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Present-day Middle Eastern leaders have invoked the concept of jihad, often incorrectly, to inflame Muslims — such as these Shia fighters during the Iran-Iraq War — to war against all "idolaters." (© Richard Hoffmann/Sygma/Corbis)

‘When Saudi Wahhabists crashed Western passenger planes into the World Trade Center towers, the Pentagon and a Pennsylvania field on Sept. 11, 2001, they did so in the fundamentalist spirit of jihad’

It’s unfortunate that in today’s world the Arabic word jihad is most directly associated with heinous terrorist acts committed by Islamic extremists who either don’t know or don’t care about the word’s origin and true meaning.

The doctrine of jihad, or holy war, was Muhammad’s principal military legacy. It is indisputable that divinely justified warfare became a force of major importance during the early Islamic period, was a significant motivator for the Muslim conquests that followed Muhammad’s death in 632 and remains a primary characteristic of Islamic warfare. Pre-Islamic Arabia knew no notion of ideology of any sort, and certainly no notion of religiously sanctioned war. Pre-Islamic Arab warfare was directly linked to the economic and social circumstances of pasturage, material wealth and prestige and was characterized by looting, raiding and clan and tribal blood feuds. The idea of warfare as Allah’s command—rewarded by martyrdom and swift transport to paradise—was an innovation with no precedent in Arab culture, custom or practice, brought about entirely by Muhammad’s thinking and influence on events.

Setting aside the question of divine influence on Muhammad’s thinking, where might he have acquired his ideas of holy war and martyrdom?

Born circa 570 in Mecca, Muhammad lost both parents in childhood and lived with various relatives. In his teens he became a caravanner, traveling to Jewish communities in Arabia and Christian border communities of the Byzantine empire. Among the Jews he may have encountered the concept of herem—holy war against idolaters and nonbelievers—which plays a prominent role in the Old Testament accounts of Moses and Joshua establishing the Israelite state. Muhammad may have acquired the idea of martyrdom from the Christians. The Roman empire had persecuted believers in the first three centuries of the Christian faith, and from 380 to 620 the Byzantine emperors had persecuted followers of all heretical sects (adherents to beliefs that fell outside the state-sanctioned Nicene Christianity), thus reinforcing the notion of martyrdom. The sects often settled in remote border communities to escape persecution.

The influence of Greek philosophy, Roman occupation and the Jewish Diaspora put a damper on the Jewish concept of holy war, while the Christian ideal of martyrdom faded under the impact of nationalism, the rise of the nation state, Enlightenment, religious freedom and the Industrial Revolution—forces that have shaped Western culture. These forces had little impact in the Islamic world, however, with the consequence that the Muslim idea of holy war has remained essentially unchanged from the time of Muhammad. In addition, martyrdom by death in battle while defending the faith or proselytism became a central tenet of Islam. Martyrs went directly to paradise without having to suffer the “torment of the grave,” unlike other Muslims, who had to wait until Judgment Day to be resurrected.

Politics, as much as religious zeal, may have prompted Muhammad’s promulgation of holy war. It was a time of crisis for Islam. Either Muhammad would force pagan tribes into the fold and set the stage for the religious conversion of all Arabia, or Islam would remain a creed confined to the desert. After returning from an abortive military expedition to Tabuk near the Byzantine border in 630–31, Muhammad had a revelation instructing him to impose a zakat (obligatory annual tax) on Muslims. He would give the tribes of Arabia one last chance to join the Islamic movement. Payment of the tax—the ancient Arab way of showing submission to a chief—would be the test of their loyalty. Those who remained disloyal would be killed.

This instruction is known in the Muslim tradition as al-Tawbah (“the Repentance”) and is found in the Qur’an. The Arab world changed dramatically with its promulgation. It was now time to choose between the old order and the new, and Muhammad declared war against all non-Muslim Arabs. The idolaters were given four months’ grace, after which Muhammad declared himself free of any responsibility toward them. Muslims were then commanded to “slay the idolaters wherever you find them.” No longer would Muhammad form alliances with the non-Muslim tribes. Their choice was to join Muhammad or face “war to the knife.”

