In an era defined by the inception of organized military force and evolving religious thought, collusion by these two dominant ethos was inevitable. The rhetoric of spiritual guidance, as extolled by the estranged holy men of the Arabian Peninsula, was embodied by the local military leadership to form what became known as Jihad, or, translated into English, striving. This doctrine for righteous living and the virtuous means to wage war morphed through sociological processes and geopolitical circumstances in the Middle East and throughout the world in the centuries following its origins.
The origins of Jihad predate the word itself and belief about its original meaning has been altered throughout history for theological and political reasons. The word Jihad is a noun that has been formed from two separate Arabic words: Jahd and Juhd. Based on Arabic principles of meaning in word formations, this combination can only be defined as “striving to exert one’s utmost power, influence, efforts, endeavours or abilities (in contending with an object of disapprobation)” In the framework of this noun, there must also be a force that is striving or exerting power against you. Jihad requires a reciprocal force for the word to be used in its proper context. For example, an army cannot wage Jihad against a submissive enemy, as there would be no reciprocating force and the word would have been misused. In an English context, this would be like telling someone you were chasing an attacking bear. This concept of Jihad, as defined in Islamic literature, is a reconfigured philosophy regarding the rules of inter-tribal warfare that came from the pre-Islamic tribes of the Northern Arabian Peninsula. As raids into surrounding tribal territory was a common and often necessary way of life, some rules of engagement developed for the good of all tribes involved.
Jihad has come to be defined by Islamic text as having two separate yet intertwined meanings, but one of those meanings predates Islam altogether and is, therefore, the original denotation. There is the greater Jihad (al-jihad al-akbar) and the lesser Jihad (al-jihad al asghar). The greater Jihad is defined as the internal struggle against evil thoughts and behaviours while the lesser Jihad refers to warring in a manner that is righteous in the eyes of God. As the latter is the original meaning, the circumstances in war it refers to becomes paramount for an understanding of the principles it extols. Muhammad, the Prophet of Islam, was born into a clan that was part of the Quraysh, a loose affiliation of Arabs that dominated Medina, Mecca and the surrounding area. After being persecuted by the Quraysh for advocating a rejection of idol worship, Muhammad sought refuge in Medina, only to be followed by an army, sent there by the Quraysh to apprehend or kill him. Muhammad stood his ground at the well of Badr and defeated an attacking army three times the size of his. Muhammad’s writing on this battle credits his righteous struggle against tyranny as the cause of his success. This, in Islam, is the origin of the lesser Jihad. If a Muslim faces violent domination by a wicked enemy, then that Muslim will be assisted through divine measures. In the case of Muhammad’s battle at the well of Badr, myth has it that he was assisted by angels wearing white robes. Simply stated, in the battle of good over evil, God will assist if the warrior is pious and adheres to the doctrine of Islam. This idea of righteous battle, however, predates Islam in the Arabian Peninsula by many centuries. What has changed is who is righteous.
Antarah ibn Shaddad is a pre-Islamic, heroic figure from the Arabian Peninsula in the 6th century. This Arabian poet and warrior was the perfect archetype of the Bedouin hero, as emulated by Muhammad nearly a hundred years after Shaddad’s death. The legends surrounding this ‘Black Knight’ precede western tales of chivalrous Knights of the Round Table by more than a thousand years and developed throughout the Middle East in different ways, contingent on the geopolitical context of the region’s these stories came from. It is also likely that the stories of multiple Bedouin heroes have been amalgamated into Shaddad’s storyline. Regardless of this possibility, Shaddad represented qualities of the Bedouin warrior that affected the ethos of the military leaders of the entire region, from the 6th century onwards. Shaddad is represented as a heroic warrior born from an Ethiopian slave. He is characterized as wearing black armour and often battles white-skinned oppressors, with phenomenal success. His victories are attributed to his faith in God and the righteousness of his cause. He is represented in Islamic writing has having prepared the region for the triumphs of Muhammad and Islam a century after him and has even been called the “perfect Muslim,” even though the religion did not exist at the purported time of Shaddad’s life. Shaddad clearly demonstrates the prominence of a pious, heroic archetype in Arabic culture that predates Islam and promotes the idea of overcoming oppression and gaining adeptness at battle through strict adherence to values and beliefs. This code of ethics for warriors was proliferated throughout the Middle East in the form of storytelling and poetry, the latter gaining much cultural influence in the Umayyad Period: 132 A.D. to 749 A.D. Poets would be hired by Umayyad caliph to write poetry that celebrated the magnificence of battles won against rivals, such as the Shi’ites or the Zubayrites, using hyperbolic language that glorified the caliph and justified their success by their adherence to proper Islamic values. As the languages of the Arabian Peninsula were very similar throughout the region, these stories proliferated easily in both urban and rural settings. The archetype that began with Shaddad was superimposed on Umayyad caliph and the assumed ethos acted to secure respect from the Arab patrons of newly-conquered lands.
