Peace and the Question of War O believers, be ye steadfast before God, witness for justice.

Quran 5:8

God loves the just.

Quran 5:42

Shall I inform you of a better act than fasting, alms, and prayers? Making peace between one another: enmity and malice tear up heavenly rewards by the roots.

Prophetic hadith

I bear witness that He is Justice and that He acts justly.

‘Ali ibn AbiTalib, Nahj al-balaghah


Like the sense of peace and nostalgia for peace, the sense of justice and quest for its realization seem to have been kneaded into the very substance from which humanity was created. No matter how ambiguous and dim the philosophical, theological, and even juridical meaning of justice may be in our minds, our souls have in their depth a sense of justice that shines within our conscience, and a fire burns deep within us urging us to live justly, to administer justice, and to protect what we perceive to be just. Messengers, apostles, and sages-from the Hebrew prophets, Zoroaster, and Confucius to Solon, Plato, and Aristotle to Christ, the Prophet of Islam, and countless later religious thinkers, including Muslims-have uttered numerous statements and written many texts on the subject. Sacred scriptures from the Upanishads and the Bible to the Quran contain many illuminating passages on the centrality of justice to the moral and spiritual life. Every people and nation speaks of justice even when injustice abounds in this world, and the human spirit seems no more able to live without justice than it can without beauty, peace, love, and compassion.

And yet when it comes to the understanding of the exact meaning of justice, on the formal plane the concept differs in various religions and moral philosophies and even within a single religious universe. The case of Islam is no exception.

The theme of justice permeates the whole of Islamic life and the Divine Law, the goal of whose implementation is the establishment of justice. The Quran is strewn with references to the subject of justice and identifies the good society with a just one. This virtue is so central to Islam that, according to a saying of the Prophet, “A kingdom might survive in infidelity, but it cannot survive in injustice and inequity.” But for Muslims, as for Jews, who are addressed so often in the Torah on matters pertaining to justice, and Christians, so many of whose greatest religious thinkers have been primarily concerned with the issue, as well as for followers of other religions, some of the major questions are as follows: What does it mean to say that God is just and what does justice mean in this context? How does God judge and how can we judge in justice? What is the meaning of justice on the human plane and why, despite all the teachings of religion about justice, is there so much injustice in this world?

One truth, evident for and accepted by all Muslims, is that God is just and justice is related to Him and the truths revealed by Him through His prophets. But within this general framework, there have been many interpretations over the ages by various schools of Islamic thought on this central issue, as there have been for Christians and Jews.

Needless to say, we cannot deal with these theological and philosophical differences here, but we can turn to certain basic tenets universally accepted by Muslims and seek to understand in the Islamic context some of the essential features of the central reality of justice and the means of living and acting justly, on the one hand, and opposing injustice, oppression, and inequity, on the other.


In the same way that Compassion and Love, Peace and Beauty are Names of God, Justice is also a Divine Name.

God is al-‘Adil, as well as al-‘Adl, al-Muqsit, and al-Hakam, meaning the Just as well as Justice Itself, the Equitable, and the Bringer of Justice. As these Names show, one could say in the Islamic context that not only is God Just, but that He is Justice Itself in the highest sense of the term.

What, then, is the Islamic understanding of justice in itself and when applied to God? In one of his aphorisms ‘Ali ibn Abi Talib said, “Justice puts everything in its place.” Justice is related to balance, to giving each thing its due (h. aqq), to having everything be in its place according its nature, and, in keeping with what Plato said in the Republic, to having each person perform his or her duty in society in accordance with his or her nature. Now, God is al-H. aqq, the Truth and Reality, from which comes the word for what each thing is due and also the word for law and rights, to which we shall turn in the next chapter.

Being absolute Truth and Reality, and ultimately the only Reality, without any division or delimitation in His Essence, God is Justice Itself, for He is all Himself and nothing but Himself. There is no possibility of disequilibrium or disorder, hence injustice, within Him, for there is no other reality within or outside of Him to even make possible bringing such a thing about. Metaphysically and theologically speaking, only God is in fact perfect and infinite justice as well as the perfect dispenser of justice.

Over the centuries, Muslim theologians debated whether whatever God did was just by virtue of its being His act, or whether God, being God, could not but act justly and His being just was comprehensible to us according to the discernment of our intelligence given by Him. The Ash‘arites, who dominated Sunni theology for a millennium, took the first position and the Sunni Mu‘tazilites as well as the Shi‘ites took the second position. But the net result, as far as the general Islamic worldview is concerned, was the same, namely, that God is perfectly just and the perfect administrator of justice throughout His creation. The Quran asserts, “Perfect is the Word of thy Lord in truth and justice” (6:115); also, “Maintaining His creation in justice, there is no god save He” (3:18). God has created all things according to justice and wants men and women, to whom He has given free will, to be just. Three times in the Quran it is asserted that God loves the just.

It is on the basis of this cosmic and also human justice that God judges human beings. The Quran confirms the central importance of the role of God as judge as revealed earlier in the Torah. In fact, the Quran states explicitly, “We gave the Children of Israel the Book, the Judgment” (45:16), and “they [the Children of Israel] have the Torah where God has delivered judgments for them” (5:108).

The pious among Muslims, when confronted with enmity and oppression, shared the sentiments so powerfully expressed in the Psalms: “Arise, O Lord, in Thine anger, lift up Thyself because of the rage of mine enemies: and awake for me to the judgment that Thou hast commanded” (7:6).

In the Quranic perspective God is also the supreme judge. “Thou shalt judge between Thy servants” (39:46), and “He is the best of judges” (12:80). Moreover, the Quran asks rhetorically, “Is not God the justest of judges?” (95:8). The judgment of God is final, for “God judges; none repeals His judgment” (13:41), although the gauge of the Mercy of God is known to Him alone. Ultimately God is in fact the only judge, for “the judgment is God’s alone” (6:57), “His is the judgment” (28:88). Although, of course, human judgment exists in this world, for Muslims, as for devout Jews and Christians, who over the millennia relied upon the judgment of God and His justice above all human agencies, the ultimate refuge resides in Divine Justice and God’s judgment of human actions. It is only He who knows all things and who can judge human actions not only outwardly, but according to the intention in the heart, the intention being what determines the value of an action according to the famous saying of the Prophet, “Actions are judged according to their intentions.”

