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The concept of “holy war” (jihâd) has played a decisive role in Islam’s universal destiny. The prophet Mohammad was the first to fight to impose what he considered was the truth that had been revealed to him: first through words, at Mecca, and then with the aid of weapons, after his exile in Medina (hijra). It is during the second period of his preaching that the term ‘jihad’ (which originally indicated moral and physical striving) acquired the meaning of ‘holy war’. Despite the fact that jihad is not one of the five pillars of Islam, ‘committing oneself and one’s possessions in the fight along the path of God’ is a religious duty for the whole Islamic community. This imperative is subject to there being a war objective and the possibility of victory. Indeed, jihad’s first goal was not to convert everyone but, rather, to subject them to the Islamic order. As for God’s support, this is promised in verses 22:39-40 of the Qur’an:
Leave is given to those who fight because they were wronged – surely God is able to help them…Assuredly God will help him who helps Him
It is from the Sunni majority’s tradition that Western Islamic studies have generally taken the notion of a ‘holy war’ waged by Mohammed and the Muslims following him for the temporal triumph of their religion. This unitary representation nevertheless ignores the positions of Islam’s main minority, the Shi‘ites. These are the ‘partisans’ (shî‘a) following ‘Alî b. Abî Tâlib, who was the Prophet’s cousin, the first to have believed in his preaching, husband to the Prophet’s daughter, Fatima, and father of the Prophet’s only male descendants. Far from being backward schismatics, historically they constitute Islam’s first politico-religious group. Only subsequently was the majority party to take the name ahl al-sunna and call them heretics.
The Imamite or Twelver Shi‘ites (the majority of the Shi‘ite minority) consider ‘Alî and eleven men from among his descendants to be the community’s only legitimate guides or imams after the Prophet, by virtue of the infallibility (‘isma) that God would have granted them. If the Shi‘ites have become a minority it is because they emerged as the losers in the context of the political violence that marked Islam’s dawn. It was their defeat and the victory of all those who were to make up the Sunni majority that was decisive for the historical development of their religion.
Between Sacralisation and Secularization
So what is ‘holy war’ for the Shi‘ites, history’s losers? And what place do both the other religions’ believers and the disciples of mainstream Islam occupy in their vision of jihad? In order to understand this, we must first of all go back to the history of the imams as recounted in the oldest collections of traditions or hadîth attributed to them, whilst taking account of the way the notion of jihad evolved legally and ideologically following the occultation of the twelfth imam. What then emerges is that, in Imamite Shi‘ite Islam, this notion underwent a twofold process of internalization and externalization, sacralisation and secularization and that the outcome is still unforeseeable.
The history of Islam’s origins first got into a tangle the very day after its prophet died. It is commonly said (in accordance with Sunni sources) that Mohammed left no instructions regarding who was to succeed him in guiding the community and that the nomination of Abû Bakr as caliph occurred by consent. The most ancient Shi‘ite sources (which critical history now takes into consideration) narrate another version of the facts, however. First of all, they state that ‘Ali b. Abî Tâlib was expressly nominated by the Prophet as his lawful successor and they testify to how, in the hours following the Prophet’s death, while ‘Alî was busy washing the body, his historical companions met in secret to appoint one of themselves caliph, perpetrating not only a ‘coup d’état’ in the modern sense of the term but also, from the religious point of view held by ‘Alî and his followers, a betrayal of the Prophet and the Divine Will. Fatima, the Prophet’s daughter and ‘Alî’s wife, was stripped of her inheritance and subjected to harassment and acts of violence. It was only when she died a few months later that ‘Alî resigned himself to swearing loyalty to the Prophet’s successor.
The first two caliphs, Abû Bakr and ‘Umar, led wars of conquest (futûhât) that led to the establishment of a genuine empire; an expansionist jihad from which ‘Alî abstained. When the latter was finally nominated caliph in 35/656, following the assassination of the third caliph ‘Uthmân, his legitimacy was immediately contested. The resolute opposition of the governor of Syria and future founder of the Umayyad dynasty, Mu‘âwiya, led to the bloody battle of Siffîn (37/657). ‘Alî accepted an arbitration that resulted in a stalemate and his own political failure. ‘Alî ended up being assassinated in 40/661 by one of his ex-followers.
The Shi‘ite sources document that ‘Alî called his men to jihad against his adversaries at Siffîn. For the first time, the holder of the title ‘commander of the faithful’ (amîr al-mu’minîn) was exhorting them to undertake a ‘holy war’ against other Muslims. ‘Alî probably considered Mu‘âwiya and his followers to be ‘hypocrites’ (munâfiqûn) and saw it as his task to fight them as Mohammed had fought the unbelievers (kuffâr), according to the Shi‘ite interpretation of verses 9:73 and 66:9 of the Qur’an: ‘Oh Prophet! Fight the unbelievers and the hypocrites’. But the man who distinguished himself at the Prophet’s side in the fighting failed to mobilize Muslims when he was caliph. This failure (which ‘Alî himself recognised) has never been denied by the Shi‘ites.
