The Legislation & The Beginning of Jihad

Professor of the History of the Sunnah, Graduate Department, Islamic University of Madinah, Saudi Arabia. Excerpts from Madinian Society At The Time of The Prophet (transl. Huda Khattab), International Islamic Publishing House and The International Institute of Islamic Thought, 1991. Compiled by Adam Rodrigues.

The Legislation of Jihad

Jihad is an Islamic legal term meaning fighting in the way of Allah in order to establish a just system which upholds the laws of the Shariah and seeks to realize the aims of Islam on earth. Jihad was not legislated during the Makkan period when the Muslims were ordered not to oppose the Mushrikun (polytheists or idolaters) force or to carry weapons against them. The guiding policy among the Muslims at that time was:

“….hold back their hands (from fighting) and establishing regular prayers.” (Al Nisa 4:77)

This was the position taken by the Muslims when the missions of Islam were still new, like a young plant which needed water and nourishment to establish strong roots and face the elements. If Islam had confronted the Mushrikun by the sword at that time, the Mushrikun would have uprooted and destroyed Islam at the outset. Wisdom dictated that the Muslims patiently endure the persecution of the Mushrikun, and concentrate their efforts on improving themselves and increasing their faith through acts of worship and struggling with their nafs (inner selves), and calling others to Islam in order to increase the numbers of Muslims.

The Muslims were indistinguishable from the Mushrikun in their everyday life, and there was no separate camp which Muslims could join on accepting Islam even though they used to gather in Dar Al Arqam and other places to receive the teachings of Islam. If Jihad had been made compulsory at that time, there would have been a battle in every house where someone had become Muslim. When the Muslims emigrated to Madinah, and the Ansar supported Islam, and the Muslims had territory which was under their control, Jihad was instituted by God Almighty. At first, permission was given to fight in self-defense:

To those against whom war is made, permission is given (to fight), because they are wronged; … and verily, God is most powerful for their aid. (Al-Hajj 22:39)[1]

Then the Muslims were given permission to fight in self-defense and in defense of their beliefs and principles:

Fight in the cause of God those who fight you, but do not transgress limits; for God loveth not transgressors. (Al-Baqarah 2:190)

This was the second stage in the legislation of Jihad. In this respect, Jihad differs from the other wars of human history. It is aimed at achieving political and economic goals for certain individuals or groups, who “intend not high-handedness or mischief on earth”[2]. The aims of Jihad, and the obligations of truth, justice and mercy on which it is conditioned, distinguish it from all other kinds of war. According to the Qur’an:

“Those who believe fight in the cause of God, and those who reject Faith fight in the cause of evil.” (Al Nisa 4:76)

And the Prophet(P) is reported as having said:

“Fight in the name of God and in the way of God. Go on military expeditions but do not plunder. Do not break your pledge, nor mutilate, nor kill children.”[3]

Then came the third stage in which the Muslims were ordered to fight the Mushrikun and to initiate the fighting. This was to facilitate the spread of Islam by removing any obstacles placed in its path by the forces of Shirk (polytheism or idolatry), and to give the Muslims the upper hand in the world. In this way, no one would be able to persecute the believers wherever they were or make them renounce their faith. This directive may be clearly seen in the following verses of the Qur’an (ayat):

“And fight them until there is no more tumult or oppression, and there prevail justice and faith in God altogether and everywhere.” (Al-Anfal 8:39)

“Fighting is prescribed for you, and ye dislike it. But it is possible that ye dislike a thing which is good for you.” (Al-Baqarah 2:216)

“Fight those who believe not in God nor the Last day, not hold that forbidden which hath been forbidden by God and His Apostle, nor acknowledge the religion of truth (even if they are) of the people of the book, until they pay the jizyah with willing submission, and feel themselves subdued.” (Al-Tawbah 9:29)

Jihad is one of the most important religious duties in Islam. It clarifies the major aim which Muslims strive to achieve, namely the freedom of all people in all parts of the world to embrace Islam, and the formation of the political and military power needed to support this freedom and to protect the new Muslims. The spread of Islam at the individual level cannot be achieved by force. “Let there be no compulsion in religion” (2:256). But in order to promulgate Islam, consolidate it and protect its adherents worldwide, Islam needed to be superior to all other international political and military forces, especially in the world where Islam appeared fourteen centuries ago.