Throughout their lives, Muslims, whenever called to human judgment, recall, “Shall I seek after any judge but God?” (6:114), although this spiritual attitude does not negate in any way their responsibility before the Divine Law or even human laws, or ‘urf, and the human agencies established to judge men and women in this world according to established laws. The ultimate judge is, however, God and the ultimate judgment, the events of the Day of Judgment, the only judgment that finally matters.


Before turning to the eschatological (end-time) realities and the Day of Judgment according to Islamic doctrines, a word must be said about a key Quranic symbol related to justice and God’s ultimate judgment of us. That symbol is the balance (al-mizan), mentioned several times in the Quran and repeated in many contexts in various classical texts dealing with ethics and other subjects. God created all things in the correct proportion and harmony, and the world is dominated by this remarkable harmony, which is the imprint of unity upon the domain of multiplicity. As the Quran says, “And the earth we have spread out: set thereon mountains firm and immovable and produced therein all kinds of things in due balance” (15:19).

The balance applies to every level of reality, from the physical to the alchemical, psychological, and spiritual.

There is a balance of the elements within healthy bodies, and our psyche, if wholesome, is balanced. And for the spiritually accomplished Muslim there is a balance between the spirit, soul, and body and the satisfaction of their respective demands. To give each thing its due (h. aqq) in accordance with its nature as created by God is to live in balance and realize the balance of things and hence to live in justice.

Balance also involves human actions. The Quranic injunction “Give full measure and full weight in justice” (6:152) applies to selling things honestly in the bazaar as well as acting justly in every instance in life. Our actions in general are in fact “weighed” by God in a “balance,” and we shall be judged accordingly on the Day of Reckoning, for “We [God] shall set up the just balances for the Resurrection Day” (21:47). The balance as the visible symbol of justice as well as harmony and equilibrium in the cosmos is so significant that the Quran asserts, “God it is who hath revealed the book with Truth and the Balance” (57:25). To observe the balance in all things is to live in justice. There is no sculpture in traditional Islamic art, but the Western statue of a blindfolded figure holding a balance found in so many courts and halls of justice is helpful here. The balance may be said to symbolize the Islamic idea of justice and the blindfolded figure to represent equality before God’s Law.

Muslims are ever reminded to “establish weight with justice and fall not short in the balance” (55:9), for one day they will face the supreme balance before the Judge whose justice is infinite and judgment perfect, although His Mercy and Compassion are also boundless.


All Muslims, of whatever school, believe in the afterlife, Heaven and hell, the Day of Judgment, and other eschatological realities, which in many cases are similar to traditional Christian doctrines. Belief in ma‘ad, literally “return” to God, or what is theologically known as eschatology, is part of the credo of Islam. It is discussed here rather than earlier, because the necessity of accepting the reality of the afterlife is so closely related to the realization of the reality of Divine Justice. People live in a world full of injustice, and if one accepts Divine Justice, it therefore becomes necessary to also accept the reality of other worlds and posthumous experiences for the human soul in which ultimate justice is to be found. Even Immanuel Kant, who was metaphysically “agnostic,” turned to God in his moral and practical philosophy precisely over the question of justice.

In any case, the reality of the afterlife is so intense for Muslims, even today, that the moral dilemma of a just God creating an unjust world so much discussed in the West does not seriously arise for them. They remain aware that our judgment of any life on earth is based on only a small segment of the total arc of a life whose fullness we cannot behold.

The scientistic philosophy that arose from modern science has deprived most of the well-educated classes in the West, and especially in Europe, of serious belief in the afterlife, and recently, on the basis of this skepticism, many have tried to make a mockery of the Islamic conception of the afterlife based on the Quran and Hadith. Interestingly enough, the same skeptics say little about Hindu or Buddhist eschatology nor care to remember the text of the greatest work of Western Christian literature, the Divine Comedy of Dante. It therefore becomes necessary to say a few words about the complicated subject of Islamic eschatology, which is one of the main themes of the Quran and to which many hadiths of the Prophet are devoted.

Muslims understand eschatology in two senses: one concerning the individual and the other human history. As far as the second is concerned, Muslims, like Christians, believe that there is an end to human history and that this end will be marked by Divine intervention in the temporal order with the coming of the Mahdi and his rule, followed by the Second Coming of Christ-and not the Prophet-in Jerusalem, the destruction of the world, resurrection, and final judgment before God. Few in the West realize the central role that Christ plays in Islamic eschatology, just as he does in the Christian understanding of the last days. As for the individual, eschatological doctrines teach us that at the moment of death the angel of death appears to take a person’s life, after which the person enters various paradisal, purgatorial, or infernal states depending upon that person’s actions in this world. In the deepest sense we are weaving our posthumous bodies with our actions in this life. Muslims, like Christians, also believe in the resurrection of the body and not only in the immortality of the soul.

Now, the extreme complexities of eschatological realities cannot be expressed for most people in ordinary human language save through certain simplifications that we see in both Christianity and Islam. Islam, like Christianity, presents ordinary believers with the grand choice between Heaven and hell with purgatorial states in between. In esoteric Islamic

teachings, such as the writings of Ibn ‘Arabi and Mulla S. adra, however, a more nuanced picture is developed that deals with the journey of the soul through various posthumous states and that also explains the hierarchies of the heavens, purgatories, and hells, in the manner of a Dante. There are, in fact, books in Arabic and Persian that are Islamic counterparts of the Tibetan Book of the Dead.

Furthermore, descriptions of posthumous realities must of necessity be symbolic, whether one speaks of the crystalline celestial Jerusalem of the Revelation of John or the gardens, houris, and rivers of paradise in the Quran. For centuries in the West certain critics of Islam sought to denigrate the Islamic paradise as nothing but a realm of sensual gratification in the same way that the paradise of the Native Americans was described pejoratively as “the happy hunting ground.” This childish and shallow criticism has now returned when the question of suicide bombers who are considered martyrs by their supporters comes up in the Western media. It is true that the Quran uses very concrete language to describe paradise and hell, a language that should not be strange in its concreteness, if not the specific symbols used, for those who are familiar with the Book of Revelation or the Divine Comedy. This concrete Quranic language is, however, symbolic and must not be taken only literally, although the literal meaning also has its significance.

