Jihad By Sea | HistoryNet

Jihad By Sea

By Cecelia Holland
8/10/2010 • MHQ

At the Battle of the Masts in 655, a fledgling Arab fleet from the Levant crushed the mighty Byzantine navy (Cyclopedia of Universal History, 1885).
At the Battle of the Masts in 655, a fledgling Arab fleet from the Levant crushed the mighty Byzantine navy (Cyclopedia of Universal History, 1885).

Seventh-century Muslim desert warriors built powerful new fleets and set out to conquer Europe – and destroy Christianity

In ad 655 the emperor Constans II confronted a new and surprising threat to his Byzantine Empire. For years, armies of Arabs had overrun the empire’s southern provinces in Egypt, Palestine, and Syria. Having defeated the Sassanid Empire, they dominated the Middle East and had even reached the gates of Constantinople before being driven back. But now these desert warriors had taken to the sea. Word reached Constans that Arab ships had attacked the islands of Rhodes, Kos, and Crete in the southern Aegean. Clearly, they meant to sail up the Aegean, through the Dardanelles, and into the Sea of Marmara. Constantinople, Constans’s home and the Byzantine capital, was being threatened again, this time from the sea. The emperor set out to destroy these upstarts once and for all. His navy of 500 ships was the greatest in the Mediterranean, its galleys crewed by the finest sailors and marines in the empire. When it caught the Arab fleet of 200 ships north of Cyprus, near the modern Turkish port of Finike, Constans attacked without hesitation. The emperor did not bother to bring his ships into formation. The Arabs knew nothing of naval warfare, and he expected to crush them in a single assault. Sailing straight into the Arabs, the Byzantines engaged so closely the clash was called the Battle of the Masts. The fighting lasted more than a day; according to one account, “the sea ran with blood and the waves piled up the bodies on the shore.

Though outnumbered, the Arabs cut the Byzantines to pieces. Constans escaped only by putting on the garb of an ordinary seaman and having himself thrown bodily onto another ship. As the Byzantines fled, a storm decimated what remained of their shattered fleet.

It was a major victory for the fledgling Arab navy, and not the last. The followers of Muhammad were just beginning what would be a centuries-long assault on Christendom. While their notoriously fierce armies carried out jihad on the ground, the new fleets would take the battle to Constantinople, Rome, Seville, and other great Mediterranean cities. If these strongholds fell, nothing would stand between the fanatic warriors of Islam and the heart of Europe.

The Prophet Muhammad died in 632, and within 20 years, armies of Bedouins stormed across the lowlands of the Middle East, blowing down age-old empires in the name of Allah and Islam. They believed their sacred mission was to subjugate the world to their God. The first Muslim armies found success in Asia and Africa. But Christian Europe lay behind the barricade of the Mediterranean Sea, with only two points of land where armies could cross: Constantinople, and the short hop across the Strait of Gibraltar. To the Arabs, this proved a formidable obstacle. The first caliphs—Abu Bakr, Umar ibn al Khattab, and Uthman iba Affan—were desert tribesmen with a “natural horror” of the sea, according to historian Aly Mohamed Fahmy. The Arabs, wrote Fahmy, were known to say: “The flatulence of camels is more pleasing than the prayers of the fishes.

Yet to one man, Mu’awiyah ibn Abi Sufyan, the Mediterranean offered an ideal way to attack Christian Europe. Selected in 640 by Umar as governor of the newly ?conquered province of Syria, Mu’awiyah reasoned that if the Arabs controlled the sea, they could turn the water into a highway to Europe.

Mu’awiyah (pronounced moo-AH-we-yuh) was the son of one of Muhammad’s first and worst enemies. His father had submitted to Islam only when he had no other choice. Mu’awiyah, although opposed to the faith initially, became a passionate Muslim committed to jihad. During Umar’s caliphate, Mu’awiyah looked for new opportunities to expand the reach of Islam. His gaze fell on the Byzantine islands of Cyprus and Rhodes, which he said were so close to the Syrian shore that “you might almost hear the barking of the dogs and the cackling of hens.” He asked the caliph for permission to build a fleet. Umar turned him down. Mu’awiyah persisted. He understood military power and recognized that as master of Syria, he controlled a key war-making industry: the shipbuilders of the Levant.

Since men first pushed logs into the water and tried to ride them, the people living along the coast of the Levant had built boats, a craft to which they brought considerable ingenuity. They lived at a hub of world trade routes that both inspired and financed their work.

The design of warships was evolving in the seventh century. The swift, agile dromon was replacing plodding, heavily armored galleys. [See “Ships of Speed,” p. 75] Naval tactics changed as well. Instead of ramming enemy boats, galleys now jockeyed for position at a distance until they could close and board. Engagements began as soon as the ships moved within range of the archers and slingers. Dromons featured tall wooden castles high above their water line, an ideal perch from which to rain arrows down onto the enemy and ?pelt his decks with caltrops, rocks, pottery jars full of scorpions and snakes, and incendiary bombs. Once the crew was sufficiently disabled, the galley could close, grapple on, and fight hand to hand.

The new style of sea warfare helped offset the Arabs’ inexperience as sailors. Their warriors were bred for battle. Mu’awiyah believed that once a sea battle moved to hand-to-hand combat, his men would win. The emir again asked to take the jihad to the water. Eventually Uthman, who succeeded Umar as caliph, agreed, possibly because the Byzantine fleet retook Alexandria for a while in 646 and pillaged much of the Nile delta. Given permission, Mu’awiyah began building ships in Tripoli, Sidon, and Acre on the Levantine coast.

In 648, seven years before the Battle of the Masts, Mu’awiyah sailed from Acre with his first fleet, his wife, and several Companions of the Prophet, men who had known Muhammad. Ships joined him from Egypt, where the Byzantines had persecuted Coptics, the native Christians. Together, they overran and looted Cyprus. Mu’awiyah exacted a tribute, made the Cypriots promise to support him against the Byzantines, and left.

In 653 he returned with 500 ships. The Cypriots fled into the hills, and the Arabs plundered the island, built a fortified city with a mosque, and left a garrison of 12,000 men. Cyprus now belonged to Islam.

The next year, the Arab fleets attacked Crete, Kos, and Rhodes, assaults that drew Constans out of Constantinople and led to his humiliating defeat in 655 in the Battle of the Masts. Afterward, there was no doubt that the Muslim navy was heading up the Aegean toward the riches of Thessaloníki on the western coast, then on to Constans’s golden-domed capital city on the Bosporus. If Constantinople fell, the caliph and his armies would invade Europe from the east, and in the seventh century there was no force in Christendom capable of stopping them.

It would be years, however, before Mu’awiyah could take advantage of his victory in the Battle of the Masts. The caliph Uthman was murdered in 656, and Islam fell into turmoil. Muhammad’s cousin and son-in-law Ali claimed the caliphate, but Mu’awiyah, boosted by his naval victories, challenged him. Their armies fought to a draw in the battles of Siffin in 657. When Ali agreed to negotiations, many of his followers turned against him and began a rebellion. In 661, he was assassinated by one of the rebels. After paying Ali’s son to abandon his claim to the throne, Mu’awiyah became caliph.

This crisis split Islam in two—the Shia, who remained loyal to Ali, and the Sunni, who accepted Mu’awiyah as the caliph. It foretold the dissolution of the caliphate and has divided Islam ever since.

Mu’awiyah could not have foreseen this. Capable and determined, he greatly expanded the caliphate in Asia and Africa. He preferred diplomacy to blunt force, and his generosity and broad-mindedness won over even his enemies. Once he asked a friend, “How great is your cunning?” The friend replied, “I have never entered into anything but that I got out of it.” Mu’awiyah said, “And I have never entered into anything that I wanted to get out of!” He was the last caliph to rule over the whole of Islam; he had no rival.

Certainly Mu’awiyah was committed to jihad. Though it took him years to consolidate his power and build his great fleets, he never took his eyes off the prize: the conquest of Christendom. In 667, 12 years after the Battle of the Masts, the Levantine fleet attacked Rhodes again to bring the island under Muslim control. Five years later two Arab fleets entered the Aegean and raided as far as Izmir, halfway up the coast of Asia Minor, where they wintered. In 670 they sailed through the Dardanelles and took the coastal island Cyzicus, in the southern Sea of Marmara, and connected it by a mole to the mainland. Mu’awiyah’s son Yazid brought up an army by land and occupied Chalcedon, across the Marmara from Constantinople.

For the next several years the Arab fleets tried to close the siege on the imperial city. But with Constans’s son Constantine IV to lead them, the Byzantines rose to the challenge. The city’s gigantic double walls, built by Emperor Theodosius, protected the landward side. Although the seawalls facing the Golden Horn were vulnerable, the furious currents of the Bosporus kept the Arab fleets at bay.

Every winter the Arab fleets retired as far south as Rhodes to rest and resupply. Every spring they hurled themselves again at Constantinople. Finally, the Byzantines surprised them with a relatively new weapon. Among the usual forecastles packed with marines, some of the Byzantine dromons carried brass tubes that jutted well forward of their prows. When the Arab ships attacked, these long pipes fired a gelatinous substance that caught fire when it left the nozzle or burst into flame when it made contact with the enemy boats. Near Eastern armies had long used “Greek fire”—combustibles soaked with petroleum—but the Byzantines had come up with a device that could, much like a siphon, propel the liquid fire over short distances. This proved lethal for wooden ships. Water did not extinguish the fire; it burned even under the waves. Men who leapt overboard were consumed in the sea’s flames. Three of the four Muslim fleets were destroyed. The fourth, limping back down the Aegean, sank in a storm. Yazid’s army, meanwhile, retreated across Anatolia.

