Show Summary Details
Page of

Subscriber: null; date: 08 June 2023

5 p. 111Jihad As Conceived by Modern Political Revolutionaries and Militantslocked

5 p. 111Jihad As Conceived by Modern Political Revolutionaries and Militantslocked

  • Asma Afsaruddin

It is hard to miss the rise of political revolutionary movements and militant groups in the Muslim-majority world in recent history. The global media profusely reports on their activities, and the internet provides abundant information on their ideologies and various agendas. Such groups did not arise in a vacuum, and their arrival on the world stage needs to be contextualized.

This takes us back to the eighteenth century when Islamic revivalist movements began to take shape in the shadow of increasing European encroachment on Muslim territories. Revivalist movements gained steam through the height of Western colonialism in the mid-nineteenth and early twentieth centuries and continued into the postcolonial period starting roughly in the mid-twentieth century. Dramatic changes in the social and cultural fabric of Muslim-majority societies during these periods evoked strong and varied reactions among a number of Muslim scholars, thinkers, and activists. The abolition of the caliphate by Republican Turks in 1924 created a deep political and psychological crisis in the Muslim-majority world. Attempts to revive the institution would follow. The p. 112emergence of Islamist political parties in the first half of the twentieth century was, in many ways, a reaction to this political vacuum. Such parties promised freedom and social justice to those who were politically and socially marginalized in their societies, framing such goals within an Islamic vocabulary of reform and egalitarianism. In 1928 the Muslim Brotherhood was established in Egypt to mount a campaign of reform against what was described as the materialism and secularism of its day. Above all, it sought to politically empower ordinary Egyptian people against what was regarded as a corrupt ruling elite that did the bidding of Western governments.

Not everyone was attracted to this kind of political revolutionary rhetoric. But—as with communism and other utopian movements—the ideal society promised by Islamism or political Islam was appealing to those who lived under repressive governments that had come into existence in many Muslim-majority countries at the end of the European colonial period. Many of these postcolonial governments were decidedly secular and were regarded by the local populations as serving the interests of an imperialist West rather than of the local populations. The memory of the humiliations that had been visited on Muslim peoples by European Christian colonizers remained strong throughout the twentieth century and hardened the resolve of the political revolutionaries that such indignities should not be repeated in the future. The creation of the Jewish state of Israel in 1948 by Western powers on what for centuries had been predominantly Arab land resulted in the displacement of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians. This was a painful and poignant reminder of the political powerlessness of Muslims on a global scale. The 1967 and 1973 Arab-Israeli wars resulted in the loss of even more Arab land to the Zionist state, further aggravating the Palestinian refugee problem and creating more grievances in their aftermath.

The dark memories of European colonial occupation were revived in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries by fresh Western, primarily American, incursions into the Middle p. 113East during the first and second Gulf wars (between 1990–1991 and 2003–2011 respectively). American (and European) support for authoritarian governments in the Middle East and elsewhere in the Muslim-majority world continue to fuel dismay and disillusionment with Western governments and their local proxies. Under such disquieting and crisis-ridden circumstances, calls for revolutionary armed struggle against all regimes regarded as oppressive fall on many receptive ears. In the post–September 11 world, such calls have become more strident in some quarters, and violent groups now command the world stage with their militant rhetoric and tactics of terror.

  • Top of page

How do modern militants in the Islamic world understand jihad?

In the early twentieth century the combative jihad began to be increasingly understood by militant Islamists as a means of bringing about sociopolitical reform in Muslim-majority societies through the removal—by violent or other means—of indigenous authoritarian, secular governments. This is a new dimension to jihad not encountered in the premodern period and is the child of modern nationalist agendas.

More recently, global militant groups have tended to think of jihad as a cosmic (universal) battle that must be waged until the end of time in which only one side—right-thinking Muslims who constitute the righteous camp favored by God (i.e., mainly themselves)—will triumph over others, namely, mainstream Muslims and non-Muslims. Many of these groups see themselves as fighting a defensive jihad in retaliation against all the wrongs, real and perceived, that have been done to them by others.

  • Top of page

Which early thinkers influenced modern political revolutionaries and militants?

