Is holy war against Christians and Jews—“infidels”—a perversion of Islam? Here’s the evidence, from Islamic texts and history.

by Mark Hartwig, Ph.D.

For Westerners, the Arabic word jihad has long had an ominous ring—conjuring up a host of images, from turbaned warriors swinging scimitars to wild-eyed fanatics waving Kalashnikov rifles. We instinctively associate the word with “holy war.”

Given the history of Western-Islamic relationships, that’s not surprising. In the century immediately following the death of Muhammad (632), Muslim forces conquered lands stretching from the borders of China and India to Spain’s Atlantic coast. Historian Bernard Lewis notes:

For almost a thousand years ... Europe was under constant threat. In the early centuries it was a double threat—not only of invasion and conquest, but also of conversion and assimilation. All but the easternmost provinces of the Islamic realm had been taken from Christian rulers, and the vast majority of the first Muslims west of Iran and Arabia were converts from Christianity. North Africa, Egypt, Syria, even Persian-ruled Iraq, had been Christian countries, in which Christianity was older and more deeply rooted than in most of Europe. Their loss was sorely felt and heightened the fear that a similar fate was in store for Europe.[1]

It is not surprising, then, that the word jihad would be understood by most Westerners to mean “holy war.” But is that what it really means? And how does that square with the claim that Islam is a peaceful religion?


Muslims claim that jihad does not mean holy war. Technically, they are correct.

In Arabic, the word jihad literally means “struggle” or “striving.” It is related to the word, jahada, defined as “exerting one’s utmost power, efforts, endeavors or ability in contending with an object of [disapproval].”[2] In the Quran, the word is often part of a larger phrase “jihad in the path of God.”

Jihad may be waged against a variety of targets: a human enemy, one’s own evil desires, even Satan. Contemporary Muslim societies often use the word jihad the way Americans use the word crusade. Hence, authorities in a Muslim country might declare, say, a “jihad against drugs.”

So there are several kinds of jihad recognized within Islam: “Jihad of the heart,” which is the struggle against oneself; “jihad of the tongue” or “jihad of the pen,” which involve persuasion, exhortation and instruction for the cause of Islam; “jihad of the sword;” and so on.[3]

Still, the primary meaning of jihad is physical combat. According to Reuven Firestone, professor of medieval Judaism and Islam at Hebrew Union College in Los Angeles, “When the term is used without qualifiers such as ‘of the heart’ or ‘of the tongue’ ... it is universally understood as war on behalf of Islam (equivalent to “jihad of the sword”), and the merits of engaging in such jihad are described plentifully in the most-respected religious works.”[4]


Jihad as physical warfare features prominently in the earliest Islamic writings. The Quran alone contains many verses about it.

Pakistani Brigadier S.K. Malik, a Muslim, points out that “the Quranic injunctions cover the causes and object of war; its nature and characteristics; limits and extents; dimensions and restraints.”[5] The Quran even goes into strategy and tactics, and critiques some Muslim battles.

Taken at face value, the verses in the Quran about warfare seem ambiguous and contradictory. In some places, for example, the Quran urges Muhammad and Muslims to confront opposition with patience and persuasion. These have been called “Verses of Forgiveness and Pardon”:[6]

Invite (all) to the way of thy Lord with wisdom and beautiful preaching; and argue with them in ways that are best and most gracious: for thy Lord knoweth best, who have strayed from His path, and who receive guidance. (16:125)[7]

Nor can goodness and evil be equal. Repel (evil) with what is better. (41:34)

In other places, it gives them permission to engage in retaliatory or defensive fighting:

To those against whom war is made, permission is given (to fight), because they are wronged—and verily, God is most powerful for their aid—(They are) those who have been expelled from their homes in defiance of right (for no cause) except that they say, “our Lord is God.” (22:39-40a)

In yet other places, the Quran seems to command offensive warfare against unbelievers:

Fighting is prescribed for you, and ye dislike it. But it is possible that ye dislike a thing which is good for you, and that ye love a thing which is bad for you. But God knoweth, and ye know not. (2:216)

But when the forbidden months are past, then fight and slay the pagans wherever ye find them, and seize them, beleaguer them, and lie in wait for them in every stratagem (of war); but if they repent, and establish regular prayers and practice regular charity, then open the way for them: for God is Oft-forgiving, Most Merciful. (9:5)

Fight those who believe not in God nor the Last Day, nor hold that forbidden which hath been forbidden by God and His Apostle, nor acknowledge the religion of Truth, (even if they are) of the People of the Book (Christians and Jews), until they pay the jizya [tribute] with willing submission, and feel themselves subdued. (9:29).

