Foreign Policy Research Institute A Nation Must Think Before it Acts The New Jihad and Islamic Tradition

The New Jihad and Islamic Tradition

On October 21, 2001, Usama bin Ladin issued a statement via al-Jazeera television. With U.S.-led military action underway in Afghanistan, bin Ladin spoke about the September 11 attacks in New York and Washington, D.C.

“God Almighty hit the United States at its most vulnerable spot. Here is the United States. It was filled with terror from its north to its south and from its east to its west. Praise be to God. What the United States tastes today is a very small thing compared to what we have tasted for tens of years. Our nation has been tasting this humiliation and contempt for more than eighty years. Its sons are being killed, its blood is being shed, its holy places are being attacked, and it is not being ruled according to what God has decreed.”

Bin Ladin speaks of those carrying out the September 11 attacks as God’s convoy, the vanguard of Islam. He prays for them, asking God to “elevate their status and grant them Paradise.”

These comments set the context for a discussion of “the new jihad and the Islamic tradition.” By the “new jihad,” I mean bin Ladin’s or al-Qa`ida’s commitment to armed struggle against the United States and its allies. This jihad is “new,” in the sense that it is “up to date” or recent. That is how bin Ladin and other al-Qa`ida spokespersons present their efforts. For them, this jihad is the latest chapter in a struggle as old as humanity. It is the most recent instantiation of the conflict between Islam, that submission to the will of God which constitutes the natural religion of humanity, and the attitude of heedlessness towards God’s will.

From bin Ladin’s point of view, the new jihad is thus a consistent expression of historic Islamic tradition. I want to question this. I will suggest that bin Ladin’s jihad is new, not so much in the sense of “up to date,” as in the sense of a departure from tradition, an innovation.

Many people argued something like this in the wake of the September 11 attacks. Representatives of American Muslim groups, for example, issued statements disassociating Islam from the attacks, and quoting Qur’an 5:32, which indicates that if anyone kills another unjustly, it is as though he or she killed the entire world. If one is looking for texts, it’s a simple matter to show that there is a gap between jihad as envisioned by Usama bin Ladin and jihad in Islamic tradition.

In the end, however, citing such texts, however suggestive, does not settle much. It ignores bin Ladin’s arguments, for example concerning when killing is justified, and which persons are legitimate as targets of military activity.

I am going to take a more difficult road. Islamic tradition on matters of war is really a kind of extended conversation about God’s law, the Shari`a. In this conversation, one reads the texts of the Qur’an, reports of the example of the Prophet, the recorded judgments of great scholars, and then argues about how these relate to current circumstances. In these comments, I shall display an argument between Muslims. In particular, I want to show how some, who actually agree with al-Qa`ida on many issues of import, nonetheless find reason to criticize some aspects of the new jihad as inconsistent with Islamic tradition. I begin with a review of some classic themes of Islamic tradition. I then provide a brief summary of the modern career of those themes. Then follows the heart of my remarks, which is a discussion of an argument among Islamists regarding the new jihad. Finally, I advance a brief conclusion.

Themes in the History of Islamic Political Thought

Over the course of fourteen centuries, Islamic political thought centers on two great themes. The first of these emphasizes the importance of establishing a just public order, while the second focuses on notions of honorable combat.

Historically speaking, Muslim scholars held that the establishment of a just public order is an obligation. Some said it was so by God’s command; others said this was a dictate of reason. In either case, they usually thought of the phrase “just public order” in terms of a state defined by an Islamic establishment. We would put it this way: a just public order is one in which Islam is the established religion; where the ruler is a Muslim, and consults with recognized Islamic authorities on matters of policy; finally, where groups committed to other religions could live in safety, because “protected” by the Islamic establishment. This pattern held for many Muslim thinkers from the time of the early Islamic conquests (in the seventh century C.E.) through the demise of the Ottoman caliphate (in 1924.)

Notions of honorable combat developed in connection with reflection on the duty to establish a just public order. The idea was that, under certain conditions, the establishment, maintenance, and defense of justice would require armed force. When such conditions occurred, armed force or combat was to be conducted in accord with norms of honor. For example, resort to combat needed authorization by publicly recognized authorities. Such authorities should make sure that fighting occurred in connection with a just cause, and with the intention of building, maintaining, or protecting public order. The same authorities should consider whether or not fighting would be a proportionate response to perceived injustice, whether Muslim forces were likely to succeed, and whether fighting would serve the end of building the kind of public order that serves peace. Finally, they were to consider whether combat is the most fitting way to pursue justice, considering the circumstances — in other words, are there alternative ways to seek justice that might be more appropriate in a given case?

In addition to these considerations, those fighting for justice were to be governed by the saying attributed to the Prophet Muhammad: “Do not cheat or commit treachery. Do not mutilate anyone, nor should you kill children.” Other reports indicate that Muhammad further prohibited the direct and intentional killing of women, the very old, those physically or mentally handicapped, monks, and others. The idea was that honorable combat involved soldiers fighting soldiers and those noncombatants are never to be the direct target of military action. Of course, there are times when combat involves taking aim at a military target, knowing that there is a strong likelihood of indirect harm to civilians (that is, “collateral damage.”) In such cases, Muslim scholars debated many issues related to the use of particular weaponry: Should a fighting force make use of mangonels or hurling machines, for example? The concern in these cases was that certain weapons might cause damage disproportionate or excessive damage to civilians, even though the direct target of the weapon was military in nature.

