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The Blue Letter Bible

Don Stewart :: What Is Jihad or Holy War?

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What Is Jihad or Holy War? (Violence in Islam)

Islam – Question 17

One term that has been identified with Islam that has become popular in the West is “jihad.” What exactly is meant by this term? It has been equated with violence as well as with terrorism. Is this something that all Muslims are commanded to practice? If so, then under what circumstances are Muslims ordered to be violent?

Jihad Defined

Jihad is defined as “struggle.” This can be either by “the word” or by “the sword.” Often this struggle has been a violent one. We will look at violence in the Quran, the Hadith, and in the biography of Muhammad to get an idea of how jihad has been part of Islam from the beginning.

Violence in the Quran

The Quran has a number of passages that either encourage or command its followers to be violent. Some of them are as follows.

The Idea of Jihad in the Quran: The Command to Fight

Jihad sometimes demands defense of Muslim territory by military aggression. The Quran says,

O you who believe! what is the matter with you, that, when you are asked to go forth in the cause of Allah, you cling heavily to the earth? Do you prefer the life of this world to the Hereafter? But little is the comfort of this life, as compared with the Hereafter. Unless you go forth, He will punish you with a grievous penalty, and put others in your place; but Him you would not harm in the least. For Allah has power over all things. Unless you go forth, He will punish you with a grievous penalty, and put others in your place; but Him you would not harm in the least. For Allah has power over all things. (Surah 9:38-39)

Elsewhere it promises paradise to those who are killed while participating in Jihad.

As for those who are slain in the cause of God, He will not allow their works to perish...He will admit them to the Paradise He has made known to them. (Surah 47:8)

In Islam, war is the last resort. It is only waged to establish supremacy of Allah when every other argument has failed.

The following verses in the Quran show that Islam is in a state of perpetual struggle against the non-Muslims. It reads as follows.

Let those who would exchange the life of this world for the hereafter, fight for the cause of God; whether he dies or triumphs, We shall richly reward him...The true believers fight for the cause of God, but the infidels fight for the devil. Fight then against the friends of Satan. (Surah 4:74, 76)

Notice the true believers are fighting for Allah while the infidels are fighting for the devil. The contrast is clear. Islam represents the only God who exists while all others are fighting for Satan.

The Quran also says that those who fight for the cause are greater in the eyes of Allah than those who stay at home. We read,

The believers who stay at home—apart from those that suffer a grave impediment—are not the equals of those who fight for the cause of God with their goods and their persons. God has given those that fight with their goods and their persons a higher rank than those who stay at home. (Surah 4:95, 96)

In another Surah, we read about the penalty due those who fight against Islam, they will be put to death. It says,

Those that make war against God and His apostle and spread disorder in the land shall be put to death or crucified or have their hands and feet cut off on alternate sides, or be banished from the land. They shall be held up to shame in this world and sternly punished in the hereafter: except those that repent before you reduce them (Surah 5:34, 35).

Those who oppose Islam will be put to shame in the hereafter.

In a very clear statement, we read about the need for fighting.

Make war on them until idolatry shall cease and God’s religion shall reign supreme. (Surah 8:39)

War against the enemies of Allah is certainly sanctioned by the Quran.

Later, in it says in the same Surah,

Prophet, rouse the faithful to arms. If there are twenty steadfast men among you, they shall vanquish two hundred; and if there are a hundred, they shall rout a thousand unbelievers, for they are devoid of understanding. (Surah 8:65)

Obviously, the Quran contains a number of verses supporting the idea of making war on its enemies. The enemies of Islam must be destroyed.

An Offer of Peace, Then War

Under Islamic teaching, before Islam can make war against the infidel with the blessings of Allah, the unbelievers, or infidels, must first be offered an opportunity to submit to the true faith, Islam. In fact, the Quran tells the faith what should be their attitude at the end of this sacred feast of Ramadan.

So when the sacred months have passed away, then slay the idolaters wherever you find them, and take them captives and besiege them and lie in wait for them in every ambush. (Quran, Surah 9:5)

In other words, Islam is telling the infidels to make peace with us now, or eventually we will have to kill you! This is the teaching of the Quran on the subject of jihad.