In 678 Mu’awiyah was forced to agree to peace and a humiliating tribute. He died two years later at the age of 78, his work undone. His dynasty would strike Constantinople once more in 717. An Arab land army managed to cross into Europe, but the soldiers got no farther than the Theodosian Walls, where they dug in and suffered through the worst winter in decades, starving, freezing, and dying. Once again, Greek fire destroyed the Muslim fleet.

That failure shattered the caliphate. The Muslim community, never wholly unified, disintegrated into rivalry and rebellion. Within a century, rival caliphs divided the Muslim world into warring splinters.

Jihad itself continued, however, with the Islamic navy controlling the eastern Mediterranean. Mu’awiyah’s Arab armies had been campaigning in Africa for decades, meeting their match in the Berbers of the Mahgreb. But in 698, just before the fall of the caliph, the armies of Musa ibn Nusair, an Arab governor representing Mu’awiyah in Egypt and later Tunisia, took the ancient city of Carthage. Across a lagoon from Carthage was the village of Tunis, which was more sheltered from the sea. Musa, a former slave, lame in one leg, who had risen to power by wits and warfare, saw possibilities here. He ordered Carthage razed, a new city built where Tunis stood, and a canal dug joining it to the sea.

To this new harbor the governor of Egypt sent a thousand Coptic shipwrights. There they built the first of the fleets that would challenge for dominion over all four parts of the Mediterranean: the Aegean; the eastern Mediterranean south of Crete between the Levantine coast and Sicily; the Adriatic; and the western Mediterranean.

Until the rise of the Arab navies, the Byzantines had ruled this blue expanse. But after the disaster of the Battle of the Masts and as their holdings in western Europe dwindled, they chiefly concentrated on defending the Aegean.

In 904, Leo of Tripoli, a pirate in the service of the caliph, briefly challenged Byzantine supremacy there. Born a Christian but a convert to Islam, Leo was a brilliant seaman who raided city after city in the Aegean and battered a Byzantine fleet sent to destroy him. Capturing Thessaloníki and enslaving most of its residents, he seemed for a time to flaunt Muslim power in the heart of Christendom. But without land forces to complement the terror he brought by sea, the Aegean remained under Byzantine control until the 13th century and was the epicenter of the recovery under the Macedonian dynasty (867–1081), when the Byzantines were at their peak in power, influence, and culture.

Along the southern Mediterranean, Arabs held the coast and the deserts inland. While the Byzantines mounted occasional raids on Alexandria and Damietta in Egypt, they never again established a permanent presence there.

In the Adriatic and Ionian seas, the Arabs made a few memorable attacks, but most of their forays were stymied by the various Christian princes, republics, and pirates, many of whom could match the Muslims’ seafaring skills.

It was the western Mediterranean that the Arabs came to dominate. The last few Byzantine strongholds in Africa were dependent on the sea, but those cities withered as the new Arab fleets built at Tunis drove back imperial ships that dared venture past Malta. Arab control in the region expanded in the first half of the eighth century when Visigothic Spain fell to the Muslims. The caliphate in Baghdad was just disintegrating and across the conquered lands power was up for grabs. Abd al-Rahman, a scion of Mu’awiyah’s house, fled west and made himself emir in Spain. His Umayyad dynasty ruled memorably for three centuries, its kingdom a pinnacle of Islamic civilization.

Under its young, shrewd, and ambitious new ruler, the city of Seville on the Guadalquivir River became an Arab naval center, churning out dromons and jihadi sailors. Flowing into the Gulf of Cadiz just beyond Gibraltar, the river gave access to both the Atlantic and the Mediterranean.

Establishing strongholds on the shorelines and islands was key to controlling the Mediterranean. Fleets had to travel along coasts or hop between islands and put into harbor every few nights to take in fresh water. A single ship required hundreds of gallons for its crew. With small drafts, the light galleys also could not tolerate adverse weather and ran for cover whenever a storm brewed. As a result, whoever held the coastlines, the important islands, and the good harbors could dominate huge swaths of the sea.

By 798 an Arab fleet from Andalusia was attacking the Balearic Islands (and may have gone on to sack Sardinia). When the Balearics were brought under control of the new Iberian caliphate, assault on the islands and shores of the western Mediterranean became relentless. Arab fleets from Spain and Africa pillaged Corsica and Sardinia almost yearly. Palermo fell in 831, and Arab colonists poured onto the great island of Sicily. By midcentury the Arabs controlled the Strait of Messina between Sicily and southern Italy, and fleets were raiding up the Adriatic, attacking the Byzantine port cities of Brindisi, Taranto, and Bari on Italy’s western coast as well as threatening Dubrovnik and Dyrrachium (modern-day Durrës in Albania). In 846, a Muslim fleet sailed into the Tiber and pillaged Rome. A little later the Arabs sacked the great Benedictine monastery at Montecassino, about 80 miles southeast of Rome.

France—which Muslim armies had threatened to conquer until Franks under Charles Martel turned them back at the Battle of Tours in 732—was also a target. How much systematic planning went into this is anyone’s guess. Mostly the Arab fleets behaved like hunting packs. In 838 Muslim ships raided Marseilles, then ruled by the Franks. Four years later, they hit Arles. Around midcentury, Islamic pirates from Spain established a base in the Camargue, the marshy delta of the Rhône. From there they ranged up and down the French coast, burning villages and carrying people off into slavery. Taking Muhammad’s message to the world seems to have become secondary to the lure of booty.

In 890 a band of Andalusian pirates landed in the bay of Saint Tropez and built a fortified camp on a hilltop midway between Marseilles and Monaco called Fraxinetum (modern Freinet). The pirates and their heirs stayed for a century, staging raids by sea on Marseilles and the northwest coast of Italy. They settled areas of modern Switzerland and raided as far north as Vienna. Two attempts by locals to dislodge them failed, but when the pirates attacked the caravan of the abbot Majolus of Cluny, one of the greatest churchmen in Christendom, they met their match. The monks paid a huge ransom to get Majolus back, but he then put together a grand alliance of forces from Turin, Provence, and the Byzantine Empire and drove the pirates out.

For nearly 300 years, from the early 8th century to the dawn of the 11th, Arab fleets moved largely at will on the western Mediterranean, hopscotching along their network of harbors and strongholds. Their control was not limitless. In 844 a Viking fleet attacked down the Atlantic coast of Iberia, reaching Seville. Another Viking raid ventured into the Mediterranean, where it rampaged for some time, at one point looting a city on the Italian coast thought to be Rome. The Arabs defended against these interlopers but could not destroy them or run them off.

Nor could they could maintain such strongholds as Fraxinetum or their Camargue base without land forces to conquer the country behind them. And Islam was no longer unified enough to field such armies. As the caliphate fragmented, the splinter groups fought each other with as much hatred as they showed the unbelievers. Meanwhile the Byzantines and the semi-­barbarian princes of Europe grew better equipped to fight the Muslim threat. The rise of the feudal system and the mailed knight gave Europe new strength, and the Byzantines reorganized their tax structure, made their armies more efficient, and found allies.

The Arab window of opportunity against Christendom was closing. The Byzantines recaptured Rhodes in 944 and 945, then took Crete again, plus the Levantine coast as far south as Beirut, which fell in 975. Arabs in Egypt, meanwhile, were locked in a savage interdynastic rivalry. They managed to stop the Byzantine advance at Jerusalem and Tripoli, but the empire was expanding on all fronts. Imperial dromons, allegedly armed with Greek fire, joined the assault that uprooted the pirates at Fraxinetum in 972. The appearance of imperial ships in the far west showed both the new strength of Constantinople and the waning of Islam.

In 1085 Alphonso of Castile captured the city of Toledo, ancient capital of Spain, and the realm of Abd al-Rahman began to disintegrate. While the Christians retook ever-larger areas of Spain, the Byzantines made a bloody and costly effort to recapture Sicily. They failed, but the island later fell to a pack of Norman adventurers who would establish there the most brilliant court of the 12th and 13th centuries.

The tide of jihad was receding. The dromon itself was giving way to a faster, more powerful galley that fueled the rise of Venice, Pisa, and Genoa as sea powers. As Europeans reclaimed their coasts, their princes developed strong patterns of governance. At the end of the 11th century, the first Christian crusaders conquered the Levant and held parts of it for 200 years, making the Mediterranean so safe that Eleanor of Aquitaine could sail home from the Second Crusade with little fear of Arab attack. The struggle for the Mediterranean would continue for hundreds of years, with more Muslim assaults on Rhodes and Malta and the great confrontation at Lepanto in 1571, the last battle fought entirely between rowed galleys. But the moment had passed when the warriors from the desert could successfully carry their jihad onto the sea against an infant Europe.

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2 Responses to Jihad By Sea

  1. F. Al Jaziri says:

    what a great essay. It is very rich with valuaeble information about the Muslime sea conquests.

  2. Louis Farrakhan says:

    Holy War & Islam

    A “Fundamentalist” Islam?

