The truth about jihad


With the campaign to liberate Iraq victorious, it is, perhaps, time for Muslims to review the improper use, not to say outright abuse, of the term "Jihad."

Osama bin Laden

Can the concept of "Jihad" be reduced to one of a call for taking up arms to defend just anyone? Can any Tom, Dick or Harry declare "Jihad"?

The first so-called "Jihad" fatwa in support of Saddam Hussein came from the fugitive terrorist Osama bin Laden. (Or whoever pretends to be him — in this writer's opinion, bin Laden has long been dead.) That fatwa, of course, had no value because bin Laden, though a rich boy, has no religious qualifications.

A more disturbing fatwa came from Sayyed Hussein Fadhlallah, a mid-ranking Shiite mullah who advertises himself as the spiritual guide of the Lebanese branch of the Hezbollah.

Yet Fadhlallah lacks the qualifications for issuing edicts on so important an issue. His support of Saddam made him an exception within the Shiite clergy that was unanimous in Iraq, Iran and in Lebanon in denouncing the Ba'athist regime.

Fadhlallah is free to support Saddam. But he has no right to present a political opinion as a religious position.

The race to declare "Jihad" gathered pace as the war drew closer. By the end of March we had calls for "Jihad" from Saddam Hussein, his psychopathic son Uday and the clownish Information Minister Muhammad Saeed al-Sahhaf.

More disturbing was the call for "Jihad" from Muhammad Saeed al-Tantawi, rector of the government-run Al Azhar Seminary in Cairo. Tantawi's edict illustrated his theological confusion.

He stated, as his premise, that Saddam Hussein was "a terrorist" for having invaded Kuwait in 1990. He also said that Saddam was responsible for the war because he could have avoided it by resigning and leaving Iraq. Yet Tantawi drew this astonishing conclusion: "Martyr operations against the invading forces in Iraq are permitted under religious law."

Islamic religious law, however, does not permit suicide under any circumstances.

In Islame, suicide is an "unpardonable sin" (zunb layughfar lah), in the same category as denying the Oneness of God. People who commit suicide cannot be buried in a Muslim graveyard and are put to rest away from human habitation and in unmarked tombs.

The sheikh of Al Azhar also seemed to be ignorant of another important Islamic principle: No one can choose to become a martyr: Only God decides whom to make a martyr.

Because God chooses martyrs sparingly, we do not have a dime-a-dozen martyrs in Islam. In the various wars waged by the Prophet, hundreds of his best friends, relatives and aides fell in battle. Only a handful won the status of martyr.

Not everyone who dies in a war becomes a martyr. And he who commits suicide deliberately while killing others is certainly a double sinner, destined for Hell, not a martyr headed for Paradise.

The principle is simple: Only God who gives life has the right to take it. In a Western-style re-reading of Islam, people like bin Laden, Fadhlallah and Tantawi equate the concept of "Jihad" with that of "Holy War" in Christianity. They provide ammunition for Islamophobes to portray the entire Muslim community of almost 1.2 billion people, as "terrorists and suicide-bombers."

In Islam, however, no war can be holy. Wars can only be "allowed" or "not allowed" (yajuz wa la yajuz) on the basis of necessity or otherwise. The concept of "Jihad" (literally: exertion or effort) covers a range of activities that could include taking arms — in precise, extremely rare, circumstances in pursuit of clearly defined goals. But even then the taking of arms does not produce a "holy war."

One could wage "Jihad" through diplomatic, cultural and economic means, but never in defence of a regime or a ruler that oppress Muslims. Islam has no mechanism for excommunication, so Saddam's claim to be a Muslim must be accepted. But anyone familiar with Islamic theology would know that Saddam's regime fitted the definition of "Taghut" (rebel against Divine Will).

Here is how the great medieval Muslim theologian Ibn Babyueh described such regimes: "A government may be led by individual Muslims [and yet] be in rebellion against Divine Will, in which case combating it is the duty of believers."

Another important theological principle, spelled out by classical Islamic theologians, including Fakhr Razi, is that a Muslim has the right to ally himself with a non-Muslim who is "friendly but distant" against a Muslim who is "near and hostile." (On this basis, various Muslim principalities made occasional, and tactical, alliances with this or that Christian force against other Muslim states during the Crusades.)

A call for "Jihad" could be considered only if it unites the Muslim community, not if it adds to its divisions. The gentlemen who declared "Jihad" in support of Saddam Hussein have, in fact, deepened divisions in both Sunni and Shiite communities. Islamic theology regards the fomenting of such divisions as a sin.

One more important point: The person who declares "Jihad" must enjoy a large measure of recognition as the "a'alam al-ulema" (The Most Learned of Theologians), at least within his immediate community. And he must be in a position to personally take the lead, to risk his own life and the lives of those near to him (aqruba-ihum), in the enterprise. It is not possible to tell the Iraqis, or the Palestinians, "Go, kill and get killed so that we can applaud from a safe distance!"

The gentlemen whose "Jihad" declarations we have discussed lack such qualifications. Bin Laden is an adventurer on the loose. Fadhlallah, a politician rather than a theologian, does not enjoy consensus even among Lebanese Shiites. Tantawi, an employee of the Egyptian government, lacks the independence required of theologians. As for Saddam, Al-Sahhaf and Uday, now fugitives, their "Jihad" consisted of running to the nearest hole in which to hide.

The non-Muslim world, especially in the West, must beware: The conditions that must be present and the rules that must be applied before "Jihad" is declared are so complex that one can hardly imagine a situation in which they would be applicable today.

The vast majority of Muslims ignored the numerous calls for "Jihad" coming from individuals who have no right to do so. Those who declared "Jihad" in support of Saddam must be treated as politicians, not religious leaders, and treated as any other politician anywhere. They use the term "jihad" as many in the West use the term "crusade," for example as "a crusade against genetically modified food" and so on.

Next time you hear someone declaring "Jihad" on behalf of Muslims, you can be sure that he is a politician using a sound-bite for good effect — not a theologian expressing a serious Islamic position.


Amir Taheri. "Jihad." National Post (April 25, 2003).

This article reprinted with permission from the author, Amir Taheri, and the National Post.


Amir Taheri is the Iranian author of 10 books on the Middle East and Islam.  He was born in Iran and educated in Tehran, London and Paris and has been a columnist for the pan-Arab daily Asharq Alawsat and its sister daily Arab News since 1987. Amir Taheri has been a contributor to the International Herald Tribune since 1980. He has also written for The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, Newsday, and The Washington Post. Taheri has published nine books some of which have been translated into 20 languages. Taheri currently divides his time between Paris and London.

A list of Amir Taheri's recent articles is at:

Copyright © 2003 Amir Taheri

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