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Written by Louay Safi   
Oct 02, 2001 at 02:00 PM
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Peace and the Limits or War
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Chapter 2




The doctrine of jihad was developed in the first three centuries of Islam, and was influenced by the political structure of the day.


We argue in this chapter that the ideas and doctrines advanced by early Muslim jurists were shaped, on the one hand, by the political organization of the Islamic polity, which recognized the moral autonomy of the various religious and ethnic communities that comprised it, and, on the other hand, by the imperial politics of Byzantine.


The classical doctrine of jihad, and its corollary theory of the Two Territories, are the products of their time, and should be understood as such.


Classical Doctrine of Jihad

Although the rules and principles pertaining to relations between Islamic and non-Islamic states date back to the early Madinan period, the Islamic classical doctrine of war and peace was developed by Muslim jurists (fuqaha) during the Abbasid era. The tenets of the doctrine can be found either in general law corpora under headings such as jihad, peace treaties, aman, or in certain special studies such as al Kharaj (land tax), al Siyar (biography/ history), etc. The work of the Muslim jurists consists mainly of rules and principles concerning the initiation and prosecution of war, rules and principles that have been predicated on a specific perception of the role and objectives of the Islamic state in respect to other states.


Classical Muslim scholars often equated the notion of jihad with that of war. The conception of jihad failed to capture the full range of its rich meaning, thereby reducing in effect the act of jihad into the act of war. While the Qur'an often uses the word jihad in reference to the act of war, it gives the term broader meaning. The term jihad was first introduced in the Makkan Qur'anic--verses (29:6,69) and (25:52)--long before the Muslims were permitted to fight. In the Makkan period, the term jihad was used in reference to the peaceful struggle in the cause of God: 


And those who make jihad in Our (cause), We will certainly guide them to Our paths  (29:69)


And whoever makes jihad he does so for his own soul . . . (29:6)


Therefore, listen not to the unbelievers, but make jihad against them with the utmost strenuousness, with (the Qur'an). (25:52)


These three verses direct the Muslims to patiently persevere in the face of Quraysh persecution and oppression, and to use propaganda and means of persuasion to reach out and expand the truth of Islam. It follows that fighting and using military tactics is only one of several avenues through which the duty of jihad can be discharged. The methodology of jihad includes, among other things, peaceful resistance and perseverance against oppression and tyranny, if the general conditions of the moment indicate that this approach is the most effective way to achieve the objectives of the Muslim community.


The classical doctrine of war and peace is founded on three essential propositions:


1.      The world is divided into two territories: dar al lslam (the territory of Islam), the area subject to Islamic law, and dar al Harb (the territory of war), the area not yet brought under Islamic rule. (al Shafi'i adds a third territory, dar al 'ahd or the territory of covenant. His third category however is superfluous, for he stipulates that a non-Islamic state may enter into a peace treaty with the Islamic state only if it renders an annual tribute jizyah; this stipulation puts him therefore on the same footing with other classical writers).


2. The dar al lslam is under permanent jihad obligation until the dar al Harb is reduced to nonexistence. Jihad is, thus, the instrument of the Islamic state to propagandize Islam and expand the territory wherein Islamic law is enforced.


3. Peaceful coexistence between dar al lslam and dar al Harb is possible only when the latter renders an annual tribute of jizyah (poll tax) to the former.


The classical doctrine of war and peace has persisted over the centuries with few minor and sporadic alterations. The tenets of this doctrine have been handed down unchallenged, despite several grave flaws in its development and despite its violation of some essential Islamic principles. As will be argued later, this may, in part, be attributed to the political conditions existing at the time the doctrine was articulated and developed; conditions which prevailed throughout much of Muslim history.


According to the classical Muslim jurists, a permanent state of war exists between dar al  Islam and dar al Harb. War, however, is divided into two types. First, war of extermination against polytheists who have two options from which to choose: To either accept Islam or be extinguished. Second, war of reconciliation against the People of the Book who have three possibilities to face: To accept Islam and, thus, be left alone, to pay the jizyah, in which case they are entitled to retain their religion and enjoy Muslim protection, or to fight the Muslim army. It is clear that war, according to the foregoing view, is the normal state of things, and that peaceful relations between the Islamic and non-Islamic states is contingent on the acceptance of Islam by the non-Islamic states or their payment of annual tributes to the Islamic state.


