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Jihad in the Hadith

While non-Muslims often treat the Qur'an as if it were the only Islamic text, the literature of Islam is vast and spans many centuries. Next to the Qur'an in importance is the Hadith, which refers to collections of traditions about what Muhammad said, what he taught, and what he did. These collections are also called Sunna or "tradition"; hence the term Sunni Muslims, or "traditional" Muslims. Opposed to them are the Shi'ites, who broke away originally because of a dispute over succession to the caliphate, and who do not grant the same authority to the Hadith. (The proportion of Sunni Muslims to Shi'ites is roughly 85% - 15%.)

Muslims naturally felt a need to preserve traditions about the Prophet from the time of the earliest witnesses. However, over the years since Muhammad's death some of these traditions became embellished and others were fabricated. In the ninth century a number of Islamic scholars undertook the task of sifting the genuine traditions from the spurious and of gathering the former in written collections. In Sunni Islam six of these collections in particular are considered sahih ("reliable"). These sahih sittah ("reliable collections") are:

All these collections of hadith are highly respected in the Sunni tradition, but the first two even more than the others, and so they are given the additional specific designation of sahih. And of those two, Sahih Bukhari is considered the most important and most reliable. Those ahadith occurring in both the Bukhari and Muslim collections have the highest status of all.

Only One Jihad

These compilations of hadith are voluminous, and they have a lot to say about jihad. However, before going to these classic collections, we should begin by looking at one hadith that is very often quoted to demonstrate a nonviolent meaning of jihad:

Upon his return from battle Muhammad said, "We have returned from the lesser jihad to the greater jihad (i.e. the struggle against the evil of one's soul)." (1)

This is very often cited as a proof-text for the "real" meaning of jihad being inward, spiritual struggle. But there are two problems:

1. Even a "lesser" jihad is still jihad and thus a duty and a virtue.

2. Muhammad never made such a statement.

The hadith in which Muhammad is said to speak of "greater" vs. "lesser" jihad is of doubtful authenticity. It does not appear in any of the six collections of the sahih sittah. In fact, a number of scholars maintain that this hadith is a forgery (2). One scholar analyzes this hadith and considers a number of factors, such as chain of transmission and other more reliable, contradictory ahadith (3). He quotes one authority:

"There is a Hadith related by a group of people which states that the Prophet [peace be upon him] said after the battle of Tabuk: 'We have returned from Jihad Asghar [lesser jihad] to Jihad Akbar [greater jihad].' This hadith has no source, nobody whomsoever in the field of Islamic Knowledge has narrated it. Jihad against the disbelievers is the most noble of actions, and moreover it is the most important action for the sake of mankind."

And so after a meticulous examination of sources the article comes to a decision:

On the basis of the above statements we can conclude by saying, that the evidence used as proof or the basis for establishing that Jihad against disbelievers on the battlefield is Jihad Asghar [lesser jihad] and Jihad against the desires and Shaitaan [Satan, the devil] is Jihad Akbar [greater jihad], are weak if not false Hadith.

One of the counter-hadith with a better chain of transmission (and the author quotes others as well) goes like this:

A man asked [the Prophet]: "...and what is Jihad?" He [peace be upon him] replied: "You fight against the disbelievers when you meet them (on the battlefield)." He asked again: "What kind of Jihad is the highest?" He [peace be upon him] replied: "The person who is killed whilst spilling the last of his blood."

This seems to leave little doubt as to how Muhammad understood jihad. But let us not make the case on just one example. There are many ahadith on jihad, and they make its meaning quite clear. First and foremost, jihad meant combat on the battlefield, and specifically against non-Muslims.

Jihad as Fighting the Nonbeliever

The following sequence of ahadith will clarify this. Many of these are extremely well attested, occurring multiple times in the most trusted collections, the Sahih Bukhari and Sahih Muslim. I will cite some of these multiple attestations just to show the high status of these ahadith. (The numbering of ahadith may vary in different editions. In all of the following quotations I have used the Hadith database of the Muslim Students' Association of the University of Southern California [4]. For purposes of readability I do not quote in full the isnad (chain of attribution) of each hadith, but these are considered important to establishing authenticity and are included in the original sources.)

