CESNUR - center for studies on new religions


June 17-20, 2004 - Baylor University, Waco, Texas

Understanding Islamic Fundamentalism: A Politico-Legal Analysis

by Dr. Yunus Soualhi[1]
A paper presented at CESNUR 2004 international conference, Baylor University, Waco (Texas), June 18-20, 2004 - Preliminary version - Do not reproduce or quote without the consent of the author

The world has never ceased to witness ideological conflicts. World religions have never clashed or engaged in religious cleansing, but when ideologies and fundamental religious movements clash, the world has to brace it self for a devastating clash of civilizations, the proliferation of which may prompt one to exterminate the other. The case is true with “Islamic fundamentalism” whose conflict with world ideologies seems to shape the equation of the new world order and the parameters of conflict and conflict resolution in the new millennium. In the first part of the paper we will attempt to define the word “fundamentalism” and how it was perceived to reflect the agenda of religious fanaticism. The discussion would lay bare the very essence of the issue which lies at the bottom of a long lasting conflict between the secular and the religious. The second part would distinguish between positive and negative fundamentalism. While the former tends to stick to the fundamentals in terms of preserving the immutable and adjusting the mutable, the latter seems to consider the whole injunctions of Islam as immutable and hence worth fighting for. The paper would thus examine the legal texts of the Shariah that are perceived to fuel “Islamic fundamentalism”. The third part would address the western response to ‘Islamic fundamentalism” and whether such a response quelled or fueled such a phenomenon.


It goes without saying that people, enterprises, and governments are deemed worthy and adequate in proportion to the level of adherence to the policies and constitutional principles set in the first place. But when ignoring the parameters of time and space to fit those fundamentals, fundamentalism is born. While fundamentalism in general seems to be a manageable predicament, religious fundamentalism makes fundamentalism more fundamentalist in nature. Nevertheless, “it is easier to establish a fundamentalist movement when religious fundamentals are spelled out explicitly in sacred texts and codes.”[2] Easy as it may be, the phenomenon under study unleashed a debate that simply appears to dictate the rules of new political and economic policies.

The roots of fundamentalism can be traced to the American Millenarian movement which believed in the second advent of Christ. In 1919 world’s Christian Fundamentals Association was established and a new world view towards God and world was created. Thus, the concept of fundamentalist during the inception of this movement refers to “specific religious phenomena that have emerged in the 20th century in the wake of success of modernization and secularization”[3]. Fundamentalism then set out to respond to the “new threats” of a pre-mature version of globalization that began to sweep to world at the beginning of the twentieth century. Bronislaw Misztal and Anson Shupe wrote,

By the term fundamentalism, however, we intend a more inclusive and globally relevant meaning. In our view fundamentalism is not simply characterized by rigid doctrinaire movements that reject the modern world. Global fundamentalism can be defined as a series of related responses to the globalization process per se [4]

In his renowned book A History of Fundamentalism in America, Author Dollar ascertains militancy as an important aspect of evangelicalism which is ready to go against non-Biblical affirmations and attitudes[5]. This may well refer to the fear that modernization would eradicate faith and install secularism or perhaps atheism instead. Obviously, this has been the concern of all monotheistic faiths namely Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Fundamentalism is also perceived as anti-western, anti-pluralism, militant, and thrust to conquer the world. The “Fundamentalism Project” undertaken by the University of Chicago made it “tempting to say that fundamentalists aspire to be world conquerors. By this way of thinking, fundamentalism is defined as essentially reactive, militant and antipluralist.”[6] An additional categorization provided that fundamentalists are world transformers, world creators, or world renouncers.[7] Thus, fundamentalism according to many quarters seem to share many elements that constitute the driving force underlying the determination and resilience of the fundamentalists trends. They would all react to the marginalization of religion, dismissing modernization as evil; they are selective in terms of the tools chosen to carry out the word of God they are asked to propagate; they would hold their views absolute and sometimes sacred to suppress reasoning and theological debates; they would subscribe to millennialism and messianism[8] to secure a better commitment to the fundamentalist approach. The above mentioned characteristics of fundamentalism outlined by the University of Chicago is, however, too general and doesn’t seem to reflect commonalities featuring the fundamentalists trends. The appellation “fundamentalism’ is far from being an unequivocal term that is confined to a particular trend or a group. The term is often used vaguely and construed negatively to refer to different trends of fundamentalists. Wade Clark Roof identified political fundamentalism[9] as means to combat vices and protect the moral integrity of society, while Bruce B. Lawrence talked about “cultural fundamentalism that etches the Anglo-Protestant ethos [and] Henry May described it as Progressive Patriotic Protestantism” [10]. Lawrence added that “"the central advocates of cultural fundamentalism are also academic voices, whether Anglo, such as Samuel Huntington, or African American, such as Stephen Carter, or South Asian, such as Dinesh D'Souza" [11]

It is now obvious that the variety of approaches to address the “fundamentalism phenomenon” coupled with the arbitrary use of terms such as terrorism and extremism, would perplex the very concept of fundamentalism, reform and revivalism. We shall see later how such a perplexity in defining “fundamentalism” blurred the connotation of certain terms that have long earned their holders a host of appraisal and admiration. Terms as virtuous as reform and revivalism are arbitrarily taken to mean “extremism” and sometimes “terrorism”. Besides, the term “Jihad” has emerged in modern political thought to denote a host of meanings that all partake in the violent tone characterized by a “Bloody War” instead of “Holy War”. The term Jihad has simply been misunderstood and derailed from its semantic and pragmatic context. The proper understanding of jihad is mostly curtailed by simplistic analysis and shallow treatment of some writers who failed to understand that Islamic Jihad is a doctrine that aims at protecting humanity from the forces of evil. In view of the speculation that the term “fundamentalism” denotes, it goes without saying that the discourse on fundamentalism has failed to establish an accurate meaning for “fundamentalism.”