War of Domination

The classical position, in response to the principles of war and peace, has been primarily predicated on three Qur'anic verses and on one hadith:


And fight them on until there is no more Fitnah (tumult oppression or persecution) and religion should be only for Allah. (2:193)


But when the forbidden months are past, then fight and slay the polytheists wherever you find them, and seize them, beleaguer them, and lie in wait for them in every stratagem (of war), but if they repent, and establish salah (regular prayer) and pay their due Zakah, then open the way to them, for Allah is Oft-forgiving, Most Merciful. (9:5)


Fight those who believe neither in Allah nor the last day, nor forbid not what was forbidden by Allah and His Messenger, nor acknowledge the religion of Truth, (even if they are) of the People of the Book (earlier revelations, i.e., the Jews and the Christians) until they pay the jizyah with willing submission and feel subdued. (9:29) 


I have been commanded to fight the people until they say: "There is no god but Allah." When they say that, then their lives and property are inviolable to me, except (in the case when) the (law of) Islam allows it (to take them). They will be answerable to Allah.


The first verse, revealed in Madinah, has been construed by some Muslim jurists and commentators as obligating Muslims to fight non-Muslims until the latter embrace Islam in the case of the polytheists, or pay jizyah, in the case of the "People of the Book:' In other words, the verse has been considered as a general rule (hukm 'am) which must be interpreted in association with the particular rules revealed in the verses (9:5) and (9:29). The verse has been interpreted, in practical terms, to mean that non-Muslims should be either forced to accept Islam or be dominated by the Islamic state. Yet the immediate and direct interpretation is that the Muslims should fight non-Muslims until the latter cease attacking or persecuting them.  The second interpretation is not only more plausible and coherent, but also the only possible explication (ta'wil) of the verse when read in its context.


Fight in the cause of Allah those who fight you, but do not commit aggression, for Allah loves not aggressors. (2:190)


And slay them wherever ye catch them, and turn them out from where they have turned you out; for persecution is worse than slaughter . . . (2:191)


But if they cease, Allah is Oft-forgiving, Most Merciful. (2:192)


And fight them on until there is no fitnah and the religion is only for Allah, but if they cease, let there be no hostility except to those who practice oppression. (2:193)


The verses begin by commanding Muslims to fight those who initiate war against them, emphasizing that Muslims should never be the aggressive party. The term 'udwan, translated here as "aggression," is used in the Qur'an to indicate the instigation of hostility.  Some jurists claim that the verse, "fight in the cause of Allah who fight you. . ." is abrogated (mansukh) by the verses of Surah Bara'ah, a claim rejected by other jurists and scholars, including Ibn 'Abbas, 'Umar ibn 'Abd al 'Aziz, Mujahid, and others, who assert that it is firm rule(muhkam). Al Tabari, who also holds that the verse is not abrogated, chooses the interpretation of 'Umar ibn 'Abd al 'Aziz, who construed the verse to mean: "Do not fight those who do not fight you, meaning women, children, and monks."l0 Although 'Umar limits the application of this verse only to women, children, and monks, the verse itself provides a general rule which includes those who do not fight or show hostility against Muslims. As it will be argued later, the particularization (takhsis) made by 'Umar, had not been induced by the statement of the text ('ibarah al nass), but rather by historical and practical considerations.


The next verse (2:191) posits the reason for which the Muslims had been instructed to declare war against the Pagan Arabs, i.e., to avenge the wrong inflicted by the latter who had fought the Muslims, driven them out of their homes, and persecuted them for professing Islam.


The final verse (2:193), prescribes the objective of war as the neutralization of the oppressive regimes that prevent people from choosing their belief and religion. It is clear from this verse that war should be carried out against the individuals and institutions that practice oppression and persecute people; not to force and coerce people into Islam. The same verse, therefore, instructs the Muslims to terminate the fighting as soon as this goal has been achieved. In other words, the previous four verses prescribe fighting only against oppressors and tyrants who use force to prevent people from freely professing or practicing their religion.


Let us now examine the verses of Surah Bara'ah, which some Muslim jurists consider to be the final words of the Qur'an  concerning the principles governing the initiation of war vis-a-vis non-Muslims. Jurists are divided as to whether these verses abrogate other Qur'anic verses that address the initiation of war. Those who claim that the verses abrogate other verses on the subject base their judgement on the grounds that these verses embody general rules which cancel any other preceding rules. The abrogation, thus, is not predicated on textual evidence (nass), but rather on reasoning and speculation. It follows that the question of abrogation is a matter of opinion and, as such, is subject to discussion and refutation. "If there exists a dispute among the Muslim scholars as to whether a specific rule is subject to abrogation," al Tabari explains, "we cannot determine that the rule is abrogated unless evidence is presented." Needless to say, al Tabari means by evidence, a statement provided by the Qur'an or the Sunnah in support of the claim of abrogation. Otherwise the evidence is but another scholar's opinion.


