Seeds of Jihad - Part 1

Part 2 of this series can be read here

The deepest source of Islamic terrorism lies in theology. Formed in response to events in the Prophet's lifetime, there are problematic aspects to Islamic theology and practice not found in two other great world religions, Christianity and Buddhism.  Unless we squarely face those aspects, we outsiders will be unprepared to encourage reform or, short of that, to win our survival.

Muhammad had difficult relations with the Meccans, and this generated theological and moral ambiguities or "seeds" that were planted in the Qur'an and early traditions. Sadly, but not surprisingly, these ambiguities are exploited by terrorists, such as Osama bin Laden and the Palestinian terrorists, who take them to extremes. Three paths taken by Muhammad have created interpretation and application problems for his later followers.

(1) Muhammad followed the Arab custom of retaliation for a perceived wrong.

The two earliest passages in the Qur'an showing the development of jihad ("holy war") are 22:39-40, which was revealed around Muhammad's Hijrah (Emigration) from Mecca to Medina, where he arrived on September 24, 622 AD; and 2:190-191, which seems to have been received around the same time. We use the translation of a traditional Muslim apologist* Maulana Muhammad Ali.

22:39 Permission (to fight) is given to those on whom war is made, because they are oppressed. And surely Allah is Able to assist them-

40 Those who are driven from their homes without a just cause except that they say: Our Lord is Allah. And if Allah did not repel some people by others, cloisters, and churches, and synagogues, and mosques in which Allah's name is much remembered, would have been pulled down. And surely Allah will help him who helps Him . . . .

In verse 39 Allah tells Muhammad that he and his followers were driven from their homes "without a just cause"; therefore, he and his followers are justified in retaliating. However, Muhammad did not have enough strength to strike. He moved to Mecca. 

It is related by a later commentator that Abu Bakr, one of the earliest Companions and later the successor of Muhammad, knew that when he heard these two verses, fighting between the Muslims and the Meccans would break out. Thus, Muhammad had it in his mind, before arriving in Medina, to attack the Meccans after he got settled in his new city. 

The second passage that shows the early development and justification of jihad runs as follows:

2:190 And fight in the way of Allah against those who fight against you but be not aggressive. Surely Allah loves not the aggressors. 191 And kill them wherever you find them, and drive them out from where they drive you out, and persecution is worse than slaughter. And fight not with them at the Sacred Mosque [the Ka'bah] until they fight with you in it; so if they fight you (in it), slay them. Such is the recompense of the disbelievers . . . 193 Fight them until there is no persecution, and religion is only for Allah. 

A puzzling line is found in 191: persecution is worse than slaughter. The puzzle lies in the obvious fact that persecution is generally considered milder than slaughter, but traditional and apologetic Muslim commentators explain that in this context persecution means that hindering believers from following Allah is worse than slaughter because truth is greater than life (cf. 2:217) and that persecution entailed persistent murder and torture, though modern, objective scholarship says that is far from certain. Indeed, those puzzling words seem to support the modern, objective view, because they imply that Muhammad suffered mere persecution and was still alive, but later he would inflict death on some Meccans and was justified in doing so.

Verse 193 says that Muhammad could not ignore the polytheists and their sacred shrine, the Ka'bah, which was located near Mecca, until religion is only for Allah. Apparently peaceful means such as preaching were insufficiently persuasive, and largely unwelcome in Mecca before his Emigration.

Moderate Muslims today use these two passages to show that Islam is a peaceful religion until it is attacked: Be not aggressive (190). Thus, Maulana in his biography of Muhammad (Muhammad the Prophet, 1924, 1993) goes out of his way to show all of the abuses that Muhammad and his followers suffered, but never any problems that occur the moment anyone picks up the sword to wield it. Maulana seems to set up a very high standard that is difficult to defend. The logic:

(1) Every event in Muhammad's life that appears aggressive and excessive is really defensive and justified.