Following Muhammad’s success at Badr, his first major battle, certain lessons began to form around the principles of Jihad. The most important of these lessons was the bargain the Muslim warrior could expect from Allah. As all victories and defeats during battles were explained to be part of Allah’s plan, neither was to be celebrated or lamented. What was important was a continuation of the struggle against Islam’s active oppressors. As long as the warrior continued this struggle, while adhering to the principles of Islam as espoused by Muhammad, success would be inevitable in life or in death. After the defeat of the Quraysh at Badr, a second army was formed under Abu Sufyan to take back Medina from Muhammad and his coalition of Jews, Pagans and Muslims. Leading a force of 3000 men, Sufyan employed the rhetoric of the Quraysh poet, Kab ibn al-Ashraf to his inspire his men to victory. Sufyan also worked behind the scenes to conspire with a Jewish tribe, the Bani Nadir, to ensure he would not have to face a united Medina. Encouraged by the outcome at Badr, 700 men, under Muhammad, faced their enemy with unalterable resolve. This proved to be their undoing. After having much success in the first phase of the battle, the archers at the rear of Muhammad’s army broke loose to chase down their enemy, a move Muhammad had directly forbidden. Sufyan took advantage of this and encircled Muhammad’s army with his cavalry and defeated them soundly. Muhammad is said to have lost a tooth in this battle, but managed to escape with a large number of his 700 men. This particular battle, the battle at Uhud, became a lesson for Muslims fighting a Jihad. Muhammad’s men had disobeyed him, thus breaking the covenant with Allah, and they, therefore, lost the battle. Moreover, the Quraysh had won the battle, but had failed in their goal of killing Muhammad, leaving them humiliated. This dynamic showed that Allah had a plan and success for that plan was inevitable as Allah’s plan was perfect. The Quraysh had lost, those who disobeyed the Prophet had been defeated because of their failure to accept his word as law and Muhammad had survived because his survival was essential in a lesson that was planned by Allah. This directive was then framed by Muhammad in his writings that would later become a significant part of the Qur’an, describing the legitimate use of force to defend the ideology espoused by Muhammad:
“Permission is given to those who fight because they are wronged. Surely
Allah is capable of giving them victory. Those who were driven out of
their homes unjustly, merely for their saying: “Our Lord is Allah.” Had
Allah not repelled some people by others, surely monasteries, churches,
synagogues and mosques, wherein the name of Allah is mentioned frequently,
would have been demolished. Indeed, Allah will support whoever
supports Him. Allah is surely Strong and Mighty. (22:39–40)
This quote from Muhammad found in the Qur’an can be viewed as the basis for justification in fighting the lesser Jihad. Here, the meaning is closely tied to the idea of defending the practice of worshipping Allah when that worship faces opposition by force. Also implied in the justification is the defence of other religious institutions within the Muslim society, showing a tolerance for the plurality of religious thought and worship. As Muhammad employed an army made up of multiple religious backgrounds, the political reasoning for a directive that advocated the defence of more than just Islam made sense. A policy of inclusion ensured collaboration by the religious sects willing to oppose the military campaigns against them. While later directives given by Muhammad have different justifications for violence and who is to be defended in the case of war, this original directive exhibits the original goal of lesser Jihad during Muhammad’s initial time defending his coalition in Medina.
This initial doctrine of defence underwent a theoretical modification during the next major battle that Muhammad and his followers fought on March 21, 627. In this, the Battle of Khandaq, Muhammad faced a coalition of Arab and Jewish attackers whose goal was to extricate Muhammad and his followers from Medina. Drastically outnumbered, Muhammad opted to dig a trench for his army to fight from, making the cavalry of his enemies useless. This tactical manoeuvre, combined with diplomatic endeavours that split the loyalties of his attackers, resulted in another victory for the Muslim fighters. This time, Muhammad had mainly employed a contingent of Muslims, as opposed to the coalition of various religious followers utilized in his previous battles. This empowered Muhammad to modify his rhetoric to be more specific to the goals of Islam, rather than pandering to the multiple religious sects that had assisted him in previous battles, some of which had turned against him and joined the coalition he fought during the Battle of Khandaq. Verses in the Qur’an that refer to this particular battle and the battle for Mecca three years later are inscribed with much more militant rhetoric. They are the only sura of the Qur’an that is not preceded by the phrase “In the Name of Allah, the Compassionate, the Merciful.” Moreover, this is where the initial bargain with Allah is expanded to offer a place in paradise for those who fight and die in the name of Allah:
Allah has bought from the believers their lives and their wealth in return
for Paradise; they fight in the way of Allah, kill and get killed. That is a
true promise from Him in the Torah, the Gospel, and the Qur’an; and
who fulfills His promise better than Allah? Rejoice, then, at the bargain
you have made with Him; for that is the great triumph. (9:111)
This is an essential component of the lesser Jihad, as Muhammad guarantees victory regardless of the outcome of war, so long as the warrior is fighting for the righteous defence of Islam, and doing so in a proper manner.