In view of the speculative meaning of the term “Fundamentalism”, it would be difficult again to ascribe the word “Islamic” to “fundamentalism.” John O. Voll defines Islamic fundamentalism as “a reaffirmation of foundational principles and the effort to reshape society in terms of those reaffirmed fundamentals.” [12] The definition accentuates the scrupulous observance of the fundaments of an enterprise, an observance viewed by many people as key factor towards achieving satisfactory results in our undertakings. A government adhering to the constitution or a company acting upon its fiscal system, or an ideology that draws upon its basic components, all are expressions of a fundamentalist behavior from the psychological and social perspectives. Thus, it would not be an exaggeration if I say that we all express fundamentalist behaviors when dealing with the duality of the mutable and immutable that features our principles and methods of undertaking things. But it is the aberrant approach, with which we address fundamentalism, that shapes most of the “fundamentalism theories.” The lack of contextualization is what is subverting fundamentalism to reflect its genuine meaning. I would be apologetic if I say that the bulk of the literature produced on “Islamic fundamentalism” is inadequate and only serves to blur the “phenomenon” under study.

The aim of this part of the paper is to identify the trend that we believe represents “Islamic fundamentalism” as has come to be perceived in the modern time. It also aims to lay bare the faulty categorization of all Islamists as fundamentalists who allegedly hide a ‘barbaric agenda to enslave the world’.


Islamic Resurgence and Reform

Islamic fundamentalism lends a lot of credit to the 19th and 20th centuries when the East was bidding to the meet the West. The winds of change started to blow when reform pressed itself as inevitable agenda pursued by many quarters, both Muslim and secular. Muslim Scholars such as Jamal al-Din Al-Afghani of the nineteenth century advocated political struggle to address the decadence of the Muslim Ummah (Muslim nation). A rather different approach led his pupil Mohd. Abdul to reform the celebrated institute of Al-Azhar in Egypt. Another Muslim philosopher Mohd. Iqbal of the twentieth century was in full swing reconstructing the Islamic thought in the subcontinent. Those were individual efforts vigorously exerted to reinstate the lost glory of the Muslim civilization according to modern parameters. In the heart of the Arabian Peninsula, Hijaz, the movement of Mohd. Bin Abdul Wahhab was thriving at a large scale so much so it made considerable inroads in the Saudi Royal family. Wahhabism, being a movement that aimed first at sweeping away polytheists practices in Hijaz, soon could not resist the temptation to export a considerably vivid version of Islamic way of life to the world. The movement’s fundamental principles were quickly echoed in the Indian subcontinent by Shah Waliyy Allah Al-Dihlawiyy (d. 1832) who espoused a balanced doctrine of change that draws on a blend of classical and modern elements. Wahabbism, however, paved the way for the borderless movement of Salafism who are now viewed by many quarters as representing the most rigid version of Islam. The plight of Muslims , being degraded, historically colonized, their resources manipulated, their role marginalized, also triggered a desire for change and reform. Liberal thinkers like Rifa’ah Tahtawi, and Taha Husssein of Egypt of the early 20th century did not show any remorse when they called Muslims to blindly follow the footsteps of the West. These calls were already setting the tone for the assertion of a modernist Islamic thought that reads Muslim traditions with western lenses. The Balfour declaration to grant the Jews a state in Palestine in 1917 and the colonization of most Arab and Muslim states created nationalism as a mode of struggle to pursue freedom. Within this context, Islamic resurgence seemed inevitable. The much awaited solutions promised by nationalists appeared mythical, and regimes were admonished for failing to implement the Shari‘ah and advocate the “Islamic solution”. As Montgomery Watt put it,

The fundamental reason for the resurgence appears to be the fuelling among many ordinary Muslims, including some of the better educated, that they were in danger of loosing their identity.[13]

Fuelled by a sense of betrayal to Islamic fundaments, Islamic groups began to form to carry the banner of change. They presented themselves as genuine alternative to corrupt regimes and decaying policies that kept adding to the woes of the already embroiled Muslim nations. John L. Esposito added that these movements “have also become a focal point or embodiment of an Islamic threat in the eyes of western governments as well as many governments in the Muslim world.”[14]

The first Islamic movement, Muslim Brethren of Egypt, marked the first systematic attempt to guide the Muslim community towards an ideal Islamic life. Hasan Al-Bana (d. 1938), being the founder of the movement, adopted an adaptationist approach in emphasizing the agenda of the movement. “During his time, Al-Banna opened the theoretical possibility of harmonizing western political thought with Islamic”[15], an approach that didn’t acquit him from being labeled a fundamentalist. His followers appeared destined to the guillotine for encroaching upon the very principles of nationalism. An ideologue such as Sayyid Outb (d.1965) of Egypt, a follower of Al-Banna, is widely viewed by nationalists as the igniting spark that created the Jihadists[16]. with his theory of “modern Jahiliyyah” (modern paganism) and his insistence on hakimiyyah (divine sovereignty), his thought is widely viewed by westerners as “a rebuttal of and anti dote to rationalist discourse itself, that is the western discourse that has posited reason as the source of truth, knowledge and authority.”[17] But to the majority of Muslims, Outb’s political doctrines are “milestones” not only to Islamists but also to a nation defining its self in Islamic terms. His thoughts thrived when Outb breathed his last at the guillotine. The moderate tone of the “Muslim Brothers Movement” (al-Ikhwan al-Muslimun) had mainly been stained by isolated violent incidents that provided the justifications to quell it, forcing the movement to go underground and keep a low profile in pursuing its agenda. This scenario became a pattern that continued to ignite conflict between ‘nationalism’ and ‘Islamism’ in many Muslim countries. On a larger scale, the conflict was inevitably heading to becoming a factor that world policies and the new world order could not simply ignore. Viewed as “the supreme manifestation of political secularism,”[18] nationalism became a legitimate target to attack by Islamists and so is Islamism to nationalism.