(2) (Fill in any historical event that appears aggressive or excessive, e.g. the raids on caravans or the execution of around 600 Jews; both discussed below)

(3) Therefore, that event is really defensive and justified.Even if we set aside the debate over historical facts and accept the traditional Muslim belief that Muhammad and even his followers never initiated aggression, then that still lands Islam in moral ambiguities, as they (justly) retaliated.

For example, If persecution is worse than slaughter, how does one measure a proportional response? Muhammad had around 600 male Jews executed after the Battle of the Trench in March 627. Would those Jews agree that persecution is worse than slaughter? Thus, how does a general reader interpret this line? Worse, how could terrorists interpret and apply it, and on what epistemological grounds? Granted that a holy man like Muhammad is part of his own culture, when should he nonetheless rise above it, at least above the difficult customs like revenge and blood-feuds? These ambiguities are so difficult that they may not have an answer today.

(2) Muhammad engaged in the Arab custom of raids and blood-feuds, which he elevated to jihad.

Throughout the year 623, Muhammad sent out a series of expeditions that harassed Meccan caravans, but these ventures, of which he approved and thus incorporated into his religion, never amounted to anything, because the armed guards were too many and the Muslims too few. Be that as it may, these raids were elevated to a jihad, a holy war.

Muhammad's jihadists got a lucky strike in January 624, when they captured a caravan south of Mecca. The Meccans did not expect this deft attack (since Medina was about 200 miles to the north of Mecca), so they had only four guards. The spoils were taken back to Medina and eventually divided up. The non-Muslim Medinans were understandably upset because Muhammad had spilled some blood. They knew that Mecca would have to retaliate in order to restore its honor. So what was Muhammad's justification? 

It was in February that Muhammad got his revelations about the Ka'bah in Qur'an 2:142-144 (see 2:191), which says the Meccans do not own it because Abraham and Ishmael rebuilt and purified it centuries ago. Since the Muslims are the true representatives of the Abrahamic religions, the Ka'bah belongs to them. He also probably reminded the Medinans that the Meccans had persecuted the Muslims, and persecution is worse than slaughter

Clearly, then, revelation trumps history, an epistemological path that is always suspect. This will spawn many difficulties in the future, such as Islam's claim to Jerusalem today, but that problem will be discussed in another article in the series.

Also, an objective observer could draw the conclusion-an interpretive problem-that these raids had nothing to do with revenge for persecution, but were simply collecting spoils. (The title of sura 8 can be translated as "The Spoils of War," after the Battle of Badr in March 624, see #3.) Indeed, one can conclude that the raids could have triggered the backlash of increased persecution of the Muslims still living in Mecca after Muhammad's Emigration.

These raids elicit other ambiguities. Are they equal to the persecution in Mecca? Who decides? The leader with the more effective army? What kind of message does this send to later followers, and how could they (mis)interpret and (mis)apply it?

(3) From these raids early Islam becomes an expansionist religion which uses the sword. 

In Muhammad's search for control over Mecca, religion, politics, military force and culture mixed, since Mecca was more than a religious prize, but a center for further expansion, whether by diplomacy, proclamation, trade, or the sword. 

In March 624, the Battle of Badr was waged near Medina, a battle that devout Muslims regard as a miracle. Muhammad had learned of a large caravan returning to Mecca from Gaza, so he prepared to intercept it. A spy informed the Meccans of Muhammad's plan, so they mustered an army of around 950, whereas the Muslims numbered just over 300. Despite the numerical disparity, the Muslims won and took the spoils of war back to Medina. 

As to Muhammad's leadership of a new religious movement, that victory dispelled the doubt of many back in Medina. Muhammad and his followers were elated. More joined the Muslim community. He believed that God was on his side.

However, Mecca could not let their defeat stand unanswered. Their trade and the Ka'bah's draw depended on recovering their honor.

