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Jihad Explained by the Muslims

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Muslims have developed numerous conceptions of jihad in the course of history

This article was published in Oasis 20. Read the table of contents

Last update: 2019-05-14 12:51:08

It is impossible to define jihad unequivocally because Muslims have developed numerous conceptions of it in the course of history. Nevertheless, it would be a mistake to renounce a unitary reading of this subject that, widely treated by the sources, enjoys a renewed topicality today. What follows is brief journey through the great medieval texts.



Few subjects in Islam are as controversial as jihad. The very translation of the term is disputed: if ‘striving’ appears a lightweight reduction to purely philological considerations, ‘holy war’ is also open to criticism. Not so much through the argument (weak in itself) that Arabic possesses other words for saying ‘war’, such as harb or qitâl (the latter is, moreover, frequently found in the Quran). Indeed, in the eyes of those who wage it, ‘holy war’ is radically different from vulgar fighting. So much so that it deserves a name of its own: for precisely this reason it is ‘holy’. Rather, the translation is inadequate because jihad is an activity that has an impact on the whole of the believer’s person: it is not just an exterior action but also involves an interior discipline. All things considered, it would not be out of place to translate it as ‘militancy’, a term that is a little outmoded but which expresses, better than others, a commitment at several levels, including the martial one.



Every anthology runs the risk of appearing arbitrary and this one is naturally no exception. The criterion governing choices has been that of following along the path proposed in the Focus section of this edition, in the articles by Afsaruddin and Terrier, for the Sunni and Shi‘ite perspectives, respectively.



First of all, the earliest exegesis of certain passages in the Quran is examined, starting with Muqâtil Ibn Sulaymân (d. 767) and his attempt to contextualise the duty to fight by tying it to certain moments in the life of Muhammad. The same tendency may also be found in the ‘aberrant’ opinion (as the medieval jurists would call it) of the Medinese exegete ‘Atâ’, who would have considered the duty of jihad to be limited solely to the generation of Muhammad’s Companions. An attractive opinion but one that, truth to tell, subsequent exegetes – outstanding Quranic commentators – demolish with arguments of no little account: for Tabarî (d. 923), the abrogation of a verse can come solely from God, whereas for Râzî (d. 1209), divine commands are absolute. Wâhidî (d. 1076) goes so far as to interpret ‘Atâ’s words differently: in his opinion, the exegete from Medina would have wanted to emphasize how, in the Prophet’s time, jihad was a duty attaching to the individual whereas, for the jurists following him, it becomes a collective duty, in the sense that it is enough that someone carries it out in the name of the whole community.



Exemplified by the very famous passage in Mâwardî (d. 1058) on the Caliph’s duties, the jurists’ debate does not stray far from the above-mentioned issues: the collective rather than individual nature of jihad, ways of proclaiming it and carrying it out, the possibility of drawing up treaties with non-Muslims and issues concerning the sharing out of the spoils. Moreover, in al-Mâwardî, the inclusion of jihad within the wider picture of a good administration of the polity stands out. The modernist school will take its cue from here, inclining to consider the institution of jihad as analogous with a defensive war.



But if Mâwardî also reflects a momentarily achieved stability between Islamic territories and non-Muslim empires, punctuated by ‘truces’ that increasingly resembled peace treaties, the historian and expert on traditions Ibn ‘Asâkir (d. 1176) lives and operates in the era of the Crusades, in the middle of the warring war. Charged by Prince Nûr al-Din (Noradin) to mobilize Syria against the Franks, Ibn ‘Asâkir produced an inflammatory pamphlet containing 40 hadîth urging jihad, here most decidedly a ‘holy war’. In comparison with the laborious casuistry of the previous jurists, the literary formula adopted by Ibn ‘Asâkir is much more immediate and serviceable at a propagandistic level. Not by chance, some of these traditions also recur in contemporary jihadist literature.



