Jihad - Qital - Harb - Holy War

Greater Jihad - Lesser Jihad - Jihad al-akbar - Jihad al asghar

Part 11


Armed Jihad
(Jihad al-saif) the lesser or greater Jihad?


Jihad of the sword or armed jihad is sometimes called the "lesser” or “minor” jihad" (jihad al asghar), in contrast to the spiritual form of jihad or struggle with the lower self, called “greater” or “major” (Jihad al-akbar). To the contemporary mind, with its emphasis on peace and its general instinctive aversion for war, this distinction is perfectly understandable and readily accepted. When we hear of acts of violence perpetrated in the name of God and Islam in the west we accept this distinction with a sigh of relief. But is that sigh of relief well-founded? Is the distinction valid? Is it supported by the sources? What follows is a tentative answer to these questions.

Any discussion of the above distinction necessarily involves reference to modern writers and to the importance and accuracy of what they assert. We should also need to ascertain any possible development of the concept of jihad from the time of Muhammad to today that could possibly support this distinction. Furthermore, the source of this distinction must be examined to determine if it is warranted and if, it is compatible or not with the canonical sources of Islam, the Qur’an, Hadith and Sira. This will inevitably lead to a consideration of the importance of armed jihad, and the implications of this distinction for Muslims and non-Muslims alike.

Some modern writers

It is difficult to imagine why this distinction should be accepted as valid by academic non-Muslims without providing any sort of evidence. Contemporary writers are surely aware of the general implications of such a distinction, not only for Islamic theology, but also in shaping relations between Islam and the non-Muslim world. Writers do not generally deem it necessary to refer to the source of such a distinction and the general tendency is to mention it en passant and proceed as though it were perforce true and valid. This is an unjustifiable omission given the important implications involved and important conclusions regarding the doctrine and practice of jihad might well be vitiated if not faced honestly and objectively. One such example is John L. Esposito who, in his Unholy War, Terror in the Name of Islam, writes:
The two broad meanings of jihad, nonviolent and violent, are contrasted in a well-known prophetic tradition. It is said that when Muhammad returned from battle he told his followers, “We return from the lesser jihad to the greater jihad.” The greater jihad is the more difficult and more important struggle against one’s ego, selfishness, greed, and evil. 1
It is significant that this much lauded non-Muslim writer mentions this distinction but does not assume a critical position or verify its validity. He merely assumes it to be true and conveys the impression that it is generally accepted and perhaps even beyond dispute. Unfortunately, it is a common tendency in academic circles to go along with Muslim apologetics, especially if the writers are involved in interreligious dialogue or if there is some sort of vested interest or specific agenda underlying what is written. Esposito asserts that there is a “tradition”, that that tradition is “prophetic”, by which presumably he means that it can be traced back to the prophet of Islam, Muhammad and that this authentic tradition is “well-known”. The first point is true only in the sense that before the Sufis it was totally unknown but has reared its head from time to time ever since and bears the mark of Sufi tendencies heavily influenced by the Christian principle of nonviolence.  It certainly is not a tradition if by that we mean that it has been officially sanctioned and incorporated into Islamic jurisprudence. It does not have any official legal standing. The second point is totally unfounded; it is by no means “prophetic” as any claim that it can be traced back to the Prophet of Islam has been rejected outright every time it has been advanced. The third point is undeniably true, it is “well-known”. Not surprisingly, in accord with the general tendency, Esposito provides no source to support the view. The final claim that inner jihad or struggle against one’s selfishness is more difficult than physically fighting with all the risks involved and with the ultimate wish to die a martyr I leave to the reader to decide.

Possibly more informed, and certainly more objective and reliable, is Bernard Lewis who writes
Some modern Muslims, particularly when addressing the outside world, explain the duty of jihad in a spiritual and moral sense. The overwhelming majority of early authorities, citing the relevant passages in the Qur’an, the commentaries, and the traditions of the Prophet, discuss jihad in military terms. … For most of the fourteen centuries of recorded Muslim history, jihad was most commonly interpreted to mean armed struggle for the defense or advancement of Muslim power. 2
Here Lewis expresses a diametrically opposite view and hints that the distinction is calculated to project an image of Islam to the “outside world”. We shall see that this projected image is misleading and is understandable only in the context of wave after wave of violence in the name of Islam. It might therefore be suggested that Esposito is actively collaborating with this apologetic tendency to project a distorted image of Islam in the west. The second sentence in the Lewis quotation directly contradicts the impression that Esposito conveys to the reader that military jihad is “lesser”, in some way inferior or less noble. Specific canonical texts support the view of Lewis rather than that of Esposito.