One of the earliest and most influential figures is the eighteenth-century Hanbali preacher and revolutionary Muhammad ibn p. 114Abd al-Wahhab (d. 1792) from what is now Saudi Arabia. The ideology he founded is referred to as Wahhabism in English. As a young man, Ibn Abd al-Wahhab traveled to Medina where he studied under a teacher by the name of Abd Allah al-Najdi, who interpreted Hanbali legal thought very conservatively. From Medina, Ibn Abd al-Wahhab traveled to Iraq, Iran, Syria, and Egypt for further study. It was during this phase of his life that he began increasingly to engage in religious missionary and political activities, and he became critical of Sufi practices and Shii beliefs that he considered unorthodox. He aspired to establish a theocratic state governed according to what he understood to be Islamic principles. By 1744, he had taken up residence in Dariyya (near modern-day Riyadh) where he lived, preached, and taught until his death. It was here that he concluded an oath of mutual loyalty with a tribal chieftain by the name of Muhammad ibn Saud (d. 1765) to work together to establish a state based on Wahhabi principles; this state was eventually established as the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia in the twentieth century.

Ibn Abd al-Wahhab’s strongly dogmatic and polemical views on many theological and legal issues earned him enemies during his lifetime; among them, apparently, his own father and brother. His views remain politically influential, primarily in Saudi Arabia and the Persian Gulf states, although zealous and wealthy Wahhabi missionaries continue to attempt to spread their message elsewhere in the Sunni Muslim world and beyond.

Ibn Abd al-Wahhab considered the general Muslim populace ignorant of the authentic teachings of Islam. In his opinion, this had led to confusion and unawareness about their own religious tradition. His principal theological works are harshly critical of Muslims who do not accept his interpretation of monotheism. The Wahhabis like to refer to themselves as the “true” monotheists. This perspective has led them to destroy tombstones and shrines—even those of the Prophet and his Companions—as the objects of “idolatrous worship” p. 115by ordinary Muslims. Ibn Abd al-Wahhab considered such Muslims unbelievers. If they did not realize the error of their ways and failed to respond to reasoning and persuasion (i.e., to Wahhabi proselytization), then, according to Ibn Abd al-Wahhab, such Muslims could be legitimately fought as part of a military jihad.

This Wahhabi ideology—which sharply deviates from mainstream Islamic theology on many critical points—has proved to be influential among a number of radical militant groups of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries in the Muslim-majority world. According to classical Muslim jurists, the military jihad is carried out against non-Muslim enemies. Dissident Muslims who rose up against established governments were treated as political rebels (called in Arabic bughat)—not as unbelievers. Their concerns were to be taken seriously by the state and given a fair legal hearing to determine the legitimacy of their political grievances. In contrast, militant groups today are very quick to call other Muslims who disagree with their position “unbelievers.” By resorting to this practice of excommunication (takfir), such militant groups today resemble the early radical group called the Kharijites, who were known for similarly intolerant views toward other Muslims. (The Kharijites were an extremist minority faction that arose in the middle of the seventh century during the time of the fourth caliph Ali ibn Abi Talib. They regarded other Muslims who did not share their views on specific points of doctrine to be unbelievers who could legitimately be killed. Ali fought them, and they eventually faded away.)

  • Top of page

Who are other influential sources for modern militant groups?

Many modern militants are influenced by the views of a twentieth-century Egyptian revolutionary figure by the name of Sayyid Qutb (d. 1966). Qutb was not a religious scholar by training; he studied literature in Cairo and later worked in the Egyptian Ministry of Education. In the late 1940s, he traveled p. 116to the United States on a scholarship to study its educational system and lived in Greeley, Colorado, for two years. During his stay he is said to have been repelled by the materialism and loose sexual morals he encountered in American society and was deeply affected by the racism and anti-Arab sentiment he experienced firsthand. Upon his return to Egypt, Qutb joined the Muslim Brotherhood and became a vocal critic of the Egyptian government and its secular policies. Accused of plotting to assassinate the Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser (d. 1970), Qutb was thrown into prison and tortured. This caused him to become radicalized in his thinking. While in prison he wrote two of his best-known revolutionary tracts in which he described his vision of the perfect Islamic society. Qutb borrowed many of his ideas from Abu al-Ala Mawdudi, the influential South Asian political activist of the twentieth century, and from Hasan al-Banna, the Egyptian founder of the Muslim Brotherhood in 1928. Qutb went further than them in developing a revolutionary militant ideology. He was executed in 1966, but his works continue to be studied and disseminated in radical Islamist circles to this day.

