Show Summary Details
Page of

Subscriber: null; date: 08 June 2023

2 p. 47Jihad in the Hadith Literaturelocked

2 p. 47Jihad in the Hadith Literaturelocked

  • Asma Afsaruddin

The hadith literature contains the sayings of Muhammad, as reported by his Companions, the name given to the women and men who were his closest associates. The Arabic word hadith literally means “speech,” “a statement.” These statements of the Prophet were circulated primarily in oral form in the first two centuries of Islam (seventh and eighth centuries CE), afterward they began to be written down in hadith collections. The term “hadith” is usually translated into English as “report” or “tradition.”

After the Quran, the hadith literature is the second most important source of morality, ethics, and law in Islam. A related term is sunna which refers to the customs, practices, and statements of Muhammad; it is, therefore, a broader term than hadith. In addition to the hadith literature, details about the Prophet’s actions can be derived from the biographical literature (known in Arabic as sira) and historical works. Stories recorded in biographical and historical works about Muhammad were, however, often based on hearsay and not rigorously checked for reliability or credibility. As a result, these sources are not regarded as “canonical,” that is, as authoritative as the hadith literature.

At the same time, not all hadiths are considered equally reliable or sound, meaning that critical Muslim scholars doubted that some of them were actually uttered by the Prophet. p. 48Scholars in the formative period of Islam were very concerned about establishing the reliability or soundness of hadiths. Some hadith collections are considered more trustworthy than others because the scholars who put them together applied rigorous criteria for determining the reliability of the statements attributed to Muhammad. These criteria included careful scrutiny of the chain of transmission of the hadith—this chain of transmission includes the names of those who narrated the hadith going back to the Prophet. Scrutiny of the chain was necessary so that the scholars could assess the moral and intellectual qualities of each transmitter of any given hadith. If transmitters were known to have grave character flaws and faulty memories and/or known for their partisan and biased viewpoints, their reports were devalued and often rejected. To a lesser extent, scholars also looked at the content of the hadith to evaluate whether the statement could have credibly been made by Muhammad. If the content blatantly contradicted established Islamic principles or was contrary to reason, it was often determined to be forged or fabricated and rejected by careful scholars.

In the field of hadith studies, there are three main categories of reports indicating different levels of reliability. The first category refers to “sound” hadiths, called sahih in Arabic. These are hadiths whose narrators—men and women—were deemed to be morally beyond reproach and blessed with retentive memories. Furthermore, the line of transmission of these reports go back to the Prophet without interruption, so that it could be reasonably assumed that each narrator had heard the report directly from the person before her in the chain until it reached Muhammad. Hearsay was not allowed; each person in the chain of transmission must have personally met the source he was reporting from.

The second category refers to “good” or “fair” hadiths, called hasan in Arabic. Good hadiths more or less met the stringent criteria for the sound hadiths, except that minor flaws were discovered in one or more transmitters of the hadith.

p. 49The third and final category refers to “weak” hadiths, termed daif in Arabic. These were reports whose chain of transmission included one or more narrators known to have possessed a faulty memory, or to have been dishonest, and/or regarding whom little or nothing is known. Missing links in the chain of transmission also render the hadith weak. Weak reports are not to be used as proof-texts, that is, texts that provide support for specific doctrinal positions and legal decisions.

Hadith works typically contain a section on jihad that mostly, but not exclusively, refers to armed combat. These sections frequently address the importance of the military jihad, sometimes in comparison with other praiseworthy activities. Some hadiths describe the merits (in Arabic fadail) of carrying out the military jihad, prescribe rules of conduct during armed combat, identify noncombatants, and deal with the status of and rewards for the martyr in the afterlife, both in military and nonmilitary contexts. Other hadiths indicate broader meanings for the term “jihad” and appear critical of the narrow understanding of jihad as primarily military activity.

A sampling of reports occurring in well-known Sunni collections of hadith that refer to jihad both in its combative and noncombative sense is offered in this chapter. There are separate Shii hadith works not discussed here; the military jihad is not equally stressed within them. Military activity was no longer considered permissible for the majority of the Shia after the ninth century when their rightful Imam or religious leader is understood to have disappeared but who is expected to return at the end of time.

  • Top of page

What does “jihad” mean in the hadith literature?

Various meanings of “jihad” become clear when we look at hadith collections chronologically.

