Purpose of armed jihad in Islam

In the name of Allah, the Gracious, the Merciful

The purpose of armed jihad in Islam is to protect the rights of the innocent, to defend from aggression, and to ensure people are given the opportunity to freely practice Islam. The Quran, the Sunnah, and the majority of scholars from the beginning of Islam until today only permit armed jihad as a response to aggression and persecution. This article will document these sources to demonstrate that jihad, properly understood, is a theory of justice in war and not an instrument of conquest and oppression.

Jihad, the effort to perform good deeds, can take many forms, such as struggling against our sinful passions or exerting ourselves in acts of worship, but sometimes it means taking up arms in self-defense. In this case, jihad is a theory of just war similar to the legal framework upon which the modern Geneva Conventions are based.

Muslim scholars would begin their discussions on the objective of armed jihad by citing this tradition:

Abu Musa reported: A man came to the Prophet and he said, “A man may fight to be courageous, and another may fight for zeal, and another may fight to show off. Which of these is fighting in the cause of Allah?” The Messenger of Allah, peace and blessings be upon him, said:

مَنْ قَاتَلَ لِتَكُونَ كَلِمَةُ اللَّهِ هِيَ الْعُلْيَا فَهُوَ فِي سَبِيلِ اللَّهِ

He who fights to make the word of Allah highest is fighting in the cause of Allah.

Source: Sahih Bukhari 123, Grade: Muttafaqun Alayhi

Hence, the only legitimate reason for Muslims to fight is to “raise the word of Allah,” meaning to create a safe space for the free practice of Islam. Fighting for the sake of revenge, wealth, worldly interests, political ideology, or fanatical zeal are never legitimate reasons.

Ibn Hajar Al-Asqalani comments on this tradition, saying:

الْمُرَادُ بِكَلِمَةِ اللَّهِ دَعْوَةُ اللَّهِ إِلَى الْإِسْلَامِ وَيَحْتَمِلُ أَنْ يَكُونَ الْمُرَادُ أَنَّهُ (الجهاد) لَا يَكُونُ فِي سَبِيلِ اللَّهِ إِلَّا مَنْ كَانَ سَبَبُ قِتَالِهِ طَلَبَ إِعْلَاءِ كَلِمَةِ اللَّهِ فَقَطْ بِمَعْنَى أَنَّهُ لَوْ أَضَافَ إِلَى ذَلِكَ سَبَبًا مِنَ الْأَسْبَابِ الْمَذْكُورَةِ أَخَلَّ بِذَلِكَ

The meaning of the ‘word of Allah’ is the invitation to Islam. It is interpreted to mean that jihad would not be in the cause of Allah unless the purpose is only to raise the word of Allah, such that if anyone were to add another reason to it that would violate it.

Source: Fathul Bari 6/28

Armed jihad was especially necessary for the Muslim community in the early history of Islam as many of the surrounding empires were hostile to the new faith and would persecute anyone caught practicing Islam. In the midst of many powerful enemies, the only way to assert the God-given right to worship freely was to assert the inherent right to self-defense.

Armed jihad, then, is a means to an end and not an end in itself. If it is possible for Muslims to practice and preach Islam freely, then this is obviously preferred over fighting.

Ibn Hajar Al-Haytami writes:

وَإِنْ جَزَمَ الزَّرْكَشِيُّ بِأَنَّ وُجُوبَهُ (الجهاد) وُجُوبُ الْوَسَائِلِ لَا الْمَقَاصِدِ إذْ الْمَقْصُودُ مِنْهُ الْهِدَايَةُ وَمِنْ ثَمَّ لَوْ أُمْكِنَتْ بِإِقَامَةِ الدَّلِيلِ كَانَتْ أَوْلَى مِنْهُ

Az-Zamakshari asserted that the obligation of jihad is a necessary means but not an end in itself, as the purpose of it is to preach guidance. Hence, if it were possible to provide guidance otherwise, then that would be more appropriate.

