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6 p. 132Jihad in the Thought of Modern and Contemporary Mainstream Scholarslocked

6 p. 132Jihad in the Thought of Modern and Contemporary Mainstream Scholarslocked

  • Asma Afsaruddin

In contrast to militants, modern mainstream scholars and thinkers approach the concept of jihad in a contextualized and holistic manner. They tend to emphasize the term’s different layers of meaning that become apparent in specific situations and historical contexts. They maintain that jihad cannot be reduced to military activity alone, as is often the case. In its basic meaning of struggle or striving, jihad can be and is carried out in many different ways in the lives of human beings. Typically, mainstream scholars acknowledge that armed combat may be, has been, and must continue to be a necessary feature of jihad under specific circumstances, but that it is by no means the only or the most important aspect of this complex term.

The various shades of meaning connected to jihad can be recovered by looking at different sources—the Quran, hadith, theological, and morally edifying literary texts—in addition to the legal texts that are overprivileged in discussions of jihad. Above all, these scholars maintain that one must differentiate between what Muslims understand to be the divinely revealed text of the Quran and texts that record human interpretations—the former is universally authoritative for p. 133Muslims and unchanging while the latter are not. Human interpretations vary greatly and must always be understood in their original sociohistorical contexts. This allows one to critically engage this body of interpretive literature.

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How do modern Muslim scholars understand the military jihad?

Modern mainstream Muslim scholars typically insist that one must return to the foundational sources of Islam: the Quran above all and the reliable statements (hadith) of the Prophet Muhammad for a proper understanding of the meanings of jihad in all its aspects—moral, ethical, spiritual, and military. This perspective allows them to adopt a more nuanced and critical attitude toward the premodern legal corpus in which jurists expressed their time-and place-bound interpretations of the military jihad as primarily a state-sponsored activity. They accept the views of the classical jurists when they understand them to be in conformity with Quranic injunctions and established prophetic practice. They critically scrutinize and often reject juridical positions that are understood to deviate from these foundational sources, regarding them as the result of the independent reasoning of the jurists in their specific times and places. The validity of such legal positions does not necessarily continue into the modern period.

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What do modern Muslim scholars say about abrogation in the Quran?

The adoption of the principle of textual abrogation (naskh) has been criticized by a number of modern Muslim scholars. This principle allowed a number of premodern jurists, as well as Quran commentators, to declare certain Quranic verses abrogated by later revelations. In the case of the military jihad, some premodern jurists invoked the principle of abrogation to develop the theory of offensive military attacks and to legitimize this theory as grounded in scripture. Many modern p. 134mainstream scholars oppose the principle of abrogation, especially in discussions of the military jihad. Typically, modern anti-abrogation scholars emphasize that the Quran should be read holistically, that is, as a complete text in which all verses are held to be equally binding. Furthermore, the verses should be read cross-referentially so that their meanings can be understood in relation to one another.

One of the most eloquent opponents of the principle of abrogation was the late nineteenth-century Egyptian scholar and reformer Muhammad Abduh (d. 1905). Abduh rejected the interpretation advanced by some premodern jurists that Quran 9:5 (the so-called sword verse) had abrogated the more numerous verses in the Quran that call for forgiveness and peaceful relations with non-Muslims. Like the late ninth-century exegete al-Tabari, Abduh argues that the historical situation with which the verse is concerned—with its internal reference to the pagan Meccans—means that its applicability is restricted to the time of the Prophet. The command contained in Quran 9:5 applied only to the hostile polytheists of his time who had attacked Muslims. Other verses in the Quran advocating nonviolence and peaceful coexistence cannot be held to have been abrogated since their applicability is general, not particular. Therefore Quran 9:5 has no bearing on the directive contained in, for example, Quran 2:109, which states, “Pardon and forgive until God brings about His command.” The latter is a general commandment whose applicability is not limited by specific historical circumstances.