One of the oldest hadith collections we have was compiled by the early ninth-century Yemeni scholar Abd al-Razzaq p. 50al-Sanani (d. 827). Its title in Arabic is al-Musannaf (referring to hadiths arranged under specific topics). This work is earlier than the best-known and most highly regarded Sunni work of hadith, which was compiled by the celebrated scholar Muhammad al-Bukhari (d. 870). The Musannaf contains a number of reports that were not included in later works. Such reports, even if they are not considered normative (i.e., prescriptive or binding for the believer), are still valuable as historical sources since they contain useful information about early contested views regarding key topics within Islamic doctrine and thought.

Thus we find that the Musannaf includes certain reports that preserve an early, lively debate about what constitutes jihad that fell out of circulation in the later period. One such hadith relates that a man once came to the Prophet and told him: “I am a timid man; I cannot bear [the idea] of meeting the enemy.” Muhammad replied, “Shall I not indicate to you a jihad in which there is no fighting?” When the man expressed eagerness, the Prophet continued: “The hajj [the full pilgrimage carried out during the prescribed season for it] and the umra [the shorter pilgrimage that may be carried out at any time] are obligatory for you.” This hadith is highly significant because it informs us that, first of all, while the hajj and the umra are religiously required acts, the military jihad is not; second, jihad may be carried out in different ways; and third, it was neither shameful nor sinful for a man to avoid military activity if he had no desire or aptitude for it. It is worth noting here that this report occurs in a variant form in later hadith works counseling only women to substitute the pilgrimage for the military jihad. Comparing the early and late versions of this report indicates to us that in the later period the term “jihad” became reconceptualized as a reference to primarily military activity in which only (virile) men took part. In the earlier period, “jihad” was clearly a much broader term that referred to certain praiseworthy nonmilitary and military activities equally available to women and men.

p. 51Early hadith works also preserve reports which reveal that the phrase “in the path of God” or “for the sake of God” (fi sabil allah) had multiple meanings in the early centuries of Islam. (In the later period, this phrase was usually joined to the word “jihad” and mostly understood to be a reference to armed combat.) The multiple meanings of the phrase “in the path of God” are indicated in a noteworthy hadith recorded in Abd al-Razzaq’s al-Musannaf. The report relates that a number of the Companions were sitting with Muhammad when a man of muscular build, apparently a pagan from the tribe of Quraysh, came into view. Some of those gathered exclaimed, “How strong this man looks! If only he would exert his strength in the way of God!” The Prophet asked, “Do you think only someone who is killed [in battle] is engaged in the way of God?” He continued, “Whoever goes out in the world seeking licit work to support his family is on the path of God; whoever goes out in the world seeking licit work to support himself is on the path of God. Whoever goes out seeking worldly gain has however gone down the path of the devil.”

This report is noteworthy for two reasons. First, it contains a clear rebuke to those who would understand “striving in the way of God” only in military terms. It praises instead the daily struggle of humans to live their lives for the sake of God, which makes ordinary human activities, such as earning a livelihood, morally and spiritually significant and, therefore, worthy of divine approval. Second, the report emphasizes the importance of personal intention in determining the moral worth of an individual’s act. Correct intention determines the moral value of an act, as stressed in the famous hadith: “Actions are judged by their intentions.” Thus an act carried out for sheer material gain is not one that is carried out in the path of God. Since the meritorious nature of an individual’s striving for the sake of God depends upon sincerity of intention, one may also understand this report as advising caution against accepting at face value showy, insincere acts of religiosity. It also warns against assuming that what appears to be a pious activity p. 52to humans—such as the claim to be waging a true military jihad—will be regarded as such by God, who alone can know the true intention of the individual.

The different meanings of jihad continue to be preserved in the famous hadith collection of al-Bukhari (d. 870). The title of this collection in Arabic is al-Sahih, indicating it contains only sound reports, as determined by al-Bukhari himself. Al-Bukhari is considered the most reliable compiler of hadith by the majority of Muslims who are Sunni. In his chapter on jihad, al-Bukhari records a hadith in which one of the Companions asked the Prophet which action is considered the best. He replied, “Prayer at its appointed time.” When the Companion asked, “And then?” Muhammad replied, “Devotion to parents.” The Prophet was once again asked, “And then?” to which he responded, “Jihad in the path of God.” According to this report, obligatory acts of worship, like the daily prayers, and filial devotion to one’s parents outweigh the military jihad in the path of God in moral value and priority.

The greater moral excellence of devotion to one’s parents compared to the military jihad is stressed in another hadith which relates that a man came to Muhammad and asked his permission to take part in fighting. The Prophet asked, “Are your parents alive?” The man replied, “Yes.” The Prophet advised, “Then strive [or do jihad] with regard to them.” Here, “jihad” is clearly being used in the broadest sense of striving to do one’s best in some praiseworthy activity, such as taking care of one’s parents, and is deemed superior to armed combat in this context.