Now, the description of paradise seems at first sight to be simply the sublimation of earthly pleasures, including sexuality.

In reality the reverse is true. Every legitimate experience of a pleasing nature here on earth is only a shadow and reflection of a paradisal reality. The most intense physical experience for the human being, which is sexual union, is a reflection of the union of the soul with God and reflects on its own level something of that supreme joy and expansion.

The fruits we eat here on earth are blessings from God, reflecting fruits of paradise. Even the traditional gardens of the earth are reflections of heavenly archetypes. The very word “paradise” comes from the Middle Persian term pardis (meaning “garden”), which is also the origin of the Arabic word firdaws, meaning “paradise.” It is not true that firdaws is simply a sublimation of the experience of a cool garden in the desert heat, while the same word in its English form, namely “paradise,” refers to spiritual realities.

Rather, every traditional garden here below is the reflection of firdaws, and paradise is a spiritual reality for Muslims as well as Christians. The attitude of Muslims, including martyrs, toward paradise is basically no different from that of countless devout Christians, including, of course, martyrs and saints.

What is different in the present-day context is that many in Europe and to a lesser extent in America have lost all belief in the afterlife, and for them human life is limited to the years spent here on earth. For most Muslims, however, as for still devout Christians, earthly life is only a segment of our total life. Human life was created by God to transcend the few days spent here on earth. The ups and downs of this life are trials sent by God, as the

Quran asserts. What is important is to live in justice and to do what is good, to which the Quran refers in numerous passages as ‘amal salih., or “good works,” remembering that as the Quran says, “And whoso doeth good an atom’s weight will see it then. And whose doeth ill an atom’s weight will see it then” (99:7-8). Conscious of Divine Justice but also of God’s infinite Mercy, Muslims live in open awareness of the realities of worlds beyond, and even today function in a world in which there is greater communication and rapport with realities that transcend the life of this world than there is for most modern Westerners. This awareness affects many aspects of life, including the understanding of God’s Justice, the significance of our actions for the ultimate end of our soul beyond the grave, and the meaning of human life itself.


Of all the companions of the Prophet no one said and wrote as much about justice as ‘Ali, whose Path of Eloquence (Nahj al-balaghah) contains some of the most important metaphysical and practical discussions about justice.

It was ‘Ali who insisted that God is not only just, but Justice Itself and that the virtue of justice flows into the souls of human beings from God. Since God is justice, everything that He does is just. But according to ‘Ali human beings must also be just to God as well as to His creatures. To be just to God is to be godly and virtuous and to fulfill the goal for which He created us, namely to worship Him. To be just to His creatures is to pay each thing its due and act toward that creature according to its rights. ‘Ali insists throughout his sermons, aphorisms, and letters that justice is related to worship and sincere piety. By drawing closer to God, human beings also become more just, since the virtue of justice flows within their being to an ever greater degree as they draw nearer to the Divine Proximity. Justice is both the effect of worship, for through worship we are just toward God, and the cause of justice, for worship draws us even closer to the Source of all justice. In the same way that for Plato “gazing” upon the Supreme Good was the source of justice, so in Islam, as expounded explicitly by ‘Ali, worship of the One is the fount of justice.

‘Ali also wrote much about justice in the practical realm of political and social life. Even when he held political power himself, he warned against the corrupting influence of power and pointed out how easily justice can be turned into its opposite, which is oppression or evildoing (z.ulm) in the hands of a heedless or corrupt ruler. He emphasized that God has made obligatory the rights of the ruler over the ruled, that the ruled will not be virtuous without their ruler being virtuous and just, and that, conversely, the ruler will not be virtuous if the ruled are not so. Each must pay the other its due (h. aqq), and only in this way can justice be established in society.

In the years when he was the political as well as spiritual head of the Islamic community, ‘Ali demonstrated his views of justice in many ways and established norms that became ideals, along with theSunnah of the Prophet (especially his practices in governing the Medina community) and the practices of other “rightly guided” caliphs, for many during the centuries that followed. Among the most important texts of ‘Ali on the question of justice on behalf of a ruler is his letter to the governor he had appointed for Egypt, Malik al-Ashtar. This letter, which is still widely read in the Islamic world and whose message is set as an ideal by which existing rulers are judged by many pious people, Sunni and Shi‘ite alike, demonstrates the centrality of justice and equity as well as forgiveness and compassion for a good government according to the traditional Islamic perspective.

‘Ali writes to Malik:

In the Name of God, the Merciful, the Compassionate:

This is that with which ‘Ali, the servant of God and Commander of the Faithful, charged Malik ibn al-Harith al-Ashtar in his instructions to him when he appointed him governor of Egypt: to collect its land tax, to war against its enemies, to improve the condition of the people and to engender

prosperity in its region. He charged him to fear God, to prefer obedience to Him (over all else) and to follow what He has directed in His Book-both the acts He has made obligatory and those He recommends-for none attains felicity but he who follows His directions, and none is overcome by wretchedness but he who denies them and lets them slip by. (He charged him) to help God-glory be to Him-with his heart, his hand and his tongue, for He-majestic is His Name-has promised to help him who exalts Him. And he charged him to break the passions of his soul and restrain it in its recalcitrance, for the soul incites to evil, except inasmuch as God has mercy.

Know, O Malik, that I am sending you to a land where governments, just and unjust, have existed before you. People will look upon your affairs in the same way that you were wont to look upon the affairs of the rulers before you. They will speak about you as you were wont to speak about those rulers. And the righteous are only known by that which God causes to pass concerning them on the tongues of His servants.

So let the dearest of your treasuries be the treasury of righteous action. Control your desire and restrain your soul from what is not lawful to you, for restraint of the soul is for it to be equitous in what it likes and dislikes. Infuse your heart with mercy, love and kindness for your subjects. Be not in the face of them a voracious animal, counting them as easy prey, for they are of two kinds: either they are your brothers in religion or your equals in creation. Error catches them unaware, deficiencies overcome them, (evil deeds) are committed by them intentionally and by mistake. So grant them your pardon and your forgiveness to the same extent that you hope God will grant you His pardon and His forgiveness. For you are above them, and he who appointed you is above you, and God is above him who appointed you. God has sought from you the fulfillment of their requirements and He is trying you with them.