The next big conflict, the Battle of the Trench in March 627, named after a trench that the Muslims dug to the north of Medina, resulted in a victory for the 3,000 unified Muslims over 10,000 squabbling Meccans and their allies. Mecca was never able to mount an adequate riposte after that. In March 628, Muhammad secured a treaty with the Meccans so that, among other provisions, the Muslims could go on a pilgrimage to the Ka'bah. 

So in March 629, Muhammad and 2,000 Muslims went on a lesser pilgrimage, and the Meccans had to vacate Mecca, according to the terms of the treaty. Then Muhammad returned home without difficulty. 

However, in November 629, an old tribal conflict erupted, this time in a Muslim-Meccan setting. One tribe (the Khuza'ah) claimed an alliance with Muhammad, and someone of the rival tribe (the Bakr ibn-'Abd-Manat), who were allied with the Meccans, wrote some disparaging verses about Muhammad. Some from the Muslim tribe killed the author, so some from the Meccan tribe ambushed a few from the Muslim tribe. 

The offense of mockery was taken seriously in this time, for even Muhammad had two prisoners from the Battle of Badr executed, one of whom wrote disparaging verses about the Prophet, the other claiming that his own stories about Persia were as good as the Qur'an. 

The Meccans halted the feud and sent an embassy to Muhammad in Medina, which hinted, beyond the immediate tribal dispute, that Mecca itself was weak. Therefore, in January 630 Muhammad sent an army of 10,000 Muslims from Medina and from tribes that had recently converted or formed alliances with him, and Mecca capitulated without a fight. Muhammad at last purged of idols the Meccan sacred shrine, the Ka'bah, claiming it and Mecca as his own. 

Clearly, then, the conquest of Mecca was done by the sword, with the assistance of a little diplomacy. Thereafter, the city was used as a launching pad for the eventual unification (Islamification) of Arabia. It is no wonder that the Saudi flag today has a sword on it.

For the third point, traditionally, Muslims believe that the breaking of the truce involved hindrance from going to the Ka'bah and other forms of persecution and assert that therefore Muhammad was not the aggressor. Even if we concede that assertion, the ambiguities still abound.

Is the tribal breaking of a truce really equal to the total conquest of Mecca? How could present followers interpret that sunna or path and apply it to their own times? These early jihads in the name of Allah, whether just or unjust, mean that military is part of politics and culture and religion in Islam. Should a prophet like Muhammad have immersed himself so deeply in the politics and military battles and conquests of his culture?

Moreover, Muhammad's policies contrast strongly with those of the Founders of Christianity and Buddhism, two other "universalizing" (missionary) religions. They never mixed politics, religion, and military in practice. Neither one ever picked up a sword to use it because Jesus was concerned with a spiritual, heavenly kingdom, and the Buddha was concerned with taming the inner kingdom.

Then for two centuries or more Christianity and Buddhism spread by peaceful proclamation and example. However, later followers, such as Constantine in the West, used the sword, but the institutional genetic code was already set by the Founders, who rose above their cultures and followed peace. Success followed them.

These three points have ramifications for the troubles of today. The ambiguities in Muhammad's policies are the "seeds" of future ambiguities on the part of terrorists today, who wield the sword against the Great Satan (America or the West). 

Even if one has been wronged first and is therefore justified in waging jihad, how does one match the original offense? Does this give later jihadists permission to wage their own wars? What exactly is sufficient provocation so that they believe they are justified in striking back? Who decides and on what interpretive grounds? Is the flying of jets into buildings proportional to infidels living in Saudi Arabia or Jews living in Israel, two oft-repeated complaints of Osama bin Laden? 

The answers to these questions surely are far from clear for Muslims and us, living in the new millennium.

 * The theological usage of "apologist" means "defender."

Copyright (c) by James Malcolm Arlandson and used by permission. Originally published at, and later slightly edited for Answering Islam.

Other articles by James Arlandson

Christian Debater™ P.O. Box 144441 Austin, TX 78714