Early Islamic scholars resolved the conflict by appealing to a kind of progressive “revelation” that was tailored to fit Muhammad’s and his followers’ circumstances.

When Muhammad first began to receive “revelations” from God, in 610, he lived in Mecca, a major center of polytheistic worship. As he preached his monotheistic message, he encountered indifference and then growing resistance. Over 13 years, persecution against him and his small band of followers eventually became so severe that they finally left Mecca and emigrated to Medina (then known as Yathrib) about 220 miles to the north.

In Medina, Muhammad gathered many followers—along with political and military power. After eight years of raids and battles, he conquered Mecca and instituted Islam in place of the city’s polytheism.

According to Firestone, “Muslim scholars came to the conclusion that the scriptural verses regarding war were revealed in direct relation to the historic needs of Muhammad during his prophetic mission. At the beginning of his prophetic career in Mecca when he was weak and his followers few, the divine revelations encouraged avoidance of physical conflict.”

After the intense persecutions that caused Muhammad and his followers to emigrate to Medina, however, they were given leave to engage in defensive warfare. As the Muslim community grew in strength, further revelations broadened the conditions under which war could be waged, “until it was concluded that war against non-Muslims could be waged virtually at any time, without pretext, and in any place.”[8]

The later verses, known as the “Sword Verses” (9:5 and 9:29), were considered by Muslim scholars to have cancelled the previous verses mandating kindness and persuasion. Expansionist jihad became the explicit norm.

Rudolph Peters, professor of Islamic Law and Law of the Middle East at the University of Amsterdam, observes, “The crux of the doctrine is the existence of one single Islamic state, ruling the entire umma [Muslim community]. It is the duty of the umma to expand the territory of this state in order to bring as many people under its rule as possible. The ultimate aim is to expand the territory of this state in order to bring the whole earth under the sway of Islam and to extirpate unbelief.”[9]

After the initial, massive conquests of Islam ended in the eighth century, Muslim jurists ruled that the caliph (the supreme Muslim ruler) “had to raid enemy territory at least once a year in order to keep the idea of jihad alive.”[10]

This was the dominant view of jihad until modern times. If anything, the last Islamic empire—the Ottoman Empire—was even more zealous about expansionist jihad than the early empires.[11]


The Quran teaches that people should not be converted by force: “Let there be no compulsion in religion” (2:256a).

Nonetheless, the doctrine of jihad has led many to allege that Islam was spread by the sword. This is a fair charge, but it needs to be qualified.

Muslims follow not only the Quran, which they believe is a literal transcript of God’s words, but also the Hadith, accounts of Muhammad’s words and deeds. These words and deeds are considered inspired by God and an example for Muslims to follow. According to one widely accepted hadith, whenever Muhammad would send an out expedition, he would admonish his appointed commander:

When you meet your enemies who are polytheists, invite them to three courses of action. If they respond to any one of these, you also accept it and withhold yourself from doing them any harm. Invite them to [accept] Islam; if they respond to you, accept it from them and desist from fighting against them. ... If they refuse to accept Islam, demand from them the jizya. If they agree to pay, accept it from them and hold off your hands. If they refuse to pay the tax, seek Allah’s help and fight them.[12]

The jizya, a kind of tribute, was part of a larger deal in which non-Muslims submitted to several conditions. In addition to paying the jizya, non-Muslims were also required to wear distinctive clothing and mark their houses (which must not be built higher than Muslims’ houses), must not scandalize Muslims by openly performing their worship services, nor build new churches or synagogues. Those who owned land were also required to pay a land tax.[13]

According to some Muslim jurists, the jizya had to be paid by each person at a humiliating public ceremony, in which the person was struck on the head or the nape of the neck. According to historian Bat Ye’or, this ceremony “survived unchanged till the dawn of the twentieth century.”[14]

Both the jizya and the land tax were often extorted through torture, and were frequently so exorbitant that whole villages would flee or go into hiding.

Technically, then, Christians and Jews were not forced to accept Islam at the point of a sword. But their treatment nonetheless placed them under severe pressure to convert.

And many idolaters were not even allowed to pay the jizya. They were forced to either convert or die.