Abduh questions those who would regard the injunction contained in Quran 9:5, with its clear reference to Arab polytheists, applicable in any way to non-Arab polytheists or to the People of the Book. He points out that the People of the Book are referred to very differently, as in Quran 5:82, which states, “You will find that the closest in affection to those who believe are those who say we are Christians.” There are additionally hadiths that call for peaceful relations with various groups of people, such as the one which advises leaving p. 135the Ethiopians (as well as Turks) alone, as long as they leave Muslims alone. Abduh notes with regret that jurists tended to read a number of these Quranic verses and hadiths through solely a legal lens. As a result, they missed the fundamental point made throughout the Quran that only those who initiate attacks against Muslims and violate their treaties can be fought. Abduh goes on to point out that the verse immediately following Quran 9:5 offered protection and safe conduct to those among the polytheists who wished to listen to the Quran but who did not in the end embrace Islam. The implication is clear—non-Muslims in general who do not wish Muslims harm and display no aggression toward them are to be left alone and allowed to continue in their ways of life.

Abduh further notes that these verses undermine the arguments put forward by some Western scholars that jihad can be reduced to fighting against non-Muslims to bring about their conversion. Abduh highlights Quran 2:256, which forbids forced religious conversion and other verses that allow fighting against only those who initiate fighting (Quran 9:12–13) and which command Muslims to incline to peace when the enemy inclines to peace (Quran 8:61). Wars fought for material gain and for the shedding of blood, as was common among ancient kings, or for revenge and out of religious hatred, as was the case in the Crusades, or for the purpose of seizing the possessions of the weak and demeaning other human beings, as evident in the European colonial wars of his time, are all forbidden by Islamic law. The only kind of war recognized as legitimate in Islamic thought is the defensive war when proclaimed by the recognized leader of the Muslims in the event of an attack upon Muslim territory, continues Abduh.

Furthermore, he reminds us, Islamic law mandates humane conduct during battle, prohibiting attacks on noncombatants, mutilation of bodies, and destruction of the environment. Chafing under European colonial rule in the late nineteenth century in his native Egypt, Abduh forcefully contrasts these humane injunctions to the exploitative policies of Western p. 136colonizers, who, as he describes them, hatch various schemes to establish their tyranny over subject peoples.

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Are there Muslim scholars who have challenged the views of Islamist militants?

There are many such scholars. Let us start with the early twentieth-century Egyptian jurist Muhammad Imara (d. 2020), who wrote a detailed refutation of the arguments presented by Muhammad Faraj in his militant tract The Lapsed Duty.

In this refutation published in 1982, Imara points out the many mistakes Faraj makes in his citations from the Quran and hadith and in references to juridical opinions. For example, Faraj and his cohort understand certain hadiths that speak of Islam reaching the “East” and the “West” as implying that Islam was intended to be the one and only religion for all humankind. These reports, Imara argues, should not be read this way, because every place has “its east” and “its west”; thus God describes himself as “Lord of the Easts and the Wests.” These reports should also be interpreted in light of the Quran itself that contains clear references to multiple communities that follow different religious laws as mandated by God himself. Quran 11:118–119 states, “If your Lord had willed, he would have made humankind a single community, but they remain diverse, except for those upon whom God has mercy. It is for this purpose that He has created them.” Many commentators have interpreted this verse to mean that God purposefully created this diversity among humans. Imara invites the reader to reflect on the sharp contrast between learned commentary of this sort produced by thoughtful scholars and what he describes as the provocative and baseless speech of Faraj and his followers intended to inflame the passions of youth and pander to the ignorant.

Imara proceeds to a discussion of Quran 9:5 and Faraj’s use of it as a verse that abrogates all other verses of forbearance, forgiveness, reconciliation, and gentleness. Imara criticizes p. 137Faraj and his supporters for ignoring that the verse was revealed specifically concerning the polytheists of the seventh century and refers to no other group. To derive a broader and more general applicability of this verse violates the rules of logic and proper understanding of the revelations of God, says Imara. In the rest of the ninth chapter, the Quran unambiguously upholds these fundamental principles: (1) Muslims can resort to armed combat only when the Meccan polytheists (this is the only group referenced in this chapter) start to fight, and (2) military activity is a response to the violation of their pacts with Muslims. Violence, our author affirms, cannot be justified otherwise; the spreading of religion is not sanctioned by the Quran as a reason for beginning hostilities. During the Prophet’s time, Muslims took up arms to protect the weak who were persecuted by the Meccan polytheists, as exhorted in Quran 4:75–76:

What ails you that you do not fight in the path of God while the weak among men, women, and children cry out, “Our Lord, deliver us from this town whose people are oppressors, and grant us from your presence a protector and supporter!” Those who believe fight in the path of God and those who disbelieve fight in the path of the wrongdoers. So fight the allies of Satan; indeed the schemes of Satan are weak.