Qutb had very definite views on the military jihad. He strongly opposed the idea that, as presented in Islam’s foundational sources, the military jihad is defensive. He says derisively that this is the position of “those who have been defeated spiritually and intellectually” by the adverse circumstances confronting Muslims in the postcolonial period. According to Qutb, such people mistakenly believe that they are enhancing the image of Islam by ridding it of what he calls “its program”—which, in his view, is to remove all tyrants and oppressive systems from the face of the earth. This revolutionary “program” is meant to ensure that all humans worship the one God and no other; not by forcing them to do so but by either putting an end to all other “reigning political systems” or subjugating them. As he sees it, the objective of Islam is unchanging—to win over all humanity to the worship of one God; there can be no negotiation or flexibility concerning this p. 117fundamental objective. Whoever resists this hegemonic mission of Islam, as conceived by Qutb, must be ruthlessly fought until surrender or death.

For Qutb, this is the purpose of the military jihad—which is combative and offensive—geared toward, as he phrases it, “the liberation of humanity on earth from the worship of [other] humans.” Islam, he declares, is not just a belief or creed; it is a public proclamation of the liberation of human beings from the worship of other humans, which it seeks to achieve by putting an end to “human sovereignty or governance” and replacing it with “divine sovereignty.” This is realized on earth by the establishment of the law of God and his authority and thus setting people “free” from the “worship” of or “bondage” to other humans.

This language of “liberation” pervades Qutb’s book Signposts along the Way, lending a messianic tone to the whole work. This tone is heightened by his use of phrases like the “kingdom of God” to be established on earth, which will replace the “kingdom of man.” These terms are not part of an Islamic vocabulary; the notion of the “kingdom of God” reminds one of Christian theological discourses. It is known that Qutb used to frequent churches when he lived in the United States, finding at least some measure of commonality with religious Americans. It appears that the language of the sermons he listened to there had seeped into his vocabulary.

As for Qutb’s rhetoric on political revolution, it primarily draws its inspiration from Marxist/socialist theories of political empowerment of the era (which in the 1960s would also influence Christian liberation theologies in Latin America). The totalitarian nature of Qutb’s “kingdom of God” on earth is without doubt Marxist in flavor, meant to offer an Islamically-tinged alternative to the socialist utopian schemes being advanced during the early part of the twentieth century. Ironically, Qutb’s revolutionary language of liberation thus owes much to the secular political discourses of his time.

p. 118Qutb also refers to the “vanguard” of the revolution that will usher in the ideal government of his imagination. Such terminology is right out of the playbook of the socialist utopian movements (specifically Leninism) of the early twentieth century that emphasized the role of such a vanguard.

  • Top of page

What is the Jahiliyya?

The term “Jahiliyya” in premodern Arabic sources refers to the historical period before the rise of Islam. It refers to an age of ignorance (of the one God and his message through time) and of recklessness characterized by a lack of self-restraint and temperateness. However, Muslims found certain features of the pre-Islamic period praiseworthy—the practice of hospitality, generosity, and other traits characteristic of the traditional Arab that continued to be emphasized in the Islamic period. The eloquent Arabic of pre-Islamic poetry is also much admired by educated Arabs until the present time.

Modern militants use the term “Jahiliyya” in a novel way. For them it is a term of contempt to signify the morally debased condition of modern humankind from which one can be saved only by joining their camp. Syed Qutb promoted this understanding of Jahiliyya through his writings, which became influential in some quarters. This conception of Jahiliyya marks a departure from the usual understanding of this term in the Arabic-Islamic milieu, and one must seek its origins elsewhere. And indeed we find that Qutb found the inspiration for his version of Jahiliyya in the European totalitarian thought of the twentieth century, particularly as espoused by a man called Alexis Carrel. Carrel was a Nobel prize-winning French Catholic biologist and philosopher, who was accused of collaborating with the fascist government in Vichy France. Carrel lamented what he saw as the sinking of Western culture into crude materialism and moral decay that for him constituted a state of barbarism. This was a situation that could p. 119only be remedied by the appearance of an enlightened, elite cadre that would guide the Western world back to the path of self-redemption. This conceptualization must have influenced Qutb’s understanding of Jahiliyya as a degraded human state. Such an understanding helped fuel his articulation of the concept of an elite revolutionary vanguard that would pave the way toward the renewal and revival of a global Muslim civilization.

