The “Struggle in the Cause of ...

The “Struggle in the Cause of Allah” according to the Qur’an


In Islam, the armed struggle “in the cause of Allah” has been legitimated by the Qur’an, the exemplary conduct of Muhammad (Arabic: sunna), the tradition of his sayings (Arabic: hadith, plural ahadith) and the normative legal tradition (Arabic: sharia). The oftheard claim that Islam recognizes only a peaceful commitment on behalf of God cannot be justified on the basis of the Qur’an. Just as misleading is the claim that Islam means “peacemaking”.

Since the Qur’an is the basic document of Islam and can be considered the most important and most reliable source for early Islam, I will limit myself in the following remarks to the text of the Qur’an.

In the Arabic text of the Qur’an, two words and their derivatives are used to define the concept of the “struggle in the cause of Allah”: jahada (third stem of the root jaahada, that is, “struggle, strive”) and qaatala (third stem of the root qatala, that is, “to kill each other, fight against”). The two nouns jihaad (“effort, zeal, commitment”) and qitaal (“struggle, fight”) are derived from these. While qitaal already has to do with armed struggle, jihaad can also be understood in a wider sense. The expression “in the cause of Allah” is a restriction upon the act of struggling. The latter is called for and permitted in so far as it corresponds to Allah’s will and serves the Muslim community (Arabic: sunna). This expression, thus, excludes a struggle that is prompted by the selfish interests of a person, a group, or a people. In this regard, the wide-spread translation of jihaad and qitaal as “Holy War” is in a certain sense justified, since it is a matter of an armed struggle legitimated and commanded by Allah.

1. The Occurrence and Application of jahada in the Qur’an

Different forms of jaahada occur thirty-one times in the Qur’an. Of these, twenty-eight are verb forms, and the noun jihaad appears only three times (9:24; 25:52; 60:1). In the Ger-man translation by Henning, jaahada normally is given as “streiten” (fight, clash) or “eifern” (strive), but only twice as “kämpfen” (fight, struggle) (16:110 and 60:1). Paret translates jahada as “Krieg führen” (wage war) or “kämpfen”, and three times as “sich abmühen” (struggle, wrestle) (22:78; 29:6; 29:69). He translates the expression once as “jemandem zusetzen” (to attack someone) (25:52). Rassoul normally speaks of “kämpfen”, less often of “sich einsetzen” (commit oneself) (2:218; 49:15; 61:11), “eifern” (22:78; 25:52; 29:6) and “wetteifern” (compete, vie) (29:69).

With the exception of three passages (16:110; 25:52; 29:69), all the references are assigned by Islamic tradition to those surahs proclaimed in Medina (in the period from 622 to 632). This is also confirmed in most cases by the text or context. Only 29:6 also could be assigned to the verses proclaimed in Mecca (in the period from 610 to 622).

In the verses from the Meccan period, a time in which Muhammad was in no position to threaten his opponents with fighting and war, jaahada must have the meaning of a verbal conflict, a conflict in which Muhammad takes a position against the polytheists in Mecca through preaching from the Qur’an and through his own argumentation. 25:52 can be understood in this sense: “But, do not hearken to the unbelievers, but rather attack them (jaahidhum) with it (that is, with the Qur’an?) vehemently (jihaadan)” (Paret).

If 16:110 belongs in the Meccan period, then the emigration of the Muslims that is mentioned here should mean the emigration to Ethiopia. Then, the “commitment” of the emigrants could mean their patient adherence to Islam in spite of all the tribulations suffered.

29:6 and 29:69 have a religious content and context and can fit into the late Meccan period as well as in the early Medina period. Then, jaahada could allude either to the Muslim congregation’s struggle for survival in Mecca before the emigration, or also to the, at first, stressful existence of the emigrants in Medina.

All the other passages can be understood to refer to the armed struggle against the unbelieving polytheists in Mecca, or against those offering resistance in Medina. In regard to some passages (4:95; 5:35, 54; 47:31; 49:15; 61:11; 66:9), this cannot be shown clearly on the basis of content and context. The criticism of the Medinans who “remain at home” (4:95), however, indicates that the subject at issue is the non-participation in a military campaign. 66:9 could be meant to apply to conflicts in Medina, since the jihaad here also is directed against the opportunists (“hypocrites”), against whom Muhammad is supposed “to be hard” (Paret).

The remaining occurrences of jaahada refer quite clearly to the armed struggle of the Muslims against their enemies in Mecca. In the context of 2:218, the matter at issue is the defense of an armed conflict (qitaal) in a month of peace (2:217). In the context of 3:142, the burden of discussion is how to deal with a military defeat. The meaning of jaahada is quite clear in Surah 8 (verses 72, 74, and 75), since large parts of the surah presumably refer to the Battle of Badr and the spoils of war made here. In Surah 9:16, 20, 24, 41, 44, 73, 81, 86, 88, it is still clearer that a military struggle is meant: In 9:13f., forms of qaatala appear. 9:25f. refers to the changing fortunes of war at the Battle of Hunain. The command to “move out” and the polemics against “staying at home” (9:4147 and 81-90) can refer only to a military campaign.

