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The Oxford Encyclopedia of Islam and Politics
Rudolph PetersRudolph Peters, David CookDavid Cook


Connoting an endeavor toward a praiseworthy aim, the Arabic word jihād bears many shades of meaning in the Islamic context. It may express a struggle against one's evil inclinations or an exertion for the sake of Islam and the ummah (Islamic community), for example, in trying to convert unbelievers or working for the moral betterment of Islamic society (“jihād of the tongue” and “jihād of the pen”). In books on Islamic law and commonly in the Qurʾān, the word means an armed struggle against the unbelievers. Sometimes the “jihād of the sword” is called “the lesser jihād,” in opposition to the peaceful forms named “the greater jihād.” Often used today without religious connotation, its meaning is roughly equivalent to the English word “crusade” (e.g., “a crusade against drugs”). Either “Islamic” or “holy” is currently added to the word when it is used in a religious context (e.g., al-jihād al-Islāmī or al-jihād al-muqaddas).


The concept of jihād goes back to the wars fought by the Prophet Muḥammad and their written reflection in the Qurʾān. The concept was influenced by the ideas on war prevailing among the pre-Islamic tribes of northern Arabia, among whom war was the normal state, unless a truce had been concluded. War between tribes was regarded as lawful, especially if the war was a response to aggression. Ideas of chivalry forbade warriors from killing noncombatants, especially children, women, and old people. These rules were incorporated into the doctrine of jihād in the eighth and ninth centuries.

The Qurʾān frequently mentions jihād and fighting (qitāl) against unbelievers. Sūrah 22:40 (“Leave is given to those who fight because they were wronged—surely God is able to help them—who were expelled from their habitations without right, except that they say ‘Our Lord is God’ ”), revealed not long after the hijrah, is traditionally considered to be the first verse dealing with the fighting of unbelievers. Many verses exhort the believers to take part in the fighting “with their goods and lives” (bi-amwālihim wa-anfusihim), promise reward to those who are killed in jihād (3:157–158, 169–172), and threaten with severe punishments in the hereafter those who do not fight (9:81–82, 48:16). Other verses deal with practical matters such as exemption from military service (9:91, 48:17), fighting during the holy months (2:217) and in the holy territory of Mecca (2:191), the fate of prisoners of war (47:4), safe conduct (9:6), and truce (8:61).

It is not clear whether the Qurʾān allows Muslims to fight unbelievers only as a defense against aggression or under all circumstances. In support of the first view, a number of verses can be quoted that expressly justify fighting on the strength of aggression or perfidy on the part of the unbelievers: “Fight in the way of God with those who fight you, but aggress not: God loves not the aggressors” (2:190), and “If they break their oaths after their covenant and thrust at your religion, then fight the leaders of unbelief” (9:13). Other verses seem to order the Muslims to fight the unbelievers unconditionally: “Then, when the sacred months are drawn away, slay the idolaters wherever you find them, and take them, and confine them, and lie in wait for them at every place of ambush” (9:5), and “Fight those who believe not in God and the Last Day and do not forbid what God and His Messenger have forbidden—such men as practice not the religion of truth, being of those who have been given the Book—until they pay the tribute out of hand and have been humbled” (9:29). Even in the case of these verses, however, the context could be used to infer that they also refer to cases of self-defense. Classical interpretation of the Qurʾān, however, did not go in this direction. It regarded the “sword verses,” with the unconditional command to fight the unbelievers, as having abrogated all previous verses concerning intercourse with non-Muslims. This idea is connected with the pre-Islamic concept that war between tribes was allowed unless there existed a truce between them, the Islamic ummah being considered to have taken the place of a tribe.

The first comprehensive treatise on the law of jihād was written by ʿAbd al-Raḥmān al-Awzāʿī (d. 774) and Muḥammad ibn al-Ḥasan al-Shaybānī (d. 804). The legal doctrine of jihād grew out of debates and discussions that had continued since the Prophet's death. This period in which the doctrine of jihād was formulated coincided with the period of the great Muslim conquests, in which the conquerors were exposed to the cultures of the conquered, and the doctrine of jihād may have been influenced by Byzantine thought, in which the idea of religious war and related notions were very much alive. It is, however, difficult to identify these influences; if there are similarities, they may result from parallel developments rather than from borrowing.

Classical Doctrine.