Reading through the hadith on the subject of jihad, what we do not find is an exclusive emphasis on self-defense or on struggling with one's desires. Jihad is physical combat, not just for self-defense but for the purpose of spreading Islam, and there is no greater virtue:

I asked the Prophet, "What is the best deed?" He replied, "To believe in Allah and to fight for His Cause." (Sahih Bukhari, 3:46:694, Sahih Muslim, 1:149)

It has been narrated on the authority of Abu Sa'id Khudri that the Messenger of Allah (may peace be upon him) said (to him): Abu Sa'id, whoever cheerfully accepts Allah as his Lord, Islam as his religion and Muhammad as his Apostle is necessarily entitled to enter Paradise. He (Abu Sa'id) wondered at it and said: Messenger of Allah, repeat it for me. He (the Messenger of Allah) did that and said: There is another act which elevates the position of a man in Paradise to a grade one hundred (higher), and the elevation between one grade and the other is equal to the height of the heaven from the earth. He (Abu Sa'id) said: What is that act? He replied: Jihad in the way of Allah! Jihad in the way of Allah! (Sahih Muslim, 20:4645)

The true purpose of jihad, to spread the Muslim faith, is spelled out explicitly:

Allah's Apostle said: "I have been ordered (by Allah) to fight against the people until they testify that none has the right to be worshipped but Allah and that Muhammad is Allah's Apostle, and offer the prayers perfectly and give the obligatory charity, so if they perform a that, then they save their lives an property from me except for Islamic laws and then their reckoning (accounts) will be done by Allah." (Sahih Bukhari, 1:2:24 [see also 4:52:196])

It is reported on the authority of Abu Huraira that he heard the Messenger of Allah say: I have been commanded to fight against people, till they testify to the fact that there is no god but Allah, and believe in me (that) I am the messenger (from the Lord) and in all that I have brought. And when they do it, their blood and riches are guaranteed protection on my behalf except where it is justified by law, and their affairs rest with Allah. (Sahih Muslim, 1:31 [see also 1:130, 1:32, 1:33])

The Prophet (peace be upon him) said: I am commanded to fight with men till they testify that there is no god but Allah, and that Muhammad is His servant and His Apostle, face our qiblah (direction of prayer), eat what we slaughter, and pray like us. When they do that, their life and property are unlawful for us except what is due to them. They will have the same rights as the Muslims have, and have the same responsibilities as the Muslims have. (Sunan Abu Dawud, 14:2635)

A man came to the Prophet and asked, "A man fights for war booty; another fights for fame and a third fights for showing off; which of them fights in Allah's Cause?" The Prophet said, "He who fights that Allah's Word (i.e. Islam) should be superior, fights in Allah's Cause." (Sahih Bukhari, 4:52:65 [see also 9:93:550 and Sahih Muslim, 20:4684, 20:4685, 20:4686, 20:4687])

It is perhaps significant that those who never tire of quoting the Qur'an on "There is no compulsion in religion" (see previous section) also never mention these ahadith.

The rewards of fighting in jihad are tremendous, not to be compared with anything else:

The Prophet said, "A single endeavor (of fighting) in Allah's Cause in the forenoon or in the afternoon is better than the world and whatever is in it." (Sahih Bukhari, 4:52:50 [see also 4:52:51, 4:52:52, and Sahih Muslim, 20:4643])

Allah's Apostle said, "Allah guarantees him who strives in His Cause and whose motivation for going out is nothing but Jihad in His Cause and belief in His Word, that He will admit him into Paradise (if martyred) or bring him back to his dwelling place, whence he has come out, with what he gains of reward and booty." (Sahih Bukhari, 4:53:352 [see also 9:93:549, 9:93:555, and 1:2:35 which adds: "...and I would have loved to be martyred in Allah's cause and then made alive, and then martyred and then made alive, and then again martyred in His cause."])