Another report stresses that carrying out the fundamental religious obligations within Islam is in itself highly meritorious and guarantees admission to paradise; taking part in the military jihad or not does not make a difference in this basic status. This hadith states, “God is obligated to cause whoever believes in God and His Messenger, performs the prayers, and fasts during Ramadan to enter paradise, whether he strove/fought [jāhada] in the path of God or remained sedentary in p. 53the land he was born in.” The same hadith, however, goes on to say that should such a pious person engage in the military jihad, then such an individual would attain a greater reward in the next world. This indicates that the legitimate military jihad is a meritorious voluntary activity for which the person who undertakes it earns extra merit, but it is by no means a religious requirement and makes no difference in one’s basic status as a believer.

There are also reports that praise the military jihad when it is carried out with the proper intention and for a worthy purpose. One such hadith simply states: “Coming and going in the path of God [here “path of God” by itself appears to refer to military activity] is better than the world and what is in it.” Another report declares that whoever is wounded in the path of God will be brought to life on the Day of Judgment “with the color of blood and breath of musk.” These reports taken together convey a very high estimation of the military jihad but only when carried out with the right intention and for a noble cause, as signaled by the inclusion of the phrase “in the path of God.”

A second well-known hadith collection was made by another esteemed scholar by the name of Muslim ibn Hajjaj (d. 875; also known simply as Muslim). His collection is also titled al-Sahih. This work is considered by Sunni Muslims to be second in status only to that of his contemporary al-Bukhari. Muslim ibn Hajjaj includes many of the hadiths recorded by al-Bukhari on various topics, including jihad, sometimes with different wording. He also included certain reports that al-Bukhari left out of his collection because they did not meet his more stringent criteria. One such hadith that was accepted by Muslim ibn Hajjaj but rejected by al-Bukhari quotes Muhammad as affirming three times that one is unable to perform a deed equivalent in merit to that of the one who fights in the path of God, even if one were to pray and fast all the time. Muslim acknowledges that versions of this hadith go back to a transmitter whose reputation was rather doubtful in the field p. 54of hadith transmission, and al-Bukhari did not accept reports transmitted solely by him. It should be noted that a number of hadiths that contain exaggerated praise for military activity were in fact regarded with suspicion by many scholars and not everyone accepted them, as in this case.

Another such report that attests to a higher status for the military warrior in a hierarchy of pious people is included by the late ninth-century hadith compiler al-Nasai (d. 915). According to this hadith, Muhammad is said to have guaranteed a house on the periphery and in the middle of paradise for those who had believed in his message, embraced Islam, and emigrated. But for those who had believed in him, embraced Islam, and “fought in the path of God,” he vouchsafed not only a house in the periphery and the middle of paradise but also a house in its highest pavilions (ghuraf). In this hadith, the military jihad clearly trumps the hijra (emigration from Mecca to Medina), otherwise the central event in the inauguration of the Islamic era and the establishment of the Muslim community. Noteworthy also is the cooptation of the pavilions (ghuraf) of paradise in a military context. In the Quran, the heavenly pavilions are promised exclusively to the God fearing (Quran 39:20), the patiently forbearing (cf. Quran 25:75), and in general for those who believe and do good deeds (Quran 29:58). The transfer of this distinctive reward from the pious noncombatant believer to the pious combatant represents a stark subversion of the Quranic hierarchy of moral excellence. It should not surprise us that this report containing such exaggerated praise for the military jihad recorded by al-Nasai cannot be found in other authoritative collections of hadith.

  • Top of page

Do hadiths describe how a military jihad should be carried out?

There are a number of reports that describe how a legitimate military jihad should be carried out. These reports stress that the true military jihad is one that is, first and foremost, carried out with correct intention and for a just purpose. For example, p. 55Muslim ibn Hajjaj records a significant cluster of hadiths in which several Companions assert that there will always be “a group of Muslims fighting for the truth” until the Day of Judgment. hose who fight for personal glory and fame instead are destined for punishment in the next world. Other reports in Muslim’s hadith collection emphasize just conduct during military combat, especially in relation to civilians. He lists noteworthy hadiths that forbid killing women and children during battles.

The hadith work of another important scholar from the ninth century, Ibn Maja al-Qazwini (d. 886), records several reports from the Prophet strongly prohibiting attacks against women and children. These prohibitions against killing women and children are repeated in practically every major hadith collection that includes a discussion of the military jihad.