The doctrine of jihād as expounded in the works on Islamic law developed from Qurʾānic prescriptions and the example of the Prophet and the first caliphs, as laid down in the ḥadīth (traditions). The crux of the doctrine is the existence of a unified Islamic state, ruling the entire ummah. It is the duty of the ummah to expand the territory of this state in order to bring as many people as possible under its rule. The ultimate aim is to bring the whole earth under the sway of Islam and to extirpate unbelief: “Fight them until there is no persecution [or “seduction”] and the religion is God's entirely” (2:192 and 8:39). Expansionist jihād is a collective duty (farḍ al-kifāyah), which is fulfilled if a sufficient number of people take part in it. If this is not the case, the whole ummah is sinning. Expansionist jihād presupposes the presence of a legitimate caliph to organize the struggle. After the conquests had ended, the legal specialists ruled that the caliph must raid enemy territory at least once a year in order to keep alive the idea of jihād.

Sometimes jihād becomes an individual duty (farḍ al-ʿayn), as when the caliph appoints certain persons to participate in a raiding expedition (ghazāh) or when someone takes an oath to fight the unbelievers. Moreover, jihād becomes obligatory for all free men capable of fighting in a certain region if this region is attacked by the enemy; in this case, jihād is defensive.

Sunnī and Shīʿī theories of jihād are similar in all respects but one crucial one: Twelver Shīʿah hold that jihād can only be waged under the leadership of the rightful imam. After the occultation of the last (twelfth) imam in 873 ce, theoretically no lawful expansionist jihād could be fought, but because defense remains obligatory and the ʿulamāʾ (religious scholars) are often regarded as the representatives of the Hidden Imām, several wars between Iran and Russia in the nineteenth century have been called jihād.

War against unbelievers may not be mounted without summoning them to Islam or submission before the attack. A ḥadīth lays down the precise contents of the summons:

Whenever the Prophet appointed a commander to an army or an expedition, he would say: “When you meet your heathen enemies, summon them to three things. Accept whatsoever they agree to and refrain then from fighting them. Summon them to become Muslims. If they agree, accept their conversion. In that case summon them to move from their territory to the Abode of the Emigrants [i.e., Medina]. If they refuse that, let them know that then they are like the Muslim Bedouins and that they share only in the booty, when they fight together with the other Muslims. If they refuse conversion, then ask them to pay poll tax. If they agree, accept their submission. But if they refuse, then ask God for assistance and fight them.” (Ṣaḥīḥ Muslim)

This ḥadīth also neatly sums up the aims of fighting unbelievers: conversion or submission. In the latter case, the enemies are entitled to keep their religion and practice it, against payment of a poll tax (jizyah); see sūrah 9:29, quoted above. Although the Qurʾān limits this option to the People of the Book, that is, Christians and Jews, it was in practice extended to other religions, such as the Zoroastrians (Majūs) and even eventually to adherents to nonmonotheistic faiths such as Hinduism.

Whenever the caliph deems it in the interest of the ummah, he may conclude a truce with the enemy, as the Prophet did with the Meccans at al-Ḥudaybīyah. According to some schools of law, a truce must be concluded for a specified period of time, no longer than ten years. Others hold that this is not necessary if the caliph stipulates that he may resume war whenever he wishes. The underlying idea is that the notion of jihād must not fall into oblivion.


The most important function of the doctrine of jihād is to motivate Muslims to take part in wars against unbelievers in fulfillment of their religious duty. This motivation is strengthened by the idea that martyrs (shāhids) who die in battle will go directly to Paradise. When wars were fought against unbelievers, religious texts circulated replete with Qurʾānic verses and ḥadīths extolling the merits of jihād and vividly describing the reward waiting in the hereafter for the slain.

Another function was to enhance the legitimation of a ruler or movement. After 750 ce, the political unity of the ummah was lost and has never been restored. One way to acquire greater legitimacy was to wage jihād against unbelievers, one of the main tasks of the lawful caliph. A related function was to validate the struggle against others who were ostensibly Muslims. When two Muslim states were at war with one another, muftis on one side would usually find cause to label those on the other as rebels or heretics. Moreover, throughout Islamic history, but especially in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, radical movements striving for the establishment of a purely Islamic society proclaimed jihād against their opponents, both Muslims and non-Muslims. To justify the struggle against their Muslim adversaries, they branded them as unbelievers for their failure to follow and enforce the strict rules of Islam.

A final function of the jihād doctrine was to provide a set of rules governing warfare, including the initiation, conduct, and termination of war and the treatment of combatants, noncombatants, and prisoners of war during and after conflict.

Jihād in History.

