Towards Understanding Jihad

23 February 2019 | 12 minute read

Islam is unusual among religions that it openly admits that it is political in essence. No less a Muslim leader than Ayatollah Khomeni proclaimed, “Islam is politics or it is nothing.” It is emphatically not a spiritual enterprise as claimed by its apologists. In the light of this, it is important for all serious students of world affairs understand its scope and implications for the world. Fortunately, this is greatly facilitated by the monumental work discussed here.

Whitewashing Jihad
There is no shortage of experts who tell us that Jihad really is an inner struggle against one’s own baser instincts, like yoga and meditation in Hindu and Buddhist traditions. This ‘Islamically correct’ explanation, never followed by the Jihadis, is belied both by Muslim literature and by historical experience. Ibn Khaldun (1332 — 1406), one of the greatest thinkers of Islam, if not the greatest, saw Jihad as an aggressive war of expansion with the religious obligation to convert everyone. He calls it Islam’s ‘universal mission’: ‘The other religious groups did not have a universal mission, and the holy war was not a religious duty for them, save only for purposes of defenseIslam is under obligation to gain power over other nations.’ [emphasis added]

According to Sayyid Qutb (d. 1966): ‘…wherever an Islamic community exists… it has a God-given right to step forward and take control of the political authority… When God restrained Muslims from Jihad for a certain period, it was a question of strategy rather than of principle…’  We need look no further to understand the so-called ‘root causes’ of Jihad.


It is impossible to do justice to such a monumental work in a brief review beyond noting its main themes. The author begins appropriately with a hundred-page exposition titled Jihad Conquests and the Imposition of Dhimmitude. To appreciate Jihad we must understand the concept of dhimmitude, the state of mind induced by Jihadi terror.

A good deal of confusion prevails in the public mind with regard to the true nature of Jihad and its relationship to Islamic terror. The worst offenders in this game of sophistry are not the Muslims themselves but non-Muslim intellectuals and academics in Europe, India and especially America. It seems never to occur to these worthies that a medieval theocratic concept like Jihad has no legitimacy in a modern secular state, no matter what its real or imagined merits.

The meaning of Jihad

Jihad is the central doctrine of the Islamic state, ordained by its scripture. Thanks partly to the September 11 terrorist attacks on the New York World Trade Center and the Pentagon, the world now knows something of Jihad and its ties to Islamic terror. Even when the violent aspect of Jihad is pointed out, its apologists claim that violence and terrorism cannot be justified as Jihad, as if “real Jihad” is something we should all welcome.

Another point worth noting is that terrorist’s worldwide acting in the name of Jihad cannot be defeated by redefining Jihad to suit our comfort level. The various Jihadis are drawn to the interpretation of Jihad given by the likes of Osama bin Laden and not the apologists that fill Indian and Western universities and media. More significantly this “kinder, gentler” version of Jihad has no basis in either doctrine or history. It is necessary therefore to look at the primary sources to understand the place of Jihad in Islamic law and behaviour (Islamic law is part of its scripture; there is no separation of law from religion). What follows is a brief summary. More details on the place of Jihad in Islamic scripture and history can be found in Sita Ram Goel’s The Calcutta Quran Petition.

Dictionary of Islam defines Jihad as: “A religious war with those who are unbelievers in the mission of Muhammad [the Prophet]. It is an incumbent religious duty, established in the Quran and in the Traditions [i.e., the Hadiths or the ‘Acts of Muhammad’] as a divine institution, and enjoined especially for the purpose of advancing Islam and of repelling evil from Muslims.” The last point about “repelling evil” calls for an explanation: its primary goal is to prevent Muslims from deviating from the true teachings of Islam of unrelenting hostility towards Kaffirs (unbelievers) and lapsing into heresy. Movements intended to root out such ‘evil’, often called ‘purification movements’, are a feature of Islamic history. The Wahhabi movement that led to the Saudi brand of Islam and the Tablighi movement in India are two recent examples of such purification.

Dictionary of Islam also observes: “Sufi writers say that there are two Jihads: al-Jihadu‘l Akbar, or the ‘greater warfare,’ which is against one’s own lusts; and al-Jihadu‘l Asghar, or the ‘lesser Jihad’ against infidels.” It is important to note this is a later Sufi innovation that has no scriptural sanction, a heresy that is rejected by the orthodox. Historically, the Sufis have actively supported and participated in the violent version of the Jihad, the only one that has any scriptural sanction. The non-violent version is the one that is trotted out by Jihad apologists, though it has played hardly any role in history since no one follows it.

Dictionary of Islam is also perceptive in noting: “The duty of religious war (which all commentators agree is a duty extending to all time) is laid down in the Quran in the following verses, and it is remarkable that all the verses occur in the al-Madinah Surahs, being those given after Muhammad had established himself as a paramount ruler, and was in a position to dictate terms to his enemies.” So any suggestion of compromise that one finds in the earlier al-Meccah Surahs can be explained by the fact that they were given at times when Prophet Muhammad felt besieged and was forced to compromise with his adversaries in order to gain time. These were erased by the later Surahs revealed when the Prophet had become the paramount ruler.

The following Surah IX 5.6 sheds light on the Prophet’s idea of Jihad or the war against the infidels: “And when the sacred months are passed, kill those who join other gods with Allah wherever ye shall find them; and seize them, besiege them with every kind of ambush; but if they shall convert, and observe prayer, and pay the obligatory alms, then let them go their way, for Allah is Gracious, Merciful.” So the Mercy of God offers unbelievers the ‘choice’ of conversion or death. This is just one example of many Surahs in the same spirit. There is no room for compromise in Jihad.