The jihaad corresponds clearly to the will of Allah. This is what is meant by the formula “in the cause of Allah”, or “for God’s sake”, a formula that in numerous passages (2:218; 4:95; 5:35, 54; 8:72, 74; 9:19, 20, 24, 81; 22:78; 29:69; 49:15; 61:11) appears directly or indirectly in connection with jaahada. In jihaad, the object aimed for is Allah’s satisfaction (60:1). The jihaad is mentioned in connection with the cult, election by Allah, and the witness for him (22:78). Thus, it belongs inseparably together with the belief in Allah and Muhammad (3:142; 16:110; 47:31). In addition to the faith, emigration out of hostile Mecca belongs to jihaad (2:218; 8: 72, 74, 75; 9:20). The harassments endured in Mecca, which were regarded by the Muslims as a “temptation to apostasy”, are also one of the justifications for the jihaad against Mecca (16:110).

The jihaad is an exercise in patience (3:142; 16:110; 47:31) and a test of faith (47:31). In it, Muslims approach Allah (5:35). It occurs when Muslims place their property and assets at its disposal and – as far as physically possible – personally take part in the struggle (4:15; 8:72; 9:20, 41, 44, 81; 49:15). The Qur’an polemicizes against those who, for selfish reasons, seek an excuse for not taking part in jihaad and prefer to “remain at home” (9:44, 81, 86).

The jihaad is a kind of alliance of the Muslims with Allah and Muhammad (9:16). Solidarity in jihaad stands above any sympathy with the unbelieving relatives of the fighting Muslims (60:1). In jihaad, the Muslims let “the infidels feel their power” (5:54, Paret). The opponents are, apart from the infidels, also the inconstant opportunists (“hypocrites”, 9:73; 66:9).

The jihaad takes place to the advantage of the fighting Muslims (29:6). For, Allah’s compassion (2:218; 16:110) as well as his “forgiveness and … support” (8:74, Paret) are promised to them. Allah guides them (29:69) and they are given preference by Allah (4:95; 9:20). Paradise (4:95) and great happiness (9:20) are proclaimed to them as their reward.

In summary, one can say that jaahada in the Meccan context has a rather religious significance, while in Medina the meaning changes toward that of an armed struggle against the enemies of Islam.

2. The Occurrence and Application of qatala in the Qur’an

The basic meaning of the first stem of the root qatala is “kill”. The reciprocal third stem qaatala expresses the idea of “mutual killing”, that is, armed battle. Qaatala is translated by Henning, Paret and Rassoul almost throughout with “kämpfen”. It is consonant with this context that in the Qur’an, “killing” is associated with “battling” and “fighting”. For example, 9:111 speaks of Muslims who “fight and in the process kill or (and) (themselves) suffer death” (Paret, cf. also 2:191; 3:195; 4:89-91). The expression “fight in a row as solid as a wall” (Paret) in 61:4 corresponds to armed battle. Muhammad himself once assigned the Muslims their battle positions (3:121). The noun qitaal occurs thirteen times in the Qur’an. In most of the verses, however, verb forms appear. All texts that deal with the subject of armed struggle belong to the surahs proclaimed in Medina. Exceptional is only 73:20, since this surah is generally assigned to the early Meccan period. In verse 20, the intensive nocturnal prayer regimen of the first Muslims is mitigated. This is justified with the argument, among others, that sick and travelling Muslims and those “who struggle in the cause of God” (Paret) are not able to keep to their prayers. The idea of struggle here has the appearance of a later insertion, since it was precisely in the later period that many a mitigation for sick, travelling, and fighting Muslims was introduced.

As far as content is concerned, qaatala normally is used in the context of Muhammad’s battles with his opponents in Mecca and Medina. Exceptions are 2:246 and 3:146. 2:246 refers to the history of Israel, and in concrete terms to the demand of the people directed to Samuel (whose name is not mentioned) to appoint a king “so that we (under his leadership) may fight in the cause of God” (Paret). In 3:146, it is said that many prophets had fought together with many thousands of warriors and yet had to suffer setbacks patiently. Clearly, the intention here is to reject criticism of a military failure on the part of Muhammad (for example, on Mount Uhud).