    Conventional wisdom tries to split off “fundamentalist” Islam from Islam as a whole. The common view is that “fundamentalist” Islam is not really Islam, but an aberrant form that “hijacked” the true Islam. However, this kind of analysis does not work with Islam. Perhaps it works with Christianity: the exclusivism and intolerance of Christian fundamentalism bear little relationship to the actual teachings of Jesus. This is not so with “fundamentalist” Islam. The passionate zeal to conquer the infidel, the hallmark of Islamic “fundamentalists,” goes straight back to Muhammad.

    Here we must tread very carefully. There is no one form of Islam any more than there is just one form of Judaism, Christianity, or Buddhism. What we are involved in is not – or at least does not need to be – a war between Islam and Western civilization. And it is certainly not – or does not need to be – a war between Americans and Muslims. However, what the West is up against is not merely an aberrant or “fundamentalist” form of Islam of relatively recent vintage. What now confronts the West is an expression of Islamic values that is as old as Islam itself.

    Why is this important? People are still obsessively asking, “Why do they hate us?” Why do some of our enemies hate us so much that they would even resort to suicide to kill as many of us as they can? To the Western mind, this is unfathomable. And the Western mind is ethnocentric: it loves to believe that all minds think like the Western mind.
    So we in the West have found a solution we can live with: the belief that Islam is no different from Christianity or Judaism that we all share the same values and want the same things. We like to think that what is attacking us has nothing to do with Islam – that it is something foreign to Islam that has “hijacked” it. We say to ourselves: Islam is really an innocent faith perverted by people who would use it to redress political grievances. Since Islam itself supposedly has nothing to do with this conflict, we can disregard it to focus on the “root causes” of the violence. Therefore, to solve the problem of terrorism, we can ignore religion and respond to the terrorists’ grievances. We think it obvious that only a deep sense of desperation could drive a terrorist to commit suicide. And so, we conclude, we must alleviate his desperation, then hope he will revert to the “true” Islam, which of course poses no threat to the West.

    There is no separating terrorist Islam from Islam.

    The religiously inspired anti-Western hatred the terrorists proclaim is not different from the religiously inspired anti-Western hatred that appears in the government-controlled media of Arab as well as some other Muslim countries. There is not just one single form of Islam, but that does not mean the intolerant forms, more pervasive than we might wish to imagine, are not real Islam. They are genuine, and they won’t disappear even if the countries of the West change their foreign policies to placate them.
    Many writers point to Wahhabism as the origin of today’s militant Islam, with the implication that Islamic militancy is only about 250 years old. This does not explain the often equal virulence of Shi’ite Islam, which has nothing to do with Wahhabism. As for Wahhabism itself, it did not materialize from nowhere. It has roots in traditions and scholarship that are centuries old, including the great fourteenth-century scholar Ibn Taymiyya, and the Hanbali School of jurisprudence, which was founded in the ninth century. These in turn go back to traditions about Muhammad himself, the sunna, which includes sayings of and about the Prophet as well as the earliest biographies. This so-called “militant” Islam is as Islamic as any other form of Islam today.

    Since the leading centers of “militant” Islam are Saudi Arabia, the land of Islam’s origin and Islam’s holiest cities and the heart of Sunni Islam, and Iran, the heart of Shi’ite Islam, it hardly makes sense to say that these forms of Islam have “hijacked” the rest. One might just as well accuse the Pope of hijacking Catholicism.

    The Western mind, still brooding nervously over the questions “Why do they hate us?” “How could they do this?” does not sufficiently appreciate the depths to which religion can stir the passions over the course of a long history. Perhaps we can gain some insight by looking at Western religious history. The early Christian martyrs were also inspired by their faith to pursue death zealously. The difference is that early Christian tradition did not encourage martyrs to die by shedding the blood of nonbelievers. It was different with Islam. Yet in both cases, the passion of religion has been sufficient to make death seem preferable to life in this world.

    Seeds of Intolerance

    Here is an example of “militant” Islam. An Al Qaeda video claiming responsibility for the March, 2004 bombings in Madrid stated:

    You love life and we love death, which gives an example of what the Prophet Muhammad said.

    Is this far-fetched? An un-Islamic, alien distortion of the words of the Prophet? Here is what Muhammad said:

    By the Being in Whose Hand is my life, I love that I should be killed in the way of Allah. (Sahih Muslim, 20:4631)

    This statement of Muhammad is not unique. The earliest traditions contain many more like it. And as for its “context,” this quote comes from a chapter of the Hadith (teachings of Muhammad) entitled, “The Merit of Jihad and Campaigning in the Way of Allah.” It is all about jihad, whose original meaning really was “holy war.” Islam’s apologists love to accuse their critics of quoting passages out of context. Some defend Islam by comparing it to Christianity, which at times in history was even more brutal.

    Jihad in the Qur’an
    We begin our exploration with the Qur’an, even though it would be more logical to begin with the sirat, or early biographies of Muhammad, since these biographies supply the historical context of the Qur’an. We begin with the Qur’an because it is Islam’s most basic text and most frequently cited source. However, Muslims rightly caution us against quoting verses from the Qur’an out of context. Therefore we will not simply quote isolated verses but will comment on the context as we go along. Later sections on Muhammad’s life and teachings will supply further background.

    Approaching the Qur’an

    It is difficult for any non-Muslim to approach the Qur’an. It is written in a strange and mysterious language, and its organization is bewildering. The suras (or suwar, plural of sura, chapter) are ordered neither by chronology nor by topic, but by length, the longest ones first. The text also frequently alludes to events in the life of Muhammad that are not narrated; one must really know Muhammad’s biography before one studies the Qur’an. A non-Muslim also approaches the Qur’an “from the outside,” not having learned to regard it as a sacred text.

    And so non-Muslims and Muslims will see this text very differently. Muslims derive inspiration from it and treat it with reverence. Non-Muslims also should treat it with respect, but may have criticisms coming from their experience of how Muslims have used the Qur’an and the role this text has played in history.

    Jihad and the Qur’an

    Since our topic is jihad, let us begin by looking at the meaning of the word jihad itself. It is usually translated “holy war,” and is often applied that way, but that is not its literal meaning. Literally, jihad means “striving.” But what kind of striving is it? The following verses from the Qur’an use different forms of this word:

    O Prophet! Strive hard against the unbelievers and the Hypocrites, and be firm against them. Their abode is Hell, – an evil refuge indeed. (9:73, 66:9)

    Therefore listen not to the Unbelievers, but strive against them with the utmost strenuousness. (25:52)

    And who does more wrong than he who invents a lie against Allah or rejects the Truth when it reaches him? Is there not a home in Hell for those who reject Faith? And those who strive in Our (cause), – We will certainly guide them to our Paths: For verily Allah is with those who do right. (29:68-69)

    In each case this “striving” (jihad), a Muslim’s duty, occurs in the context of opposing, or striving against, the unbeliever. The striving of jihad is primarily the striving to spread Islam and Islamic rule.

    What forms is this striving to take? Muhammad himself was a bandit/warrior, and there is no doubt that at least one significant form of this striving is physical combat. Some apologists for Islam make a distinction between a “greater” and a “lesser” jihad, the former consisting of a nonviolent spiritual struggle for virtue, while only the latter refers to making war. As we shall see, in actual practice this distinction has hardly any relevance, and in any case it is unlikely that Muhammad himself ever made such a distinction.

    In one hadith Muhammad speaks of the greater vs. the lesser jihad, but most authorities consider it spurious and a forgery . And even if it were only a “lesser” jihad, military jihad would still be jihad and thus a duty and a virtue.

    Beyond Self-Defense

    Jihad very frequently refers to combat. That is undeniable. The Qur’an makes copious references to fighting in the cause of faith. The question, however, is whether this fighting is sanctioned only for the purpose of self-defense.

    The Qur’an itself seems to be of two minds on this matter. Some critics of Islam carelessly quote the following verse to illustrate Islam’s aggressiveness:

    And slay them wherever ye catch them…. (2:191)

    However, the full quotation is:

    Fight in the cause of Allah those who fight you, but do not transgress limits; for Allah loveth not transgressors. And slay them wherever ye catch them, and turn them out from where they have turned you out; for tumult and oppression are worse than slaughter; but fight them not at the Sacred Mosque, unless they (first) fight you there; but if they fight you, slay them. Such is the reward of those who suppress faith. But if they cease, Allah is Oft-forgiving, Most Merciful. (2:190-192)

    From the context it would sound, at least in this passage, that the Qur’an prescribes fighting only in self-defense. However, this is not its only word on the subject. Some verses seem to prescribe fighting without qualification, except that the enemy be a nonbeliever:

    Fighting is prescribed for you, and ye dislike it. But it is possible that ye dislike a thing which is good for you, and that ye love a thing which is bad for you. But Allah knoweth, and ye know not. (2:216)