  • Top of page

How do militant Islamists justify their violent attacks on other Muslims and non-Muslims?

We get a very good sense of the justifications provided by such radical militants when we look at a tract written by an Egyptian admirer of Sayyid Qutb by the name of Muhammad Abd al-Salam Faraj (d. 1982). The work is titled al-Farida alghaiba (The Lapsed Duty); the duty in question is the military jihad. Faraj, an electrician, was one of the militants belonging to the group al-Jihad that assassinated Nasser’s successor, Anwar Sadat, after Sadat signed a peace treaty with Israel in 1982. The tract exhorts Muslims to resort to aggressive military jihad because they are besieged by external and internal enemies—non-Muslims and Muslim “apostates” respectively. Faraj heaped scorn on the scholars of his time because, in his opinion, they had encouraged Muslims to abandon this critical duty.

To establish the obligatory nature of the military jihad under such circumstances, Faraj relies on the well-established practice of selectively quoting Quranic verses and hadiths that may be interpreted as urging the faithful to fight continually against those regarded as their unrelenting enemies. These verses and hadiths are cited without any reference to their original historical contexts so that they appear as absolute pronouncements valid for every time and place. Predictably, Quran 9:5 (“Slay the polytheists where you find them”) and, in one instance, Quran 2:216 (“Fighting has been prescribed p. 120for you even though you may dislike it”) are cited by Faraj and understood by him to have abrogated about 114 verses of the Quran that call for forgiveness of and forbearance with one’s adversaries. One such conciliatory verse is Quran 2:109 that states, “So forgive and pardon them [in reference to a certain hostile contingent from among the People of the Book] until God makes His judgment apparent.”

Faraj notes the opinion of mainstream scholars who had regarded this verse (Quran 2:109) as unabrogated. This verse would impose considerable restrictions on the interpretation of Quran 9:5 as requiring unending warfare against non-Muslims. Faraj, however, proceeds to say that even if one concedes the unabrogated status of Quran 2:109, it does not diminish in any way the duty to carry out the combative jihad. Since he wishes to privilege the understanding of jihad as unending warfare against non-Muslims and “dissident” Muslims, Faraj does not (or cannot) attempt to reconcile the meaning of these two verses. Instead, he cites a hadith in which the Prophet remarks, “Jihad will continue until the Day of Resurrection.” This is not an unexpected tactic in militant discourses. Extremists often use hadiths, sometimes of doubtful reliability, to undermine the meaning of a verse, such as Quran 2:109, that is inconvenient for them. Furthermore, jihad as occurs in this hadith is framed as a reference to fighting only, whereas it could be understood to refer more broadly to human struggle on many levels.

Faraj appeals to the fourteenth-century jurist Ibn Taymiyya’s pronouncements against the Mongols, which are generalized to all “lapsed” Muslims in his tract. The Mongols were a Central Asian people who attacked the Middle East in the thirteenth century and laid waste to Baghdad in 1258. The Mongol onslaught continued during the thirteenth and early fourteenth centuries when Ibn Taymiyya lived. Faraj speaks approvingly of Ibn Taymiyya’s edict in which he condemned the Mongols as “apostates” even after their conversion to Islam. Ibn Taymiyya accused the Mongols of continuing to p. 121follow their tribal law instead of Islamic law. In his view, they did not therefore qualify as Muslims and could legitimately be fought. Faraj draws a comparison between the Mongols and the rulers of his time in Muslim-majority societies whom he considers unrighteous. The chilling purpose of this comparison is clear: Faraj and his cohort thereby derive a mandate to justify in their minds the assassination of Egyptian president Anwar Sadat (and potentially other Muslim rulers) deemed to have lapsed from Islam.

