Jihãd in the Koran

The Koran does not discuss a single Islamic tenet systematically and in conformity with the arrangement of its chapters. The combined body of Revelations from Allah which constitute the Holy Book of Islam appeared to the Prophet without any logical sequence during the 23 years of his prophetic career (609 to 632 AD), and this fact accounts for its haphazard arrangement. The Koran has 114 chapters and some six thousand verses. The verses of jihãd, like those explaining any other doctrine, remain spread over a great many chapters. This is the reason why, to an ordinary reader, the knowledge of any and every Islamic doctrine appears difficult, the doctrine of jihãd being no exception.

A second and more important reason for the difficulty is that the Koranic verses do not deliver their full meaning without a knowledge of their relevance in the Prophet’s career. The Koran is not the only source book of Islam, the so-called Hadis1 collections share that role equally. In Arabic the plural of hadîs is ahãdîs; these describe what the Prophet did or what he said. As a Muslim would put it, these narrate the Prophet’s Sunnah (practice of the Prophet). In one sense, the importance of the Hadis literature in the life of a Muslim is even greater than that of the Koran. A Koranic text might admit of different meanings. Certainly different commentators could suggest different meanings of the same Koranic verse. But the relevant hadîs, in explaining its meaning as exemplified in the Prophet’s practice, renders the meaning unique for all time to come.2

Besides the Hadis, another source book for the Sunnah are the so-called siyar (plural of sîrah) or the biographies of the Prophet. These do not belong to the body of Islam’s canonical literature but in so far as the events described in them are considered genuine by the ulema or the collectors of the Hadis, these bring out the meaning of Koranic verses even more clearly than the Hadis. Thus the genuine biographies of the Prophet are important source books for Sunnah.

After these preliminary remarks the reader must understand that the literal meaning of jihãd is ‘effort’ or ‘striving’ - a meaning, to all intents and purposes, unrelated to the sanguinary activities with which the word has become inextricably woven. The technical expression used in the Koran is jihãd fi Sabilillah, ‘effort in the way of Allah’. But even this expression does not explicitly mention any sanguinary conflict, and if we concentrate on meanings of words alone, we are likely to be led astray. When closely examined, the eighth sûrah (chapter) of the Koran, the Sûrah Anfãl, and the ninth sûrah entitled Taubah are the truly jihadic sûrahs. But jihãd is enjoined in many other chapters. Perhaps the most significant verse in this connection is Koran 8/39 which, in meaning, is almost identical with Koran 2/193.

These declare: “Fight them until persecution is no more and religion is all for Allah.”

In other words, Allah in 8/39 and 2/193 enjoins perpetual war for the destruction of the persecuting Koreish of Mecca, and, by the same token, for the abolition of all non-Islamic religions the world over.3 This according to the Koran is the best ‘striving in the way of Allah’. This is Jihãd fi Sabilillah in its most comprehensive meaning.

(2) Is this war allegorical?  Since Mahatma Gandhi’s allegorical explanation of the Kurukshetra war, it has been the fashion in India to consider all types of religious wars as wars against the baser passions of the human mind. The contagion has not spared even Muslim scholars who are sometimes heard giving a nonviolent interpretation of jihãd. But such explanation is clearly contrary to Koranic verses. In the 74th verse of Sûrah Nisã, Allah says very clearly:

“Let those fight in the way of Allah who sell the life of this world for the other. Who so fighteth in the way of Allah, be he slain or victorious, on him we shall bestow a vast reward.”

This verse clearly shows that there is nothing allegorical or metaphysical in the nature of war that is jihãd; it is armed war and nothing else. The idea has been further explained in another verse which says:

“Hast thou not seen those unto whom it was said: Withhold your hands and establish worship and pay the poor-due?  But when fighting was prescribed for them, behold! a party of them fear mankind even as they fear Allah or with greater fear, and say: Our Lord! why hast Thou ordained fighting for us? If only Thou wouldst give us respite for a while. I Say: The comfort of this world is scant; the Hereafter will be better for him that
wardeth off evil” (K 4/77).

