely during the lifetime of the Prophet, specifically against the pagan Arabs who had attacked the Muslims, and this obligation was not understood to continue after his death.

Even as late as the eleventh century of the Common Era, scholars like the Quran exegete Ahmad al-Wahidi (d. 1076) continued to endorse this early position that fighting as a religiously prescribed duty applied only to the first generation of Muslims who were contemporaries of Muhammad and who were defending themselves against violent persecution by the Meccan polytheists. It is clear that for several centuries a substantial number of scholars were of the opinion that the duty of carrying out military jihad had lapsed after the time of the Prophet—this position cannot be dismissed as a negligible one in Islamic history. On the contrary, as our sources indicate, this remained a credible and dominant view subscribed to by many influential scholars in the premodern period (roughly until the twelfth century).

We start to detect a shift in this position by the late twelfth century/early thirteenth century in the writings of the well-known exegete al-Razi (d. 1210). He asserts in his commentary that despite what early scholars had said in regard to Quran 2:216, he prefers to understand the verse as imposing the duty of fighting on both those who were present at the time of its revelation and those who came later. Al-Razi is fully aware that he is going against the entrenched position of prominent authorities from the eighth century, like Ata ibn Abi Rabah, who had maintained that fighting as a religious obligation had p. 39lapsed after the time of the Prophet. The historical circumstances of his time—plagued by vulnerability to external enemies—very likely prompted al-Razi to adopt this line of reasoning. We must remember that the Third Crusade (1189–1192) as well as the Fourth Crusade (1202–1204) were launched during the period when al-Razi lived; military defense would probably have weighed heavily on the minds of scholars at this time.

After al-Razi, the late thirteenth-century scholar al-Qurtubi (d. 1273) subscribes to very similar views. In his case, his concern to establish fighting as a required duty on the basis of this verse is prompted by the precarious situation in which Muslims in al-Andalus (Muslim Spain) found themselves, facing the Christian armies descending from the north during the Spanish Reconquista. By the time we get to the fourteenth-century exegete Ibn Kathir during the tumultuous Mamluk period, it is all but a given that based on this verse, the military jihad is to be understood as a religious obligation imposed upon all adult Muslim men for all time. Writing against the backdrop of renewed Crusader attacks as well as the Mongol invasions of his time, Ibn Kathir stresses that Muslims must undertake the military jihad “in order to repel the harm inflicted by the enemy on Islamic realms.” Failure to do so would allow the enemy to occupy the territory of Muslims, seize their wealth, and enslave their children, he warns.

The views of al-Razi, al-Qurtubi, and Ibn Kathir became well established in the later period, so much so that most Muslims today are not aware of this earlier school of thought that restricted the applicability of Quran 2:216 to the time of the Prophet and his Companions alone, a position that endured until the height of the Crusades.

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What motivated the military conquests that took place after the death of Muhammad?

We do not fully understand the reasons for the onset of the conquests in the post-prophetic period. The conquests seem p. 40to have occurred rather spontaneously after the death of Muhammad without much planning, if any at all, by the government in Medina. In the modern period, we tend to think of governments as centralized structures exercising control in practically every sphere of public life. This would not have been true in seventh-century Medina. Government was decentralized, and the caliph did not necessarily have oversight over all the activities that took place in his realm or even in his name. Raiding and fighting were normal activities in pre-Islamic Arabia, and there is no doubt that the conquests represented a continuation of these activities.

When we look at some of the military commanders who led these campaigns, we note that they were frequently drawn from the pagan Meccan elite who embraced Islam practically at the last minute before the fall of Mecca in 630. Such leaders included Khalid ibn al-Walid (d. 642) and Amr ibn al-As (d. 664) who had fought on the Meccan side against the Muslims before their late conversions. Islam probably sat very lightly on them, and in all likelihood, they saw no reason to abandon their warring pursuits inherited from the pre-Islamic era. Historians like al-Baladhuri (d. 892) label the conquests futuh (literally openings) and not jihad. In his historical work detailing the conquests, al-Baladhuri barely mentions the caliph, conveying to us that the caliph had very little to do with the organization of the conquests. Later historians, like al-Tabari (who was also an exegete as we know), would see the hand of God in these conquests and glorify them as having facilitated the spread of Muslim rule. But this is an anachronistic view (that is to say, it projects back a situation that would not have been possible in an earlier historical period) and cannot be considered reflective of attitudes toward expansionist warfare in the first two centuries of Islam.

