The Lokashakti Encyclopedia of Nonviolence, Peace, & Social Justice

Demonstrating against the fundamentalist interpretation of 'jihad'

Key concept in Islamic teaching, related to the obligation of the faithful to spread the faith — the da’wa, or “call to Islam,” that the Prophet Mohammad required of all followers. It is clear in that catchword of jihad, however popular in the Western news media, does not necessarily mean holy war, or violence. The Koranic word for war is qital, not jihad. Jihad can be interpreted, as it is by leading contemporary Muslim scholars, as a peaceful effort in the pursuit of human needs. Islamic fundamentalists, on the other hand, who subscribe to violence for toppling their governments and silencing their rivals, interpret jihad to mean the use of force that serves to legitimate violence for achieving political goals.

The relationship of Islam to nonviolence and nonviolent action is not obvious. In part because the Koran is not explicit on these matters there exist divergent trends. There is also a lack of an accepted authoritative interpretation that links scripture to both its historical context and to the contemporary role of Islam in the world. This is due to the fact that Islamic revelation is believed to be above history. However, as with any scripture, Islamic scripture can be interpreted as open text that permits extremely divergent interpretations. The glorification of violence by some contemporary fundamentalists, however, who selectively reinterpret scripture, without attention to the historical nature of the text as a guide to its meaning, is based on an arbitrary interpretation.

The Koran does not include any consistent or unequivocal general concept for determining violence and nonviolence, for each Koranic verse is related to very specific historical events.  Thus, there are Koranic verses that call for nonviolence while others call for war. Historically speaking this is not a contradiction but a reflection of the specific historical situation in which the respective Koranic verses were revealed in the years between A.D. 610 and 632 in Arabia.  In early Meccan Islam, prior to the establishment of the first Islamic polity in Medina, one fails to find Koranic precepts related to violence or nonviolence. Most Meccan verses focus on spiritual issues.

Following the hijra (exodus) of the Islamic Prophet and his supporters in 622, he established in Medina the first Islamic political umma (community). The relations between this new polity and the surrounding tribes, as a hostile environment, had to be defined in terms of violence and nonviolence. All Koranic verses revealed between 622 and 632 (the Medina years until the death of the Prophet) were the expression of the unfolding process of establishing the polity of Medina as the center of Islam in the violent struggle against the surrounding enemies. Thus there are important differences in teachings on violence and nonviolence between the Meccan and Medinese parts of the Koran.

Furthermore, as noted above, the Koran distinguishes between fighting (qital) and jihad. But it is not entirely consistent about whether Muslims should, or must, use violence and force in their obligation to spread the faith. On the one hand, the Koran prescribes fighting for the spread of Islam: “fighting is obligatory for you, much as you dislike it” (al-Baqara 2:216). On the other hand, while jihad encompasses a resort to violence, it is not restricted to violent action. Literally jihad means to exert oneself while making an effort to reach a goal. Therefore it is utterly wrong to single out the military meaning of the term and to translate jihad exclusively as holy war. Qital (fighting) is the proper Koranic term for identifying war against the enemies of Islam. In other words, it is justifiable to interpret jihad as an Islamic concept of nonviolence, as do the modern Islamic scholars of al-Azhar.

Textual support for this perspective on nonviolence in Islam can be found in various places. For example, “Do not yield to the unbelievers and use the Koran for your jihad (effort) to carry through against them (al-Furqan 25:52). This Koranic verse clearly shows that jihad is not used in the meaning of war. That was, however, in Mecca, where the greatest force that the Koran asked believers to use was the power of argument. In Medina the Koran moved gradually — rooted in its historical context — to provide precepts to jihad in the more narrow meaning of qital as military fighting.

Violence and Nonviolence in Modern Islam

The duality of violence and nonviolence in Islam takes shape in modern Islam. The nineteenth-century Muslim scholar Ibn Khalid al-Nasiri argued that Islam is simultaneously a “shari’a of war” and a “shari’a of peace …” His preference for the Koranic verse “if they incline to peace then make peace with them” is based on his understanding of the notion of “Islamic interest” (al-maslaha). In his view, Muslims — under the then prevailing conditions of political and social weakness — must come to the conclusion that it is their maslaha (interest) not to wage war against unbelievers. This confirmism leads to setting nonviolence as the highest priority of Islam.

In the twentieth century, the Sunni Islamic establishment as represented by al-Azhar continues the earlier tradition of Islamic conformism. This tradition includes an interpretation of jihad to preclude violence and any use of force. Contrary to this peaceful interpretation of Islamic ethics, Islamic fundamentalists revive the ethics of war in Islam as well as the classic dichotomization of the world. Writing in 1984, for example, Nabil ‘Abdulfattah argues that jihad is, for Islamic fundamentalists, a call to violence equally against present rulers and the West. In their rebellion against political rulers, fundamentalists introduce a new legitimacy for resisting political authority in Islam.