The Islamic movement found itself in an open conflict that seemed unlikely to abate. It also found itself misunderstood by the west that considers religion an individual concern that should not meddle in the affairs of public sphere. Today, As Lawrence Davidson holds, “the western perspective is that the separation of church and state is not only “normal” but also a requirement for a modern and progressive society”[19].


Trends of Islamic Fundamentalism

Generally speaking, three main trends came to ascertain themselves on the ground, first: the modernists who shunned traditions and called for modern exegesis of the Holy Qur’an; second, the adaptationists who call for adapting Islamic fundamentals to modern exigencies; third, the traditionalists who “were promising that a return to true Islam of the earliest period would solve all social problems.” [20]

The modern Islamic movement that long to harmonize the Shari‘ah precepts with modernity is often categorized as traditionalist, hence, fundamentalist. Their stand to uphold Ijtihad (independent legal reasoning) and to spurn taqlid (imitation) has made its agenda more flexible and adaptive. The participation of Islamists in the electoral process by filling parliamentary seats in Egypt, Algeria, Jordan and Kuwait is a point to be noted. Al-Sadiq al-Mahdi’s reforms in the Sudan and the subsequent inroads of Turabi’s Islamic movement in the Sudanese regime is another point of how the Islamic movement adapt to modern democracy, though the experience is deemed marred by same irregularities.

The alliance between the Algerian Islamic ‘Movement of a Peaceful Society;’ (MPS) and the Algerian President Abdul Aziz Bouteflika, earned the latter a landslide victory in the 2004 presidential elections that put Algeria again into the International political map. The other surprise that took place in this war ravaged country is that tens of thousands of the ex-supporters of the banned Islamic Salvation Front (FIS), which was poised to win in the 1992 parliamentary elections, have voted unreservedly in favor of the secular agenda of the President Bouteflika. One reality is thus obvious; Islamic Fundamentalism is not a rigid form of Islam. Islamicists now are more aware of the common denominator between democracy and shura (Islamic version of democracy), a similarity that prompted the coining of the term “Shuracracy”,(Shura and Democracy) as an accommodated form of democracy that invoke Islamic principles and modernism as a combined tool to cement a feasible alliance between the ruler and the ruled.

The last trend is the traditionalists, a point that we reserve for the next item.


Literalism Vs. Contextualism.

Islamic fundamentalism has manifested itself in a trend that echoed the reform attempts called by Mohamad bin Abdul Wahhab in the Arabian Peninsula. Wahabbism turned into salafism sweeping dramatically across the Muslim world[21]. Ever since, salafism came to reflect two intrinsic trends; the literalist and the political. The former advocates a literary approach to interpret the texts of the Holy Qur’an and the sunnah of his Prophet. The political trend chooses to adopt political means to install and Islamic state based on the fundamentals of the Shari’ah (Islamic Law) and the path of the first ancestors. Both trends appear to have been very vocal in propagating the “Islamic Solution” as spelt out by the ancestors. The literalists chose not to confront their authorities so that dissent is not stifled and their teachings are perpetuated horizontally. They rely heavily on certain traditions that command loyalty to the rulers and call for an undivided support and obedience to them.[22] Abdul Hamid Abu Sulayman commented on those traditions by holding that such traditions “show that Muslims seeking to enforce good or oppose evil in their societies are not allowed to use force to achieve their aims.”[23] However, this trend engaged society in debates that divert them from the real challenges facing the Muslim society. These traditionalists could easily develop unparalleled interest in topics such as the length of a beard or the shortness of trousers, issues that simply create superficial preoccupations and pour a lot of ink to substantiate them in voluminous books. Innovation (bid‘ah) is what they are sensitive to the most, and strict adherence to the first ancestors is their ultimate aim. This trend is not able to contextualize the literal texts from which they derive their understanding of Islam. Obviously, this paved the way for the literary approach to breed fanaticism and present more rigid interpretation of Islamic scriptures.

Muslim modernists are yet other fundamentalists who are pursuing an agenda to deconstruct the Holy Qur’an then reconstruct it based on modern Hermeneutics. The attempt, despite its moral justification, does not seem to acknowledge the sacred in the human context. Both literalists and modernists seem to nurture fundamentalism and endure its devastating effects. The Islamic legal theory, which seems to be ignored invariably by both trends, has delineated principles and articulated doctrines that guarantee a proper interpretation of sacred texts.

Ibn Qayyim al-Jawziyyah (d.751 A.H/1158 A.D) a leading Muslim scholar of the 12th century held,

Both the jurist and the ruler will not be able to issue fatwa and uphold the truth until they acquire two types of understanding: first, the understanding of waqi’ (reality), and second the understanding of what is required by God vis.vis this waqi’. That is how God’s rule contained in His book and in the sunnah of His prophet should be understood.[24]

Another scholar, Al Juwayni (d.478 A.H /1085 A.D) reiterates the role of context in yielding proper understanding of legal texts which Muslims hold sacred. He emphasizes that the semantic connotation of a legal text of the Qur’an or the Sunnah is insufficient in grabbing its true meaning. Thus, circumstantial and linguistic signifiers, if combined together, would demonstrate a high deal of proper dealing with the two sacred sources of Islam, the Qur’an and the sunnah in terms of construing their texts properly.[25]

