BLOOMINGTON, Ind. (RNS) One of the most persistent accusations leveled against Muslims today is that the Quran explicitly instructs them in the name of jihad to fight against non-Muslims — solely because they are non-Muslims — until Islam takes over the whole world.
The term “jihad” however means to struggle or strive in order to promote what is good and prevent what is wrong — a fundamental moral imperative within Islam. Such striving can be accomplished through personal spiritual purification, social reform, and, when applicable, through military defense of those who have been persecuted. Militants and Islamophobes alike focus on the notion of jihad as armed combat.
The most frequently cited verse to make this point is Quran 9:5, which states: “And when the sacred months have passed, then kill the polytheists wherever you find them and capture them and besiege them and sit in wait for them at every place of ambush.”
While this verse refers to Arab polytheists during the Prophet Muhammad’s lifetime and to the sacred months observed during the pre-Islamic period, this verse is plucked out of the holy text by Islamist militants and Islamophobes alike to make the case that Muslims are required to kill unbelievers everywhere, a duty understood to be obligatory for all time.
Case closed? Not quite.
What if we brought in other verses that could shed more light on how to understand the military jihad and for what purpose it may be undertaken — perhaps that would undermine these literalist, decontextualized understandings? The very first revelation giving seventh-century Muslims permission to fight is contained in Quran 22: 39-40, which states:
“Permission is given to those against whom fighting has been initiated because they have been wronged, and God is able to help them. These are they who have been wrongfully expelled from their homes merely for saying “God is our Lord.” If God had not restrained some people by means of others, monasteries, churches, synagogues, and mosques in which God’s name is mentioned frequently would have been destroyed. Indeed God comes to the aid of those who come to His aid; verily He is powerful and mighty.”
These verses clearly refer to fighting back only after being attacked. Defensive fighting was established in these verses for Muslims not for the sake of spreading their religion but for the protection of their lives and property. This military defense may also be undertaken for the sake of non-Muslims who face similar persecution, since non-Muslim houses of worship are clearly mentioned in these verses as being worthy of protection.
Another critical verse, Quran 2:190, unambiguously forbids Muslims from attacking the enemy first. It states, “Fight in the way of God those who fight you and do not commit aggression for God does not love aggressors.”
Accordingly, many exegetes insisted that Muslims could only fight back after they had been attacked, and that the counterattack had to be proportional to the original attack. This is the documented position of the early exegetes Mujahid b. Jabr and Muqatil b. Sulayman, who wrote their Quran commentaries during the first half of the eighth century. Other commentators, such as the famous al-Tabari in the late ninth century, emphasized that the prohibition against committing aggression also meant that civilians — especially women, children, the elderly, monks and hermits — should not be targeted during fighting. Muslim scholars used a different Arabic term to describe violence directed at civilians — “hiraba” or terrorism — which had nothing to do with a legitimate jihad.
There are other verses that explicitly state who cannot be fought against. For example, Quran 60:8 states:
“God does not forbid you from being kind and equitable to those who have neither made war on you on account of your religion nor driven you from your homes; indeed God loves those who are equitable.”
And Quran 8:61 obligates Muslims to embrace peacemaking:
“If they incline to peace, you must incline to peace.”
Both verses forbid Muslims from fighting people who display no hostility towards them and live peacefully in their midst — their religious affiliation has no bearing on this issue.
Yes, but — militants and Islamophobes will protest fervently — these peaceful verses are all abrogated by Quran 9:5, which is why it is called the “sword verse”!
On the contrary, this is not how it has been understood by the most influential commentators on the Quran. Al-Tabari, and after him the well-known pre-modern commentators al-Zamakhshari, al-Razi, al-Qurtubi and Ibn Kathir all maintained the position that Quran 9:5 did not abrogate other verses in the Quran advocating forgiveness and reconciliation. And they further asserted that the peacemaking commandment contained in Quran 8:61 was binding and valid for all time.
It’s clear that ISIS and other militant groups today are not carrying out a military jihad as understood by mainstream scholars. Rather, in their deliberate targeting of civilians and indiscriminate use of violence they are carrying out hiraba, or terrorism. Those who describe the actions of these militant groups as jihad are part of the problem, not the solution.
(Asma Afsaruddin is professor of Islamic Studies at Indiana University, Bloomington and author of “Striving in the Path of God: Jihad and Martyrdom in Islamic Thought”)