In this article, I will try to summarize the concept of jihad and war according to the Qur'an, and analyze their practices during the time of the Prophet. As these concepts have often been confused, it has led to some common misjudgments about Islam.
In the early years of Islam, the faith was taught with a focus on common sense with spiritual counsels, arguments in the belief of God's existence, and the Afterlife. When some Muslims who faced insults and persecution tended to react against adversaries, the Prophet calmed them down and asked them to show patience. When pressures increased, the Prophet recommended a group of Muslims immigrate to Abyssinia to evade persecution, but the Meccan chieftains made the issue into an international scandal and sent envoys so the Muslim refugees could be handed over to them.
Unable to prevent the spread of Islam, they increased their violence. The leaders of the Quraysh tribe, except for the Hashimi clan which the Prophet belonged to, decided to implement a severe embargo. They forced Muslims to live in a field known as Shib al-Abu Talib and cut off all relations with them. Even selling something to them was banned. This embargo meant a wholesale condemnation to famine, meaning even women, children, and the elderly suffered. One memory from Sa'd ibn Abi Waqqas can give us an idea about how horrible their situation was: one night, after he relieved himself in a remote corner, he found a piece of animal skin on the ground. He first cleaned it, then held it out to fire, and then tried to appease his feeling of hunger by gnawing at it.
Meanwhile, a growing number of people in Medina were accepting Islam. In the end, 73 people who came to pledge allegiance to the Prophet invited the Muslims to Medina. The Prophet encouraged Muslims to immigrate there in small numbers. When the Prophet was one of the few Muslims who remained in Mecca, the chieftains assembled and decided to assassinate him, but he set forth in the night and the would-be killers returned empty handed.
Although some Muslims were inclined to retaliate against the Meccan enmity, the Prophet did not seek revenge but set about putting things right in Medina. The noble Prophet was a mild person with a distinguished compassion and a magnanimous character. Many different verses of the Qur'an refer to this quality of his, such as the following two:
"There has come to you (O people) a Messenger from among yourselves; extremely grievous to him is your suffering, full of concern for you is he, and for the believers full of pity and compassion" (Tawbah 9:128); and, "Had you been harsh and hard-hearted, they would surely have scattered away from about you. Then pardon them, pray for their forgiveness, and take counsel with them in the affairs (of public concern)..." (Al Imran 3:159).
We know that the Meccan chieftains were not indifferent to this migration; they threatened the Medinans and prepared to take vengeance.1 On the other hand, although almost all Muslims had left, the previously sowed seeds of faith began to germinate and people kept embracing Islam in Mecca. The following verse refers to those new believers and those who remained oppressed:
"Why, then, should you not fight in the cause of God and of the oppressed, helpless men, women, and children, who cry out: ‘O Lord! Bring us out of this land whose people are oppressors, and appoint for us from Your Presence a protector, and appoint for us from Your Presence a helper!'" (Nisa 4:75).
The Muslims who emigrated from Mecca had left behind their homes, businesses, trade, relatives, and everything else. Since the polytheists usurped their properties, it was perfectly lawful for the Muslims who emigrated from Mecca to reclaim their rights from them. After a long period of patience that lasted some fifteen years, God gave them permission to fight back:
"The believers against whom war is waged are given permission to fight in response, for they have been wronged. Surely God has full power to help them to victory – those who have been driven from their homeland against all rights, for no other reason than that they say, ‘Our Lord is God'" (Hajj 22:39-40).
The prevalent opinion in the West is that, Muslims have the right to use weapons to make others accept their religion or to destroy those who do not accept it – and are even obliged to do so. Accordingly, this notion is known as the "Holy War," and some have tried to present the word "jihad" as the Qur'anic term for it. In reality, this word – which literally means "striving" – does not mean fighting, and there is no concept of "Holy War" in the Qur'an.2 "Guerre sainte" or "holy war" belongs to European terminology.
