An Islamic State flag hangs amid electric wires over a street in Ain al-Hilweh Palestinian refugee camp near the port-city of Sidon in southern Lebanon on Jan. 19, 2016. Photo courtesy of Reuters/Ali Hashisho

Islamist militants carry out terror, not jihad

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.”

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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.

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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.

ISIS, ISIL, Islamic State

So-called Islamic State fighters ride horses as they take part in a military parade along the streets of Syria's northern Raqqa province on June 30, 2014. Photo courtesy of Reuters/Stringer

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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.

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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")


  1. Call it what you will it doesn’t change the reality. The Catholic Inquistion was a perversion and not supported in the Christian scriptures but that didn’t change the terror in the hearts of those summoned (and you never knew when to expect the Inquisition). Don’t point to the what is written but look at what is actually done in its name. This applies to all religions.

  2. This is one interpretation. Many many Muslims would disagree. Historical analysis of Islam would disagree. You find historical evidence for both interpretations of Jihad from the founding of Islam to the present time. There is no reasonable discounting that Islam used military force to invade the land of Palestine, North Africa and areas of southern Europe. All this article demonstrates is that Islam is not one contiguous tradition but is splintered as are many faith traditions. But attempting to discount, isolate, marginalize, and minimize the influence of the traditional/tribal/miliant/terrorist/jihadist cultural identity that pervades many people in certain geographical areas is not true to the facts on the ground, dangerous for security, unrealistic, and imposing on those who hold these views an identification they themselves would not concur with.

  3. So this makes Islam no different from the other major conquering proselytizing religion in the Western World, Christianity. A religion whose spread was largely due to conquest, colonization, genocide and has a longstanding issue with violent sectarian division.

    The problem with making wild generalizations about a given religion or even religious subculture is that it tends to miss either deliberately or inadvertently much of the history (or lack thereof) behind it. A means of pretending to know a subject without bothering to learn the details.

    Islamicism is a lot more recent than most are willing to admit to. Even the Islamicists themselves.

    BTW this is not an M&M

  4. “And that prophet, or that dreamer of dreams, shall be put to death; because he hath spoken to turn you away from the LORD your God.” (Deuteronomy 13: 5)

    “If thy brother, the son of thy mother, or thy son, or thy daughter, or the wife of thy bosom, or thy friend, which is as thine own soul, entice thee secretly, saying, Let us go and serve other gods, which thou hast not known, thou, nor thy fathers.” (Deuteronomy 13: 6)

    “Slaves, obey your earthly masters with respect and fear, and with sincerity of heart, just as you would obey Christ.” (Peter 2:18: )

    And the LORD said unto Moses, ‘Take all the heads of the people and hang them up before the LORD against the sun, that the fierce anger of the LORD may be turned away from Israel.’” (Numbers 25:3-4)

    Now therefore kill every male among the little ones, and kill every woman that hath known man by lying with him. But all the women children, that have not known a man by lying with him, keep alive for yourselves.” (Numbers 31:16-18)

    “I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she must be silent.” (1 Timothy 2:12)

    —-Pot, meet kettle

  5. Not really Spud. Most of your quotes are history. Some are of how the Lord was instructing His people to prepare a place for them – as He would help you. There is a big difference between that, and outright murder because someone is not a member of your following.
    Slaves were indentured servants.
    Timothy is in reference to running a church.

  6. I guess taking random quotes of the scripture of another religion only counts when it isn’t Christianity. 🙂

    All of your quotes are as well. Maybe you should take the hint and recognize the differences between random quotes from scripture and actual practiced belief.

    Btw slaves were slaves. Chattel property of their masters. If slavery weren’t so bad, there wouldn’t be most of a book devoted to the liberation of slaves from bondage. 🙂

  7. Actually, I do. Did you not read the recent article just a few days ago on RNS? I cannot remember the title, but it said exactly what I am saying here.

  8. LOL!

    Sorry, but the whole line of argument is a load of bunk. It doesn’t wash when Neo-Nazis quote the Talmud, Seventh Day Adventists quote the Catechism, or Evangelicals quote the Book of Mormon.

    You can’t pretend to know squat about a religion by doing that sort of thing. But it is great for promoting sectarian hatred.

  9. “The very first revelation giving seventh-century Muslims permission to fight is contained in Quran…. ”

    And there lies the problem. 7th century instruction is not wisdom that deserves to be considered meaningful in 2017. All abrahamic religions deserve little relevance in our day to day lives, and islam shouldn’t be considered either factual or meaningful. It threatens apostasy with death, so more of a re-generating cult of fear by the sound of it.

    Meanwhile as the world debates this nonsense, NASA has been looking at the south pole of Jupiter, attempting to locate life on Saturn’s moons, and studying hundreds of potentially life-bearing exoplanets around stars in our interstellar neighborhood.

    There is an infinite universe out there, no “wisdom” of religion has matched what we know today. Unsurprisingly, your fake prophet has not been located on his winged horse around the moon either.