The Fundamentalist Interpretation of Jihad

Unlike the al-Azhar tradition, which seeks to read the scripture in the light of the present, Islamic fundamentalists are inclined to restore the literal authority of the text as sola scriptura. For them, a true Muslim has to view reality in the light of the text. Islamic fundamentalists ought not to be equated with Islam as a whole as is usually done by the news media in the West — Islam is a thirteen-centuries-old civilization, whereas fundamentalism is a recent trend within Islam. In terms of mass movements, Islamic fundamentalism dates only to the 1970s, though its roots can be traced back to the late 1920s, when the Muslim Brotherhood (al-Ikhwan-al-Muslimun) was founded in Egypt by Hasan al-Banna. Al-Banna, along with Sayyid Qutb, the movement’s major ideologue, remains the leading authorities in the formulation of the political thought of Islamic fundamentalism.

Among the treatises of Hasan al-Banna is his risalat al-jihad (treatise on jihad), republished in 1990, in which he makes literal use of the Koran and the hadith to support conclusions radically different from those of the al-Azhar tradition. This treatise begins with the assertion that the jihad is a “farida (obligation) for every Muslim.” As shown earlier, jihad and qital are used in the Koran with different meanings and nuances. However, al-Banna uses jihad and qital interchangeably and as equivalent to the use of force, whether in pursuit of resistance against existing regimes or of war against “unbelievers.” Al-Banna begins his treatise in quoting the al-Baqara verse. “Fighting is obligatory for you, much as you dislike it” (2:216) and continues with another verse: “If you should die or be slain in the cause for Allah, his mercy will surely be better than all the riches they amass” (‘Imran 3:158).

These quotes and others provide the basis for the glorification of fighting and death for the “cause of Allah” as understood by al-Banna, who assures his followers of the Koranic promise in al-Nisa’: “We shall richly reward them,” regardless of “whether they die or conquer” (4:74). Instead of referring to the tolerant Koranic verses from al-Kafirun, “You have your notion of the obligation of the qital even against the ahl al-kitab (people of the book — that is, Christians and Jews) as he introduces the following Koranic verse: “Fight against those who neither believe in Allah nor in the Last Day … until they pay tribute out of hand and are utterly subdued” (al-Tauba 9:29).

In a subsequent section with the heading “Why do Muslims Fight?” he again emphasizes the equation of jihad and qital and adds: “Allah has obliged Muslims to fight ... to secure the pursuit of al-da’wa and thus of peace, while disseminating the great mission which God entrusted to them.” It becomes clear that al-Banna views peace in an inclusivist manner — nonviolence is possible only under the banner of Islam, and non-Muslims can live only “utterly subdued” as dhimmi (protected minorities) under global Islamist rule. In all other cases, the use of force is an unavoidable religious duty.  Al-Banna also distinguishes between al-jihad al-asghar (“low” jihad) and ai-jihad al-akbar (“high” jihad), He ridicules those Muslims who consider qital to be low jihad in comparison to “jihad al-nafs,” meaning to exert oneself.  We are now familiar with the fact that the latter term (exertion) is the original meaning of jihad in the Koran.  In al-Banna’s view, those who downgrade qital as fighting “make an effort to distract the people from the importance of qital as the intention of the jihad ... The great reward for the Muslims who fight is to kill or to be killed for the sake of Allah.”

Al-Banna concludes his treatise with the rhetoric of the glorification of violence. The major fundamentalist groups currently active in the world, whether in Algeria or Egypt, not only commit themselves ethically to an interpretation of jihad as violent but also practice this view in killing their Muslim adversaries. They renounce the al-Azhar interpretation of jihad as a legitimation of the existing political regimes that these fundamentalists seek to overthrow.

The al-Azhar Interpretation of Jihad

The more traditional Islamic interpretation of jihad is found in the texts of one of the former Azhar sheikhs, Mahmud Shaltut, published in 1980. Here we find the assertion that Islam is a religion intended to be embraced by all humanity, but combined with an acknowledgment of Islam’s openness to pluralism. Supporting pluralism, Shaltut quotes the Koran: “We have created you as peoples and tribes to make you know one another” (al-Hujrat 49:13). He also rejects the notion that Islam needs to resort to violence for the spread of its beliefs, again quoting the Koran: “Had Allah wanted, all people of the earth would have believed in him, would you dare then force faith upon them?” (Jonah 10:99). From this interpretation it follows that violence is an improper instrument for pursuing the da’wa. Shaltut presents the authoritative view that Muslims must live with non-Muslims in peace, since “war is the immoral situation.” Shaltut thus established nonviolence as the authentic Islamic view of morality. 

The most recent authoritative two-volume textbook edited by the former sheikh of al-Azhar, the late Jadul-haq Ali Jadulhaq, continues the effort to establish an understanding of the ethics of nonviolence in Islam that takes precedence over any use of force. In the chapter on jihad in the first volume, the textbook asserts that jihad in itself does not mean war. If we want to talk about war, the Azhar textbook argues, then we have to add: “al-jihad al-musallah (armed jihad)” in contrast to the everyday “jihad against ignorance, jihad against poverty, jihad against disease … The search for knowledge is the highest level of jihad.”