The existence of substantial numbers of people who did not believe that the Quran had imposed the military jihad as a religious obligation after the death of the Prophet casts strong doubt on the idea that the conquests were religiously p. 41motivated. There is no explicit Quranic directive that would require military conquests to be carried out either to spread Islam itself or extend Muslim rule. Instead, as established so far, fighting in the Quran is a defensive and limited activity undertaken only in response to an act of prior aggression. The Quran also unequivocally forbids compulsion in religious matters and condemns violence for the sake of material gain, regarding it as a feature of pre-Islamic life (4:94).

In line with these scriptural directives, a number of our sources inform us that some of the most pious among the earliest Muslims are on record as having been opposed to military expansionism. One of them was Abdullah ibn Umar, the son of the second caliph Umar under whose reign substantial conquests took place. Another early authority was the Successor Ata ibn Abi Rabah (from the second generation of Muslims), who had maintained firmly that the Quranic authorization to fight as a religious obligation was restricted to the time of the Prophet only. The Arab (rather than Muslim) conquests that broke out after the death of Muhammad are therefore better understood as a continuation of the pre-Islamic raiding campaigns (termed in Arabic ghazawat) motivated by worldly concerns for material gain and an inclination for military adventure on the part of some. Such motivations immediately disqualify such military enterprises from earning the label of a military jihad based on Quranic criteria. Clearly, further historical research needs to be carried out to determine comprehensively the nature of these conquests and the motivations behind them.

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What does the Quran say about martyrdom?

Martyrdom in the Quran is at best an ambiguous and vague concept. The Arabic term used almost exclusively in non-Quranic sources to refer to a martyr, military or otherwise, is shahid. However this Arabic term does not occur in the Quran with this meaning. Shahid in the Quran refers specifically to p. 42a legal witness or eyewitness and is used for both God and humans in appropriate contexts (e.g., Quran 3:98, 6:19, 41:53). Similarly, the related term shahada, which has come to mean martyrdom, especially of the military kind, in non-Quranic texts, refers only to “witness/witnessing” in the Quran. Only in later extra-Quranic literature (hadith, biography of the Prophet, and commentary literature) does shahid acquire the specific meaning of “one who bears witness for the faith,” particularly by laying down one’s life through military and nonmilitary means. Quranic phrases commonly understood to refer to the military martyr include man qutila fi sabil allah/alladhina qutilu fi sabil allah (those who are slain in the path of God; see Quran 2:154, 3:169). These Quranic phrases are, however, ambiguous and do not in themselves clearly refer to death on the battlefield. Another concept of “selling” or “bartering” one’s self or the life of this world for the hereafter (Quran 4:74; cf. 9:111) has been connected to the notion of martyrdom, but the connection itself is not explicit in the Quran.

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Is the religious status of a military martyr higher than that of other Muslims?

The Quran does not state that the military martyr enjoys a special, exalted status compared to other pious Muslims, as is commonly assumed. This is a view that crystallizes in certain kinds of post-Quranic writings, but its origin is not found in the Quran itself. The fact that this is a post-Quranic development becomes clear when we look at the exegeses of a key verse—Quran 22:58—that deals with the status of the pious military martyr versus the pious believer who dies of natural causes.

Quran 22:58 verse states, “Those who emigrated in the path of God and then were slain or died, God will provide handsome provisions for them; indeed God is the best of providers.” The late ninth-century commentator al-Tabari and other exegetes after him understand Quran 22:58 to refer p. 43specifically to the Meccan Emigrants (called Muhajirun in Arabic) and to the handsome reward promised them in the next world, regardless of how they died. The verse is understood in general to point to the greater status of the Emigrants in general compared to other early Muslims. It is worthy of note that this verse does not assign to the Emigrant martyred on the battlefield a higher status than the Emigrant who dies naturally. The common characteristic of the two is their act of emigration in the path of God, a difficult act motivated by faith that, undertaken with sincere intention, is worthy of generous reward in the next world. The implication of this verse is that the believer who is slain on the battlefield and the believer who dies peacefully in his or her bed are completely morally equivalent, the critical yardstick being the sincerity of their faith and not the manner of their dying.