    Say to the Unbelievers, if (now) they desist (from Unbelief), their past would be forgiven them; but if they persist, the punishment of those before them is already (a matter of warning for them). And fight them on until there is no more tumult or oppression, and there prevail justice and faith in Allah altogether and everywhere; but if they cease, verily Allah doth see all that they do. (8:38-39)
    O Prophet! rouse the Believers to the fight. If there are twenty amongst you, patient and persevering, they will vanquish two hundred: if a hundred, they will vanquish a thousand of the Unbelievers: for these are a people without understanding. For the present, Allah hath lightened your (task), for He knoweth that there is a weak spot in you: But (even so), if there are a hundred of you, patient and persevering, they will vanquish two hundred, and if a thousand, they will vanquish two thousand, with the leave of Allah: for Allah is with those who patiently persevere. It is not fitting for a prophet that he should have prisoners of war until he hath thoroughly subdued the land [Pickthal: “until he hath made slaughter in the land”]. Ye look for the temporal goods of this world; but Allah looketh to the Hereafter: And Allah is Exalted in might, Wise. (8:65-67)

    But when the forbidden months are past, then fight and slay the Pagans wherever ye find them, and seize them, beleaguer them, and lie in wait for them in every stratagem (of war); but if they repent, and establish regular prayers and practice regular charity, then open the way for them: for Allah is Oft-forgiving, Most Merciful. (9:5 [often called the “sword verse”])

    Fight those who believe not in Allah nor the Last Day, nor hold that forbidden which hath been forbidden by Allah and His Messenger, nor acknowledge the religion of Truth, (even if they are) of the People of the Book, until they pay the Jizya [poll tax] with willing submission, and feel themselves subdued. (9:29)

    O ye who believe! fight the unbelievers who gird you about [Pickthal and others: “who are near to you”], and let them find firmness in you: and know that Allah is with those who fear Him. (9:123)

    Therefore, when ye meet the Unbelievers (in fight), smite at their necks; At length, when ye have thoroughly subdued them, bind a bond firmly (on them): thereafter (is the time for) either generosity or ransom: Until the war lays down its burdens. Thus (are ye commanded): but if it had been Allah’s Will, He could certainly have exacted retribution from them (Himself); but (He lets you fight) in order to test you, some with others. But those who are slain in the Way of Allah, – He will never let their deeds be lost. (47:4)

    We will have occasion to return to some of these verses later, since they have played a significant role in Muslim history and have been used by Muslims to justify “holy war,” even when not in the cause of self-defense.

    Taking all these references together, it is clear that unbelief alone can serve as reason for the faithful to attack. Other verses in Sura 47, as well as 48:17, provide the basis for the belief that those who die in jihad go immediately to paradise.

    The “Sword Verse” in Context

    Sura 8 was received after the Battle of Badr, which was supposed to be a raid by Muhammad on a Meccan caravan but escalated into a full-scale clash between Muhammad and the pagan Meccans. This battle is legendary in the history of Islam and often taken as a prototype for holy war against nonbelievers in general. Although it was received somewhat later, Sura 9 is traditionally considered an extension of sura 8; it is the only sura not separated from its predecessor by the bismillah formula (“In the name of Allah, the merciful, the compassionate”). Together these suras describe Islam’s attitude toward confronting nonbelievers.

    Perhaps the most infamous of these verses is the “sword verse,” “slay them wherever ye find them” (9:5). Some commentators point out that this verse applied only to nonbelievers who broke treaties with the Muslims, since verse 4 states that treaties with nonbelievers who have not broken them must be honored. However, once “the end of their term” (v. 4) has been reached, the Muslims are free to attack.

    Muhammad’s intention was always to convert the Arabian Peninsula to Islam, whether by forceful or peaceful means. He made treaties to strengthen his position and to prepare for future action, not to achieve a state of permanent coexistence. He made the famous Treaty of Hudaybiyya at a time when he was militarily weak, then broke it on a pretext after he became stronger. (The story is complicated, but it started when a Meccan tribe allied with Muhammad killed a member of another tribe, which retaliated, allowing Muhammad to exploit the situation.)

    The verses following the “sword verse” clarity its meaning as well as Muhammad’s attitude toward nonbelievers:

    In a Believer they respect not the ties either of kinship or of covenant! It is they who have transgressed all bounds. But (even so), if they repent, establish regular prayers, and practise regular charity, – they are your brethren in Faith. (9:10-11)

    These “regular prayers” are the salat, the prayers Muslims recite five times a day, and can only be prayers to Allah. These pagans, whom Muslims are to treat kindly, have become “brethren in faith” – they have ceased to be pagans. Verse 9:5 uses the same language: if the pagans “repent,” establish regular prayers (salat) and adopt the practices of Islam, they are no longer to be treated as enemies. The ultimate goal is the conversion of pagans to Islam, through whatever means, peaceful or aggressive.

    The other verses from suras 8 and 9 do not even mention treaties as a mitigating factor. The effect of treaties is at best temporary. The only thing that truly saves an unbeliever is to “desist from unbelief” (8:38). This is what both the textual and historical context of these verses really have to tell us.

    There will be more to say about context later. It is an important issue, and one often misunderstood.

    Earlier vs. Later Suras

    It is necessary to keep in mind when these suras encouraging violence were written. All of the suras quoted above except for 25 and 29, which come from Mecca, are later and come from the period in Medina. Because of his preaching against the polytheism and commercialism of the pagan leaders of Mecca, Muhammad faced much opposition there. He accepted an invitation from the tribes of the city of Yathrib, who needed someone capable and impartial to arbitrate the tribal disputes that were ruining the city’s economy. And so in 622 Muhammad went to Yathrib (later called Medina) and eventually became its ruler. This event is significant in Muslim history and is called the hijra (Latinized form: hegira), meaning “emigration,” “separation,” or “breaking of relations,” and it marks the beginning of the Muslim calendar. In Medina Muhammad became a true military leader, and the Medinan suras reflect this. They tend to be much more belligerent.

    Since the Meccan suras are generally shorter, they are placed later in the Qur’an, because the Qur’an is organized neither chronologically nor topically but in order of the length of the suras, from longest to shortest. This tends to confuse non-Muslims who try to understand the Qur’an as a whole. But it means that the more hostile Medinan suras are given prominence in two senses. First, they appear before the others. And second, according to Islamic doctrine there is a principle called naskh, “abrogation” or “substitution,” through which those suras that come chronologically later (the Medinan suras) can replace the earlier (Meccan) ones whenever the two are in conflict. This principle has a basis in the Qur’an itself:

    None of our revelations do we abrogate or cause to be forgotten, but we substitute something better or similar: Knowest thou not that Allah Hath power over all things? (2:106)

    When We substitute one revelation for another, – and Allah knows best what He reveals (in stages), – they say, “Thou art but a forger”: but most of them understand not. (16:101)

    In other words, according to this interpretation, Allah may choose to modify or replace a former revelation with a later one. This principle gives special status to the later suras, which reflect Muhammad’s hostility towards his enemies and especially towards Jews and Christians, since by that time it became clear they rejected his message and his status as a prophet.

    In his tafsir (commentary) the renowned 14th-century Islamic scholar Ibn Kathir quotes an earlier authority who maintains that the “sword verse” (9:5) “abrogated every agreement of peace between the Prophet and any idolater, every treaty, and every term.” His contemporary Ibn Juzayy supported this view, maintaining that this verse is significant in “abrogating every peace treaty in the Qur’an”.

    Clearly this undermines the view of those who try to defend this verse by maintaining it does not apply to treaties.

    (It should be noted that the principle of abrogation is not universally accepted. Some authorities appeal to suras 4:82 and 6:34 in claiming that the Qur’an is perfect, universally valid, and contains no contradictions.)
    An Important Word About Context

    Muslims often accuse Islam’s critics of quoting verses from the Qur’an out of context, thus unfairly portraying Islam as a violent religion. As we have seen, it can be dangerous to quote verses of the Qur’an in isolation, without examining the surrounding text.
    Concerning the historical context, the Qur’an was revealed to Muhammad gradually, different suras unfolding in response to different historical situations. Some of these pronouncements, especially those from the Medinan period, came to Muhammad during or after battle; as we have noted, sura 8 was revealed after the famous battle of Badr. However, these verses are presented in the Qur’an apart from this history. The Qur’an itself takes the experience of Muhammad out of its original setting and makes it absolute and universal truth.

    (This distinguishes the Qur’an from the Bible, which evolved over many years and in which the historical context is plainly evident. Nevertheless, Islam’s apologists often draw faulty comparisons between these two scriptures.)

    What Muhammad said and did during the specific situations he encountered is considered a model for the conduct of Muslims in every age, and for that reason alone the meaning of the Qur’an’s verses cannot be restricted to the times and places in which they were received. The Qur’an is understood to be the timeless word of God, given at one time for every time and for every place.

    While the Qur’an may have originated in the experience of Muhammad, it does not read like history, as the Bible does, but like a series of general pronouncements intended for individual and communal instruction and guidance. This is certainly how Muslims have applied the Qur’an over the centuries. There has been much discussion and dispute among Islamic scholars as to which verses (usually later, Medinan ones) abrogate others (usually earlier, Meccan ones), but the message itself is considered timeless and not limited to specific social conditions or historical situations.

    Many verses in the Qur’an and teachings in the Hadith speak very disparagingly of Christians and especially of Jews. For the most part, when Muslims hear these verses chanted or these teachings expounded in Friday sermons, they are not encouraged to believe that these words apply only to the Jewish tribes in Medina during the lifetime of Muhammad.