It has been narrated on the authority of Abu Huraira who said: Allah has undertaken to provide for one who leaves his home (only) to fight for His cause and to affirm the truth of His word; Allah will either admit him to Paradise or will bring him back home from where he had come out, with his reward and booty. (Sahih Muslim, 20:4628)

Many ahadith tell us that the surest way to Paradise is to fight in jihad. Here are just a couple more:

Allah's Apostle said, "Know that Paradise is under the shades of swords." (Sahih Bukhari, 4:52:73 [see also 4:52:210, and Sahih Muslim, 20:4681])

It has been reported on the authority of Jabir that a man said: Messenger of Allah, where shall I be if I am killed? He replied: In Paradise. The man threw away the dates he had in his hand and fought until he was killed (i. e. he did not wait until he could finish the dates). (Sahih Muslim, 20:4678)

The High Value of Martyrdom

This elevation of jihad to the highest of virtues makes martyrdom something especially to be prized. There are many, many ahadith that extol and encourage martyrdom.

It has been narrated on the authority of Masruq Who said: We asked 'Abdullah about the Qur'anic verse: "Think not of those who are slain in Allah's way as dead. Nay, they are alive, finding their sustenance in the presence of their Lord" (Qur'an 3:169). He said: We asked the meaning of the verse (from the Holy Prophet) who said: The souls of the martyrs live in the bodies of green birds who have their nests in chandeliers hung from the throne of the Almighty. They eat the fruits of Paradise from wherever they like and then nestle in these chandeliers. (Sahih Muslim, 20:4651)

There is of course the very celebrated tradition that martyrs from jihad go immediately to Paradise where they are rewarded with 72 virgins. The following verses in the Qur'an provide the foundation, although the number of virgins is not specified:

Let those fight in the cause of Allah Who sell the life of this world for the hereafter. To him who fighteth in the cause of Allah, - whether he is slain or gets victory - Soon shall We give him a reward of great (value). (4:74)

As to the Righteous (they will be) in a position of Security, among Gardens and Springs; dressed in fine silk and in rich brocade, they will face each other; So; and We shall join them to Companions with beautiful, big, and lustrous eyes. (44:51-54)

As to the Righteous, they will be in Gardens, and in Happiness, - Enjoying the (Bliss) which their Lord hath bestowed on them, and their Lord shall deliver them from the Penalty of the Fire. (To them will be said:) "Eat and drink ye, with profit and health, because of your (good) deeds." They will recline (with ease) on Thrones (of dignity) arranged in ranks; and We shall join them to Companions, with beautiful, big, and lustrous eyes. (52:17-20)

They will recline on Carpets, whose inner linings will be of rich brocade: the Fruit of the Gardens will be near (and easy of reach). Then which of the favours of your Lord will ye deny? In them will be (Maidens), chaste, restraining their glances, whom no man or Jinn before them has touched. (55:54-59 [see also 55:70-74])

And on Thrones (of Dignity), raised high. We have created (their Companions) of special creation. And made them virgin - pure (and undefiled), - Beloved (by nature), equal in age, - For the Companions of the Right Hand. (56:34-38)

Verily for the Righteous there will be a fulfilment of (the heart's) desires; Gardens enclosed, and grapevines; And voluptuous women of equal age; And a cup full (to the brim). (78:31-34)

And so from the Qur'an itself we see that sex is a reward for the faithful in Paradise. These "companions" are the houris of renown, beautiful young maidens. They will even be virgins, "whom no man or Jinn before them has touched."

We get the number 72 by way of hadith. In the Sunan At-Tirmidhi, which is one of the six basic collections, we find the following (5):

The Prophet Muhammad was heard saying: "The smallest reward for the people of Paradise is an abode where there are 80,000 servants and 72 wives, over which stands a dome decorated with pearls, aquamarine, and ruby, as wide as the distance from Al-Jabiyyah [a Damascus suburb] to Sana'a [Yemen]" (Sunan At-Tirmidhi, 4:21:2687)

There has been some debate on whether only martyrs get the 72 virgins or whether everyone [male] in Paradise gets them. However, the tradition of the virgins has been used often and effectively as an inducement to martyrdom (6).

Martyrdom is so highly valued that the truly devoted Muslim would wish to return to earth many times in order to repeat the experience.

