Is Islam a conquest ideology more than an actual religion, as some now claim? Is Jihad identical to ‘perpetual war’ in Islam’s grand political scheme of things? And is the life of the Prophet Muhammad, sallallahu ‘alayhi wa sallam, mostly about blood and gore and body counts? These are the issues addressed here.
Muslim scholars have long identified two types of jihad (lit. striving in God’s cause): an outer form of jihad and an inner one. The outer usually refers to state-sanctioned military force (i.e. armed combat), which is waged to defend both religion and realm, fight pre-emotively, or guard the vulnerable against unjustified aggression. As for the inner jihad (jihad an-nafs), it is the struggle to oppose one’s ego (nafs) and false desires, until they are in submission to God. This inner jihad is known as the “greater” jihad, as per mainstream Sunni scholarship.
What follows is a perusal through the reality of the outer jihad – as per Islam’s source texts and the words of classical and contemporary Muslim jurists:
1. The outer jihad connotes a wide range of meanings which embraces: (i) the tongue, (ii) the hand and (iii) the sword. It can refer to the act of enjoining others to good and forbidding them from evil, as in the hadith: “So whoever strives against them with his hand is a believer; whoever strives against them with his tongue is a believer; whoever strives against them with his heart is a believer. Beyond this, there is not even a grain of faith.”  It includes speaking truth to power: “The greatest jihad is to speak a word of truth in front of a tyrannical ruler.”  Striving in dutiful service of our parents is also a form of jihad, as in the Prophet’s reply, sallallahu ‘alayhi wa sallam, to a young man who desired to participate in armed combat, and whose parents were still alive: “Strive in their service – fa fihima fa jahid.”  Then there is that all-important mode of jihad: da’wah – inviting others to Islam by conveying its teaching: “Strive against them with it [the Qur’an], with the utmost striving.” [Al-Qur’an 25:52] And of course there is fighting in war. In brief: not all jihad is fighting, but nor is all fighting jihad.
2. Without doubt, jihad in the sense of qital (“fighting”, “military war”) is enjoined on the faithful at numerous places in the Qur’an and is seen as a highly meritorious form of duty and sacrifice in Islam. Ar-Raghib wrote about the schematics of jihad in these terms: “Jihad is of three types: jihad against the apparent enemy; against the devil; and against the ego (nafs). All three types are included in Allah’s words, exalted is He: ‘And wage jihad in Allah’s path with all the striving that is due to Him,’ [Al-Qur’an 22:78] ‘And wage jihad with your wealth and your lives in the way of Allah.’ [Al-Qur’an 9:41] … Jihad is to be waged with the hand and the tongue, as he [the Prophet, sallallahu ‘alayhi wa sallam] said: ‘Wage jihad against the unbelievers with your hands and your tongues.’  “ That said, the idea of jihad being a ‘holy war’ is alien to the Islamic vocabulary. When rendered into Arabic, the term reads: al-harb al-muqaddas, which doesn’t exist in any form in the Islamic teachings. War in Islam may be sanctioned or unsanctioned; but never holy.
3. Islam’s overall take on warfare can best be seen in these words of our Prophet, sallallahu ‘alayhi wa sallam: “Never wish to meet your enemy, but ask Allah for safety. If you do meet them, be firm and know that Paradise lies beneath the shades of swords.”  That is to say, pursue the path of peace and reconciliation; if such a path be denied by hostile intentions, then be prepared to act differently. The next hadith might also be used as a support: “After me there will be conflicts and affairs. If you are able, resolve them peacefully.”  Also revealing are these words expressed by the Prophet, sallallahu ‘alayhi wa sallam: “The most detested of names to Allah are War (harb) and Bitterness (murrah).”  Given the above; and given also the numerous peace accords or ententes the Prophet, sallallahu ‘alayhi wa sallam, initiated so as to halt or mitigate the woes of war; let alone how he forgave and pardoned mortal enemies wherever he could, it’s simply fictitious, mischievous or fallacious to describe the Prophet as a ‘war monger’. A reluctant warrior, and a leader who took to combat to safeguard his nation from extinction or subjugation, are far truer descriptions of him sallallahu ‘alayhi wa sallam.
4. In classical Islam, warfare is regulated by an all-important shari’ah dictum that says about jihad: wujubuhu wujubu’l-wasa’il la al-maqasid – ‘Its necessity is the necessity of means, not of ends.’  That is, jihad of the military kind is not the goal; it’s a means to a goal. That goal being: the free and unhindered invitation to Islam and the summons to worship God alone. Islam treats war, given the harm, destruction or loss of life that takes place, as a necessary ‘evil’ of sorts: “For had it not been for God’s checking some men by means of others, monasteries, churches, synagogues and mosques wherein God’s name is often mentioned, would have been destroyed.” [Al-Qur’an 22:40] Two or three centuries after Islam’s birth, its jurists would define jihad in terms of armed combat against disbelievers who did not have a peace treaty, for advancing the religion. Al-Kasani said it is: “Expending one’s utmost abilities and strength to fight in Allah’s way, with one’s person, property, tongue, or other than this.” And Al-Qastalani defined it as: “Fighting the disbelievers, so as to support Islam and make the word of God supreme.”