Although the legal doctrine had not yet been fixed in all its details, the notion of jihād played a crucial role as a motivating force during the wars of conquest in the first century of Islam. It provided a unifying ideology that transcended tribal factionalism. After the initial conquests, the idea of jihād was kept alive by raiding enemy territory, but this did not result in substantial territorial gains. The main purpose of jihād was the defense of Muslim lands. This became especially important during the Crusades (eleventh to thirteenth centuries ce), when many works were written exhorting the Muslims to take up jihād against the “Franks” and extolling the sacredness of Jerusalem. From the fourteenth century the Ottoman sultans expanded their territory in northwestern Anatolia at the expense of the Byzantine Empire, which lost its capital, Constantinople, in 1453. Some Western historians have argued that the Ottoman state owed its existence to the struggle against the unbelievers. Although this is now disputed, the importance of jihād in Ottoman history is beyond doubt. Ottoman sultans meticulously observed the rules of jihād in their foreign policies. The last instance was the call for jihād issued by the Ottoman government when it entered World War I in 1914.

Jihāds were prominent in the growth of other regions of the Muslim world, most especially in India under Awrangzīb (1658–1707) and in western Africa under Shehu Usuman Dan Fodio (1804–1812). Most of the anticolonialist movements of the nineteenth and early twentieth century in Africa, India, and the Caucasus employed the language of jihād against the encroaching infidel. It should be noted, however, that a number of these jihāds were equally of a purificationist bent (such as that of Dan Fodio in northern Nigeria) and did not attack non-Muslims at all. Some scholars note the role of these jihāds as protonationalist movements, such as that of Muḥammad ʿAbd Allāh Ḥasan in Sudan (the “Mad Mullah,” 1899–1920).

Changing Modern Interpretations.

The colonial experience affected the outlook of some Muslim intellectuals on jihād. Some argued that in view of the military superiority of the colonizer, jihād, on the strength of sūrah 2:195—“and cast not yourselves by your own hands into destruction”—was no longer obligatory. Others, however, elaborated new interpretations of the doctrine of jihād.

The first to do so was the Indian Muslim thinker Sayyid Aḥmad Khān (1817–1898). After the Mutiny of 1857 the British began favoring the Hindus in the army and in government service. Sayyid Aḥmad Khān wanted to show that Islam did not forbid cooperation with the British colonial government; in this he was motivated by his desire to safeguard employment for the young Muslims from the middle and upper classes. On the basis of a new reading of the Qurʾān, he asserted that jihād was obligatory for Muslims only in the case of “positive oppression or obstruction in the exercise of their faith...impair[ing] the foundation of some of the pillars of Islam” (Ahmad Khan, 1872, pp. xviii–xix). Because the British did not, in his opinion, interfere with the practice of Islam, jihād against them was prohibited.

Middle Eastern Muslim reformers like Muḥammad ʿAbduh (1849–1905) and Muḥammad Rashīd Riḍā (1865–1935) did not go as far as Sayyid Aḥmad Khān. On the strength of those Qurʾānic verses that make fighting against unbelievers conditional upon their aggression or perfidy, they argued that peaceful coexistence is the normal state between Islamic and non-Islamic lands and that only defensive jihād is permitted. This view, however, left open the possibility of jihād against colonial oppression, as the colonial enterprise was clearly an attack on the territory of Islam. Following this reasoning, jihād has recently been presented as a form of Muslim international law, and jihād has been equated with just war. Those who have elaborated this theory point out that Muḥammad al-Shaybānī had formulated a doctrine of international law long before Hugo Grotius (d. 1645).

Twenty-first-century thinking about jihād, however, offers a wider spectrum of views. Apart from the conservatives, who adhere to the classical Islamic legal interpretation, the ideologues of the radical Islamic opposition call for jihād as a means to spread their brand of Islam. Some of these radical groups call for the use of violence to defeat the established governments. They are faced, however, with a serious doctrinal problem as they preach an armed revolution against Muslim rulers: Islamic law permits revolt only in rare circumstances. One of these is when a ruler abandons his belief; as the apostate deserves capital punishment, fighting against him is permitted. Throughout Islamic history, governments and opposition movements have declared their Muslim adversaries to be heretics or unbelievers (takfīr, declaring someone to be a kāfir, unbeliever) in order to justify their struggle against them. This line of reasoning is used by modern radical Islamic groups to legitimate their use of arms against rulers who are to all appearances Muslims. In modern times these views were first propagated by fundamentalists like Sayyid Quṭb (d. 1966) and Abū al-Aʿlā Mawdūdī (d. 1979).