Al-Imam al-Shatibi (d.790/1388A.D) indicated that a proper understanding of a speech especially that of God depends on the nature of speech producer, the speech recipient or else, it would depend on both.[26] This is to reiterate that the sacred texts of Islam can only be understood in the light of a body of interpretive rules that, if taken together, constitute the Islamic legal theory of her hermeneutics. Failure to employ this theory has plagued what we perceive to be the real fundamentalism whom we think are three, the madhhabists (Fanatics to certain schools of law)[27], the salafi literalists[28] (beyond Madhabism) and the ghulat[29] (extremists). Among the three trends, the third is the one which was abhorred the most by the Sharia’h. This group lacks the potential to consider the sociolinguistic frame work of the sacred texts. They are unable to see the semantics and pragmatics of the divine discourse as well as the semantics of human interaction with God’s speech. The Ghulat are cult-like individuals who prefer isolation rather than integration into their societies. The sense of interaction with society is usually combined with a penchant of violence and thirst of vengeance. It is this group that tends to consider armed struggle against the “infidels” and their Muslim puppets as divinely ordered Jihad that would not abate until one aim is achieved, victory or martyrdom. The latter is a heaven driven goal whose tool is Jihad. While the concept is true from the Islamic doctrinal point of view, failure to identify genuine targets to hit such as enemy combatants, and ruthlessly killing innocent people may likely throw some “Jihadists” in Hell rather than in Heaven. It is this for this group that we shall devote the next part.




The Kernel of Muslim-Non-Muslim Relationship

The Muslim-Non-Muslim relationship has long been a point of controversy in both classical and modern writings. Avoiding the intricacies of the issue, one would say that such conflict is superficial rather than substantial. As Davidson says,

The Historical record of Muslim treatment of Christians and Jesus is quite good, especially compared with the history of relations between different religious denominations and even to criticize Islam and engage in a dialogue with Muslims. Non-Muslims also have the right to regulate their private life, education and family life by adopting their own family laws. They (Muslim) must treat them (Non-Muslim) with trust, beneficence and equity.[30]

In Islam, God has elevated the status of man regardless of his religion, race or color. Verses such as (Isra’: 70)[31], (Al-Tin: 4)[32] and (Al-Hijr: 29)[33] stress the value of human being as the finest creation of God. Thus, on the basis of this granted value, Muslims are not only recommended but also bound to treat non-Muslims with beneficence[34]. The rights of all human beings are guaranteed according to the two sources of Islam, the Qur’an and the Sunnah.[35] Freedom of religion reigns supreme among other rights as God decreed that diversity of religion is part of His eternal wisdom.[36] All Muslims are then urged to meticulously read the following verse:

There Shall Be No Compulsion In Religion” (2:256).

Thus, co-existing with other religions amount to three major things:-

1.                 Rights and Duties of Muslim and Non-Muslims are equal.

2.                 Sanctity of life, property and dignity of non-Muslims.

This is illustrated in the crime of murder perpetrated by a Muslim man against a person of the Book (Christian or Jew) during the life time of the Prophet Mohammad (s.a.w). When the Prophet set to met out the death sentence against the Muslim, he utterly confirmed that he was the most responsible person to honor the terms of the treaty which he had concluded with the people of the book, then he ordered the killer, who was a Muslim, to be executed.[37]

3.                 Muslims and Non-Muslims are citizens within the boundary of the state. This is duly highlighted in the Charter of Madinah which the Prophet Mohammad outlined when he migrated from Mekkah to Madinah and had to create a harmonious society comprised mainly of Muslims, Jews and Christians. The Charter exclusively stated that Jews and Muslims are one nation.[38]

However, these meanings seem to have waned and eroded whenever the Muslims and Non-Muslims discourse is at stake. This is partly due to two reasons:

a)           On the part of Non-Muslims, as underscored by Davidson, they seem to have “little exposure to the Muslim world in the regular educational curriculum, and little reporting on Islamic Affairs except during times of crisis, much of America views Islamic fundamentalism without historical context or cultural insight. The tendency of the Media to sensationalize violent events exacerbates this situation.”[39] Besides, the recent literature on Islamic fundamentalism has somewhat worsened this crisis and stereotyped more than 1 billion Muslims. When a prolific writer like Daniel Pipes places militant Islam as the first enemy to America,[40] he is in fact instilling in the sub-conscious of many Americans that Islam is a religion that incites and condones violence. No wonder, after 9/11 attacks on America, we have seen many Americans, including top officials, obnoxiously commenting on Islam and hurling vile allegations and malicious accusations against its very tenets and legal precepts. A quick view of post 9/11 literature on Islam would give an impression that the Armageddon is around the corner[41], and that Muslims are a real danger that looms large in the eyes of the “civilized world”.

b)                On the part of Muslims, a crisis of interpreting the texts has added to the already subverted image of Islam. This would lead us to the next item.


The Irrelevancy of Some Islamic theories of International Relations

The classical literature on Islamic International relations seem to have revolved around two axis, the first was called Dar al-Islam (the abode of Islam) and second Dar al-Harb (the abode of war).[42] This categorization of the world seems to have been dictated by the special nature of the International relations feasible in the first centuries of Islam. Besides, this polarization is purely rational and was deduced based on Ijtihad (personal reasoning). It should be noted that legal views deduced on theoretical planes are subject to being in conformity with reality and the public interest that ensues. Therefore, two things seem to be worth noting as far as Muslim non-Muslim relationship is concerned:

1.           The classical Islamic political theory is not based on immutable texts that can not be mitigated. Thus, the theory is open for further independent legal reasoning that would aim to preserve the public good (Maslahah Mursalah) of the community to which it applies.

2.           The wars of Islam in the first centuries were dictated by certain foreign policies that necessitated war for the then nascent society. The latter was in the process of ascertaining itself and as it was bracing for a the grand expansion outside the Arabian Peninsula.

Davidson asked: Does the Islamic religion promote violence?