The same distinction of lesser and greater jihad is repeated in The Qur'an: an Encyclopedia in the article on Islam by Rifat Atay:
holy war is an insignificant part of the jihad concept, for Muhammad considers holy war to be the lesser jihad. The greater jihad takes place in a Muslim’s inner self and represents the struggle to do good and abstain from evil in all circumstances. 3
Also the Muslim writer Reza Aslan in No God but God writes in a similar vein:
Jihad has more often been associated with its secondary connotation (“the lesser jihad”); that is, any exertion – military or otherwise – against oppression and tyranny. 4
The words “holy war is an insignificant part of the jihad concept” is blatantly false. There is no evidence to support this sweeping statement by Rifat Atay. Nowhere in the Qur’an, nowhere in the Sira and nowhere in authentic Hadith literature is it claimed that “Muhammad considers holy war to be the lesser jihad” or that armed jihad is “an insignificant part of the jihad concept” or that the “greater” jihad is the inner struggle. There are specific ahadith that unambiguously contradict these views. It is false statements like these that create confusion in the general public and create a radical discrepancy between what we see and read in the media and what Islam says of itself, at least in the west.

Hans Küng is much more cautious, more specific and more informed when he notes the late introduction of this distinction, its relation to the Sufis and the reason it was introduced:
From the late eighth century, a distinction was made in the case of Sufi frontier battles between the ‘small effort’ as armed struggle against external foes and the non-violent ‘great effort’ of self-control and the realization of higher values. 5
The distinction between the lesser and greater jihad attracted the attention of the famous Hanbalist scholar and theologian Ibn Taymiyyah  (1263-1328) 6 who advocated a return to early Islam, to its roots and to the classical doctrine of jihad as opposed to these innovatory ideas that had no foundation in classical Islam. As a staunch supporter and guardian of classical armed jihad he proclaimed it “the best of the forms of voluntary service man can devote to God”. Commenting on the distinction, the object of our discussion, with the following words he denies categorically its authenticity:
There is a Hadith related by a group of people which states that the Prophet said after the battle of Tabuk: 'We have returned from Jihad Asghar to Jihad Akbar'. This hadith has no source, nobody whomsoever in the field of Islamic Knowledge has narrated it. Jihad against the disbelievers is the most noble of actions, and moreover it is the most important action for the sake of mankind. 7
According to Taymiyyah these words were transmitted by an unspecified “group” but he does not allude to any tradition nor does he supply specific information on the group in question. He probably had in mind the Sufis when mentioning a “group of people”, which ties in with Hans Küng’s observation. Taymiyyah explicitly asserts that this distinction has no source, by which he presumably means no official source and therefore cannot be considered an orthodox view. He insists that it is armed jihad that is the noblest action and ultimately the most beneficial for mankind. Anyone denying this is, according to Taymiyyah, guilty of heresy, undermining the heart of Islam and placing an obstacle in the progress of humanity and authentic human development.

It is therefore incumbent on any discussion of jihad to establish where the truth actually lies. Is armed jihad the greater, more noble, more beneficial form for humanity according to Islamic sources and theology or is it an inferior, lesser form of jihad? The issue cannot be avoided and must be faced with the utmost seriousness as, in the last analysis, this is one of the fundamental elements that will tip the balance either in favour of fundamentalists or in the favour of “moderates” and will serve as one element among many that will determine who are the true Muslims, those who conform to the example of Muhammad and the canonical sources or those Muslims in the west that make the distinction in favour of peaceful jihad. Writers cannot simply ignore it as Esposito does, nor can there be any crude distortion of facts as in Rifat Atay’s article. It is interesting to note that those who uphold this distinction (as well as those who oppose it) do not quote any sources, but merely assert, ignore or deny it.