Modern Tensions

For the last eighty years, the tradition of Islamic political thought has been under stress or under dispute. In itself, this is not unique. Traditions are always susceptible of dispute. That is, they are so for as long as they are living traditions. One generation bequeaths to the next a framework for discussion; the new generation tries to establish a “fit” between that which is handed down and its own set of circumstances. When people stop arguing about a tradition, that is a sign it is no longer viable.

Thus, Muslim argument is nothing new. Nevertheless, one could say that the last eighty years mark a period of particular stress, in which the most contentious point has been the question “What constitutes a just public order?” In 1924, the new Turkish Republic withdrew support for the Ottoman ruler. This effectively abolished the last remaining symbol of the great empires of the Middle Period, as well as of the older notions of a universal state governed by an Islamic establishment. In the years following, and indeed for much of the twentieth century, Muslim intellectuals argued about the shape a modern Islamic political order might take. One part of that argument focused (and still focuses) on the sort of legal regime such an order should have. Must a properly Islamic state be governed by divine law only, in the sense that its laws and policies are derived directly from the Qur’an, the example of the Prophet, and interpretive precedents established by the consensus of recognized scholars? Or can such a state form its laws and policies based on a more diverse set of sources? For example, can an Islamic State shape its policies based on contemporary international practice? Those holding that an Islamic State must be governed by divine law only are sometimes called “fundamentalists” or “radicals.” Those arguing for a more diverse set of sources are sometimes called “moderates.” None of these terms is entirely adequate, but they are the terms of contemporary discussion, and thus I employ them here.

The focus on the meaning of the phrase “Islamic State” means, in effect, that most modern Islamic political thought is concerned with how one might fulfill the obligation to establish a just public order. More recently, however, attention has turned to the historic notion of honorable combat. We are familiar by now with the “moderate” side of this debate. Post-9/11, many moderate Muslims argue that, even if fundamentalists are right, and that the current state of political order is unjust, there are nevertheless limits on what one may do to affect change. There are some tactics, people say, that violate the Muslim conscience. This is especially true of tactics that make noncombatants or civilians into direct targets of military or para- military attacks. The conduct of martyrdom operations in Palestinian resistance to Israel is of concern in this regard. Even more is the use of indiscriminate tactics by al-Qa`ida.

Critiques of the New Jihad

Moderate Muslims have been very clear in condemning al- Qa`ida tactics as a violation of Islamic tradition. Less well-covered in American or European media is the fact that some fundamentalists have also been vigorous in this regard. That is, there are those who share with al-Qa`ida a sense that a just public order must be governed by divine law only, yet who think al-Qa`ida’s tactics are problematic, on Islamic grounds.

For example, on July 10, 2002, the al-Jazeera network interviewed a well-known Saudi dissident, Shaykh Muhsin al- `Awaji.1 Two others joined by telephone. All three had served time in prison for criticisms of the royal family and its policies of cooperation with the United States. All hold for government by divine law, in the strong sense. All have on other occasions expressed support for armed resistance by Muslims.

During the interview, the conversation turned to Usama bin Ladin. The three scholars indicate that, after initial approval of bin Ladin, they and many others have changed their opinion. Shaykh al-`Awaji comments that

“In the past, when he was fighting the Russians in Afghanistan, bin Ladin was the greatest of jihad warriors, in the eyes of the Saudi people and in the eyes of the Saudi government. He and the others went to Afghanistan with official support, and the support of the learned [the `ulama’ or religious scholars.]”

In some ways, this positive assessment of bin Ladin still holds. Given all the facts, however, al-`Awaji and his colleagues must revise their estimate. Bin Ladin, they say, is guilty of spreading discord among Muslims. He labels people heretics without proof, and some operations sponsored by al-Qa`ida bring harm to Muslims. Most critically, al- Qa`ida’s tactics violate the norms of honorable combat.

“He and those with him target innocent people, and I refer to the innocents on the face of the entire earth, of every religion and color, and in every region.”

The immediate background of al-`Awaji’s remarks is formed by the June 7, 2002 publication of Sulayman abu Ghayth’s internet article “In the Shadow of the Lances.” There, an al-Qa`ida spokesman argued vigorously that the norms of reciprocal justice indicate that Muslims “have the right to kill four million Americans, two million of them children.” Al-`Awaji’s arguments would seem a direct rebuke to this kind of reasoning. For him, it appears, Muslims are to fight with honor, which means (among other things) that they are not to engage in direct attacks on noncombatants. Similarly, consider the arguments offered by Shaykh `Umar Bakri Muhammad of al-Muhajiroun, a fundamentalist group based in the United Kingdom. Shaykh `Umar’s tract, Jihad: The Method for Khilafah?appeared at in September 2002. This tract attempts to evaluate the place of armed struggle in the attempt to found a state governed by divine law. The author then discusses the nature and place of armed resistance in contemporary contexts.