There are additional hadiths recorded in the legal literature that offer more counsel regarding right and just conduct during battle, particularly concerning the treatment of civilians and protection of crops and property in enemy territory.

  • Top of page

How should we understand the hadith that commands Muslims to fight non-Muslims until they accept Islam?

This hadith is frequently cited in certain quarters to establish the nature of jihad as religious warfare. The hadith quotes the Prophet as saying, “I have been commanded to fight people until they bear witness that there is no god but God and that Muhammad is the Messenger of God, perform the prayers, and offer the obligatory alms; if they were to do that, they would protect their blood and property from me, except for what is due on it to Islam, and their reckoning is with God.” This hadith is recorded by al-Bukhari and Muslim and therefore meets the rigorous criteria of hadith analysis established by these two scholars.

Modern-day militants in particular cite this hadith to justify their violent campaigns against non-Muslims and against p. 56those they consider to be lukewarm or lapsed Muslims. One should note, however, that although al-Bukhari and Muslim included this hadith in their collections, not all scholars agree about the reliability or soundness of this report. The principal problem with this hadith is that its chain of transmission is characterized as gharib (literally “rare,” “strange,” “obscure”). The prominent hadith scholar and jurist of the ninth century Ahmad ibn Hanbal (d. 855) did not include this hadith in his collection. Another important hadith scholar from the fifteenth century, Ibn Hajar (d. 1449), recorded the names of several scholars who discredited the reliability of this hadith.

With regard to its interpretation, there is general agreement among Muslim scholars that the hadith refers specifically to the Arab polytheists of Mecca who had persecuted the early Muslims. Its content is, therefore, not applicable to the People of the Book or to non-Arab polytheists. The majority of jurists and exegetes have also maintained that an invitation to Islam must be carried out without coercion; this well-established principle is derived from the following Quranic verses: Quran 2:256 : “There is no compulsion in religion”; Quran 18:29: “Let him who wishes, believe, and let him who wishes, reject (it)”; and Quran 109:6: “You have your religion and I have mine.” There is also Quran 60:8: “God does not forbid you from being kind to those who do not oppose you in religion.” The hadith, therefore, should properly be understood as allowing Muslims during Muhammad’s lifetime in the seventh century to fight back against the Meccan polytheists who had committed violence against them. Understood in this historical context, the hadith would not have any general applicability beyond the seventh century and cannot be used to justify forced conversion to Islam.

  • Top of page

What does the hadith literature say about martyrdom?

The martyr is called shahid in the hadith literature. This is in contrast to the Quran, which uses the term “shahid” only in p. 57the sense of “a witness.” The Quran, in fact, does not have a specific term to refer to martyrdom, military or otherwise.

Compared with later hadith collections, many of the reports contained in early hadith works preserve the broadest, noncombative meanings of the term “shahid.” In one such report recorded in the Musannaf of Abd al-Razzaq, the shahid is described as one who dies in bed without sin and is thus entitled to enter heaven. Another noteworthy report states: “Every believer is a witness” (shahid) and references the Quranic verse “Those who believe in God and His messengers are the truthful ones and witnesses” (57:19). In these two reports, we have valuable testimony from an early source that the Quranic term “shahid” (and its plural shuhada) are to be understood as referring broadly to righteous believers who bear witness to the truth in the way they lead their lives and die peacefully in their beds. The term “shahid” in these texts does not refer to military martyrs, which became the common understanding in the later period.

Furthermore, several reports recorded in the Musannaf specifically challenge those who emphasize that martyrdom refers primarily to dying on the battlefield. In one such report, Muhammad is quoted as saying, “The one who dies [of natural causes] in the path of God is a martyr.” Another report describes three kinds of martyrdom resulting from falling off a mountaintop, an attack by wild animals, and drowning at sea. A third report recorded in the Musannaf declares that that there are four types of martyrdom resulting from the plague, childbirth, drowning, and a stomach ailment. There is no mention of martyrdom being earned on account of dying on the battlefield in these early reports.

An early legal manual records similar reports. This is the famous work titled al-Muwatta (meaning “the Well-Trodden Path”) by the legal scholar Malik ibn Anas (d. 795). One hadith recorded in the Muwatta gives multiple definitions of a martyr. According to this lengthy hadith, the Prophet identified seven kinds of martyrs, in addition to those who died from fighting in God’s path.

p. 58He who dies as a victim of an epidemic is a martyr; he who dies from drowning is a martyr; he who dies from pleurisy is a martyr; he who dies from diarrhea is a martyr; he who dies by [being burned in] fire is a martyr; he who dies by being crushed by a falling dilapidated wall is a martyr; and the woman who dies giving birth is a martyr.