The answer as he put it “ … should be seen in light of the fact that the Qur’an was set down at a time of strife between Muhammad and the largely hostile population of Mecca, so there is much in it that reflects that particular struggle between Muslims and unbelievers.”[43]

Reviewing the Islamic literature on waging war against non-Muslims, one would ascertain that certain concepts advocated by some legal commentaries on the Holy Qur’an cannot be adopted when we envisage a society in which Muslims and non-Muslims are deemed citizens. The following point will highlight this.


Nature of Muslim Non-Muslim Relationship

Most classical literature on the Islamic political system hold that such a relationship is determined by “Kufr”[44], or disbelief. A reliable commentator such as Ibn Al-‘Arabi explains the following verse as follows:-

“And fight with them until there is no more fitnah and religion should be only for Allah” (8:39)

He interpreted the word “fitnah” as disbelief,[45] justifying, therefore war with Non-Muslim. Al-Iman Al-Jassas, a renowned Muslim commentator, maintains that it is a religious duty to fight the pagans until they convert to Islam.[46]

Ibn Qudamah Al-Hanbali, a leading authority of the Hanbali Madhhab, held that the people of book can be fought without calling them to Islam,[47] indicating that they can be taken by surprise. This clearly contradicts a prophetic tradition narrated on the authority of Ibn Abbas that he (the Prophet) would never fight people until he calls them to Islam first.[48]

The other verse reads:

Fight those who do not believe in Allah, nor in the latter day, nor do they prohibit what Allalh and His Apostle have prohibited, nor follow the religion of truth, out of those who have been given the book, until they pay the tax[49] in acknowledgement of superiority and they are in a state of subjection. (9:29)

After agreeing that the people of the book must be called to embrace Islam or pay the tax or be fought, the famous jurist al-Shafi‘i (d.205A.H /820 A.D) stressed that it is a religious obligation to fight the people of the book until they pay tax. Further, Ibn Taymiyyah (d.728A.H/1343 A.D), an early embodiment of modern Wahhabism, seems to echo the same doctrine when he maintained that the obligation to fight Non-Muslim for being “unbelievers” has been unanimously agreed upon[50]. The impression that a reviewer may get from these verses and their exegesis is that Islam had launched a war against Non-Muslim for no reason except for the latter being unbelievers. In some literature, “unbelief” has been portrayed as a form or an affliction that must be eradicated from society by means of fighting[51].

The hermeneutical Apparatus employed to interpret those verses lies at the centre of a hot debate among modern Islamic scholarship. The notion that such scholarship would like to present as far as Muslim Non-Muslim relationship is concerned is that war in Islam is defensive and not offensive. This is stated in the following verse:

“Fight in the cause of Allah those who fight you, but do not transgress limits; for Allah loveth not transgressors” (2:190)

The verse reaffirms a universal law of retribution that is echoed in the Bible when it holds the principle of “An eye for an eye.” Individuals and nations alike are under moral and societal obligations to defend themselves when attacked. In fact, modern nations today have given “self-defense” a broader meaning to act in a pre- emptive mode to decapitate the enemy before the war gets even started.

Nonetheless, the most controversial issue that lies at the centre of modern Jihad against non-Muslims is about the abrogation of verses pertaining to defensive war by verses pertaining to offensive war. Arguably, classical exegeses seemed to ascertain that the above mentioned verse had been abrogated[52] by verses like:

“But when the forbidden months are past, than fight and slay the pagans whenever you find them and seize them, beleaguer them and lie in wait for them in every stratagem (of war)…. (9:5)

“And fight the pagans all together as they fight you all together…” (9:36)

These verses as they may appear are not offering a conditional pretext of war. It would seem from the apparent meaning of those verses that fighting non-Muslim is part of an imperialistic agenda to conquer the world and subject it to the dictates of the Shar‘iah. This impression, which we are trying to prove its inadequacy, prompts four levels of discussion.

The Abrogation Theory:

Reviewing the literature that addressed war in Islam, the legal manuals do not seem to agree on this theory. Al-Imam Al-Qurtubi, who posited the view that the Muslim-non-Muslim relationship is “Kufr (unbelief), pointed out that the abrogation[53] theory on the verses under study represent the view of a group of scholars only (Qalahu Jama’atun min al-Ulama’)[54]. Al-Imam Al-Tabari in his voluminous compodium, ascertained that according to a view of another group of scholars, the verse (2:190) has not been abrogated and that the rule that makes war a defensive act shall remain in force.[55] Even though a scholar like ibn ‘Arabi was a staunch supporter of the theory of abrogation, he did refer to the followers of Abu Hanifa who ascertained that the cause of war with Non-Muslims is al-Kharbah[56] (destruction) and not “disbelief.” That is war against Non-Muslims is conditioned upon the latter inflicting destruction upon Muslims in the form of war. Ibn al-‘Arabi; however, described the proponents of this view as having strayed[57] from the mainstream of classical jurists who upheld the abrogation theory. Thus, there is no consensus on the fact that verse (2:190) had been abrogated by (8:39) and (9:29).

The Shari’ah stipulates that when a ruling is not unanimously agreed upon, it shall be implemented in proportion of the ensuing public good or public harm.

The Pragmatics of the Term Jihad:

One of the most misunderstood words is Jihad as it is often taken to mean “holy war”. . Ibn Taymiyyah delineates the word Jihad as an internal struggle within one’s self, propagating Islam, counter-arguing with a heretic, removing speculation and ambiguity, counseling and consultation in what benefits Muslims, seeking knowledge, defending the tenets of Islam, Encountering strayed views and fighting.[58] This wide definition of Jihad is given by a prolific writer and a devoted scholar whose intellectual legacy has seized the minds and hearts of Modern Wahabbims. In fact, Fighting is only one meaning of Jihad and it would be subversive if fighting is magnified so as to be perceived the sole meaning of Jihad. Technically speaking, Islamic legal theory would classify such a term as speculative. The speculative is susceptible to more than one interpretation since the word Jihad is not unequivocal in meaning. The Holy Qur’an itself provided a wide array of meanings to Jihad, namely self control and curbing of evil motives. The identification of the plausible meaning is subject to a host of hermeneutical principles, the elaboration of which is beyond the scope of this paper.