The most eloquent and elaborate statement of this view can be found in a pamphlet published by the Jihād Organization, whose members assassinated President Anwar el-Sadat of Egypt in 1981. The pamphlet is called al-Farīḍah al-ghāʾibah (The Absent Duty), referring to the duty to wage jihād, which, according to the author, Muḥammad ʿAbd al-Salām Faraj, is no longer fulfilled. The author, borrowing his arguments from two fatwas issued by the jurist Ibn Taymīyah (1263–1328), argues that because the Egyptian government fails to implement Sharīʿah and is therefore apostate, it is an individual duty of Muslims to attack the government in order to liberate the country from the regime of “unbelievers.”

The Globalization of Jihād.

When the Soviet Union occupied Afghanistan, resistance was offered not only by local militants but also by volunteers from elsewhere in the Muslim world, who were motivated by jihād. When the Soviet Union was defeated in 1989 and withdrew its troops, many of the international mujāhidūn (jihād fighters) remained. One of their organizations was al-Qaʿida, led by the Saudi national Osama Bin Laden. After the Gulf War of 1991 and the stationing of American troops on Saudi territory, Bin Laden became convinced that the United States was the main enemy of Muslims. In 1996 he issued a twenty-three-page declaration of war against the United States in which he exhorted all Muslims to support the Muslims struggling in Palestine and Saudi Arabia and help them defeat the enemies who occupy Islamic holy places. This was followed in 1998 by a fatwa signed by him and four other radical Muslim leaders. Its conclusions were more specific: “Killing the Americans and their allies—civilians and military—is an individual duty for every Muslim who is capable of it and in every country in which it is possible to do so. This will continue until al-Aqṣā Mosque and the Holy Mosque in Mecca have been liberated from their grip, and their armies have moved out of all the lands of Islam, being defeated and unable to threaten any Muslim.” This fatwa heralded the bombings of the American embassies in Dar es Salaam and Nairobi in August 1998 and the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on 11 September 2001.

Thus jihād became globalized: it was no longer conceived as a local struggle against an enemy occupying Muslim lands, but as a global struggle conducted by mujāhidūn without a well-defined regional basis and hitting the enemy wherever possible, attacking civilians and soldiers alike. Many Muslims protested the 9/11 attacks, especially because these were aimed at civilians, but staunch defenders of Bin Laden issued fatwas declaring the attacks lawful under Sharīʿah. They made two arguments; the first was that the Prophet Muḥammad during his lifetime had attacked towns at night or with catapults. Because it would be impossible to distinguish between combatants and noncombatants during such attacks, the Prophet must have condoned incidental harm to noncombatants. And second, that there are no innocent Americans, because the United States is a democracy and the people of the United States are liable for the acts of the government they have chosen. These arguments, however, were not widely accepted by Muslims.

In the early twenty-first century the most popular methodology of jihād of those most vocally claiming to be waging it is akin to traditional guerrilla methods, and involves pitting a Muslim underdog population under occupation (or perceived to be under occupation) against a superior foe utilizing traditional jihād slogans and employing the example of the Prophet Muḥammad's battles. This model has been adopted by al-Qaʿida, the Taliban, and their supporters in Afghanistan and Iraq (against the United States); both Ḥamās and Ḥizbullāh (against Israel); Filipino radicals (in the southern Philippines); and Kashmiri radicals (against India). In its ideal form it involves not only the creation of a fighting force but an entire countersociety, complete with social welfare programs, in which the core doctrines of radical Islam are spread through the educational system rather than through outright coercive methods. It was owing to the creation of this infrastructure that both Ḥamās and Ḥizbullāh were able to achieve political power. Radicals who have been unable to create this infrastructure are open to the accusation that they are promoting nihilistic violence and ultimately alienate the Muslim populations upon which they depend.

[See also ʿAbduh, Muḥammad; Aḥmad Khān, Sayyid; Bin Laden, Osama; Mawdūdī, Sayyid Abū al-Aʿlā; Quṭb, Sayyid; and Rashīd Riḍā, Muḥammad.]


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                        Kohlberg, Etan, “The Development of the Imami Shiʿi Doctrine of Jihâd.” Zeitschrift der Deutschen Morgenländischen Gesellschaft 126 (1976): 64–86.Find this resource:

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                              Shaybānī, Muḥammad ibn al-Ḥasan. The Islamic Law of Nations: Shaybānī's “Siyar.” Translated by Majid Khadduri. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1966. Translation of one of the earliest works on jihād.Find this resource:

                                Rudolph Peters and David Cook