According to Shaykh `Umar, jihad, in the sense of “armed struggle,” is a term reserved for fighting authorized by an established Islamic government. This is the sense of the reference to khilafah in his title. Literally, the term suggests “succession” to the Prophet Muhammad. Shaykh `Umar uses the term as a designation for Islamic government. His discussion reiterates one of the great themes of Islamic political thought, that is, the necessity that justice be embodied in a political order. And, as he indicates, when this political order is in place, it should seek to extend its influence by appropriate means. These can and should include honorable combat.

For the last eighty years, the kind of authority indicated by the term khilafah has been absent from political life. This fact sets the context for the rest of Shaykh `Umar’s argument. Muslims are required to work to change this situation, and to establish khilafah. To that end, may or should they engage in jihad? The answer is no, first of all because of the nature of the concept. Jihad designates fighting that occurs under the auspices of an established government. By definition, then, fighting that takes place apart from such a government’s authorization cannot be jihad. To this definitional “no” Shaykh `Umar adds a second reason: Islamic political thought requires that authority be legitimate, in the sense of established through a process of consultation and assent. The submission of Muslims to an authority thus ought not to be compelled. Islamic government should be established through persuasion.

Shaykh `Umar indicates that the process by which consultation and assent may be conducted in a number of ways. He then moves to a discussion of contemporary resistance among Muslims. In his view, the Muslim community is in a kind of political twilight zone. Without a duly constituted khilafah, there can be no fighting worthy of the title jihad. Yet Muslims are in need of defense, in Chechnya, Kashmir, and other locations. What are they to do?

As Shaykh `Umar has it, Islam recognizes a right of extended self-defense. Everyone has the right to defend his/her own life, liberty, and property. Everyone also has the right, and in some sense the duty to defend the lives, liberties, and properties of others who are victims of aggression. This kind of fighting is called qital, a word that quite literally indicates “fighting” or “killing.” Where Muslims are under attack, their co-religionists around the globe may and should come to their defense. When they do, however, they should understand that fighting is delimited, first in terms of its goals. Qital is not a proper means of establishing Islamic government. Second, qital is limited in its means. Interestingly, in this qital and jihad are similar, since both are governed by norms of honorable combat, or as Shaykh `Umar puts it, by the “pro-life” values of the Prophet Muhammad: “not killing women and children, not killing the elderly or monks.” Tactics that involve direct attacks on noncombatants are ruled out.

Given the type of criticism voiced by al-`Awaji, Shaykh `Umar, and others, it’s not surprising that the leadership of al-Qa`ida would respond. Thus, in November 2002, a “Letter to America” bearing the name of Usama bin Ladin appeared.2

The first part of the “Letter” is a list of reasons for fighting against the U.S. and its allies. The second part of the text moves to the question of tactics.

“You may then dispute that all the above does not justify aggression against civilians, for crimes they did not commit and offenses in which they did not partake.”

The concern here is clearly with arguments that al-Qa`ida tactics violate norms of honorable combat. The author of “Letter” does not accept these. Two counterarguments are cited in justification of a policy of attacking civilians as well as soldiers. First, the United States claims to be a democracy.

“The American people have the ability and choice to refuse the policies of their government and even to change it if they want.”

Second (and in a way reminiscent of abu Ghayth’s argument), the author cites the lex talionis.

“God, the Almighty, legislated the permission and the option to take revenge… whoever has killed our civilians, then we have the right to kill theirs.”

Harm suffered may be avenged by the infliction of damage proportionate to the original harm. Muslims have the right to kill U.S. and other “enemy” civilians, because the U.S. and its allies engage in actions that kill civilians on the Muslim side.

Concluding Remarks

What are we to make of this exchange? Primarily, I think it is important to know that such conversations take place. The post-9/11 discussion of Islam and fighting has tended to swing between two assertions: Either Islam has nothing to do with fighting of this type, or it has everything to do with it. Neither of these assertions is accurate. Neither catches the sense of Islamic tradition as a living reality, in which people try to discern God’s will in particular circumstances by reading agreed-upon texts and reasoning according to established rules. In that light, it is important to get a sense of the conversations Muslims have about political justice and honorable combat. In these remarks, I have tried to show that these include conversations between “allied” groups of fundamentalists or radicals, as well as between moderates and fundamentalists. This fact seems important in itself. Among other things, the post-9/11 Muslim discussion of al-Qa`ida tactics suggests the power of certain ideas; for example, that there are limits on what one can do, even when one is fighting for justice. In this sense, the post-9/11 conversation among Muslims goes back to the Qur’an itself, which at 2:190 indicates to Muslims:

“Fight against those who are fighting you But do not violate the limits. God does not approve those who violate the limits.”3

I believe that verse contains a proposition of interest to Muslims and non-Muslims, religious people of all faiths as well as those who profess no faith, as we try to respond to the demands of justice.


  1. Cf. partial transcript at, Special Dispatch Series, entry number 400, from which I quote.
  2. Cf.,11581,845725,00.html
  3. My translation