The contextualization of the term Jihad requires the investigation of the momentum it gained both in the classical and modern age. In the early development of Muslim civilization, Muslims expanded to all corners of the globe. The mission was undertaken both peacefully and militarily. The expansions were so large that necessitated huge deal of Jihad in its broadest sense, including the armed struggle. Thus, the term Jihad had come to reflect the armed struggle given the expansion of a new civilization in making. In the contemporary world, the term Jihad more or less, reflects the same connotation in view of the disenfranchisement, disintegration and deterioration of the Muslim world, spiritually, economically, socially and politically. The vile allegations against Islam and Muslims convinced not a few numbers of Muslims that Jihad, as an armed struggle, should be utilized to stop the crusaders once and for all.

Muslim scholars have unanimously agreed that the speculative (zanni) term in principles should not be made definitive ( qati‘i). The term Jihad is thus far from being certain and should not be taken to mean only ‘armed struggle’. Thus, the consideration of Jihad as terrorism or violence is inadequate and lack, the basic linguistic and pragmatic requirements.

Mushrikun (Pagans) and The Occasion of Revelation (sabab al-Nuzul)

The term Mushrikun mentioned in (9:5) is again speculative as it does not refer to a specific category of unbelievers. Muslim jurists disagreed as to the categories of non-Muslims who should be fought in the name of Islam. There are views that confine war only against those who fight Muslims; others held that only non-Muslim adult enemies must be fought; thus women, children, priests and rabbis are all spared unless they take part in the offensive against Muslims. Targeting elderly people and professional enemies[59] are all point of controversy as to whether they should be killed in a justified war against non-Muslims. Al-Jassas was of the opinion that had war is waged against non-Muslims, people of the book should not be targeted. This is because the verse (slay the pagans wherever ye find them, 9:5) concerns only the unbelievers who drove the Prophet (s.a.w.) out of his home[60], which people of the book clearly did not. The verse then was revealed to address a particular category of unbelievers who were already in the offensive by driving the Prophet out of his home. the act prompted a response in the form of jihad to reclaim the rights confiscated by the unbelievers who launched the offensive in the first place.

Conflict and Preponderance of Evidences

The verses that apparently call for a sacred war against non-Muslims seem to be in conflict with other verses that prohibit Muslims to force non-Muslims to convert to Islam or attack them unjustly, i:e, (al-Baqarah:256), (Kahf: 29), (Yunus: 99).

Other verses invite Muslims to propagate the message of Islam wisely and argue with non-Muslims in the best possible manner (al-Nahl: 125), (al-‘Ankabut: 46), (Al-‘Imran: 64). Muslims are ordered not to utter vulgar words against non-Muslims so that the latter would not react by uttering the same vulgar against Muslims’ God. The Chapter of Hajj , verses 68-69 ordered the Prophet to leave the fate of non-Muslims be determined by God as He alone will subject them to their due judgment in the hereafter.

On purely legal grounds, verses that allude to a ruthless war against non-Muslims such as (9:5) and (9:123) and verses that advocate beneficence to non-Muslims are not in conflict nor the former has abrogated the latter. All those verses are contextualized, hence their application require the consideration of reality in its synchronic and diachronic variation. This explains why a Chapter like al-Anfal, which details the rules of war against non-Muslims, uses a triumphant tone. The chapter was revealed when Muslims emerged victorious in the battle of Badr, the first battle ever to take place between Muslims and the pagans two year after the Prophet migrated to Madinah. On the other hand, the Chapter of Bara’ah urges peace with enemy combatants if they incline to peace. This should set the tone that peace is a goal that the Muslim authority should relentlessly pursue, especially when Muslims are outnumbered or lack in military power[61].

The Islamic legal theory provides that all the pieces of evidence pertaining to Holy war are time-space bound, hence the justification of war as means of self-defense. There are no evidences in the Holy Qur’an or the Sunnah of His Prophet suggesting that Islam adopts an open war policy against non-Muslims. There is no evidence whatsoever suggesting that Muslims are the supreme species are others are the “gentiles”. It is true that Muslims perceive of themselves as the best ummah (nation) that God has ever created, as the Qur’an explicitly ascertains, but that is a status that each and every individual must strive to achieve. This explains the variation in the tone that features today’s Islamic discourse that continues to blame Muslims for the calamities that befell the Muslim ummah. Obviously, the decadence of the Muslim ummah is partly due to internal weaknesses rather external ones, though the latter has added a lot to the ummah’s woes.

the lost glory of the ummah served the agenda of two categories of people: those who are resolved to restore the dynamic role of the Muslim ummah by all means, including the duplication of the old model of Muslim state and the resumption of military expansion in non Muslim lands using old strategies; and the second who prefers to pause and ponder over the reasons that led to the downfall of the Islamic civilization.

In short, to remove the apparent conflict between verses advocating offensive wars and verses advocating defensive wars, one would consider both of them, each in its pragmatic context.


1.      The Shari’ah advocates a peaceful approach towards non-Muslims.

2.      Human life is valued in Islam regardless to whom it belongs, a monotheist, a polytheist or an atheist.

3.      The rules of war enacted and codified in classical references on International relations represent an epoch in which Muslim civilization was engaged in asserting it self rather than dominating the world.

4.      War in Islam is defensive not offensive. Yet, pre-emptive attacks could be launched to decapitate the enemy in self-defense. Today, such a strategy is adopted by major super powers.