Set yourself not up to war against God, for you have no power against His vengeance, nor are you able to dispense with His pardon and His mercy.

Never be regretful of pardon or rejoice at punishment, and never hasten (to act) upon an impulse if you can find a better course. Never say, “I am invested with authority, I give orders and I am obeyed,” for surely that is corruption in the heart, enfeeblement of the religion and an approach to changes (in fortune). If the authority you possess engenders in you pride or arrogance, then reflect upon the tremendousness of the dominion of God above you and His power over you in that in which you yourself have no control.

This will subdue your recalcitrance, restrain your violence and restore in you what has left you of the power of your reason. Beware of vying with God in His tremendousness and likening yourself to Him in His exclusive power, for God abases every tyrant and humiliates all who are proud.

See that justice is done toward God and justice is done toward the people by yourself, your own family and those whom you favor among your subjects. For if you do not do so, you have worked wrong. And as for him who wrongs the servants of God, God is his adversary, not to speak of His servants. God renders null and void the argument of whosoever contends with Him. Such a one will be God’s enemy until he desists or repents.

Nothing is more conducive to the removal of God’s blessing and the hastening of His vengeance than to continue in wrongdoing, for God harkens to the call of the oppressed and He is ever on the watch against the wrongdoers.1


Of course, ordinary human beings are not like ‘Ali, who had the guidance of the Quran and the Prophet in his heart and mind at all times. For ordinary men and women the question has always come up of how to be just in various concrete situations, how to recognize what is due all beings and treat them accordingly. The first guides given by God to Muslims about how to act justly are the Quran, the Sunnah, and theShari‘ah , which, being God’s Word, the teachings of His Prophet, and His Law, are of necessity the central means of understanding justice and acting justly. To live and act according to theShari‘ah is to act in justice toward both God and His creation.

But what about those actions for which there are no clear Divine injunctions, Prophetic guidance, or Shari‘ite instructions? In such cases one must use the intelligence God has given us and rely upon the innate sense of justice written by God on the tablet of our souls. And what about situations in life when one experiences oppression rather than justice? God asks us to be just at all times, not only occasionally, and to refuse to accept oppression. “O believers! Be steadfast before God, witnesses in justice” (5:8).

Muslims are constantly reminded that “My Lord hath commanded justice” (7:29), and that “You should be kind to them, and act justly toward them” (60:8). The Quran commands Muslims not only to act justly, but to speak in justice:

“And if ye give your word, do justice thereunto” (6:152). And above all, Muslims must always seek to judge justly, for as the Quran commands, “If ye judge between them that ye judge justly” (4:58). Christ said, “Judge not, that ye be not judged” (Matt. 5:44). But in practical life it is not always possible to follow this exalted teaching.

Although Muslims know that the supreme judge is God and ultimately only His judgment matters, there are always occasions in life when judgment is inevitable. In such cases they must act in truth and in justice.

In light of this essential necessity, courts were created on the basis of Shari‘ite teachings, and all cases were judged equally in such courts. In principle all Muslims are equal before Islamic Law and the judgments given on its basis.

Strangely enough, while in the West an independent judiciary is the mark of the modern period, in the Islamic world Shari‘ite courts remained in the hands of religious scholars and were independent to a large extent of political authority until modern times. It is only since the nineteenth century that the state has come to dominate the judiciary in many Islamic countries, so that much of the earlier judiciary independence has been lost and the administration of justice has been compromised by political considerations.

The question still remains about how to act justly in concrete situations when there are no clear Shari‘ite indications.

General principles stated in the Quran andHadith provide an answer to this vexing question. Besides specific Shari‘ite injunctions, there are general teachings about doing good, being fair, seeing the view of the other side, placing truth over expediency, being objective and not self-centered, and similar moral and spiritual principles common to Islam and other authentic

religions. These principles must be put into practice and the voice of one’s conscience must be always heeded.

Fighting injustice, oppression, and evildoing is itself just and the means of establishing justice. The word for injustice, oppression, or evildoing in Arabic (z.ulm) is used as the opposite of justice and is in its various forms one of the most frequently used terms in the Quran, which states, “God wisheth not injustice for [His] creatures” (3:108).

Those who are unjust and commit oppression break their covenant with God, for “My covenant shall not reach the oppressors” (2:124), and “Whosoever transgresses the bounds of God-those are the evildoers” (2:229). In more than one place in the Quran it is stated that, “God loveth not the evildoers” (e.g., 3:57) and in fact casts His wrath upon them: “The curse of God shall rest upon the evildoers” (11:18). Furthermore, the Quran andHadith make clear that those who are unjust and evildoing wrong themselves and that it is not God who wrongs human beings.

It might then be said that, in addition to following theShari‘ah and acting according to the principles of the Quran andHadith mentioned above, to live and act justly means to combat oppression, evildoing, and injustice. The Quran itself unfolds the epic battle between justice and injustice in the individual as well as in the social domain. To live under unjust human laws or unjust applications of just laws or under tyranny and oppression with disregard for the law obliges Muslims to battle against the injustice being imposed upon them. It is even said that to accept oppression without reacting to establish justice is worse than the original oppression and injustice.

Of course, not all human beings are alike; nor have all Muslims always arisen against oppression and injustice, but the ideal is very central to the Islamic concept of justice and a just society. Furthermore, the presence of this ideal has from time to time led to exertion on both the individual and collective level to reestablish justice. This innate desire for justice is, of course, not unique to Islam; nor is the impetus to act to overcome injustice. The history of the West is also replete with episodes of individual or collective action to overcome oppression and injustice. When some people attack Islam for inciting struggle in the name of justice, they forget the Boston Tea Party and the American Revolution, not to speak of so many other major political and social movements based on the perceived notion of correcting the wrong of injustice and oppression. Where the case of Islam differs from modern Western phenomena of this nature is that the claim to the establishment of justice is still seen by Muslims in Islamic terms and not in secular, humanistic ones. That the establishment of justice entails struggle brings us to the major question of exertion and striving in the path of God, or jihad.


