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These legal guidelines concerning jihad are taken from the commentaries of ‘Umar Barakat (c.1890) on the 14th century writings of Ahmad ibn Naqib al-Misri, in the Shafi’i school, one of the four major schools of Islamic jurisprudence. Within the range of Islamic thought, Shafi’is have a rationalistic interpretation of shari’a, unlike the extremism of some of the fundamentalists. Yet I think you’ll find these plain-spoken accounts eye-opening, if you haven’t seen them before.

The Muslim schools are identical in about three-fourths of their legal conclusions, and most of the differences are methodological. I am not aware of serious variances over the issues of jihad presented here; the one I can see clearly is outlined in the quoted text.

Though these texts are in some cases ancient, they are still in print, taught and learned and revered in the Islamic world. They are the basis of proper behavior for observant Muslims.

Jihad means to war against non-Muslims, and is etymologically derived from the word mujahada, signifying warfare to establish the religion. And it is the lesser jihad. As for the greater jihad, it is spiritual warfare against the lower self (nafs), which is why the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) said as he was returning from jihad,

“We have returned from the lesser jihad to the greater jihad.”

The scriptural basis for jihad, prior to scholarly consensus is such Koranic verses as:

(1) “Fighting is prescribed for you” [Koran 2:216];

(2) “Slay them wherever you find them” [Koran 4:89];

(3) “Fight the idolaters utterly” [Koran 9:36];

and such hadiths as the one related by Bukhari and Muslim that the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) said:

“I have been commanded to fight people until they testify there is no god but Allah and that Muhammad is the Messenger of Allah, and perform the prayer, and pay zakat. If they say it, they have saved their blood and possessions from me, except for the rights of Islam over them. And their final reckoning is with Allah”;

and the hadith reported by Muslim,

“To go forth in the morning or evening to fight in the path of Allah is better than the whole world and everything in it.”


Jihad is obligatory upon Muslims, but there are two kinds of obligations in Islam, the personal and the communal. A personal obligation is required “from each and every morally responsible person.” A communal obligation is required “from the collectivity of those morally responsible.” If no one from the community undertakes it, then all are guilty of a serious sin. If one or some undertake it, then the obligation is fulfilled.

In normal situations, for Muslims at home in their own country, jihad is a communal obligation. But “when non-Muslims invade a Muslim country or near to one, … jihad is personally obligatory upon the inhabitants of that country, who must repel the non-Muslims with whatever they can.”

Some other points:

  • “It is offensive to conduct a military expedition against hostile non-Muslims without the caliph’s permission, though if there is no caliph, no permission is required.”
  • “Muslims may not seek help from non-Muslim allies unless the Muslims are considerably outnumbered and the allies are of goodwill towards the Muslims.”
  • “The caliph makes war upon Jews, Christians, and Zoroastrians, provided he has first invited them to enter Islam in faith and practice, and if they will not, then invited them to enter the social order of Islam by paying the non-Muslim poll tax — which is the significance of their paying it, not the money itself — while remaining in their ancestral religions. And the war continues until they become Muslim or else pay the non-Muslim poll tax, in accordance with the word of Allah Most High.
  • ‘Fight those who do not believe in Allah and the Last Day and who forbid not what Allah and His messenger have forbidden — who do not practice the religion of truth, being of those who have been given the Book — until they pay the poll tax out of hand and are humbled.’ [Koran 9:29]”
  • “The caliph fights all other peoples until they become Muslims, because they are not a people with a Book, nor honored as such, and are not permitted to settle with paying the poll tax, though according to the Hanafi school, peoples of all other religions, even idol worshippers, are permitted to live under the protection of the Islamic state if they either become Muslims or agree to pay the poll tax, the sole exceptions to which are apostates from Islam and idol worshippers who are Arabs, neither of whom has any choice but becoming Muslim [al-Hidaya sharh Bidaya al-mubtadi’].”
  • “It is not permissible in jihad to kill women or children unless they are fighting against the Muslims. Nor is it permissible to kill animals, unless they are being ridden into battle against the Muslims, or if killing them will help defeat the enemy. It is permissible to kill old men, meaning someone more than forty years of age, and monks. … It is permissible in jihad to cut down the enemy’s trees and destroy their buildings.”
  • “When a child or a woman is taken, they become slaves by the fact of capture, and the woman’s previous marriage is immediately annulled.”
  • “When an adult male is taken captive, the caliph considers the interests of Islam and the Muslims and decides between the prisoner’s death, slavery, release without paying anything, or ransoming himself in exchange for money or for a Muslim captive held by the enemy.”