The verses of Surah Bara'ah explicitly declare that the Muslims are to fight the polytheists until they embrace Islam:


.  . slay the mushrikin (polytheists) wherever you find them, and seize them, beleaguer them, and lie in wait for them in every stratagem (of war); but if they repent, and establish Salah and pay Zakah, then open the way for them. . . (9:5)


The word mushrikin (sing. mushrik) in this context indicates specifically the Pagan Arabs l3 as it can be inferred from the first verse, which reads:


A declaration of disavowal from Allah and His Messenger to those of the mushrikin with whom you contracted a Mutual alliance. (9:1)


The reason for this all-out war against the Pagan Arabs was their continuous fight and conspiracy against the Muslims to turn them out of Madinah as they had been turned out of Makkah, and their infidelity to and disregard for the covenant they had made with the Muslims:


Why you not fight people who violated their oaths, plotted to expel the Messenger, and attacked you first . . . (9:13)


It could be said that what matters here is not the specific circumstances of the revelation, but the general implication of the text, as it is generally accepted in the principles of Islamic jurisprudence (Usul al fiqh). The response for this argument is that the particularity (takhsis) of the previous verse is determined not by the circumstance of its revelation, but by its intent (hikmah al nass), which is also generally acceptable for limiting the application of the text. "It should be noticed," 'Abd al Wahhab Khallaf wrote,


that the intent of the text is to be distinguished from the circumstance of its revelation, for Muslim jurisprudents are on consensus (ijma) that the intent of the text may be used for limiting its application, with no dissention by any of them, while the circumstance of its revelation is what they refer to when they say: "What matters is the general implication of the text, not the circumstance of its revelation."


Therefore, the verses 1-14 of Surah Bara'ah can be applied only to Pagan Arabs who lived at the time of the Prophet. The reason they had to be coerced into Islam was that they were hostile to Muslims and had disregarded their oaths and plotted against the Islamic state in Madinah. This understanding is reinforced by the verse (9:4) exempting those who were faithful to their treaties with the Muslims:


(But the treaties are) not dissolved with those Pagans with whom you have entered into covenant and who have not subsequently failed you in aught; nor aided anyone against you. So fulfill your engagements with them to the end of their term: For Allah loves the righteous. (9:4)


The previous argument can be also applied to the hadith: "I have been commanded to fight people until they declare that there is no god but Allah." The word "people" here implies the Pagan Arabs only. For if the word is interpreted to be all-inclusive, the rule embodied in this hadith should be also applied to the Byzantine Christians and the Persian Zoroastrians (majus). But since this is not the case, the word "people" has an exclusive meaning and implicates only the Pagan Arabs. This explication is supported by another hadith reported by 'Abddullah ibn 'Umar ibn al Khat tab, who narrated that the Prophet (SAAS) said:


I have been commanded to fight people until they declare that there is no god but Allah and that Muhammad is the Messenger of Allah, establish the Salah (prayers), and pay the zakah. If they did that, their lives and property are inviolable to me, except (in case when) the (law of) Islam allows it (to take them). They will be answerable to Allah.


Clearly the word "people" here implies only the Pagan Arabs who, according to Surah Bara'ah are to be forced to accept Islam. For obviously the word cannot be considered to include all people, since that contradicts the Qur'anic directions, as well as the practice of the Prophet, which permit the "People of the Book" to maintain their religion. Regarding the word "people" to be all-inclusive will, therefore, violate the provisions that have been given to the "People of the Book" by the Qur'an and Sunnah.


AbuHanifah and his pupil AbuYusuf contend that only Pagan Arabs are to be coerced into Islam. In his book Al-Kharaj, AbuYusuf relates that al Hasan ibn Muhammad said: "The Prophet, peace be on him, consumated a peace treaty with the Zoroastrians of al Hajar on the terms that they pay jizyah, but did not permit (Muslims) to take their women in marriage or to eat their slaughtered animals." He also stated that jizyah may be collected from all polytheists, such as Zoroastrians (Majus), Pagans, Fire and Stone Worshipers, Sabians (Sabi'iyin), but not from apostates or Pagan Arabs, for the latter group are to be coerced into Islam.  Al Shafi'i and Malik also contend that jizyah can be taken from polytheists.


