Editor's note: This essay by Prof. Asma Afsaruddin emanates from a conference organized by the Ali Vural Ak Center for Global Islamic Studies at George Mason University in April 2018. Prof. Afsaruddin was among the presenters of the "What is Islam?Conventional Views and Contemporary Perspectives" conference.
In popular and, to a degree, in academic literature as well, jihad is assumed to be a monovalent concept referring exclusively to “military/armed combat.” Even in academic discourses, jihad is often explained as a term with a fixed, universal meaning divorced from the surrounding socio-political circumstances in which it has been deployed through time. The military jihad is commonly assumed to be both defensive and offensive in nature and is often described as a religious obligation to be undertaken by adult Muslim men in order to defend and propagate Islam.
The monovalence of the term jihad emerges primarily from consulting the classical legal texts. After all, jurists, usually in contradistinction to exegetes of the Qur’an, hadith scholars, and ethicists, primarily dealt with jihad as one of the obligations of the Muslim ruler and of his Muslim subjects in the context of external relations with non-Muslim polities. The law of nations or international law (siyar) as an integral part of Islamic law developed early due to this pragmatic juridical concern for the intricacies of political relations with the broader non-Muslim world, as well as with religious minorities within Islamic realms. Within legal-administrative contexts, jihad is primarily military in nature. The rise of the imperial Umayyad and Abbasid dynasties and their frequent military engagements with the Byzantines created the imperative for legal justification of jihad as offensive military activity. Realpolitik therefore understandably colored legal treatments of jihad and allowed for distinctive – and contested – juridical perspectives to emerge on this topic, shaped by the historical and political contingencies in which they were progressively formulated.
“As the late Shahab Ahmad rightly emphasized, if we only focus on ‘official Islam’ that emerges primarily from legal texts, we are not doing justice to the full range of contestations and multiplicity of interpretations that characterize the Islamic intellectual tradition.”
As the late Shahab Ahmad rightly emphasized, if we only focus on “official Islam” that emerges primarily from legal texts, we are not doing justice to the full range of contestations and multiplicity of interpretations that characterize the Islamic intellectual tradition. Such contestations emerge in my discussion of the military jihad in the context of Qur’an 2:190 which unambiguously and categorically affirms the principle of non-aggression in military matters. Drawing upon an array of Qur’an commentary works, this essay first discusses how early and late Qur’an commentators interpreted this verse. It then proceeds to discuss very briefly how certain prominent jurists in their articulation of the siyar laws pertaining to the military jihad both engaged and progressively undermined this principle of non-aggression clearly stated in the Qur’an and essentially reinterpreted it as granting immunity to non-combatants. Such a reinterpretation allowed these jurists to discuss Qur’an 2:190 in the context of just conduct during war (jus in bello) rather than in the context of establishing just cause for armed combat (jus ad bellum) in deference to Realpolitik, which had important legal implications, as we will see shortly.
Exegeses of Qur’an 2:190
This verse states: “Fight in the way of God those who fight you and do not commit aggression, for God does not love aggressors.”