Perhaps in modern times in the West no word in the vocabulary of the Islamic religion has been as distorted, maligned, misunderstood, and vilified as the word jihad, thanks not only to the Western media looking for demonizing epithets and stereotypes, but also to those extremist Muslims who readily provide them with examples to justify their propagation of the distorted image of this term. Now, matters are made worse by the fact that the word jihad has gained commercial appeal in Europe and America; a number of authors, seeking to attract a larger public and make their books commercially successful, have been trying hard to use the term in their titles in any way possible. Some have even changed the meaning of jihad to imply any local resistance and “tribalism” against the globalization process, whereas, in fact, in Islamic history itself, especially during the earlier centuries, jihad was often fought against “tribalism” and all the centripetal forces that threatened the unity of the Islamic community. To explain the authentic meaning of jihad requires clearing the slate completely of all the prevalent misunderstandings that unfortunately continue to be perpetuated in the Western media and much of Western literature concerned with Islam.

In Arabic the term jihad is derived from the root jhd, meaning “to strive” or “to exert effort,” and in the context of Islam this striving and exertion are understood to be in the path of God. The person who performs such a task is called a mujahid, usually translated as “holy warrior” in the Western media, as jihad itself is conveniently translated as “holy war.” One has only to recall that, in Sufi contemplation, the state of combating the distractions of the soul is also called mujahidah to realize how limitative such a current translation is.

To understand the significance of jihad in Islam and its civilization, we must first of all distinguish between a general, popular meaning of the term and the theological and juridical sense of the word. In the first sense, it is used to mean any effort considered worthy, much like “crusade” in its general sense in English and not in particular reference to the religious wars carried out by Western Christianity against both Muslims and Jews in Palestine in the Middle Ages. In the same way that in English one says that such and such an organization is carrying out a crusade to eradicate poverty or disease, in Islamic languages one can say that this or that group or government agency is carrying out a jihad to, let us say, build houses for the poor. In Iran today there is in fact a movement and organization called jihad-i sazandigi (that is, jihad for “construction”), whose function it is to exert effort to build housing for the poor and carry out similar projects. Also in the same way that throughout Western history certain wars have been fought in the name and spirit of a crusade, but without the blessing of the pope, who commissioned the medieval Crusades, in Islam some people have fought battles they have called jihad, although these battles were not, technically speaking, jihad according to Islamic Law or sanctioned by the ‘ulama’, or religious scholars. To say the least, the West has no less of a crusading spirit than Islam has a jihadic one, if both terms are used in their popular sense. In fact, during the past millennium the West has carried out many more wars in foreign countries as crusades for all kinds of causes

such as spreading Christianity, “civilizing missions” (la mission civilisatrice of the French), and disseminating modern ideologies from Communism to capitalism-than Islam has carried out jihad.

In the same way, however, that we must distinguish between the medieval Crusades, condoned and in fact directed by the Church, and this general usage of “crusade” in European languages, we must not confuse the general social and cultural use of the term jihad with its strict theological and juridical sense in Islam. Beyond this dichotomy, it is important to consider what jihad means in the context of Islam and the practices of its followers. To understand this more exact and pertinent meaning, it is necessary to go back to the root meaning of the term as “exertion and striving in the path of God.” On this basic level it might be said that all of life, according to Islam, is a jihad, because it is a striving to live according to the Will of God, to exert oneself to do good and to oppose evil. We are cast into a world in which there is disequilibrium and disorder both externally and within our souls. To create a life of equilibrium based on surrender to God and following His injunctions involves constant jihad, in the same way that a sailor on a windy sea needs to exert constant effort just to keep the boat on an even keel and continue to sail toward the chosen destination.

To wake up in the morning with the Name of God on one’s lips, to perform the prayers, to live righteously and justly throughout the day, to be kind and generous to people and even animals and plants one encounters during the day, to do one’s job well, and to take care of one’s family and of one’s own health and well-being all require jihad on this elemental level. Since Islam does not distinguish between the secular and religious domains, the whole life cycle of a Muslim involves a jihad, so that every component and aspect of it is made to conform to Divine norms. Jihad is not one of the “pillars”(arkan) of Islam, as are the canonical prayers or fasting. But the performance of all the acts of worship (‘ibadat) certainly involves jihad. To pray five times a day regularly throughout one’s life is certainly not possible without great effort, or jihad, on our part, save for the saints, who are always in prayer and in a sense have to carry out a jihad to tear themselves away from prayer to perform the chores of daily life. Likewise, for ordinary believers fasting from dawn to dusk is certainly a jihad and requires great effort on the part of the human will for the sake of God. The same holds true for the other acts of worship, or ‘ibadat. Jihad is, however, also required in the domain of transactions, or mu‘amalat, if one is going to live an honest and upright life. Not only acts of worship, which directly concern our relation with God, but also other human acts affect the soul and must be carried out ethically and justly.

But the soul is not always given to the good and the just.

Therefore, to be upright and to perform acts of everyday life in accordance with the Divine Law and Islamic ethical norms is to carry out a constant jihad. There are many simple people in the Islamic world trying to make an honest living in difficult circumstances who consider their everyday work to be a jihad. I have heard many a taxi driver in Persia and the Arab countries say he had to support a large extended family and

worked fourteen hours a day to do so, adding that every day for him was a jihad. To live in equilibrium in a chaotic world and a morally upright life in a society in which there are so many temptations to accept and participate in corruption is to carry out jihad. Also to try to overcome ignorance and to attain knowledge, the highest kind of which is the knowledge of God, is a major form of jihad and in fact its highest form. In its widest sense, therefore, it might be said that for a Muslim life itself is a jihad and that the peace one seeks is the result of the equilibrium created through jihad in its basic sense of exertion on the path of God and striving to act according to His Will. The saying of the Prophet “Jihad remains valid until the Day of Judgment” must be understood in this universal sense of the jihad inherent in the general human condition in this imperfect world.