Having interpreted jihad in this manner as nonviolence, the authoritative textbook downgrades the meaning of “armed jihad” since the da’wa for Islam can be pursued without fighting. The Azhar textbook states in this regard: “In earlier ages the sword was necessary for securing the path of the da’wa. In our age, however, the sword has lost its importance, albeit the resort to it is still important for the cause of defense against those who wish to do evil to Islam and its people. However, for the dissemination of the da’wa there are now a variety of ways … Those who focus on arms in our times are preoccupied with weak instruments …”

This textbook also does not present the da’wa as requiring the violent imposition of Islam on others: “The da’wa is an offer to join in, not an imposition … Belief is not for imposition with force.” Earlier Meccan verses (such as “You have your religion, I have mine,” or “There is no compulsion in religion”) are quoted repeatedly in an effort to separate the da’wa from any notion of qital or jihad musallah. Despite this substantial reinterpretation, the textbook of al-Azhar nevertheless continues to maintain that Islam is a mission for all of humanity in quoting the Koran: “We have sent you forth as a blessing to mankind” (al-Anbiya’ 21:107).


In sum, while the Koran does not prescribe an explicit ethic of nonviolence, neither does it give higher value to actions of violence. An interpretation following from current teaching of the scholars of al-Ahzar nevertheless shows that both in its historical roots and in its teaching for the contemporary world, Islam tends to give moral precedence to nonviolence. One can conclude that the pursuit of even religiously oriented or informed struggle in the modern world by the methods of nonviolent action is fully consistent with both scripture and this teaching.  And the politically narrow interpretation of jihad by contemporary fundamentalists should not be misconstrued as providing the guidance for the behavior of Muslims as Islamic civilization adapts to contemporary circumstances.

The necessary cultural accommodation by Muslims to a changed international environment, in which an Islamic commitment to an ethic of nonviolence is urgently needed, is one of the great challenges facing Islamic civilization at the end of the twentieth century. International relations scholars who study the culturally divergent attitudes toward war and peace fear the separation of the international system into parts committed to nonviolence and others that glorify violence. Enlightened Muslims are challenged to reverse this trend and to reestablish the Islamic commitment to nonviolence.

Bassam Tibi, reprinted with permission, from Protest, Power, and Change: An Encyclopedia of Nonviolent Action from ACT-UP to Women's Suffrage.  Roger Powers, William Vogele, Christoper Kreugler, and Ronald McCarthy, eds. New York: Garland Publishing, 1997.

Selected material about Jihad
  • 'Abdulfattah, Nabil. Al-mashaf wa al saif. Cairo: Madbuli, 1984.
  • AI-Banna, Hasan. Five Tracts of Hasan al-Banna (1906-1949); A Selection from the Majmu'at Rasa'il ai-Imam al-Shahid Hasan al-Banna. Translated by Charles Wendell. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1978.
  • ---. Majmu'at Rasa'il al-Imam al-Shahid Hasan al-Banna. Cairo: Dar al-Da'wa, New Legal Edition, 1990.
  • Bell, Richard, and William Montgomery Watt, eds. Introduction to the Qur'an. Edinburgh: University Press, 1970.
  • Husni, 'Abdullatif. Al-Islam wa al-'alaqat al-duwaliyya. Namudhaj Ahmed ben Khalid al-Nasiri. Casablanca: Afriqya al-Sharq, 1991.
  • Jadulhaq, Jadul-haq 'Ali. Bayan ila al-nas. 2 yols. Cairo: Al-Azhar, 1984, 1988.
  • Khadduri, Majid. War and Peace in the Law of Islam. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1955.
  • The Koran (Arabic). Tunis: Mu'assasat 'Abdulkarim ben 'Abdullah. n.d.
  • The Koran. English translation by N.J. Dawood. 4th rev. ed. New York: Penguin Book Classics, 1974.
  • Lewis, Bernard. "Politics and War." In The Legacy of Islam, edited by Joseph Schacht and C.E. Bosworth. 2nd ed. Oxford: Clarendon, 1974.
  • Shadid, Muhammed. Al-jihad fi al-Islam. 7th ed. Cairo: Al-Risalah, 1985.
  • Shaltut, Mahmud. Al-Islam aqidah wa shari'a. 10th ed. Cairo: Dar al-Shuruq, 1980.
  • Tibi, Bassam. Conflict and War in the Middle East. New York: St. Martin's, 1993.
  • --- The Crisis of Modern Islam: A Preindustrial Culture in the Scientific-Technological Age. Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 1988.
  • --- Islam and the Cultural Accommodation of Social Change. Boulder, Colo.: Westview, 1990.
  • --- "The World View of Sunni Arab Fundamentalists." In Fundamentalisms and Society, edited by Martin Marty and Scott Appleby. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993.
  • Watt, William Montgomery. Islamic Fundamentalism and Modernity. London: Routledge, 1988.

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