Terrorism in history

Like Jihad, terrorism is an integral part of Islamic history and doctrine that cannot be separated from its scripture. Terrorism, by which we mean the threat and use of violence against innocents, has a long tradition in Islam going back to Prophet Muhammad himself. The Hadiths (compilation of the acts of the Prophet) record that the Prophet had the poetess Asma bint Marwan assassinated while sleeping with her child. Her crime was satirizing the Prophet and his claims in some of her verses. There are other such examples in the Prophet’s career. More importantly, terrorism was not limited to the founding period, like what happened following the French Revolution (Robespierre‘s “Reign of Terror”). Its use as an instrument of policy is not an aberration but an inseparable and continuing part of Islamic history down to the present.

The most famous of the early Islamic terrorist organizations was the Nizari Ismailiyun, a Shiite politico-religious sect, founded in 1094 by Hasan-e Sabah. He and his followers captured the hill fortress of Alamut in northern Iran and turned it into their base of operations. Hasan styled himself Grand Master and went on to set up a network of terrorist strongholds in Iran and Iraq. According to Marco Polo, young boys captured by the Grand Master were turned into addicts by giving them progressively larger doses of the drug hashish. This way they were totally dependent on him and would do anything in return for hashish. They came to be known as hashishin, from which get the word ‘assassin.’ So the deadly mix of terror and drugs is hardly new.

Hasan-e Sabah and his successor Grand Masters commanded an army of assassins who spread terror among the people throughout Iran and Iraq. According to the Encyclopaedia Britannica, The Grand Master had “a corps of devoted terrorists, and an unknown number of agents in enemy camps and cities, who claimed many victims among the generals and statesmen of the Abbasid caliphate as well as several caliphs.”

The Nizari Ismaliyun or the Order of the Assassins expanded into Syria after its founder’s death. In the 12th century, Rashid ad-Din Sinan, famous as the ‘Old Man of the Mountain,’ set himself up as an independent Grand Master of the Assassin Order in the impregnable castle of Masyaf in Syria. For more than a century and half, from 1094 to 1256, these Grandmasters and their assassins spread terror throughout the Middle East.

Their end came at the hands of the Mongol warriors of Halagu Khan, the grandson of Genghis Khan. He captured and destroyed the assassin strongholds in Iran one by one, and finally Almaut itself fell in 1256. He mercilessly killed every one of the assassin agents and their leaders. Two years later, in February 1258, Halagu’s soldiers sacked Baghdad itself and ended the Caliphate by executing the Abbasid Caliph al-Mustasim and his sons.

The Syrian castles and strongholds were gradually reduced by Baybars I, the Mamluk Sultan of Egypt. The Ismaili order gradually faded into insignificance, becoming a minor heresy. It still has some followers in Syria and Iran, with India and Pakistan having the largest numbers. They are known as Khojas and are followers of the Aga Khan. They no longer indulge in terror. In Pakistan though they are considered non-Muslims and often persecuted.

The Caliphate officially ended with the death of al-Mustasim at the hands of the Mongols in 1258. The 19th century claim of the Ottoman Turkish Sultans to be the inheritors of the Caliphate was not recognized by Muslims outside India. It was a political ploy by the Ottoman Sultans to keep together their crumbling empire. When Kemal Ataturk became the ruler of Turkey, he abolished the Caliphate and kicked out the Sultan. But Indian Muslims and even Gandhi embraced the now dethroned Turkish Sultan and pseudo-Caliph as their leader!

Gandhi revives discredited Caliphate

It is one of the tragedies of history that Mahatma Gandhi made the restoration of the Turkish Sultan as
Caliph the centerpiece of the disastrous Khilafat Movement, when he launched the Non-Cooperation Movement in 1921. It resulted in a reign of terror in Malabar (Kerala) known as the Moplah Rebellion. It was the Khilafat movement that sowed the seeds of Partition. It also showed that terror could be used for political ends by invoking Islam. Indian history books rarely mention this ‘Himalayan Blunder’ by Gandhi that led to bloodshed and Partition.

Inspired by the terror that followed, the ‘liberal’ Muslim Muhammed Ali Jinnah resorted to terror to gain his political goal of partitioning India. In 1946, his call for ‘Direct Action’ in support of his demand for Pakistan led to street riots all across Northern India. Thousands were killed in what came to be known as the ‘Great Calcutta Killings’. The Congress capitulated and agreed to the Partition of India. This was how Pakistan was born.

In all this, there is an almost religious belief that terrorism is both legitimate and effective in gaining political ends. This is made explicit in the Pakistani official manual, The Quranic Concept of War by Brigadier Malik, sponsored by the late General Zia ul Haq. It states: “Terror struck into the hearts of the enemy is not only a means; it is the end in itself. Once a condition of terror into the opponent’s heart is obtained, hardly anything is left to be achieved…. Terror is not a means of imposing decision upon the enemy; it is the decision we wish to impose upon him.

The idea is to make the enemy live in a state of perpetual terror. The authority for this is the Quran (Anfal 59-60): “Against them make ready your strength to the utmost of your power, including seeds of war, to strike terror into the enemies of Allah and your enemies, and others besides, whom ye may not know, but whom Allah doth know.”

This is the seed of indiscriminate terror employed by Grand Masters of the Order of the Assassins centuries ago, by Osama Bin Laden and a host of others today. This belief in the power of domination through terror, and its legitimacy, is what needs to be defeated. But first, it is necessary to recognize that this legitimacy rests on the scripture itself.

The basic truth: terrorism runs like a thread throughout Islamic history. It is futile to try to separate Islamic terror from Islam. The fatwas (judicial rulings) issued by mullahs against terrorism are meaningless unless they also rule against Jihad. Otherwise it is just eyewash.

A version of this article was published in April 2013.

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