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jihad/terror, responses

My article – Rethinking Classical Jihad Ideas

(This article is published in Counter-Terrorist Trends & Analysis, RSIS, March 2013)

Rethinking Classical Jihad Ideas 

Muhammad Haniff Hassan


This paper highlights the need for re-interpretation of classical jihad ideas in general and the obligation of reclaiming Muslim historical land from the hand of non-Muslim states under the obligation of defensive jihad as propagated by extremist groups.

 Addressing misinterpretation of jihad by extremist groups is important. However, equally important also is for Muslim scholars to look deep into Muslim intellectual heritage on jihad produced by generations of Muslim scholars over hundreds of years.

This heritage is product of various periods of Muslim history. Nevertheless, its importance and influence to Muslim understanding of religion cannot be underestimated because it remains a critical and core component of Islamic studies in all major Islamic universities.

Unfortunately, it also becomes a reference point also for extremists to validate their vicious ideology that tarnishes Islam and Muslims.

Being a product of a period that was different today and the fact that extremists seek to manipulate some of jihad ideas found in classical heritage necessitate contemporary Muslim scholars to review and rethink in order to, a) give new interpretation to them, b) offer alternative ideas to replace them, or c) debunk them for irrelevance or serious negative implications they carry in today’s time.

This is also in line with the spirit of ijtihad that has been the hallmark of Muslim intellectual glory before that calls upon Muslim scholars to continuously perform ijitihad to generate new ideas that are beneficial and refute old ones that have become obsolescent, albeit in a respectful and sound manner.

 Two Classical Ideas & Implications

Two ideas of jihad found in the Muslim classical intellectual heritage are relevant here, 1) the duty to wage jihad al-talab (offensive jihad) against non-Muslim territories until they become part of Dar Al-Islam (Land of Islam) or recognise the authority of Dar Al-Islam, and 2) the duty to reclaim all lands that were historically part of Dar Al-Islam.

Regardless the true context behind these two ideas and their true meaning when they were discussed in classical books, these two ideas pose may have ramifications to the idea of national security and, thus, pose security concerns at state and international level in today’s context.

Firstly, for a non-Muslim ruler, having a neighbouring Muslim ruler who is seriously committed to the idea of offensive jihad, as allude by classical jihad, would indeed be a major concern. It has been recognised in international relations study on the role of ideas and beliefs in shaping state leader’s course of action or as causal mechanisms in foreign policy, especially in studies on operational codes as written by Stephen G. Walker and Mark Schafer write in article titled Belief System as Causal Mechanism in World Politics: An Overview of Operational Code Analysis.

Secondly, the two classical jihad ideas are also key ideas propagated by extremist groups, especially Al-Qaeda to justify waging jihad in the name of Islam all over the world and to instigate Muslims, take arm individually and encourage hostilities toward non-Muslim states and governments.

Thirdly, using scholars’ opinion found in classical works, extremist groups argue it is obligatory to reclaim all previous Muslim territories which have come under non-Muslim rule today, such as Palestine, Chad, Eretria, Chechnya, Romania, Bulgaria, Spain, Hungary and Singapore and armed jihad is imperative in order to fulfil this obligation.  This would require a Muslim state, individual or organisation to instigate or wage armed jihad against the countries that rule those lands and, to a lesser degree, to subvert or cause the fall of the ruling government or its annexation by a Muslim state. Until this obligation is fulfilled, all Muslims are considered to be living in sin.

This would also mean that individual Muslims could take the initiative to form a group and the group could network with similar groups across boundaries to fulfil the obligation. This facilitated the emergence of trans-national groups like Al-Qaeda which continues to subvert governments and subsequently wage jihad all over the world.

The security ramifications of the said two classical ideas are not theoretical. They have motivated some Muslims to undermine their own governments, as seen in the London-based Al-Muhajiroun. The terror plots by citizens or permanent residents in non-Muslim countries, who were inspired by Al-Qaeda’s militant jihad, are testimonies to this threat such as:

  • The Singapore cell of the Indonesian Jemaah Islamiyah, which comprised of Singapore citizens, planned attacks on various Western targets in the country.
  • Five individuals, who were mainly naturalised citizens of the United States, plotted attacks on the Fort Dix military base in New Jersey.
  • Six Yemeni-Americans popularly referred to as the “Lackawanna Six” of the Buffalo cell provided support to Al-Qaeda.

These subversive activities against the interests of non-Muslim countries also posed serious national security concerns for Muslim countries when they were conducted within their territories, as seen in the bombings in Indonesia.