The governments of that time prevented their citizens from embracing Islam. The Quraysh in Makkah persecuted the Muslims and so also did the Persians and Byzantines on the borders of the Arabian peninsula in Syria and Egypt. The Islamic texts make it clear that the legislation of Jihad was no temporary matter; it is a permanent religious duty, according to the hadith:

Jihad remains obligatory until the day of resurrection. One who died but did not fight in the way of God, nor did he express any desire (or determination) for Jihad, died the death of a hypocrite.[4]

The books of Fiqh devoted whole sections to the various laws regulating Jihad, just as they did with salah, sawm, hajj, and zakah. Hence it is clear that this is a continuing obligation on the Muslim Ummah, just like the other obligations and pillars.

Jihad united the various groups within the Muslim Ummah and directed their energies towards confronting the enemy. Wherever the Muslim forces went, they proclaimed the call to free men from enslavement or worship of anything other than Allah, to regard all men as equal and respect man whatever his color or race. Men’s hearts were pierced by this call to lofty principles, rather than by swords. This is the secret behind the spread of Islam and the victory of its forces.

Some of those who have researched the Futuhat (liberation campaigns resulting in the spread of Islam) have given various reasons for this rapid and successful expansion. Caetani and other Orientalists have suggested that the motives were economic, basing this suggestion on the claim that the Arabian peninsula had undergone climatic changes, i.e., severe drought had caused waves of human migration from the peninsula to the Fertile Crescent where people could find economic prosperity, and that the Futuhat was just one of many such wars. An objective study of the facts, however, will reveal that there were no climatic changes in the Arabian Peninsula just before Islam, nor was there any great upheaval in the economic conditions. The Arab tribes did not move to the Fertile Crescent in such great numbers until after the emergence of Islam when they were united under its flag and were eager to realize its principles.

From studying the letters which were exchanged between the Khalifahs and the leaders of the Futuhat, and also other reports of the Futuhat, we can see the extent to which belief and ideology controlled the soldiers and produced the strict discipline in their ranks. The spirit which dominated the leaders and most of the army from the noblest principles and the desire to guide mankind aright, although booty was the incentive for some of the soldiers, increased the number of participants especially among the Bedouin. Nonetheless, any explanation of the Futuhat and of the general spirit, which dominated the thinking of the leaders who planned the conquests, should not be greatly influenced by the individual attitudes of some of the Bedouin fighters. Undoubtedly the leadership was eager and conscious of their responsibility and this took precedence over acquiring booty.

The Muslim liberators reduced the taxes due from the inhabitants of the liberated lands, did not take personal possessions, and preserved the existing economic structure. Their attitude was governed by a constructive spirit of guidance.

There is another explanation for the expansion of Islam which is based on political factors. The Prophet(P) and the Khulafa al-Rashideen were concerned with stopping the riddah (apostate) movement and thwarting any attempts it might make to divide the Muslim Ummah. Their concern caused them to divert energies, which might otherwise have caused troubles and discord, toward the spreading of Islam, and led to internal unity in the ranks of the Ummah. Although this explanation highlights a positive aspect, and reveals some of the wisdom behind the legislation of Jihad, it does not fully explain the impetus for the expansion of Islam. Most of the troubles and discord were caused by the apostate murtadd Bedouin during the Khilafah of Abu Bakr al Siddiq. After he had brought them under the control of the state, he forbade them to participate in military campaigns and stripped them of their weapons as a punishment. This was because he could not be sure of their loyalty, and because their attitudes and behavior did not bear the characteristics of the complete Islamic personality, and hence would not present a true picture of Islam to the inhabitants of the liberated lands. Abu Bakr relied on the inhabitants of the cities (Madinah, Makkah, and Taif) where the principles and educational effects of Islamic faith were well-established, to provide the army, and all the leaders were from among the Sahabah (companions of the Prophet).

