Do Muslims fight jihad to punish unbelief or repel aggression?

February 28, 2013

Very Old Quran

By Abu Amina Elias for


Do Muslims fight in jihad to protect themselves or to compel people to submit to Islamic law?


In the name of Allah, the Beneficent, the Merciful

The correct opinion, by the will of Allah, is that jihad in the sense of armed struggle was legislated in Islam as a means to defend the community from aggression and secure their basic rights. It was not legislated as a means to force people into Islam or to accept an Islamic government.

Ibn Taymiyyah mentions the views of the early jurists in his treatise, A Rule on Fighting the Disbelievers. He writes:

اختلف العلماء في قتال الكفار وهل سببه المقاتلة أو مجرد الكفر على قولين مشهورين للعلماء أحدهما سبب المقاتلة هو الاعتداء على الدين وأهله وهذا هو قول الجمهور كمالك وأحمد بن حنبل وأبي حنيفة وغيرهم والثاني أن سببه الكفر وهو قول الشافعي وربما علل به بعض أصحاب أحمد من أن السبب في القتال مجرد الكفر

The scholars disagreed concerning the reason for fighting the disbelievers. Is the cause for war their fighting or their state of unbelief? There are two famous opinions. The first is that the reason for war against them is their fighting and transgression against the religion and its people, and this is the opinion of the majority such as Malik, Ahmad ibn Hanbal, Abu Hanifa, and others. The second is that the reason for war against them is their unbelief itself, and this is the opinion of Ash-Shafi’ee and perhaps some of the companions of Ahmad.

Ibn Taymiyyah then writes:

وقول الجمهور هو الذي يدل عليه الكتاب والسنة والاعتبار قال الله سبحانه وتعالى وَقَاتِلُوا فِي سَبِيلِ اللَّهِ الَّذِينَ يُقَاتِلُونَكُمْ وَلاَ تَعْتَدُوا إِنَّ اللَّهَ لاَ يُحِبُّ الْمُعْتَدِينَ

The saying of the majority has evidence from the Book, the prophetic tradition, and the histories. Allah the Exalted said: Fight in the way of Allah those who fight you, but do not transgress. Verily, Allah does not love transgressors. (2:190)

Source: Qa’idah fi Qital Al-Kuffar

Elsewhere in his treatise, Ibn Taymiyyah writes:

وكانت سيرته أن كل من هادنه من الكفار لا يقاتله وهذه كتب السير والحديث والتفسير والفقه والمغازي تنطق بهذا وهذا متواتر من سيرته فهو لم يبدأ أحدًا بقتال ولو كان الله أمره أن يقتل كل كافر لكان يبتدئهم بالقتل والقتال

The Prophet’s biography shows that he did not fight whoever made peace with him among the unbelievers; and the books of biography, prophetic traditions, exegesis, jurisprudence, and history are full of such acts and this is widely narrated in his biography. Thus, the Prophet did not initiate fighting with anyone, and had Allah commanded him to fight every disbeliever, then he would have initiated fighting with them.

Source: Qa’idah fi Qital Al-Kuffar

Therefore, the opinion of the vast majority of orthodox jurists is that Muslims wage Jihad as armed struggle in order to repel aggression against Islam and its people, not to punish infidels for their infidelity. In other words, the casus belli (justification for war) is the community’s self-defense and the protection of their basic rights. The disbelief of the disbeliever is by itself not a sufficient just cause for war.

However, there were jurists in the classical period who considered unbelief itself to be a sufficient just cause for war. They likewise argued that all unbelievers may be killed on the basis of their rejection of Islam, but this view was refuted by Ibn Taymiyyah in As-Siyasah Ash-Shariyyah. He writes:

وإن كان بعضهم يرى إباحة قتل الجميع لمجرد الكفر إلا النساء والصبيان لكونهم مالاً للمسلمين والأول هو الصواب لأن القتال هو لمن يقاتلنا إذا أردنا إظهار دين الله

Some jurists are of the opinion that all of them may be killed on the mere ground that they are unbelievers, but they make an exception for women and children since they constitute property for Muslims. However, the first opinion is the correct one because we may only fight those who fight us when we want to make the religion of Allah victorious.

Source: Al-Siyasa Al-Shar’iyya fi Islah al-Ra’I wa Al-Ra’iyya

Ibn Taymiyyah then cites as his primary evidence the saying of Allah the Exalted:

وَقَاتِلُواْ فِي سَبِيلِ ٱللَّهِ ٱلَّذِينَ يُقَاتِلُونَكُمْ وَلاَ تَعْتَدُوۤاْ إِنَّ ٱللَّهَ لاَ يُحِبُّ ٱلْمُعْتَدِينَ

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

Surah Al-Baqarah 2:190

Ibn Taymiyyah’s views on this issue were passed down to his student Ibn Al-Qayyim. 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 امْتِثَالًا لِأَمْرِ رَبِّهِ سُبْحَانَهُ وَتَعَالَى حَيْثُ يَقُولُ لَا إِكْرَاهَ فِي الدِّينِ قَدْ تَبَيَّنَ الرُّشْدُ مِنَ الْغَيِّ وَهَذَا نَفْيٌ فِي مَعْنَى النَّهْيِ أَيْ لَا تُكْرِهُوا أَحَدًا عَلَى الدِّينِ

The Prophet never forced the religion upon anyone, but rather he only fought those who waged war against him and fought him. 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, as his Lord the Almighty had commanded him: There is no compulsion in religion, for right guidance is distinct from error (2:256). The negation in the verse carries the meaning of prohibition, namely, you may not force your religion upon anyone.

Source: Hidayat Al-Hayara 237

In addition to the views of these great jurists, I will mention that one can find numerous examples of the principle of non-aggression in the life of the Prophet. For example, on one occasion the Prophet’s life was threatened by idolater, but once the Prophet had the power over the man, he forgave him and let him go although he never became a Muslim.

Jabir reported: A man was standing with his sword over the head of the Messenger of Allah and he said, “Who will protect you from me?” The Messenger of Allah said, “Allah the Exalted.” Then the sword fell from his hand and the Messenger of Allah seized it. He said, “Who will protect you from me?” The idolater said, “Be good to me!” The Prophet said:

أَتَشْهَدُ أَنْ لَا إِلَهَ إِلَّا اللَّهُ وَأَنِّي رَسُولُ اللَّهِ

Will you bear witness that there is no god but Allah and I am the Messenger of Allah?

He said, “No, but I give you my word that I will not fight you and I will not join anyone who is fighting you.” So the Messenger of Allah let him on his way. The man returned to his people and he said:

جِئْتُكُمْ مِنْ عِنْدِ خَيْرِ النَّاسِ

I have just come to you from the best of people!

Source: Musnad Ahmad, Number 14768, Grade: Sahih

In this narration, we see that the Prophet only made his refusal to fight a condition for his security, not that he needed to convert to Islam in order to be safe. This demonstrates that the Prophet would not fight people on the sole basis that they are unbelievers.

In conclusion, Muslims wage jihad in order to defend the community from aggression. Jihad is not a means of forcing people to enter Islam or accept Islamic rule. The Prophet never forced anyone to accept Islam and he only fought in battle against those who fought him first.

Success comes from Allah, and Allah knows best.