5.      The label “fundamentalism” is viciously used by some quarters to stereotype large communities, Muslims or non-Mulsims, whose sole fault is to adhere to certain principles which they deem fundamental to their intellectual and spiritual needs.

6.      The West perceives fundamentalism as an ideology that aims at restoring the overriding power of the Church which hindered reason and promoted superstition.

7.      In the Arab and Muslim world, fundamentalism is perceived as a thorn that must be removed as it has the capacity to mobilize the masses against their regimes in a fairly short span of time.

8.      The discourse on “fundamentalism” has failed to come up with a clear definition of the term. However, it is extremely important to adopt a contextual approach and discard the literary one in order to adequately define fundamentalism.

9.      Islamic fundamentalism is a blur label that has put extremists, reformers and revivalists in one basket, a label that makes difficult to draw a line of demarcation between good and evil people.

10.  Three main trends among Muslims may be advocating a more rigid interpretation of Islamic tenets and legal precepts. They are the madhhabists (fanatical followers of schools of jurisprudence), the ghulat (exaggerators who capitalize on certain theo-legal doctrines to enforce self-interpreted rules); and the Salafi literalists (those who transcended the prevailing theo-legal theory and would arbitrarily invoke the path of the ancestors).

11.  Despite the sophistication of Western scholarship, it has yet to adequately understand the “Islamic phenomenon”, let alone using this understanding to bridge the widening gap between the East and the West.

12.  Killing of innocent non-Muslims leaving under the Muslim state or having a peace agreement with Muslims is prohibited in Islam.

13.  9/11 literature on Islamic fundamentalism seems to fuel vengeance, hatred and disgust against more than 1 billion Muslims.

[1] Dr. Yunus Soualhi is an Assistant Professor at the International Islamic University Malaysia.

[2] Gabriel A. Almond, Emmanuel Sivan and R. Scott Appleby, Fundamentalism and Modernization, In Fundamentalism Comprehended, Ed. Martin E. Marty and R. Scott Appleby, (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1995) P. 404

[3] Ibid; p. 403

[5] George M. Marsden, Defining American Fundamentalism, in The Fundamentalism Phenomenon, Ed.Norman J.Cohen(Michigan: Wm.B.Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1990), p.23.

[6] Gabriel, Sivan and Appleby, Fundamentalism Comprehended, p. 428

[7] Ibid; p. 425

[8] Ibid; pp. 405-407

[11] Ibid; p.18

[12] John. O. Voll, Fundamentalism in the Sunni Arab world: Egypt and the Sudan, in Fundamentalism Observed, Ed. Martin E. Marty and Scott Appleby, (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1995), p. 347

[13] William Montgomery Watt, Islamic Fundamentalism and Modernity, (London and New York: Routledge, 1988), p.61

[14] John L. Esposito, Political Islam: Revolution, Radicalism or Reform? Ed. John. Esposito, (Boulder, London: Lynne Rienner Publishers, 1977), p.3

[15] Ahmad S. Moussali, Moderate and Radical Islamic Fundamentalism: The Quest for Modernity, Legitimacy and the Islamic State, (Gainesville, FL: University Press of Florida, 1999), p. 129

[16]The term Jihadists refers to those Muslims who launch a Holy war against their opponents, Muslims and non-Muslims alike.

[17] Roxanne L. Euben, Enemy in the Mirror: Islamic Fundamentalism and the Limits of Modern Rationalism (Princeton NJ: Princeton University Press, 1999), p. 154

[18] David George, Pax Islamica: An Alternative World Order? in Islamic Fundamentalism, Ed. Abd. Salam Sidahmad and Anoushiravan Ehteshami, (Boulder: West View Press, 1996),p. 73

[19] Davidson, Islamic Fundamentalism, p. 80

[20] Watt, Islamic Fundamentalism, p. 61

[21] Salafism is a call to follow the footsteps of the first generation within a period that covers the first three centuries that followed the Prophet Mohammad (s.a.w.) declaration as a Prophet

[22] Khaled Abou El Fadl, Rebellion and Violence in Islamic Law, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001) p. 112. The prophet (s.a.w.) is reported to have said; “… who obeys the ruler, he has obeyed me and who disobeys the ruler, he has disobeyed me.” Al-Shaybani, Kitab Al-Sunnah, 492-4

[23] Abdul Hamid Abu Sulayman, The Qur’an and the Sunnah on Violence, Armed Struggle and the Political Process, in Terrorizing the Truth, Ed. Farish A. Noor (Kuala Lumpur: Just World Trust, 1997), p. 104

[25] See Abu Al-Ma‘ali al-Juwayni, Al-Burhan Fi Usul al-Fiqh (Beirut: Mu’assasat Al-Risalah, 1989), 1:414

[26] Al-Shatibi, Al-Muwafaqat Fi Usul Al-Shari’ah, Ed. Abdullah Diraz (Cairo: Dar al-Fikr al-‘Arabi, n.d), 3:37

[27] These groups are fanatic to one of the four schools of Islamic jurisprudence, namely the Malakis, Hanafis, Shafi’is an Hanbalis

[28] This trend rejects to follow the prevailing schools of jurisprudence and would strictly adhere to the jurisprudence of the ancestors.

[29] The Ghulat are those who take things to the extreme, ignoring pragmatic and gradual implementation of the Islamic law.

[30] Davidson, Islamic Fundamentalism, p. 134

[31] the verse reads: “ We have honored the sons of Adam....” (17:70).