The Prophet said, "Nobody who dies and finds good from Allah (in the Hereafter) would wish to come back to this world even if he were given the whole world and whatever is in it, except the martyr who, on seeing the superiority of martyrdom, would like to come back to the world and get killed again (in Allah's Cause)." (Sahih Bukhari, 4:52:53)

The Prophet said, "By Him in Whose Hands my life is! Were it not for some men amongst the believers who dislike to be left behind me and whom I cannot provide with means of conveyance, I would certainly never remain behind any Sariya' (army-unit) setting out in Allah's Cause. By Him in Whose Hands my life is! I would love to be martyred in Allah's Cause and then get resurrected and then get martyred, and then get resurrected again and then get martyred and then get resurrected again and then get martyred. (Sahih Bukhari, 4:52:54)

The Prophet said, "Nobody who enters Paradise likes to go back to the world even if he got everything on the earth, except a Mujahid who wishes to return to the world so that he may be martyred ten times because of the dignity he receives (from Allah)." Narrated Al-Mughira bin Shu'ba: Our Prophet told us about the message of our Lord that "Whoever amongst us is killed will go to Paradise." Umar asked the Prophet, "Is it not true that our men who are killed will go to Paradise and their's (i.e. those of the Pagans) will go to the (Hell) fire?" The Prophet said, "Yes." (Sahih Bukhari, 4:52:72 [see also Sahih Muslim, 20:4635)

It is praiseworthy both to seek death as a martyr and to love it:

Apostle of Allah (peace_be_upon_him) said: If anyone fights in Allah's path as long as the time between two milkings of a she-camel, Paradise will be assured for him. If anyone sincerely asks Allah for being killed and then dies or is killed, there will be a reward of a martyr for him. (Sunan Abu Dawud, 14:2535)

It has been narrated on the authority of Abu Huraira who said: I heard the Messenger of Allah (may peace be upon him) say:... "By the Being in Whose Hand is my life, I love that I should be killed in the way of Allah; then I should be brought back to life and be killed again in His way." (Sahih Muslim, 20:4631 [see also 20:4626])

I love that I should be killed in the way of Allah: the Prophet's wish for death has become the battle cry of today's terrorists. Is there any wonder why so many become suicide killers? It is not an act of desperation. It is an expression of the passion that has motivated jihad fighters ever since the time of Muhammad. We in the West cannot understand it, so we try to psychoanalyze it, or we ask obsessively, "Why do they hate us?" The answer to why so many choose death is right here in the earliest sources. And it is not entirely unique. Perhaps many Westerners can understand it better if they recall how the early Christian martyrs desired so ardently to die for Christ, and sought out such a death as a way of securing eternal bliss. The urge to become a martyr through sacrificing one's life to a higher cause is not as unique, foreign, or inexplicable as we might wish to believe.

Here are the words of St. Ignatius of Antioch, a Christian martyr of the early second century, from a letter he wrote to discourage others from interfering in his death:

I am writing to all the churches to let it be known that I will gladly die for God if only you do not stand in my way. I plead with you: show me no untimely kindness. Let me be food for the wild beasts, for they are my way to God. I am God's wheat and bread. Pray to Christ for me that the animals will be the means of making me a sacrificial victim for God. (7)

So perhaps it should not surprise us that a religious vision can serve as a motivation for desiring and seeking death. But there is one big difference between the Christian and Muslim martyrs. Christian martyrdom did not require death in combat against nonbelievers.

Indeed, not to desire death in battle against the infidel is considered shameful:

It has been narrated on the authority of Abu Huraira that the Messenger of Allah (may peace be upon him) said: One who died but did not fight in the way of Allah nor did he express any desire (or determination) for Jihid died the death of a hypocrite. (Sahih Muslim, 20:4696)

Martyrdom vs. Suicide

But, some object, doesn't Islam forbid suicide? How can being a suicide bomber be considered Islamic?

Let's look at the basis in the Qur'an for the prohibition against suicide:

O ye who believe! Eat not up your property among yourselves in vanities: But let there be amongst you Traffic and trade by mutual good-will: Nor kill (or destroy) yourselves: for verily Allah hath been to you Most Merciful! If any do that in rancour and injustice, - soon shall We cast them into the Fire: And easy it is for Allah. (4:29-30)

Although these verses are often cited to show that the Qur'an forbids suicide, the wording is ambiguous. Most translations say "Do not kill each other," and that most likely is the original meaning. In any event, there is an escape clause. The prohibition holds "if any do that in rancor and injustice." The mujahid always believes he is fighting for justice!

The prohibition against suicide comes not from the Qur'an but from the hadith:

If somebody commits suicide with anything in this world, he will be tortured with that very thing on the Day of Resurrection. (Sahih Bukhari, 8:73:73 [see also 2:23:445, 2:23:446, 8:73:126, 8:78:647])

But does this apply to someone who kills himself for the purpose of fighting in jihad?