5. This martial jihad has rules and codes of conduct too. Among them is that the head of state carefully evaluate the potential pros and cons of war; ensure non-combatants [civilians] are not killed or wilfully targeted; abide by any peace treaty or international agreement it has signed up to; and keep in mind receptivity to the call of Islam. The classical Islamic doctrine which forbids killing civilians in a military jihad takes its cue from the Prophet’s saying, sallallahu ‘alayhi wa sallam: “March forth in the name of God, trusting in God and adhering to the religion of God. Do not kill elderly men, infants, young children nor women.”  And Ibn ‘Umar narrates that the Prophet, sallallahu ‘alayhi wa sallam, “forbade the killing of women and children.”  After quoting the last hadith, An-Nawawi stated: “Scholars agree upon acting by this hadith and forbid the killing of women and children, provided that they do not engage in combat. If they do, the great majority of scholars (jamahir al-‘ulama) hold that they can be fought.” And Al-Buhuti reminds us: “Declaring jihad or not is entrusted to the head of state and his decision, for he best knows the condition of the Muslims and of the enemy.”
6. This brings us to another vital aspect about jihad in Islam: who may be fought? Are Muslims required to wage jihad against disbelievers due to their disbelief (kufr)? Imam Ibn Taymiyyah takes up the issue, stating: “The disbelievers, they are only to be fought on condition of them waging war first – as is the view of the majority of scholars; and as is proven by the Book and the Sunnah.” Which is to say, Islam permits fighting disbelievers, not because of their disbelief, but only if they initiate war against Muslim societies, or manifest belligerence towards them. The Qur’an says: “Fight for God’s sake those that fight against you, but do not transgress the limits.” [Al-Qur’an 2:190] Along similar lines, Ibn Al-Qayyim, another medieval jurist, held that: “Fighting is only a duty in response to being fought against, not in response to disbelief. This is why women, children, the elderly and infirm, the blind, and monks who stay out of the fighting are not fought. Instead, we only fight those who wage war against us.”
7. Ibn Al-Qayyim also said about the Prophet, sallallahu ‘alayhi wa sallam: “Never did he force the religion upon anyone, and he only fought those who waged war against him and fought him. As for those who entered into a peace treaty with him, or concluded a truce, he never fought them, nor ever coerced them to enter his religion, abiding by his Lord’s order: ‘There is no compulsion in religion. True guidance has become distinct from error’ [Al-Qur’an 2:256] … It will be clear to whoever ponders the life of the Prophet, sallallahu ‘alayhi wa sallam, that he never coerced anyone to enter his religion and that he only fought those who fought against him first. As for those who ratified a peace treaty with him, he never fought them, provided they kept to their covenant and did not violate its terms.”  Such was the majority juristic view, that jihad is waged due to hostility; not religious affiliations, and eventually prevailed within Sunni Islam. Thus, the Prophet’s defensive battles, like Badr, ‘Uhud, Ahzab and Hunayn, were where the enemy launched an offensive against the Muslims who then had to defend religion and realm. While battles like Khaybar, Mu’tah or Tabuk, where the Muslim state was aware of the enemy’s impending aggression, resulted in a need to strike pre-emptively as a form of defence.
8. In light of the above, how do we explain jihad talab – ‘offensive’ war? Classical law manuals almost invariably include the likes of the following statement in their martial codes: “Jihad in Allah’s path [is to be waged] every year.” Also: “It is a communal duty once each year.” So how does this square with what’s previously been stated? Well, jihad doctrines were based on defence, not only in terms of actual hostilities launched against Muslims, but also pre-emptively in cases of likely aggression. This doctrine was devised at a time when the Islamic state was surrounded by other states with whom there was no peace treaty, or who were openly belligerent to it. In such a dog eat dog world, one either attacked first, or else was attacked first. Such was the state of affairs throughout the pre-modern world. The twentieth century, however, changed all that. The U.N. Peace Charter has effectively made peace the default between nation states. As such, Muslim juristic voices began to reflect this new reality: “It is essential to note that the world today is united under a single organisation where each member [state] adheres to its terms and conditions. The Islamic ruling in this case is that it is obliged to fulfil all agreements and treaties that the Islamic lands commit themselves to, as is stipulated by the law of fulfilling treaties endorsed by the Qur’an. Based on this, those non-Muslim countries that are members of this world organisation are not deemed as the Abode of War (dar al-harb). Instead, they should be seen as Abodes of Truce (dar al-‘ahd).”(NOTE: If you want to build a strong and powerful relationship with Allah, check out Islamia TV, where you can watch Islamic speakers from across the globe deliver inspiring and motivational courses. Learn more at www.islamia.tv.)