History and Meaning of Jihad: A Struggle Against Violence or a Violent Struggle?

DANIEL JANOSIK : Director of Islamic Studies, Adjunct Professor of Apologetics, Historical Theology, and Islamic Studies at Southern Evangelical Seminary, and the adjunct professor in Apologetics at CIU Columbia International University (A.B., College of William and Mary; M.Div., Columbia International University; M.A., Columbia International University; Ph.D., London School of Theology) Dissertation: John of Damascus, First Apologist to the Muslims.


One of the most controversial issues brought up today in discussions about Islam is the topic of Jihad. Non-Muslims often associate the word with “holy war,” conjuring up images of turbaned warriors with curved scimitars and black flags.[1]  It may come as a surprise to these westerners, then, that the concept of jihad is a complex one, with the word itself having several possible interpretations. Even all Muslims do not agree on jihad’s true meaning or its role in the practice of Islam. Some Muslims today claim that jihad defines a personal struggle each believer has within themselves in order to fully submit to Allah. These Muslims vehemently oppose the other interpretation, which is that jihad provides the rationale for their political and military conquests in order to advance the cause of Islam and bring the world under the domain of Allah. In this muddle, many political leaders and Western scholars emphasize the peaceful, internal struggle interpretation of jihad. Others, however, point out that Islamic history itself undermines this view, as it has been a history of conflict and conquest from its inception, and directed primarily against Christian territories, as Bernard Lewis points out:


For almost a thousand years … Europe was under constant threat. In the early centuries, it was a double threat—not only of invasion and conquest but also of conversion and assimilation. All but the easternmost provinces of the Islamic realm had been taken from Christian rulers, and the vast majority of the first Muslims west of Iran and Arabia were converts from Christianity. North Africa, Egypt, Syria, even Persian-ruled Iraq, had been Christian countries, in which Christianity was older and more deeply rooted than in most of Europe. Their loss was sorely felt and heightened the fear that a similar fate was in store for Europe.[2]

Naturally, such clashing views lead to some important questions. If Islam is a religion of peace, why are there so many Muslims who claim they are true followers of Muhammad and the Qur’an constantly at war with each other and all other nations and people? Can “jihad” lead to both peace and war? A survey of the various views of jihad throughout the history of Islam will help resolve these questions. This chapter will also explore the concept of jihad politically, theologically, and culturally in order to determine how it is used in different contexts and what it means for Christians in the West today.


The Traditional Muslim View

Examining the traditional Muslim view of Jihad is a somewhat complex task, as it involves two conflicting viewpoints today and various interpretations over the past centuries. The Moderate View, which is often emphasized by Muslims and non-Muslim leaders alike in the West, is the most complex. It also is argued by various sources to be a far more recent interpretation than the Fundamentalist View. Before discussing these two views, a general definition of the word “jihad” should be noted. Its basic sense is to “struggle” or “persevere” toward some goal. The word is derived from the Arabic root, “jahada,” and for Muslims this struggle is often understood in the context of religious duty. It is therefore often linked with the phrase al-jihad fi sabil Allah, meaning “struggle, or striving, in the path of God.” This term occurs often in the Qur’an and Hadith, commanding faithful Muslims to carry out jihad for Allah.[3] How and where exactly this struggle is carried out, however, is the true center of controversy.

Moderate Muslim View

The Moderate View of jihad hinges around the concept of “greater and lesser jihad.” Moderate Muslim scholars explain that the struggle of jihad is best understood not as a holy war but as having two meanings: an inner spiritual struggle, called the “greater jihad,” and an outer physical struggle against the enemies of Islam, called the “lesser jihad.” This dual understanding is said to have come from Muhammad who once told his followers returning from a military campaign, “this day we have returned from the minor jihad to the major jihad.”[4] Thus, this view holds that the most important struggle humans can have is the struggle to gain mastery over personal desires in order to submit fully to the will of Allah. If military action is taken, it must be only when necessary to protect the faith, and therefore only carried out defensively and along carefully defined terms of engagement, such as not harming women and children or those who are disabled. Significantly, this “lesser” or defensive jihad must be previously authorized by proper authorities, such as key religious scholars or prominent governing officials, to ensure that the threat is imminent, and the cause is truly one of defense.[5]

islamic warriors - jihad - islam - muslim02

In order to support this view of jihad as a defensive mechanism, moderate Muslim scholars interpret the history of Islam as being primarily one of co-existence, where military action as a means of Jihad is used only rarely. One example of this need for military jihad, according to Muslim scholars, was during the defensive battles against the Christian Crusaders when they invaded Palestine. Another time was during the early period of Islamic conquests when the Muslims were being attacked by Byzantine and Persian forces. Instances where unprovoked and violent warfare was undertaken in the name of Islam are categorized as instances of misuse of the concept of jihad, where political or religious groups hijacked the idea of jihad to gain power and control over infidels, or even when splinter groups attacked orthodox Muslims with the claim that they, the splinter group, represented Muhammad’s true followers. Thus, the Moderate view maintains that true military jihad is rare and carefully controlled. Therefore, if there were incidents that misused extreme violence, the Moderates would not tend to interpret these travesties as legitimate instances of jihad. Instead, these unauthorized acts of violence would be deemed unIslamic and the perpetrators would be treated as infidels of the faith. Most importantly, they argue, jihad should not be viewed as a declaration of war against other religious groups, especially Jews and Christians, who should be protected and respected because they worship the same God that Muslims do.