Armed struggle is sanctioned by the formula “in the cause of Allah” (2:190, 244, 246; 3:13, 146f.; 4:74-76, 84; 9:111; 61:4; 73:20). Armed struggle is not only permitted (22:39) , but is commanded by Allah to the Muslims (2:190, 216, 244; 4:76, 84; 8:38; 9:12f., 29, 123). Allah has “prescribed” fighting (2:216; 4:77), for he loves those who fight (61:4). The opponents of the Muslims must be driven away or killed (4:89; 9:5), if necessary even at the Kaaba in Mecca (2:191). Muhammad is the one who should encourage the Muslims to battle (4:84; 8:65). Numerous verses serve to convince hesitant Muslims of the need to fight (e.g., 4:77) and to threaten with Allah’s judgment those who resist or flee in the midst of battle (e.g., 8:15f.). Thereby, the Qur’an clearly concedes to the Muslims the idea that fighting is really “repugnant” (Paret) to them (2:216).

Allah stands on the side of those who fight for him. Allah himself kills the opponents (8:17) and grants the victory (9:14). He can restrain the opponents (4:84), defend the Muslims (22:38), spare them from the battle (33:25), and make the opponent appear weaker to itself than it is in reality (3:13). Allah promises those fighting for him that they will defeat even an enemy that is ten times stronger than they (8:65). Of course, the Muslims also were required to accept defeats. The Qur’an justifies this by claiming that Allah thereby determines who the hypocrites are, those who do not mean Islam well (3:167).

Therefore, fighting is termed “good” (2:216), and fighting Muslims are promised a “great happiness” (9:111), that is, Paradise, as a reward (4: 74, 77). Fighting is a “good loan” (2:245). Sins are expiated by death in battle and the entry into Paradise is thereby assured (3:195; 4:74). Those who fight are “valued more highly” (4:95, Paret) by Allah than those who don’t fight.

The struggle is justified by the fact that injustice has been done to the Muslims (22:39), that they were driven out of Mecca (2:191, 217; 22:40; 60:9), that the Muslims remaining in Mecca were oppressed (4:75), that their opponents fight against them (2:190; 9:36; 22:39; 60:9), that the opponents are infidels (2:217) and, through their unbelief, intend to entice the Muslims to defect from Islam (2:191, 217; 8:38). The opponents are charged with being the friends of Satan (4:76) and in breach of their oath (9:12), as well as with wanting to drive Muhammad away (probably from Medina) (9:13).

The Qur’an provides rules for the struggle down to the last detail. It is to be conducted with the material fortunes and the life of the Muslims (9:111 and frequently afterwards). Whoever cannot fight with a weapon should at least provide his material assets for use. Some restrictions are also made. Non-Muslims who are peaceful are to be spared (4:90; 60:8). Contractual commitments are to be kept (4:90). If possible, there should be no fighting near the Kaaba (2:191). In battle, “no offenses” (Paret) should occur (2:190). If the opponents convert to Islam, the fight against them should be ended (9:5). On the other hand, it is permitted – against the Bedouin tradition – to fight in months proclaimed as months of peace, if Muslims are deterred from their faith and kept away from the Kaaba by their opponents, and because these latter do not believe (2:217). 9:36 also can be understood in the sense that it is permitted to fight in all months.

The goal of the struggle is named clearly: only Allah is to be worshipped (2:193; 8:39). For this reason, the enemies of Allah must be destroyed, converted to Islam, or made liable to pay tribute (in the case of the “People of the Book”, 9:29). However, the Muslims also are promised spoils as a reward for their fighting (48:20; cf. Surah 8).

The opponents mentioned in the Qur’an cannot always be identified clearly because the text presumably is deliberately left unclear. In any case, the pagans of Mecca (2:191, 217; 4:75; 22:39, 40; 60:8f.), the Jews of Medina, and the inconstant Arabs of Medina are possible candidates. The last two groups are not very easy to demarcate. They are called hypocrites and offered resistance to Muhammad in secret or openly. They make an attempt at armed resistance, but flee quickly (3:111; perhaps also 48:22). They do not keep to their agreements, and want to drive Muhammad away (9:12f.). They hold back in conflict but, after Muhammad’s successes, want to join the battle, which they are forbidden to do (9:83). They take only a small part in the struggle (33:20). In a conflict between two Muslim groups, the guilty party is to be fought against (49:9). In 59:11-14, the Jewish tribes in Medina, who are not able to bring themselves to participate in the common struggle and for this reason are destroyed by the Muslims, are meant. Also, in 9:29f., the Jews and Christians are named clearly as opponents.

In only two passages is qaatala used in the “figurative” sense. The issue here is the curse put upon the opponents by uttering the formula “May Allah kill or fight against them!” (9.30; 63:4). Presumably, the punishment of condemnation to Hell is meant here. The curse in 9:30 is applied to the “People of the Book”, and in 63:4 to the “hypocrites”.

3. Remarks on the Interpretation of the Qur’an Text

The major problem in understanding and interpreting the text of the Qur’an exists in the fact that many statements are deliberately left unclear and make do with allusions that were understandable to the first hearers of Muhammad’s proclamation, but later could no longer be explained clearly. This circumstance proved suitable for an allegorization of the content of the Qur’an.