Carrying out the military jihad on the extensive scale that these militants have in mind would require state apparatus and a regular army. Accordingly, Faraj stresses the importance of establishing an “Islamic state” and reviving the historical caliphate of the first century of Islam. The Quran makes no reference to any form of government, including the caliphate. To establish its necessity, Faraj cites the one hadith, narrated by the ninth-century scholar Ahmad ibn Hanbal, in which Muhammad predicts that the Rightly Guided caliphate will follow the age of prophethood, after which governance will degenerate into kingship. On the basis of this slim textual evidence, Faraj proceeds to assert what he considers the binding necessity of reviving this idealized caliphate for contemporary Muslims.

A tension now becomes evident in Faraj’s thought—if the Islamic state led by the legitimate caliph is necessary to wage this all-out war against the forces of evil, where do Faraj and his supporters derive the mandate to stage their jihad against the unjust majority in the absence of the Islamic state? The answer lies in their appeal to the urgency of the times in which they live—the current situation of Muslims is so dire and desperate, assailed as they are by ungodly enemies (internal and external) who covet their land and assault their dignity, that the combative jihad, they argue, is now an act of self-defense. It is, therefore, no longer a collective duty but an individual obligation. Faraj says fighting the “near enemy” (Arab governments) takes priority over fighting the “far enemy” p. 122(Western governments); thus, “we have to establish the Rule of God’s Religion in our own country first.” The contingent of God’s true warriors, a beleaguered minority in the Islamic world, will eventually establish the “Islamic state,” asserts Faraj, and give the lie to those who say that the ideal Muslim community will come about through peaceful propagation of the faith.

Like all extremists, Faraj is dismissive of the view that the internal, spiritual jihad is a higher priority than the physical, combative jihad. He references scholars like Ibn Qayyim al-Jawziyya (d. 1350) who had regarded the hadith that refers to the greater and the lesser jihad as forged. This evaluation is interpreted by Faraj to imply that Ibn Qayyim had rejected the concept of a spiritual jihad.

This is a gross misrepresentation of Ibn Qayyim’s views. Ibn Qayyim had a very high regard for the greater internal jihad. He wrote a whole treatise in praise of the spiritual jihad titled (in English translation) The Preparation of the Patiently Forbearing Ones and Treasures of the Grateful Ones. In this work, he describes the spiritual jihad as a concept and practice firmly anchored within the Quran and an indispensable part of the human’s struggle to flourish spiritually on earth. Whether one hadith referring to this concept was fabricated or not did not lessen its importance for him. For Faraj and his cohort, however, jihad has one predominant meaning—unending violence against all those who refuse to see things their way. Misrepresentation of the views of classical scholars to invent support for their militant views is a well-established tactic for them.

  • Top of page

Have Shii thinkers called for political revolution as a form of jihad in the twentieth century?

The most notable Shii revolutionary figure of the twentieth century is Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomenei (d. 1989). Khomeini is best known as the architect of the Islamic Revolution in Iran in 1979. Born in Khomein in southwestern Iran in 1902, p. 123he studied in the seminaries in the Iranian city of Qom and launched his own teaching career there, becoming recognized as a prominent jurist and Shii religious authority. Unlike many other Shii jurists of his time, however, Khomeini became active in political affairs and took part in strenuous opposition to several secularizing and Westernizing policies of the Iranian government at the time. The Shah of Iran, a strong ally of the United States, imprisoned Khomeini in 1963 and subsequently had him exiled from Iran. The latter made his way to Turkey and then to Najaf in Iraq, before his triumphant return to Iran from France where he had taken up temporary residence in February 1979. After his return, the monarchy was abolished, and Iran was declared an Islamic republic under the rule of “the guardian jurist” (known in Persian as vali-ye faqih).

In the premodern period, most Shii scholars, in contrast to Sunni jurists, had little to say about the military jihad and the rules of warfare. For the largest Shii denomination called the Twelvers who are the majority in Iran and Iraq, the military jihad could no longer be carried out after their rightful Imam disappeared in 874 CE because only he could command a legitimate military campaign.