A third explanation for the Futuhat attempts to justify them by saying that they were defensive in nature, and that they used attack as a means of defending the Islamic state from its powerful enemies. This explanation is given by the majority of Arab and Muslim historians. In doing so, they are yielding to concepts which dominate the twentieth century, the ideologies that are affected by man’s hatred of war and its evil effects in destroying civilizations, the maiming and killing of people, and the creation of refugees. They are affected by the emergence of international organizations which are concerned with reconciling the conflicting interests of nations; helping to establish international peace, and replacing wars with negotiations in order to solve international problems.

The spirit of the age has led many writers on the Futuhat to adopt an apologetic stance aimed at reconciling the spirit of the modern age with the concept of Jihad in Islam. Such contrition can be attributed to a number of interrelated psychological and intellectual factors, including the dominance of Western concepts among the majority of educated Muslims. This dominance is due to the intellectual invasion, which produced feelings of inferiority vis-?-vis, the West and led to the attempts to justify everything which conflicts with the spirit of Western civilization and its intellectual and psychological concepts. Another of these factors is the inability to understand the reality of Jihad and its aims. Muslims do not clearly understand that Jihad is not aimed at forcing Islamic belief on anyone but is aimed at removing the obstacles which prevent the spread of Islam, either by weakening or destroying the prevailing political powers, so that the Muslims can (by gaining the upper hand) prevent anyone from persecuting Muslims wherever they may be.

The connection between Jihad and forcing belief on people was first made in Orientalist studies which are filled with propaganda and distortions of the facts. This connection must be broken in order to present a true picture. The Qur’an makes it clear, beyond any shadow of a doubt, that people are free either to choose Islam or to remain Christians and Jews, even within the Islamic society or in the territories ruled by the Islamic state. This is proved by the verse of the Qur’an and by authentic historical events. The subject nations welcomed the freedom from Byzantine and Persian dominance which Islam brought to them. The Copts in Egypt and the Jacobites in Syria expressed their joy at the religious freedom which Islam proclaimed. If this announcement of religious freedom had not been sincere, then all the religious minorities would have been absorbed by the Muslim society and they would not have survived, as they have until the present day, despite the passing of 14 centuries since the emergence of Islam.

Describing the Futuhat as defensive is an apologetic attempt which does not stand up to serious argument. Did the people of Andalusia or Transoxiana cross the Muslims’ borders in order to conquer them? Did securing the borders necessitate the Muslims’ penetrating deeply into three continents, Asia, Europe and Africa, where dangerous events and decisive battles took place far from the Arabian Peninsula, such as the battle of Tours at Poitiers in the south of France, the conquest of Crete and southern Italy, the battle of Tiraz on the Talas river in Transoxiana, and finally the siege of Vienna?

The true explanation of the Futuhat is that they applied their religious duty which is Jihad, and which the Prophet (P) described as the pinnacle of Islam.

The Beginning of Jihad

The first actions of Jihad were the campaigns ghazawat and smaller expeditions saraya directed against places to the West of Madinah. These had three aims:

1. To threaten Quraysh’s trade routes to Syria, a serious blow to the mercantile economy of Makkah.

2. To make peace treaties and agreements with the other tribes who lived in the area, in order to guarantee their support or at least their neutrality in the conflict between the Muslims and Quraysh. This plan was important, and its accomplishment was a success for the Muslims, because originally these tribes had tended to favor the Quraysh, as there were historical alliances between them, which the Qur’an describes as ilaf or “covenants (of security and safeguard)” (Qur’an 106:1) and through which the Quraysh sought to secure their trade with Syria and the Yaman. These tribes had a real interest in the Quraysh as the custodians of the Ka’bah, to which all the Arabs performed pilgrimage in order to worship the idols which surrounded it. The tribes and the Quraysh shared common beliefs and joined together to oppose Islam. Undoubtedly, the fact that the Muslims were able to make treaties with these tribes and ensure their neutrality during the conflict was a great victory for them at that stage.

