Recently terrorist activities by purportedly Muslim groups have increased debate over the place of violence in true Islam. Moderate Muslims say violence has no place, because Islam is a religion of peace. In their minds, it is as unfair to judge Islam by extremists as it would be to judge Christianity only by the Crusades, the Spanish Inquisition, and the Puritan witch hunts.
Is such a comparison reasonable? Does it do justice to the canonical teachings of both religions? The answer to these questions is found at least partly in a study of the Islamic concept of jihad and its lack of a full counterpart in Christian orthodoxy.
The word jihad is often translated as "holy war," but it literally means "struggle" or "exertion." In its religious context, it always involves a fight against evil, but this can take many forms: jihad of the heart, of the mouth and pen, of the hand, and of the sword. Jihad of heart, mouth, and pen are sometimes spoken of as "spiritual jihad," particularly among the Shi'ites (the largest Islamic minority party, comprising roughly 10 percent of the Muslim world).
All Muslims must engage in jihad of the heart, which finds a rough parallel in the Christian command to put to death the sin nature. Muhammad clearly commanded his followers to fight their sinful tendencies, as did Jesus. Islam, though, offers no assistance in this struggle from the Holy Spirit, the counselor and guide promised to Christians.
Jihad of the mouth aims to undermine opposition to Islam through speech that takes one of two forms. The first, verbal argumentation, finds a Christian parallel in the discipline of apologetics. The second, curses and saber-rattling, has roots in pre-Islamic Arabia, where the art of extemporaneous imprecatory poetry was prized as a means of verbal jousting between warring tribes.
Generally, a war of words is considered preferable to one of physical violence. Muslims still employ this tactic. When Saddam Hussein bragged before the Gulf War that coalition troops were facing "the mother of all battles," he was engaging in a jihad of the mouth.
Jihad of the pen applies the written word to Islam's defense. Over the last thirteen centuries, much Islamic ink has presented Muhammad as the ultimate prophet of God and his message as the perfect will of Allah for all humanity. The central doctrines of the Christian faith, though sadly misunderstood by many Muslim scholars, have been the special target of Islamic apologetics.
Jihad of the hand seeks to promote the cause of Allah through praiseworthy deeds. Muslims' exemplary treatment of others and devotion to God are supposed to prove the superiority of their message and serve as a vehicle for the proclamation of their beliefs.
Christians also embrace the concept of jihad of the hand. As Francis of Assisi is credited with saying, "Preach the gospel at all times; if necessary, use words."
The last and most troublesome form of jihad is that of the sword. This aspect dominates Islamic history and jurisprudence.
When the word jihad occurs in the Qur'an without any modifier, or with the typical modifier "in the cause of Allah," it invariably refers to the call to physical combat on behalf of Islam. It is often linked with the word qital (fighting) in the context of dealing with unbelievers.
Some modern Muslims downplay this understanding, arguing that in Islamic tradition war is called the "lesser jihad." Indeed, according to one disputed tradition from the hadith (the collection of texts concerning Muhammad's actions or statements, second only to the Qur'an in authority), when Muhammad returned from the field of war he said, "We have all returned from the lesser jihad to the greater jihad."
Some companions asked, "What is the greater jihad, O prophet of God?"
He replied, "Jihad against the desires."
Presumably the jihad of the heart is greater because it is unceasing, whereas the jihad of the sword continues only as long as there are unbelievers unwilling to submit to the rule of Islam. Nonetheless, this tradition demonstrates that Muhammad engaged in military jihad, and he commanded his followers to engage in it as well.
Doctrines of war
The Qur'an contains seemingly contradictory teachings on jihad of the sword. Islamic scholars, however, note that Muhammad's teaching on jihad developed over time as the circumstances of his growing community changed. This accounts for the seeming contradictions, which actually describe four distinct stages of development.
First, when Islam was a fledgling movement and Muhammad endured persecution from his extended tribe in Mecca, he counseled his small band to engage in a policy of peaceful persuasion. Sura (chapter) 16:125-6 declares, "Invite [all] to the way of thy Lord with wisdom and beautiful preaching; and argue with them in ways that are best and most gracious. … But if you show patience, that is indeed the best [course] for those who are patient."
Many Muslims today regard this as the proper approach for the Muslim community any time it finds itself an overwhelmed minority in an unreceptive host culture.
When Muhammad fled Mecca in 622 (the Hegira) to the friendlier confines of Medina, followers still in Mecca faced serious threats of property loss and bodily harm. This antipathy arose in response to the prophet's attacks on the Meccan caravan trade—the primary means by which Muhammad financed his mission.
Muhammad subsequently decreed that fighting was permissible only to ward off aggression and reclaim property confiscated by infidels. So, for example, Sura 22:39 says, "To those against whom war is made, permission is given [to fight], because they are wronged, and verily, God is most powerful for their aid. [They are] those who have been expelled from their homes in defiance of right, [for no cause] except that they say, 'Our Lord is God.'"
