Jihad, Violence, and Intolerance

By • Feb 7th, 2011 • Category: Articles

Dispelling the Myths and Misconceptions


Historically, the Christian West has not viewed Islam favorably. Western scholars ordinarily characterize Islam as a religion of sword, a tradition inherently devoid of reason or love[1]. Islam’s Prophet Mohammad is often portrayed as a warlord who imposed his beliefs on a reluctant world by the sword. The rapid spread of Islam outside its birth place (Arabia) is credited to invading Arab armies who gave the conquered peoples a simple choice: adoption of Islam or annihilation.

One can hardly contest a fact of history that tyrants occasionally hid behind Islam to justify their corrupt rule or invade foreign lands to fill up their own coffers. Yet, this is true of most world religions and secular ideologies. The social history of religion is marred with persecution of non-believers, forceful conversion, and outright violation of the basic human rights of those deemed not following the ‘correct’ theology. History has witnessed instances where verses from the Bible or the Quran have been invoked to commit unspeakable crimes. We know cases where politicians have invoked clauses from the American Constitution to circumvent civil rights. The international community has observed circumstances where naked aggression against powerless nations has been justified by pointing to the United Nations Charter. There is not much defense against evil intensions. One who is captive to power and lust would seek any means, including God’s Words, to reach his objectives.

In this article, I will examine the Islamic concept of Jihad (جهاد) which is often regarded as contributing to violence and intolerance among Muslims. I will draw upon the Quran and Islam’s oral tradition to explain what Jihad means especially as it relates to the perceived violence and intolerance against non-Muslims.

Text in Contest

It is essential to remind the reader of an important principle in religious studies. All major world religions including Christianity and Islam rose in pre-modern era, in circumstances far different than our contemporary settings. Hence, certain social and intellectual currents of the formation era are reflected in the scriptures and oral traditions of world religions[2].

Islam was born some 1400 years ago in Arabia, a land plagued by perpetual warfare. The living conditions were harsh and unforgiving. Social life was organized around the tribe where members understood well that they all depended on each other for survival. Tribal culture cultivated the communal spirit essential for survival. Careful analysis reveals that these socio-historical realities are reflected in the Quran and Islam’s oral tradition.

Quranic revelation has a two-tier structure: 1) it contains a universal message for the human kind across history and geography, while 2) addressing the immediate needs of the early Muslim community. As Prophet Mohammad received and transmitted revelation to the early Muslim community, the revelation guided the community by responding to the dynamics of the time. As such, there was often a context for a revelation; an issue, a question or a crisis would emerge that demanded a resolution.

We know from history that the early Muslim community was literally under siege; it was encircled by enemies bent on its destruction. In Mecca and Medina, Muslims were fighting a war for their very survival. Therefore, it is very important to consider the historical context for revelation of verses that deal with societal issues.

The challenge for the Quran commentator is to pay attention to the context while transcending it. He should examine the context as an aid to extract a message suitable for an audience who live in a qualitatively different social setting. In other words, the commentator should go beyond the revelation’s immediate context and penetrate the timeless wisdom it contains.

What Does Jihad Mean?

Jihad is an umbrella concept covering a wide range of ideas. It is often misunderstood by non-Muslims, and sometimes misused by Muslims.

Non-Muslims typically perceive Jihad to be a divine license to kill, a command to resort to brute force in conflict resolution or propagating Islam. Muslims, on the other hand, sometimes turn to Jihad in an attempt to circumvent the rules of fair play; that is, to mobilize a devout community in pursuit of selfish gains.

In the West, Jihad (جهاد) is usually translated into English as ‘Holy War’. This is a poor translation to say the least. Contrary to common perceptions, Islam does not have the concept of Holy War. The Arabic phrase for Holy War would be ‘الحرب المقدس‘ which appears neither in the Quran nor in the sayings of Prophet Mohammad.

The concept of Holy War was probably first introduced by the Christian Church during the Middle Ages to rally the Crusaders in their quest to conquer the Holy Land previously lost to Muslims. Some scholars even take the origin of the concept further back to emperor Constantine the Great, who saw a vision in the sky with an inscription on the cross, ‘in hoc signo vinces’ (in this sign you will be the victor).

Equating Jihad with Holy War misrepresents Islam’s overall perspective on warfare. As far as Islam is concerned, there is nothing holy about war, since it is a regrettable and inhumane enterprise.