    On the contrary, such verses and teachings are often applied to Jews living today. No less than an Imam of the Grand Mosque in Mecca explicitly applies Qur’an 5:60 to today’s Jews and calls them “apes and pigs” . This projection of Muhammad’s context onto our own is far from unique. Islam as it has evolved is a religion that decontextualizes history. Muslims frequently ignore the historical context when applying their own scriptures, and so they have no cause for complaint when others do likewise. And as we shall see below, restoring the textual context to some verses often makes the Qur’an seem even more harsh and intolerant.
    The section on Shari’a will provide further examples of how Muslims themselves – and not just so-called “extremists” but established authorities – have always quoted verses from the Qur’an apart from their historical context and have applied them to contemporary issues. The many verses quoted in this section have been used throughout history by Muslims to justify their conquests. They have been used by Islamic scholars and jurists precisely the way Islam’s apologists admonish non-Muslims not to use them. They have been used to justify violent jihad.

    Intolerance in the Qur’an

    Since Muhammad was involved in many battles, the Qur’an has much to do with fighting. But far more numerous than verses encouraging Muslims to fight are verses expressing religious intolerance and God’s hatred and rejection of the nonbeliever. While the later suras tend to be more violent, religious intolerance is sprinkled throughout the Qur’an. This theme sounds like a recurrent drumbeat throughout the text, and there is no point in trying to list all the verses that express it. They overwhelm even those few verses (and we shall examine the most well known) that appear to promote tolerance.

    Here are just a few of the intolerant ones – this list is not even close to exhaustive.

    (Note: the word that Yusuf ‘Ali consistently translates as “those who reject faith” [kafaru] is translated by most others as “those who disbelieve.”)

    Meccan suras:

    Those who reject Our signs, We shall gradually visit with punishment, in ways they perceive not. (7:182)

    Say, “The truth is from your Lord”: Let him who will believe, and let him who will, reject (it): for the wrong-doers We have prepared a Fire whose (smoke and flames), like the walls and roof of a tent, will hem them in: if they implore relief they will be granted water like melted brass, that will scald their faces, how dreadful the drink! How uncomfortable a couch to recline on! (18:29)

    But those who reject (Allah) [Pickthal and others: “disbelieve”] – for them will be the Fire of Hell: No term shall be determined for them, so they should die, nor shall its Penalty be lightened for them. Thus do We reward every ungrateful one! (35:36)

    Seest thou not those that dispute concerning the Signs of Allah? How are they turned away (from Reality)? – Those who reject the Book and the (revelations) with which We sent our messengers: but soon shall they know, – When the yokes (shall be) round their necks, and the chains; they shall be dragged along – In the boiling fetid fluid: then in the Fire shall they be burned. (40:69-72)

    But We will certainly give the Unbelievers a taste of a severe Penalty, and We will requite them for the worst of their deeds. Such is the requital of the enemies of Allah,- the Fire: therein will be for them the Eternal Home: a (fit) requital, for that they were wont to reject Our Signs. (41:27-28)

    For those who reject [Pickthal: “disbelieve”] their Lord (and Cherisher) is the Penalty of Hell: and evil is (such) destination. (67:6)

    Then leave Me alone with such as reject this Message: by degrees shall We punish them from directions they perceive not. (68:44)

    Verily, We have warned you of a Penalty near, the Day when man will see (the deeds) which his hands have sent forth, and the Unbeliever will say, “Woe unto me! Would that I were (mere) dust!” (78:040)

    What then is the matter with them, that they believe not? And when the Qur’an is read to them, they fall not prostrate, but on the contrary the Unbelievers reject (it). But Allah has full knowledge of what they secrete (in their breasts). So announce to them a Penalty Grievous, except to those who believe and work righteous deeds: for them is a Reward that will never fail. (84:20-25)

    But if any turn away and reject Allah, [Pickthal: “But whoso is averse and disbelieveth”] – Allah will punish him with a mighty Punishment. (88: 23-24)

    Those who reject (Truth), among the People of the Book and among the Polytheists, will be in Hell-Fire, to dwell therein (for aye). They are the worst of creatures. (98:6)
    Medinan suras:
    But those who reject Faith and belie Our Signs, they shall be companions of the Fire; they shall abide therein. (2:39)

    Miserable is the price for which they have sold their souls, in that they deny (the revelation) which Allah has sent down, in insolent envy that Allah of His Grace should send it to any of His servants He pleases: Thus have they drawn on themselves Wrath upon Wrath. And humiliating is the punishment of those who reject Faith. (2:90)

    (Yea), and such as reject Faith, – for a while will I grant them their pleasure, but will soon drive them to the torment of Fire, – an evil destination (indeed)! (2:126)

    Those who reject Faith, and die rejecting, – on them is Allah’s curse, and the curse of angels, and of all mankind. They will abide therein: Their penalty will not be lightened, nor will respite be their (lot). (2:161-162)

    Allah is the Protector of those who have faith: from the depths of darkness He will lead them forth into light. Of those who reject faith the patrons are the evil ones: from light they will lead them forth into the depths of darkness. They will be companions of the fire, to dwell therein (For ever). (2:257)

    Those who reject Faith, – neither their possessions nor their (numerous) progeny will avail them aught against Allah: They are themselves but fuel for the Fire. (3:10)

    Say to those who reject Faith: “Soon will ye be vanquished and gathered together to Hell, – an evil bed indeed (to lie on)! (3:12)

    As to those who reject faith, I will punish them with terrible agony in this world and in the Hereafter, nor will they have anyone to help. (3:56)

    If anyone desires a religion other than Islam (submission to Allah), never will it be accepted of him; and in the Hereafter He will be in the ranks of those who have lost (All spiritual good). (3:85)

    As to those who reject Faith, and die rejecting [Pickthal: “those who disbelieve, and die in disbelief”], – never would be accepted from any such as much gold as the earth contains, though they should offer it for ransom. For such is (in store) a penalty grievous, and they will find no helpers. (3:91)

    Those who reject Faith, – neither their possessions nor their (numerous) progeny will avail them aught against Allah: They will be companions of the Fire, -dwelling therein (for ever). (3:116)

    Fear the Fire, which is prepared for those who reject Faith [Pickthal: “disbelievers”]. (3:131)

    Those who reject our Signs, We shall soon cast into the Fire: as often as their skins are roasted through, We shall change them for fresh skins, that they may taste the penalty: for Allah is Exalted in Power, Wise. (4:56)

    Those who reject faith and deny our signs [Pickthal: “And they who disbelieve and deny Our revelations”] will be companions of Hell-fire. (5:10)

    As to those who reject Faith, – if they had everything on earth, and twice repeated, to give as ransom for the penalty of the Day of Judgment, it would never be accepted of them, theirs would be a grievous penalty. (5:36)

    But those who reject Faith and belie our Signs, – they shall be companions of Hell-fire. (5:86)

    And an announcement from Allah and His Messenger, to the people (assembled) on the day of the Great Pilgrimage, – that Allah and His Messenger dissolve (treaty) obligations with the Pagans. If then, ye repent, it were best for you; but if ye turn away, know ye that ye cannot frustrate Allah. And proclaim a grievous penalty to those who reject Faith [Pickthal and others: “disbelieve”]. (9:3)

    And for those who reject Faith and deny our Signs, there will be a humiliating Punishment. (22:57)

    And if any believe not in Allah and His Messenger, We have prepared, for those who reject Allah, a Blazing Fire! (48:13)

    And those who believe in Allah and His messengers – they are the Sincere (lovers of Truth), and the witnesses (who testify), in the eyes of their Lord: They shall have their Reward and their Light. But those who reject Allah and deny Our Signs, – they are the Companions of Hell-Fire. (57:19)

    But those who reject Faith and treat Our Signs as falsehoods, they will be Companions of the Fire, to dwell therein for aye: and evil is that Goal. (64:10)

    Allah’s uncompromising rejection of the nonbeliever is spread throughout the Qur’an, which without all these references to it would become unrecognizable.

    A Tolerant Side of the Qur’an?

    The verses in the Qur’an expressing hatred and rejection of the nonbeliever far outnumber those suggesting anything else. Moreover, even those few supposedly tolerant verses seem to mean something different when examined closely. It sometimes seems like giving with one hand and taking back with the other. Let us consider the examples cited most frequently.

    Following is Sura 109 in full:

    Say: O ye that reject Faith! I worship not that which ye worship, nor will ye worship that which I worship. And I will not worship that which ye have been wont to worship, nor will ye worship that which I worship. To you be your Way, and to me mine. (109:1-6)

    This is one of the earliest Meccan suras.

    It is nevertheless often quoted as proof of Islamic religious tolerance. However, Syed Abu-Ala’ Maududi, an early twentieth century Islamic scholar and exegete well known in the Muslim world, points out (as do many others) that this sura refers to a dispute between Muhammad and the pagan leaders of Mecca. According to tradition these pagan leaders sought to strike a peace agreement, by which Muhammad would accept their gods and they would accept Allah in return. Thus the intention of this sura is not to proclaim tolerance but to reject any commonality between Islam and paganism.

    As Maududi states,

    If the Surah is read with this background in mind, one finds that it was not revealed to preach religious tolerance as some people of today seem to think, but it was revealed in order to exonerate the Muslims from the disbelievers religion, their rites of worship, and their gods, and to express their total disgust and unconcern with them and to tell them that Islam and kufr (unbelief) had nothing in common and there was no possibility of their being combined and mixed into one entity. Although it was addressed in the beginning to the disbelieving Quraish in response to their proposals of compromise, yet it is not confined to them only, but having made it a part of the Quran, Allah gave the Muslims the eternal teaching that they should exonerate themselves by word and deed from the creed of kufr wherever and in whatever form it be, and should declare without any reservation that they cannot make any compromise with the disbelievers in the matter of Faith.