Indeed, moderate Muslims point to Qur’anic verses which emphasize the co-existence of religions and the doctrine of “just wars.” Sura 2:256, for example, is one of the most significant verses as it states that “there can be no compulsion in religion.” Thus, as medieval scholar Ibn Taymiyya (1263-1328 AD) theorized, Muhammad himself would have never sanctioned the killing of non-believers who refused to convert, as this would contradict the non-compulsion principle.[6] Without a justification for offensive action, defensive or “just” war is the only acceptable type of violence; Sura 22:39-40 and Sura 2:190 state that any attacks against non-believers must be a defensive response to oppression and injustice. This is why moderate Muslim scholars would argue that Islamic terrorist groups are not following true Muslim guidelines and therefore are distorting the true meaning of jihad.[7]


Beyond these basic tenets of Greater and Lesser Jihad, moderate Muslims in the West generally also believe that non-Muslims do not understand the true meaning of jihad. Reza Aslan expresses these views well, arguing that there are a number of misunderstandings that have promoted various false stereotypes of jihad. For one thing, Aslan claims that Islam has often been portrayed as a “warrior religion” that inspired the Muslim horde to charge across the Middle East with a holy passion. However, he believes this “deep-rooted stereotype of Islam as a warrior religion has its origins in the papal propaganda of the Crusades when Muslims were depicted as the soldiers of the Antichrist in blasphemous occupation of the Holy Lands.”[8] In addition, Aslan says that during the Middle Ages the Holy Roman Empire was trying to distinguish itself as important in the face of all the Islamic advances in philosophy and science by labeling Islam as the “religion of the sword,” thus projecting a Western superiority over Muslim actions.

Furthermore, Aslan advances the Moderate perspective by arguing that non-Muslims were not forced to convert to Islam by military force. He maintains that neither Muhammad nor the Qur’an sanctions this behavior, and that early Muslims did not encourage it. Instead, he reasons that “the financial and social advantages of being an Arab Muslim in the eighth and ninth centuries were such that Islam quickly became an elite clique,” and therefore the benefits of joining the new religion attracted nonbelievers to embrace Islam for themselves.[9]

However, the main area of confusion, moderate Muslims argue, is the true meaning of the word “jihad.” They refute the popular view that the concept of jihad means “holy war” and seek to reclaim its true meaning, which they argue is that of an inner struggle for purity before Allah. This argument has been voiced in Western academic circles as well, as was expressed in the Spring 2002 Harvard graduation speech by a senior named Zayed Yasin who stressed that jihad in its truest and purest form, the form to which all Muslims aspire, is the determination to do right to do justice even against your own interests. It is an individual struggle for personal moral behavior. Especially today, it is a struggle that exists on many levels: self-purification and awareness, public service and social justice.[10]

Several professors at Harvard University spoke in support of this non-violent interpretation. Among them, David Mitten, a convert to Islam,  stated that true jihad is “the constant struggle of Muslims to conquer their inner base instincts, to follow the path to God, and to do good in society.”[11] Roy Mottahedeh, the chairman of the committee on Islamic studies at Harvard, added that a majority of learned Muslim thinkers “insist that jihad must be understood as a struggle without arms”[12] in all cases except defense and justice. John Esposito, a professor at Georgetown University, explained these views further by concluding that “in the struggle to be a good Muslim, there may be times where one will be called on to defend one’s faith and community. Then [jihad] can take on the meaning of an armed struggle.”[13]

Thus, the Moderate View is generally supported by western academics (and political leaders) in their views that jihad is first an inner struggle (Greater Jihad) and only second a defensive military option (Lesser Jihad). The legitimacy of this interpretation is supported from the Qur’an and various sayings of Muhammad, and therefore the Moderates believe Muslims who view jihad as a mandate for aggressive violence have tragically ceased to follow true Islam.

The Fundamentalist Muslim View

Leading Muslims who support the Fundamentalist View of jihad insist that only Muslims should speak for Islam, claiming that Islam is not a religion of peace. For example, Al-Baghdadi, the self-proclaimed leader of the Islamic State Caliphate, has said, “Islam was never a religion of peace. Islam is the religion of fighting. No one should believe that the war that we are waging is the war of the Islamic State.”[14] It is important to note that fundamentalists trace this understanding of jihad all the way back to the first days of Islam. Some of the hadiths relate what Muhammad himself had to say about jihad:

I have been commanded to fight people until they testify that there is no god, but Allah and that Muhammad is the Messenger of Allah, and perform the prayer, and pay zakat. If they say it, they have saved their blood and possessions from me, except for the rights of Islam over them. And their final reckoning is with Allah.[15]

Even the popular 14th-century compilation of Islamic law called The Reliance of the Traveler says that “Jihad means to war against non-Muslims, and is etymologically derived from the word mujahada, signifying warfare to establish the religion.”[16] In addition, one of Islam’s most prominent scholars, Ibn Khaldun, compared the mission of Islam with the mission of other religious groups. His understanding was that in regard to the other major religions in the world, “the holy war was not a religious duty for them, save only for purposes of defense.” However, the mission given to Islam was different. He relates, “In the Muslim community, the holy war is a religious duty, because of the universalism of the Muslim mission and the obligation to convert everybody to Islam either by persuasion or by force.”[17] Hassan al-Banna, the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood, wrote about the centrality of jihad as well. He said that “Jihad is an obligation from Allah on every Muslim and cannot be ignored nor evaded… The verses of the Qur’an and the Sunnah of Muhammad (PBUH) are overflowing with all these noble ideals and they summon people in general to jihad, to warfare, to the armed forces, and all means of land and sea fighting.”[18] In contrast to the many leaders who try to reduce jihad to a struggle that individual Muslims have with themselves in order to become better Muslims, there are many voices throughout the history of Islam who have boldly defined jihad as active warfare against the infidel until all people submit to Islam. These fundamentalist Muslim protest the interpretation of Islamic doctrine by non-Muslims, use the Qur’an and Hadith to support their views and emphasize that history supports their interpretation of a militaristic struggle in jihad.


