The Quranic Understanding of Jihad. By Waris Mazhari


The word ‘jihad’ is a broad term that connotes making strenuous efforts for a certain purpose. Jihad is not limited to engaging war with external enemies. Nor does it always have that connotation. For war against one’s enemies the Quran uses another word—qital—which is an exceptional form of jihad. The issue of jihad in the sense of qital needs to be understood in the context of Islam as a missionary movement that is based on dawah, inviting others to God’s path. This movement, which aims at strengthening the relations between God and human beings and establishing justice and goodness in society, is an entirely peaceful one.
Jihad, in the basic sense of making great effort for a noble purpose, appears in numerous verses of the Quran.
Thus, the Quran says (29: 69):
We will surely guide in Our ways those who strive hard for Our cause, God is surely with the righteous.
The Quran also speaks of believers engaging in jihad through their wealth (49:15) and through the Quran (25:52). The Prophet is said to have remarked that a mujahid is one who engages in jihad with his nafs (baser self). To engage in jihad against one’s nafs is to struggle against one’s base desires and evil inclinations. It is called jihad-e akbar or the ‘greater jihad’ in another hadith report. But in addition to this sort of jihad is another one that is generally termed as qital in the Quran, permission for which is also granted in Islam. However, this permission is subject to various conditions. Accordingly, not every war fought in the name of jihad (in the sense of qital) deserves to be called a jihad. Its intention must be proper and pure, and so must its purpose—and this purpose must be to uphold the religion of God.
Misunderstanding about jihad abounds, among not just non-Muslims but many Muslims, too. This is basically because they have not tried to understand the Quranic conception of jihad in its proper perspective. Many Muslims—in addition, of course, to non-Muslims—make major blunders in their understanding and application of Quranic verses that speak about jihad. They err in assuming that the illat or cause or rationale for qital in these verses is infidelity (kufr), and so they conclude that Muslims must engage in jihad in the sense of qital against all disbelievers and polytheists.
This, however, is not correct. The illat of qital is not kufr, but, rather, muharaba or waging war against God and the Islamic state. The Hanafi scholars of jurisprudence and the majority of the ulema of the other schools of Muslim jurisprudence uphold this opinion. Had infidelity been the illat of qital, then numerous hadith of the Prophet and reports of his Companions would not have forbidden the killing of non-Muslim women, children and recluses living in non-Muslim places of worship.
The Quran gives permission for jihad in the sense of qital for two reasons: putting an end to fitna (2:193), understood here as religious persecution; and defence (2:191). The Quranic term fitna refers to the situation that prevailed at the time of the Prophet when people did not have the freedom of belief and conscience, and when those who accepted any belief system different from the socially dominant one were persecuted. We can term the sort of jihad that was permitted in order to put an end to this situation as ‘offensive jihad’. All other forms of war in Islam are defensive.
The Quran ordains mostly this defensive jihad, and the fact is that today only this command remains applicable. Following the ending of the state of fitna by the Prophet and his Companions, who put an end to religious persecution, today the need for war to abolish fitna no longer remains. A very large section of the ulema, from early Muslims like Sufyan ath-Thawri (d.778) and Ibn Shuburma, to important ulema of our times, have insisted that war in Islam is permissible only in defence. This is linked to the argument that after the Prophet and his Companions put an end to fitna or religious persecution, the illat for offensive jihad, no longer exists. In this sense, Imam Awza‘i (d. 774) and some other ulema of the early Muslim period confine jihad in the sense of qital only against the Quraysh of Makkah or against the polytheists of Arabia in general.
Maulana Abul Kalam Azad makes a related point in his book Rasool-e Rahmat (‘The Prophet of Mercy’):
It should be remembered that the commandment for war is only in relation to those groups of polytheists who were engaged in fighting to stop the Islamic dawah [at the time of the Prophet], and not the polytheists of the whole world. Hence [in the Quran], reference is, from first to last, to these particular groups.
Voicing a similar opinion, the Egyptian scholar Shaikh Abuzahra writes in his Nazariyat al-Harb fi al-Islam (‘The Concept of War in Islam’):
Qital was restricted just to the Quraysh, because it was they who had launched aggression and were continuously persecuting the Muslims who had remained behind in Makkah. The battles of Badr and Uhud were specific to the Quraysh, but in the battle of Ahzab, the Quraysh had brought together the whole of Arabia, who wanted to uproot the Islamic state of Madinah. That is why qital had become necessary with regard to the whole of Arabia—because all these people had launched aggression [against Islam]. It was in connection with this that this Quranic verse (9:36) calling for war against all the polytheists was revealed: ‘Fight the polytheists all together, as they fight you all together’.
In the Quran, when the commandment to engage in qital is given, it is generally explained that the reason for this is the believers’ undergoing oppression, their being driven from their homes, or war being unleashed against them, and so on. The first Quranic verses (22: 39-40) to grant permission to engage in qital read as follows:
Permission [to fight] has been given to those who are being fought, because they were wronged. And indeed, Allah is competent to give them victory. [They are] those who have been evicted from their homes without right - only because they say, "Our Lord is Allah."
This very clearly indicates that particularly in today’s context the Quran gives permission only for qital for the sake of defence. The Quranic verses in which the condition of war being only for the sake of defence is not mentioned are to be understood, in our present-day context, as essentially sanctioning war only in defence. At the time when these verses were revealed, the believers and the polytheists were engaged in violent confrontation with each other, and so these verses should be seen in that particular context.
In addition, it is important to remember that while the Quran does give permission to engage in qital in unavoidable situations, but this is with the following condition:
Thus you may exact retribution from whoever transgresses against you, in proportion to his transgression (2: 194)
Yet, while the Quran permits war in defence, it says that patience in the face of oppression is a better response:
If you want to retaliate, retaliate to the same degree as the injury done to you. But if you are patient, it is better to be so (16:126)
With regard to people of other faiths, the Quran (9:7) advises the believers that:
As long as they act straight with you, act straight with them.
It is also important to note that the Quranic conception of jihad is not limited to war. Engaging in jihad with the Quran, which means to seek to convince deniers of the Truth by providing proofs, is called the ‘great jihad’ (jihadan kabiran). Thus, the Quran says (25:52):
So do not obey the disbelievers, and strive against them with the Qur'an a great striving.
It should also be noted that the aim of jihad is not just the protection of Islam and its followers, but also to protect places of worship of non-Muslims. As the Quran (22:40) says:
And were it not that Allah checks the people, some by means of others, there would have been demolished monasteries, churches, synagogues, and mosques in which the name of Allah is much mentioned.
(In this verse, mosques are mentioned at the very last of the list of places of worship).
In the light of this discussion, it is clear that the issue of jihad is greatly misunderstood not just by non-Muslims but also by many Muslims themselves, and that this urgently needs to be addressed. The wrong policies and actions of certain radical Muslim groups in this regard have only further magnified these misunderstandings. It is necessary for Muslim thinkers and organizations to counter these wrong interpretations of jihad and to present the proper, Quranic understanding of the concept.
(Waris Mazhari is a graduate of the Dar ul-Uloom Deoband. He did his Ph.D from the Department of Islamic Studies, Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi, and is presently teaching Islamic Studies at the Maulana Azad National Urdu University, Hyderabad. Several of his writings can be accessed on his He can be contacted on

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