The source

Why is it that a distinction of such importance is almost always reported with no evidence supplied? One answer to that lies in the source itself.

 The concept of a lesser jihad related to armed or military action and a greater jihad related to the inner moral struggle has absolutely no correspondence in the Qur’an, in the six canonical collections of ahadith or in the sira. On the contrary, the precise opposite is found on more than one occasion. Where then is the source of this concept to be found?

It is to be found in Al-Bahaqi’s Kitab ul Zuhd al-Kabir (The Major Book of Asceticism) which is an ordered collection of the sayings of the companions of the Prophet and Sufis on the subject of asceticism, as the title suggests. 8 The text reads as follows:
Ali Bin Ahmad informed us that Ahmad Bin Ubaid narrated from Tamtaam who reported from 'Isa Bin Ibrahim who reported from Yahla who reported from Lais who reported Jabir narrate: 'Some warriors came to the Holy Prophet. He said to them, 'welcome back, you came from minor Jihad to the greater one.' It was asked, 'what is that Oh Prophet of God?' 'One's fight against his mundane wills,' he replied.' (Al-Bahaqi Kitab ul Zuhd-al-Kabir)
The first observation to be made is that the text does not pass the tests of authentication in that the chain of narrators (isnad) is defective. The chain of narrators is: Ali Bin Ahmad - Ahmad Bin Ubaid - Tamtaam - 'Isa Bin Ibrahim - Yahla - Lais – Jabir. Yahla and Lais are considered weak (da’if) and 'Isa Bin Ibrahim is classified as one whose narrations cannot be accepted (matrook ul hadith). The hadith, therefore, has no legal value and cannot be used for the formulation of doctrine. On the purely technical level, therefore the text is to be discarded in any serious discussion of jihad.

Incompatibility with other Islamic sources

It is not only because of the defective isnad that this hadith is unacceptable but also because it contradicts other ahadith such as:
The Messenger of Allah was asked: 'What deed could be equivalent to Jihad in the Cause of Allah? He answered: 'You do not have the strength to do that deed. 'The question was repeated twice or thrice. Every time he answered: 'You do not have the strength to do it.' When the question was asked for the third time, he said: 'One who goes out for Jihad is like a person who keeps fasts and stands in prayer forever, never exhibiting any weariness until the Mujihid returns from Jihad.'" (Sahih Muslim Bk. 20 (On Government), No. 4636).

A woman once came to the Prophet and asked: “O Rasulullaah! My husband has departed for war and usually if he prays I follow him in his Salat and I follow him in all his acts of worship. Because of that inform me of an act which can equal his until he returns.” He said to her: “Are you able to stand without sitting, perform Saum without breaking it and Dhikr until your husband returns?” She replied: “I am not strong enough, o Rasulullaah.” So he said to her: “By Allah in whose hand I am, even if you were strong enough it would surely not attain one tenth of your husband’s deeds.” (Al-Mustadrak 2:73).
The most eloquent and definitive proof  that the inner struggle cannot be considered the greater jihad and armed struggle the lesser comes from the Qur’an itself. Not only does it contradict the distinction but it actually inverts it stating quite clearly that the superior and nobler jihad is the armed struggle and that the inner struggle is, in fact, the lesser:
Those people from among the Muslims who stay at home without any genuine excuse are not equal in rank with those who exert their utmost [al-mujahiduna, those who do jihad] with their lives and wealth for the cause of Allah. For Allah has assigned a higher rank to those who exert their utmost [al-mujahidina, those who do jihad] with their lives and wealth than those who stay at home. Though Allah has promised a good reward for all, he has a far richer reward for those who fight [al-mujahidina, those who do jihad] for Him than for those who stay at home: they have high ranks, forgiveness and mercy from Allah, for Allah is Forgiving and Merciful.  (Q. 4:95, Medina)
Here it quite clearly states that the jihad of the believers staying at home and exclusively involved in personal and social jihad are not on a par with those who participate in armed jihad. The preference clearly is given to those who participate in physical armed jihad (Qital). David Cook confirms this:
In reading Muslim literature - both contemporary and classical - one can see that the evidence for the primacy of spiritual jihad is negligible. Today it is certain that no Muslim, writing in a non-Western language (such as Arabic, Persian, Urdu), would ever make claims that jihad is primarily nonviolent or has been superseded by the spiritual jihad. Such claims are made solely by Western scholars, primarily those who study Sufism and/or work in interfaith dialogue, and by Muslim apologists who are trying to present Islam in the most innocuous manner possible 9