“In Sacred Law truce means a peace treaty with those hostile to Islam, involving a cessation of fighting for a specified period, whether for payment or something else.” A truce is “a matter of the gravest consequence because it entails the nonperformance of jihad.” “There must be some interest served in making a truce other than mere preservation of the status quo.”

Both sides in the American Civil War passionately believed God was on their side. The South, perhaps moreso than the North, held this conviction. Religious revivals swept the Confederate camps in 1863 and 1864, and the people of the South believed that their piety and the Scriptural basis of their social order would bring them divine assistance.

Yet when their cause failed and their armies were defeated, their religion taught them to accept this as a chastisement. They saw the many failings in their leaders and themselves, and they turned inward for repentance and reform. This was based in their religion; Christianity encourages such humility.

In Japan, after 1945, the same cultural and religious forces that had driven the nation into war served it in the transition to peace and acceptance of defeat. The emperor, the descendant of a goddess, was a key player. “Purity” during the war had meant purging Japan and Asia of Western decadent influences and hegemony. After defeat, it served the cause of purifying Japan of militarism and corrupt feudalism. During the war, the Shinto concept of “proper place” had encouraged a racist vision of Japanese superiority in the world; but it allowed the nation, after defeat, to embrace the “place” of being a good loser.

Even the caricatures of the Americans as demons and beast-monsters of Japanese folklore allowed a transition to accepting American military protection; the archetypal folklore demon (like the faeries of Europe) always had two aspects, destructive, but also potentially instructive and tutelary.

But where in Islam is this quality? Where is its ability to stop fighting, to accept that there will be no world caliphate? We are offered the hadith about “lesser jihad” and “greater jihad,” but that does not negate the call to religious war.

As if we needed reminders after Sept. 11, the Islamist movement is not an internal matter for Muslim nations only. An isolationist America or Europe can say it is no business of ours if Middle Eastern or North African countries embrace female circumcision, beheading, denial of basic rights to religious minorities (though I have a hard time calling such isolationists “liberals”). But there is an international relations component to this religious movement.

In a world where the most deadly weapons slowly ooze out of their containers, a region festering with petulance and paranoia has to be dealt with, now, not later. It’s not a good time to tell ourselves convenient lies about what motivates those who would kill us.

  • http://betweenhopeandfear.blogspot.com/ Cicero

    I recommend the following background reading. There’s some parallels between Islamic and Arab warfare.

    The New Arab Way of War
    by Captain Peter Layton, RAAF
    March, 2003

    http://www.usni.org/Proceedings/Articles03/prolayton03.htm

  • http://vernondent.blogspot.com/ Callimachus

    Yes, that’s a good introduction. And I’m glad to see that “Proceedings” is online. I hadn’t noticed that before. I’ll bookmark that next to “Parameters.”

  • http://www.kozoru.com Justin Gardner

    Parameters is great. A friend of mine who’s a screenwriter either subscribes to it or gets it and sends me along articles sometimes. I think they have very logical, honest looks at current military problems and it was refreshing to read.

  • lgude

    The most memorable and important thing that a good friend and Sufi Sheikh said to me is: “The only Jihad you win, is the one on the inside.” i.e. the Greater Jihad. In my view the Islamists have forgotten the Greater Jihad and fallen into fanaticism and literal minded obsession with Lesser Jihad. Without the Greater Jihad, without sincere self reflection, there is no way to discover how to stop fighting – to stop the Lesser Jihad.

  • http://vernondent.blogspot.com/ Callimachus

    Igude, that seems true to me, too. But we can’t be the ones who preach that to the mass of Muslims. Heck, the jihadis would kill a sufi as willingly as they’d kill a kufir. We’re equally infidels to them — sufis are worse, probably, as apostates. There seems to be a red line drawn in many places (perhaps here) around the notion of “Islam is the problem,” but I’m not interested in red lines. Islamist terrorism is the problem. But Islam, the religion, is the matrix in which the problem grows, and the place where the solution has to happen.

  • http://americanfuture.typepad.com Marc Schulman

    Great post, Callimachus. I’d like to see it in the magazine section of the Sunday New York Times.

  • http://www.agoyandhisblog.com goy

    There’s something at work here, I think, that’s similiar to our collective national hesitation to utter the fact that most murders in the U.S. are between blacks (http://www.ojp.usdoj.gov/bjs/homicide/race.htm).