Khomeini broke out of this mold in the twentieth century by writing a short treatise titled Jihad al-Nafs aw al-Jihad al-Akbar (Spiritual Struggle or the Greater Jihad) in which he describes the centrality of jihad as continual human striving on earth. Jihad in Khomeini’s conceptualization is essentially a social and political struggle against injustice and oppression that ultimately leads to a movement of political liberation. Khomeini addresses his treatise primarily to scholars who are to be the vanguard of the coming revolution against unjust rulers. Such views mirror those of Sunni activists like Mawdudi and Qutb. (Modern Shii and Sunni political activism share much in common as far as objectives and rhetoric are concerned.) According to Khomeini, the revival of religious learning among the scholars and the process of perfecting one’s character—the internal p. 124struggle—are the necessary preludes to launching a successful external struggle against the impious rulers of contemporary Iran and removing them from power. Through purification of their selves and reform of their conduct, the scholars will be able to overcome all the obstacles placed in their way and undermine every scheme devised to colonize them. Khomeini uses the term “colonization” here not in reference to external Western powers but to the rule of the Shah. When the scholars are able to carry out all their actions for the sake of God and have cleansed their hearts of love for the world, then they will be able to mount an effective resistance against their unscrupulous rulers, he says.

The waging of jihad against such external enemies is not a militant enterprise. Khomeini defines this jihad as a program of nonviolent resistance and withholding cooperation with unjust rulers. Following in the footsteps of the Shii Imams (religious leaders) who had adopted such quietist methods of resistance, Khomeini advocates that “all relations with such rulers be severed and that no one collaborate with them in any way.” Illegitimate war, he says, is waged by imperialist governments, such as the Shah’s monarchy and the US government, which foster injustice and arrogance in the world. Such wars are opposed to a properly constituted jihad that is waged on behalf of the weak and the oppressed to restore a just sociopolitical order. In this enterprise, Shii scholars, like Qutb’s elite vanguard, must lead the way.

  • Top of page

What were Usama bin Laden’s views on jihad?

When we look at the public statements of Usama bin Laden (d. 2011), the acknowledged mastermind behind the September 11 attacks, we find a declaration of revenge promising unending violence against all those regarded as the enemy in the name of jihad. The enemy is both “imperfect” Muslims and non-Muslims, who have collectively laid siege to the small minority of “true” Muslims whose mission is to save the p. 125world. Usama bin Laden and his supporters, as the wronged Muslims, must fight back in self-defense. This defensive jihad, as they see it, has become an individual obligation from which no “true” Muslim is exempt.

When Bin Laden was attending the King Abdulaziz University of Jeddah in the 1970s, he absorbed such ideas from some of his teachers there. One of them was Abdullah Azzam, a Jordanian cleric who had a degree in Islamic jurisprudence from famed al-Azhar University in Cairo. Azzam is sometimes described as the “godfather of global jihad” because of his fiery rhetoric on the necessity of carrying out unrelenting violent attacks to liberate Islamic lands from the rule of non-Muslims and those he regarded as “apostate” Muslims.

Another such champion of militancy was Muhammad Qutb, the brother of Sayyid Qutb. In his classes at King Abdulaziz University, Muhammad Qutb preached the radical views of his brother. Even though he studied business administration, Bin Laden appears to have been profoundly influenced by such radical ideologies. When in 1979 the Soviet Union invaded and occupied Afghanistan, Bin Laden became involved in the armed resistance against the Soviets. In 1982 he traveled to Afghanistan to fight there. This marked the start of his career as a militant who saw violence as the primary means to battle foreign occupation and, particularly, to turn back the tide of non-Muslim infiltration of Muslim territory. By 1990, Bin Laden was at cross-purposes with the Saudi monarchy whose enlistment of American troops to defend the kingdom he severely condemned. He developed an intense hatred of the United States as a country that propped up what he considered to be “un-Islamic” regimes, like the Saudi government, and his name was implicated in a number of terrorist incidents directed at US facilities throughout the 1990s.

According to Bin Laden, the dire circumstances in which jihad is to be carried out by the beleaguered minority of “true Muslims” like himself made permissible all manner of violent p. 126action. The accusation of terrorism is meaningless to Bin Laden; this wrong-headed label, as far as he is concerned, is rather to be worn with pride. After September 11, 2001, Bin Laden praised the attack on the United States and claimed credit for it. He proclaimed chillingly:

And they [the attackers] have done this because of our words—and we have previously incited and roused them to action—in self-defense, defense of our brothers and sons in Palestine, and in order to free our holy sanctuaries. And if inciting for these reasons is terrorism, and if killing those that kill our sons is terrorism, then let history witness that we are terrorists.