In his commentary on Quran 22:58, the thirteenth-century Andalusian scholar al-Qurtubi draws our attention to the contested definitions of a martyr in the path of God. He acknowledges that this verse establishes the complete equality of status between the Emigrant slain on the battlefield and the Emigrant who dies in his/her bed. Nevertheless, some legal scholars went on to assert that the believer who is slain on the battlefield is morally more excellent than the believer who dies naturally. As a result, the Sharia (revealed ethics and law), as interpreted and applied by the jurists, came to reflect this point of view. However, al-Qurtubi points out, their view clearly contradicts not only this verse but also Quran 4:100, which speaks of the reward due to the Emigrant who dies on the way “to God and His apostle,” as well as a number of hadiths that assert the absolute moral equivalence between the believer who dies a natural death and the believer who is slain on the battlefield. One such hadith is attributed to the well-known Companion Anas ibn Malik in which the Prophet states, “The one who is slain in the path of God and the one who dies of natural causes in the path of God are the equal of one another in regard to the blessings and reward [that they reap].”

p. 44This discussion of Quran 22:58 by the commentators is significant because it underscores the contested definitions of martyrdom through time and the higher religious status that was assigned to the military martyr in the later period, especially in legal circles. We can therefore conclude that the “cult” of military martyrdom that becomes evident in certain kinds of late, post-Quranic literature developed not because of the Quran but in spite of it. Such a development was, after all, in outright contradiction to Quran 22:58, which contains a transparent warning against the very construction of such a cult.

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Is suicide permitted in the Quran?

Suicide is categorically forbidden in two verses in the Quran. The first is Quran 2:195, which states: “Spend in the way of God and do not cast yourselves into destruction with your own hands.” The second is Quran 4:29 that states: “Do not kill yourselves; indeed God is merciful towards you.” Both verses forbid the taking of one’s own life.

Muslim scholars consider the willful taking of one’s life to be a violation of a fundamental theological principle that God has the unique ability to give and take away life. This theological principle is derived from the following Quranic verses: “He [God] brings forth life and causes death, and to Him you shall return” (10:56); and “Abraham said, ‘My Lord is the one who brings forth life and causes death’ (2:258). In Islamic doctrine, suicide is considered a major sin that will be punished severely in the hereafter. In recognition of the enormity of the sin of suicide, jurists typically have not allowed regular funeral services to be held for the individual who takes his or her own life.

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Is terrorism condoned in the Quran?

Terrorism means causing fear among the civilian population and using unjustified violence to bring about wanton p. 45destruction of life and property. All such acts are forbidden in the Quran (and in other Islamic texts). Each and every human life is considered to be utterly sacred in Islam. For example, Quran 6:151 says: “Whether openly or secretly, do not take life, which God has made sacred, except for the sake of justice and the law. He has instructed you thus so that you may use reason.” Quran 5:32 states categorically: “If anyone kills a person—unless it be for murder or for spreading mischief in the land—it would be as if he killed all humankind; and if any one saved a life, it would be as if he saved all of humankind.” According to the Quran, the intentional murder of human beings is a grave sin and a crime that merits punishment in this world and the next: “Whoever kills a believer intentionally, his recompense is Hell, where he will reside for all eternity; God is angry with him and has cursed him and has prepared for him a great punishment” (Quran 4:93).

The Quran also takes a dim view of warmongers and those who cause strife and corruption on earth (called fasad in Arabic), for which stern punishment is decreed (Quran 5:33–34). The Quran does allow Muslims to fight but only in self-defense after they have been attacked; initiation of aggressive activity is clearly forbidden (Quran 2:190). The Quran also warns against letting the desire for vengeance and anger get the better of oneself, even when one has genuine grievances. Quran 5:8 declares, “O Believers, stand firmly for God and be just witnesses. Let not the hatred of a people cause you to swerve from justice; act justly—that is closer to piety. Reverence God; indeed God is aware of what you do” (see also Quran 5:2).

An important verse—Quran 2:194—lays down the principle of proportionality: Muslims responding to an act of aggression can do so to the extent of the original attack and only to the extent of defeating the fighting forces. Proportionality in reacting to wrongdoing is similarly stressed in Quran 42:40, although believers are also encouraged to forgive and reconcile with the wrongdoer instead. Given this stress on proportionality, the p. 46slaughter of whole groups of populations that include civilians is impermissible in Islamic moral and legal thought. On the same grounds, the use of weapons of mass destruction that cannot discriminate between combatants and noncombatants and can cause massive destruction to property, livestock, and the environment would be prohibited.

Classical Muslim jurists used the Quranic verses just cited and relevant hadith to define the boundaries between legitimate and illegitimate violence and to prohibit what today we call terrorism. Terrorists, after all, have no regard for the principle of proportionality; their violent actions are based upon a no-holds barred, scorched-earth policy that intends to destroy all and everything in its wake. Such actions violate foundational moral and ethical principles in the Islamic tradition.