Understanding Jihad

Understanding Jihad

by David Cook

Hardcover(Second Edition)

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First published in 2005, Understanding Jihad unravels the tangled historical, intellectual, and political meanings of jihad within the context of Islamic life. In this revised and expanded second edition, author David Cook has included new material in light of pivotal developments such as the extraordinary events of the Arab Spring, the death of Usama b. Ladin, and the rise of new Islamic factions such as ISIS.

Jihad is one of the most loaded and misunderstood terms in the news today. Contrary to popular understanding, the term does not mean "holy war." Nor does it simply refer to an inner spiritual struggle. This judiciously balanced, accessibly written, and highly relevant book looks closely at a range of sources from sacred Islamic texts to modern interpretations, opening a critically important perspective on the role of Islam in the contemporary world.

David Cook cites from scriptural, legal, and newly translated texts to give readers insight into the often ambiguous information that is used to construct Islamic doctrine. He sheds light on legal developments relevant to fighting and warfare and places the internal, spiritual jihad within the larger context of Islamic religion. He describes some of the conflicts that occur in radical groups and shows how the more mainstream supporters of these groups have come to understand and justify violence. He has also included a special appendix of relevant documents including materials related to the September 11 attacks and published manifestos issued by Usama b. Ladin and Palestinian suicide-martyrs.


Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780520287310
Publisher: University of California Press
Publication date: 09/01/2015
Edition description: Second Edition
Pages: 328
Product dimensions: 6.10(w) x 9.00(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

David Cook is Associate Professor of Religion at Rice University. He is the author of Contemporary Muslim Apocalyptic Literature.


Read an Excerpt

Understanding Jihad

By David Cook


Copyright © 2015 The Regents of the University of California
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-520-96249-1




Islam did not begin with violence. Rather, it began as the peaceful proclamation of the absolute unity of God by the Prophet Muhammad (ca. 610 C.E.) in the pagan-dominated town of Mecca. The early suras (chapters) of the Qur'an proclaim this basic message: "Say: He is Allah, the only One, Allah, the Everlasting. He did not beget and is not begotten, and none is His equal" (Qur'an 112). Initially, Muhammad was instructed merely to communicate this message to his immediate family and close friends, who, together with a number of social outcasts and slaves, formed the original community of Muslims. Within a few years, the Prophet and his adherents found themselves increasingly persecuted for their beliefs by the elite of the Quraysh (the tribe that dominated Mecca). Muhammad proselytized among the tribesmen of the oasis of Yathrib, about 150 miles to the north of Mecca, who accepted his message. In 622 he, together with the other Muslims, emigrated to this oasis, which was subsequently called Medina.

Muslim history begins with the hijira — Muhammad's emigration to Medina (although there continue to be major, unresolved problems with the historicity of the events narrated below concerning the life of the Prophet Muhammad and the first conquests). Medina was not a town in the conventional sense but rather a collection of small villages and forts spread over the oasis, divided politically among two pagan Arab tribes — the Aws and the Khazraj — and three smaller Jewish tribes: the Banu Qaynuqa, the Banu al-Nadir, and the Banu Qurayza. Muhammad and the Muslims based their community within Medina, and over a period of five years they converted the Arab tribesmen that occupied the territory.

It was in this context that jihad arose, and the campaigns to gain adherents and control territory constituted the focus of the community's activity during the last nine years of the Prophet's life. Muhammad is recorded as having participated in at least twenty-seven campaigns and deputized some fifty-nine others — an average of no fewer than nine campaigns annually. These campaigns can be divided into four groups:

1. The five "thematic" battles of Badr (624), Uhud (625), Khandaq (627), Mecca (630) and Hunayn (630), undertaken with the goal of dominating the three principal settled areas of the Hijaz: Mecca, Medina, and al-Ta'if

2. Raids against the Bedouin, undertaken to force local tribesmen to support — or at least not to attack — the Muslims

3. Attacks against Jewish tribes to secure the oases in which they resided

4. Two raids against the Byzantines at al-Mu'ta (629) and Tabuk (631) and the campaign led by Usama b. Zayd (632) against Syria, which, though less than successful at best, heralded the direction of Muslim conquests during the years following the Prophet's death in 632.

This evidence demonstrates categorically the importance of jihad to the early Muslim community. It is no coincidence that a number of the Prophet Muhammad's early biographers refer to the last ten years of his life as almaghazi (the raids).

The raids were a mixed success. Unexpectedly, the Muslims emerged victorious from the first of their battles — the Battle of Badr — but campaigns undertaken during the three years following ended in losses or stalemates, compensated in some instances by attacks on poorly defended Jewish tribes, first in Medina and later in the oases to the north. After the Battle of the Khandaq in 627, which was a stalemate, the tide turned for the Muslims, as a result of the Meccans' political weaknesses. By 629 Muhammad controlled the region to the north of Medina almost to the border with the Byzantine Empire, and in 630 he conquered Mecca and its allied town of alTa'if.