Imara also criticizes Faraj for calling contemporary Muslim rulers “unbelievers.” Faraj alleges that they deserve this name because they commit major sins and they display their lack of faith in public. Imara finds these views alarming and proceeds to refute them. Historically speaking, he says, only the early extremist group Kharijites, to the exclusion of any other faction, has maintained that those who commit major sins have lapsed from the faith. By adopting their dangerous position of declaring other Muslims to be unbelievers, Imara asks, had not p. 138the militants themselves become like the Kharijites? Equally troubling is that this accusation of unbelief based on the commission of a major sin could be leveled at anybody, not just a ruler—clearly an act of extremism.

Jihad, Imara reminds the reader, has multiple meanings, challenging those who would assert that it essentially means “fighting” (qital). He says that the term’s basic meaning is to exert oneself to the best of one’s ability to fend off enemies in different spheres of human life. These enemies range from one’s base thoughts to desire for material gain to people who wish you harm. In this broader, holistic sense, “jihad” can refer to struggling against external enemies as well as to combating the lower, animal self and attempting to overcome its incitements to do what is wrong. Different kinds of jihad are thus carried out in different spheres of life.

A more recent critique of militant views was published by the Syrian jurist, public intellectual, and television preacher Muhammad Said Ramadan al-Buti (d. 2013). Al-Buti obtained his doctorate from al-Azhar University in 1965 and served as dean of the Sharia faculty at Damascus University for a while and continued to teach there until his death. In 1993 he published a book titled al-Jihad fi-l-islam (Jihad in Islam).

Al-Buti begins this important work by directly challenging the prevalent assumption that jihad, which he describes as “a fundamental part of Islamic legal rulings and prescriptions,” was commanded only in the Medinan period after the hijra, or emigration, and that it did not exist as a concept and requirement in the Meccan period. Not so, he says. The Meccan phase of the Prophet’s career “was filled with jihad,” as was the Medinan phase. Because most people tend to define “jihad” in a military sense, and since the combative jihad was permitted only in the Medinan period, this has led to the mistaken assumption that jihad in general was commanded only after the emigration to Medina. This misconception, al-Buti continues, arises from the fact that the multiple meanings of the term “jihad” evident during the Meccan period have been p. 139lost. Jihad came to acquire narrower meanings after this period due to specific historical circumstances.

An important component of the jihad of the early Muslims, says al-Buti, was their constant engagement with the Book of God (the Quran) and reflection upon it and their fearless proclamation of the message contained within it, without any regard for the dangers they subsequently faced. These most important forms of jihad were set in motion by Quran 25:52, which specifically refers to this kind of striving with the Quran and its proofs and characterizes it as “a mighty striving” (jihad kabir). This characterization indicates its central position among the various forms of jihad. These various forms of striving, which have nothing to do with fighting, constitute the foundation and essence of jihad, al-Buti stresses.

Hadiths, such as the one in which Muhammad says, “The best jihad is a word of truth before a tyrannical ruler” and “the best jihad is your striving against your soul and base desires for the sake of God Almighty,” provide further support for these nonmilitary meanings of jihad. Al-Buti invites the reader to reflect on all these proof-texts and realize that this aspect of jihad firmly established in Mecca at the dawn of Islam is the source of the various dimensions it acquired in the following period. The early Meccan noncombative meanings of jihad represent the firmly grounded trunk of a tree that endures under all circumstances, while the military dimension is equivalent to the branches which sprout and die from time to time, according to the needs of varying circumstances. Phrased differently, al-Buti says, the Meccan noncombative jihad is equivalent to basic nutrition that no human can do without under any circumstance, while the military jihad is a medication that one uses to escape from hunger and disease—that is, only under exceptional circumstances.

After the emigration to Medina, the first united Muslim community (umma) was established by the Prophet. This society included not only the Meccan Emigrants and the Medinan Helpers (the name given to the Muslims in Medina p. 140who helped their Meccan coreligionists after the emigration in 622) but also the various Jewish tribes of Medina, all of whom pledged to coexist in peace. This arrangement was drawn up by Muhammad according to the terms of the document that is called the “Constitution of Medina” in English. Al-Buti emphasizes that this was the first “Abode of Islam” with a well-defined territory whose inhabitants—Muslims from Mecca, Muslims from Medina, and Jews from Medina—were entrusted with its defense; this was the new dimension of jihad in Medina.