Our earliest scholars understand the interdiction in Qur’an 2:190, “Do not commit aggression for God does not love aggressors” as a clear and general prohibition against initiating hostilities under any circumstance. Thus the well-known early Qur’an exegete Mujahid b. Jabr (d. ca. 104/722) comments that according to this verse, one should not fight until the other side commences fighting.[i] According to another early scholar, Muqatil b. Sulayman (d. 150/767), this verse is specifically a denunciation of the Meccans who had commenced hostilities at al-Hudaybiyya, leading to a repeal of the prohibition imposed upon Muslims against fighting near the Ka‘ba. “Do not commit aggression” and “God does not love aggressors” constitute a categorical indictment of the Meccans who began to fight during the sacred month in the sacred sanctuary, which was a clear act of aggression (fa-innahu ‘udwan). The following verse (Qur’an 2:191) subsequently gives permission to believers to slay the polytheists wherever one may find them and expel them from Mecca from where the Muslims were expelled. Permission to engage the pagan Meccans in fighting in seventh century Arabia was clearly contingent, according to Muqatil b. Sulayman, upon their having initiated hostilities, which abrogates the earlier complete prohibition against fighting, especially in the Sanctuary.[ii]
Al-Tabari (d. 310/923), the celebrated commentator on the Qur’an, notes that verse 2:190 was understood by some unnamed exegetes as commanding the believers to fight the pagan Meccans only after the latter had initiated hostilities and to refrain from combat when the the pagan Meccans refrained from fighting. He comments, however, that the well-known Successors (second-generation Muslims) al-Rabi‘ b. Anas (d. 139/756) and Ibn Zayd (d. 182/798) had been of the opinion that the ninth chapter (al-Tawba or al-Bara’a) of the Qur’an had abrogated this verse. Other exegetes (whom he does not name) had maintained that no part of this verse was abrogated and that the aggression forbidden in it, which was a categorical prohibition, applied specifically to women and children.[iii] A new construal of the non-aggression clause therefore now emerges in al-Tabari’s exegesis – that of the immunity of non-combatants. The famed companion Ibn ‘Abbas is quoted by al-Tabari as having said, “You should not kill women, children, the elderly, and the one who offers peaceful greetings and restrains his hand. If you do so, you have resorted to aggression (fa-qad i‘tadaytum).” Furthermore, the pious Umayyad caliph ‘Umar b. ‘Abd al-‘Aziz (d. circa 101/720) is said to have written to one of his military commanders and interpreted this verse as “Do not fight those who do not fight you; that is, women, children, and monks.” Al-Tabari asserts that this statement of ‘Umar is the most fitting interpretation because there is no incontrovertible evidence that the meaning of this verse was abrogated, as some have maintained.[iv]
“Furthermore, the pious Umayyad caliph ‘Umar b. ‘Abd al-‘Aziz (d. circa 101/720) is said to have written to one of his military commanders and interpreted this verse as ‘Do not fight those who do not fight you; that is, women, children, and monks.'”
Al-Tabari then proceeds to offer his own exegesis of Qur’an 2:190 as follows. The verse commands the believers, he says, to fight in the way of God in obedience to the laws of God. The meaning of “Do not commit aggression” means that one should not kill children or women or those who pay the jizya (tax imposed on non-Muslim men living under Muslim rule in lieu of military service) from among the People of the Book and the Zoroastrians. Those who transgress these limits and hold licit what God has clearly forbidden regarding these groups of people are those who are indicated in “Indeed God does not love those who transgress.”[v] Exceeding these limits constitutes aggression.
It should be noted that al-Tabari’s reconstrual of the aggression clause in particular became influential and pervasive after him. This interpretation became reflected in the classical laws of war and peace formulated by jurists, who also came to understand the non-aggression clause in this verse as primarily setting up a prohibition against fighting non-combatants, and not a categorical prohibition against initiating fighting under any circumstance, as was clearly the view of several early exegetes.[vi]
Commentators after al-Tabari
Not all later scholars subscribed to this position, however. One notable exception was the well-known exegete of the late sixth/twelfth century Fakhr al-Din al-Razi (d. 1210), who commented that the divine imperative in Qur’an 2:190 is directed at actual, not potential, combatants. What he clearly means by this is that the verse allows fighting only against those who have actually commenced fighting, and not against those who are able and prepared to fight but have not yet resorted to violence.[vii] One may detect here a rather trenchant critique of the prevailing juridical position in al-Razi’s time, which had all but abandoned the Qur’anic principle of non-aggression through legal and hermeneutical ruses.