The word Jihad comes from ‘Jahd’ (جهد) meaning ‘to strive steadfastly’. Jahd incorporates the following characteristics:

  • pressing forward in the face of adversity
  • not quitting when obstacles appear
  • accepting challenges gracefully
  • having patience and endurance in suffering
  • staying the course until the objective is achieved

 Jihad includes all these attributes. In addition, it has a uniquely spiritual dimension: directing one’s efforts towards the Divine and sublime ideals. The spiritual element of Jihad entails

  • having God in sight and in mind constantly
  • pleasing Him and not the ego
  • surrendering to Him and not giving into base desires

On the path to God realization, enormous obstacles and challenges will inevitably emerge. Islamic spirituality introduces the concept of Jihad that provides the focus and persistence required to overcome the challenges and successfully complete the journey.

One may strive for egotistical causes. Jihad, on the other hand, involves dedication to a noble cause endorsed by God, not evil powers[3].

Jihad is a genuine attempt to reform and improve. Reform has both an internal and an external requirement; it is a struggle against evil within one’s self and in the outside world. Islam’s oral tradition offers a conceptual formulation for Jihad that illustrates its two tier structure: the Greater and Lesser Jihad.

The Greater Jihad (جهاد اكبر) lies at the core and involves the relation of man with himself. The Greater Jihad is an existential struggle to achieve self-control and to keep the ego in check. In other words, it is an attempt to harness the powers within to do good rather than evil. In the context of violence and warfare, the Greater Jihad is the struggle to liberate one’s self from addiction to force, and to resist the temptation for resorting to coercion in solving personal and inter-personal conflicts.

The Lesser Jihad (جهاد اصغر) is the outward manifestation of a spiritually disciplined individual who has successfully tamed his ego. The Lesser Jihad involves the relation of man with society; it springs out of the Greater Jihad and expresses itself in a struggle in defense of justice against tyranny and oppression. It is a call to stand up against those who are addicted to the use of force, those who aspire to build their palace on the back of others.

Justice is the principal element in both tiers of Jihad. One who does not have self-control is bound to commit injustice. And, one who acquiesces to social injustice indirectly contributes to a system that produces misery and corruption. Such a system is not suitable for nurturing spirituality.

The distinction between the Lesser and the Greater Jihad illustrate the complexity and double sidedness of reform. Internal and external reform must go hand in hand- one without the other is not complete. It also points out the danger in attempting to reform the world before initially reforming one’s self[4].

The Quran and the Issue of Warfare

The Quran does not categorically reject the use of force[5]. This is partly due to the fact that Islam acknowledges an element of aggressiveness in human nature. Any plausible theory must rest on a realistic account of human nature if it is to influence social practice. Otherwise, its pronouncements will remain merely as decoration of theory.

The reader may be puzzled in reconciling two broad statements this article has made so far:

  1. Islam does not have the concept of a Holy War, since war is an inhumane enterprise
  2. Islam does not categorically reject warfare

 Why does not Islam reject warfare unconditionally? As an ideal, war should be viewed with disdain; it should never be glorified or promoted. War should never be deified as the will and desire of God. If all communities practiced the basic tenets of Christianity, Buddhism, Humanism or Islam, there would be no grounds for war. However, as a matter of fact we do not live in such an ideal world. One cannot ask people to operate under principles of ideal situation in less than ideal circumstances. This can lead to disastrous consequences. It is not prudent to ask people to live in an imaginary world– one that does not exist. An ideology that requires its followers to live as if they were living in the ideal world basically makes them vulnerable.

Islam admits that there are circumstances under which armed struggle is necessitated and thus should be permitted. Islam does not deify warfare, yet recognizes an undeniable fact of history: there are instances in human affairs where force must be brought to bear to subdue evil. It should be emphasized here that recognition of this fact of history does not mean promotion of warfare.

A Theology of Just War

Even though Islam does not have the concept of Holy War, it recognizes the notion of a just war. The issue of warfare and armed struggle against oppression is mentioned in many verses in the Quran. Even though the references are scattered throughout the scripture, we can put together a coherent narrative or blue-print[6]. The following is an attempt to put forth such a narrative using a number of Quranic principles.

