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, India, March 2009

Centrality of jihad in the post-Qur’Anic period

Historical aspects of Jihad.

Keywords: Use of religion for war, use of religion for peace | Peace according Islam | | India

Jihad in Islam has acquired centrality in history of Islam. In Qur’an it is not jihad but values like justice, compassion and forgiveness are more prominent. While these values are permanent and transcendent, war (for which Qur’an uses the word qital, not jihad) is contextual and defensive only when such situation arises. Rahmah (compassion) is quite central to Islam as it is one of the most prominent names of Allah. Compassion, in fact, is as central to Islamic value-system as in Buddhism. But then question arises why jihad, that too, in the sense of war, became so central to Islam? It is an important question and we must seek answer to this question in the history of Islam.

I think, the whole problem begins with the doctrine though not Qur’anic and which developed over a period of time, that in Islam religion and politics cannot be separated. This doctrine assumed great importance in Muslim countries and all sorts of rulers, monarchs, sultans and sheikhs exploited it to hilt to establish authoritarian regimes which violated all Qur’anic values.

This doctrine that religion and politics cannot be separated was result of religion becoming instrument of seeking power rather than seeking the truth (Haq). The most fundamental purpose of religion is seeking truth, not power. Though ideally power must be based on truth but it is not. Power often results in serious compromises with truth and hence truth is compromised in search of power.

Now the question is how religion in Islamic history came to be associated with power? When the Prophet (PBUH) died there was no state structure. All services were performed by the people purely voluntarily including war services and services for maintaining order in the society. It was purely people’s state, if at all we can call it a state. But after the death of the Holy Prophet the character of the state began to be transformed and by the time of 2nd caliph it acquired all the feature of a formal state structure

Before we proceed any further we must note that when the Prophet of Islam began to preach in Mecca, Mecca was a stateless tribal society governed by tribal customs and traditions and through consensus of tribal chiefs in policy matters. There was no ruler or ruling class. It was tribal chiefs and traders who had formed their own inter-tribal trade corporations who wielded tremendous clout.

Thus it would be seen that Islam appeared in a society which had no state structure, no army, no policing services and no bureaucracy. Prophet’s mission was to cleanse the society of all moral corruption, obsession with material wealth, neglect of weaker sections of society and promoting belief in one God (tawhid) as belief in multiple gods in Arab society in general and in Mecca in particular, had resulted in mutual tribal conflicts and superstitious practices, some of which has been mentioned in the Qur’an.

Thus it was difficult to build unity among all the people who worshipped different gods and associated different practices and superstitions with different gods. It was also resulting in moral corruption. Accumulation of wealth also came under strong denunciation as it had divided society into rich and powerful and poor, weak and orphans and widows and slaves. These weaker sections of society had no human worth and dignity. They simply provided cheap source of labor.

Islam’s main concern was to promote belief in one God, build unity among all people irrespective of tribal and other affiliations and restore human dignity to all. Piety and moral rectitude, guaranteed nearness to Allah, not riches or tribal affiliations. The Prophet’s whole struggle was to set up such a society of good human beings and hence emphasized equality of all human beings, including of men and women, Arab and non-Arab, rich and poor. This was the main mission of Allah’s Messenger.

And it is for this precise reason that Qur’an made it obligatory for all men and women to enforce evil and contain evil. It is not state’s duty but an individual moral obligation in the Qur’an. This also shows there is no concept of state but concept of society. Also, it would be individual who would be responsible for his/her good or bad deeds before Allah. State’s function is to maintain law and order.

But after death of the Prophet (PBUH) there was no great moral authority to influence people and since there was no formal state structure, it became necessary to evolve a formal state structure. Since there was no available model among Arabs, much had to be copied from Persian and Roman state structures. As there was no fixed model of deciding as to who will head the new fledgling state Muslim opinion got divided, some accepting Prophet’s son-in-law as head of the state appointed by the Prophet and some said the Prophet Abu Bakr to succeed him. Shi’ahs accepted Ali as successor and Sunnis Abu Bakr as successor to the Prophet to tackle the affairs of the new community.

Pursuit of power or building up a state was not and cannot be the purpose of any religion. In case of Islam it was mere historical circumstances that brought newly emerging religion and fledgling state together. Thus it cannot be treated as doctrine but historical coincidence. And it was struggle for power which sharply divided Muslims into two major sects and also it was power struggle which resulted in civil war after assassination of third caliph and more than 70 thousand Muslims died in the civil war.

This is the most tragic phase of early history of Islam. Though state had become historical necessity for Muslims in Madina which emerged as centre of power after the death of the Prophet (PBUH) its association with Islam was neither inevitable nor desirable. Pursuit for power, became the main preoccupation of many Muslims Rather than pursuit for truth and moral obligations.