Buti strongly takes issue with contemporary militants who argue that Quran 9:5 establishes offensive jihad as a permanent obligation upon Muslims and does not allow Muslims to coexist peacefully with non-Muslims. He notes that the command to kill the Meccan polytheists in Quran 9:5 was based on their violent hostility toward Muslims and not on their unbelief. This was the position of many early scholars. Like Abduh and Imara before him, al-Buti comments that if Quran 9:5 is understood to command the fighting of polytheists until their death or their acceptance of Islam, such a command is overturned by the very next verse (Quran 9:6)that urges Muslims to offer refuge and safe conduct to polytheists, while they are in their state of polytheism. He dismisses as irresponsibly arbitrary the view of those who suggest that Quran 9:5 abrogates Quran 9:6, which goes against the usual rule of abrogation that a later verse may override an earlier one.

Al-Buti concludes by summarizing what he calls “the most important principles of peace and war” in regard to jihad. First and foremost, he says that “world peace” is the pivot around which Islamic law and its regulations revolve. The clearest expression of this fundamental principle is found in Quran 2:208, which states, “O those who believe, enter into peace [al-silm] altogether, and do not follow the steps of Satan, for he is an avowed enemy to you.” Peace, however, “cannot exist nor grow except under the reign of justice,” he says. Seeking peace without seeking justice can result in blameworthy submission p. 141to wrongdoing and oppression; “just peace” is never achieved under conditions of continuous violation of the rights of others. This means that Israelis who occupy Palestinian territory and areas in southern Lebanon (note: the latter was true at the time al-Buti wrote his book in 1993) should legitimately be resisted and fought against. Al-Buti stresses that this resistance is not on account of their being Jews but on account of their becoming oppressors. Muhammad had included, for example, the Jewish tribe of Banu Qaynuqa as a full member of the Medinan community (umma) in the Constitution of Medina. The members of this tribe were punished only after evidence of their treachery and hostility became apparent and they clearly posed a danger to Muslims and their allies.

Al-Buti affirms that sincere commitment to peace must necessarily include a sincere commitment to justice. One must strive earnestly to realize just peace. Al-Buti reminds us that according to the Quranic vision, justice is due to all, not just to Muslims.

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Are there Muslim scholars who have denounced the views of Usama bin Laden and his followers after the September 11 attacks?

One of the best refutations of the militant positions developed by Usama bin Laden and his followers was written by Ali Juma, the former mufti (chief jurisconsult) of Egypt and professor of Islamic jurisprudence at al-Azhar university in Cairo. It is titled Jihad in Islam (like al-Buti’s book) and was published in 2005.

Juma begins by highlighting a verse from the Quran (21:107) that addresses Muhammad in the following way: “We have sent you only as a mercy to the worlds.” Juma emphasizes that the scope of this verse is vast, embracing every era and every place and applicable to every generation of people, believer and nonbeliever, Arab and non-Arab. The quality of mercy possessed by the Prophet is “general and comprehensive,” p. 142he says, which colored his temperament and actions toward every living being around him. The point is clear—the fundamental message of Islam is one of mercy, and its spirit must inform everything a Muslim does in imitation of the practices of Muhammad. Such a message is in striking contrast to what militants say and do, especially when they sow fear, terror, and destruction in the name of Islam.

The theoretical basis of jihad, Juma says, is derived primarily from the Quran and the sunna. According to these two sources, “one who strives in the path of God” does so for noble and morally uplifting purposes. Such people are capable of promoting what is good and forbidding what is wrong, for they have internalized the highest virtues and practice them regularly in their lives, avoiding personal ambition or national chauvinism or worldly motivation. Fighting, which is always a time-bound activity, is, therefore, the lesser struggle while the continuous struggle to discipline one’s self is the greater one. Although Juma does not anywhere in his short treatise refer explicitly to those who carried out the September 11 attacks or other extremists, his description of a legitimate military jihad clearly runs counter to the tracts of modern-day militants who depict jihad as a never-ending divinely sanctioned battle to avenge past and present wrongs (real and imagined). This is how they justify their refusal to honor traditional restrictions imposed by the jurists on harming noncombatants, destroying property, and so forth.