Beyond this general understanding of jihad, which embraces life itself, Islamic authorities over the ages have distinguished between the lesser and the greater jihad on the basis of a famous saying of the Prophet after the great battle of Badr, which was crucial to the survival of the newly born Islamic community. Despite the momentous significance of this battle, in which the still idolatrous Meccans sought to defeat and destroy the nascent Islamic community in Medina, the Prophet, after having achieved victory, said, “You have returned from the lesser jihad to the greater(akbar) jihad.” When asked what the greater jihad was, he said, “It is the jihad against your passionate souls.”

The greater, and one might also say greatest (in Arabic the word akbar means both “greater” and “greatest”), jihad is therefore the inner battle to purify the soul of its imperfections, to empty the vessel of the soul of the pungent water of forgetfulness, negligence, and the tendency to evil and to prepare it for the reception of the Divine Elixir of Remembrance, Light, and Knowledge. The greater jihad is undertaken only by those spiritual warriors who are willing to sacrifice their ego before the Throne of the One.

In the same way that external jihad as battle or war is not required of every Muslim, but only of those physically and mentally qualified, the spiritual jihad is also not required of every Muslim, only of those who have the spiritual and mental capability-along with the spiritual will-to follow the path to God in this life and the virtues to be worthy of remaining on it. In light of the meaning of al-jihad al-akbar, or greater jihad, it can be said that the greatest “spiritual combatants” in Islam are the saints, whose instrument of battle is, however, not the sword, but prayer and the rosary. Sufism in general is concerned with this greater jihad, which is similar to the “spiritual warfare” known so widely in Orthodox Christianity and also mentioned by certain Western Christian mystics and to the spiritual exertions of Hindu and Buddhist sages, in whose words and deeds numerous parallels can be found.

As for the lesser jihad, in the sense of outward struggle and battle, the meaning of jihad as the Western media use it, a distinction must first of all be made between the struggles and battles carried out within Arabia against idolatry at the dawn of Islam and events in later Islamic history.

In Arabia the idolaters were given the choice of embracing Islam or fighting against Muslims, because according to Islamic belief God did not want such a crass form of idolatry to survive. This was similar to arguments

given by Christianity when it rooted out by force what remained of the decadent Greco-Roman and northern European religions, once it gained sufficient power. But even in Arabia jihad was not carried out against Jews and Christians in order to force them to convert to Islam, nor was this policy carried out generally later outside Arabia against Jews and Christians, or for that matter against Zoroastrians or Hindus, as was mentioned earlier. During Islamic history some rulers invaded non-Muslim lands and even spoke of jihad, but rarely was a juridical edict given by the ‘ulama’ that such battles were a jihad to convert people to Islam. The view of Western orientalists and centuries of Christian polemicists on this issue is simply not correct. The principle of “There is no compulsion in religion” (2:256) did not allow jihad outside of Arabia during the lifetime of the Prophet to include forced religious conversion of the “People of the Book.” Likewise, it is forbidden to carry out jihad against other Muslims to bring them to one’s own persuasion.

In fact, all Shi‘ite and most Sunni jurists, especially in modern times, believe that jihad is legitimate only as defense (difa‘i) and cannot be originated as aggression (ibtida’i). As far as Twelve-Imam Shi‘ism is concerned, throughout the centuries and including today, all the eminent authorities have asserted that jihad, except for defense, is haram, or forbidden, by Islamic Law in the absence of the ma‘, that is, “the inerrant one” (or one who is impeccable in the etymological sense of this term), which in the context of Shi‘ite Islam means the Prophet and the Imams. In Sunni Islam, historically some jurists have ordered a jihad in an offensive mode based on a argument one might call “the best defense is an offense,” but since the 1950s with the pronouncements of the Shaykh al-Azhar of the time, Mah.mud Shaltut, who occupied what is the most influential and significant religious position in the Sunni world, the mainstream Sunni position has been like the Shi‘ite one. The reputable religious scholars of the Sunni world agree that the only jihad permissible is a defensive one, which is incumbent on the Islamic community as a whole once its existence is threatened. This does not mean, however, that any extremist group can carry out violence by appealing to the need to defend Islam, for in every case authorization of the jihad by the head of the Islamic state and the authoritative ‘ulama’ is required.

The Quranic verse “Fight in the way of God against those who fight against you, but begin not hostilities. Verily God loveth not aggressors” (2:190) has provided the scriptural basis and the principle for judging the legitimacy of jihad. It must be recalled that, during the past century and a half, all those who have fought against foreign invaders or occupiers, whether they were in West Africa, Algeria, Bosnia, Kosovo, Palestine, Kashmir, or the Philippines, and have spoken of jihad, have done so in a defensive sense. There have been no Muslim jihads in non-Islamic lands. Those who carry out terror in the West or elsewhere in the name of jihad are vilifying an originally sacred term, and their efforts have not been accepted by established and mainstream religious authorities as jihad in the juridical and theological sense of the term. The declarations of Shaykh al-Azhar, the most authoritative religious voice in Sunni Islam, condemning in no

uncertain terms the terrorist acts of September 11, 2001, in America is a clear example.

This naturally brings up the important question of who can declare jihad. In classical Sunni theory based on the existence of an Islamic state, it was the sovereign in consultation with the ‘ulama’ who could declare jihad in the juridical and theological sense. And without the existence of an authentic Islamic state, it was the leading religious authorities, the ‘ulama’, and more precisely muftis, who had such a prerogative. Although each Muslim stands directly before God and there is no priesthood in Islam, no one can simply declare jihad by virtue of being nominally Muslim and wielding some political or military power. The difference between the declaration of jihad in the Islamic sense and its everyday declaration by various extremist groups here and there is as great as the difference between the declaration of a crusade against this or that evil by a Western political or social leader and the declaration of the Crusades by Pope Urban II in 1095.

When a legitimate jihad is to be carried out, it must not be based on anger and hatred that would blind one to justice.

The Quran warns Muslims in no uncertain terms when it states, “Let not hatred of a people cause you to be unjust” (5:8). Grievance can turn to anger and hatred, but that cannot be the basis of blind revenge. Jihad cannot be carried out against the innocent, and even the enemy must be treated in justice and even kindness. One should “repel the evil deed with one which is better, then verily he, between whom and thee there was enmity (will become) as though he were a bosom friend” (41:34). And above all jihad must be carried out for the truth and the truth alone, not on the basis of anger, hatred, or revenge. Traditionally even external jihad has been associated in the Muslim mind with magnanimity, generosity, and detachment, with all the virtues associated with chivalry.