Thus despite the doctrine of fusing religion with politics, urge for power remained strong rather than urge for moral rectitude and truth. Religion and religiosity did not dominate but urge for power did. Ultimately the institution of khilafah which was more democratic and was based on religious values to a great extent was soon replaced by feudal monarchy on the Roman and Sassanid pattern and monarchy was based only on power and religious element totally disappeared. It became dynastic rule first of Umayyads and then of Abbasids.

The first casualty of transformation of khilafah into monarchy was battle of Karbala which is great tragedy of early history of Islam. It was greed for power on the part of Yazid, son of first Umayyad ruler Mu’awiyah that led to martyrdom of Imam Husain, the grandson of the Prophet (PBUH). Husain stood for Islam and Islamic values and Yazid for power. It was Umayyad greed for power which resulted in killing of members of Prophet’s family.

It is unfortunate that these wars for power were often called ‘jihad’ and not only meaning of jihad which originally means struggle for truth was corrupted to mean war in the way of Allah. These wars were anything but war in the way of Allah. Qur’anic doctrine no where requires war with sword to spread Islam. So all conquests that took place had nothing to do with religion and were anything but jihad. In fact the series of conquests begin with the 2nd Caliph Umar and Sassanid and parts of Roman Empire were conquered. Unfortunately we do not find much on reasons for these conquests in early sources. It was certainly not for spread of Islam or spread of truth. The text of treaties mentioned by Baladhuri, the author of Futuh al-Buldan clearly indicate that conquered people were not asked to convert to Islam but negotiated with them the terms of jizya, supply of military provisions, slaves etc. Nowhere they are invited to convert to Islam. If some people convert it was purely a voluntary act.

Yet for all these wars Tabari (the eminent historian) and others have used the term ‘jihad’ which no where comes near the sense in which Qur’an uses the term. The act of conquest was thus a political, not a religious act. The Prophet’s whole struggle (jihad) was for creating a new human being who would be morally upright imbibing values of Qur’an like justice, equality, compassion, wisdom, knowledge truth etc.

It is important to note that for this new human being Qur’an uses the word mu’min often translated as ‘believer’. But the Qur’anic term mu’min is far more comprehensive and refers to qualitative transformation of person’s inner being than simple belief. The Qur’anic term m’umin refers to a new human being fully transformed qualitatively who would be engaged with his society to fight all that is evil which leads to conflict, oppression and exploitation.

However this project of creating new human beings with inner qualities of heart and mind was seriously compromised with the pursuit of power. The word jihad which was originally meant for this inner struggle for moral transformation and creation of new human being, came to be used for wars of conquests and desire for more and more power. The Qur’an was basically addressing these issues of moral and ethical values and permitting war only in defense. This permission was also granted as rich and powerful of the Quraysh were against qualitative transformation of society as it seriously affected their powerful vested interests.

Their whole preoccupation was accumulation of wealth and this was not possible without exploitation and oppression and insensitivity to sufferings of weaker sections of society. The new human being, a mu’min would have been a great danger to their interests and hence they intensified their opposition to emergence of such a movement based on justice, equality and compassion which were central values of this newly emerging movement in Mecca.

When the Prophet (PBUH) migrated to Madina this movement still posed danger to kuffar (unbelievers, rejecters or opponents) of Mecca. They knew Muhammad (PBUH) would be safe and at ease in Madina and will consolidate this position. Hence they entered into an understanding with Jews of Madina who were also unhappy with the new community of believers which was becoming dominant posing threat to their interests (though much closer to them religion-wise but it is conflict of interests which mattered, not similarities of religion).

The kuffars of Mecca began attacking Madina to harass the Prophet and his followers and thus make success of the new movement most difficult, if not impossible. Thus Qur’an permitted Muslims to fight in the way of Allah those who fought against them (Muslims) but cautioned them not to be aggressors as Allah does not love aggressors. Thus no war could not be waged by Muslims unless attacked.

But most of the wars fought by Muslims after the death of the Prophet (PBUH) were not defensive wars as permitted by the Qur’an but aggressive or acquisitive. Moreover, Qur’an never used the word ‘jihad’ for war but it uses the word ‘qital’ for such wars. The word jihad had religious appeal and was used in the Qur’an and hadith for striving for good, for justice, for ushering in non-discriminatory, non-hierarchical society.

Since jihad had great religious appeal the word jihad began to be used for all such wars and that is how jihad began to be used very loosely by Muslim rulers and even wars of aggression and territorial aggrendisement began to be described as jihad by Umayyads and Abbasids and subsequently other rulers which multiplied with weakening of centralized Abbasid state from later part of 10th century onwards. Even when ambitious ruling dynasties of Muslims fought against each other it was called jihad.

Since these rulers were highly influential even among theological circles and subsequent generations were highly ignorant of original meanings of the Qur’anic words and terminologies, jihad ultimately came to be accepted as religious war and any war became religious war in subsequent history of Islam.

Islam had originally emerged among the community of traders and it had adopted a middle path and Qur’an had described Muslims as ummatan wasatat (community of middle path). We also find in hadith literature that middle path is the best path morally and ethically and Muslims were urged to avoid either extremes. Middle path always leads to stability and extremism leads to turmoil and upheavals. Middle path, moreover is the most desirable path for a trading society which prefers stability and seeks to avoid extremes.