While the rhetoric displayed in Muhammad’s writings conveyed a message of fighting only in the defence of Islam, all of the military actions of the original Muslim armies under Muhammad’s command cannot be accurately defined as defensive. The Battle at Badr and the Battle of Khandaq are exceptions in Muhammad’s military career. A more appropriate reading for the justifications of Muhammad’s choices for armed conflict would be a policy of pre-emptive strikes when he felt the security of his domain was threatened. On his path to capture Mecca, Muhammad was made aware that the Bedouin tribe of Hawazin had presumably planned to intercept him when he laid siege to Mecca. Altering his route, Muhammad moved in the assumed direction of this army to engage them, only to be ambushed on the course of this trek. Muhammad soundly defeated this military force, showing the rest of the surrounding tribal leaders he was a force to be reckoned with. Before Muhammad attempted to convert the remaining tribal leaders in the north-east portions of the Arabian Peninsula, leaders began sending delegations to Medina to converse with Muhammad about what would be required to ensure peace. While Muhammad’s doctrine of righteous military behaviour, as established in his rhetoric, contained a message of fighting to defend the name of Allah, there was certainly an aggressive, expansionist element to his methodology.
Further clarification on the rules of Jihad began to surface shortly after Muhammad’s death and these clarifications were based on interpretations of Muhammad’s supposed words and actions. Malik ibn Anas was a religious scholar, born in Medina in 710 A.D., sixty-eight years after Muhammad’s death. Anas offers the oldest known works on Islamic jurisprudence and his goal was to codify and structure Muhammad’s teachings for practical application in Islamic society. Amongst other elucidations, Anas pontificated on the role of the martyr during Jihad and what was to be expected of the Muslim warrior in the course of his military duties. Foremost in Anas’ directives was the imperative that Muslim combatants must fight for the good of Islam, not the desire for spoils following a successful campaign. In this manner of conducting himself, the warrior who dies during a Jihad will be guaranteed a successful passage into the paradise offered by Muhammad to his soldiers at the Battle of Khandaq. The codification of this principle, and its subsequent proliferation throughout Muslim lands, further reinforced the idea of Muhammad’s bargain amongst the Muslim population. Moreover, Anas’ work began a long line of scholarly work on Islamic jurisprudence that has continued in Islam up until the present day.
Another significant Islamic scholar to clarify the rules of Jihad was Abu al-Walid Muhammad ibn Muhammad ibn Rushd, a lawyer born in the Arabic town of Cordoba in 1126 A.D. In his work, Bidayat al-Mujtahid wa-Nihayat al-Muqtasid, he clarifies the details of the rules of Jihad, including who is obliged to take part in Jihad, who may be considered an enemy, the damage that is allowed to be inflicted upon an enemy during a war, the prerequisites for entering into a state of war, the maximum number of enemies one is obliged to stand one’s ground against, how a truce may be applied and the goals of war in general. Rushd draws from all previous scholarly work on these subjects to create a precise handbook for initiating, fighting and completing Jihad according to the principles advocated by Muhammad in his writing. Careful consideration is given to the idea that an enemy may submit to the Muslim attacker and then they may become subjects of the latter. Furthermore, courage and righteous behaviour of Muslim men during a Jihad is of utmost importance. Wars with Ethiopians or Turks are to be avoided if possible and the rules for proper handling of slaves are debated with varying conclusions. A unique aspect of Rushd’s work is his introduction of the process of abrogation into contemplation of the Qur’an. Because Muhammad would often contradict himself in his directives, and the writings were not organized into any particular order, it was necessary to introduce a means for deciding which directive should be followed. To reconcile this problem, Rushd would examine the contradictory statements and decide which was written first and which was written last. Whatever was seen as written later abrogated the original directive. In this manner, Rushd laid out which directives had to be followed and inscribed them in his work. However, no original copy of Rushd’s work exists and historians are only able to see renditions that have come down through a chain of scholarly transmissions. It would also seem likely that choices for what directives to follow may have been changed by scholars throughout time for political and theological reasons. As it was extremely difficult to ascertain which order the writings of Muhammad were meant to be read and multiple directives contradicted themselves throughout his writing, the process of abrogation left the rules for Jihad open for manipulation by anyone interpreting them.