    Other verses that seem to preach tolerance carry a hidden threat:

    So leave them alone until they encounter that Day of theirs, wherein they shall (perforce) swoon (with terror). (52:45)

    And have patience with what they say, and leave them with noble (dignity). And leave Me (alone to deal with) those in possession of the good things of life, who (yet) deny the Truth; and bear with them for a little while. (73:10-11)

    In other words: Don’t worry about the nonbelievers, Allah will deal with them in the afterlife. And as we have seen, the Qur’an is full of threats about the terrible fate awaiting nonbelievers there.

    One very well-known verse used to prove tolerance in the Qur’an must be mentioned:

    Let there be no compulsion in religion. (2:256)

    If we see how these words were applied in history, it becomes apparent that “no compulsion” is not the same as tolerance. “No compulsion” simply means no forced conversion. Muslim conquerors did not always force their subjects to convert upon pain of death (although at times they did, and as we shall see in the next section, the Hadith tradition contains many exhortations to spread the faith by force, regardless of what this verse from the Qur’an may have intended).

    The goal of jihad was to bring as much of the world as possible under Muslim rule. Conversion to Islam was one option open to the conquered, but not the only one. Most often their choice was one of three: conversion, subjugation, or death. This is in line with both 9:5 and 9:29 quoted above: Muslims are commanded to fight nonbelievers, but not necessarily to convert them. If the nonbelievers do embrace Islam, they will be treated with leniency, but if they refuse, then the best they can hope for is life as humiliated, second-class citizens, who by law must

    “feel themselves subdued” (9:29).

    It is true that at certain times some non-Muslim groups living under Muslim domination, notably Jews and Christians, were given the status of “protected minorities” and allowed within strict limits to practice their religions. Nevertheless, they were still treated as conquered people with an inferior status. There may not always have been “compulsion in religion” in the sense that these Jews and Christians were not forced to convert, but there certainly was compulsion in civil and human rights.

    Since we are addressing the objections of those who insist that verses of the Qur’an always be quoted in context, let us now supply the context of this verse (which those who use this verse to claim tolerance never do themselves):

    Let there be no compulsion in religion: Truth stands out clear from Error: whoever rejects evil and believes in Allah hath grasped the most trustworthy hand-hold, that never breaks. And Allah heareth and knoweth all things. Allah is the Protector of those who have faith: from the depths of darkness He will lead them forth into light. Of those who reject faith the patrons are the evil ones: from light they will lead them forth into the depths of darkness. They will be companions of the fire, to dwell therein (For ever). (2:256-257)

    In other words: There is no need to force people to change the error of their ways. Allah will take care of it. Allah will protect the faithful, but the nonbelievers, who are evil, will spend an eternity in hell.

    Those who wish to use 2:256 to demonstrate the tolerance of the Qur’an would be well advised to think twice.

    Another verse very often quoted to prove tolerance in the Qur’an is this one:

    Those who believe (in the Qur’an), those who follow the Jewish (scriptures), and the Sabians and the Christians, – any who believe in Allah and the Last Day, and work righteousness, – on them shall be no fear, nor shall they grieve. (5:69)

    However, once again those who quote this verse never quote it in context. They habitually fail to mention the verses that occur immediately after:

    We took the covenant of the Children of Israel and sent them messengers, every time, there came to them a messenger with what they themselves desired not – some (of these) they called impostors, and some they (go so far as to) slay. They thought there would be no trial (or punishment); so they became blind and deaf; yet Allah (in mercy) turned to them; yet again many of them became blind and deaf. But Allah sees well all that they do. (5:70-71)

    They do blaspheme who say: “Allah is Christ the son of Mary.” But said Christ: “O Children of Israel! worship Allah, my Lord and your Lord.” Whoever joins other gods with Allah, Allah will forbid him the garden, and the Fire will be his abode. There will for the wrong-doers be no one to help. They do blaspheme who say: Allah is one of three: for there is no god except One Allah. If they desist not from their word (of blasphemy), verily a grievous penalty will befall the blasphemers among them. Why turn they not to Allah, and seek His forgiveness? For Allah is Oft-forgiving, Most Merciful. (5:72-74)

    But those who reject Faith and belie our Signs, – they shall be companions of Hell-fire. (5:86)

    “On them shall be no fear, nor shall they grieve”?

    How does this square with the dire threats and punishments that immediately follow? There is only one way. When 5:69 says “Those who believe,” clearly it means those who believe in Islam, as Yusuf ‘Ali corroborates by inserting the words “in the Qur’an.” Verse 5:69 therefore applies only to converts to Islam. The rest will meet the terrible retribution that Allah has in store for all nonbelievers.

    Finally, there is another very famous verse, also from sura 5, supposedly showing respect in the Qur’an for all human life:

    We ordained for the Children of Israel that if any one slew a person – unless it be for murder or for spreading mischief in the land – it would be as if he slew the whole people: and if any one saved a life, it would be as if he saved the life of the whole people. (5:32)

    But here is the passage with the surrounding text:

    On that account: We ordained for the Children of Israel that if any one slew a person – unless it be for murder or for spreading mischief in the land – it would be as if he slew the whole people: and if any one saved a life, it would be as if he saved the life of the whole people. Then although there came to them Our messengers with clear signs, yet, even after that, many of them continued to commit excesses in the land. The punishment of those who wage war against Allah and His Messenger, and strive with might and main for mischief through the land is: execution, or crucifixion, or the cutting off of hands and feet from opposite sides, or exile from the land: that is their disgrace in this world, and a heavy punishment is theirs in the Hereafter. (5:32-33)
    Once again, a seemingly benign passage is followed by the threat of extreme punishment. Ibn Warraq comments:

    “The supposedly noble sentiments are in fact a warning to Jews. ‘Behave, or else’ is the message. Far from abjuring violence, these verses aggressively point out that anyone opposing the Prophet will be killed, crucified, mutilated, and banished!”

    Also note that this passage carries an escape clause: except “for spreading mischief in the land.” Life is sacred, but not the lives of those who “spread mischief.” Who decides what is “mischief”? “Mischief” can mean just about anything, including preaching or publicly practicing a religion other than Islam.
    Yes, it is important to keep context in mind when quoting the Qur’an, but that applies equally to Islam’s apologists as to its critics. Moreover, contemporary preachers, not just Al Qaeda extremists but those officially sanctioned by the Palestinian Authority or Saudi Government, routinely lift parts of the Qur’an and Hadith from their historical context and apply them to present situations, often in ways expressing intolerance and hostility toward non-Muslims. This is how the Qur’an has been and often still is used in official circles. It is therefore disingenuous for Muslims to complain that non-Muslims ignore the historical context when criticizing the Qur’an. What really matters most is the role the Qur’an has played and continues to play in Muslim history.

    Those who insist on supplying the full context of every verse will often not be pleased with the results: when the few “tolerant” verses in the Qur’an are closely examined, they turn out to be something very much other than what they seem. And even these verses are vastly outnumbered by those expressing intolerance and condemnation openly and without pretense.

    In conclusion, the Qur’an does not preach religious tolerance.

    It is shot through with statements condemning any faith other than Islam, and condemning those who adhere to such faiths. Occasionally there are even exhortations to Muslims to fight nonbelievers, sometimes in self-defense, and other times to spread the faith. The continual affirmation of Allah’s rejection of other faiths and the people who practice them has encouraged religious intolerance throughout the centuries. This is only natural, if one takes the Qur’an as sacred scripture: to emulate God, one must love what God loves and hate what God hates, and if God hates people who believe differently, then it is good for the believers to hate them too.

    While non-Muslims often treat the Qur’an as if it were the only Islamic text, the literature of Islam is vast and spans many centuries. Next to the Qur’an in importance is the Hadith, which refers to collections of traditions about what Muhammad said, what he taught, and what he did. These collections are also called Sunna or “tradition”; hence the term Sunni Muslims, or “traditional” Muslims. Opposed to them are the Shi’ites, who broke away originally because of a dispute over succession to the caliphate, and who do not grant the same authority to the Hadith. (The proportion of Sunni Muslims to Shi’ites is roughly 85% – 15%.)

    Muslims naturally felt a need to preserve traditions about the Prophet from the time of the earliest witnesses. However, over the years since Muhammad’s death some of these traditions became embellished and others were fabricated. In the ninth century a number of Islamic scholars undertook the task of sifting the genuine traditions from the spurious and of gathering the former in written collections. In Sunni Islam six of these collections in particular are considered sahih (“reliable”). These sahih sittah(“reliable collections”) are:
    Sahih Bukhari, compiled by the Imam Muhammad ibn-Ismail al-Bukhari (810-870).

    Sahih Muslim, compiled by Muslim ibn al-Hajjaj al-Qushayri (821-975).

    Sunan Abu Dawud, compiled by Abu Dawud as-Sijistani (d. 888).

    Sunan ibn Majah, compiled by Muhammad ibn Majah (d. 896).