  1. The only justifiable war is in self-defense 

From an Islamic perspective, the only just war is one of self-defense. The Quran permits war exclusively when a community is attacked or victimized:

‘Permission (to fight) is granted to those who are being persecuted, since injustice has befallen them, and God is certainly able to support them. They were evicted from their homes unjustly, for no reason other than say, “Our Lord is God”’ (22:39-40)

The verse grants a violated and oppressed community permission to fight for their rights. It also identifies instances of oppression:

  • Preventing a community from practicing their religion
  • Evicting people from their homes and occupying their land
  • Forcing people out of their cities into exile

 What do these instances have in common? They all manifest violence against a community. Armed resistance, as an application of Jihad, becomes unavoidable when violence is widespread.

Here, we should make a distinction between sporadic and systematic oppression. Sporadic oppression is random in nature; a pattern cannot be identified where a particular community is targeted. Systematic oppression, on the other hand, is structural; it is built into the fabric of the social system where it breads oppression. One can identify a repeating pattern of violence against a community.

Armed struggle is permitted only when the ruling powers engage in systematic oppression and have left no other alternative for uprooting violence. If violence is not confronted, it will spread corruption. Jihad constitutes the collection of efforts necessary to remove the obstacles impeding people from living in peace and brotherhood.

2.    Jihad aims to uproot violence not institute it

 In general, when it comes time to fight, it should be conducted with determination until the source of violence and oppression is uprooted. The necessity to use vigor in fighting, however, poses a great danger: those who fight oppression are at risk of carrying out the same repressive acts committed by the oppressors. The Quran warns believers[7] of such a trap:

‘You may fight in the cause of God against those who attack you, but do not aggress. God does not love the aggressors’ (2:190)

In Jihad the aim is to uproot violence, not sanctify it. The goal is to pacify and neutralize the aggressors, not to perpetuate aggression. The Quran warns that overstepping the limits in the use of force is itself aggression. Any attempt to go beyond neutralizing violence is itself violence.

The Quran issued a stern warning to victorious Muslims who entered Mecca years after they were evicted from their homes:

‘… Do not be provoked into aggression by your hatred of people who once prevented you from going to the Sacred Mosque (Ka’ba). You shall cooperate in matters of righteousness and piety; do not cooperate in matters that are sinful and evil…’ (5:2)

The verse is a reminder that the objective in Jihad is to eradicate oppression, and not to replace the disbelievers’ tyranny with that of the believers’:

‘God is the One who withheld their hands of aggression against you, and withheld your hands of aggression against them in the valley of Mecca, after He had granted you victory over them. God sees well all that you do’ (48:24)

We can conclude from these verses that armed resistance should be conducted in such away that oppressive powers, stricken by the disease of violence, hopefully recognize the destructive nature of violence, and abandon it.

If the goal in Jihad is to open the eyes of the oppressors who are themselves victims of the phenomenon of oppression, then it logically follows that the human rights and integrity of the adversaries should be respected. They should not be humiliated; rather, they should be invited to abandon violence and aggression.

A Muslim should never sanctify violence. Otherwise, warmongers have won- even if defeated in person, their logic and ideology has prevailed. They have basically proved that violence and force are the only effective means of organizing social affairs.

3.    Choose peace over war

 When armed conflict is unavoidable, it should be carried out with extreme care. The Quran instructs that when aggressors stop their aggression and offer peace, believers should accept the offer:

‘Therefore, if they leave you alone and refrain from fighting you, and offer you peace, then God gives you no excuse to fight them’ (4:90)

The Quran also warns of a common temptation in times of armed conflict: rejecting peace offers by a weakened enemy:

‘If they resort to peace, so shall you, and put your trust in God. He is the Hearer, and the Omniscient’ (8:61)

The verse invites Muslims to put their trust in God’s wisdom and not prolong warfare. This advice is not usually given in military academies, yet offered by the Quran. Military strategists view the offer of peace by the weakened enemy as a tactic to buy time for regrouping and re-arming. They present all sorts of justification to continue hostilities. The Quran clearly counsels otherwise, since its aim is to neutralize violence, not prolong it.

4.    Strength is a deterrence against aggression

 The Quran complements the advice to accept the enemy’s offer of peace with another one: always be vigilant and prepared.