How non-Muslims and Westerners understand and respond to the concept of jihad is, as has been indicted, a complex subject. The current trend among influential Muslims is to adopt the position of reformers, seeking to define jihad as a personal struggle or, at most, self-defense against a specified enemy. For example, the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) insists that Christians exaggerate the role of jihad and make it out to be “holy war” when it is simply a “broad Islamic concept that includes struggle against evil inclinations within oneself, struggle to improve the quality of life in society, struggle in the battlefield for self-defense (e.g., having a standing army for national defense), or fighting against tyranny or oppression.”[19] On the other hand, revisionist scholars argue that jihad, both in Qur’anic teaching and in Islamic history, has always included the concept of a “holy war” with offensive tactics against non-believers. For example, in his book, The History of Jihad, Robert Spencer “shows that jihad warfare has been a constant of Islam from its very beginnings, and present-day jihad terrorism proceeds along exactly the same ideological and theological foundations as did the great Islamic warrior states and jihad commanders of the past.”[20]

Being thus in a kind of agreement with the Fundamentalist View, such scholars warn of the deadly peril faced by Western societies whose leaders generally dismiss violent jihad as the product of a few unbalanced terrorists, and who give little credence to the argument that aggressive jihad is supported in any way by the Qur’an or orthodox Muslim teachings. If violent jihad is in fact supported or even mandated by Islamic doctrine, revisionists point out, there is no reason to expect violence and terrorism to diminish or die a natural death.

Revisionist scholars bring up historical and textual evidence to argue that, as Paul Fregosi puts it, “the purpose of jihad became, and basically still is, to expand and extend Islam until the whole world is under Islamic rule.”[21] Another author, Jacques Ellul, emphasizes jihad’s essentially religious nature and pointed out jihad’s inescapable connection to every Muslim: “Jihad… forms part of the duties a believer must fulfill; it is Islam’s normal path to expansion.”[22] This section examines these and other claims by revisionist authors, focusing on the historical evidence, texts from the Qur’an and Hadith, and critiques of the Moderate View which form the core of these counterview arguments.


In terms of historical evidence, the past 1300 years offer a wealth of information about Islam’s growth and expansion. As has been noted in a previous chapter, the 700’s – 1500’s AD saw a concerted and persistent effort to spread Islamic control over large swathes of land in the Middle East, North Africa, and even parts of Europe. Bernard Lewis writes of this period, “For more than a thousand years, Europe, that is to say Christendom, was under constant threat of Islamic attack and conquest. If the Muslims were repelled in one region, they appeared in greater strength in another.”[23]

Logically, these constant battles cannot be attributed to a strategy of defensive jihad, as no historical accounts record instances of Islamic terrorists or believers being brought under attack when the land was initially acquired by Muslims. (The Crusades could well be argued to be an instance of defense, but it should be recalled that the land was initially acquired by Muslims from non-Muslims years before.) Thus, if the conventional definition of ‘defense,’ which is seeking to retain land that one already possesses or owns, then aggressively assuming control of lands already occupied by others cannot be termed a defense. One other possible scenario of ‘defense’ might be a situation where the peoples of other lands were persecuting Muslims, and defeating the persecutors brought about the secondary consequence of Muslim forces acquiring new lands after the battles were over. Historical records can answer whether the latter situation actually occurred; and from earlier chapters tracing the expansion of Islam, the evidence is very clear that Islam was the aggressor most of time. Thus, the conquest of these lands is much more readily explained by the conclusion that early Muslims viewed their work as an offensive jihad, with the goal of conquering land in the name of Allah (Q. 8:39), or simply conquering out of non-religious motivations.

Going back even further in history, revisionist scholars argue that Muhammad himself waged mostly offensive battles against Mecca. This pattern of warfare seems to have been established soon after Muhammad and his followers arrived at Medina, where the earliest biographies record that they engaged in over seventy battles.[24] Only one, the Battle of the Trench (627 AD), was defensive in terms of protecting the Muslims’ lives and property. However, it can be argued that Muhammad’s early life and sayings in Mecca, recorded in the Qur’an and Hadith, do indicate an emphasis on peace. One revisionist scholar, David Wood, has argued in response to this point that there were actually different “stages” of how the concept of jihad was viewed, corresponding to the status of Muslims in society at the time. These three stages can be titled ‘respect,’ ‘defense,’ and ‘offense.’

Wood found, first, that the first stage of respect applied during the time that Muhammad and the Muslims were in the minority in Mecca and needed to maintain peaceful relationships with the non-believers and patiently bear with those who denied the truth of Islam. Thus, the revelations Muhammad received during this stage called for religious tolerance, such as is recorded in Sura 109:6, which supposedly was revealed in the earliest Meccan period,[25] and maintains that each person is free to choose their own religion (“You shall have your religion and I shall have my religion”).[26] Wood calls this first stage “Stealth Jihad” because while Muhammad and his followers were being persecuted by the non-believers, there may have been a call for tolerance in public, but, as later verses indicate, Muhammad may have actually been preaching a subversive messages against the Meccans in private.

