Omaha, Nebraska
Spring 1991
Volume 2, Number 2

Just War: Jihad is the Only War Sanctioned by Islam

Ashton Welch
History Department

Jihad is the Arabic and Islamic term for holy war. While Islam provides for a kind of non-violent "war," which is essentially a form of missionary activity, a jihad is the only kind of violent war sanctioned by Islam. It is a divine institution of warfare to defend Islam from danger or to extend Islam into non-Islamic territories. Islam explicitly recognizes violence as an acceptable tool for the preservation of justice and the destruction of the unjust. Muslims must combat oppression and injustice wherever they are found. Muslims are not uniform in interpreting the obligation of the jihad. Islam has a number of divisions in addition to the better known Sunni and Shi'a. For example, within the Shi'a community Shi'ite Twelvers hold that a Holy War is legally impossible until the return of Hidden Imam while Kharijites and Ibadites have elevated it to a sixth pillar of the religion in addition to the accepted profession of faith, pilgrimage, ritual prayer, giving of alms, and fasting.

The concept of the jihad exists within the societal paradigm. Islam mandates a religiously-based socio-political system often described as a theocracy. As such, there is no separation between the religious and temporal realms. Thus, at least theoretically, the head of the political state should be the head of the religious community. The Koran exhorts obedience to the ruler. Moreover, the Islamic state is commissioned with an authority that is all-inclusive. The authority entrusts the state with the power to command (amr) and to prohibit (nahy) the citizenry in all aspects of life. Such conditions have not been the reality for much of the Islamic world in the centuries since the decline and fall of the Caliphate. With few exceptions, the monarchies, colonial states, and republics which replaced the caliphate not only separate the religious and the temporal but tend to subordinate the religious to the temporal. Many Muslims long for and advocate restitution of the "legitimate" form of society. The absence of the "legitimate" government in itself is a reason to call for a jihad. If other efforts fail a jihad is also a proper vehicle to destroy an unjust sovereign political system.

The head of the community, is duly bound to institute a jihad when the conditions demanded it. As heads of putative Islamic states presidents and monarchs are ultimately responsible for the promotion and protection of Islam. The jihad is therefore one of the tools available to them. The Prophet Muhammad initiated the first one in the war between his followers of Medina and the resisting Meccans. He also stated that a holy war can be conducted during the sacred month of Rhamadan. While the Koran expressly recognizes the need for resorting to arms, it also sets limits on their use. In the Second Surah, believers are told to "Fight in the way of Allah with those who fight with you, but begin not hostilities. Lo! Allah loveth not aggressors." In the Eighth Sura, defenders of Islam are reminded to "fight only until persecution is no more."

According to the Sunnah, a jihad must end when order in Islam is no longer threatened or when unbelievers have accepted Islam. An important precondition of jihad is a reasonable prospect of success, failing which a jihad should not be undertaken. Those who die in a genuine jihad are considered to be martyrs (shuhada) who have special merit and enter paradise directly. In the Fourth Sura, "a vast reward" is promised to all participants in a victorious holy war whether they are slain or not. The Fourth Sura, addressed to women, implies that defense of the kingdom of Allah is not a manly monopoly. Some Islamic authorities assert that in defense of Islam, a single day under arms or a single drop of blood spilled will earn the believer more merit than months of prayer or fasting. Undoubtedly, therefore, the religious aspect thus provides jihad with both its greatest legitimacy and its continuing appeal.