As the tradition attributed to the sixth imam Ja‘far al-Sâdiq (d. 765) demonstrates, the military defeat suffered by the Shi‘ites during the first centuries of Islam led them to take jihad out of history, transforming it into an eschatological form of fighting; a gigantic Armageddon between the forces of light and ignorance. The other option followed (in this case, by the secret society of the Brothers of Purity in the tenth century) is that of jihad’s spiritualization, understood as the rational soul’s fight against the passions. And it comes as a surprise to note the reappearance, in this context, of the fateful Genesis account, to which the Brothers of Purity make explicit reference (almost a countermelody to Guardini’s text in the Christian Classics section).



The image passes, probably from the environment of esoteric Shia, which the theologian and mystic Ghazâlî (d. 1111) knew well, into the Sunni tradition through the pages of the Ihyâ’, a work considered by many to be Islam’s equivalent of the Summa. Ghazâlî proceeds towards the spiritualization of the precept, for all that without ever explicitly breaking with the previous readings. Because, in the classical tradition, jihad’s multiple meanings – ranging from war to militancy to spiritual striving – complete rather than contradict one another.









 A.    ‘Fight those who fight you’: a comment by Muqâtil Ibn Sulaymân on 2:190-193



‘Fight those who fight you along the path of God’: God forbade the Prophet and the faithful to fight within Mecca’s holy enclosure during the holy month, except in cases where it was the polytheists who began the fighting. However, while the Prophet and his Companions (numbering 1,400) were making their lesser pilgrimage to Mecca in the month of Dhû l-Qa‘da, in the year of Hudaybiyya [i.e. 628 A.D.] and were in a consecrated state, the polytheists of Mecca repelled them from the Holy Temple and began the fighting. Then God gave permission to fight, saying ‘Fight those who fight you along the path of God’. ‘But do not go beyond the limits’ by beginning to fight during the holy month and inside the enclosure, because this would constitute an excess. ‘And God does not love those who exaggerate’. […] Then he said, ‘Therefore fight them’ uninterruptedly ‘until there is no more scandal’ i.e. polytheism, until they may profess the Oneness of God and not adore other gods than Him. The pagan Arabs are specifically referred to here.



(Muqâtil Ibn Sulaymân, Tafsîr, Mu’assasat al-târîkh al-‘arabî, Beirut, 2002, vol. 1, pp. 167-168)






B.     ‘Fighting (al-qitâl) is prescribed for you’: a dissident opinion and its criticism in the comments of Tabarî, Wâhidî and Râzî



Tabarî: ‘Fighting is prescribed for you’ (2:216). By these words, God means ‘fighting is an obligation for you’, that is to say, fight unbelievers ‘even though you may find it displeasing’. The ulama are divided regarding who might be the ‘addressees’ of the duty to fight. One of them has asserted that this expression specifically designates the Prophet’s Companions, to the exclusion of others. But this assertion is meaningless because the abrogation of rules comes from God, not from men [….] Others have said that it is a duty binding each person, until there are enough believers carrying it out. In that case, the duty lapses for the other Muslims, as occurs for prayer at funerals, the washing of the dead and their burial. This is the position taken by the majority of the ulama and, in our view, it is the correct opinion.



(al-Tabarî, Jâmi‘ al-bayân ‘an ta’wîl ây al-Qur’ân, Mu’assasat al-Risâla, Beirut, 1994, vol. 1, pp. 580-581)






Wâhidî: ‘Fighting is prescribed for you’. ‘Atâ’ said that, with this utterance, God specifically designates the Companions of the Prophet because, in the time of the Prophet, fighting was a peremptory duty (farîda): shirking was not permitted when the Prophet went out for jihad against an enemy. Today, the consensus is that this is a collective duty (fard kifâya).