A story in Book I of the Mathnawi of Rumi about ‘Ali ibn AbiTalib, the prince of those who carry out jihad for God alone, is very revealing as far as the Islamic understanding of jihad is concerned. In a one-to-one battle with a great enemy of Islam who was a powerful warrior, ‘Ali was able to subdue his opponent and throw him to the ground. As a last act of hatred the enemy warrior spat in ‘Ali’s face, upon which ‘Ali immediately got up from his position of sitting on the enemy’s chest and sheathed his sword. The warrior became surprised and asked ‘Ali why he had done such a thing. ‘Ali answered that until then he was fighting for the Truth (al-H. aqq), but as soon as he was spat upon he became angry; recognizing this, he ceased to battle because he did not want to fight on the basis of personal rage and anger. As Rumi puts it:

He spat on the face of ‘Ali

The pride of every prophet and saint. . .

And ‘Ali responded, He said, “I wield the sword for the sake of the Truth, I am the servant of the Truth, not commanded by the body.

I am the Lion of the Truth, not the lion of passions, My action is witness to my religion.”2

The action of this prototype of all authentic Islamic mujahids, which led to a change of heart in his enemy, should serve as a salutary correction for,

first, those who in the name of Islam carry out actions based on rage but call them jihad and, second, those in the West who continue to speak of holy or sacred rage among Muslims who are trying on the basis of justice to protect their home and religion.

When one looks beyond current aberrations of so-called jihad by certain extremists to the long history of Islam, one sees numerous examples of the kind of chivalry exemplified in its supreme form by ‘Ali in such warrior-heroes as Saladin, whose chivalry was proverbial even among his Western enemies, and in more recent figures such as Amir ‘Abd al-Qadir, ‘Abd al-Karim, and ‘Umar al-Mukhtar in North Africa; Imam Shamil in Caucasia; the Brelvis in the northwest provinces of India; and more recently Ah.mad Shah Mas‘ud, who participated in the Afghan war against the Soviet Union and was assassinated shortly before the September 11, 2001, tragedy in America. All such figures were not only pious and chivalrous, but were attached to the inner dimension of Islam and some were saints. None was the product of a narrow, literalist, and exclusivist interpretation of his faith.


Not all wars are jihads, and Islam has also promulgated certain regulations for conflict in general. First of all, war should be in self-defense and Muslims should not instigate wars, as the already cited verse, “Fight in the way of God against those who fight against you, but begin not hostilities. Verily God loveth not transgressors” (2:190), demonstrates. If, like the Bible, the Quran does speak of fighting against one’s enemies, it must be remembered that Islam was born in a climate in which there were constant wars among various tribes. Still, after ordering Muslims to battle against their enemies, the Quran adds, “Except those who seek refuge with people between whom and you there is a covenant, or (those who) come unto you because their hearts forbid them to make war on you. . So, if they hold aloof from you and wage not war against you and offer you peace, God alloweth you no way against them” (4:90). War can be fought to avoid persecution and oppression or to preserve religious values and protect the weak from oppression. The Quran does mention the biblical “an eye for an eye,” but recommends forgoing revenge and practicing charity, as in the verse, “But whoso forgoeth it [that is, an eye for an eye] it shall be expiation for him” (5:45). Also war should not go on indefinitely; as soon as the enemy sues for peace, hostilities must terminate, “But if they desist, then let there be no hostility” (2:192).

Of the utmost importance is the injunction that innocent human life must not be destroyed in any warfare, for the Quran says, “Whosoever killeth a human being for other than manslaughter or corruption in the earth, it shall be as if he had killed all humanity” (5:32). The Prophet forbade explicitly attacking women and children and even killing animals or destroying trees during war. His own magnanimous treatment of his most bitter enemies upon his conquest of Mecca has remained the supreme concrete example to be followed. Likewise, Muslims recall to this day how, upon conquering Jerusalem, ‘Umar dealt with Christians and their respected sites of worship with remarkable magnanimity and justice. Needless to say, not all Muslims have followed these precepts during Islamic history any more than have all Jews, Christians, Hindus, or Buddhists followed the injunctions of their religions. But it is essential here not only for Western observers but also for many Muslims who, having lost hope, have fallen into despair and commit desperate acts to remember what the teachings of Islam as a religion are on these matters. Human nature being what it is, it is not difficult to find reasons why not all Muslims have followed the teachings of their religion in matters of war. What is remarkable is the degree to which over the ages many of the values of this spiritualized chivalry were followed, as witnessed over the centuries even by Western invaders from medieval knights to French officers in Algeria.

Today a new challenge has been created by the invention of modern means and methods of warfare, of the invention of weapons of mass destruction causing so-called collateral damage over which one has no control, of bombs that cannot distinguish between combatants and women and children. Now, Islamic civilization did not invent these monstrous technologies, or even the idea of total war involving whole civilian

populations, but it is faced with their reality on the ground and, one might add, in the air and at sea. This situation creates an additional challenge of monumental proportions for Muslims, as it does for those Christians in the West who seek to live according to the teachings of Christ and even for many secular humanists. It is precisely at such a juncture of human history that Muslims are called upon to be most vigilant in the defense of what their religion has taught them about jihad and the regulations it has promulgated for any form of warfare. Moreover, any Muslim who has a sense of responsibility before God must be especially careful when he or she carries out an act explicitly in the name of Islam in a world in which inhuman and even infrahuman tools of military combat are in the hands of the powerful who dominate the global scene.

Although defense of oneself, one’s homeland, and one’s religion and the overcoming of oppression remain religious duties, the regulations of warfare, especially the protection of the innocent, that is, nonaggression against noncombatants, and dealing with the enemy in justice, also remain part and parcel of the religion and essential to it; they cannot be cast aside with the excuse that one is responding to a grievance or injustice. If one does so, one is no longer speaking or acting in the name of Islam and is in fact in danger of defiling the religion more than its enemies ever could.