Within a few months, this permission to fight in self-defense became a religious obligation to battle those who initiated hostilities against the Muslim community or its interests. "Fight in the cause of God those who fight you, but do not transgress limits; for God loveth not transgressors. And slay them wherever you catch them, and turn them out from where they have turned you out. … But if they fight you, slay them. Such is the reward of those who suppress faith" (2:190-194).
As the doctrine of jihad developed, Muhammad taught that those who sacrificed their lives in battle for the cause of God would be guaranteed admission to the highest level of heaven—no small reward in a religion where one's hope of heaven otherwise depends on near perfect obedience to divine law.
Conversely, those able-bodied Muslims who refused the call would suffer divine punishment (9:38-9). Not surprisingly, the number of Muslim men willing to commit their lives to warfare surged from this point on.
The third stage of development moved jihad from defense to offense. Muslims were told to take the initiative in war but to refrain from attacks during the four sacred months, which were recognized by all tribes within the Arabian peninsula as months for religious pilgrimage.
"When the forbidden months are past," the Qur'an declares, "then fight and slay the pagans wherever you find them, and seize them, beleaguer them, and lie in wait for them in each and every ambush. But if they repent, perform the prayers and give alms, then leave their way free" (9:5).
The final development of the Qur'anic concept of jihad removed any limitations on the timing of battle in the cause of Allah. When commanded by a recognized Muslim leader, Muslims could attack non-believers in any season and on any land not yet surrendered to the armies of Islam. The famous Sura 9:29 (see page 18) lays out this ambitious plan.
Applying the law
Which of these stages is meant to be normative for Islam?
According to standard Islamic jurisprudence, it is the fourth—expansionist jihad, understood as armed struggle against unbelievers, whether or not the Muslim community has been attacked. The law of abrogation in Qur'anic hermeneutics (see Suras 2:106; 13:39; 16:103), in which later revelation always trumps earlier texts, affirms this.
Islamic history bears out this expansionist bent. One century after the appointment of the first caliph, Abu Bakr, Islam had become an empire reaching across North Africa up to Spain in the west and across Asia into India in the east. By the end of the next century (the second century Anno Hegirae), Muslim territorial conquests had peaked, and Islamic jurisprudence had fully defined the behaviors and conditions governing "holy war."
The terms of jihad closely parallel Augustine's "just war" conditions. Only proper government authorities can conduct jihad. Fighting must avoid harming non-combatants, hostages, prisoners, and property (especially trees and landscape), and its ultimate goal must be to secure justice and peace.
For Islam, however, the causes of justice and peace are synonymous with the advance of the Muslim state, for politics and spirituality are inextricably bound together in the dream of one world under the complete dominion of Allah and His followers. So whereas Christian "just war" principles do not support the notion of establishing the kingdom of God by force, the Islamic doctrine of jihad unapologetically does.
When the ummah (community or state) of Islam faces its history of coercion and expansion, there is no shame or repentance. Islam, unlike Christianity, teaches in its most authoritative sources that force is justifiable in the cause of Allah. Far from feeling regret over past conquests, Islam takes pride in this heritage.
Indeed, many Muslims look back on the first three centuries of Islam as the golden years of their heritage and long for a return to world ascendancy.
Tales of two founders
The actions of Jesus and Muhammad show the stark contrast in founding principles between their two religions.
When Jesus is arrested at the Garden of Gethsemane, the disciples grab their swords. Peter strikes off the ear of one opponent. Jesus immediately commands his followers to stand down and declares that violence is not the appropriate means to accomplish the Father's will.
According to Matthew 26:53, Jesus claims that, should he want to win a military victory, he could easily call on his Father, "who will at once put at my disposal more than twelve legions of angels." Instead, rebellion is met with love, animosity with forgiveness.
While hanging on the cross, he prays for those who have wronged him, "Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do." Love for enemies, sacrifice for their well-being, is the way of Jesus.
According to Sahih al-Bukhari (4:280b), one of several similar stories about Muhammad reads thus: "Anas bin Malik said, 'Allah's Apostle entered (Mecca) in the year of the conquest (of Mecca) wearing a helmet over his head. After he took it off, a man came and said, 'Ibn Khatal [a pagan opponent] is clinging to the curtains of the ka'ba [a recognized behavior for seeking mercy]. The Prophet said, 'Kill him.'"
While there is certainly room for debate over how well Christians and Muslims have followed the teachings of their respective leaders, there is no doubt about the contrasting visions of Jesus and Muhammad for how God's kingdom should be advanced. Just war theory has played a relatively minor role in the spread of Christianity across the globe. Jihad has been at the heart of Islam's expansion.
Mateen A. Elass is senior pastor of Immanuel Presbyterian Church in Warrenville, Illinois. Born to a Syrian Muslim father and an American mother, he converted to Christianity at age 20 and was disowned by his father for 14 years. They later reconciled. Mateen loves Muslims and has deep respect for his heritage.
Copyright © 2002 by the author or Christianity Today/Christian History magazine.
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