(al-Wâhidî al-Nîsâbûrî, al-Wasît fî tafsîr al-Qur’ân al-majîd, Dâr al-Kutub al-‘ilmiyya, Beirut, 1994, vol. 1, p. 319)






Râzî: ‘Fighting is prescribed for you’. Know that, for all the time he remained in Mecca, the Prophet was not authorized to fight. But when he undertook the hijra, he was given permission to fight the polytheists who fought him. Then he was given permission to fight the polytheists generally and then God imposed the duty of jihad. The ulama have issued diverging opinions on this verse. One group has asserted that it prescribes that everyone should fight and it is handed down that Makhûl [al-Shamî] used to swear by God in the Holy House that participating in military expeditions is an [absolute] duty. For Ibn ‘Umar and ‘Atâ’, on the other hand, this verse would require the Companions of the Prophet to fight, exclusively in that time. […] The argument put forward by ‘Atâ’ is that the wording ‘is prescribed’ implies a duty, but that it is sufficient to carry it out only once and that the wording ‘for you’ implies a limiting of the discourse to those who lived at that time. But I refute that, since in the [analogous] case of the words ‘retaliation is prescribed for you’ (2:178) and ‘fasting is prescribed for you’ (2:188), the condition of those existing at that time is identical to that of those who were to come afterwards.



(Fakhr al-Dîn al-Râzî, Mafâtîh al-Ghayb, Dâr al-Fikr, Beirut, 1981, vol. 6, p. 27)









a.      Mâwardî



Ten public duties are required of the caliph. First, he must guard the faith, upholding its established sources and the consensus of the nation’s ancestors, arguing with emerging heretics or suspicious dissenters, demonstrating the truth to them, and administering to them the legal penalties, so that the faith should remain pristine and the nation free from error. Second, he must enforce law between disputing parties and end disagreement among antagonists until justice prevails and there are no more oppressors or oppressed people. Third, he must protect the country and the household, so that all may go about the business of living and travel anywhere unworried by deception or loss of life or property. Fourth, he must dispense the legal punishments so that God’s prohibitions are observed and His worshippers’ rights may be protected from vandalism or misappropriation. Fifth, he must strengthen border posts by deterrent equipment and fighting force so that the enemies may not gain the chance to violate what is sanctified or shed a Muslim’s or protected non-Muslim’s blood. Sixth, he must fight those who resist the supremacy of Islam after being invited to embrace it, until they convert or sign a treaty of subjection, so that God’s claim to have the faith superior to any other is established. Seventh, he must collect the legal taxes and alms imposed by jurisprudence, on the basis of explicit text and the exercise of judgment, intrepidly but without tyranny. Eighth, he has to estimate the payments and allocations that must be made by the treasury without extravagance or niggardliness, and pay them neither before nor after the appointed time. Ninth, he must appoint men who are reliable and sincere and of good counsel to perform the functions or take care of the funds he charges them with in order to ensure efficiency and honest management. Tenth, he has personally to oversee matters and study the conditions of the people in order to manage public policy and guard the faith instead of relying on delegation of authority while he is preoccupied with pleasure or worship, for those deemed honest do sometimes betray the trust, and counsellors may deceive. As God, exalted be His name, says: ‘O David! We have made you viceroy[1] in the earth; so, judge among men rightly, and do not follow desire lest it beguile you away from the path of God’ (Q 38:26).



Al-Mawardî, The Ordinances of Government, translated by Wafaa H. Wahba, Garnet Publishing Ltd, Berkshire, 1996, p. 16.






b.      Ibn ‘Asâkir



1. Abû Hurayra said: The Messenger of God was asked: ‘Which aspect of belief is the best?’ He replied: ‘The belief in God’. He was then asked: ‘And what comes next?’ He replied: ‘Next is jihad in the path of God’. He was then asked again: ‘And what comes next?’ He replied: ‘An accepted pilgrimage’. Muslim related this in his Sahîh.



15. Abû Umâma said: We went out with the Messenger of God on one of his raiding parties. One of us passed by a cave in which there was a small spring. It occurred to him to stay in the cave and renounce the world; the spring could provide him with water, and the land around the cave could provide him with vegetable. He said: ‘I should come to the Prophet and tell him about my thought. If he approves it, I shall do it, and if not I won’t’. The man came and asked him: ‘O Prophet of God, I passed by a cave in which was a small spring; its water and vegetables would suffice me. It occurred to me to stay in it and renounce the world’. The Prophet replied: ‘I was not sent to preach Judaism or Christianity. Rather, I was sent to preach the pure lenient monotheism. By the One in whose hand is the soul of Muhammad, a morning or evening errand made in the path of God is worthier than the world and what is in it, and for one to line up for battle is worthier than his prayer for sixty years’.