Young Christians

However, after the move to Medina when there were enough Muslims to fight defensively against the Meccan opponents, then permission was given to fight against others in order to defend themselves. This brought in the second stage, called “Defensive Jihad.” It was during this time that Sura 22:39-40 was revealed and gave permission to fight against those who sought harm to the community.

Permission (to fight) is given to those upon whom war is made because they are oppressed, and most surely Allah is well able to assist them; Those who have been expelled from their homes without a just cause except that they say: our Lord is Allah…

The third stage, called “Offensive Jihad,” began when Muslims established a majority in the area. During this stage, aggressive jihad against all unbelievers is commanded, including Jews and Christians, until they are subdued. Sura 9:29 represents this stage when it says,

Fight those who do not believe in Allah or in the Last Day and who do not consider unlawful what Allah and His Messenger have made unlawful and who do not adopt the religion of truth from those who were given the Scripture – [fight] until they give the jizyah willingly while they are humbled.

It is important to note that in this passage, the Muslims were commanded to fight anyone who did not accept the religion of Islam and believe in Allah or follow the laws found in the Qur’an. Over the years, then, David Wood argues that the Muslims began with tolerance toward all those around them when they were in the minority, but once they had achieved the majority status and had power and authority due to their military strength, a call was sent down through revelations from Allah so that fighting unbelievers was a continual command until all non-believers were converted or became subdued under the rule of Islam. Revisionist scholars point to this pattern of jihad development being demonstrated during not only during the early years of Islam but extending through history wherever Islamic forces captured and conquered non-Muslim lands, throughout the Middle East, North Africa, and even along the borders of Europe.

Literary evidence is also offered by revisionist scholars to support these historical arguments and to counter the claims of the Moderate View of jihad. Using verses from the Qur’an and Hadith in this way naturally is very closely tied to the early history of Muhammad and the birth of Islam. Do these sources support a ‘greater and lesser Jihad’ concept, or do they command offensive jihads of conquest, as the fundamentalist Muslims claim? The difficulty in answering or even discussing this question is that the Qur’an actually contains passages that support both interpretations. For example, Sura 109:6 says, “You shall have your religion and I shall have my religion,” and Sura 2:256 clearly states “There is no compulsion in religion.” On the opposite end of the spectrum, Sura 9:5 says to “slay the idolaters wherever you find them,” and Sura 9:29 encourages Muslims to “fight those who believe not in Allah.” Some moderate Muslims explain these contradictory instructions by saying that the more violent verses were only for the time when Muhammad was leading the early Muslims, and once Islam was established, the peaceful verses took precedence over the outdated ones. However, this explanation actually goes against the Qur’an’s own instruction on its interpretation: “We do not abrogate a verse or cause it to be forgotten except that We bring forth [one] better than it or similar to it. Do you not know that Allah is over all things competent?”[27] This method of interpretation is called the Doctrine of Abrogation, and it essentially calls for this practice of substituting verses that were revealed to Muhammad later in his ministry for earlier verses on the same subject, letting the later verses supersede the earlier.

For example, a verse such as Sura 9:5, known as one of the “sword verses,” is considered according to the Doctrine of Abrogation to supersede as many as 114 other verses calling for tolerance and peace.[28] This is because it is said to be part of the last series of revelations given to Muhammad before his death in Medina. David Wood uses the Doctrine of Abrogation to support his argument of the three stages of Muslims’ view of jihad, and writes that “when Muslims rose to power, peaceful verses of the Qur’an were abrogated by verses commanding Muslims to fight people based on their beliefs.”[29]

These teachings were also carried on through various Hadith narratives, and there are many examples of Hadiths promoting a violent form of jihad (struggle against non-Muslims through force). For example, in Al-Bukhari (8: 387) Muhammad is recorded as saying, “I have been ordered to fight the people till they say: ‘None has the right to be worshipped but Allah.’ And if they say so, pray like our prayers, face our Qibla and slaughter as we slaughter, then their blood and property will be sacred to us and we will not interfere with them except legally and their reckoning will be with Allah.” In Sahih Muslim (1:33), the Messenger of Allah is recorded as saying, “I have been commanded to fight against people till they testify that there is no god but Allah, that Muhammad is the messenger of Allah, and they establish prayer and pay zakat.” It is noteworthy that in both of these hadiths violence is sanctioned until the person says the Shahada, prays and pays the zakat, which means that conversion to Islam has taken place. Daniel Pipes also points out that in the Hadith collection of al-Bukhari he finds that “there are 199 references to jihad, and every one of them refers to it in the sense of armed warfare against non-Muslims.”[30]

Most Muslims accept the Doctrine of Abrogation today and have done so historically. One of the great commentators of the Qur’an, Ibn Kathir (1300-1373), concluded in his writings that the verse that advocates “there is no compulsion in religion” (Q. 2:256) has been abrogated. He concluded, “Therefore all people of the world should be called to Islam. If anyone of them refuses to do so, or refuses to pay the Jizyah, they should be fought till they are killed.”[31] Thus, the historical and literary elements come together with the Doctrine of Abrogation to create what revisionist scholars claim is a clear picture of Islamic doctrine gradually promoting a version of jihad that is based on physical violence and has decreasing tolerance towards unbelievers throughout the chronologically-placed Suras and Hadiths.