    Sunan At-Tirmidhi, compiled by Abi ‘Eesaa Muhammad At-Tirmidhi (824-893).

    Sunan An-Nasai, compiled by Ahmad ibn Shu’ayb an-Nasai (d. 915).

    All these collections of hadith are highly respected in the Sunni tradition, but the first two even more than the others, and so they are given the additional specific designation of sahih. And of those two, Sahih Bukhari is considered the most important and most reliable. Those ahadith occurring in both the Bukhari and Muslim collections have the highest status of all.

    Only One Jihad

    These compilations of hadith are voluminous, and they have a lot to say about jihad. However, before going to these classic collections, we should begin by looking at one hadith that is very often quoted to demonstrate a nonviolent meaning of jihad:

    Upon his return from battle Muhammad said,

    “We have returned from the lesser jihad to the greater jihad (i.e. the struggle against the evil of one’s soul).”

    This is very often cited as a proof-text for the “real” meaning of jihad being inward, spiritual struggle. But there are two problems:

    1. Even a “lesser” jihad is still jihad and thus a duty and a virtue.

    2. Muhammad never made such a statement.

    The hadith in which Muhammad is said to speak of “greater” vs. “lesser” jihad is of doubtful authenticity. It does not appear in any of the six collections of the sahih sittah.In fact, a number of scholars maintain that this hadith is a forgery. One scholar analyzes this hadith and considers a number of factors, such as chain of transmission and other more reliable, contradictory ahadith. He quotes one authority:

    “There is a Hadith related by a group of people which states that the Prophet [peace be upon him] said after the battle of Tabuk: ‘We have returned from Jihad Asghar [lesser jihad] to Jihad Akbar [greater jihad].’ This hadith has no source, nobody whomsoever in the field of Islamic Knowledge has narrated it. Jihad against the disbelievers is the most noble of actions, and moreover it is the most important action for the sake of mankind.”

    And so after a meticulous examination of sources the article comes to a decision:
    On the basis of the above statements we can conclude by saying, that the evidence used as proof or the basis for establishing that Jihad against disbelievers on the battlefield is Jihad Asghar [lesser jihad] and Jihad against the desires and Shaitaan [Satan, the devil] is Jihad Akbar [greater jihad], are weak if not false Hadith.

    One of the counter-hadith with a better chain of transmission (and the author quotes others as well) goes like this:

    A man asked [the Prophet]: “…and what is Jihad?” He [peace be upon him] replied: “You fight against the disbelievers when you meet them (on the battlefield).” He asked again: “What kind of Jihad is the highest?” He [peace be upon him] replied: “The person who is killed whilst spilling the last of his blood.”

    This seems to leave little doubt as to how Muhammad understood jihad. But let us not make the case on just one example. There are many ahadith on jihad, and they make its meaning quite clear. First and foremost, jihad meant combat on the battlefield, and specifically against non-Muslims.

    Jihad as Fighting the Nonbeliever

    The following sequence of ahadith will clarify this. Many of these are extremely well attested, occurring multiple times in the most trusted collections, the Sahih Bukhari and Sahih Muslim. I will cite some of these multiple attestations just to show the high status of these ahadith. (The numbering of ahadith may vary in different editions. In all of the following quotations I have used the Hadith database of the Muslim Students’ Association of the University of Southern California . For purposes of readability I do not quote in full the isnad (chain of attribution) of each hadith, but these are considered important to establishing authenticity and are included in the original sources.)

    Reading through the hadith on the subject of jihad, what we do not find is an exclusive emphasis on self-defense or on struggling with one’s desires. Jihad is physical combat, not just for self-defense but for the purpose of spreading Islam, and there is no greater virtue:

    I asked the Prophet, “What is the best deed?” He replied, “To believe in Allah and to fight for His Cause.” (Sahih Bukhari, 3:46:694, Sahih Muslim, 1:149)

    It has been narrated on the authority of Abu Sa’id Khudri that the Messenger of Allah (may peace be upon him) said (to him): Abu Sa’id, whoever cheerfully accepts Allah as his Lord, Islam as his religion and Muhammad as his Apostle is necessarily entitled to enter Paradise. He (Abu Sa’id) wondered at it and said: Messenger of Allah, repeat it for me. He (the Messenger of Allah) did that and said: There is another act which elevates the position of a man in Paradise to a grade one hundred (higher), and the elevation between one grade and the other is equal to the height of the heaven from the earth. He (Abu Sa’id) said: What is that act? He replied: Jihad in the way of Allah! Jihad in the way of Allah! (Sahih Muslim, 20:4645)
    The true purpose of jihad, to spread the Muslim faith, is spelled out explicitly:
    Allah’s Apostle said: “I have been ordered (by Allah) to fight against the people until they testify that none has the right to be worshipped but Allah and that Muhammad is Allah’s Apostle, and offer the prayers perfectly and give the obligatory charity, so if they perform a that, then they save their lives an property from me except for Islamic laws and then their reckoning (accounts) will be done by Allah.” (Sahih Bukhari, 1:2:24 [see also 4:52:196])

    It is reported on the authority of Abu Huraira that he heard the Messenger of Allah say: I have been commanded to fight against people, till they testify to the fact that there is no god but Allah, and believe in me (that) I am the messenger (from the Lord) and in all that I have brought. And when they do it, their blood and riches are guaranteed protection on my behalf except where it is justified by law, and their affairs rest with Allah. (Sahih Muslim, 1:31 [see also 1:130, 1:32, 1:33])

    The Prophet (peace be upon him) said: I am commanded to fight with men till they testify that there is no god but Allah, and that Muhammad is His servant and His Apostle, face our qiblah (direction of prayer), eat what we slaughter, and pray like us. When they do that, their life and property are unlawful for us except what is due to them. They will have the same rights as the Muslims have, and have the same responsibilities as the Muslims have. (Sunan Abu Dawud, 14:2635)

    A man came to the Prophet and asked, “A man fights for war booty; another fights for fame and a third fights for showing off; which of them fights in Allah’s Cause?” The Prophet said, “He who fights that Allah’s Word (i.e. Islam) should be superior, fights in Allah’s Cause.” (Sahih Bukhari, 4:52:65 [see also 9:93:550 and Sahih Muslim, 20:4684, 20:4685, 20:4686, 20:4687])

    It is perhaps significant that those who never tire of quoting the Qur’an on “There is no compulsion in religion” (see previous section) also never mention these ahadith.

    The rewards of fighting in jihad are tremendous, not to be compared with anything else:

    The Prophet said, “A single endeavor (of fighting) in Allah’s Cause in the forenoon or in the afternoon is better than the world and whatever is in it.” (Sahih Bukhari, 4:52:50 [see also 4:52:51, 4:52:52, and Sahih Muslim, 20:4643])

    Allah’s Apostle said, “Allah guarantees him who strives in His Cause and whose motivation for going out is nothing but Jihad in His Cause and belief in His Word, that He will admit him into Paradise (if martyred) or bring him back to his dwelling place, whence he has come out, with what he gains of reward and booty.” (Sahih Bukhari, 4:53:352 [see also 9:93:549, 9:93:555, and 1:2:35 which adds: “…and I would have loved to be martyred in Allah’s cause and then made alive, and then martyred and then made alive, and then again martyred in His cause.”])

    It has been narrated on the authority of Abu Huraira who said: Allah has undertaken to provide for one who leaves his home (only) to fight for His cause and to affirm the truth of His word; Allah will either admit him to Paradise or will bring him back home from where he had come out, with his reward and booty. (Sahih Muslim, 20:4628)
    Many ahadith tell us that the surest way to Paradise is to fight in jihad. Here are just a couple more:

    Allah’s Apostle said, “Know that Paradise is under the shades of swords.” (Sahih Bukhari, 4:52:73 [see also 4:52:210, and Sahih Muslim, 20:4681])

    It has been reported on the authority of Jabir that a man said: Messenger of Allah, where shall I be if I am killed? He replied: In Paradise. The man threw away the dates he had in his hand and fought until he was killed (i.e. he did not wait until he could finish the dates). (Sahih Muslim, 20:4678)

    The High Value of Martyrdom

    This elevation of jihad to the highest of virtues makes martyrdom something especially to be prized. There are many, many ahadith that extol and encourage martyrdom.