This verse describes the benefits of jihãd to be enjoyed in the hereafter. Also it clearly shows that, instead of “withholding one’s hand”, jihãd requires the waging of unremitting armed conflict. Obviously, this verse descended for the instruction of those Muslims who had been pleading against bloodshed and wanting “respite” from the duty of engaging in murderous confrontations. Historically too this verse is rather important. Before the Migration (to Medina) the number of Muslims (in Mecca) was not large, but even among that small number there were war-mongers whom Allah had to restrain as the issue of war in Mecca was dim. This comes out clearly in the first half of the verse. On the other hand, if the traditional date of the sûrah to which the whole verse belongs be accepted, the second half of the verse shows that after the reverse at the Battle of Uhud (625 AD), the Muslims of Medina wanted to settle down to a peaceful existence. This second half was intended to rouse them to renewed warlike effort, and to revive their drooping spirits. Not only that. The verse seems to imply that over and above the war-mongers there existed a body of Muslims who were essentially peace-living, and it required all the eloquence of Allah and his Prophet to rouse them and goad them into unflinching bloodshed. The lure of a felicitous hereafter was held up before them, and it was made clear that the abrogation of Meccan pacifism was final and irrevocable.

(3) The extent of violence and bloodshed permitted in jihãd is also clearly stated in the Koran. The 5th verse of Sûrah Taubah makes no bones about the matter. Allah says in so many words:

“When the sacred months have passed, slay the idolaters wherever ye find them, and take them, besiege them and prepare for them each ambush. But if they repent and establish worship and pay the poor-due, then leave their way free.”

The meaning of this verse is clear enough. “Profess Islam or else die” - such is the upshot of this verse expressed in the most transparent language possible.4 But clearer even than this is the declaration embodied in the 67th verse of Sûrah Anfãl, which says: “It is not for any Prophet to have captives until he hath made slaughter in the land.  Ye desire the lure of this world but Allah desireth (for you) the hereafter.”

The historical background of this particular verse is important. Every student of Islamic history knows that the first landmark in the world-conquering mission of Islam was the Battle of Badr (624 AD). For the Koreishite idolaters of Mecca who fell into Muslim hands in that war, a proposal was mooted that all those captives be let off in lieu of adequate ransom. The idea was to earn some money by sparing the lives of the captured Koreish. Historians attribute this proposal to have originated from Abu Bakr. Another suggestion came from Umar who would have all the idolaters slaughtered. The Prophet accepted Abu Bakr’s suggestion and, after killing a handful, let off the rest of the prisoners in lieu of some ransom money. Evidently this was not to the liking of Allah who would have a “slaughter in the land” rather than that his devotees should opt for “the lure of this world” - an expression which evidently stands for the ransom money accepted by the Prophet. As Mohammed Pickthall puts it, “The Prophet took the verses as a reproof, and they are generally understood to mean that no quarter ought to have been given in that first battle.” The sanguinary nature of jihãd comes out in this episode with the uttermost clarity.

(4) A variant of this ransom money was the famous jizyah or poll-tax or capitation-tax as it has been variously rendered.5 The Revelation enjoining the institution of this tax also occurs in the Koran. Sûrah Taubah declares with thunderous clarity:

“Fight against such of those who have been given the Scripture as believe not in Allah nor the last day, and forbid not that which Allah hath forbidden by His Messenger and follow not the religion of truth, until they pay the tribute (jizya) readily,6 being brought low” (K 9/29).

This verse is of the greatest historical significance, and to explain it we must first of all know the meaning of the expression “those who have been given the Scripture”. The Arabic original of the expression, Ahl-ul-Kitãb, and the Indian variant Kitãbî as also the English phrase ‘People of the Book’, are also important.

In orthodox Islam the term Kitãbî stands for Jews and Christians. This is because the Koran recognises the Jewish Scripture Taurãt (=Old Testament) and the Christian Gospels Injîl (=Evangel=New Testament) as Revelations equally authentic with the Koran but superseded, as this very verse indicates, only by the latter. The non-Kitãbîs or non-Scriptuaries of the world are, in the Koran, designated as mushrik (=idolaters). With this explanation, the verse in question simply states that the lives of Scriptuaries may be spared in jihãd, provided they pay the poll-tax “in humility and with their own hands”. The verse is silent regarding idolaters; it does not specify if their lives too can be spared in lieu of jizyah. But as mentioned earlier, Islamic tenets do not derive from the Koran alone. There occur ahãdîs - not recognised by all the schools of Islamic jurisprudence - which are supposed to mention the letting off by the Prophet of certain idolatrous (non-Arab) tribes in lieu of the poll-tax. The ulema, even to this day, are not unanimous whether Hindus deserve such immunity, even though the Sultans and Padishahs of Delhi had granted it by recognising their Hindu subjects as kharãjguzãr (=payer of the poll-tax) and zimmî (=held in tutelage). Even the fanatical Aurangzeb did not controvert this usage.