The final noteworthy argument that revisionist scholars make is that the Moderate View of jihad as a whole cannot be sustained in the light of the evidence detailed above. As additional support for this claim, scholars point out a flaw in one of the key arguments made by Muslims advocating the Moderate View: the famous Hadith that explains the concept of Greater and Lesser Jihad is actually only found in a 12th century book written by Yahya ibn al ‘Ala, called The History of Baghdad. In this book, In this book the author relates, “The prophet returned from one of his battles, and thereupon told us, “you have arrived with an excellent arrival, you have come from the Lesser Jihad to the Greater Jihad – the striving of a servant against his desires.” However, this story is totally absent from the traditional hadith collections. It also directly contradicts the Qur’an (4:95-96), which states, “Allah prefers the mujahidin over those who remain [behind] with a great reward.” This passage and its late creation would seem to indicate that some Muslims want to promote the idea of the “greater” jihad so that they can get away from the violence of the “lesser” jihad. Peter Townsend concludes, “It should be clear from the above that the idea that ‘jihad against the self’ is the most important form of jihad has no basis whatsoever in orthodox Islamic teaching.”[32]

Besides abrogation and this unsupported hadith, revisionist scholars also argue that some of the more popular Qur’anic verses quoted to support the Moderate View are taken out of context. These verses would be used to argue a general theological point, such as regarding internal jihad, but actually, they cannot be supported from the full text they are drawn from. A significant example of this is Sura 5:32, which says that “if any one slew a person – unless it be for murder or for spreading mischief in the land – it would be as if he slew the whole people: and if any one saved a life, it would be as if he saved the life of the whole people.” Muslims often quote this verse to give the idea that Islam holds all life to be valuable and killing anyone, except those committing murder or mischief, is strongly opposed to Islamic justice. However, the verse is actually addressed specifically to the “Children of Israel” and does not refer to all people. In addition, other verses state that Jews and Christians “spread mischief in the land,” where “mischief” is equated with unbelief, which is a great sin and worthy of death. Therefore, the Jews (and Christians) would not be innocent, but instead would merit the punishment mentioned in the very next verse:

The punishment of those who wage war against Allah and His Messenger, and strive with might and main for mischief through the land is: execution, or crucifixion, or the cutting off of hands and feet from opposite sides, or exile from the land: that is their disgrace in this world, and a heavy punishment is theirs in the hereafter.” (Q. 5:33)

Thus, a verse that is supposed to demonstrate the peacefulness of Islam actually condemns unbelievers to the most horrific punishment.

Understanding the context of verses as well as their chronological order is thus the final argument which revisionist scholars make to demonstrate that the original and accurate interpretation of jihad is one of violent conquest for Allah. While peaceful verses, like “Let there be no compulsion in religion” (Q. 2:256) may have been abrogated by later jihad verses, the violent jihad verses have not been abrogated. They are still in effect, according to the Doctrine of Abrogation, and revisionist scholars thus conclude that Muslims are encouraged to “fight until all religion is for Allah” (Q. 8:39).



It is clear, then, that these two views of jihad, along with their interpretation of history and the Qur’an, also have very different views on religious violence as it exists today. If the Moderate View is correct, and violence is not a true part of Islam, then terrorists and extremists who insist that it is are really motivated for other reasons – either their own desire for power, or a false understanding of Islam, or both. At any rate, according to the Moderates, it can never become a dominant view because there are no grounds for such beliefs in the Qur’an, nor any good precedent in history. Troublemakers and isolated splinter groups may pop up over the years, but the majority of Muslims will always adhere to the true interpretation and seek jihad only in their hearts as a means of submitting their personal lives to Allah.

But if revisionist scholars are correct, then several very different implications must be noted. First, their argument that violence is integral to Islamic faith necessarily means that violence and oppressive measures will always be encouraged by a careful study of Islam, not suppressed. Second, if their points are valid, then Westerners are being currently deceived by what is effectively Muslim propaganda – a situation which is as dangerous on an individual level as it is on a national and global level. It is also a falsification of history, as the Moderate View seeks to explain or dismiss the large numbers of offensive battles, campaigns, conquests, and raids, some of which have threated the heart of Europe’s territory, as in 732 (Battle of Tours) and in 1683 (Battle of Vienna). Such a misrepresentation means that Westerners do not accurately understand the way that Islamic cultures and Christian nations have interacted in the past, which makes it far more difficult to interact wisely in the present. Finally, if the Moderate view is not supported by the Qur’an or by history, then this bears important implications theologically. As William Kilpatrick puts it, “Jihad for the sake of Allah is not some unfortunate deviation from the true faith, it’s an integral part of that faith.”[33] Christians must especially be aware of this controversy regarding jihad as they seek to engage Muslim friends. Otherwise, they will most likely assume that peace has the same definition and connotations in Islam as in Christianity, when in fact not all Muslims believe that – and when, if revisionist scholars are correct, no Muslim should believe it if they study the Qur’an carefully.

These implications are especially significant if one considers Islam by global numbers. After all, if a bare handful of Muslims oppose the Moderate View and support warfare and terrorism in the name of Allah instead, what does it really matter? Every religion has its extremists, as is often argued by prominent leaders.[34] However, when one actually considers in terms of statistics who support radical Islam, it has been demonstrated by several groups and polls that the “99.9% of Muslims are completely against radical Islam”[35] is not grounded in substantial fact. In December 2015, the Clarion Project released a video called “By the Numbers – The Untold Story of Muslim Opinions and Demographics.” A Muslim woman, Raheel Raza, president of Muslims Facing Tomorrow, narrated the film which demonstrated that radical Islam is a bigger problem than most Western governments want to admit. If we divide up the 1.6 billion Muslims into five categories –  Jihadists (radicals), Islamists, Fundamentalists, Moderates, and Liberals – the Jihadists would only number around 250,000 to 500,000 people, or less than .03% of all Muslims (ISIS: 40,000 to 200,000; Hamas: 30,000; Hezbollah: 15,000; al Qaeda and affiliates: 100,000; Iranian Revolutionary Guard: 15,000 to 100,000).[36] However, the next two groups contain much larger spheres that support the radical ideology of the Jihadists, especially their beliefs on jihad and sharia, but use different tactics and often work within the cultural and political systems. The first of these two groups are the Islamists, represented by the Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas supporters, and CAIR. The third sphere, the Fundamentalists, make up the greater proportion of Muslims who favor radical views.