In the centuries that followed, thousands of scholars have ruled on what exactly justifies a Jihad and what the rules of engagement are once it commences. Even the original meaning has been challenged as well as its origins. The only absolute surrounding this noun is that it has had a major impact on Islamic society and the world it engages. The ambiguous sources for its clarification, including the Qur’an itself, are numerous and are most often written by those with political ambitions for its use. It morphs with the era where it is invoked and reflects the objectives of those who invoke it. Jihad transcends Islam and the religious authority that claims it, making it a phenomenon of culture rather than an instrument of theology.
Akbar, M. J. The Shade of Swords: Jihad and the Conflict between Islam and Christianity. London: Taylor & Francis Group, 2002.
This book contains a detailed account of the history of Jihad and the conflict between Islam and Christianity. It begins with the life of Muhammad and closes with an examination into the attacks by Al Qaida on America on September 11th, 2001. Careful consideration is given to the theological justifications for violence found in Islamic scripture and the varying interpretations of the justifications.
Anani, Ahmad and Whittingham, Ken. The Early History of the Gulf Arabs. London: Longman Singapore Publishers, 1986.
This book contains a chronological account of Middle Eastern history, focussing on the various settlements and the demographics of the people who occupied them. It examines the sociological impact of the rise of Islam in Arabic societies and the global reaction to the transformations that occurred because of it.
Bonner, Michael. Jihad in Islamic History. Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2006.
This book focuses on the historical origins of Jihad and the varying interpretations it presents. It also examines the impact of Jihad on the broader Islamic society and compares a pre-modern interpretation of Jihad to the modern context.
Bukay, David. From Muhammad to Bin Laden: Religious and Ideological Sources of the Homicide Bombers Phenomenon. London: Transaction Publishers, 2008.
Bukay’s work supplies a cursory examination into the life of Muhammad and then moves to examine the role of Islamic military leaders who justified violence through Islamic scripture.
Cook, David. Understanding Jihad. Berkley: University of California Press, 2008. (Accessed online: http://www.thedivineconspiracy.org/Z5231Q.pdf
This essay endeavours to explain Jihad from a theological and military standpoint, focussing on the origins of the doctrine and the life of Muhammad. Various Sura are examined for their role in the construction of Jihad philosophy and the formation of rules by which wars can be fought under Islam.
Fariq, K. A. A History of Arabic Literature: Umayyad Period. Bombay: Vikas Publishing House, 1978.
This book contains a brief history of Arabic literature from the Umayyad Period, focussing on the role of literature in Arabic culture. Intellectual trends, poetry and prose are examined as well as the lives of the authors.
Firestone, Reuven. Jihad: the Origin of Holy War in Islam. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.
This book examines the role of holy war in Arabic culture beginning with pre-Islamic Arabia. It examines the role of Jihad in Muslim culture and compares various interpretations of Jihad from varying theological positions.
Hussain, Tanveer Dr. The Meanings of the Word Jihad. The Qur’anic Teachings Website. http://Qur’anicteachings.co.uk/jihad_meaning.htm
This article clarifies the meaning of Jihad from a particular Islamic position. It compares the different forms Jihad takes in Muslim belief and the practices it inspires.
Moscati, Sabatino. The Semites in Ancient History: An Enquiry into the Settlement of the Beduin and their Political Establishment. Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 1959.
This book follows the movement of Semitic cultures throughout the Middle East examining customs, religious culture and conflicts. Particular attention is paid the Bedouin tribes of the Arabian Peninsula and their role in Arabic society at large.
Norris, H. T. The Adventures of Antar. Surrey, England: Biddles Ltd., 1980.
This book examines the mythological life of Antara ibn Shaddad and all of the Arabic literature available about him. Attention is also given to an understanding of the role of the poet in Arabic culture, as well as the origins of chivalry.
Peters, Rudolph. Jihad in Classical and Modern Islam. Princeton: Markus Wiener Publishers, 2005.
Peters book examines the origins of Jihad as well as many subsequent variations on the interpretations of its meaning. Attention is given to the moral and religious implications of Jihad in Middle Eastern society and the evolving role of Jihad in a modern context.