Modern exponents of the tradition view

Many modern Muslims (and their numbers are increasing) are reacting strongly against this tendency to allow peaceful jihad to overshadow and even eclipse armed jihad. These see it as a distortion of Islam and a betrayal of the principles embodied in the words and actions of Muhammad. The tendency is in line with the aim of conveying the impression that the religion of Islam is entirely peaceful in its relations with the non-Muslim world and that violence and terrorism have absolutely nothing to do with true Islam.  Particularly relevant to this issue and a clear condemnation of this misguided tendency are the words of Sayyid Abul A 'la Mawdudi:
The Prayer, Fasting, Almsgiving and Pilgrimage, all prepare you for Jihad. But as you have long since forgotten this objective as well as the mission entrusted to you, and because all acts of worship have been reduced to their spiritual contents, this brief statement may be difficult to understand. …
So I say to you: if you really want to root out corruption now so widespread on God's earth, stand up and fight against corrupt rule; take power and use it on God's behalf. It is useless to think that you can change things by preaching alone. …
Wherever you are, in whichever country you live, you must strive to change the wrong basis of government, and seize all powers to rule and make laws from those who do not fear God … the name of this striving is Jihad. …
Only when Islam has prepared its men does it tell them: Now you are the most pious slaves of God on earth. So go forward and fight; dislodge the rebels of God from the government and take over the powers of the caliphate. 10
This is also confirmed by Imam Anwar al Awlaki in his series of lectures  on Thawaabit ‘ala darb al Jihad, Constants on The Path of Jihad by Shaykh Yusuf al ‘Uyayree who, following Ibn Taymiyyah, calls armed jihad the “peak of Islam”:
If we broaden our perspective, we will come to realize that whoever rides the peak of Islam (Jihad) can never loose [sic.] and will always win but not always win in physical victory. 11
In the above texts it is clear that the twentieth-century Muslim writer Mawdudi (Maududi) and, less specifically, Shaykh Yusuf al ‘Uyayree both consider that armed jihad is the greater, more important form and that all other religious devotions, including the pillars of Islam are a preparation for this, they are a means to this end, the highest point, the peak of Islam. Militant jihad is considered by Mawdudi the crowning devotion of a Muslim’s life and he laments that worship has been reduced to spirituality. The true importance of jihad, he claims, has been forgotten and must be revived and the only way to introduce the rule of God is to "stand up and fight", "take power", "seize all powers" from non-Muslims, "dislodge" them and "take over all power" on behalf of God and set up true rule. 12 The rule of God is Sharia law based on the Qur'an, Hadith and Sira. The words of Mawdudi are forceful and inspiring and full of the revolutionary spirit of early Islam. It does not require much imagination to notice the influence of his thought on today's terrorist groups, irrespective of the judgements that might be made on the methods used. These examples quoted are not isolated cases; they belong to a well consolidated tradition that dates back to the early Medina phase of Islam in which clearly the greater jihad is militant.

Mawdudi asserts that the Qur’an subordinates divine guidance to active participation in armed Jihad:
As for those who strive [jahadu] in Our cause, We shall surely guide them to Our Ways. Indeed Allah is with those who do good. (Q. 29:69)
Commenting on this passage Mawdudi observes:
This is a great assurance of God to those who sincerely strive in His cause and expose themselves to conflicts with the rest of the world. God assures such people that He is not wont to leave them to their fate; instead He helps and guides such people at every step and constantly opens up new avenues for them which direct them to Him. 13
Unfortunately Karen Armstrong is wrong on several points when she asserts:
Mawdudi argued that jihad was the central tenet of Islam. This was an innovation. Nobody had ever claimed before that jihad was equivalent to the five Pillars of Islam, but Mawdudi felt that the innovation was justified by the present emergency. 14
First of all Mawdudi emphatically did not assert or ever imply that jihad was the central tenet of Islam and neither did he assert that it was equivalent to the pillars of Islam. Following tradition, what he did uphold was that jihad was  and is the “peak” of Islam and therefore clearly a central tenet of Islam. The whole concept is not an “innovation” rendered necessary by circumstances but, on the contrary, a universal truth valid for all time and all places.