The slightly later Andalusian exegete al-Qurtubi (d. 671/1273) continues to relate that early authorities like Ibn ‘Abbas, ‘Umar b. ‘Abd al-‘Aziz, and Mujahid, considered Qur’an 2:190 with its proscription against initiating hostilities against polytheists to be universally binding and unabrogated (muḥkama) by any other verse in the Qur’an. Abu Ja‘far al-Nahhas (d. 338/950), the author of I‘rab al-qur’ān, is also said to have agreed with this position and said that this was the more correct interpretation, for it was in accordance with the sunna and reason. Al-Qurtubi himself endorses the view that the principle of non-aggression in Qur’an 2:190 is unabrogated.[viii]
Survey of Juridical Works
If we look at juridical works, we find that the Qur’anic principle of non-aggression in verse 2:190 underwent considerable modification and transformation in these works that deal with siyar or international law. Our survey of exegetical literature reveals that early scholars like Ibn ‘Abbas, ‘Ata’ b. Abi Rabah, Mujahid b. Jabr, and Muqatil b. Sulayman, firmly maintained that Qur’an 2:190 unambiguously forbade the initiation of military hostilities. In contrast to these early scholars, jurists from the ninth century onwards like al-Shafi‘i, al-Mawardi and others, proceeded to endorse the principle of offensive jihad. They did this, first, by applying the controversial hermeneutic tool of abrogation to Qur’an 2:190 which forbade such a concept, and second, by transferring the application of Qur’an 2:190 from the realm of jus ad bellum to that of jus in bello, that is to say from the realm of just cause for initiating war to just conduct during warfare, thereby making irrelevant adherence to a strict principle of non-aggression.
“In contrast to these early scholars, jurists from the third/ninth century onwards like al-Shafi‘i, al-Mawardi and others, proceeded to endorse the principle of offensive jihad. They did this, first, by applying the controversial hermeneutic tool of abrogation to Qur’an 2:190 which forbade such a concept, and second, by transferring the application of Qur’an 2:190 from the realm of jus ad bellum to that of jus in bello…”This critical reinterpretation became reflected in the classical laws of war and peace formulated by jurists, who came to understand the non-aggression clause in this verse as primarily setting up a prohibition against fighting non-combatants, and not a categorical prohibition against initiating fighting under any circumstance. Such a hermeneutic maneuver effectively allowed for a theory of offensive jihad to emerge among jurists which allowed Muslim rulers to launch pre-emptive wars against non-Muslim polities.[ix]
Therefore, the influential Shafi‘i jurist al-Mawardi in his discussion of Qur’an 2:190 documents the view of the early Meccan exegete and faqih (jurist) ‘Ata’ b. Abi Rabah (d. 733) who asserted that it was never permissible to fight those who do not fight. Al-Mawardi takes exception to this view, and states that the verse forbids the initiation of fighting specifically near the Sacred Precinct and allows armed combat there only in response to a prior act of aggression, lifting the previous absolute proscription against fighting in the Sanctuary (haram), and, therefore, in his view, does not have a broader applicability. Rather, his view was that the Qur’anic articulation of the doctrine of combative jihad reaches its final form in Qur’an 2:193, 9:5, and 2:191, which effectively abrogate Qur’an 2:190, and, in his understanding, encode divine permission to fight equally those who fight and those who desist from fighting.
A general immunity for non-combatants however continues to be upheld by al-Mawardi.[x] Similar views are documented by the Maliki jurist Sahnun b. Sa‘id al-Tanukhi [d. 240/855]) in his legal compendium Al-Mudawwana al-kubra; by the Hanafi jurist Abu Bakr al-Sarakhsi (d. 1096) in his Kitab al-Mabsut; and by the Hanbali jurist Ibn Qudama (d. 1223) in his Kitab al-Mughni. It is clear that the non-aggression clause in Qur’an 2:190 was re-interpreted by jurists from after the second/eighth century to primarily mean that fighting should not be initiated without a public summons to the adversary and that non-combatants should not be attacked.