17. Abû Bakr Ibn ‘Abd Allâh ibn Qays said: I heard my father [Abû Mûsâ] say while campaigning against the enemy: ‘I heard the Messenger of God say: ‘Surely, the gates of Paradise are in the shadow of the swords’’. A slovenly-looking man stood up and asked: ‘O Abû Mûsâ, did you hear this from the Messenger of God?’ He said: ‘Yes.’ The man returned to his companions and said: ‘I bid you farewell’. He then broke the sheath of his sword and fought until he was killed. Muslim related this.



40. ‘Utba Ibn ‘Abd al-Sulamî, one of the companions of the Prophet said: The Messenger of God said: ‘The slain dead are of three types. One is a believer who exerts his life and wealth waging jihad in the path of God and when he meets the enemy in battle he fights them until he is killed. He is a tested martyr whose abode will be the Tent of God, underneath His Throne; nothing separates him from prophets except their rank of prophethood. Another is a believer, having already committed transgressions and sins, who exerts his life and wealth waging jihad in the path of God, and when he meets the enemy in battle he fights them until he is killed. His transgressions and sins are cleansed, for the sword purifies from sins. He will also be admitted to Paradise from whichever gate he chooses, for Paradise has eight gates, and Hell has seven gates with some deeper than others. And a third is a hypocrite who exerts his life and wealth waging jihad in the path of God and when he meets the enemy in battle he fights them until he is killed. He is in Hell, because the sword does not wipe out hypocrisy’.



(Ibn ‘Asâkir, al-‘Arba‘ûn fî l-hathth ‘alâ l-jihâd, ed. Suleiman A. Mourad and James E. Lindsday, The Intensification and Reorientation of Sunni Jihad Ideology in the Crusader Period, Brill, Leiden-Boston 2013, pp. 134-183 passim)






3. THE SHI‘ITES’ JIHAD (texts proposed and translated by Mathieu Terrier)



  (a) Eschatological Jihad



On the authority of Abân Ibn Taghlib, Abû ‘Abd Allâh [Ja‘far al-Sâdiq, the sixth imam] stated:



‘I seemed to catch sight of the Redeemer (al-Qâ’im)[2] on the plain of Najaf[3]. When he rose in the plain of Najaf, he jumped onto a black-dappled horse with a stripe between its eyes. The horse carried him away with a start and there remained not a country in the world whose inhabitants did not think that the Redeemer had arrived in their midst. And when he unfurled the standard of God’s Envoy in the wind, thirteen thousand and thirteen angels who had all been waiting for the Redeemer came down around him. They had been with Noah in the ark and with God’s Friend, Abraham, when he was thrown into the fire and with Jesus when he was raised to heaven. [They were joined by] four thousand ‘free-flying’ angels ‘rushing in swarms’ (see 3:125 and 8:9) and the three hundred and thirteen angels from the day of Badr[4] and the four thousand angels who skimmed over the earth to fight with Hussein, son of ‘Alî, but to whom fighting was not conceded. So they went back up to heaven to ask permission, but when they re-descended, Hussein had already been killed. From that moment onwards, with dishevelled hair covered with dust, they weep at Hussein’s tomb until the Day of the Resurrection. And the space between Hussein’s tomb and heaven is a pilgrimage destination for the angels’.



(Shaykh Sadûq [Ibn Bâbûyeh], Kamâl al-dîn wa tamâm al-ni‘ma, Mu’assasat al-A‘lamî li-l-matbû‘ât, Beirut, 2004, p. 609)






(b) Intellectual Jihad



Nature and her sensual pleasures, the sinking into the sleep of the ignorant and the torpor of the indifferent, this is the tree it is forbidden to approach and from which it is forbidden to eat. In this, the rational soul occupies the place of Adam and the concupiscent soul that of Iblîs [i.e. the devil], the self-deceived deceiver. When the rational soul yields to the irascible one, listens to it and hastens to satisfy its passions, immersing itself in pleasures and falling into sin, the light of the intellect abandons it, its nakedness is made manifest, the garments of piety are stripped from it and it draws punishment and opprobrium upon itself.