Source: Tuhfatu’l Muhtaj 211

With this objective in mind, all of the other regulations and restrictions on warfare in Islamic law will make sense, as every rule relates back to this fundamental purpose.

Muslims are prohibited from initiating hostilities with other communities or going beyond what is necessary to achieve security. The casus belli, or justification for war, is purely defensive. Unlawful acts of transgression include killing civilians and non-combatants, causing needless property damage, violating treaties, or rejecting offers of peace.

Allah said:

وَقَاتِلُوا فِي سَبِيلِ اللَّهِ الَّذِينَ يُقَاتِلُونَكُمْ وَلَا تَعْتَدُوا إِنَّ اللَّهَ لَا يُحِبُّ الْمُعْتَدِينَ

Fight in the way of Allah those who fight you but do not transgress. Verily, Allah does not love transgressors.

Surat Al-Baqarah 2:190

Ibn Abbas explained the meaning of this verse, saying:

لَا تَقْتُلُوا النِّسَاءَ وَلَا الصِّبْيَانَ وَلَا الشَّيْخَ الْكَبِيرَ وَلَا مَنْ أَلْقَى إِلَيْكُمُ السَّلَمَ وَكَفَ يَدَهُ فَإِنْ فَعَلْتُمْ هَذَا فَقَدَ اعْتَدَيْتُمْ

Do not kill women, or children, or old men, or whoever comes to you with peace and he restrains his hand from fighting, for if you did that you would certainly have transgressed.

Source: Tafseer At-Tabari 2:190

Al-Baydawi writes:

وَلاَ تَعْتَدُواْ بابتداء القتال أو بقتال المعاهد أو المفاجأة به من غير دعوة أو المثلة أو قتل من نهيتم عن قتله

‘Do not transgress’ means by initiating the fighting, or by fighting those protected by a peace treaty, or by fighting those who never received the call to Islam, or committing mutilation, or killing whomever it has been forbidden to kill.

Source: Tafseer Al-Baydawi 2:190

It is an obligation for Muslims to make peace with any enemy that offers terms of peace to them. Peaceful conflict resolution is always more desirable than warfare, since the purpose is not the destruction of the enemy.

Allah said:

وَإِن جَنَحُوا لِلسَّلْمِ فَاجْنَحْ لَهَا وَتَوَكَّلْ عَلَى اللَّهِ ۚ إِنَّهُ هُوَ السَّمِيعُ الْعَلِيمُ

If the enemy inclines to peace, then incline to it also and rely upon Allah. Verily, it is He who is the Hearing, the Knowing.

Surat Al-Anfal 8:61

Ali ibn Abu Talib reported: The Messenger of Allah, peace and blessings be upon him, said:

إِنَّهُ سَيَكُونُ بَعْدِي اخْتِلَافٌ أَوْ أَمْرٌ فَإِنْ اسْتَطَعْتَ أَنْ تَكُونَ السِّلْمَ فَافْعَل

Verily, after me there will be conflicts or affairs, so if you are able to end them in peace then do so.

Source: Musnad Ahmad 697, Grade: Sahih

It is permissible for Muslims to make a permanent peace treaty with unbelievers without any time limit if that is the best way to ensure the safety of the community.

Imam Malik said:

تَجُوزُ مُهَادَنَةُ الْمُشْرِكِينَ السَّنَةَ وَالسَّنَتَيْنِ وَالثَّلَاثَ وَإِلَى غَيْرِ مُدَّةٍ

It is permissible to conduct a truce with the idolaters for one, two, or three years or without any time limit.

Source: Tafseer Al-Qurtubi 8:61

The prohibition of aggression extends beyond mere outward deeds and into the inner realms of the heart, as Muslims are not even allowed to desire fighting the enemy. The lust for vengeance is a spiritual disease of the heart every Muslim must expel from his or her soul.

