Jihad: The Struggle to Follow God's Path

by Dr. David L. Johnston

I ended the first half of this blog arguing that Sayyid Qutb’s definition of jihad, as total and permanent war until Islam reigns supreme in the world, was a throwback to the consensus of Muslim jurists and theologians in the classical period and a vigorous push back against the modern Islamic consensus that military jihad can only be justified in the case of foreign invasion. Let me unpack that here.

This is news to many pundits today, and in particular those who are behind the push in Tennessee and a dozen other states to outlaw Sharia. I obtained a copy of the draft Tennessee bill, which states that “jihad and sharia are inextricably linked.” The bill states that “the ultimate aim of jihad is the imposition of sharia on all states and nations”, and goes on to declare that sharia requires destroying and violating federal and state constitutions through “violence and criminal activity”.

This bill clearly states that Sayyid Qutb’s interpretation of Sharia is the only possible one for any sincere Muslim – as if Islam, like every other religious traditions, isn’t subject to evolving and even competing interpretations at any given historical period! On one hand, this bill says Muslims should be able to peacefully practice their religion - while warning that this version of Sharia is advocated by “tens of millions if not hundreds of millions of its followers around the world.” Scary!

A little history here is in order.

The Prophet Muhammad, through preaching, diplomacy and war, had nearly extended Muslim control over the whole Arabian Peninsula and had initiated a couple campaigns in Syria by the time he died in 632. Taking advantage of two weakening empires to the north, Muslim armies fanned out and in the next few decades carved out an empire greater than Rome had ever seen – from Spain to India. Yet Islamic law, well ahead of its time, carefully circumscribed the ethics and practice of warfare: treaties must be honored, prisoners treated humanely, women, children, monks and rabbis spared, and the impact on the environment minimized.

Did Muslim armies always abide by these rules? Of course not - no army in the world lives up to its ideals. But we would do well to remember that during the Crusades, while King Richard the Lionhearted did not hesitate to catapult the severed heads of Muslim prisoners onto the Muslim army, the Muslim leader Saladin’s war conduct was admired, and even legendary, to the point that he was considered “chivalrous” in Europe! Whereas the Crusaders killed absolutely everyone in sight when they first captured Jerusalem, Saladin managed to take it back in 1187 without killing a soul.

Having said that, Sayyid Qutb was indeed resurrecting the classical version of jihad. All the Islamic authorities of the medieval period until the eighteenth century agreed that the world was divided between the Abode of War and the Abode of Islam. This means that Muslims had a collective duty to extend their territories by means of war until the whole world came under the dominion of Islam. Since “there is no compulsion in religion” (Q. 2:256), no one was technically forced to convert: Christians, Jews, and Zoroastrians were given status as “protected minorities”.

Then came western colonialism with its superior science, technology and weaponry, and Muslim populations found themselves – shockingly, and for the first time – at the bottom of the pile. So under the weight of military, economic and political defeat, and relentless accusations by Christians that theirs was a violent religion, Muslims started to read their texts differently. By the mid-twentieth century, Muslim authorities in Egypt, Indonesia and many other centers of learning had come to agreement that jihad had two dimensions. The first was the taming of one’s lower desires in the struggle to follow God’s path; and second, the outer dimension: when a Muslim country is invaded by a foreign power, jihad is incumbent on the nation to defend itself and repel the invader. The reality of a world made up of nation-states ideally living in peace had sunk in.


PCI recognizes that blogs posted on the PCI website do not necessarily reflect the views of PCI, nor does it mean that the author is in full agreement with the views of PCI.