This report assigns martyrdom to the believer who suffers a painful death from a variety of grave illnesses, from a difficult labor in the case of women, or from falling victim to an unfortunate accident, in addition to dying on the battlefield.

Reports such as these found in early hadith works clearly demonstrate that martyrdom was understood very broadly in the early centuries of Islam, before the term was later appropriated to refer more narrowly to the military martyr.

This becomes evident when we move on to al-Bukhari’s famed hadith collection, compiled in the last half of the ninth century. Al-Bukhari records more hadiths that contain enthusiastic praise of the military jihad and vivid descriptions of the rewards waiting for the military martyr in the afterlife. References to noncombative martyrdom and its virtues occur but are noticeably fewer in al-Bukhari’s work. In one such hadith, Muhammad declares martyrs to be of five kinds: Those who die from the plague, from stomach ailments, from drowning, from being crushed to death (perhaps by a falling wall), and by suffering martyrdom in the path of God. (This hadith is very similar to the one recorded by Malik ibn Anas in his al-Muwatta.). In another report, the Prophet states: “The plague is [a source of] martyrdom for every Muslim.”

But other hadiths in al-Bukhari’s collection single out military martyrdom as worthy of special rewards in the hereafter. One hadith states that there is a “house of martyrs” that is the best and most excellent of dwellings in the hereafter. Another report says that only the military martyr among the pious will p. 59wish to return to earth and be killed repeatedly to continue to multiply the rewards in store for him in the hereafter.

In his hadith collection, Muslim ibn Hajjaj also records reports that offer broad definitions of a martyr comparable to those found in early hadith works. For example, one such hadith states that whoever asks God sincerely for martyrdom will be granted the status of a martyr, even if such an individual were to die in bed. Another hadith recorded by Muslim quotes the Prophet as saying that one who is slain on the battlefield, one who dies (of natural causes) in the path of God, one who succumbs to the plague, and one who dies from a stomach ailment make up “those who are killed in the path of God.” A variant report adds the victim of drowning to this list.

The Quran uses the phrase “those who are killed in the path of God,” which is often interpreted as a reference to battlefield martyrs. This hadith shows, however, that the Quranic phrase “those who are killed in the path of God” is to be interpreted more broadly to refer to those who died from a painful illness or calamity as well as on the battlefield. In qualifying for martyrdom, the phrase highlights the suffering of individuals rather than their manner of dying.

  • Top of page

How can one know for sure that someone has attained martyrdom?

A number of reports in various hadith collections warn against attributing martyrdom to people on the basis of outward appearances and deeds. One such hadith relates that it was once mentioned before the Prophet that someone had achieved martyrdom. Muhammad remarked, “Not so. Indeed I saw him in a cloak which he had acquired dishonestly.” The Prophet added that he would be punished in the hereafter instead. In another report, Muhammad stresses that “no one but a [true] believer will enter heaven.” Reports such as this serve to check the rise of a potential cultic regard for what is deemed martyrdom. They emphasize instead the criterion of sincere faith p. 60and righteous action in gauging true martyrdom, a determination that is beyond normal human ability.

As for the rewards the martyrs will enjoy in the hereafter, many reports state that they include physical closeness to God and the opportunity to engage in his praise. Their souls will furthermore find pleasure in tasting the good things of paradise, including delicious fruit. This happy state will increase when the souls are eventually reunited with their bodies. Some reports say that the souls of martyrs will assume the form of green birds who will flit about happily in paradise close to the divine throne.

In summary, we may say that the rich hadith literature attests that martyrdom was a broad concept in Islam’s formative period that could be achieved in different ways. Peaceful death in one’s bed at the end of a life spent in devotion to God and in the commission of good deeds was clearly the most general definition of martyrdom. Death from tragic suffering and painful afflictions also conferred martyrdom. Other reports relate that martyrdom’s best manifestation occurred on the battlefield when the believer waged war against the hostile enemy and perished. Ultimately the hadith literature affirms that the moral value of an individual’s actions, which depends on the sincerity of human intention, can only be judged by God who alone is privy to such matters. Human assessments of such acts are flawed and provisional at best.

  • Top of page

Are there certain hadiths that appear to contradict the Quran on martyrdom?