The transformation in later exegetical and legal literature of the categorical prohibition against initiating aggression by Muslims in Qur’an 2:190 is revealing of the triumph of political realism over scriptural fidelity. This tendency is quite prominent in the late third/ninth century during the Abbasid period with its imperial ambitions, as may be noted in the exegesis of al-Tabari and in the legal work of al-Mawardi. Both authors, not surprisingly, had close connections with the ruling Abbasid elite.
“The transformation in later exegetical and legal literature of the categorical prohibition against initiating aggression by Muslims in Qur’an 2:190 is revealing of the triumph of political realism over scriptural fidelity.”Such views would become fairly de rigeur in later exegetical and juridical works. There were however those who represented notable exceptions to this general trend, such as the exegete al-Razi in the late sixth/twelfth century, who was suspicious of extracting politically expedient interpretations that were contrary to the obvious, commonsense meanings of words, and therefore trenchantly maintained that military activity could be launched only against actual, not potential, combatants.
Several modern and modernist Muslim scholars have undertaken a sustained critique of a number of positions adopted by the classical jurists, particularly on the issue of whether it is ever permissible to initiate an attack on an adversary, by resorting in particular to a close reading of the Qur’an. Their main area of contention is with the later juridical position which viewed lack of adherence to Islam, rather than aggression, as the casus belli (the rationale) for launching the military jihad. This perspective – which relies on the invocation of naskh for its validity – has been severely criticized by a variety of modern and contemporary Muslim scholars, including Sobhi Mahmassani, Tawfiq Wahbah, ‘Ali Jum‘a, Muhammad al-Dasuqi, and others. These scholars have emphasized instead that the Qur’an should be read holistically and that the critical verses which forbid the initiation of war by Muslims and which uphold the principle of non-coercion in religion categorically militate against the conception of an offensive jihad to be waged against non-Muslims qua non-Muslims.
In his interpretation of the cluster of verses Qur’an 2:190-93, the modernist Egyptian reformer Muhammad ‘Abduh (d. 1905) emphasizes that Qur’an 2:190 allowed fighting as “defense in the path of God so as to allow unimpeded worship of Him in His house” and as a warning against those who break their oaths and seek to entice Muslims away from their faith. “Do not commit aggression” is interpreted by him to contain both a proscription against initiation of hostilities by Muslims and attacking traditional non-combatants such as women, children, the elderly, the infirm, and “those who offer you peace”; additionally, it prohibits causing destruction to crops and property.[xi]
The process of transformation in the exegesis of Qur’an 2:190 becomes evident only when we look at non-legal literature, and especially at the tafsir literature in tandem with the legal literature, which allows us to trace these contested developments over time. Such an approach helps elucidate the significance of Shahab Ahmad’s assertion that “(T)he primacy that is given to the constitutive determinacy of legal discourse over other discourses serves to distort our perspective…” My study of Qur’an 2:190 and its interpretations confirms the validity of Ahmad’s assertion.
[v] Ibid., 2:196-97.
[vi] See further my book Striving in the Path of God: Jihad and Martyrdom in Islamic Thought (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013), 43-58.
[ix] See further my chapter “The Siyar Laws of Aggression: Juridical Re-interpretations of Qur’anic Jihad and Their Contemporary Implications for International Law,” in Islam and International Law: Engaging Self-Centrism from a Plurality of Perspectives, ed. Marie-Luisa Frick and Andreas Th. Müller (Leiden: Brill 2013), 45-63.
[x] Al-Mawardi, al-Hawi al-kabir fi fiqh madhhab al-imam al-shafi‘i radi allahu ‘anhu wa-huwa sharh mukhtasar al-muzani, vol. 14, ed. ‘Ali Muhammad Mu‘awwad and ‘Adil Ahmad ‘Abd al-Mawjud (Beirut: Dar al-kutub al-‘arabiyya, 1994), 102-113.
[xi]. Muhammad Rashid Rida, Tafsir al-Qur’an al-karim al-mashhur bi-tafsir al-manar (Beirut: Dar al-kutub al-‘ilmiyya, 1999), 2:169-70.