‘You shall prepare for them all the power you can muster, and all the equipment you can mobilize, that you may frighten the enemies of God, your enemies, as well as others who are not known to you; God knows them’ (8:60)

The ultimate goal in preparedness should be to frighten the enemies of peace and brotherhood, not to wage wars of aggression. This is a theory of deterrence. The best way to avoid war is to be strong and prepared. When aggressors perceive you as weak, they will be tempted to wage aggression. In circumstances where injustice and unethical behavior prevail, strength is the best remedy for preventing war.

5.    One enemy is too many: Opt for friendship

The aforementioned verses in the Quran make it clear that one cannot wage war in the name of Islam to impose his beliefs on others, expand his territories, or multiply his possessions. Unavoidable wars should be fought under well-defined limits. Jihad is not a blank check to wage war and pillage.

The Quran goes further by instructing believers to seek friendship with all peoples who do not have ill-will towards them:

‘God does not forbid you from befriending those who do not fight you because of religion, and do not evict you from your homes. You may befriend them, and be just and equitable with them; God loves the equitable.

‘God forbids you only from befriending those who fight you because of religion, evict you from your homes, and band together with others to banish you. You shall not befriend them. Those who befriend them are the transgressors’ (60:8-9)

Islam calls for true friendship and mutual respect among all peoples. At its best, Jihad is a struggle to remove the obstacles preventing such friendship from prospering.

Islam and tolerance towards other religions

There is another common misconception about Jihad that involves waging war to impose Islam on reluctant communities. The Quran, however, clearly forbids forced conversion or imposition of Islam:

‘There shall be no compulsion in religion, Truth stands out from falsehood’ (2:256)

The verse simply affirms common sense: faith and compulsion do not mix. Faith involves a personal and intimate relationship with God. Hence, it rests on reason, freedom, personal choice, and devotion.  

The context for revelation of this verse is quite illuminating. A man by the name Haseen (حصين) had converted from Christianity to Islam. His family, however, had decided to remain Christian. Haseen was so passionate about his new faith that he desperately wanted his family to embrace Islam. When his measures turned from persuasion to harshness, this verse was revealed to Prophet Mohammad to inform his followers that forced conversion is absolutely forbidden in Islam.

The Quran is unequivocal in its call for mutual respect and peaceful coexistence among followers of different religions. Chapter 109 is titled الكافرون or ‘Disbelievers’. It clearly sets forth a guideline for how Muslims and non-Muslims should treat each other:

‘Say, “O you disbelievers. I do not worship what you worship. Nor do you worship what I worship. Nor will I ever worship what you worship. Nor will you ever worship what I worship. To you is your religion, and to me is my religion’ (109:1-6)

Note how the idea that believers and disbelievers do not worship the same way is repeated 4 times. The chapter is then closed by a clear command to peaceful coexistence among followers of different religious traditions:  To you is your religion, and to me is my religion. The Quran, therefore, upholds freedom of faith and worship.

It is instructive to discuss the issue of heresy (ارتداد) in the Quran. There are often suggestions that Islam calls for death sentence on Muslims who denounce Islam and embrace other religions. Although the aforementioned verse (2:256) clearly states that no one can be forced into Islam, one wonders how anyone can be forced to stay in Islam. It is logically inconsistent to grant freedom to a person for entering into Islam, and revoke the freedom when he embraces it. If one is free to choose, it applies equally to embracing as well as abandoning a religion.

There are 3 verses in the Quran which specifically deal with the issue of heresy. Let’s review them in turn and see if a penal code is established to persecute those who abandon Islam:

 ‘…They (the disbelievers) always fight you to revert you from your religion, if they can. Those among you who revert from their religion, and die as disbelievers, have nullified their works in this life and the Hereafter. They are the dwellers of Hell, wherein they abide forever’ (2:217)

The verse does not establish any penal code for heresy. God will judge the fate of those who abandoned their faith. The right to judge people’s faith is not delegated by God to any civil or religious authority.

The second verse:

‘O you who believe, if you revert from your religion, then God will substitute in your place people whom He loves and who love Him. They will be kind with the believers, stern with the disbelievers, and will strive in the cause of God without fear of any blame. Such is God’s blessing; He bestows it upon whomever He wills. God is bounteous, Omniscient’ (5:54).

Again, no worldly punishment is handed out for those reverting from Islam. The revelation promises that the ranks of Islam will always be filled with those ‘whom He loves and who love Him’.