The promulgation of al-Tawbah is the only example of Muhammad forcing “conversion by the sword” under penalty of death, and it applied only to the Arab tribes in Arabia. It did not apply to those outside Arabia that later fell to Arab conquest or to Christians and Jews living in Arabia. Those communities were not to be harmed, although as events turned out, Arabs did massacre and destroy Jewish communities. At least at the outset, however, there was to be “no compulsion in religion,” and conversion by the sword was forbidden.

Jihad came to have many meanings over the centuries due to the influence of Muslim legalists, scholars, theologians, ambitious rulers, rebels and the violent conflicts among Sunni, Shia and Sufi Muslims. The term derives from the root jahada, roughly defined as “exerting one’s utmost power, efforts, endeavors or ability in contending with an object of disapprobation.” However, few non-Western Islamic scholars and jurists regard the concept of jihad as only a personal inner struggle. Most subscribe to the classical evolutionary theory of holy war. In this view, what Muhammad meant by jihad depended on the historic circumstances and needs at different times during his prophetic mission, until it was concluded that war against non-Muslims could be waged virtually at any time, without pretext and in any place. This interpretation provided the ideological justification for the Arab conquests and is very much alive in the minds of present-day jihadists.

The history of jihad can be divided into four distinct, if overlapping, periods, each distinguished by the major combatants involved.

Jihad of the Riddah (632–33)
Soon after Muhammad’s death in June 632 the Islamic coalition of tribes began to fall apart. In the traditional fashion of Arab covenants, upon Muhammad’s death many tribal and clan chiefs no longer felt bound by their old agreements with the prophet. The crux of the problem was the zakat. Some of the allied tribes sent delegations to Medina to negotiate new agreements with Abu Bakr, Muhammad’s father-in-law and the man who succeeded him. The tribes promised to remain Muslim and say their daily prayers in exchange for repeal of the tax. Abu Bakr refused, reportedly saying, “By Allah, if they withhold from me the rope of a camel they paid to [Muhammad], I will fight them for it.” The dispute sparked the Riddah (“Apostasy”) wars.

Abu Bakr declared war on all those who would not obey and introduced three new elements to Islam that greatly expanded the religious justification for jihad against Muslims. First, he proclaimed withdrawal from Muhammad’s coalition to be a denial of Allah’s will and thus apostasy punishable by death. Muslims would later use this concept to conduct jihads against other Muslims who did not follow sharia law. Second, Abu Bakr declared that Muslims could not be loyal to Allah under any leader whose legitimacy did not derive from Muhammad, thereby laying the groundwork for the later Sunni-Shia jihads against one another over the question of who were the legitimate leaders of Islam. Third, to forestall the influence of self-professed prophets who had arisen in Arabia during Muhammad’s lifetime, Abu Bakr declared Muhammad to be the last prophet Allah would send. This led Muslims to regard as false all prophets and religions that came after Muhammad.

Although Abu Bakr’s pronouncements were introduced as part of his political strategy to isolate and compel the obedience of the Arabian tribes—and could claim no religious authority to support them—these pronouncements became important Muslim religious beliefs as the years passed. It was actually Abu Bakr more than Muhammad who laid what became the religious justification for the internecine jihads among Sunni, Shia and Sufi Muslims to follow over the centuries.

Jihad of the Muslim Conquests (633–732)
With the Riddah finished, in 633 Abu Bakr ordered the Arab armies to attack the Persians and Byzantines, beginning the first phase of the Muslim conquests that lasted until 732. These assaults brought much of the Persian and Byzantine empires and the Mediterranean littoral under Islamic occupation until the end of the Ottoman empire in 1918. However, jihad as a stimulus for converting non-Muslims seems to have played only a secondary role in these events. Once they had converted the Arabian people, Abu Bakr and his successor, ’Umar, found themselves with insufficient resources to sustain the Islamic state and its tribal coalition armies. The conquest of Byzantine and Persian lands was necessary to provide new sources of loot, food, horses, land and taxes to sustain the Muslim ummah (“community”) and its military forces. Religious jihad seemed not to have been the primary motivation of the Arab armies, although it surely must have been for many of the individuals who fought in the campaigns.