The Practice of Jihad

We also find jihad practiced in history. When Muhammad was uniting the various tribes of Arabia, his followers were called upon to fight. Those who were defeated had a choice. They could either accept Islam or die. Therefore, the idea of forced conversion has historical precedent in Islam.

There Is Violence in the Hadith

The teaching of jihad or “violent struggle” is not merely something theoretical. We also find violence connected with Muhammad which is documented in the hadith, the oral traditions of Islam which were later put into writing. The most authoritative collection of the hadith is that of Bukhari. Its authority is only second to the Quran. In these traditions, we find Muhammad encouraging such things as the killing of people who left the Islamic faith.

Indeed, he also gave his blessing about attacking a certain camp of infidels at night even though the women and children may be killed. These are not isolated references. It is clear that Muhammad had no problem killing anyone who did not accept the faith he proclaimed. Capital punishment was also given to those who left the faith. Insulting the prophet, whether by a Jew or Muslim, also called for the death sentence. Muhammad was not shy about using violence to achieve his goals.

There Is Violence in Muhammad’s Biography

The earliest biographies of Muhammad were written by Muslims who were sympathetic to him and Islam. They testify to the violent way in which he acted toward those who were outside of the faith. This is consistent with what we know of Muhammad from the Quran and the hadith.

Conclusion on Violence in Islam

From its beginning, Islam has been a violent religion. As we have noted, the Quran has a number of commands about dealing violently with those who are unbelievers. Muhammad practiced what he preached. Indeed, he conquered his enemies by the sword. Those who did not believe his message were executed. The authoritative collections of sayings in the hadith also document his violent tendencies toward unbelievers, toward those who leave the faith, and toward those who insult him. His biography tells the same violent story.

Thus, from the three earliest and most authoritative sources of Islam we find violence taught and practiced. These examples are not exceptions to the rule as some modern day Muslims would like us to believe.

Therefore, we should not think it strange when people commit violent acts in the name of Islam. They are merely following the example and the teaching of the prophet. While this type of behavior may be condemned by the majority of Muslims, it is certainly consistent with what the faith has taught and practiced from its outset. Islam is certainly not a religion of peace though many Muslims are peaceful.

The Christian Response to Jihad

What a contrast we find between the teachings and practice of Islam and the teachings of Jesus Christ with respect to violence. Christians respond to the idea of jihad, or violent struggle, in the following ways.

1. We Are to Love Our Enemies

To begin with, the Bible teaches us to love our enemies, not harm them. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus said the following to His disciples.

“But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you...” (Matthew 5:44 NASB)

This is in complete contrast with Islam and its God who commands his followers to kill their enemies. Jesus told us to love those who hate us.

2. Conversion Cannot Be Forced

One of the main truths we find in the New Testament is that Christian conversion cannot be forced. The gospel, or good news, about Jesus Christ was preached by the early Christians to the unbelievers, not forced upon anyone.

In fact, Jesus Himself told us to walk away, or leave, those who reject the message. We read the following words of Jesus.

“And whoever will not receive you nor hear your words, when you depart from that house or city, shake off the dust from your feet.” (Matthew 10:14 NKJV)

There was no physical punishment, or event the threat of physical punishment, for those who rejected the message of Jesus. Jesus compared listening to His words to opening a door that He is knocking on. He said,

“Behold, I stand at the door and knock; if any one hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and eat with him, and he with me.” (Revelation 3:20 RSV)

While this is written to believers, the principle is still the same. Jesus does not force Himself into the life of anyone. He must be invited in. In Christianity, there is no such thing as a forced conversion. Paul wrote,

That if you confess with your mouth, “Jesus is Lord,” and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For it is with your heart that you believe and are justified, and it is with your mouth that you confess and are saved. (Romans 10:9, 10 NIV)

Forced conversion is contrary to everything Jesus taught or stood for. A person either willingly accepts Christ or they willingly reject Him.

Again, we find the opposite being taught in the Quran. Indeed, if an unbeliever, or infidel, rejects Islam the Quran commands the faithful to, “fight against them until them submit.” If they continue to reject the message of Islam then they are put to death.