By the late 1600s, the Islamic Ottoman Empire had pushed the frontiers of Islam as far west as Austria. After being repelled from the walls of Vienna in 1683, however, the empire became less and less of a threat.

With the rise of Western power, expansionist jihad became harder to maintain. Historian Bernard Lewis observes that defense eventually “became the pattern of jihad in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, as one Muslim country after another was threatened and then conquered by Christian European powers.”[15]

In addition to being put on the defensive militarily, Muslims were increasingly confronted with Western institutions and ideas. Some Muslim thinkers, notes Peters, were “convinced of the superiority of the West and Western culture [and] tried to show that Islam was a ‘respectable’ religion that fostered the same values as Christendom and Western civilization.”[16]

Other Muslims were less impressed with Western ideas and resented what they perceived as unfair criticism from Western scholars who viewed Islam as an aggressive religion. After all, during their lifetimes, they had only seen Islam on the retreat. They sought to defend Islam from what they perceived as colonialist propaganda.

Both groups of Muslim thinkers reinterpreted jihad as defensive warfare: The Sword Verses commanding Muslims to slay the pagans were directed not at unbelievers in general, but at the hostile Jews, Christians and Arab polytheists who fought against Muhammad because they hated his religion.

By this view, the Sword Verses do not abrogate the other verses. Rather, according to one of the leading Muslim scholars of the mid-1900s, the Verses of Forgiveness and Pardon remain “fixed and unassailable.”[17]

This is considered a "modernist" interpretation of jihad, and those who embrace it consequently attach a great deal of importance to the nonmilitary forms of jihad (e.g., jihad of the heart, pen and so on).

It is unclear, however, just how many people subscribe to this view. For one thing, some of the writings were designed to make Muslims look better to their colonial rulers. In India, for example, the British tended to favor Hindus over Muslims partly because of the doctrine of jihad. Some Muslim writers tried to counter that problem by denying expansionist jihad—and even some aspects of defensive jihad.[18]

Moreover, these writings exist side by side with other writings that expound the traditional view. Such traditional writings euphemize expansionist jihad, but include it as a legitimate option. One often-cited text calls it warfare for “idealistic” reasons, and justifies it by arguing, “Every nation has its own ideals which constantly inspire it. The deeper a nation is convinced of them, the greater is its effort to realize them. ... It is this mission to uproot godlessness and [polytheism] that is referred to in Islamic literature by the expression, ‘in the path of God,’ which we have translated as ‘idealistic’ reasons for waging war.”[19]


The modernist interpretation is also taking heat from growing numbers of Islamic fundamentalists, who contend that those promoting that interpretation suffer from “defeatist and apologetic mentalities.”[20] They have recast jihad as an ongoing “Islamic world revolution.”[21]

The intellectual father of Islamic fundamentalism is Sayyid Qutb (1903-1966). According to Bassam Tibi, professor of international relations at the University of Göttingen, his writings “can be compared, in terms of spread and influence, with the Communist Manifesto.”[22]

An Egyptian teacher, Qutb came to New York and Greeley, Colorado in 1948-1950 for further training. During his stay he was stung by Americans’ anti-Arab sentiments and repulsed by their materialism and sexual looseness.

As a result of this experience, Tibi said, Qutb “returned to Egypt as a furious anti-American and anti-Western Muslim intent on laying the groundwork for a vision of Islam that would offer an alternative to that of the West.”[23] His writings captured the imagination of many Muslims, and his status only grew when the Egyptian government executed him in 1966 for subversion.

Qutb believed that “mankind today is on the brink of a precipice ... because humanity is devoid of those vital values which are necessary not only for its healthy development, but also for its real progress.”[24]

He asserted that mankind will never find salvation in manmade laws—whether those of Western Europe and North America or those of the Communist countries. Salvation can only be achieved by replacing manmade laws and institutions with God’s rule alone. Mankind must adopt Islamic law in total, and give up such notions as democracy, which derives its authority from people rather than God.

Qutb declared that anyone who doesn’t accept God’s law in every respect—including professed Muslims—is an unbeliever: “Whoever observes something other than God’s revelations in his judgment not only rejects a particular aspect of Godhead but also claims for himself certain qualities of Godhead. If that is not unbelief, I wonder what is. For what use is a verbal claim of being a believer ... when such action denies such a claim?”[25]

As unbelievers, such people may be fought by physical means. Indeed, they must be fought because they will not peaceably relinquish the ability to legislate for themselves:

It is not that Islam loves to draw its sword and chop off people’s heads with it. The hard facts of life compel Islam to have its sword drawn and to be always ready and careful. God knows that those who hold the reigns of power are hostile to Islam and that they will always try to resist it.[26]

This was the ideology followed by the militants who assassinated Egyptian President Anwar Sadat in 1981. It is also the ideology that is behind most Islamic terrorism today—including that of Osama bin Laden and his al-Qaida network.