War of Reconciliation

We have seen in the foregoing discussion that the war of domination in which people are to be coerced into Islam did have a particular ruling (hukm khass) limited to the Pagan Arabs, for their hostility and infidelity. Most leading jurists, including Abu-Hanifah and his two renowned students AbuYusuf and Muhammad ibn al Hasan, as well as al Shafi'i and Malik, advocate only the war of reconciliation, in which the "People of the Book" and non-Arab polytheists can enter into peaceful treaties with Muslims, provided they pay an annual tribute of jizyah to the Islamic state. The war of reconciliation is therefore considered by these jurists as a general rule applicable to all non-Muslims. Muslim jurists, thus, divide the world into two territories, dar al Islam and dar al Harb, and declare that a permanent state of war exists between the two until dar al Harb is annexed to dar al Islam. This understanding is founded on verse 29 of Surah Bara'ah.


Fight those who believe not in Allah nor the last day, nor forbid what Allah and His Messenger forbade, nor acknowledge the religion of Truth, (even if they are) of the "People of the Book," until they pay the jizyah with willing submission and feel themselves subdued. (9:29)


The first outstanding remark about the verse is that it is not all-inclusive, and, thus, does not render a general rule. The verse posits four criteria for those who are to be fought among the "People of the Book": Those who do not believe in Allah, do not believe in the last day, do not uphold that which is forbidden by Allah and his Messenger, and do not acknowledge the religion of truth. The verse, obviously, has not been phrased in away that would implicate the "People of the Book" as a whole l9, but in away that sets aside a particular group of the "People of the Book."


The general rule (hukm 'am) was derived by the Muslim jurists by explication de texte (ta'wil al nass). Al Mawardi, for example, implicates the "People of the Book" by arguing:


As to the saying of Allah the Almighty "those who believe not in Allah," (the statement is inclusive of the "People of the Book") because, though acknowledging the Oneness of Allah, their belief (in Allah) could be refuted by one of two explications: First, (by saying that) they do not believe in the Book of Allah, which is the Qur'an. Second, (by saying that they do not believe in the prophethood of Muhammad, peace be on him, for acknowledging the Prophets is part of the belief in Allah who commissioned them.


It is clear that al Mawardis reasoning stems from neither the letter of the text, nor from its spirit. Rather, the argument presented by al Mawardis, as well as other classical jurists, has been influenced by the factual circumstances and practical conditions, a question discussed in some length below.


From the foregoing discussion we can conclude that the phraseology of the verse (9:29) provides a particular rule (hukm khass); i.e., war in this verse is prescribed against a particular group of the "People of the Book" because of the four criteria cited above. We can also conclude that the extension of the application of these criteria to the "People of the Book" as a whole is not based on textual evidence (nass)' but on reasoning and argumentations; and that the interpretation provided by classical jurists is debatable. Nevertheless, I will not attempt here to reinterpret the verse in consideration, nor will I go into a lengthy discussion as to whether the four criteria may implicate the "People of the Book" in general, because it will be shown later that the Prophet (SAAS), as well as the first generations of Muslims, did not extend these criteria to the "People of the Book" as a whole. Instead, I will elaborate on the condition, which obligates the Muslims to terminate their offensive against the "People of the Book": "Until they pay jizyah with willing submission and feel themselves subdued."


Jizyah has not been levied on the "People of the Book" for the purpose of increasing the income of the Muslim state or promoting the wealth of the Muslim community. Nor is it levied to place financial burden on non-Muslim individuals and force them to accept Islam; for the amount of jizyah is very minimal and levied only on financially capable males, while exempting women, children, monks, or poor non-Muslims. Rather, jizyah has a symbolic bearing only, and aims to subdue hostile states or oppressive regimes so as to assure Muslim individuals that they can propagate Islam in that community, and to assure non-Muslims that they can profess Islam without being persecuted or harassed. "The purpose of jizyah," al Sarakhsi proclaims,


is not the money, but rather the invitation for Islam in the best manner. Because by establishing a peace treaty (with non-Muslims) war ceases, and security is assured for the peaceful (non-Muslim), who, consequently, has the opportunity to live among the Muslims, experience first-hand the beauty of Islam, or receives admonition, which could lead him to embrace Islam.


In other words, jizyah is intended to assure freedom of expression for Muslims to propagate Islam in non-Muslim territories and freedom of belief to those who may choose to embrace Islam.