But with wars of conquests and expansions of empire, trading society was transformed into a community of warriors. Arabs did indulge into inter-tribal ghazwa (raids) but had no trained armies and the Quraysh of Mecca, who initially became principal opponents of Islam, were mostly traders and were not much interested in warfare. But when their interests were threatened, as pointed out above, they assembled some loosely fighting force and attacked Madina. But they had neither a trained army nor they intended one as they thought Muslims could be finished off with ease.

When parts of Roman Empire and Iran were conquered during Hazrat Umar’s time then also Muslims had no trained and disciplined army. Bedouins and Urban Arabs constituted loose fighting force and it was mere zeal and determination and also support of common oppressed people of these countries that they could win against powerful and well-trained armies. It was nothing short of miracle.

However, such miracles do not recur nor such enthusiasm and determination lasts for ever, and once Arabs tested political power they were tempted to acquire more and more power and gradually that became their preoccupation. Thus the nation of traders was transformed into nation of conquerors. Soon people of conquered countries began to embrace Islam for variety of reasons and they joined Muslims with their martial traditions.

Now Muslim ruling classes acquired all the traits of martial races with hierarchical feudal values and Islamic values began to be sidelined. Islam had laid great emphasis on equality and new martial cum feudal society replaced original Islamic society with its own weltanschauung. The new society was hierarchical with emphasis on superiority of ruling class rather than of pious.

Compassion, mercy, benevolence wisdom were less important that war like virtues and ruthlessness of rulers. Exploitation and oppression are characteristics of those with lust for power and wealth. Centrality of compassion and mercy which are divine virtues was lost and centrality of war in the garb of jihad occupied its place. Islam became now religion of rulers rather than of the oppressed as in the Qur’an.

It was not something unique with Islam. Other religions like Christianity had met the same fate earlier. Christianity too was religion of love, compassion and peace during the time of the Christ and it again it was the poor and the oppressed who had adopted Christianity. Like in the Qur’an Bible also talked about the meek inheriting the earth. The Christians remained most oppressed for about two to three centuries. However, when Roman emperor embraced Christianity its character was transformed and from religion of the oppressed it became religion of oppressors and subsequent history of Christianity is history of bloodshed and warfare. Its central values were also sidelined. Those who were sincerely religious among Christians began to live life of renunciation and retreats and isolation.

Likewise among Muslims there emerged a group of Sufis who equally resented warfare and bloodshed for political power among Muslims, especially among Umayyads and Abbasids initially and among other non-Arab Muslims subsequently and they too adopted simpler and what they considered as Islamic way of life. For Sufis therefore, real jihad was fighting against ones own desire and lust for power and they termed this jihad as jihad-e-akbar (the greatest jihad). They battled their own desire so that they could imbibe Islamic values and create a society based on compassion, justice and equality.

Their religion, unlike religion of rulers, was not religion of mere rituals but of values. For a ruling class religion is mere bundle of rituals but for those who resist lust for power and battle their own desire, religion is religion of values. For them all human beings are worthy of respect irrespective of their station in life and irrespective of their ethnic origin or religious persuasion. It is for this reason that people of different faiths and social status visit their hospices or graves.

Today in our own times jihad is being grossly misused by power seekers and modern highly destructive weapons like bombs are used to kill innocent people for their political struggle. This is what Qur’an calls fasad (when something goes beyond moderation and causes disorder and mischief), not jihad. Thousands of innocent people are being killed and many youth are made to lay down their lives in the hope of getting paradise in the life hereafter.

In fact these brainwashed youth, falsely enticed by powerful vested interests, waste their life and kill innocent people and cause so much mischief and destruction of life and properties (fasad). It is all because of the misuse of the Qur’anic term jihad which Qur’an uses for creating a just, peaceful and compassionate society sensitive to others suffering. In fact compassion in this sense is as central to Islam as in Buddhism or Christianity.

Now it is for those youth who are properly educated in Islamic values to dedicate themselves to promote compassion and respect for human life and stop monstrosities being committed in the name of Islam. It would be real jihad and it is this jihad which will earn the whole humanity paradise. A truly Islamic society will be one where all are free, free from fear, free from oppression and exploitation.

To pursue such a goal one has to use religion for pursuit of truth, not pursuit for power. When religion is used for pursuit for power, it results in bloodshed and war and when religion is used for pursuit of truth it results in peaceful and compassionate society. Unfortunately ruling classes use religion for pursuit of power by projecting themselves as champions and protectors of religion.

Those who use religion in pursuit of truth carry on their struggle and dedicate themselves for removing sufferings from society and make society humane and worthy of peaceful coexistence for all. Let us bring values of justice, equality, compassion and peace at the centre as it was intended by Islam.


  • Indian Institute of Islamic Studies.