3. To demonstrate the power of the Muslims in Madinah to the Jews and the Mushrikun. Muslim dominance was no longer confined to Madinah; the Muslims were now beginning to establish control over the surrounding areas and tribes and influence their interests and relations.

The first expedition ghazwah was Ghazwat al Abwa[5], which is also known as Ghazwat Wuddan.

These are two adjoining sites, six or seven miles apart. Al Abwa is approximately 14 miles from Madinah. There was no battle during this ghazwah, but the peace treaty with Banu Damrah (from Kinanah) was concluded. This ghazwah took place on 12 Safar in the second year of the Hijrah. According to al Mada’ini’s report[6] the army stayed outside Madinah until Rabi’al Awwal before they returned[7].

Urwah ibn al-Zubayr mentions that the Prophet sent a sariyah out from al Abwa, consisting of 60 men under the leadership of Ubaydah ibn al Harith[8]. Ibn Ishaq mentions that the sariyah was sent to Sayf al-Bahr after the return to Madinah, and that another sariyah, consisting of 30 men under the leadership of Hamzah ibn Abd al-Muttalib, also went to Sayf al-Bahr at that time, in order to intercept a Quraysh caravan. But the two sariyah did not engage the Quraysh in battle, because, in the case of Hamzah’s sariyah, the tribes who had peace treaties with both sides prevented any fighting, and in the case of Ubaydah’s sariyah there was only an exchange of arrows between the Muslims and the Quraysh[9].

Undoubtedly the two sariyah were aimed, in the first instance, at threatening the trade of the Quraysh. This was the first warning to the Quraysh that their trade would be in danger unless they changed their obstinate attitude towards Islam. In Rabi’ al-Thani, the Muslims continued their campaign against the trade routes. Ghazwat Buwat took place in Ridwa, near Yanbu, with two hundred fighters who went to intercept a Quraysh trade caravan. Then Ghazwat al-Ashirah (in Yanbu) took place in Jumada al-Ula. There was no fighting in Ridwa and al-Ashirah but a peace treaty was concluded with Banu Mudlaj in al-Ashirah[10] in Jumada al-Akhirah.

Immediately after al-Ashirah, Karaz ibn Jabir al-Fahri came to the outskirts of Madinah and stole camels and cattle. The Prophet (P) pursued him as far as Safwan in the vicinity of Badr; hence this was called the first Ghazwah of Badr. Karaz managed to escape from his pursuers[11] but this event convinced the Muslims of the necessity of securing their relations with the neighboring tribes, so the expeditions continued. The Muslims did not limit themselves to intercepting Quraysh’s trade with Syria; they also intercepted their trade route with the Yaman. The sariyah of Abd Allah ibn Jahsh, with eight Muhajirun, was sent to Nakhlah, south of Makkah, at the end of Rajab, solely to find out and assess the latest news about the Quraysh. But they intercepted a Quraysh trade caravan, seized it, killed its leader, took two of its men prisoner and took it back to Madinah[12].

Because this event occurred during the sacred month, the Mushrikun caused a great outcry insisting that the Muslims had violated the sanctity of the sacred month. The event had a serious impact on both city dwellers and desert nomads, because it broke a tradition which had long been established in the Arabian Peninsula well before Islam. In fact, ‘Abd Allah ibn Jahsh was aware of the seriousness of this violation and had taken the decision to fight after consulting with his companions. When he returned to Madinah, he wanted to hand over the booty, but the Prophet(P) refused to accept it, saying:

“I did not order you to fight during the sacred month. Quraysh has spread the propaganda that Muhammad and his companions have violated the sacred month, spilt blood, seized wealth and taken men prisoner during this month.”