Because jizyah was aimed at turning hostile territories into friendly ones, the Muslims did not collect jizyah from those who expressed a friendly attitude toward them, or entered a mutual alliance with them, pledging thereby their military support. Al Tabari, for example, reported in his treatise on history that Suayd ibn Muqrin entered into an agreement with a non-Muslim community which read in part: "Whoever of you provides services to us will get his reward rather than paying jizyah, and you are secured in your lives, property, and religion, and no one can change the provisions of this agreement. Suraqah ibn 'Amr, likewise, signed a treaty with the Armenians in 22 AH/642 AC, in which the latter were exempted from paying jizyah for supporting the Muslims militarily. Habib ibn Muslimah al Fahri, the deputy of Abu'-Ubaydah, also signed a treaty with the Antakians in which the latter were exempted from jizyah in return for services and help rendered to the Muslims. It was also reported in Futuh al Buldan that,


Mu'awiyah ibn Abi Sufyan signed a treaty with the Armenians in which the institution of religion, the political order, and the judicial system of the latter were left in tact, and the Armenians were further released from jizyah duties for three years; after that they could either pay an amount of jizyah as they may choose, or, if they did not wish to pay jizyah, prepare fifteen thousand warriors to help the Muslims and to protect the Armenian land. Mu'awiyah pledged to provide logistical support, should they be attacked by the Byzantines.


It is clear from the foregoing examples that the early Muslims regarded jizyah as a measure for neutralizing hostile political communities and opening their territories to Muslims, and not a measure for dominating them or placing financial burdens on them. The previous perception of the real intent of jizyah is demonstratable, in a yet clearer fashion, in the friendly relations between the Islamic state and Ethiopia during the early Islamic epochs.


Peaceful Coexistence: Abyssinia and Islam

The relationship between Abyssinia and the early Islamic state is an excellent case study for rebutting the classical conception of the two territories (dar al Islam and dar al harb), which calls for a permanent war against non-Muslim political communities until they accept Islam or pay jizyah. Malik ibn Anas, the founder of the Maliki school of law, advised that the Muslims should not conquer Abyssinia predicating his opinion on a hadith of the Prophet: "Leave the Abyssinians in peace so long as they leave you in peace." He acknowledged that he was not sure of the authenticity of the statement, but said: "People still avoid attacking them."


Abyssinia had maintained its Christian identity long after Islam was established in Arabia and North Africa. Few Muslim families could be found in the fourth Hijri century. From the beginning, Abyssinians showed their good will to the early Muslims who, escaping the persecution of Quraysh, had sought refuge in Abyssinia. The Muslim émigrés were welcomed by the Abyssinians and were further protected from their persecutors who sent a delegation to bring the Muslim escapees back home. Good relations between Abyssinia and the Islamic state continued, the former being the only nation to acknowledge Islam at that time.


The peaceful relationship between Abyssinia and the Islamic state is very significant for rebutting the concept of the two territorial division of the world, and its corollary conception of a permanent state of war which does not permit the recognition of any non-Muslim state as a sovereign entity and insists that the latter should always pay a tribute to the Islamic state. For although Abyssinia had never been a Muslim nation, it was recognized by the early Islamic state as an independent state that could be let alone without imposing any kind of tax on it or forcing it into the orbit of the Islamic state. Obviously, Abyssinia could not be considered apart of the territory of Islam (dar al Islam), for Islamic rule had never been exacted therein; nor would it be considered apart of the territory of war (dar al Harb), since there had been no attempt to force it into the pale of Islam or to declare a permanent war against it. The only satisfactory explanation of the peculiar position of Abyssinia is that the doctrine of the two territories was founded on a fragile basis.


Some Muslim sources claim that al Najashi, the king of Abyssinia during the time of the Prophet, had embraced Islam after receiving the invitation of the Prophet. Ibn al Athir, for instance, wrote in this regard: "When al Najashi received the letter of the Prophet, he believed in him, following his (instructions), and embraced Islam in the presence of Ja'far ibn Abu-Talib, then sent sixty Abyssinians to the Prophet headed by his son; the group had drowned however while sailing (to Madinah)." The story about al Najashi's accepting Islam did not affect the status of Abyssinia as a territory in which Islam did not rule, and, consequently, should be considered, according to the definition of classical writers, a territory of war.




The Qur'anic Narrative
The Qur'anic Narrative

Leading with Compassion
Leading with Compassion


Tensions and Transitions
in the Muslim World

Peace and the Limits of War

The Challenge of Modernity 


Blaming Islam

Foundation of Knowledge

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