It is difficult to arrive at a specific number of Muslims that are represented by these three groups, but a recent Pew Report[37] indicates that these “spheres of radicalization” demonstrate that consistently over 20-25% of all Muslims, especially those in Muslim majority countries, accept and support active jihad and strict sharia law in order to fulfill their obligations to Allah. For example, the Pew Report found that of the 39 Muslim countries polled, 27% of all Muslims believe apostates from Islam should be killed. This represents 237 million people. In addition, 53% of Muslims, or 469 million, support sharia as the law of the land, and over 50% of these are in favor of whippings and amputations, as well as stoning for adulterers. Altogether, then, these three spheres represent 20-25% of all Muslims or roughly 320-400 million people. Most of these Muslims are not involved in the terrorism directly, but they are certainly part of the community that supports and encourages the views and actions of the jihadists and Islamists involved in carrying out the atrocities, all in the name of the religion of Islam.

The impact of these numbers should not be overlooked when considering the implications of Moderate vs. Fundamentalist views of Islam. If 20% of Muslims around the world encourage fundamentalist views and 53% support the implementation of Sharia law, then this paints a very different picture of global Muslim views on jihad than Moderate View proponents have popularly suggested. Westerners should be aware of how peace and violence have historically been defined in Islamic cultures, and they should also be wary of assurances of ‘mainstream’ Islam’s peace when such claims are not supported by specific facts.


Apologetic Conclusions

The theological foundations of jihad are ultimately found in understanding the nature of Allah, as well as clearly distinguishing the difference between peace in Islam – which is literally ‘submission’ in the text – and Western or Christian definitions of peace. Jihad is integral to Islam because jihad flows from the nature of Allah and his relationship with Muslims and with non-Muslims. First, the prime expression of Allah is his will. This is part of the fundamental belief in Islam that “there is only one God” who is absolute over all things, as well as absolutely other in nature (Q. 112:1-4). Allah is affirmed as being able to do anything, including making what is right, wrong, and making that which is wrong, right. Thus, his righteousness is subordinate to his power, and his power is rooted in his absolute will.

Sura 9:51 explains the logical result of this divine nature, which is the acceptance of Allah’s pre-determined plan. After all, nothing can possibly happen to a person without it being the specific will of Allah. The verse declares, “Nothing shall ever happen to us except what Allah has ordained for us. He is our Mawla (protector). And in Allah let the believers put their trust.” The prime expression from Allah, then, is his will, and pure will demands submission rather than love. Thus, the relationship between Allah and man is based on man submitting to Allah. It is for this reason that Islam means “submission,” and a Muslim is “one who submits.” Allah will then give power to his followers as they submit themselves to his will.

This is the point at which “submission” is usually supposed to equal “peace” (which is usually defined as the absence of hostilities and thus harmony and serenity between people). However, this is not logically an exact equivalence, since submission to one person does not necessarily entail submission to others. If Allah’s expressed will is to conduct violence against others, such as non-Muslims or those who have broken his law, then following that will is still ‘submission’ even as the follower commits blood-shed to achieve it. In such cases, submission and peace – obeying Allah and living in harmony with others – could not co-exist. It is along this line of reason that Anjem Choudary, an Islamic spiritual leader in the UK, has stated, “You can’t say that Islam is a religion of peace, because Islam does not mean peace. Islam means ‘submission.’ So a Muslim is one who submits. There is a place for violence in Islam. There is a place for Jihad in Islam.”[38]

In addition to understanding the theological implications of jihad, it is important apologetically to see that jihad as a holy war actually carries out a return to the roots of Islam. What is the relationship between peace and power? Some moderate Muslims seek to focus on power as the means to peace. For instance, Muslim author Imran Hostein states that there are five functions of power in Islam: as a deterrent for attack, for responding to aggression, to fight for the oppressed and weak, to persuade others of the truth, and finally to establish justice and societal order. [39] In this way, a good use of power brings peace. The problem with this argument is that the idea of using power for a primary goal of peace, rather than a primary goal of submission to Allah’s will, actually contradicts not only the theological implications of Allah’s nature but also the example of Muhammad and his instructions in the Qur’an. The conflict of physical jihad toward non-Muslims began with Muhammad and his followers, and it is only reasonable to expect that it will continue. As Bernard Lewis explains, “The presumption is that the duty of jihad will continue, interrupted only by truces, until all the world either adopts the Muslim faith or submits to Muslim rule.”[40] Thus, it is only when all are under Muslim rule that there can finally be peace in the sense of an absence of hostilities. While SaLaaM (peace) may be the ultimate goal, iSLaM (submission) is the current goal of every faithful Muslim. Though the two words, peace, or SaLaaM, and submission, iSLaM, share the same consonantal root, S-L-M, they have very different meanings. Otherwise the word MuSLiM, or “one who submits” would also have to mean “one who brings peace.” However, no one makes this suggestion. In fact, if the nature of Allah is power through his absolute will, submission brings division rather than peace. In Muslim tradition, the world is divided between those who submit to Allah (the House of Islam, known as “Dar al-Islam,”), and those who do not submit (the House of War, known as “Dar al-Harb”). Christians who engage their Muslim friends in apologetic discussions about jihad must remember these semantic differences as well as learn to view them from the theological perspective of Allah’s ultimate will and its demand for submission.