The concept of jihad is very extensive. Certain Qur'anic verses state that jihad can sometimes be in the form of war, such as the following example:
"Those who were left behind in opposition to God's Messenger rejoiced at staying at home, and abhorred striving with their wealth and persons in God's cause. And they said: ‘Do not go forth to war in this heat'" (Tawbah 81).3
According to a classification by Ibn Qayyim al-Jawziya,4 the levels of jihad can be categorized as follows:
1) Jihad against the carnal soul:
2) Jihad against Satan:
3) Jihad against adversaries of Islam:
4) Jihad against hypocrites:
The Qur'anic chapters revealed in Mecca either use the word jihad in the sense of making efforts to be of guidance to others or bringing reasonable arguments for belief from the Qur'an, but in a peaceful fashion:
"(So pay no heed to (the desires of) the unbelievers, but engage in a mighty striving against them by means of it [the Qur'an]" Furqan 25:52).
It also means making a personal spiritual struggle:
"Those (on the other hand) who strive hard for Our sake, We will most certainly guide them to Our ways (that We have established to lead them to salvation). Most assuredly, God is with those devoted to doing good, aware that God is seeing them" (Ankabut 29:69).5
When referring to war, the Qur'an uses the word "qital" in multiple different verses. The following verses establish under which conditions it is to be done:
"Fight in God's cause (in order to exalt His Name) against those who fight against you, but do not exceed the bounds (set by God), for surely God loves not those who exceed the bounds" (Baqarah 2:190).
"Then if they desist (from fighting), surely God is All-Forgiving, All-Compassionate" (Baqarah 2:192).
"If they withdraw from you and do not fight against you, and offer you peace, then God allows you no way (to war) against them" (Nisa 4:90).
Another verse makes the same distinction:
"God does not forbid you, as regards those who do not make war against you on account of your Religion, nor drive you away from your homes, to be kindly to them, and act towards them with equity. God surely loves the scrupulously equitable. God only forbids you, as regards those who make war against you on account of your Religion and drive you away from your homes, or support others to drive you away, to take them for friends and guardians. Whoever takes them for friends and guardians, those are the wrongdoers" (Mumtahanah 60:8-9).
Even in chapter Tawbah, which begins with a severe ultimatum against unbelievers, hypocrites, and believers who elude fighting, and which informs Muslims that all relations with polytheists are to be cut, the Qur'an holds the polytheists who do not break their treaties with Muslims as exceptions. The following is stated in the 4th verse of this chapter:
"Excepting those among the people who associate partners with God with whom you made a treaty, and who have not thereafter failed to fulfill their obligations towards you (required by the treaty), nor have backed anyone against you. Observe, then, your treaty with them until the end of the term (that you agreed with them). Surely God loves the God-revering, pious (who keep their duties to Him)."
No text in the Qur'an justifies practicing undue violence. The issue can be summarized as resisting the enemy in a proper fashion and acting justly. The Qur'an even commands granting asylum to polytheists who have no treaty with Muslims but make such a demand:
"And if any of those who associate partners with God seeks asylum of you (O Messenger), grant him asylum, so that he may hear the Word of God, and then convey him to his place of security" (Tawbah 9:6).
In another verse of the same chapter, the purpose of the war the believers are asking for is stated as follows:
"Will you not fight against the people who have broken their pledges and have done all they could to drive the Messenger (from where he chooses to dwell), and initiated hostilities against you?" (Tawbah 9:13).
From these verses, we understand that those who first initiate hostilities will be responsible for the war. And only those who personally fight are to be punished. Within this frame, people like women, children, the elderly and disabled, workers in their fields, and especially people of religion in their places of worship, will be safe from any kind of violence. The last group mentioned is particularly noteworthy: had Islam endorsed religious bigotry, it would command practicing violence to people of religion first.
The noble Prophet, who practiced the command of forgiving those enemies that give up fighting, even banned chasing any escaping enemies. The purpose of this regulation is eliminating danger. War is not made for the sake of coercing people to accept Islam, but for preventing coercion and torments about people's religious preferences. War in Islam is made for the sake of letting people be free in choosing their faith. Eliminating any obstacles to religious freedom has been the sole motive for those who properly fought in the cause of Islam.6
A remaining question is what the word fitnah means, as in the following verse:
"And (if they still persist in unbelief and hostilities), fight against them until there is no fitnah, and the whole of religion for God exclusively..." (Anfal 8:39).