Some hadith collections contain reports that glorify martyrdom excessively. For example, Abu Daud (d. 888) in his hadith compilation has a lengthy section on jihad in which the bulk of the reports lists the merits (fadail) of the military jihad and of military martyrdom. The tone of a number of these reports is quite exaggerated in comparison with earlier hadith works. One such hadith indicates to us a rising estimation of p. 61the status of the military martyr in certain quarters. The report states that the Prophet made two men brothers; one of them was slain (it is assumed on the battlefield), while the other died (of natural causes) a week or so after the former. Several of the Companions prayed at the grave of the one who had died of natural causes. When Muhammad asked them what they had uttered, they replied that they had prayed for his forgiveness and implored that he would be united with his companion. At that the Prophet exclaimed that the prayers, the fasting, and the deeds of the two men in general were not comparable: “Indeed, [the difference] between them is like that between the sky and the earth!” This report conveys the view that the military martyr is vastly more morally excellent than the martyr who dies of natural causes.

The hadith gives us pause when we compare its content with that of Quran 22:58, in which the equal moral status of pious Muslims in this world and the hereafter is asserted, regardless of their manner of dying. This hadith clearly undermines the moral equivalence established by the Quran between the pious Muslim who dies peacefully in bed and the one who dies on the battlefield. Instead, this report recorded by Abu Daud grants a far superior status to the military martyr. The content of this hadith thus signals to us the rise of an excessive reverence for military martyrdom by the late ninth century among certain segments of the population This report is not found in al-Bukhari’s and Muslim’s collections: It was either not known to them because it was circulated in the period after them or it failed to meet their more rigorous criteria for the inclusion of hadiths.

  • Top of page

Is there a hadith that promises the reward of seventy-two virgins to battlefield martyrs?

There is such a hadith. Its earliest version appears to be the one recorded by Abd al-Razzaq al-Sanani in his Musannaf. In this version, Muhammad promises nine distinctive rewards p. 62reserved for the military martyr: (1) forgiveness from God at the first drop of blood; (2) display of his seat in paradise; (3) decoration with the adornment of faith; (4) protection from the torments of the grave; (5) marriage with a dark-eyed woman; (6) safety from the “great terror” (of Judgement Day); (7) the placing of a crown of honor on his head, each sapphire in which is said to be better than the whole world and all that it contains; (8) marriage with seventy-two dark-eyed women; and (9) intercession in the next world on behalf of seventy of his relatives.

If we look at the chain of transmission of this hadith, we find that it consists primarily of Syrian transmitters of dubious reputation. For example, the Syrian transmitter Ismail ibn Ayyash (d. 798) was known for his prolific transmission of reports—“tens of thousands,” according to one account—many of which were deemed to be weak as far as their reliability was concerned. Well-known scholars, like al-Bukhari, considered his reports to be particularly unreliable because Ismail ibn Ayyash would frequently doctor his texts and their chains of transmission. His so-called hadiths were deemed “obscure” or “strange” by scholars in Medina and Mecca and avoided by the Iraqis. Others declared that hadiths transmitted by Ismail could not be used as proof-texts. There are similar problems with other transmitters, also Syrian, who had related the report referring to seventy-two dark-eyed women.

The strong Syrian cast to this report is not unexpected in a report from this period praising the excellences of armed combat. Its exaggerated tone leads us to believe that it is promoting a controversial activity—fighting on behalf of the Umayyad rulers. It should be noted that the Umayyad rulers, who ruled between 661 and 750 CE, were highly unpopular with the general Muslim population, known as they were for their worldliness, impiety, and lukewarm adoption of Islam at best. Ratcheting up other-worldly benefits to enhance the lure of joining Umayyad armies, to put it rather bluntly, was a clever tactic under the circumstances. To find more recruits for their p. 63armies, which were frequently engaged in military skirmishes with the Byzantines, the Umayyad rulers promoted what has been described as a “jihad ideology,” glorifying their military adventurism as fighting in the path of God. Circulation of reports praising military activity and promising the battlefield martyr generous rewards in the next world, including beautiful women, was very likely a strategy for inducing young men to join the Umayyad armies.

The inclusion of this report in Abd al-Razzaq’s Musannaf indicates its early circulation but not its reliability. Neither al-Bukhari nor Muslim include it in their collections. Another well-regarded hadith scholar by the name of al-Tirmidhi (d. 892) does include a version of this hadith in his collection and classifies it as “good,” “sound,” and “rare.” This classification indicates its restricted circulation in the early period despite what al-Tirmidhi deemed an acceptable chain of transmission.

  • Top of page

Does the hadith literature encourage seeking martyrdom?