In order for Islam to actually be a religion of peace rather than of submission, therefore, the very essence of the faith would have to change. As Nabeel Qureshi argues, a “return to roots” reformation that focuses on Muhammad’s life and the 7th-century society would ultimately create a more radical form of Islam, not a more peaceful or “progressive” one:

The notion that reformation should lead to peaceful expressions of a religion is predicated on the assumption that the origins of that religion are peaceful… Since violence is built into the very origins of Islam, the religion would need to be re-envisioned in order to produce a peaceful religion that is internally consistent. Emphasis would have to be drawn away from the Qur’an and Muhammad’s life, or the records of their contexts would need to be disavowed. This would not be a reformation but a progression of Islam.[41]

Understanding jihad in an apologetic context thus requires a basic understanding of the theological relationship between divine will and human submission, the difference between submission to Allah and peace towards mankind, and the historical and literary difficulties in re-defining Islam as a religion that advocates the use of power to create ‘peace’ in a non-violent sense of the word.


Building Bridges to Understand

Christians discussing jihad with their Muslim friends will almost inevitably stumble upon the issue of peace and what its true definition is, as well as what it should look like in everyday life. Some key contrasts between Muhammad and Jesus’ descriptions of peace may be helpful in discussion, with the goal of clearly illustrating what kind of spiritual peace Jesus offers those who follow him.

First, the contrast between depictions of violence and peace in the Qur’an and in the Bible (particularly the New Testament) can be explored. The verses from the Qur’an and Hadiths that have been discussed in this chapter demonstrate that taking the Doctrine of Abrogation into account, the core of Islam is built upon a foundation of violent jihad that must be waged until Judgement Day. As one writer puts it, “Islam allows no permanent peaceful coexistence and co-equality with infidels. Superiority is such a central aspect of Islamic thought that domination is the only worthy expression of Islam’s greatness.”[42] In stark contrast to this destructive and ultimately very earthly viewpoint, the New Testament shows that Jesus’ explanation of his ministry was to bring peace by restoring a spiritual relationship between God and his people. Physical violence and earthly conflicts are continually de-emphasized in comparison. For example, John 14:27 records Christ as saying, “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. Not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your hearts be troubled; neither let them be afraid.” Even the famous ‘sword passage’ – often quoted to link Jesus’s teaching with militaristic views – is best understood as a metaphorical sword. Matthew 10:34 records the words, “Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.” However, the sword refers to the relational separation that occurs between those who believe in Christ and those who do not, even within a family. Jesus was asking for unqualified allegiance and explaining that any relationship that hindered a Christian from being willing to forsake worldly goals and commitments for the sake of Christ must be severed. This call, then, is again a spiritual one rather than a physical call for worldly power or conquest.

Other New Testament verses further illustrate this contrast between the Qur’an and the Bible’s teaching on warfare. In Hebrews 4:12, the biblical author uses a sword as a metaphor for the word of God, which spreads the gospel to the whole world. The apostle Paul, in Ephesians 6:12, further emphasizes the spiritual nature of a Christian believer’s struggle: “For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.” Christians can point out that this emphasis on spiritual struggle is perhaps most powerfully exemplified in the gospel accounts of Jesus’ response in the Garden of Gethsemane to his disciple Peter’s cutting off the ear of one of the arresting men in the crowd. Christ rebuked Peter[43] and healed the man, thus ending the only time in the gospels that a sword actually comes into play.

The conclusion that Christians can point out from such a discussion is, ultimately, the difference between the “kingdoms” which Jesus and Muhammad sought to build. Muhammad called not only for spiritual submission to Allah and his will but also physical submission of those around him. Jesus, on the other hand, called for disciples whose hearts would be radically changed, promising them that they would suffer in the world for their faith, not prosper, and urging them to store up spiritual treasure in heaven. Thus, Jesus’ peace is given immediately to his followers and is not dependent on their circumstances, while Muhammad’s promise of peace can only be fulfilled when the world submits (which the Qur’an says will be Judgement Day). Because of this difference, Christians can offer their Muslim friends an immediate peace through Christ that will change their lives, giving them a right relationship with God which will then flow into a right relationship with others. This is the way that Christ called for his kingdom to be spread on earth – through suffering and love reaching out to every person, no matter how violent or unlovely that person might be. When seen in this light, the “kingdoms” of Islam and of Christianity cannot have a greater contrast.

Study Questions:

  1. What is meant by the “greater jihad,” and what are the main arguments for this view?
  2. How would a radical Muslim defend political or violent jihad? What Qur’anic verses would they use?
  3. What are some indications that Muhammad was involved in radical jihad? What are some verses in the Qur’an, Hadith or biographies that would support your argument?
  4. What are the three stages of Jihad according to David Wood? What are the characteristics of these stages today and how are they influenced by the increase in the number of Muslims in the population of a non-Muslim country?
  5. What would be the most effective way to counter the view of jihad and help Muslims realize that true peace can only come through Jesus Christ?

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[1] See Mark Hartwig, “Spread by the Sword?” http://www.answering-islam.org/Terrorism/by_the_sword.html

[2] Bernard Lewis, Islam and the West (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993), 13.