Thus, addressing these ideas has direct relevance and significance in countering threat of extremists’ call for jihad and inoculating Muslims against it.

The On-Going

To be true, the attempt to rethink and reinterpret the above two has long begun and is still on-going. It must be noted that this attempt has been initiated long before the emergence of the current scourge of extremist jihad. Some of the prominent figures in this attempt are Muhammad `Abduh and Mahmud Shaltut, both were the Grand Shaykh of Al-Azhar, Sa`id Ramadan Al-Buti, and Yusuf Al-Qaradawi whose work on the jurisprudence of jihad was recently published in 2009.

Post 9/11 era witnesses a new development which is the publishing of works by former Muslim militants who have renounced their violent ideology. These militants were from the Egyptian Al-Jama`ah Al-Islamiyah, Egyptian Al-Jihad and the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group. They have produced more than 25 volumes of writings in which they review their previously held violent ideologies and criticise groups like Al-Qaeda.

However, a look into materials produced by Muslim scholars and former militants on this regard shows that this is only particularly so in reference to the idea of jihad al-talab and the argument that underlies it (i.e. the abrogation of all previous revelations after the revelation of the verse in the ninth chapter of the Quran).

The scholars have offered three responses on the idea of jihad al-talab. They assert that the jihad is defensive in character, and argue that there are no scriptural evidences to support the abrogation claim. They hold that verses on jihad cannot be interpreted in isolation. Instead these verses must be reconciled with other verses to produce a true understanding of jihad in Islam. In this respect, Muslim scholars have agreed that verses whose meanings are general and unconditional i.e. to wage jihad against all infidels, must be interpreted as conditional (i.e. to wage jihad against aggressors only). Jihad al-talab, to them, contradicts the Islamic principles they uphold which is that the basis of relations between Muslims and non-Muslims is peace and that difference of faith is not a justification for jihad.

Secondly, the scholars have sought to contextualise the classical strand in two ways: 1) understand the classical view within its historical context, 2) offer a modern understanding of them by tapping on other modern fields of study. On the former, they argue that views found in classical works were shaped by the constant wars between Muslims and non-Muslims (the Romans and the Persians) and the political culture then when war was the preferred means of solving conflicts between states. On the latter, some of them argue, based on the theories in the study of international relations, that the view was fundamentally a response to the prevailing anarchic international system. They offered the perspective of offensive realism, which holds that the anarchic international system provides strong incentives for states to continuously strive for maximum accumulation of power in relation to other states so as to guarantee its own hegemonic power. In doing so, states pursue expansionist policies when and where the benefits of doing so outweigh the costs. A non-hegemonic power in an anarchic international system would be constantly concerned that other states would use force on it.

Thirdly, the scholars stress upon the importance of understanding jihad in the light of the international conventions, which recognise self-defence as the only justification for war. They argue that:

  • the underlying values and principles of international law on war are similar to fiqh al-jihad (jihad jurisprudence), which seeks to limit the destructive nature of war by imposing a code of conduct;
  • the principles of Islamic jurisprudence recognise customs and conventions as secondary sources of law, and Muslim scholars are in agreement that the law should be tailored, adjusted and changed in accordance to in the context of time and place as long they do not contravene any principles of the shari`ah;
  • failure to abide by international conventions will put the Muslim states, communities and Islam itself in a negative light. Muslim states also risk being sanctioned, to the detriment of the ummah.

The Unattended

However, the same cannot be said about the vision of reclaiming historically Muslim lands as a religious obligation. A review of various works on jihad, particularly from the mainstream Muslim scholars as exemplified by names mentioned above, reveals a puzzling lack of attempts to study, deconstruct or contextualise it. They have not responded to the extremists’ on the issue of historical Muslim lands, neither have they attempted to reconcile the classical view on reclaiming occupied Muslim territories with the modern conception of the nation state.

The closest position with regard of addressing the vision of reclaiming historically Muslim lands as a religious obligation has been that of Abdullahi An-Na`im, in Islamic Ambivalence to Political Violence: Islamic Law and International Terrorism. He suggests that, in view of the current context, the idea of jihad as “the unilateral use of force by Muslims in pursuit of political objectives and outside the institutional framework of international legality and the rule of law in general” should be abandoned. He seeks to fully assimilate Islamic jurisprudence of jihad into existing international law and reinterpret them through the contemporary framework of international law and the political system.