Modernist interpretations notwithstanding, it is clear that military jihad—even in its expansionist form—is an authentic part of Islam.

No matter how you cut it, Muhammad was not only a religious leader, but a military leader who waged war against his enemies as soon as he had the means. Following his example, Muslims quickly carved out an enormous empire. And what ended Muslim expansion was not a change of heart or doctrine, but European military might.

Furthermore, the traditional doctrine of jihad remains alive to this day.

This means that Christians should not accept the sweeping claim that Islam is a religion of peace. There’s just too much contrary evidence.

On the other hand, Christians shouldn’t jump to the conclusion that their Muslim neighbors are bomb-toting fanatics: Even Muslims who believe in militant jihad don’t necessarily like violence.

Instead of fearing or hating Muslims, Christians should view them in light of our duty to preach the gospel. For as 2 Tim. 1:7 reminds us, “God has not given us a spirit of fear, but of power and of love and of a sound mind.”[27]

Mark Hartwig, Ph.D., has followed Islamic issues for several years. In 1999, he traveled on assignment to Sudan, to cover the war that the Islamic government was waging against its people in the south.

[1] Bernard Lewis, Islam and the West (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993), p. 13.
[2] Edward Lane, An Arabic-English Lexicon, book 1 (London: Williams and Norgate, 1865), part 2, p. 473. Cited in Reuven Firestone, Jihad: The Origin of Holy War in Islam (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999), p. 139.
[3] See Firestone, 1999; Rudolph Peters, Jihad in Classical and Modern Islam, (Princeton: Markus Wiener Publishers), 1996; Lt. Col. M.M. Qureshi, Landmarks of Jihad (Lahore, Pakistan: Skeik Muhammad Ashraf Publishers, 1970); Abdullah bin Muhammad bin Humaid, Jihad in the Quran and Sunnah (Riyadh, Saudi Arabia: Maktaba Dar-us-Salam Publishers), no date.
[4] Firestone, 1999.
[5] Brig. S.K. Malik, The Quranic Concept of War (Dehli, India: Adam Publishers, 1979), p. 1.
[6] Mahmud Shaltut, “The Koran and Fighting,” in Peters, 1996, p. 81.
[7] Unless otherwise indicated, all passages of the Quran are taken from the translation by Abdullah Yusuf Ali, The Meaning of the Holy Quran.
[8] Firestone, 1999, p. 50.
[9] Peters, 1996, p. 3.
[10] Ibid.
[11] Bernard Lewis, The Middle East: A Brief History of the Last 2,000 Years (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1995), p. 237.
[12] Sahih Muslim, Book 19, Number 4294.
[13] Joseph Schacht, An Introduction to Islamic Law (London: Oxford University Press, 1964), p. 131.
[14] Bat Ye’or, The Decline of Eastern Christianity under Islam: From Jihad to Dhimmitude (London: Associated University Presses), pp. 73-79.
[15] Lewis, 1995, p. 237.
[16] Peters, 1996, p. 109.
[17] Mahmud Shaltut, 1996, p 82. Shaltut was rector of al-Azhar University in Cairo, Egypt, the most prestigious university in the Muslim world.
[18] Peters, 1996, p. 109.
[19] See Muhammad Hamidullah, The Muslim Conduct of State (Lahore, Pakistan: Sheik Muhammad Ashraf Publishers, 1941), p. 169.
[20] Sayyid Qutb, Milestones (Salimiah, Kuwait: International Islamic Federation of Student Organizations, 1978), p. 102.
[21] Peters, 1996, p. 129; Bassam Tibi, The Challenge of Fundamentalism: Political Islam and the New World Disorder (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998), p. 56.
[22] Ibid.
[23] Tibi, 1998, p. 56.
[24] Qutb, 1978, p. 7.
[25] Sayyid Qutb, In the Shade of the Quran, Volume IV (Leicester, UK: The Islamic Foundation, 2001), p. 123.
[26] Sayyid Qutb, Volume III, p. 282.
[27] NKJV.

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