Juma anticipates a question that may be posed to Muslims today: What is their response to those who point out that most modern nations agree that conflicts are better settled through peaceful arbitration, making wars null and void, whereas “this Quran of yours urges you to undertake the military jihad eagerly?” The answer would be: “We [Muslims] marshal [as our proof-text] in this age the Almighty’s words, ‘If they should incline to peace, then incline to it also and place your trust in God, for He is the all-hearing and all-knowing’” (Quran 8:61). This verse, Juma says, indicates the eternal wisdom and p. 143abiding miracle of the Quran in that it foresaw a future world where global nonviolence was a possibility. Juma suggests that the combative jihad was necessary for self-defense in a pre-modern, war-torn world; against such a historical backdrop, the Quran permitted fighting out of necessity while imposing humane and ethical restrictions on waging war. In the modern world governed (at least theoretically) by international treaties and contracts, Muslims can highlight Quran 8:61 as the appropriate proof-text that mandates peaceful relations among nations.

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Are there Muslim scholars speaking out against suicide bombings?

A number of prominent religious scholars and clerics have categorically condemned suicide bombings and declared them unjustified and prohibited. Among such scholars was the well-known Albanian-born scholar of hadith, Muhammad al-Albani (d. 1999), who settled in Egypt. He has been quoted as saying: “Suicide missions at the present time, all of them, are not legislated [by Islam] and all of them are unlawful. They are a form of suicide which causes a person to remain in Hellfire eternally…. These suicide missions are absolutely not Islamic.”

In 2006, the Saudi scholar Muhammad ibn Salih al-Uthayman, when asked about the legality of suicide attacks, issued a formal legal opinion in which he declared the perpetrator of such attacks to be no different from someone who intentionally takes his own life. This is an act that is categorically prohibited within Islam according to Quran 4:29, which unambiguously states: “Do not kill yourselves. Surely, God is Most Merciful to you.” Al-Uthayman harshly criticized those who support suicide attacks because “they do not desire anything except revenge against the enemy, by whatever means, be it lawful or unlawful. So they only want to satisfy their thirst for revenge.”

p. 144A blistering 600-pages long condemnation of suicide bombings was issued by the Pakistani cleric Muhammad Tahir-ul-Qadri in 2010, a summary of which has been translated into English. Among the points forcefully made by Qadri is that “terrorism, in its very essence, is an act that symbolises infidelity and rejection of what Islam stands for. When the forbidden element of suicide is added to it, its severity and gravity becomes even greater.” This has been the unanimous position, he asserts, of scholars throughout 1,400 years of Islamic history. Quranic verses and hadiths support this unambiguous prohibition.

Qadri proceeds to elaborate upon the classical laws concerning the humane conduct of warfare that require ensuring the immunity of noncombatants during battle and avoiding the destruction of places of worship, buildings, crops, and trees. Anyone who violates these Islamic conventions of humane warfare cannot claim to be carrying out jihad and “has no relation to Islam and the Holy Prophet,” he declares. Qadri deals directly with the argument of militant ideologues that correct intention relieves one of the necessity of adopting correct means in order to realize a just objective.

Not so, he says; in Islamic law, lawful objectives can be attained only through lawful means. For example, constructing a mosque is always a pious act, but one cannot fund its construction by robbing a bank. The good is never served by evil means. The famous hadith, “Actions are judged according to their intentions” is not meant to “set a wrong thing right,” rather, it is in reference to “those actions that are proven pious, permissible and lawful.” Actions that are unethical, unjust, and unlawful to begin with cannot be rendered their opposite through good intentions alone.

Qadri’s extensive critique of suicide terrorism remains one of the most detailed and powerful rebuttals to the violent ideologies crafted by Islamist militants that glorify such activity.

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p. 145Why don’t Muslim scholars collectively denounce terrorism?

Actually they have. On November 9, 2004, King Abdullah of Jordan released a public proclamation in the capital city of Amman that became known as the “Amman Message.” The proclamation “sought to declare what Islam is and what it is not, and what actions represent it and what actions do not.” Its objective was to explain “the true nature of Islam and the nature of true Islam.”