However, this perspective only addresses the fundamentals of jihad al-talab in order to prevent Muslims from waging wars against other states in the name of jihad. Accepting the current framework would only indirectly suggest that Muslims must forego the right to claim those lands historically under Muslim rule which are presently part of legitimate sovereign states. What has not been addressed are issues such as why armed jihad in this regard is considered irrelevance or obsolete today, why the classical view has to be reinterpreted with new perspectives, and why the current changes require new thinking.

One possible reason to this is most Muslim scholars who specialise in traditional Islamic studies which represent the mainstream strand have not come to terms to the modern international systems which are based on nation-state concept. Despite all Muslim countries where the scholars live in are not free nation-state framework, a majority of them remains hopeful that one day all Muslim countries be reunited under a single polity and a return to Islamic glory is still imagined in the form of old Muslim empire that stretch from Andalusia to Malay Archipelago. This contributes to fear that rethinking of an idea that would mean forgoing the lost historical lands and, as a result, little effort has been advanced into rethinking the configuration of the state system of the countries that had previously been part of Muslim territory.

Understandably, this relates to the fact that the modern nation-state system did not emerge out of the Muslim’s own tradition or initiative. It was a European solution to the wars that had plagued the continent for decades. It was realised through the Treaties of Westphalia in 1648 which brought an end to the dynastic competition and conflicts between the Protestant and Catholic communities of Europe. As a result, Europe was divided into demarcated territories where the right of a prince to rule over the territory and the people living within it was recognised. This eventually led to the emergence of the modern concept of sovereign states.

Although the Muslim world had not been free from internal wars, a multilateral settlement such as the Treaties of Westphalia or their equivalent had never occurred in Muslim history. Even during the period of multiple dynasties within the Muslim world, the idea of a unitary polity was still upheld.

The state system practiced in the Muslim world today had been introduced by the European colonialists as exemplified by the 1916 Sykes-Picot Agreement between France and the United Kingdom for the control of the Middle East, and the 1824 Anglo-Dutch Treaty of 1824 for the control of the Malay Archipelago. With this background and in addition to the fear of giving away the lost Muslim lands, nation-state concept is viewed by Muslim scholars with suspicion that it is a colonial idea to effect its’ famous principle of divide and rule on Muslim and never got a positive place in traditional Islamic studies.

Conclusion & Suggestion

It is hope that there will be serious efforts by mainstream Muslim scholars to look into rethinking about that part of defensive jihad that requires Muslims today to reclaim the lost historical Muslim lands. In addition, much can still be done to strengthen the on-going efforts to contextualising jihad to contemporary time.

In view of these two points, it is suggested, for the way forward, a multi-disciplinary approach to the study of jihad be promoted and introduced at traditional Muslim institutes of learning such as madrasah and pesantren as well as at universities.

Currently, this process has only been observed at Western universities within the study of Islam or related disciplines such as international relations. Most traditional Muslim institutions of learning still rely heavily, or solely, on classical works. Even the reformist texts used in comparison with the classical works are largely rooted in traditional Islamic jurisprudence. There is little comparison with modern international law, far from being integrated to it. The study of other disciplines such as international relations in order to understand different perspectives is rare.

These initiatives must be taken by Muslims themselves so as to avoid the perception of colonialism by Western intellectuals. However, non-Muslims can play a part by objectively engaging Muslim leaders and scholars.

In addition, a few other suggestions can be made;

  • to produce more Muslim scholars of traditional backgrounds specialising in jihad from a multi-disciplinary perspective by offering scholarships;
  • to encourage research that seeks to integrate traditional jihad studies with international law, and a multi-disciplinary approach to the study of jihad in Muslim institutions of learning;
  • to encourage platforms for Muslim scholars of various backgrounds to revisit the view of traditional jihad with the purpose of adapting it to modern contexts. An example is the Mardin Conference of 2010 which brought together 15 scholars to review Ibn Taymiyah’s fatwa, thereby producing a resolution to abandon the categorisation of lands into Dar Al-Islam and Dar Al-Harb (Land of War), and accept peace as the basis of relations between Muslim and non-Muslims.

With the existence of more human capital (multi-disciplinary specialists on jihad), efforts to reach out to Muslims and Muslim students, reformulate the fiqh al-jihad curriculum studied at traditional Islamic learning institutions, revisit the traditional interpretations of jihad and encourage debate on this topic among Muslims may all be facilitated more effectively.

Muhammad Haniff Hassan is a Fellow at S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore.

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: My new article – Rethinking Classical Jihad Ideas | - March 1, 2013

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