Not Invincible Imams but Pure Ones
From that moment onwards, the figure of ‘divine guide’ that the Imam represents could not fail to conflict with the Prophet’s triumphalist representation commonly found in Sunni historiography. Indeed, for the Shi‘ites, the infallibility conferred on their imams by God does not equal political and military invincibility but, rather, moral purity and perfect knowledge, both of which are compatible with temporal failure.
The drama of Karbala (Karbalâ, 61/680) was still more decisive for Shi‘ite consciousness. Whereas the second imam, al-Hasan (‘Alî’s firstborn son), had adopted a conciliatory position towards the caliph Mu‘âwiya, the third imam, al-Hussein (‘Alî’s second son and grandson of the Prophet), refused to swear loyalty to Yazîd, Mu‘âwiya’s son. He answered the call of the inhabitants in Kufa who had exhorted him to head their revolt but he was intercepted by the Umayyad army and ferociously killed along with his few troops and his family. His eldest son, ‘Alî, the only male to survive the massacre, is said to have continued the line of imams, devoting himself to piety and keeping well away from every political activity.
There is no proof that the imam Hussein intended to gain power or that he made a formal call to jihad. However, for the Twelver Shi‘ites, Hussein remains the last imam to have fought the enemies of the faith, understood not as the followers of other religions but, rather, as the heads of the Muslim majority. Hussein remains, above all, the ‘prince of martyrs’ (sayyid al-shuhadâ) and his passion is commemorated every year during the ceremony of ‘Âshûrâ’.
Thus, through the drama of Karbala, the Shi‘ites’ ‘holy war’ was detached from the promise of a temporal victory and essentially became bound up with the concept of martyrdom (shahâda). According to the imams who succeeded him, Hussein was perfectly aware that he was fighting a losing battle; indeed, before his birth, the angel Gabriel had warned the Prophet Mohammed and his daughter, Fatima, of his tragic destiny. One may therefore ask what his fighting still had in common with the Prophet’s jihad and whether the drama of Karbala does not belie the divine promise to support jihad. Some traditions speak of a group of angels that, arriving too late to save Hussein, have done penance incessantly ever since. Others report that in exchange for his sacrifice, God granted Hussein that the imamate should belong to his descendants, that the land of Karbala would develop salutary virtues and that visiting his tomb would carry a diving blessing with it. The imam would therefore have accepted outward, political and military defeat in order to obtain a spiritual, ethical and pacific victory.
The Quietist Option
After Hussein, the imams in his family abandoned every prospect of armed struggle for their cause and embraced a quietist attitude. The sixth imam invited believers to practice pious dissimulation (taqiyya) for the purposes of preserving and transmitting the faith and he developed an apolitical conception of the imamate as a spiritual authority quite distinct from the caliphate. According to this conception, the Imam’s temporal sovereignty is deferred to the coming of a Saviour at the End of Time, the Mahdî (the ‘rightly guided’) or Qâ’im (‘the Raiser from the Dead’). During the wait for his appearance, the quest for political power (a necessary condition for entitlement to call the faithful to armed jihad) is explicitly condemned.
Despite their quietism, the imams descended from Hussein were persecuted one after the other, if not eliminated by the Abbasid governors. When the eleventh imam died in 260/874, the contention that a secret son had been hidden to save him from the caliph’s threats prevailed. After a period during which the imam continued to communicate with his faithful through representatives, in 329/941 he let it be known that he was going to suspend every form of communication with men until his reappearance at the End of Time. This was the beginning of the ‘greater occultation’ (al-ghayba al-kubrâ) that still continues today. Jihad has not been abolished: theoretically, it would appear more necessary than ever, given that Islam would have been misappropriated by usurpers. It has, rather, been suspended until the return of the Imam, the only figure capable of leading it and bringing it to victory.
The fundamental dogma in Shi‘ite eschatology is that ‘the Mahdî will rise at the End of Time and will fill the earth with justice in the same measure in which it had earlier overflowed with oppression and injustice’. This universal liberation will be achieved through a mass war. The final jihad will be God’s Retaliation; a revenge for the crimes committed, in opposition to His will, against His prophets and His friends (awliyâ’). This conception is supported by the belief in a form of resurrection referred to as raj‘a that will precede the great resurrection known as qiyâma. Such resurrection regards only history’s martyr saints and their butchers; the former will assist the Mahdî and be avenged, whilst the latter will be subjected to their punishment. The imam Hussein is obviously one of the former. Jesus, son of Mary, is a special case: according to the traditions, he did not die on the cross but was directly assumed into heaven by God and will be sent back to earth at the End of Time in order to pray right behind the Mahdî.