In July 2005, King Abdullah held a follow-up conference in Amman where he convened two hundred of the most prominent Muslim scholars from fifty countries, representing eight recognized schools of law within Islam: Maliki, Hanafi, Hanbali, Shafii (all Sunni), Jafari and Zaydi (Shii), Zahiri (minority legal school), and Ibadi (the latter-day nonviolent incarnation of seventh-century Kharijism). These scholars expressed their consensus on some key issues in the Amman Message. These issues include human rights, individual rights and freedoms, and social justice; the need to condemn and prevent acts of terrorism and aggression, including the carrying out of offensive jihad and murder in the name of religion; the need to guarantee respect and tolerance for other religions, and ensure freedom of religion. The Amman Message also addressed the need for Muslims to be law-abiding, loyal, and good citizens in non-Muslim countries where they are not oppressed or persecuted, enjoy equal justice before the law, and benefit from the freedom to practice their culture and religion. The Amman message may be accessed at Amman Message—The Official Site (

The Amman Message remains a bold and timely statement in the modern Muslim-majority world, expressing the firm consensus of the most prominent scholars of the various schools of law that terrorism and unprincipled violence violate the basic teachings of Islam. This scholarly consensus effectively marginalizes those who adopt such tactics in the name of Islam and places them firmly outside the mainstream.

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p. 146Have Muslim scholars denounced ISIS and its militant views?

Yes, they have indeed. In September 2014, 122 prominent Muslim scholars, jurists, and community leaders came together to prepare and sign a document that contained a stinging denunciation of ISIS and its campaign of militancy. The document was an open letter to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the self-proclaimed “caliph” and leader of ISIS. Known as the “Letter to al-Baghdadi,” it presented a detailed theological and legal refutation of the supporters of ISIS. Directly addressing the self-styled caliph, the letter states: “You have misinterpreted Islam into a religion of harshness, brutality, torture and murder. This is a great wrong and an offense to Islam, to Muslims and to the entire world.” Above all, the document reminded the self-styled caliph that Islam forbids the killing of innocent civilians, who include ambassadors and diplomats, journalists, and aid workers, among others. Furthermore, the military jihad is defensive, and military activity cannot be undertaken without the right cause, the right purpose, and adherence to the right rules of conduct.

The letter went on to detail specific violations of essential Islamic principles and practices carried out by members of ISIS. It expresses the wide-ranging consensus of prominent Muslim scholars that terrorism as practiced by ISIS is about as far from a legitimate military jihad as one can get. This remains a historic document, which categorically establishes that ISIS is a pariah within the Muslim-majority world and that its members’ inhuman acts of violence flout foundational moral and ethical principles within Islamic thought and law.

The “Letter to al-Baghdadi” may be accessed at

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What are the main differences between militants and mainstream scholars of Islam today on the issue of violence?

When we compare the perspectives of militant extremists and mainstream Muslim scholars on violence, two glaring p. 147discrepancies can be summarized as follows: The first is a matter of reading strategy—militants typically will quote (or misquote) a handful of Quranic verses and hadiths in isolation to justify their violent campaigns, while mainstream scholars insist on a holistic and contextualized reading of these foundational religious texts to define and restrict the boundaries of legitimate military activity. The second concerns the treatment of noncombatants: Militant extremists understand “unbelievers” in general—that is to say, all others (Muslims and non-Muslims) but themselves—to be fair game for attacks and brutalization. This understanding allows them to attack civilians: women, children, and unarmed men who do not fight. In contrast, mainstream scholars are adamant on this point—civilians, regardless of their religious affiliation, cannot ever be targeted; neither can there be wanton destruction of property. Classical jurists declared those who violated this fundamental rule and sowed terror among civilian populations to be carrying out hiraba—a legal term that today we may translate as “terrorism.” Hiraba is completely outside the boundaries of a legitimate military jihad. This point has been forcefully repeated by modern mainstream Muslim scholars.

Such scholars unfailingly affirm what Qadri asserted: The good is never served by evil means. To establish a just and humane society on earth requires just and humane means to achieve it. According to the most prominent Muslim scholars today, there can be no compromise on this fundamental principle. This consensual position marks the fault line between the overwhelming majority of Muslims and a minority of militant extremists who delight in thumbing their noses at this principle and thereby write themselves out of the mainstream global Muslim community.