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When does their jihad become my jihad?

(c) Muhammad Haniff Hassan, “When does their jihad become my jihad?”, The Straits Times, 14 March 2007.


In order to pursue the objective of attacking the far enemy (the United States and its allies), Al-Qaeda, which has been weakened by worldwide counter-terrorism operations, embarks on extensive campaign of franchising its idea of jihad. This partly explains recent increase of video and audio statements by Osama bin Laden and Ayman Al-Zawahiri.

The effect of Al-Qaeda’s franchisation of its jihad ideology is worrying. This is because it creates potential freelance terrorists, who may not be members of Al-Qaeda, but drawn into terrorism because they share the ideology or common grievances as propagandised by Al-Qaeda. The threat from freelance terrorist is real, as demonstrated by the London bombing. If Al-Qaeda succeeds in its franchise program through ideological propaganda, it will further complicate efforts to combat terrorism because the threat becomes more diffused and difficult to detect.

One of many concepts used by Al-Qaeda to franchise its ideology is the idea that armed jihad today is fardhu ain (personal obligation) upon every single Muslim. This is in stark contrast to the opinion of the large majority of Muslim scholars who assert that armed jihad is originally fardhu kifayah, which refers to an obligation that requires only a segment of Muslims to engage in jihad on behalf of the larger community.

According to Al-Qaeda, the classical Muslim scholars ruled that if an inch of Muslim’s land is seized than it becomes incumbent on Muslims living in the invaded land to liberate it through armed jihad. If they have no capacity to repel the enemy on their own, the responsibility is transferred to the nearest Muslim community and so on.

In today’s context, Al-Qaeda argues that there are plenty of Muslim land that remain occupied by non-Muslims such as Palestine, Iraq, Afghanistan, Chechnya, Kashmir and Mindanao. Since people of the respective lands are not able to repel the enemy by themselves, Muslims all over the world are to render their hands and participate in jihad against the occupying forces. Also, since jihad is fardhu ain like daily prayer and fasting, one need not wait for Muslim rulers to perform the obligation if he can perform it on his own. This, thus, negates the ruling held by Muslim scholars that armed jihad can only be waged under the banner of a mandated Muslim authority.

For some ordinary Muslims such a view is logical and convincing. However, Muslims must realise that in deciding on whether a particular people have insufficient capacity to carry the obligation on their own and, to what extent the obligation is transferred to other Muslims is a matter of judgment or ijtihad. Often in such situations, differences of opinion among Muslim scholars occur and are unavoidable.

Thus, while Muslim scholars agree on the above basic ruling, they often differ in implementing it for a specific context. One can find differences of opinion among scholars on the exact details and conditions that extend the rule of armed jihad as fardhu ain to people outside of the invaded land. When the result of ijtihad differs, after each party follow a standard ijtihad methodology, one cannot claim his opinion is absolutely right and dismiss others as wrong or misleading.

Assuming that the ruling of armed jihad as fardhu ain is accepted, there is another important aspect that needs to be considered before armed jihad can be waged. One needs to prioritise responsibilities, because armed jihad is not the only fardhu ain burdened on the shoulders of the Muslims at any particular point in time.

Prioritising is essential in Islam. Islamic practices are regulated by a dynamic system of prioritisation, and are a key consideration in many schools of Islamic jurisprudence. In making rulings, Muslim jurists are required, for example, to prioritise a confirmed benefit above a doubtful one and are allowed to sustain a lesser harm to avoid a bigger one.

Determining type of jihad is again a matter of judgment (ijtihad) by Muslim scholars in which differences in opinion may be inevitable. For example, while Al-Qaeda claims the protection of Muslim’s life requires Muslims to avenge the deaths of thousands of Muslims in various lands, they make no mention of thousands of other Muslims who die through poverty, poor living conditions and under development.

The key questions in this debate are, “is prioritising armed jihad above other fardhu ain an absolute rule on all Muslims in all parts of the world without giving due consideration to each Muslim community’s context? Is armed jihad as a means of liberating Muslims’ lands an absolute or the only option to all Muslims with no regard to their context or circumstances vis-à-vis other Islamic obligations?”

It is argued here that the answer is no. Islam requires its followers to give due consideration to context in practicing the religion. This means Islam takes into account the reality of the time, environment, individual and other factors in determining rules and in practising the religion. Hence, the ruling for a certain matter may be different due to differences in reality. This applies whether the rule is a general policy for society, or specific to an individual or a particular group only.

A good Muslim is not only one who is able to uphold the fundamentals of the religion, but also able to contextualise the teachings when the need arises. One who studies the opinion of Muslim scholars will find that they changed their rulings with reference to the place, time, and person affected by a ruling. In essence due consideration to different situations vis-à-vis space, time, and person, goes hand in hand when formulating a fatwa.

Practicing Islam within one’s own capacity and context is important because failure to adhere to or accept such a principle will cause negative effects, such as inflexibility towards a changing situation and environment. Upholding impractical and unrealistic expectations or viewpoints cause a person or community to waste valuable resources due to inappropriate priorities. Furthermore, it will cause difficulty for Muslims to practice the religion, which is in contradiction to the very essence of Islam as a practical religion(The Quran, 22: 78, 185).

In conclusion, even if Muslims agree, as an example, that the Palestinian’s struggle against the Israeli occupation is a legitimatejihad and armed jihad in Palestine falls into the category of fardhu ain, this does not mean that every Muslim should adopt a similar approach. It also should not excuse other Muslims from ignoring their own issues just for the sake of Palestinian’s cause.


About Muhammad Haniff Hassan

Muhammad Haniff Bin Hassan is a Fellow. He holds a PhD and M.Sc. in Strategic Studies at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (previously known as the Institute of Defence and Strategic Studies), Nanyang Technological University. He received his early education in Aljunied Islamic School. He then continued his tertiary education at the Faculty of Islamic Studies, National University of Malaysia, with honours in Syar`iah and Civil law. Mr. Haniff is also active in social activities as a member of the Islamic Religious Council Appeal Board, HSBC Insurance Islamic Advisory Board from 2000 to 2014, Association of Islamic Religious Teachers and Scholars of Singapore (PERGAS) and Management Committee of Al-Irsyad Islamic School. He writes extensively in Berita Harian (a local Malay newspaper) and has also published articles in The Straits Times. He has published six books in his name, co-authored a monograph and helped publish two books for PERGAS and the Islamic Religious Council of Singapore. His personal website in Malay is at



  1. Pingback: List of my short articles in English from 2004 – 2012 | - December 20, 2012

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