(5) Not only the poll-tax or ransom money. Another fruit of jihãd is ‘plunder’ or ‘spoils of ghanîmah’ as the Koran puts it. The 69th verse of Sûrah Anfãl declares:

“Eat ye the spoils of war. They are lawful and pure.”7

This injunction regarding “spoils of war” will be taken up in detail in a subsequent chapter. For the present it will suffice to mention that this injunction is part of the group of injunctions laid down in the Koran on the subject of jihãd.

To sum up, the following are the rules and instructions regarding jihãd as laid down in the Koran:

(a) The ultimate object of jihãd is to Islamize the whole of humanity. Since the Prophet’s sojourn in Medina, this duty has been permanently enjoined on Muslims over the length and breadth of the world.

(b) The immediate objects of jihãd are four in number: (1) spread of Islam by war; (2) the destruction of infidels; (3) jizyah; and (4) plunder.8

(c) For Scriptuaries the imposition of jizyah is the rule, just as for idolaters the rule is mass-slaughter. But there are many exceptions to this general rule. Mass-slaughter of Jews in jihãd is eminently permissible, as the subsequent chapters will show. On the other hand, even idolaters can be let off on payment of the poll-tax. The Koran has not published any rigorous rule regarding these matters.

(d) Jihãd is by no means a war for self-defence. Historically the verse “kill the idolaters wherever you find them” (K 9/5) forms an item in the ‘immunity’ granted to the Prophet in 631 AD regarding his obligations to the idolaters of Arabia. But as in every verse of the Koran, the implication of such immunity in respect of a particular set of infidels embraced in due course idolaters of any and every country of the world. Such an injunction is necessarily informed with the spirit of extreme aggressiveness. For those who plead that the call of jihãd is an injunction for self-defence, the so-called immunity verses of the 9th sûrah are the best refutation; but there are many other verses which confute the plea.

In conclusion it is only necessary to add that according to the Koran, the duty of jihãd for any and every Muslim of the world preponderates over all other Islamic duties. This is brought out most clearly in verses 9/19-22, but these are by no means the only verses with a similar import.

In these verses Allah makes an estimate of the relative excellence of a Muslim who engages in jihãd as contrasted with another who is engaged in pacific Islamic duties:

“Count ye the slaking of a pilgrim’s thirst and tendence of the Inviolable Place of Worship (i.e. the Ka’ba) as (equal to the worth of him) who believeth in Allah and the Last Day, and striveth in the way of Allah (i.e. engages in jihãd)? They are not equal in the sight of Allah… Those who believe and have left their homes and striven with their wealth and their lives in the way of Allah are of much greater worth in Allah’s sight” (K 9/19-22).

The meaning of these verses is clear enough. The “greater worth” of the mujãhid “in the sight of Allah” necessarily renders him fit to obtain a greater reward here as well as hereafter. The reward here is an exclusive share in the spoils of war which is denied to the sedentary Muslim.9 The reward hereafter is everlasting residence in the highest heaven which the Hadis literature designates as Jannãt-ul firdaus. It is to that literature that we must turn now to see how Allah’s injunctions are confirmed and, in fact, added to in the Prophet’s Sunnah.


1 Literally hadîs means a report. In Islam’s technical vocabulary it stands for any report of the Prophet’s actions or sayings as embodied in canonical collections also called the Hadis in a collective sense.

2 Even ahãdîs at times are found to be conflicting. We need not go into this.

3 Cf. N. J. Dawood’s rendering of the same verse, “Make war on them until idolatry is no more and Allah’s religion reigns supreme”, brings out the meaning more explicitly.

4 For the historical context of this verse see Chapter 10.

5 Literally it means ‘retribution tax’ - the retribution for obstinacy in refusing to renounce kufr (infidelity).

6 For ‘readily’ most versions have ‘with their own hands’. Actually in the law books the prescription is that jizyah has to be paid in person.

7 This rendering is by Abdul Hamid Siddiqi, the translator of Sahih Muslim. Pickthall renders ‘the spoils of war’ as ‘what you have won’. This seems to be wrong.font face="Times New Roman,Times">

8 ‘Plunder’ in jihãd is actually twofold in nature. Plunder of property as well as enslavement of the female and child population of the vanquished infidels are both recognized as ghanîmah.

9 Vide also Koran 4/95 where sedentary Muslims are specifically mentioned and shrugged off.

Back to Contents Page   Back to VOI Books   Back to Home