Unlike the historical jihad, the eschatological jihad will not be subject to limited war objectives, nor open to conciliation or arbitration. Some of the descriptions developed by the quietist imams are extremely violent. The Mahdî will be supported ‘militarily’ in his battle by God. He will be surrounded by the angels Gabriel, Michael and Seraphiel (Isrâfîl), who will be followed by whole armies: all the angels who were with Noah on the ark, with Abraham when he was thrown into the fire, with Jesus when he was taken up into heaven and with Mohammed when he defeated the unbelievers, as well as the angels who failed to help Hussein at Karbala, will come to help the Saviour, who will be further armed with the supernatural weapons that the prophets will have. Thus, God’s support (nasr) would have disappeared from history only in order to be better concentrated at the End of Time.
Often described with reference to the battle of Badr (2/624, the Prophet’s first great victory against the pagans of Mecca), this eschatological fight is, primarily, an inverted reflection of Shia Islam’s history and the drama of Karbala in particular. Thus those who will come back to life in order to participate in the final, victorious jihad will, above all, be those who will have deserved it through their sacrifice in the era of the initial jihad and Hussein’s defeat. In the same way, if Hussein’s battle was lost from the outset, as the imam well knew, the Mahdî’s battle will be won a priori, as the imams have indeed taught. Being the opposite of the losers’ history, the final battle is prefigured as a revolt against the victorious, the champions of mainstream Islam and descendants of the pagans from Mecca. The other Peoples of the Book are rarely mentioned as the Mahdî’s adversaries. On the contrary, his army will have to include Jews and Christians as well, because the Saviour’s religious mission is to revive the preceding religions and restore the spirit and the very letter of the Torah, the Gospel and the Qur’an, these all being books that the Shi‘ites consider to have been falsified by the enemies of Truth.
For these reasons, the Imam’s jihad is very different from that of the Prophet’s after the hijra. The absence of uncertainty as to the battle’s outcome contrasts with Mohammed’s military campaigns, where the result was always uncertain, which fact gave the voluntary commitment all its value. The Prophet’s battle aimed at making the religion’s exoteric law triumph, whilst the Imam’s mission is to make its esoteric meaning triumph. Mohammed is said to have said, ‘I am fighting for the revelation of the letter (of the Qur’an), ‘Alî is fighting for the revelation of [its] spirit’. This is why the military defeats of the imams ‘Alî and Hussein do not, for the Shi‘ites, signify a defeat for their mission but, rather, constitute proof of a real separation of the spiritual from the temporal and the exoteric (zâhir) from the esoteric (bâtin), which will only be reunited at the End of Time. If the Prophet’s jihad had a historical purpose, the Imam’s jihad has taken its leave of history in order to re-enter it only at the end; indeed, in order to be the end of History itself, making the spirit of the Revelation triumph.
The ‘Greater’ Struggle
And yet this jihad is a battle that has already begun: it is not reserved to an army of chosen ones but is incumbent upon all men. It is the spiritual battle against the carnal soul’s inclinations. A prophetic hadîth calls it ‘the greater struggle’ (jihâd akbar), whilst it considers military fighting to be a ‘lesser’ (asghar) one. This distinction is peculiar to the Shi‘ites and the mystics who draw on Sufism. For the Brothers of Purity (Ikhwân al-safâ’), Ismaili philosophers of the fourth/tenth century, the initial clash between Adam and Iblîs (Satan) is the kind of perpetual combat that sets the rational soul against the concupiscent and violent soul. For the Shi‘ites, if Adam was capable of erring, the prophet Mohammed and the people of his house (ahl al-bayt) have been made infallible by God and consequently always emerge as the victors in this greater jihad. This spiritualization justifies the whole of history’s valley of tears: defeat in the lesser jihad is only the exoteric inversion of the greater jihad’s triumph. One can therefore understand how abandonment of the triumphalist notion of jihad may, amongst Shi‘ites, be accompanied by an emphasis on the Imam’s superiority. Military victory will come only at the End of Time, whilst spiritual victory has always already been obtained by the Faultless ones and is within the reach of anyone during temporal history.
This exoteric conception of jihad can be found in a very ancient and much commented tradition, namely, ‘the tradition of Intelligence’s armies’ (hadîth junûd al-‘aql). According to this account, Intelligence was the first created being and immediately swore its obedience to God, whereas Ignorance, created afterwards, showed its insubordination. God made luminous Intelligence the gift of 75 armies and, out of a sense of justice, did the same for dark Ignorance. This dualist schema therefore sets equal numbers of hypostasized virtues and vices against each other: faith and faithlessness, compassion and cruelty, clemency and anger, ascesis and desire, love and hate, wisdom and passion etc… but also striving (jihâd) and abstention (nukûl). Jihad is thus seen to be associated with the non-violent virtues and contrasted with everything that calls to war; a fact that becomes fully comprehensible if, by jihad, one means here the interior struggle. The ‘holy struggle’ appears at two levels: on the one hand, it is one of Intelligence’s armies and, on the other, it is the very fight fought by Intelligence against Ignorance. As for the Mahdî’s jihad, it is thought of as the conclusion of this cosmic and supra-historical battle.