[32] the verse reads: “ We have indeed created man in the best of moulds” (95:4)

[33] the verse reads: “When I have fashioned him (Adam) in due proportion and breathed into him of My spirit fall ye down in obeisance unto him” (15:29)

[34] Fahmi Huwaydi, Muwatinun La dhimmiyyun (Citizens Not People of Treaty) 1st edn. (Dar- al-Shuruq, 1985) p.81

[35] See (Al-Ma’idah: 32); (Al-Hujurat: 13); (Al-Nisa’:1)

[36] See (Al-Ma’idah: 48); (Hud: 118)

[37] Al-Zayla‘I, Nasb al-Rayah, 4:335, in Dr. Mustapha Said al_Khin Athar al-Ikntilaf fi al-Qawa‘id al-Usuliyyah fi Ikhtilaf al-Fuqaha’, 2nd (Beirut: Mu’assasat al-Risalah, 2000), p. 225

[38] See Fahmi Huwaidi, Muwatinun, p.3.3. See also Dr. Edward Ghali Al-Dahbi, Mu’amalat Ghayr al-Muslimin fi Al-Mujtama’ Al-Islami (Treating Non-Muslims in the Muslim Society, 1st edn. (Cairo: Maktabat Gharib, 1993). see also Dr.Abdul Karim Zidan, Ahkam al-Dhimiyyin wal Musta’minin Fi Dar al-Islam (The Legal Rules of Dhimmis-Non Muslims leaving under Muslim State- and Non-Muslims under peace treaty with Muslims in the Abode of Islam), 2edn.( Beirut: Mu’assat al-Risalah, 1988).

[39] Davidson, Islamic Fundamentalism, p. 93

[40] See Daniel Pipes, Militant Islam Reaches America (New York, London: W.W.Norton & Company, 2002),p. 245

[41] See the following literature on Islam after 9/11:

The Crisis of Islam , by Bernard Lewis, March 2003; The Age of Sacred Terror: Radical Islam’s war against America, by Daniel Benjamin, Oct. 2002; The Two Faces of Islam: The House of Sau’d FromTradition to Terror, by Stephen Schwatz , Oct 2002; The Shade of Swords: Jihad and the Conflict between Islam and Christianity, by M.J. Akbar, June 2002; Terrorists and Their God: The Crisis in Islam, by Hilton Fyle, April 2002; Islam and Terrorism: What the Qur’an Really Teaches about Christianity, Violence, and the Goals of the Islamic Jihad, by Marc A. Gabriel, March 2002; Conspiracy in Mecca: What You Need to Know About the Islamic Threat, by David Earle Johnson, Feb 2002; Terrorism, Jihad and the Bible, by John Mac Arthur, Dec 2001; The Rise of The Islamic Empire and The Threat to The West, by Anthony J. Dennis Dec 2001. It should be noted that somehow a relatively similar literature was produced by Muslims that denounces the West all together and leaves little room for dialogue.

[42] See al-Shafi, al-Umm,( Beirut.: Dar al-Ma‘rifah, 1393A.H), p.222; al-Shirbini, Mughni al-Muhtaj, Vo1,(Beirut: Dar al-Fikr, n.d), p.243; al-Nawawi, al-Majmu‘, Vo 3,(Beirut: Dar al-Fikr, 1996), p.6; al-Sarakhsi, al-Mabsut, Vo1, (Beirut: Dar al-Ma ‘rifah, 1406 A.H), p.245.

[43] Davidson, Islamic Fundamentalism, p. 119

[44] See al-Qutubi, Tafsir al-Qurtubi, (Beirut: Dar al-Kutub al-‘Ilmiyyah, n.d),2:353-354

[45]Abu Bakr Ibn Al-Arabi, Ahkam Al-Qur’an (Beirut: Dar al-Kutub al-‘Ilmiyyah, n.d),1: 154

[46] Al-Jassas, Ahkam Al-Qur’an, (Beirut: Dar al-Fikr,n.d), 1:358

[47] Ibn Qudamah Al-Hanbali, Al-Mughni, (Beirut: Dar Ihya’al-Turath al-‘Arabi, n.d), 2:7436

[48] Al-Shawkawi, Nayl Al-Awtar, (n.p: Dar al-Hadith, n.d), p. 282

[49] Al-Shafi’I, Ahkam Al-Qur’an, (Beirut: Dar al-Kutub al-‘Ilmiyyah, n.d), p.54

[50] Ibn Taymiyyah, Kutub Warasa’il wa Fatawa Ibn Taymiyyah Fi Al-Fiqh, (n.p: Maktabat ibn Taymiyyah,n.d) 28:354

[51] See Al-‘Izz bin ‘Abd. As-Salam, Qaw ‘id al-Ahkam Fi Masalih al-Anam, (Beirut: Dar al-Kutub al-‘Ilmiyyah, n.d), p.88

[52] See Al-Jassas, Ahkam Al-Qur’an, 4:.353

[53] Abrogation is an Islamic legal doctrine whereby a text, be it a verse from the Qur’an or a tradition of the Prophet Mohammad, would be substituted by a better or similar text.

[54] Al-Qurtubi, Tafsir Al-Qurtubi, 2:348

[55] Al-Tabari, Tafsir Al-Tabari,(Beirut: Dar al-Fikr, 1405 A.H), 2:189

[56] Ibn Al-‘Arabi, Ahkam Al-Qur’an, p.155

[57] Ibid

[58]See Ibn Taymiyyah, al-Tuhfah al-‘Iraqiyyah, 1/54 and Dar’ al-Ta‘arudd, 1/373 & 4/206.

[59] Ibn Al-‘Arabi, Ahkam Al-Qur’an, 4:149

[60] Al-Jassas, Ahkam Al-Qur’an, 4:349

[61] See al-Jassas, Ahkam al-Qur’an, 4/255

Cyberproceedings Index

[Home Page] [Cos'è il CESNUR] [Biblioteca del CESNUR] [Testi e documenti] [Libri] [Convegni]

[Home Page] [About CESNUR] [CESNUR Library] [Texts & Documents] [Book Reviews] [Conferences