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Is there offensive jihad in Islam?

December 9, 2016

In the name of Allah, the Gracious, the Merciful

The concept of “offensive jihad” (jihād al-ṭalab) is a legal term in classical Islamic law that has been misunderstood and abused by both Muslim and non-Muslim extremists. In their view, Islam allows no permanent or stable peace with the non-Muslim world. Muslims, they say, must continue to advance their political interests by military means if necessary. Islamic political rule, in their minds, is the purpose of jihad and an end in itself.

In reality, the legal texts that express offensive warfare are describing preemptive military action as a tactic and not as an end in itself. This misconception is dangerous because it is used by anti-Muslim activists to malign Islam in the Western world and justify aggression against Muslims countries, and it is likewise used by Muslim extremists to justify acts of terrorism or belligerence against the West. Agreeing with each other on the meaning of jihad, both of these groups stand in the way of peaceful relations between Muslims and non-Muslims.

The Quran is consistent in expressing the goal of armed warfare as defense of the community. It does not permit aggression, terrorism, or attacks against any category of peaceful people.

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

This verse expresses the general purpose of jihad as a response to aggression, to maintain freedom and security to practice Islam, and to protect people’s basic human rights – including the non-Muslim citizens residing in Muslim countries. This is the aim or end of jihad in itself.

Sufyan Ath-Thawri, may Allah have mercy on him, said:

الْقِتَالُ مَعَ الْمُشْرِكِينَ لَيْسَ بِفَرْضٍ إلَّا أَنْ تَكُونَ الْبِدَايَةُ مِنْهُمْ فَحِينَئِذٍ يَجِبُ قِتَالُهُمْ دَفْعًا

Fighting the idolaters is not an obligation unless they begin it themselves, in which case it is required to fight them in defense.

Source: Sharḥ al-Siyar al-Kabīr 1/187

And Ibn Al-Qayyim writes:

من مقصود الجهاد أن يدفع عن نفسه وعن المسلمين

It is the purpose of jihad that one defends himself and the Muslims.

Source: ‘Uddat al-Ṣābirīn 1/32

For this reason, the majority of scholars maintain that unbelievers are only fought if they initiate hostilities first.

Ibn Taymiyyah writes:

فأما الباغي من غير قتال فليس في النص أن الله أمر بقتاله بل الكفار إنما يقاتلون بشرط الحراب كما ذهب اليه جمهور العلماء وكما دل عليه الكتاب والسنة

As for the transgressor who does not fight, then there are no texts in which Allah commands him to be fought. Rather, the unbelievers are only fought on the condition that they wage war, as is practiced by the majority of scholars and as is evident in the Book and Sunnah.

Source: al-Nubūwāt 1/140

This general rule was augmented by the inclusion of offensive preemptive strikes or preventive war as a tactic against credible threats, but only after an official notice of war is given.

Allah said:

فَإِذَا انسَلَخَ الْأَشْهُرُ الْحُرُمُ فَاقْتُلُوا الْمُشْرِكِينَ حَيْثُ وَجَدتُّمُوهُمْ وَخُذُوهُمْ وَاحْصُرُوهُمْ وَاقْعُدُوا لَهُمْ كُلَّ مَرْصَدٍ ۚ فَإِن تَابُوا وَأَقَامُوا الصَّلَاةَ وَآتَوُا الزَّكَاةَ فَخَلُّوا سَبِيلَهُمْ ۚ إِنَّ اللَّهَ غَفُورٌ رَّحِيمٌ

When the sacred months have passed, then kill the idolaters wherever you find them and capture them and besiege them and sit in wait for them at every place of ambush. But if they repent, establish prayer, and give charity, let them go their way. Verily, Allah is forgiving and merciful.

Surat al-Tawbah 9:5

This verse is a command to take the initiative against the Arab tribes who, while not attacking the Muslims at that exact moment, had a history of violating their peace treaties again and again. By their actions over time they had proven that they could not be trusted to make peace.