Nevertheless, from the beginning of the greater Occultation onwards, the Shi‘ites had to reckon with the demands of temporal history. Collaborating with Sunni power, the jurist-theologians perceived that jihad’s total suspension was, in fact, unsustainable and they established the possibility that the imam could appoint a representative to lead a defensive jihad in his absence. Very soon, the jurists who engaged in the ‘interpretative effort of the law’ (ijtihâd, a term with the same root as jihad) developed the idea of a ‘general representation of the imam’, making themselves ipso facto the legitimate leaders of jihad during the Occultation. It must be said at this point, however, that during the mid-Sixth/Twelfth century, the doctrine on jihad had been reactivated against the Shi‘ite minorities by the Sunni empire’s rulers (including the famous Salâh ad-Dîn – Saladin). This for the purposes of eliminating dissidents and uniting all the Islamic forces in order to push back the Crusades.
The Revolutionary Option
The Imamite jurisprudence on jihad is to be distinguished from that of the Sunni schools on two main points: the identity of the figure leading the jihad (who, for the Shi‘ites, can only be the imam or his ‘representative’) and the identity of the enemies against whom jihad may be declared, the ‘men of iniquity’ i.e. the Sunni governors, who come before the People of the Book, the infidels and the renegades. Indeed, during the course of their history, the Shi‘ite mujtahidûn declared armed jihad against the Christians only in the nineteenth century, during the Russo-Persian wars, and always in the form of a defensive jihad in any event.
Another crucial aspect of the evolution concerns Shi‘ite martyrology. For a long time, this was limited to commemorating the holy death of the imams as inimitable sacred figures. At the end of the twentieth century, however, the martyrdom of the imam Hussein was stripped of its transcendent aspects so as to be proposed as a model for imitation by the masses in a revolutionary perspective. This re-historicizing of martyrdom and jihad must have had a paradoxical effect on the eschatology, resulting either in a concealing or an acceleration of the End of Time perspective.
The notion of a ‘struggle for God’ in Imamite Shi‘ite Islam was thus initially sacralised by the imams themselves to the point that it took its leave of history and occupied an eschatological space. However, in the Imam’s absence, the jurist-theologians desacralized jihad and reintegrated it within historical time. This despite the fact that some quietists, drawing on the tradition of Islam’s origins, maintain that no one may lawfully exercise political power or lead the ‘fight for God’. Furthermore, the ideal of the battle embodied by the imam Hussein is now combined, without conflict, with the model of conciliation (sulh) embodied by his elder brother, Hasan. A reconciliation with Sunni mainstream Islam that, nowadays more than ever, needs to be pondered and constructed, since it is probably one of the indispensable conditions for dialogue between Islam and the other religions.
Mohammad Ali Amir-Moezzi, Le guide divin dans le shî‘isme originel (Verdier, Paris, 1992).
Mohammad Ali Amir-Moezzi, Le Coran silencieux et le Coran parlant (CNRS Éditions, Paris, 2011).
Douglas Karim Crow, ‘The Death of al-Ḥusayn b. ‘Alî and Early Shî‘î Views of the Imamate’, in E. Kohlberg, Shi’ism, Vol. 33 of The Formation of the Classical Islamic World (Ashgate Variorum, Aldershot, 2003), article III.
Farhad Khosrokhavar, Les nouveaux martyrs d’Allah (Flammarion, Paris, 2003).
Etan Kohlberg, ‘The Development of the Imâmî Shî’î Doctrine of jihâd’, in E. Kohlberg, Belief and Law, (Aldershot, 1991), article XV.
 I will use the form ‘imam’ to refer to the historical individuals and ‘Imam’, with a capital ‘I’, for the holy figure.
 The most important canonical collection is al-Kulaynî’s Usûl al-kâfî (IV/X). The Shi‘ites also greatly treasure Nahj al-balâgha, a collection of sayings attributed to ‘Alî, the first imam.
To cite this article
Text BY Mathieu Terrier, "Shi‘ite Jihad: A Ceasefire until the Imam’s Return”, Oasis, year X, n. 20, December 2014, pp. 33-38
Text by Mathieu Terrier, “Shi‘ite Jihad: A Ceasefire until the Imam’s Return”, Oasis [online], published on 5th February 2019, URL: https://www.oasiscenter.eu/en/shiite-jihad-a-ceasefire-until-the-imams-return.