3. Jihad Is Not Comparable to the Crusades

Unhappily, many people have been killed in the “name of Christ.” Thus, the Islamic idea of Jihad is often compared to the crusades in Christian history. The unbelievers were killed for not accepting the new religion.

However these comparisons are not valid. The idea of the Crusades was contrary to the teachings of Christianity. Jesus Christ never taught to His followers to spread His Word by means of the sword.

However, the “prophet” Muhammad is the one who led the first jihad for Muslims. Consequently, there is no comparison between the two.

4. God Is the One Who Will Take Vengeance on Our Enemies

The Bible says that God is the One who takes vengeance. Paul wrote to the Romans about who should mete out ultimate justice.

Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God; for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” (Romans 12:19 RSV)

It is not for Christians to seek revenge. This is something which the Lord alone does.

Therefore, Islam and Christianity have a completely different view of this issue of violence. Islam has been a violent religion because its founder practiced violence. In Christianity, violence was practiced toward its founder. Indeed, Christ suffered a violent death.

5. There Is No Eternal Reward in Christianity for Killing One’s Enemies

In Islam, it is taught that there is eternal reward for those who kill their enemies. This is jihad. It must be stressed that jihad is purely an Islamic concept. Indeed, there is no identical belief in either Christianity or Judaism which offers special spiritual benefits to those who die in combat with its enemies. As a matter of fact, there is no doctrine whatsoever of rewards for religious or spiritual combat.

In the Old Testament, we read of the nation Israel going to war with their enemies. However, this is to protect and defend the land which God gave them; it was not to extend their borders beyond that limited territory. There was no idea or plan to force their religion on the neighboring nations through conquest. This is not how their religion was to expand.

Islam, on the other hand, is attempting worldwide conquest. If necessary, it will be through force. This is completely at odds with Christianity. The Bible teaches that conversion is not accomplished though military force but rather through the work of God the Holy Spirit in the lives of individuals. The Bible-believing Christian does not threaten potential converts with physical harm if they reject the gospel of Christ.

Again, we find the opposite being taught in the Quran. Indeed, if an unbeliever, or infidel, rejects Islam the Quran commands the faithful to, “fight against them until them submit.” If they continue to reject the message of Islam then they are put to death.

In sum, there is complete contrast to the idea of conversion in Christianity and Islam. Indeed, they could not be more different.

Summary – Question 17
What Is Jihad or Holy War? (Violence in Islam)

Islam has a concept of Jihad, or holy war. The idea is that if infidels will not listen to reason, then as a last resort, Muslims must resort to Jihad or holy war to convert them. Muhammad himself forced people to convert by means of the sword. This is consistent with the commands set down in the Quran, the holy book of Islam.

The practice of violence is also documented in the authoritative traditions of Islam, the hadith. According to this authoritative Islamic source, Muhammad encouraged violence even toward the women and children of unbelievers. The references are not isolated.

The earliest biographies that were written about Muhammad also come from Islamic sources. They are considered as accurate accounts of his deeds. These biographies chronicle the violence that was a continuing part of his life and ministry until the very end.

This consistent history of violence explains why certain people today will commit terrorist acts in the name of Islam. They believe they are following in the footsteps of the prophet towards those who are oppressing Muslims. This is in contrast to Jesus Christ. Instead of killing our enemies, He said that we are to love them. The Bible portrays Jesus as knocking on the door of our hearts, not trying to force Himself in. Indeed, as we search the New Testament we find no such thing as forced conversions. If a person believes in Jesus Christ it is because they choose to believe not because they are forced to believe. Those who are Christians are those who have willingly trusted Christ.

Furthermore, Jihad cannot be compared to the Crusades. Muhammad set the example of Jihad while the Crusades went against the teachings of Christ when it comes to exacting violence on our enemies. Vengeance, therefore, is something that the Lord does, not His people.

In sum, the two faiths, Christianity and Islam, could not be more different when it comes to actions toward our enemies. One religion encourages violence in certain situations while the other tells us to “turn the other cheek.”

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