“Defensive jihad,” in Bin Laden’s construction, has degenerated into a vicious spiral of punitive violence, in the carrying out of which he and his followers glory.

  • Top of page

What are “martyrdom operations” and when did they start?

The origins of modern so-called martyrdom operations, according to some accounts, may be traced to the actions of a thirteen-year-old Iranian boy, Mohammed Hossein Fahmideh, during the Iran-Iraq War of 1980–1988. In November 1980, Fahmideh is said to have attached rocket-propelled grenades to his chest and blown himself up underneath an Iraqi tank, for which action he was declared a martyr and national hero by Ayatollah Khomeini. The term “martyrdom operations,” however, is said to have been coined in spring of 1994, when the militant Palestinian group Hamas carried out suicide attacks in Israel.

  • Top of page

How do militant Islamists justify suicide attacks?

Hard-line Islamists and radical ideologues have a range of opinions on the legitimacy of suicide bombings. A number p. 127of them acknowledge that such acts constitute suicide and are thus unambiguously prohibited by Islamic doctrine and law. Others come up with clever explanations to get around this prohibition in an attempt to classify them as legitimate, even obligatory, acts of self-defense in specific circumstances.

One such ideologue is Abu Basir al-Tartusi, a Syrian cleric whose views are often cited in discussions of suicide attacks. In one of his electronic publications, he declared that martyrdom operations are indeed closer to suicide than to martyrdom, and thus illicit and forbidden. He cites particularly Quran 4:29 (“Do not kill yourselves, indeed God is merciful toward you”) and Quran 2:195 (“Spend in the way of God and do not cast yourselves into destruction with your own hands”) to establish the prohibition against taking one’s life. He quotes several hadiths that sternly forbid suicide, including the much-cited “Whoever takes his own life with something in this world will be tormented by it on the Day of Resurrection.” Abu Basir acknowledges the utter impermissibility of taking innocent human life, Muslim or non-Muslim, according to several Quranic verses (e.g., 4:93, 17:33, 48:25) and hadiths. In view of the hadith “whoever hurts a believer there is no jihad for him,” how, Abu Basir asks, can one even begin to justify the intentional killing of such a person when it is not even allowed to cause him any harm? He also notes the hadith that states, “whoever kills someone from among the Protected People [Jews, Christians, and other protected religious communities] will not encounter the fragrance of heaven.” He acknowledges that the words of this hadith explicitly protect the lives of non-Muslims. These categorical prohibitions against the murder of innocents established by such clear texts cannot be casually dismissed, he states.

Abu Basir concludes by positioning himself between two diametrically opposed groups. The first group consists of religious scholars who explicitly forbid suicide bombings and declare their perpetrators to have committed suicide and thus p. 128deserving of punishment in the next world. The second group declares them to be martyrs and worthy of reward in the next world. He considers both positions to be too absolute and thus weak. Even though he considers martyrdom operations to be closer to suicide and therefore objectionable, he recognizes an exception to the general prohibition against suicide as follows. Should the perpetrator of a suicide attack interpret his actions as a last resort for the greater good after all other means of repelling the aggression of the enemy have been exhausted, then he hopes that the suicide bomber will be deemed a martyr, his sins forgiven, and given his due reward. If, however, the attacker knows of the usual prohibition against suicide and is not convinced that the prohibition has lapsed on account of exceptional emergency circumstances and is riddled with doubts about the permissibility of his actions—but proceeds to carry them out anyway—then such a person has indeed committed suicide and is assured of hellfire. If the suicide bomber’s actions destroy the lives of innocent people in addition to his, then he has also committed murder and violated the rights of other human beings, for which there is severe punishment, pronounces Abu Basir.