Abu Huraira reported: The Messenger of Allah, peace and blessings be upon him, said:

‏لاَ تَمَنَّوْا لِقَاءَ الْعَدُوِّ فَإِذَا لَقِيتُمُوهُمْ فَاصْبِرُوا

Do not wish to meet the enemy, but if you meet them then be steadfast.

Source: Sahih Bukhari 2863, Grade: Sahih

From all this it should be clear that armed jihad is not an aggressive and expansionist political ideology bent on the subjugation of non-Muslims. Rather, the Prophet described the leader of the Muslims as a “shield,” not a sword, clearly indicating by this imagery the defensive nature of jihad.

Abu Huraira reported: The Messenger of Allah, peace and blessings be upon him, said:

إِنَّمَا الْإِمَامُ جُنَّةٌ يُقَاتَلُ مِنْ وَرَائِهِ وَيُتَّقَى بِهِ

Verily, the leader is only a shield behind whom they fight and he protects them.

Source: Sahih Muslim 1841, Grade: Sahih

The majority of Muslim scholars throughout history have upheld armed jihad as a means of defense rather than conquest or forced conversion. Unbelief by itself can never be a justification for war. Indeed, the evidence from scripture and sound reason definitively point to this conclusion.

Ibn Taymiyyah writes:

الكفار إنما يقاتلون بشرط الحراب كما ذهب اليه جمهور العلماء وكما دل عليه الكتاب والسنة

The unbelievers are only fought on the condition that they declare war, according to the majority of scholars, as evident in the book and prophetic tradition.

Source: An-Nubuwwat 1/140

And Ibn Al-Qayyim writes:

وَلِأَنَّ الْقَتْلَ إِنَّمَا وَجَبَ فِي مُقَابَلَةِ الْحِرَابِ لَا فِي مُقَابَلَةِ الْكُفْرِ وَلِذَلِكَ لَا يُقْتَلُ النِّسَاءُ وَلَا الصِّبْيَانُ وَلَا الزَّمْنَى وَالْعُمْيَانُ وَلَا الرُّهْبَانُ الَّذِينَ لَا يُقَاتِلُونَ بَلْ نُقَاتِلُ مَنْ حَارَبَنَا وَهَذِهِ كَانَتْ سِيرَةَ رَسُولِ اللَّهِ صَلَّى اللَّهُ عَلَيْهِ وَسَلَّمَ فِي أَهْلِ الْأَرْضِ كَانَ يُقَاتِلُ مَنْ حَارَبَهُ إِلَى أَنْ يَدْخُلَ فِي دِينِهِ أَوْ يُهَادِنَهُ أَوْ يَدْخُلَ تَحْتَ قَهْرِهِ بِالْجِزْيَةِ

Fighting is only necessary to confront war and not to confront unbelief. For this reason, women and children are not killed, neither are the elderly, the blind, or monks who do not participate in fighting. Rather, we only fight those who wage war against us. This was the way of the Messenger of Allah, peace and blessings be upon him, with the people of the earth. He would fight those who declared war on him until they accepted his religion, or they proposed a peace treaty, or they came under his control by paying tribute.

Source: Ahkam Ahlu Dhimmah 1/110

The Prophet’s practice with respect to those who declared war on Islam was to defend his community until they ceased hostilities, either by their acceptance of Islam, their acceptance of his authority while keeping their religion, or their offer of a peace treaty. The Prophet would never declare war on any community that wanted to make peace with him.

Moreover, forced conversion is never a legitimate purpose of war in Islam. Armed jihad is meant to create a safe space for people to practice Islam freely. If jihad was used to force people into Islam, that would defeat the purpose to begin with.

Allah said:

لَا إِكْرَاهَ فِي الدِّينِ قَد تَّبَيَّنَ الرُّشْدُ مِنَ الْغَيِّ

There is no compulsion in religion, for right guidance is distinct from error.