Here, fitnah is mostly interpreted as "associating partners with God." On the other hand, scholars7 of Qur'anic exegesis explain "fitnah" in the 191th verse of chapter Baqarah as "torture with the aim of making one forsake his or her faith." It is stated that while explaining "fitnah" in this verse, and its similar use in Baqarah 193, scholars of Qur'anic exegesis8 relate in their books that prominent scholars9 of the early period understood the word fitnah in Baqarah 193 to mean torments, and namely persecution. By also taking into consideration the comments in more recent works by M. Abduh, Qasimi, Muhammad Draz, and Maraghi for this verse, we can say that this sense of fitnah refers to pressure and torture in the hopes of making somebody forsake their faith. On this front, the Qur'an explicitly states that there is no place for coercion in religion:
"There is no compulsion in the Religion. The right way stands there clearly distinguished from the false. Hence, he who rejects the false deities and believes in God has indeed taken hold of the firm, unbreakable handle; and God is All-Hearing, All-Knowing" (Baqarah 2:256).
"If your Lord had so willed (and, denying them free will, compelled mankind to believe), all who are on the earth would surely have believed, all of them. Would you, then, force people until they become believers?" (Yunus 10:99).
Like these verses state, different beliefs will exist since God allows it:
"If your Lord had so willed (and withheld from humankind free will), He would have made all humankind one single community (with the same faith, worldview, and life-pattern). But (having free choice) they never cease to differ (and follow diverse paths, diverging from the Straight Path), save those on whom your Lord has mercy (and guides to the Straight Path because of the merits they have)" (Hud 11:118-119).
Such a question may arise in one's mind at this point: "Does the Qur'an not assign Muslims with the duty of conveying the truth they believe to other people? Is it not the point of Islam to bless people with happiness in both worlds? Is it not necessary to convey this message to those unaware of this guidance?" The answer is surely yes, and many verses of the Qur'an make it clear.10 Muslims are supposed to convey the message to those who are uninformed about it. The Qur'an clearly expresses that this should be done with wisdom and fairness:
"Call to the way of your Lord with wisdom and fair exhortation, and argue with them in the best way possible. Your Lord surely knows best who has gone astray from His way, and He knows best who are the rightly guided" (Nahl 16:125).
This verse reveals the essential method of conveying the message. From a perspective of Qur'anic exegesis, it is understood that the verse alludes to three general groups of addressees: the first group is those who have a good sense of reasoning and the message is to be conveyed to them with erudite proofs and wisdom. The second group is the wider mass who will not quite understand erudite explanations but need to be addressed with "fair exhortation" – namely, by giving them sound advice in more easily understandable formats. It is necessary to elucidate for them what they will gain by following good guidance or the loss they will suffer otherwise. As for the unbelievers with an adversarial stance who are not likely to be addressed in these two ways, it is necessary to argue them in the best way possible.
Here, the person addressed and invited to religion is completely free at accepting the Islamic message or not. However, as the Islamic teaching gives people freedom to accept the message or not, it requires the same freedom to convey the message. Every human, including Muslims, has the birthright of practicing and instructing their faith, and when this right is forsaken, they should claim it by pursuing legitimate means of struggle to ensure freedom of conscience for everyone.
1 Muhammed Hamidullah, Islam'a Giris (introduction to Islam), translated into Turkish by Cemal Aydin, Ankara: 2005, p.19
2 Muhammad Draz, Toward Understanding the Qur'an, p. 60.
3 Likewise, the 41th and 86th verses of the same chapter also use the word jihad in this sense.
4 Zadu'l-Mead, Beyrut, 1985, 3/9-11, Terc. 3/1011-1012, Cantas yayinlari
5 For example, see Baqarah 190, 192, 193, 216; Nisa 75, 90; Anfal 39; Tawbah 29; Hajj 39; Saf 4; Muzzammil 20.
6 Muhammad Draz, Toward Understanding the Qur'an, p. 64.
7 Zamakhshari, Ibn Atiyya, Fakhruddin Razi, Baydawi, Ibn Juzay, Sealibi, Hatib Shirbini, Abu's Suud, Shawkani, Qasimi, M. Rashid Rida, and Maraghi are among them.
8 Ibn Atiyya, Razi, Hazin, Shirbini, M.S. Hasan Han
9 e.g. Ibn Ishaq, Urwah ibn Zubayr, Ibn Abbas (according to one report), Ar-Rabi, and Hasan Basri.
10 For particular examples, see: Al Imran 3:110; Asr 103:1-4; Zukhruf 43:5; Nahl 16:125.