Like the Quran, the hadith literature does not encourage deliberately seeking death. Protection and preservation of one’s life and those of others is the highest moral and ethical priority for a Muslim. There are hadiths that specifically warn against the deliberate courting of martyrdom by seeking to confront the enemy. One such hadith recorded by al-Bukhari relates that the Prophet during a military campaign would customarily wait until the sun had moved toward the West and then address his troops thus: “Do not wish to meet the enemy, O People, and ask forgiveness of God. When you meet them, be patiently forbearing and know that paradise lies below the shade of the swords.”

Muslim ibn al-Hajjaj also records two hadiths that expressly forbid seeking to engage the enemy in battle. One of them quotes the Prophet as saying, “Do not wish to meet the enemy; when you meet them, be patient.”

p. 64With regard to al-Bukhari’s longer version of this hadith, it should be noted that modern militants typically like to quote only the last part of the report: “Paradise lies below the shade of the swords.” Cut off from the rest of the hadith, this statement appears as an absolute endorsement of the military jihad and, therefore, may be understood as goading Muslims to deliberately seek military martyrdom. Reading this statement within the larger context of the full hadith conveys the exact opposite—the report counsels Muslims not to rush into fighting and not to court military martyrdom. If they are forced into battle by their enemies and consequently have to fight, they will reap their reward in the next world—but fighting in itself as flagged in this report as an undesirable activity that Muslims should not pursue.

  • Top of page

Are there distinctly Shii views on martyrdom?

Because of the trajectory of Shii history, “redemptive suffering” and martyrdom, especially of the nonmilitary kind, loom large in the consciousness of the Shia and find plenty of reflection in their literature. From the perspective of the Twelver Shia (known as the Ithna Ashariyya or Imamiyya in Arabic—they are the majority of the population in Iran and Iraq), all twelve of their religious leaders (known as Imams) were martyred, starting with Ali ibn Abi Talib, the fourth Rightly-Guided Caliph, who was assassinated in 661. The battle of Karbala (fought in 680), in which al-Husayn, a grandson of the Prophet, and his family members were massacred by an Umayyad army, created a high degree of reverence for the idea of martyrdom among the Shia, especially in relation to the family of the Prophet. In the absence of their legitimate Imam (the last twelfth Imam is said to have disappeared from the world in 874), the military jihad lost its significance for a large majority of the Shia, and martyrdom was more a consequence of dying on account of suffering and persecution, rather than of military exploits on the battlefield. However, p. 65after the Iranian Revolution in 1979 and during Iran’s war with Iraq in the 1980s, the notion of military martyrdom has been used to mobilize the Iranian population against national enemies.

  • Top of page

What does the hadith literature say about suicide and terrorism?

Suicide is categorically forbidden according to a noteworthy hadith recorded by al-Bukhari. In this hadith, the Prophet refers to a man who had fought valiantly in a battle and was wounded. But then he took his own life because he could not stand the pain resulting from his injury, which led Muhammad to remark that he would be punished in the hereafter. Another frequently cited hadith states that a person who takes his own life using an object or implement will be repeatedly tormented by the same object in the next world—a painful fate meant to convey the seriousness of the offense of taking one’s own life.

As for terrorism, there are numerous hadiths and other kinds of reports that assert that women, children, and other noncombatants can never be targeted during a legitimate war. Terrorists have no such regard for the boundaries of legitimate violence and often deliberately target civilian populations, seeking to sow fear and mayhem among them—activities strongly condemned in both the Quran and the hadith literature. Jurists in their legal writings prescribed severe punishment for those who resorted to violence against civilians through highway robbery, piracy, and other criminal acts that disrupted the social order.

  • Top of page

What are the greater and lesser jihads?

The greater and lesser jihads refer to “internal/spiritual struggle” and “external/physical struggle” respectively. They are mentioned in a well-known hadith, according to which, after returning from a military campaign Muhammad p. 66remarked to his Companions: “We have returned from the lesser jihad to the greater jihad, which is the striving of God’s servants against their base desires.”

This report is admittedly late (likely circulated after the ninth century) and cannot be found in the compilations of sound hadiths put together by al-Bukhari and Muslim. Some well-known later scholars like Ibn Taymiyya (d. 1328) and Ibn Hajar (d. 1449) regarded this hadith as either weak or fabricated. The report was included, however, in other hadith works and scholarly writings by the eleventh century.