And just as it is said that Iblîs’ greatest desire and strongest resolution, when he became inflamed against Adam, was to make him fall into sin so that his garments would be removed and his blessings suspended, so that his Lord would be angry with him, the condition of the concupiscent soul in comparison with the rational soul is identical. For this reason, the Rational Sage and True Prophet [Muhammad] declared, ‘We have returned from the lesser jihad to the greater jihad’, meaning by ‘lesser jihad’ the jihad of the sword against the enemy and adversary and by ‘greater jihad’ the battle of rational souls against concupiscent and irascible souls.



(Ikhwân al-Safâ’, al-Risâla al-jâmi‘a, attributed to the hidden imam, Ahmad Ibn ‘Abd Allâh, Dâr al-Andalus, Beirut, 1984, p. 121)









Know that the body is like a city and that the human intellect – I mean the perceiving intellect – is like a king that presides over it. The perceptive powers of the exterior and interior senses are like his troops and guards, the body’s members are like the subjects and the soul that instigates evil (see Quran 12:53) i.e. passion and irascibility, is like an enemy that contends with the king for his kingdom and tries to make his subjects die.



So the body becomes like a fortress (ribât)[5] positioned in a borderland and the soul like a soldier (murâbit) who resides there. If the king wages jihad against his enemy, defeats him and subjugates him as much as he desires, he will be praised when he comes back to life in order to appear before the Divine Presence, as God Himself has stated: ‘[…] and those who fight along the path of God with their possessions and their souls[6], since God has elevated those who fight along the path of God with their possessions and their souls, one level higher than those who remain at home’ (4:95). If, on the other hand, the king loses the region that has been entrusted to him and neglects his subjects, he will be rebuked and revenge will be extracted in the sight of the Most High. And on the day of the Resurrection, it will be said to him, ‘Oh bad shepherd, you ate meat and drank milk but you gave no shelter to the wanderer and you did not help the wretched. Today I exact vengeance on you’, as it is written in the hadith. And the Prophet alluded to this kind of battle when he said, ‘We have come back from the lesser jihad to the greater jihad’[7].



(Abû Hâmid al-Ghazâlî, Ihyâ’ ‘ulûm al-dîn, Dâr al-Kutub al-‘ilmiyya, Beirut, 20023, vol. 3 [al-muhlikât, Sharh ‘ajâ’ib al-qalb], p. 7)






The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Oasis International Foundation




[1] In Arabic khalîfa, from which the word ‘caliph’ derives.



[2] The ‘Risen One’, i.e. the Shi‘ite Imam in his eschatological manifestation.



[3] A city situated on a plain (whence its name), 10 km from Kufa in Iraq. It is the place where, according to tradition, the first imam, ‘Alî Ibn Abî Tâlib, was buried. For this reason, it is one of the principal pilgrimage sites for Shi‘ites.



[4] The first battle fought by the Muslims in 624, under Muhammad’s leadership. It ended in a resounding victory that the Quran attributes to the intervention of angels.



[5] The Arabic term ribât indicates a fortress monastery situated on the borders of Muslim territories, where the Sufis engaged in military jihad against the infidels would live. Whoever lived there took the name of murâbit, a term from which the name of the Maghrebi-Andalusian dynasty of the Almoravids (1055-1147) derives, as well as the word ‘marabout’, used above all in North Africa to indicate a ‘Muslim Saint’.



[6] Or ‘with themselves’. Al-Ghazalî constructs his exegesis of the verse on the fact that, in Arabic, the word nafs (literally, ‘soul’) also functions as a reflexive pronoun.



[7] Arabic editor’s note: ‘This hadith is mentioned by Bayhaqî in his chapter on asceticism (zuhd), among the traditions transmitted by Jâbir. It is followed by the comment: “There is some weakness in this chain of transmission”’.

To cite this article

Printed version:
Martino Diez, “Jihad Explained by the Muslims”, Oasis, year X, n. 20, December 2014, pp. 79-83.

Online version:
Martino Diez, “Jihad Explained by the Muslims”, Oasis [online], published on 8th April 2015, URL:

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