The third verse:

‘Surely, those who slide back, after the guidance has been manifested to them, the devil has enticed them and led them on.’ (47:25)

Then, God proclaims the price these people have to pay for sliding back from their faith:

‘Because they followed what angered God and hated the things that please Him. Consequently, He nullified their works’ (47:28)

The price is nullification of their works. Those who oppose God’s guidance in the Quran will not succeed in undermining His plan. The verse simply pledges that abandonment of Islam by some will not weaken it, since Islam is ordained and endorsed by God.

In a word, none of the verses explicitly dealing with heresy envisage any sort of punishment for the heretic in this life.


Contrary to common perception in the West, Jihad is not a license to unleash brute force on non-Muslims. It is not a religious decree to expand territories, enrich the coffers of Islamic states, or multiply the number of Muslims by the power of the sword.

Furthermore, Jihad does not mean ‘Holy War’. Islam does not deify warfare; as such, no war is holy. Instead, Islam accepts the notion of a just war- a struggle to combat injustice, tyranny and oppression.

First and foremost, Jihad is an existential struggle to bring peace and order into the personal life of a believer by taming the ego and its requirements. It is a call to reform the ‘self’ and ‘society’ in such away that justice and peace prevail.

Since human societies are not populated by saints, Islam does not exclude the possibility of justifiable armed conflict in human affairs in certain circumstances. Yet, it calls on its followers to exhaust every opportunity to avoid hostilities. No stone should be left unturned to avoid violence. When armed conflict to uproot oppression and injustice is inevitable, then it should be conducted with utmost care and within boundaries set by God.

[1] The general opinion in the West is that Islam does not have a spiritual dimension because it is primarily concerned with socio-political issues dealing with ‘this’ world (e.g., sexuality, marriage, hygiene, war, and social justice). It is argued that Muslims incorporated Christian and Buddhist notions of spirituality and love into their theology. In other words, Islamic spirituality (commonly known as Mysticism or ‘عرفان‘) was essentially borrowed from Christianity and Buddhism.

[2] This is not to suggest that world religions exclusively addressed the needs, and responded to theoretical and practical problems of, their formation era. At its core, religion is concerned with eternal themes and principles. Yet, the eternal and the transient, the abstract and the concrete, inevitably meet in theology. To take root in history, a school of thought must initially be accepted by contemporary folks. This necessity will invariably lead to incorporation of certain intellectual and social concerns of the formation era into a religion’s scripture and theology. It is the responsibility of religious scholars to convey the eternal message and principles of a religion to contemporary audiences in successive generations.

[3] The evil may be either one’s own ego or an arrogant ruler

[4] Political revolutions often fail when unreformed individuals take over the levers of power. The old social order reconstitutes itself in a new guise when revolutionaries, just as their adversaries, are addicted to the use of force in ordering society. Those who used to suffer under authoritarianism resort to the same tactics in consolidating their power and ruling over their new subjects. In fact, contemporary Third World societies are stuck in a vicious cycle of authoritarianism precisely because the authoritarian mindset and character has not been reformed. The struggle is mostly directed against of the ruling dictator rather than the institution of dictatorship. Thus, victims of today’s dictator will become tomorrow’s dictators.

[5] This is one area where Islam parts ways with Christianity. In theory, Christianity rejects violence completely. Historically, however, Christians have found themselves compelled to use force against their adversaries as a matter of practice. The theory is seemingly impractical.

The rejection of violence, as a matter of principle, is partly driven by statements attributed to Jesus in the Gospels: ‘Jesus said: “My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my servants would fight to prevent my arrest by the Jews. But now my kingdom is from another place’” (John: 18:36). From the outset, Christianity gave up any intension of changing the world or attempting to make the outside world perfect. The logical conclusion many Christian theologians drew was that the belief in alteration of the world to increase genuine good is self-deception, if not outright sin.

[6] The structure of revelation in Islam is such that the Quran is not organized by subject. This leaves room for flexibility in interpretation and relating the scripture to evolving circumstances. That is essentially why Muslims in diverse socio-historical era find the Quran relevant to their lives offering them advice and insight.

Social scientists put disjoint and seemingly disconnected pieces of information together to develop a coherent theory. Muslim scholars essentially do the same by using the Quran and Islam’s oral tradition as the basis for developing theological theories.

[7] Believers refer to those who believe in the authenticity of the Quran as revealed text. Here, Muslim (مسلم) and faithful (مومن) are interchangeable.

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