The fact that this hadith was not recorded by al-Bukhari and Muslim tends to diminish its value and reliability for some Muslims. However, it would be a mistake to thereby conclude that the concepts of the greater and lesser jihad do not have earlier analogues or equivalents. The specific terminology used in the report may be of later origin, but the concepts themselves date from the very beginning of Islam. There is no doubt that the terms “greater jihad” and “lesser jihad” correspond to the Quranic terms sabr (patient forbearance) and qital (fighting) respectively. So although the formal classification of jihad into greater and lesser forms is a late one, the concepts of the internal, spiritual struggle and the external, physical struggle are derived from the Quran itself.

  • Top of page

Do standard collections list hadiths that describe nonmilitary aspects of jihad?

Yes, they do—a number of hadiths included in such collections emphasize the importance of striving against the lower self that prods humans toward base desires and deeds. These reports, however, are often spread throughout these collections and not conveniently grouped into one section or under one heading, which is why they are sometimes overlooked. In ninth-century hadith collections belonging to the prominent scholars Ahmad ibn Hanbal (d. 855) and al-Tirmidhi (d. 892), one such hadith is p. 67recorded in which the Prophet states: “One who strives against one’s [lower] self is a mujahid, that is, one who carries out jihad.” Another report recorded by Muslim ibn Hajjaj similarly emphasizes this internal, spiritual aspect of human striving for the sake of God; it affirms: “Whoever strives [jāhada] with the heart is a believer.” Three of the most authoritative Sunni hadith compilers from the ninth century—al-Bukhari, Muslim ibn Hajjaj, and al-Tirmidhi—record a report in which the Prophet declared that “those who help widows and the poor are like fighters in the path of God.” These hadiths show that spiritual and noncombative aspects of jihad have existed simultaneously with combative ones. A number of these reports were later reproduced by moral theologians in works written to aid the moral and spiritual development of their readers. These reports also receive much prominence in the writings of mystical (Sufi) scholars.

One less well-known but nevertheless well-regarded hadith scholar al-Darimi (d. 869) records the following report in which the Prophet is asked, “Who is the best of people?” He replied, “One who lives long and does good deeds.” This report may be understood to contain a rebuke directed at those who court death on the battlefield and thereby aspire to shorten their lives in hopes of being counted among the best of people as a military martyr.

In some collections of hadith and in works composed in praise of knowledge, striving to learn the Quran in particular and the pursuit of scholarship in general are also included as not only constituting jihad but also representing the best manifestation of it. Thus, al-Tirmidhi records the following frequently quoted report: “Whoever departs in the pursuit of knowledge is on the path of God until he returns.”

A hadith recorded by the eleventh century Andalusian scholar Ibn Abd al-Barr (d. 1071) in his treatise on the excellences of knowledge, states: “The prophets are two ranks higher in excellence than the scholars while the scholars are a p. 68rank above the martyrs in excellence.” In this report, scholarship ranks higher than armed combat as meritorious activity. One who failed to see that the pursuit of knowledge constituted jihad might be suspected of being deficient in knowledge and insight, remarks Ibn Abd al-Barr. A report similarly praising religious scholarship is attributed to the famed Companion Ibn Abbas. When Ibn Abbas was asked to comment on what constitutes jihad, he replied that the best act of jihad was the establishment of a mosque in which religious scholarship is pursued.

Since pursuing and acquiring knowledge was a component of jihad, one who died while so engaged was also considered a martyr. Ibn Abd al-Barr records a report that quotes the Prophet as saying, “When death overtakes the seeker of knowledge, he dies as a martyr.” This is a noteworthy hadith that challenges an exclusively military understanding of martyrdom and underscores instead the self-sacrifice and heroic effort inherent in intellectual and rational pursuits, which upon death confer martyrdom.

Over time, these nonmilitant understandings of jihad became even more entrenched in certain circles. For example, the eleventh-century Andalusian scholar Ibn Hazm (d. 1064) affirmed a higher moral valuation of the defense of Islam through noncombative, verbal, and scholarly means over combative ones in his hierarchy of actions that qualify as meritorious striving in the path of God. Thus, he says, jihad is best exercised, in order of importance, through (1) inviting people to God by means of the tongue, (2) defending Islam through sound judgment and carefully considered opinions, and (3) through armed combat. With regard to the third type of jihad, Ibn Hazm states that this is its least important aspect. When we look at the Prophet himself, he says, we realize that the majority of his actions fall into the first two categories, and although he was the most courageous of all human beings, he engaged in little physical combat. Ibn Hazm’s hierarchy p. 69affirms that the struggle of the learned in explaining and defending Islam through reasoned argument and scholarship can be considered far more meritorious than armed combat and represents a more faithful imitation of Muhammad’s own actions.