    PC dictum has muzzled our ability to deal effectively with problems that appear to be essentially ethnic or racial in nature, and the one we face at present is exclusively that – at least with respect to the dogma that drives what we think of as ‘radical’ Islam. That’s why you won’t likely ever see a piece like this – excellent and incisive though it certainly is – in a national media outlet, let alone the Sunday NYT. That, and the author would be targeted in the same way Theo van Gogh in the Netherlands was targeted… and murdered in cold blood.

    Ironically, radical (i.e., liberal) Islam appears to be that faction that would most likely coexist with social and political entities that violate sharia law. The moderate and certainly the conservative Islamists (think Iran) simply can not tolerate western liberalism in any form – to do so is heresy unless it is in the restrictive context of dhimmitude.

    The proximity and tangibility of Western culture, as the world continues to shrink due to technology and the global need for oil, appears to have rekindled an Islamist resentment that has waxed and waned since the beginnings of the Ottoman Empire (~1300-1920).

    IMHO, the resulting nature of present-day conflict arises from the manner in which many true believers, living in a self-imposed 13th century mindset, rationalize the almost unmeasurable difference between their quality of life vs. say – mine, sitting in a modest 8-room, air-conditioned home, sipping wine and munching on hummus pork rinds, with broadband, pay-per-view and images of naked babes only a few keystrokes away. Their rationalization, it appears, is found in sharia law: our way of life, and the social and political systems that facilitate it, insult God and simply can not be allowed to exist. And the same dogma that identifies this insult not only justifies violence as an answer – it encourages violence. What’s more, there are no civilians in this process, as Dr. Hani Al-Siba’i recently made quite clear.

    So, while we PC westerners struggle to call a spade a spade, stare in ignorant disbelief at murderers like Mohammed Bouyeri, and choose instead to argue over idiotic, partisan topics like who “outed” Valerie Plame, all the while knowing how this diversion weakens our response to Islamist fascism, the Islamists point to western blasphemy and find ready converts among the poor and/or disaffected among them.

    IMHO, the greatest mistake we can make right now is to even pay lip service to the Big Lie that OIF has somehow “created” a generation of terrorists. Those who, in profound ignorance of history, would push that canard in the interest of winning (back) a branch of government are risking far more than they realize. Islamic jihad began 1300 years ago. We can either teach it to get along with the rest of the world, or we can have Armageddon. And the more credence we give to folks complaining about humiliation of terrorists, the more we argue about WMDs, the more we allow self-anointed pundits and gadflies to dictate the national discourse, the closer we get to the latter. In the nuclear age, there’s no third alternative

  • lgude

    Thanks for the response Callimachus. I don’t disagree with your original post or your response to my comment. As someone who had practiced Sufism and has some direct experience of the Greater Jihad – I wage it every day – I thought it worthwhile to make the point. For the record I am not a practicing Muslim but am a recognised as a student of Islam by my Sheikh so, you are right, I am not qualified to discuss the point from within Islam. But as someone who knows more than many outsiders I think it is worthwhile pointing out that even in the Islamic writings you quoted in your post that there are elements that could be used by anti extremist Muslims to reform the ‘matrix from which the problem grows’. As a further example of the kind of thing I mean the Muslims of Iraq found themselves, if not outnumbered, utterly at the mercy of Saddam and might argue that the US help is of good will toward Muslims – and therefore permissible. From reading Iraqi blogs some seem to think that way, while some do not. Bottom line – I think there may be a bit more hope here than many non Muslims think. Maybe – time will tell.

  • Joshua Scholar

    Very good article – it’s unusual to read an article that both has a wide sweep and still gets the details right. I suspect that only a blogger could take the time to write an article that well.

    One point that worries me is the dynamic of “greater jihad” being a communal duty. The fact that it is a duty seems to prevent Muslims from organizing against Jihad despite the fact that every robber who attacks non-muslims can call his crime a “jihad” (hell, in Darfor, they kill and rape black Muslims and call this a jihad).

    When there is a move to oppose Jihadis it has to be disguised (which is why the Free Muslims Coalition has been a failure). When there were recent arrests of a california family that trained in Al Qa’eda camps, some Muslims did try to oppose the radicals in their mosque who had indonctrinated those kids, but rather than standing up and saying that terrorism is wrong, they said that such preaching “divides Muslims” and “sets fathers against sons”.

    How can Muslims oppose terrorism if, among themselves, they don’t dare to oppose it on moral grounds?

  • Joshua Scholar

    Oops I wrote “greater Jihad” when I meant to write “lesser Jihad”.