While Abu Basir’s arguments betray a deep moral conflict within him, other ideologues have displayed far less uncertainty on this topic and adopted a more favorable stance toward suicide attacks. One such author is Nawwaf al-Takruri who published an influential tract on martyrdom operations in 1997 that has been reprinted several times since then. Like Abu Basir, al-Takruri is fully aware of the scriptural prohibitions against suicide and the consequent legal and ethical obstacles to justifying martyrdom operations. He lists instead practical and tactical reasons for supporting suicide attacks: They inflict the highest number of casualties on the enemy without exacting a similar loss of life among Muslims; they level the playing field against a militarily superior enemy; and they instill fear and despair in the heart of an otherwise formidable p. 129and vicious enemy. With their backs against the wall, a hopelessly outgunned people in extreme circumstances are granted, according to al-Takruri, a moral exception to the standard legal and moral prohibitions against the deliberate taking of one’s life.

This line of reasoning was repeated most controversially by the Egyptian cleric Yusuf al-Qaradawi (based at that time in Qatar) in 2002, which generated a flurry of negative publicity in the global media. At that time, al-Qaradawi declared martyrdom operations to be the new defensive weapon of the weak against aggressive tyrannical forces and thus to be regarded as a manifestation of the highest form of jihad. The deliberate taking of one’s own life is justified under such circumstances, he claimed, since the vastly superior enemy forces are thereby intimidated and harmed. According to such criteria, suicide attacks against Israelis are legitimate. He claims that the general rules of noncombatant immunity do not apply since Israel is a military society where every man and woman can be called up at any moment to serve in the army. By the same criteria, the terror attacks of September 11 are not justified because they were not carried out in self-defense and they resulted in the deaths of many civilians, including many Muslims.

  • Top of page

How does ISIS justify its violent actions as jihad?

Various members of the terror group known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS, also known under its Arabic acronym Daesh) reduce jihad to violent, punitive acts. According to ISIS ideologues, the military jihad has become a duty to be undertaken to wreak vengeance on all those perceived to be their sworn enemies, Muslim or non-Muslim. This view is strongly evident in a publication authored by Abu Bakr Naji (a pseudonym for an ISIS militant) titled The Management of Savagery. In this 400-page manual, the writer p. 130exhorts ISIS militants to resort to brutal violence to create “regions of savagery,” which will force the inhabitants of such regions to submit to them, who in return will promise to create stability. For Naji, violence is an important and necessary tool to be exercised randomly, unrestrictedly, and, well, savagely, so that their so-called caliphate can be established and expanded.

The fourth issue of the magazine issued by ISIS until recently, called Dabiq, is titled “Reflections on the Final Crusade.” In this issue, ISIS spokesman Abu Muhammad al-Adnani calls on their supporters to kill unbelievers “in any manner or way possible.” He goes on to say, “Kill the unbeliever whether he is civilian or military…. Every Muslim should get out of his house, find a crusader, and kill him.” For ISIS militants, the military jihad is an unending cosmic holy war against unbelievers, including Muslims so considered. There are no noncombatants among them and no method, however barbaric and inhuman, is off limits. The enemy must not only be physically defeated but also psychologically traumatized in ISIS’s orchestration of savagery.

  • Top of page

Where are the “moderate” Muslims and why do they not denounce extremism?

They are everywhere. Muslims who are “moderate” in their views are in the mainstream of their societies. “Moderation” in the sense of being “balanced,” “temperate,” and avoiding extremes in one’s behavior and beliefs is a cherished concept for Muslims since it is based on the Quran. Quran 2:143 names Muslims as “a moderate community” (umma wasat). This term has been interpreted by scholars to mean that Muslims should always strive for justice since that represents the golden mean of society. A just society is fair, equitable, and balanced, without leaning toward one extreme or another.

The views of mainstream Muslims, however, do not receive wide coverage in the global media, particularly in the p. 131West. As a result, many in the United States and elsewhere are left with the impression that Muslims themselves are not condemning acts of terror carried out in their name. In reality, mainstream Muslims denounce extremism and acts of terrorism all the time.1


Some of these public statements made by Muslim leaders from various backgrounds can be found at these websites (not an exhaustive list):

“Islamic Statements against Terrorism,”

“Muslims against Terrorism,”,

“Muslim Voices against Extremism and Terrorism,” against_ extremism_ and_ terrorism_ part_ i_ fatwas/001220

“Muslims Condemn Terrorist Attacks,”