As a result of suicide bombings and the extensive use of the term “martyr” in recent years in various Islamic countries, many people in the West have turned to the question of martyrdom in Islam, and some have even described it in the most pejorative manner as an object of ridicule. First of all, martyrdom exists in every religion. Second, Christianity relies particularly on martyrdom and celebrates its martyrs as saints more than Islam does, especially Islam in its Sunni form. It is therefore particularly strange to see some observers in the West speak of martyrdom as if it were a peculiar, solely Islamic concept. The Quran states, “Think not of those who are slain in the way of God that they are dead. Nay, they are living being nourished by their Lord” (3:169), and “They rejoice because of favor from God and kindness and that God wasteth not the wage of believers” (3:171). Therefore, just as Christian martyrs enter paradise, Muslim martyrs are also blessed and allowed entry into the paradisal states. For both, martyrdom is victory over death, and Muslim martyrs share with Christians in asking at the moment of their ultimate victory, “O Death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory?” (1 Cor.15:55).

Who is a martyr? In Christianity, at least Catholic Christianity, this question has been decided over the centuries by the Church, but in Islam there is no official magisterium to decide ecclesiastically who is a martyr. In Twelve-Imam Shi‘ite Islam martyrdom plays a more central role than in Sunnism. All the Imams, except the Twelfth (who according to Shi‘ism is still alive although in occultation), were martyred, and the martyrdom of the Third Imam, Husayn ibn ‘Ali, who is called Sayyid al-shuhada’, or the Master of Martyrs, is particularly important in Shi‘ite piety.

The Shi‘ite community has also recognized a number of other martyrs who were clearly killed for religious reasons.

In Sunni Islam, likewise, a number of figures have been given the title of martyr over the ages by the Islamic community (al-ummah), which is the final arbiter on this matter in Sunni Islam. Sometimes the term “martyr” has also been used more politically for those killed in a religiopolitical struggle even within the Islamic world and by other Muslims.

The term “martyr” in Arabic is shahid, which is related to the term for the supreme testification(shahadah) of Islam regarding Divine Unity. Furthermore, it is truly remarkable that the word shahid is also related to the word shahid, which means “witness,” exactly as does the Greek word martos, from which “martyr” derives. Even the word “martyr” has therefore the same root meaning in Christianity and Islam. Furthermore, in both traditions often the same symbols were used to describe a martyr. In Shi‘ism a martyr is often referred to as the lamp that burns itself but illuminates the world about it; the most famous English Catholic martyr, Thomas Becket, was also called the “bright candle on God’s candlestick.” In the truly spiritual sense, the shahid is the person who has born witness with his or her whole being to Divine Oneness. He or she has made the supreme sacrifice of his or her own life for the sake of God, a sacrifice that has been truly for God and not for any worldly cause. Such people go to paradise because they have given their life in all sincerity to God. In this context it is also

important to recall thehadith of the Prophet, “The ink of the scholar is more precious than the blood of the martyr,” which means that although martyrdom is such an exalted state, the inner jihad leading to the knowledge of God and His revelation (hence the ink of the scholar) is of even higher value.

But can a person become a martyr by committing suicide? Suicide itself is forbidden by Islamic Law, and those who commit it are condemned to the infernal states because they have taken upon themselves a decision that belongs to God alone. Life can be terminated legitimately only by the Giver of life. But suicide as a desperate act to overcome oppression or to defend oneself has manifested itself on the margin of human existence everywhere. Many brave American soldiers in various wars have thrown themselves on bombs, which is an act of suicide, to save others, and we all know of the Japanese kamikazes during World War II. An especially telling case is mentioned in the Bible: Samson committed suicide by bringing the Temple of Dagon down not only on himself, but on thousands of Philistines, including women and children, because his people had been oppressed by the Philistines. Some Jews consider him a hero and some a prophet, whereas, interestingly enough, Muslims do not consider him one of the Hebrew prophets.

For Muslims, the difficult question on both moral and religious grounds concerns those who live under appalling oppression and in a state of despair and have no other means of defense except their bodies. Even in such cases the Islamic injunction that one cannot kill innocent people even in war must of necessity hold. As for using one’s body as a weapon against combatants, this is an issue that is being hotly debated among experts on Islamic Law in the Islamic world today. Most believe that an act that is certain suicide must be avoided, while some believe that it is permissible as self-defense or for the protection of one’s people if it does not involve innocent victims. The great tragedy is the existence of a situation in which young people fall into such a state of desperation that the question of suicide even arises. Here again, as with total warfare, the phenomenon itself, which exists among Hindu Tigers in Sri Lanka, in the case of the person who killed Rajiv Gandhi, and among Palestinians and others, is one of the fruits of modern technology that make what is now called terrorism possible, but about which few are willing to speak.


In conclusion, we must remember that there is no peace without justice, and justice implies a constant struggle to establish equilibrium in a world, both within and without, in which forces and tensions threaten chaos and disorder at all times. A Muslim’s duty is to seek to establish peace and justice within, and on the basis of the Divine injunctions to establish justice in the world about him or her through an effort, or jihad, that must avoid outward war and confrontation except when absolutely necessary and in defense.

But even in war, regulations set down by the religion must be observed. Today we live in a world full of strife with powerful economic, political, and cultural wars that occasionally also result in military confrontation. In such a situation Muslims must be vigilant, but also seekers of peace.

Some have said that Islam displays a greater combative spirit than other religions. Now, all religions are guardians of the sacred, and Islam, coming at the end of the present human cycle, has a particularly important role in carrying out this duty. Therefore, whenever the sacred is attacked and challenged by the forces of desacralization and nihilism, Islam is destined to display a particularly combative spirit to respond to this challenge. But this response must not be at the expense of destroying the sacred message of Islam itself, based on peace and surrender to the Divine Will. Therefore, Muslims must strive to preserve the sacred and to defend justice, but not by succumbing to means that contradict and in fact destroy the very reality of not only Islam, but religion as such. Muslims must seek justice, but with humility and charity, not in self-righteousness, ever aware that absolute justice belongs to God alone and that one of the cardinal meanings of the shahadah is “There is no justice but the Divine Justice.”