[3] Ahmed Al-Dawoody, The Islamic Law of War: Justifications and Regulations, (Palgrave: Macmillan, 2011), 56. “Seventeen derivatives of jihād occur altogether forty-one times in eleven Meccan texts and thirty Medinan ones, with the following five meanings: striving because of religious belief (21), war (12), non-Muslim parents exerting pressure, that is, jihād, to make their children abandon Islam (2), solemn oaths (5), and physical strength (1).” There are many references in the Hadith to Jihad, and there is also a chapter in the Hadith collection of Al-Bukhari that focuses entirely on Jihad.

[4] Hadith (Fayd al-Qadir) vol. 4, p. 511.

[5] Sardar, Introducing Islam, 60-61.

[6] Reza Aslan, No god but God, 85.

[7] Ibid., 87.

[8] Ibid., 79.

[9] Ibid., 80.

[10] Daniel Pipes, “Jihad and the Professors,” Commentary, November 2002: http://www.danielpipes.org/498/jihad-and-the-professors (accessed 7/26/2018).

[11] David Mitten, Harvard Islamic Society: http://www.discoverthenetworks.org/printgroupProfile.asp?grpid=7406 (accessed 7/26/2018).

[12] Roy Mottahedeh, “Islam and the Opposition to Terrorism”: https://www.nytimes.com/2001/09/30/opinion/islam-and-the-opposition-to-terrorism.html (accessed 7/26/2018).

[13] Daniel Pipes, “Jihad and the Professors,” Commentary, November 2002: http://www.danielpipes.org/498/jihad-and-the-professors (accessed 7/26/2018).

[14] http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-3082114/ISIS-execute-26-civilians-fighters-reach-gates-ancient-Palmyra-Syria.html

[15] Bukhari, Book 1:Volume 8: Hadith 387; Sahih Muslim 1:31-34

[16] Reliance of the Traveller, Revised Edition (Beltsville: Amana, 1988), 599.

[17] Ibn Khaldun, The Muqaddimah, 183.

[18] Hasan al-Banna, Kitabul Jihad, in Milestones, ed. A.B. al-Mehri (Birmingham, England: Maktabah, 2006), 220.

[19] Daniel Pipes, Jihad: How Academics Have Camouflaged Its Real Meaning, http://historynewsnetwork.org/article/1136.

[20] Robert Spencer, The History of Jihad: From Muhammad to ISIS (Bombardier, 2018). Book promotion, Amazon.com.

[21] Paul Fregosi, Jihad: Muslim Conquests from the 7th to the 21st Centuries (New York: Prometheus, 1998), 20.

[22] Ibid., 20. Quoted in the foreword to Bat Yeor’s The Decline of Eastern Christianity Under Islam: From Jihad to Dhimmitude: Seventh-Twentieth Century (Farleigh Dickinson, 1996), 19.

[23] Bernard Lewis, From Babel to Dragomans: Interpreting the Middle East (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004), 126.

[24] Ibn Ishaq/Ibn Hisham, The Life of the Prophet

[25] See Bell’s Introduction to the Qur’an, chapter 7, which follows the chronology developed by Theodore Noeldeke. http://www.truthnet.org/islam/Watt/Chapter7.html

[26] See also Q. 73:10-11.

[27] See also Q. 16:101.

[28] https://www.politicalislam.com/abrogation-and-the-koran/

[29] David Wood, http://www.answeringmuslims.com/p/jihad.html

[30] Daniel Pipes, “Jihad: How Academics Have Camouflaged Its Real Meaning,” http://www.daniepipes.org.

[31] Tafsir of Ibn Kathir, Al-Firdous, Ltd., 1st edition, Part 3, 37-38.

[32] Peter Townsend, Questioning Islam: Tough Questions & Honest Answers About the Muslim Religion (Peter Townsend, 2014), 231.

[33] William Kilpatrick, “Needed: A New Church Policy toward Islam,” Crisis Magazine, Feb. 4, 2015.

[34] For instance, Pope Francis has said that “it is not right to identify Islam with violence,” since all religions have “fundamentalist” groups that do not represent the true goals of the religion. See http://www.haaretz.com/world-news/europe/1.734559; https://www.jihadwatch.org/2016/07/hugh-fitzgerald-pope-francis-and-jihad-credo-quia-absurdum-and-how

[35] https://winteryknight.com/2015/02/03/obama-says-that-99-9-of-muslims-worldwide-reject-radical-islam-is-he-right/  and http://cnnpressroom.blogs.cnn.com/2015/02/01/pres-obama-on-fareed-zakaria-gps-cnn-exclusive/ (accessed 9/29/2016).

[36] Source Clarion Project data: CIA, Amnesty International, CNN, BBC, International Institute for Strategic Studies, Bipartisan Policy Center’s Homeland Security Project, Guardian.

[37] “The World’s Muslims: Religion, Politics and Society”, Pew Research Center, April 2013 pp. 16-20

http://www.pewforum.org/files/2013/04/worlds-muslims-religion-politics-society-full-report.pdf .

[38] CNN news, April 5, 2010

[39] Imran Hosein, The Function of Power in Islam, http://www.themodernreligion.com/pol/power.htm

[40] Bernard Lewis, The Crisis of Islam: Holy War and Unholy Terror (New York: Random House, 2004), 31-2.

[41] Nabeel Qureshi, Answering Jihad: A Better Way Forward (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2016), 77.

[42] Youssef, Blindsided, 92.

[43] The words of Christ in Matthew 26:52 are ironic in regard to this discussion, for Jesus said, “all who take up the sword will perish by the sword.”

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