The belligerent tribes were given four months notice before the Muslims went on the offense, which rules out any kind of preemption that involves treachery or deceit. Offense against these types of enemies was never unlimited; it was narrow, limited, contextual. The following verse offers asylum to any of them who refuse to wage war:

وَإِنْ أَحَدٌ مِّنَ الْمُشْرِكِينَ اسْتَجَارَكَ فَأَجِرْهُ حَتَّىٰ يَسْمَعَ كَلَامَ اللَّهِ ثُمَّ أَبْلِغْهُ مَأْمَنَهُ ۚ ذَٰلِكَ بِأَنَّهُمْ قَوْمٌ لَّا يَعْلَمُونَ

If any one of the idolaters seeks your protection, then grant him protection that he may hear the words of Allah. Then deliver him to his place of safety. That is because they are a people who do not know.

Surat al-Tawbah 9:6

Both Muslims and non-Muslims are confused by this apparent contradiction. Is jihad defensive or offensive? Do the offensive verses cancel the defensive verses?

The confusion arises because they have not distinguished between the overall purpose of jihad and the inclusion of a specific, limited tactic. The overall purpose of jihad, the defense of the Muslim community, as expressed in several verses and traditions was never cancelled. Rather, the command was given to respond proactively against real threats to the safety of the community.

Al-Baydawi comments on verse 2:190, saying:

كان ذلك قبل أن أمروا بقتال المشركين كافة المقاتلين منهم والمحاجزين وقيل معناه الذين يناصبونكم القتال ويتوقع منهم ذلك دون غيرهم من المشايخ والصبيان والرهبان والنساء

This verse was before the command to fight the idolaters entirely, those who fight and those who remain in their lands. It is said that it means those who wage war against you and from whom that is expected, with the exception among them of elders, children, religious teachers, and women.

Source: Tafsīr al-Bayḍāwī 2:190

In other words, verse 2:190 lays down a general rule and it was only “abrogated” in the sense that Muslims were now commanded to fight against “those who wage war against you and from whom that is expected.” That the law of war in Islam developed in stages does not mean the previous stages and principles were nullified. And when some jurists said the peaceful verses were abrogated, they did not mean they were cancelled entirely. They only meant that a new rule, preemptive action, was introduced to meet the needs of a new situation.

For this reason, several jurists discussed the duty of Muslim leaders to lead an incursion into enemy territory on a regular basis. This obligation was only to be assertive in the defense of the community against hostile powers, and it did not apply to any nation that was willing to conduct a peace treaty with Muslims.

Allah said:

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

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

Surat al-Anfāl 8:61

Some scholars placed a time limit on peace treaties, as was customary in the ancient world, while others said it was permissible for Muslims to conduct peace treaties without any limit.

Al-Qurtubi reported:

عَنْ مَالِكٍ رَضِيَ اللَّهُ عَنْهُ تَجُوزُ مُهَادَنَةُ الْمُشْرِكِينَ السَّنَةَ وَالسَّنَتَيْنِ وَالثَّلَاثَ وَإِلَى غَيْرِ مُدَّةٍ

Malik ibn Anas, may Allah be pleased with him, allowed truces with the idolaters for one, two, or three years, or without any limit.

Source: Tafsīr al-Qurṭubī 8:61

Permanent, stable, and just peace with non-Muslims is allowed for in Islam. In fact, the virtue of peace in Islam demands that it be the most desirable outcome possible.

In sum, the concept of “offensive jihad” as expressed in classical Islamic legal texts has been dangerously misunderstood. The Quran and Sunnah consistently express defense as the overriding aim of warfare. The rules of war were amended near the end of the Quranic revelation to include preemptive strikes as a tactic, but not as an end in itself. The understanding of offense by the majority of jurists did not include political rule or domination of non-Muslims as a goal by itself. The general purpose of jihad as defense has never changed since it was first permitted.

Ideas of offensive jihad in the hands of untrained and uneducated lay Muslims, as well as anti-Muslim activists, are dangerous because it permits no vision of stable peace between the Muslim and non-Muslim worlds. It also conflicts with the essence of Allah as peace (al-Salām) and thus peace on earth as something to strive for. The very integrity of Islamic practice is threatened if worldly political goals supersede the values, virtues, and spiritual teachings of our religion. As Muslims, we should remove this misunderstanding as it is an obstacle to peace, stability, and mutual-respect among the people of the world.

Success comes from Allah, and Allah knows best.