Some verses of the Qur’an were revealed which clarified the soundness of the Muslims’ position. The Prophet thus took the booty and ransomed the two prisoners to Quraysh. The verses were:

They ask thee concerning fighting in the prohibited month. Say: fighting therein is a grave offence; but graver is it in the sight of God to prevent access to the path of God, to deny Him, to prevent access to the sacred Mosque, and drive out its members. Tumult and oppression are worse than slaughter. (Al Baqarah 2:217)

Thus the verse clearly stated that the Quraysh’s actions in oppressing the Muslims and driving them out of Makkah were worse than the Muslims’ fighting during the sacred month[13] although the first part of the verse confirms the sanctity of the “sacred month.” Why, then, did the Quraysh not adhere to traditional values in their dealings with the Muslims in order to justify their claims to being the guardians of traditions and sacred things?

Some doubtful individuals may mistakenly think that the Muslims’ interception of the Mushrikun’s caravans was the action of bandits. The response to these doubts is that the Muslims were in a state of war with the Quraysh, and their attempts to weaken the Quraysh, both in economic and human terms, were a necessity of this state of war. Another reason was the fact that the Quraysh had seized the Muslims’ wealth when they had emigrated from Makkah. Even in modern times, it is allowed to strike at the human and economic resources of the enemy in time of war.


[1] For sabab al-nuzul, see Ahmad ibn Hanbal, al-Musnad 7/122. See also Ibn al-Qayyim, Zad al-Ma’ad, 2/58.

[2] See Qur’an, al-Qasas 28:83.

[3] Hadith narrated by Muslim in his Sahih, 3/1357

[4] Muslim, Ibn al-Hajjaj, al-Sahih, 3/1517

[5] It was mentioned in Sahih al Bukhari, in a Hadith from Zayd ibn Arqam, that the first ghazwah was al ‘Ashirah. Al-Hafiz ibn Hajar reconciled this report with that of Ibn Ishaq by explaining that Zayd ibn Arqam meant that the first ghazwah in which he took part with the Prophet (SAAS) was al ‘Ashirah. Al Bidayah wa al-Nihayah, 3/246.

[6] Khalifah ibn Khayyat al Usfur, al Tarikh, 56

[7] Ibn Hajar al-Asqalani, Fath al-Bari, 7/279. Khalifah, al-Tarikh, 56, from a report of Ibn Ishaq, without isnad.

[8] Ibn Hajar, Fath al-Bari, 7/279

[9] Khalifah, al-Tarikh, 61-62. Abu Muhammad ‘Abd al Malik Ibn Hisham al-Himyari, al-Sirah al-Nabawiyyah, 1/591-2, from a report of Ibn Ishaq without isnad. Al Umawi, Maghazi, also without isnad, as mentioned in Fath al-Bari, 76/279

[10] Khalifah al Tarikh, 57, transmitted through Ibn Ishaq without isnad.

[11] ibid.

[12] ibid., 63, from a mursal report of ‘Urwah with a hasan isnad.

[13] Ibn Hisham, al-Sira, 1/59-60, from the mursal ahadith of ‘Urwah. Al-Bayhaqi Abu Bakr Ahmad ibn al-Husayn ibn Ali, al-Sunan al-Kubra, 9/12, 58-9, with a sahih isnad going back to ‘Urwah. There are other similar reports in al-Tabarani, with hasan or other isnads. See al-Isabah 2/278; Ibn Kathir, 3/251; and al Haythami, Majma’ at Zawa’id, 6/66-7. When all the chains of narrators are taken into account, the hadith becomes sahih li ghayrihi.

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