Once established in their new lands, the Arabs made no attempt to convert the conquered populations to Islam, instead seeking to remain an ethnically homogeneous and religious society apart from the infidels. Arab immigrants lived in ribats, fortified cities built to limit contact with non-Muslims, lest the residents backslide into polytheism. All Muslims were recorded in the diwan (“registry”) and received housing, monthly rations and a cash allowance. The diwan was the primary institution for the maintenance of the army and all Muslims. The Arabs took over the financial systems of the conquered lands, levied a mandatory tax on all non-Muslims and exempted infidels from military service. The Arabs’ self-isolation worked against the creation of a Muslim society in the conquered lands, a task left to those conquered infidels who later converted to Islam.

The attempt to sustain a separate Arab identity apart from the infidels was bound to fail due to sheer numbers. The size of the Arab occupation forces could hardly have exceeded 100,000 people, including women and children, whereas the population of the conquered lands probably exceeded 20 million. The Arabs made no attempt at forced conversion. Voluntary conversion, however, was successful. By 825 Muslims were a majority of the population in Iran and achieved majorities in Egypt, Syria and Iraq by 900. The Arabs gradually were subsumed into the Muslim armies of disparate peoples who had converted to the new faith.

Jihads of the Sunni-Shia-Sufi (656–present)
Within a decade of Abu Bakr’s death his pronouncements created serious difficulties within the new faith. His declarations on apostasy made it legitimate for Muslims to kill Muslims; his claim that only elected leaders were legitimate laid the basis for Shia-Sunni antagonism; and contrary to Muhammad’s practice, religion, state and army were now inseparable. It was inevitable that dynastic and civic conflicts would become religious conflicts, while religious disagreements would become civic conflicts. The result has been centuries of jihads among Shia, Sunni and Sufi factions of Islam.

In 656 intrafaith tensions flared into conflict. The appointment of the third caliph, ’Uthman, in 644 had precipitated a division between those who believed rulers should be selected by the prophet’s companions (Sunni) and those who believed only Allah could appoint the ruler (Shia), a blood relative of Muhammad or his family. The Khawarij (“Seceders”) declared a jihad against the Sunni caliph, saying his improper election made him a kafir, an apostate who must be killed. Assassins killed ’Uthman, and his successor, ’Ali, declared a jihad against the Khawarij. A Khawarij assassin, in turn, killed ’Ali in 661. The Sunni-Shia dispute turned increasingly violent, as each regarded the other as heretics that could be legitimately slain “in defense of Islam.” Sufis soon joined the fray with a mystical take on “jihad of the sword” that threatened everyone. From 656 to 750 Muslims fought three dynastic-religious civil wars, which led to the emergence of a formal ideology of jihad, appearing first in a treatise on the subject in the late 8th century.

The 680 beheading of Husayn ibn ’Ali, the first Shia imam, by the Sunnis in Iraq is remembered in Shia history as the Shia martyrdom and sparked violent retribution. The Sunni Seljuk Turks in turn implemented jihad against the Shia and infidels as a means to expand their territory and control those rebelling factions within it. In 1124 Shiites opposed to Seljuk rule in Iran, Iraq and Syria formed a group, known in the West as the Assassins, dedicated to using murder and assassination to overthrow the ruling Sunni order. In 1501 Shah Isma’il Safavi, a Shia and first ruler of the dynasty (Safavid) bearing his name, made Shia Islam the official religion of the Persian state and launched a 10-year jihad of persecution against Sunnis. Much of the centuries-long conflict between Persia and Turkey had its roots in the Shia-Sunni divide.

The 1744 rise of Wahhabism injected an even more violent strain into these conflicts. Originating in what is now Saudi Arabia, the Wahhabis comprised a fundamentalist Sunni sect that believed most Muslims were insufficiently observant. Along with massacring fellow Sunnis, the Wahhabis declared unrelenting war against the Shia. In 1802 Wahhabis slaughtered thousands of Shiites in their holy city of Karbala in present-day Iraq. The Wahhabis formed an alliance with the house of Saud in Arabia, and the Saudi regime remains Wahhabist. During the 1980–88 Iran-Iraq War, Iran’s Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini declared the conflict against the Sunnis in Iraq a jihad. The current civil war in Syria is an extension of the historical Shia-Sunni conflict, with Saudi Arabia supporting the Sunni rebels and Iran propping up Bashar al-Assad’s Shia Alawite regime. After more than 1,400 years it is unlikely a solution is imminent to what is surely one of history’s longest running conflicts between adherents of the same religion. One of the great paradoxes is that far more jihads have pitted Muslims against one another than against non-Muslims.