  10. I would advise Afsaruddin to check out “Reliance of the Traveler,” a classic text of Sharia jurisprudence, where it clearly refers to war against non-Muslims as the lesser Jihad, and an obligation on the larger community when taking the offensive and a personal obligation on every Muslim when defensive. And yes, civilians are not to be targeted unless they are themselves engaged in resisting the Jihad, but “resistance” is open to interpretation and millions of Muslims worldwide agree with the terrorists on their interpretation of Jihad.

    I wish Afsaruddin the best in changing the classical understanding of Jihad held by every major school of Islamic jurisprudence I’ve looked at, but the violence won’t end until the classic texts are rejected by all, experts and common Muslims alike.

  11. Asma Afsaruddin,

    You forgot the other demands of your Allah as spelled out in your book of horror and terror:

    o “Believers, take neither Jews nor Christians for your friends.” (Surah 5:51)
    “Believers, when you encounter the infidels on the march, do not turn your backs to them in flight. If anyone on that day turns his back to them, except it be for tactical reasons…he shall incur the wrath of God and Hell shall be his home…” (Surah 8:12-)

    “Make war on them until idolatry shall cease and God’s religion shall reign supreme.” (Surah 8:36-)

    “…make war on the leaders of unbelief…Make war on them: God will chastise them at your hands and humble them. He will grant you victory over them…” (Surah 9:12-)

    “Fight against such as those to whom the Scriptures were given [Jews and Christians]…until they pay tribute out of hand and are utterly subdued.” (Surah 9:29-)

    “It is He who has sent forth His apostle with guidance and the true Faith [Islam] to make it triumphant over all religions, however much the idolaters [non-Muslims] may dislike it.” (Surah 9:31-)

    “If you do not fight, He will punish you sternly, and replace you by other men.” (Surah 9:37-)

    “Prophet make war on the unbelievers and the hypocrites and deal rigorously with them. Hell shall be their home.” (Surah 9:73)

    “Believers, make war on the infidels who dwell around you. Deal firmly with them.” (Surah 9:121-)

    “Say: ‘Praise be to God who has never begotten a son; who has no partner in His Kingdom…” (Surah 17:111)

    “‘How shall I bear a child,’ she [Mary] answered, ‘when I am a virgin…?’ ‘Such is the will of the Lord,’ he replied. ‘That is no difficult thing for Him…God forbid that He [God[ Himself should beget a son!…Those who say: ‘The Lord of Mercy has begotten a son,’ preach a monstrous falsehood…” (Surah 19:12-, 29-, 88)

    “Fight for the cause of God with the devotion due to Him…He has given you the name of Muslims…” (Surah 22:78-)

    “Blessed are the believers…who restrain their carnal desires (except with their wives and slave-girls, for these are lawful to them)…These are the heirs of Paradise…” (Surah 23:1-5-)

    “Muhammad is God’s apostle. Those who follow him are ruthless to the unbelievers but merciful to one another.” (Surah 48:29)

    “Shall the reward of goodness be anything but good?…Dark-eyed virgins sheltered in their tents…They shall recline on green cushions and fine carpets…Blessed be the name of your Lord…” (Surah 55:52-66-)

    Quran (8:12) – “I will cast terror into the hearts of those who disbelieve. Therefore strike off their heads and strike off every fingertip of them”

    Quran (9:5) – “So when the sacred months have passed away, then slay the idolaters wherever you find them, and take them captive and besiege them and lie in wait for them in every ambush, then if they repent and keep up prayer and pay the poor-rate, leave their way free to them.”

    And please no references to the OT as we do realize this is another book of horror and terror much of which your scribes used to generate the koran.

  12. And as Christianity outgrew this evil mindset of using force to impose and convert, it is time for Islam to do the same. The problem is that it would appear the Christian texts are a bit devoid of references justifying force whereas the Quran is full of them.

  13. No it hasn’t. It’s just that secularism is far more potent in keeping the autocratic impulses of the faith in check.

    Any time any religion is entangled with the state, we get atrocity. Christians have been working abroad to promote atrocity as evidenced by Scott Lively’s efforts in Africa, the Carribean and Russia. It has nothing to do with the given faith and everything to do with its place in society. The last European nation which was entangled with a Christian church was Franco’s Spain. Half a million people “disappeared” in his reign. The first thing Juan Carlos did when he succeeded him was the divesting of church power in the govern.

    Your argument is lazy thinking at its most obvious and completely ignorant of the history those areas.

    Most of the “Muslim world” was post colonial secular nationalist in nature as the organizing principle of their dictatorships. By 1979 with the birth of the Iran/Saudi feud, Islamicism became useful for driving put moderates and democracy minded people. It is not inherent to the religion or an aspect which was always predominant.

    Moreover it’s not even an immigrant issue in the US. 35% of American Muslims are converts born here.

    The whole “creeping sharia” panic argument is given by people who have no regard for what protects Americans from theocracy, separation of church and state. As it turns out, they are not averse to religious domination of society and upending democracy. They just want their religion to be the one in control.

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