    It has been narrated on the authority of Masruq Who said: We asked ‘Abdullah about the Qur’anic verse: “Think not of those who are slain in Allah’s way as dead. Nay, they are alive, finding their sustenance in the presence of their Lord” (Qur’an 3:169). He said: We asked the meaning of the verse (from the Holy Prophet) who said: The souls of the martyrs live in the bodies of green birds who have their nests in chandeliers hung from the throne of the Almighty. They eat the fruits of Paradise from wherever they like and then nestle in these chandeliers. (Sahih Muslim, 20:4651)

    There is of course the very celebrated tradition that martyrs from jihad go immediately to Paradise where they are rewarded with 72 virgins. The following verses in the Qur’an provide the foundation, although the number of virgins is not specified:

    Let those fight in the cause of Allah Who sell the life of this world for the hereafter. To him who fighteth in the cause of Allah, – whether he is slain or gets victory – Soon shall We give him a reward of great (value). (4:74)

    As to the Righteous (they will be) in a position of Security, among Gardens and Springs; dressed in fine silk and in rich brocade, they will face each other; So; and We shall join them to Companions with beautiful, big, and lustrous eyes. (44:51-54)

    As to the Righteous, they will be in Gardens, and in Happiness, – Enjoying the (Bliss) which their Lord hath bestowed on them, and their Lord shall deliver them from the Penalty of the Fire. (To them will be said:) “Eat and drink ye, with profit and health, because of your (good) deeds.” They will recline (with ease) on Thrones (of dignity) arranged in ranks; and We shall join them to Companions, with beautiful, big, and lustrous eyes. (52:17-20)
    They will recline on Carpets, whose inner linings will be of rich brocade: the Fruit of the Gardens will be near (and easy of reach). Then which of the favours of your Lord will ye deny? In them will be (Maidens), chaste, restraining their glances, whom no man or Jinn before them has touched. (55:54-59 [see also 55:70-74])

    And on Thrones (of Dignity), raised high. We have created (their Companions) of special creation. And made them virgin – pure (and undefiled), – Beloved (by nature), equal in age, – For the Companions of the Right Hand. (56:34-38)

    Verily for the Righteous there will be a fulfilment of (the heart’s) desires; Gardens enclosed, and grapevines; And voluptuous women of equal age; And a cup full (to the brim). (78:31-34)

    And so from the Qur’an itself we see that sex is a reward for the faithful in Paradise.

    These “companions” are the houris of renown, beautiful young maidens. They will even be virgins, “whom no man or Jinn before them has touched.”

    We get the number 72 by way of hadith. In the Sunan At-Tirmidhi, which is one of the six basic collections, we find the following (5):

    The Prophet Muhammad was heard saying: “The smallest reward for the people of Paradise is an abode where there are 80,000 servants and 72 wives, over which stands a dome decorated with pearls, aquamarine, and ruby, as wide as the distance from Al-Jabiyyah [a Damascus suburb] to Sana’a [Yemen]” (Sunan At-Tirmidhi, 4:21:2687)

    There has been some debate on whether only martyrs get the 72 virgins or whether everyone [male] in Paradise gets them. However, the tradition of the virgins has been used often and effectively as an inducement to martyrdom.

    Martyrdom is so highly valued that the truly devoted Muslim would wish to return to earth many times in order to repeat the experience.

    The Prophet said, “Nobody who dies and finds good from Allah (in the Hereafter) would wish to come back to this world even if he were given the whole world and whatever is in it, except the martyr who, on seeing the superiority of martyrdom, would like to come back to the world and get killed again (in Allah’s Cause).” (Sahih Bukhari, 4:52:53)

    The Prophet said, “By Him in Whose Hands my life is! Were it not for some men amongst the believers who dislike to be left behind me and whom I cannot provide with means of conveyance, I would certainly never remain behind any Sariya’ (army-unit) setting out in Allah’s Cause. By Him in Whose Hands my life is! I would love to be martyred in Allah’s Cause and then get resurrected and then get martyred, and then get resurrected again and then get martyred and then get resurrected again and then get martyred. (Sahih Bukhari, 4:52:54)

    The Prophet said, “Nobody who enters Paradise likes to go back to the world even if he got everything on the earth, except a Mujahid who wishes to return to the world so that he may be martyred ten times because of the dignity he receives (from Allah).” Narrated Al-Mughira bin Shu’ba: Our Prophet told us about the message of our Lord that “Whoever amongst us is killed will go to Paradise.” Umar asked the Prophet, “Is it not true that our men who are killed will go to Paradise and their’s (i.e. those of the Pagans) will go to the (Hell) fire?” The Prophet said, “Yes.” (Sahih Bukhari, 4:52:72 [see also Sahih Muslim, 20:4635)

    It is praiseworthy both to seek death as a martyr and to love it:

    Apostle of Allah (peace_be_upon_him) said: If anyone fights in Allah’s path as long as the time between two milkings of a she-camel, Paradise will be assured for him. If anyone sincerely asks Allah for being killed and then dies or is killed, there will be a reward of a martyr for him. (Sunan Abu Dawud, 14:2535)

    It has been narrated on the authority of Abu Huraira who said: I heard the Messenger of Allah (may peace be upon him) say:… “By the Being in Whose Hand is my life, I love that I should be killed in the way of Allah; then I should be brought back to life and be killed again in His way.” (Sahih Muslim, 20:4631 [see also 20:4626])

    Indeed, not to desire death in battle against the infidel is considered shameful:

    It has been narrated on the authority of Abu Huraira that the Messenger of Allah (may peace be upon him) said: One who died but did not fight in the way of Allah nor did he express any desire (or determination) for Jihid died the death of a hypocrite. (Sahih Muslim, 20:4696)

    Martyrdom vs. Suicide

    But, some object, doesn’t Islam forbid suicide? How can being a suicide bomber be considered Islamic?

    Let’s look at the basis in the Qur’an for the prohibition against suicide:

    O ye who believe! Eat not up your property among yourselves in vanities: But let there be amongst you Traffic and trade by mutual good-will: Nor kill (or destroy) yourselves: for verily Allah hath been to you Most Merciful! If any do that in rancour and injustice, – soon shall We cast them into the Fire: And easy it is for Allah. (4:29-30)

    Although these verses are often cited to show that the Qur’an forbids suicide, the wording is ambiguous. Most translations say “Do not kill each other,” and that most likely is the original meaning. In any event, there is an escape clause. The prohibition holds “if any do that in rancor and injustice.” The mujahid always believes he is fighting for justice!
    The prohibition against suicide comes not from the Qur’an but from the hadith:
    If somebody commits suicide with anything in this world, he will be tortured with that very thing on the Day of Resurrection. (Sahih Bukhari, 8:73:73 [see also 2:23:445, 2:23:446, 8:73:126, 8:78:647])

    But does this apply to someone who kills himself for the purpose of fighting in jihad?
    Many Islamic authorities say no. They make a distinction between suicide and martyrdom. The motivation for each is entirely different. And so one scholar gleans the classical Islamic sources for evidence that one may seek martyrdom by fighting even when one knows one is going to die. His conclusion:

    It is important to know that suicide is forbidden because of its evil objectives; such as impatience, desperation or any other bad and evil objects….

    On the other hand, the one who contributes his life to the cause of Allah, Islam and Muslims his doing is sacrificial; he gives his life away for Islam and Muslims, which is the highest sacrifice.

    Daniel Pipes, a scholar of Islamic history, affirms this conclusion:

    Islamists consider suicide as not just legitimate but highly commendable when undertaken for reasons of jihad (sacred war). Going into war knowing with certainty that one will die, they argue, is not suicide (intihar) but martyrdom (istishhad), a much-praised form of self-sacrifice in the path of God, a way to win the eternal affection of the houris in paradise.

    A leading Islamist authority, Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi, recently explained the distinction this way: attacks on enemies are not suicide operations but “heroic martyrdom operations” in which the kamikazes act not “out of hopelessness and despair but are driven by an overwhelming desire to cast terror and fear into the hearts of the oppressors.”

    In other words, Islamists find suicide for personal reasons abominable, suicide for jihad admirable.

    The earliest sources express both the prohibition on suicide and the encouragement to fight to the death in a sacred cause. In fact, the latter receives far more emphasis in the classical sources. Undeniably, it has inspired Muslim jihad fighters over many centuries to risk their lives for the cause of advancing Muslim rule. Today some Islamic authorities may emphasize the forbidding of suicide, and some may emphasize the virtue of martyrdom. Which will ultimately prevail can be decided only within Islam itself. But one cannot say that suicide fighting is by its very nature un-Islamic. In fact, it is not new.

    In the same article Daniel Pipes notes the existence of jihad suicide nearly a thousand years ago:

    Jihad suicide has been around for a millennium. The Assassins, a fanatical religious sect that flourished in the twelfth century developed jihad suicide into a powerful tool of war that succeeded in killing dozens of leaders and cast a long shadow over the region’s politics for decades.

    And certainly there is no prohibition on terrorism when suicide is not involved. When seen as a sacred struggle against non-believers, terrorism by any means becomes a virtue, whether or not one knows one’s life will be forfeit.

    The Extent of Jihad

    Just before we close, a couple more ahadith demonstrating that jihad does not stop with self-defense, but that its real purpose is to promote the supremacy of Islam over other religions:

    One of the last things that the Messenger of Allah, may Allah bless him and grant him peace, said was, “May Allah fight the Jews and the Christians. They took the graves of their Prophets as places of prostration. Two [religions] shall not co-exist in the land of the Arabs.” (Malik’s Muwatta, 45:5:17)

    It has been narrated by ‘Umar b. al-Khattib that he heard the Messenger of Allah (may peace be upon him) say: I will expel the Jews and Christians from the Arabian Peninsula and will not leave any but Muslim. (Sahih Muslim, 19:4366)

    The high value placed on jihad and martyrdom is well attested in the earliest Islamic sources. Whether or not it should extend to pushing a button on a suicide vest, the passion that fires today’s terrorists comes straight from the words of the Prophet.


    “I love that I should be killed in the way of Allah.”
    – The Prophet Muhammad

    “You love life and we love death, which gives an example of what the Prophet Muhammad said.”

    – Al Qaeda video claiming responsibility for the 3/11/04 Madrid bombings.

    Jihad in the Shari’a

    Muslims legitimately point out that one cannot judge Islam by the Qur’an alone. One must

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