One factor contributing to the longevity of the Shia-Sunni conflict and its use of jihad is an increase in the number of Islamic civic and religious authorities claiming the right to declare “holy war.” A power once confined to the Sunni caliphs and Shia imams, it ultimately fell claim to all sorts of malcontents for all kinds of reasons. In their hands jihad became a justification for suppressing domestic dissent or settling political problems, in turn leading to countless massacres and forced conversions over the centuries, mostly against Jews and Christians living in Muslim territories. Jihad continued to serve its original purpose in justifying wars against non-Muslims, such as the 1024 Muslim invasion of India and the 1507 Mughal conquest of the same area, while even the Mongols and later Tamerlane used jihad to justify attacks against fellow Muslims.

Jihad in the Colonial Period
The encroachment of Western powers on Muslim territories of the Ottoman empire provoked many calls for jihads to defend Islam. The 1783 Russian annexation of Crimea, Napoléon Bonaparte’s capture of Egypt in 1798 and the French invasion of Algeria in 1830 were met with calls for jihad. The Russian attempt to drive the Ottomans from southeast Europe in 1877–78 prompted another such declaration, as did Russian moves in central Asia in 1914. That same year the Ottomans declared jihad against the Armenians, which ended with the genocide of more than a million of the ethnic Christians. The colonial period also witnessed calls for jihads in China, Sudan, Egypt, Palestine, Morocco, Africa and India. During this period Muslims massacred ethnic and racial minorities, Jews, and Christian and Islamic sects alike as enemies of Islam.

World War I and the occupation of the Ottoman and Persian empires by the West generally put an end to such large-scale jihads, although pockets of resistance existed until after World War II. Some movements, such as the active one in Chechnya, have persisted for centuries.

The withdrawal of colonial powers from most Islamic lands gave rise to nationalist regimes in many of the former Ottoman and Persian territories. The cultural shock occasioned by the collapse of the Ottoman empire, Western occupation and the establishment of an Israeli state in 1948—followed by a series of Arab-Israeli wars in which Jewish forces roundly defeated Muslim armies—demoralized the Islamic spirit and saw a corresponding decline in the frequency of jihads. Muslims placed their faith in new nationalist leaders—including Gamal Abdel Nasser in Egypt, Hafez al-Assad in Syria and Sadaam Hussein in Iraq—to protect Islamic interests. But these regimes drew support only from the urban, educated pro-Western elites, leaving the rural, poor masses to the continued influence of fundamentalist religious leaders and the mosque schools. It was in these schools the spirit of jihad was reignited.

By the late 1970s the failure of such nationalist regimes to provide adequate economic improvement for most Muslims, and the increased Westernization of their ruling elites, provoked violent resistance from traditional Muslims. A number of events over the next two decades signaled a renewal of militant Islamic jihadism, including the 1978 coup of fundamentalist Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq in Pakistan and subsequent rise of the Taliban and al-Qaida; the 1979 Shia revolution in Iran; the Iran-Iraq War; the 1981 assassination of Anwar Sadat by the Egyptian Islamic Jihad; the 1987 and 2000 Palestinian intifadas against Israeli rule in the West Bank; the 1990 Iraqi invasion of Kuwait; renewed wars in Chechyna and the North Caucasus in 1994; and increased financial support by Saudi Arabia for Osama bin Laden and other Wahhabist causes throughout the Muslim world.

When Saudi Wahhabists crashed Western passenger planes into the World Trade Center towers, the Pentagon and a Pennsylvania field on Sept. 11, 2001, they did so in the fundamentalist spirit of jihad once again aflame in the Muslim world.

For further reading Rick Gabriel recommends Jihad: From Qur’an to bin Laden, by Richard Bonney, and Jihad in Islamic History, by Michael Bonner.