Many Islamic authorities say no. They make a distinction between suicide and martyrdom. The motivation for each is entirely different. And so one scholar gleans the classical Islamic sources for evidence that one may seek martyrdom by fighting even when one knows one is going to die. His conclusion:

It is important to know that suicide is forbidden because of its evil objectives; such as impatience, desperation or any other bad and evil objects....

On the other hand, the one who contributes his life to the cause of Allah, Islam and Muslims his doing is sacrificial; he gives his life away for Islam and Muslims, which is the highest sacrifice. (8)

Daniel Pipes, a scholar of Islamic history, affirms this conclusion:

Islamists consider suicide as not just legitimate but highly commendable when undertaken for reasons of jihad (sacred war). Going into war knowing with certainty that one will die, they argue, is not suicide (intihar) but martyrdom (istishhad), a much-praised form of self-sacrifice in the path of God, a way to win the eternal affection of the houris in paradise.

A leading Islamist authority, Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi, recently explained the distinction this way: attacks on enemies are not suicide operations but "heroic martyrdom operations" in which the kamikazes act not "out of hopelessness and despair but are driven by an overwhelming desire to cast terror and fear into the hearts of the oppressors."

In other words, Islamists find suicide for personal reasons abominable, suicide for jihad admirable. (9)

The earliest sources express both the prohibition on suicide and the encouragement to fight to the death in a sacred cause. In fact, the latter receives far more emphasis in the classical sources. Undeniably, it has inspired Muslim jihad fighters over many centuries to risk their lives for the cause of advancing Muslim rule. Today some Islamic authorities may emphasize the forbidding of suicide, and some may emphasize the virtue of martyrdom. Which will ultimately prevail can be decided only within Islam itself. But one cannot say that suicide fighting is by its very nature un-Islamic. In fact, it is not new. In the same article Daniel Pipes notes the existence of jihad suicide nearly a thousand years ago:

Jihad suicide has been around for a millennium. The Assassins, a fanatical religious sect that flourished in the twelfth century developed jihad suicide into a powerful tool of war that succeeded in killing dozens of leaders and cast a long shadow over the region's politics for decades.

And certainly there is no prohibition on terrorism when suicide is not involved. When seen as a sacred struggle against non-believers, terrorism by any means becomes a virtue, whether or not one knows one's life will be forfeit. As Ibn Warraq states, when the two values collide, martyrdom trumps suicide:

Those who blow themselves up almost daily in Israel and those who died on September 11 were dying in the noblest of all causes, Jihad, which is an incumbent religious duty, established in the Koran and in the Traditions as a divine institution, and enjoined for the purpose of advancing Islam. While suicide is forbidden, martyrdom is everywhere praised, welcomed, and urged. (10)

Recall the words of the hadith cited earlier: "If anyone sincerely asks Allah for being killed and then dies or is killed, there will be a reward of a martyr for him." According to the hadith, which is the source of the prohibition against causing one's own death, Jihad is the great exception.

The Extent of Jihad

Just before we close, a couple more ahadith demonstrating that jihad does not stop with self-defense, but that its real purpose is to promote the supremacy of Islam over other religions:

One of the last things that the Messenger of Allah, may Allah bless him and grant him peace, said was, "May Allah fight the Jews and the Christians. They took the graves of their Prophets as places of prostration. Two [religions] shall not co-exist in the land of the Arabs." (Malik's Muwatta, 45:5:17)

It has been narrated by 'Umar b. al-Khattib that he heard the Messenger of Allah (may peace be upon him) say: I will expel the Jews and Christians from the Arabian Peninsula and will not leave any but Muslim. (Sahih Muslim, 19:4366)

The high value placed on jihad and martyrdom is well attested in the earliest Islamic sources. Whether or not it should extend to pushing a button on a suicide vest, the passion that fires today's terrorists comes straight from the words of the Prophet.


"I love that I should be killed in the way of Allah."

- The Prophet Muhammad

"You love life and we love death, which gives an example of what the Prophet Muhammad said."

- Al Qaeda video claiming responsibility for the 3/11/04 Madrid bombings.

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