Of course, there also always has been a tradition of interpretation in Islamic history that has desired to understand the text of the Qur’an if at all possible on the basis of the circumstances of Muhammad’s biography. This becomes clear in the interpretative principle of seeking the “reasons for his sending” (asbabu-n-nuzul) in Muhammad’s life itself. In the tradition of Islamic interpretation, every Qur’an text was assigned to an episode in Muhammad’s life. Thereby, however, the sunna acquired an important role as a hermeneutical key for understanding the text. Sometimes, the ascription of sunna and Qur’an text appears arbitrary and hinders an objective literary and historical approach to the text. The tradition has made its interpretation obligatory to a considerable extent so that a new understanding of the text is made very difficult and is quickly dismissed as a corrupting “innovation”. A genuinely historical “reading” of the Qur’an has not been provided from the Muslim side up to the present.

Traditional exegetical scholarship, in most cases, had the goal of transforming the Qur’an text into ethical and legal directives. From this originated the, to a great extent, theoretical law of Sharia. In the majority Sunni Islam, one always clung to the idea that that this ideal law “actually” ought to be valid in concrete terms, although the political reality often stood in the way. Sunni Islam – in most cases, loyal to the state – has come to terms to a great extent with this compromise.

In moderate Sunni Islam today, it is a matter of debate how far the traditional Sharia regulations regarding jihaad and qitaal should and can be applied legally. Some desire to limit armed struggle and wars to the defense of Islam (while Sharia also absolutely justifies offensive wars) and to leave this fighting to the organized Muslim states alone. Others, to be sure, concede that Muhammad was involved in numerous armed conflicts and justify this circumstance with the claim that only in this way could the survival of early Islam be secured. They refuse, however, to use the force of arms today for the protection or extension of Islam.

Rather, they are of the opinion that states should protect all religions in the same way. The radical „reformers” of all periods, such as Ahmad Ibn Taimiya (1263-1328), Muhammad Ibn Abdul-Wahhab (1703-1792), and Muhammad Ben Ali al-Sanussi (1787-1859), wanted to accept no compromise, but rather spoke out in favor of the complete political implementation of Sharia. Modern Islamism picks up the thread of this tradition. Radical Islamists go even a step further by going back beyond the Sharia to the Qur’an text and endeavouring to implement its instructions word for literal word in the present. Many radical representatives of Islamism have not completed any traditional Islamic studies, but rather are theological and legal laymen who have acquired their fragmentary knowledge of Islamic history, legal scholarship, and theology by themselves. They claim for themselves the right to conduct an armed struggle, a right that, according to Sharia, however, lies only with the Islamic state.

On the other side of the spectrum, there has always existed a Qur’an exegesis that intellectualizes or spiritualizes the text (in Sufism, above all). Jihaad and qitaal become either the effort made on behalf of the proper development of life or a spiritual struggle against the “evil in the human being”. Today, too, there are interpreters who reject the direct application of the Qur’an texts by Islamists to the present political situation.

4. Questions

Would not much be gained if Muslims today would recognize fully the warlike history of early Islam and would give up speaking about fundamentally peaceful Islam? For, the beginnings, after all, say much about the fundamental understanding of a way of belief! Would not even more be gained if Muslim interpreters of the Qur’an could decide to apply the principle of the “reasons for his sending” more consistently and go back to the time before sunna and hadith for their “hermeneutical key”? For sunna and hadith, in their literary form, are tangible only relatively later and historically reliable only in part. Could a retreat to the period before sunna and hadith not help to perceive the Qur’an text more openly and honestly? Of course, then, too, there would have to be a discussion of the question, suppressed up to now, whether in the “permission to fight” a – thoroughly understandable – human need has not been sanctioned by religion.

The Qur’an itself, after all, admits that, in regard to the “struggle in the cause of Allah”, there were open questions, disagreements, and much hypocrisy, even in Muhammad’s time. Islamic history – as, naturally, Christian history, too – shows completely what happens when the human desire for power is disguised by religion. Disguise and suppression – this impression virtually forces itself on the reader who honestly studies the Qur’an. Could this be where its real problem lies?

Could it be that, through the religious sanction of violence, the deepest human problem, that is, the open and secret rebellion against God, is disguised? Could it not be that precisely Jesus, with his rejection of the satanic  temptation to power (Mt. 4:8-10; 16:22f.; 26:39), has laid bare the heart of the problem? Could it not be that the Crucifixion of Jesus makes undeniably clear that only in the deepest powerlessness of the Cross was the problem of the human madness for power solved?concernences inswers, I hope and wish that Muslims  themselves with the differ the Qur’anic and biblical an and honestly consider the Qur’anic sanction of the “struggle in the cause of Allah”.

<- Back to: Islamism, Fundamentalism and political Islam