Surat Al-Baqarah 2:256

Ibn Al-Qayyim writes:

وَلَمْ يُكْرِهْ أَحَدًا قَطُّ عَلَى الدِّينِ وَإِنَّمَا كَانَ يُقَاتِلُ مَنْ يُحَارِبُهُ وَيُقَاتِلُهُ وَأَمَّا مَنْ سَالَمَهُ وَهَادَنَهُ فَلَمْ يُقَاتِلْهُ وَلَمْ يُكْرِهْهُ عَلَى الدُّخُولِ فِي دِينِهِ

The Prophet never forced the religion upon anyone, but rather he only fought those who waged war against him and fought him first. As for those who made peace with him or conducted a truce, then he never fought them and he never compelled them to enter his religion.

Source: Hidayat Al-Hayara 237

Neither is the acquisition of spoils or tax revenue a legitimate reason for engaging in war. The Prophet made clear that a Muslim who fights to earn the spoils of war has no reward with Allah.

Abu Huraira reported: A man said, “O Messenger of Allah, a man intends to fight for the sake of Allah and he is seeking worldly gains.” The Prophet, peace and blessings be upon him, said:

 لَا أَجْرَ لَهُ

There is no reward for him.

The people found that very difficult and they said, “Return to the Messenger of Allah, for perhaps he did not understand you.” The man returned and he said, “O Messenger of Allah, a man intends to fight for the sake of Allah and he is seeking worldly gains.” The Prophet said:

لَا أَجْرَ لَهُ

There is no reward for him.

Then the man returned a third time and the Prophet said:

لَا أَجْرَ لَهُ

There is no reward for him.

Source: Musnad Ahmad 7840, Grade: Sahih

The tribute (jizyah) paid by non-Muslim living under Muslim authorities was not intended to exploit them or burden them. It was a fair deal in which the non-Muslims would contribute to the collective defense of the community without having to participate in the army themselves. Muslim citizens also paid their fair share of taxes and were responsible for supporting the military. Again, the tribute was only a means for the defense of the community, not an end in itself.

Umar ibn Abdul Aziz, the righteous Caliph, said:

إِنَّمَا بَعَثَ مُحَمَّدًا صَلَّى اللَّهُ عَلَيْهِ وَسَلَّمَ دَاعِيًا وَلَمْ يَبْعَثْهُ جَابِيًا

Verily, Allah has only sent Muhammad, peace and blessings be upon him, as a preacher and He did not send him as a tax collector.

Source: Al-Bidayah wa-Nihayah 667

Neither was the tribute a means of humiliating non-Muslims or pressuring them into accepting Islam. It was simply meant to be an equitable arrangement for everyone to contribute their fair share to the collective defense.

Throughout Islamic history, some Muslim rulers did humiliate their non-Muslim subjects but the majority of the scholars rejected this practice as it was not based upon the deeds of the Prophet and his righteous successors. The tribute was supposed to be accepted with gentleness, just as the Prophet commanded Muslims to be gentle in all things.

An-Nawawi writes:

قال الجمهور تؤخذ (الجزية) برفق كأخذ الديون فالصواب الجزم ببطلانها وردها على من اخترعها ولم ينقل أنه عليه الصلاة والسلام ولا أحد من الخلفاء الراشدين فعل شيئا منها

The majority of scholars say the tribute should be accepted with gentleness as one would accept payment for a debt. The correct opinion is that the practice of humiliation is invalid and those who devised it should be refuted. It has not been narrated that the Prophet or any of the righteous Caliphs ever acted this way when accepting the tribute.

Source: Rawdat Al-Talibin 10/315

The tribute itself is not an inherent or essential practice that Muslims must adhere to today. Modern Muslim countries have developed concepts of citizenship that replace the functions traditionally held by the tribute. The important part is that the spirit of the law, justice and mercy, are upheld rather than the literal legal structure itself.

To conclude, armed jihad in Islam is only a means of self-defense for the community. It must never be used for conquest, aggression, revenge, subjugation, material gain, political ideology, or any other purpose.

Success comes from Allah, and Allah knows best.

Scroll to Top