We should also note that the very authoritative, perhaps the most authoritative translation of the Qur’an, in its commentary on ayat 2:190 says:
Al-Jihad (holy fighting) in Allah’s Cause (with full force of numbers and weaponry) is given the utmost importance in Islam and is one of its pillars (on which it stands). 15


As we can see, from this brief account of the concept of the distinction between "lesser" and "greater" jihad there is substantial doctrinal continuity from the earliest years of Islam to today that states that armed, militant or violent jihad is to be considered central to Islamic belief and, far from being considered “lesser” or “inferior”, it is to be seen as of greater importance than the inner struggle or peaceful jihad. Indeed, if this had not been the case it would be difficult to explain early Islamic expansion, the driving force of which was armed jihad. The distinction made by Muslims in the west naturally brings us a sigh of relief, unfortunately this relief turns out to be illusory in view of the fact that peaceful jihad is not the “greater” but the “lesser” jihad and that violent armed jihad is central to the Islamic tradition and Islamic life.

We conclude this brief discussion of the greater and lesser jihad with an authenticated hadith emphasising the central importance of armed jihad:

It was narrated from Abu Hurairah that the Prophet said:  "Whoever dies without having fought or having thought of fighting, he dies on one of the branches of hypocrisy." 16


1John L. Esposito, Unholy War, Terror in the Name of Islam, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2002, p. 28. Cfr. also page 38.
2 Bernard Lewis, The Crisis of Islam, Holy War and Unholy Terror, London, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, p. 24.
3 Oliver Leaman (ed.), The Qur'an: An Encyclopedia, Routledge, Abingdon, Oxon, 2006, p. 317.
4 Reza Azlan, No God But God, The Origins, Evolution and Future of Islam, Arrow Books, London, 2011, p.  82.
5 Hans Küng, Islam Past, Present & Future, Oneworld Publications, Oxford, 2007, p. 600.
6 Taqi ad-Din Ahmad ibn Taymiyyah . His full name was Taqī ad-Dīn Abu 'l-ʿAbbās Aḥmad ibn ʿAbd al-Ḥalīm ibn ʿAbd as-Salām Ibn Taymiya al-Ḥarrānī. He was known to oppose misguided tendencies of the Sufis.
7 Taymiyyah, al-Furqan, p. 44-45.
8 His full name is Ahmad ibn al-Husayn ibn `Ali ibn `Abd Allah ibn Musa, Abu Bakr al-Bayhaqi al-Naysaburi al-Khusrawjirdi al-Shafi`i al-Ash`ari. Al-Bahaqi belonged to the Shafi’i school.
9 David Cook, Understanding Jihad, University of California Press, 2005, p.165-6.
10 Sayyid Abul A'la Mawdudi, Let us be Muslims, Edited by Khurram Murad, Islamic Foundation,  Markfield, 2009, pp. 285-292.
11 Shaykh Yusuf al ‘Uyayree, Thawaabit ‘ala darb al Jihad , Constants on The Path of Jihad, Lecture series delivered by Imam Anwar al Awlaki, Transcribed and Edited by Mujahid Fe Sabeelillah, p. 40. Available from http://www.hoor-al-ayn.com/Books/constants.pdf.
12 Sayyid Abul A'la Mawdudi, op. cit., p. 290.
13 Sayyid Abul A ‘la Mawdudi, Towards Understanding the Qur’an, abridged version of Tafhim al-Qur’an, Translated and edited by Zafar Ishaq Ansari, UK Islamic Mission Dawah Centre, Birmingham, UK, 2011, p. 599.
14 Karen Armstrong, Islam, A short History, Modern Library, New York, 2002, p. 168.
15 Muhammad Taqi-ud-Din Al-Hilali & Muhammad Muhsin Khan, Translation of the Meanings and Commentary of  the Nobel Qur’an in the English Language, King Faud Complex for the Printing of the Holy Qur’an, Madinah, K.S.A, n.d., p. 39.
16 Sunan An-Nasa'i 3099.

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