This mixed bag of victories, half-victories, Pyrrhic victories, and defeats associated with Islam's origins figured prominently in how the community defined itself. The revelations that constitute the Qur'an coincide with military activity, and many address issues related to the conduct of jihad; one of the earliest of these defines just causes for waging jihad, emphasizing the essential component of justice:

Permission is given to those who fight because they are wronged. Surely Allah is capable of giving them victory. Those who were driven out of their homes unjustly, merely for their saying: "Our Lord is Allah." Had Allah not repelled some people by others, surely monasteries, churches, synagogues and mosques, wherein the name of Allah is mentioned frequently, would have been demolished. Indeed, Allah will support whoever supports Him. Allah is surely Strong and Mighty. (22:39–40)

This verse emphasizes the basic component of justice in the waging of jihad. The persecutions of the pagan Quraysh forced the Muslims to emigrate to Medina. During the course of this migration, many of the Muslims lost most or all of their worldly goods and were unable to adjust to life in the agricultural oasis of Medina (as Mecca lacked any agriculture [see 14:37]). Since Medina lay close to the route between Mecca and Syria, through which the Meccans had to pass in order to continue their trading activities, the Muslims sought recompense for their losses by attacking the caravans of the Quraysh. These attacks precipitated the first round of "thematic battles" leading to the eventual conquest of Mecca by Muhammad and the Muslims. In 624 a Meccan caravan was passing by Medina en route from Syria, and its commander, Abu Sufyan, realizing the danger, sent for reinforcements to assist him. Muhammad, who was leading the Muslims, intercepted the caravan, but Abu Sufyan managed to escape. The subsequent battle at Badr between the Muslims and Meccan reinforcements constituted the first of Muhammad's victories.

Much of sura 8 (the Spoils) deals with this event, which was important to early Islam for a number of reasons. The victory was unexpected because of the fact that the Muslims were outnumbered, necessary because the Muslims needed it in order to build up prestige, and sweet because of the number of prominent members of the Quraysh who were slain, for they had figured prominently in the persecution of the Muslims in Mecca. The battle was important for Islam in the long run as well. The Qur'an identifies God as the agent of the battle and the sole cause of the Muslim's victory. According to sura 8, it was God who induced the believers to march forward (8:5), compelled the Muslims to attack the Meccan reinforcements instead of the caravan (8:6), and supplied angels to assist the Muslims (8:9):

It was not you [the Muslims] who slew them, but Allah; and when you threw it was actually Allah who threw, so that He might generously reward the believers. Allah is Hearing, Knowing. (8:17)

The Qur'an, moreover, directs the community of Muslims to preserve the memory of the event: "whoever turns his back on that day, unless preparing to resume fighting, or joining another group, incurs Allah's wrath and his refuge is Hell; and what an evil fate!" (8:16). All of this will be accomplished "so that He may cause the Truth to triumph and nullify falsehood, even though the wicked sinners dislike it" (8:8). Although Christian and Jewish bibles and apocalyptic literature, like the Qur'an, often describe God fighting on the side of believers (see, for example, Joshua 10:14), associating the will of the deity with victory is theologically problematic, and particularly so in the wake of a defeat.

The Battle of Badr was not taken advantage of by the Muslim community, which was too small to follow up on its unexpected victory. A year later, the Meccans sought revenge for their defeat and obtained it at the Battle of Uhud, fought just to the north of Medina. The Muslims took positions at the foot of Mount Uhud (a small butte), while the Meccans held a key strategic location between them and the entrance to Medina. Just before the battle, a number of Muslims, led by 'Abdallah b. Ubayy (the leader of the lukewarm, or uncommitted, Muslims, usually called "the Hypocrites" in the Qur'an), abandoned the Muslim force in full view of the Meccans. When the Muslims advanced from their base on Mount Uhud, the Meccan cavalry encircled them from behind; the Prophet Muhammad only narrowly made his escape, while many of his adherents, thinking he had been killed, fled the battle. Several prominent Muslims, including Muhammad's uncle Hamza (often called "the Prince of Martyrs" in the jihad literature), were killed in the trap. To a large extent, Muhammad and the Muslims could count themselves lucky that the Meccans did not take advantage of their victory and finish off the defenseless Muslim families in Medina.

Because of the theological weight placed upon the victory at Badr the previous year, the defeat at Uhud proved difficult to explain. Muslims asked: if God was on our side then, why did He allow this disastrous defeat? Answers are forthcoming in the Qur'an, especially in the last half of sura 3 (The Family of 'Imran), which introduces the idea that "Islam" needs to be divorced from the person of Muhammad (3:144); the death of the religion's prophet will not signal the end of the religion itself. The defeat at Uhud is explained in terms of God's alternating victories between people in order to test them (3:140–42, 152), and the Prophet is commended for having forgiven those whose impetuousness caused the disaster (3:155–59). Thus, an event that could have divided the still small Muslim community was used to reinforce its unity.

This unity was tested yet again during the Battle of the Khandaq (627). By this time, the pagan Meccans had decided that the Muslim community must be decisively defeated, and so they gathered a large number of tribal allies — referred to in the Qur'an as al-ahzab, the Confederates — and laid siege to the oasis of Medina. Within Medina, the Prophet Muhammad's authority was challenged by the Hypocrites, who discounted the threat and refused to fight (33:12–20). The true believers are characterized as "men who fulfilled what they pledged to Allah; some of them have died, some are still waiting, without changing in the least" (33:23).

The Battle of Khandaq was not a battle of weapons, but rather a challenge to the disunity among Muslims first manifested in the Battle of Uhud (by 'Abdallah b. Ubayy's last-minute abandonment of the other Muslims). These problems were resolved by the massacre of the Jewish tribe of Banu Qurayza (33:26), God's causing a wind to arise and sending unseen hosts to defeat the Meccan besiegers (33:9), and the ultimate capitulation of the Hypocrites and their integration within the community loyal to Muhammad. These factors were decisive in the ultimate victory of the Muslims over their Meccan opponents three years later.

The conquest of Mecca (630) is treated only briefly in the Qur'an, although most of sura 48 is devoted to this subject. Of much greater importance for the study of jihad is the penultimate sura in the Qur'an, surat al-Tawba (Repentance). This sura is the only chapter of the Qur'an that is not preceded by the phrase "In the Name of Allah, the Compassionate, the Merciful," which in itself indicates the martial nature of the text. It was most likely revealed in 631. Sura 9 contains the account of the salvific covenant between God and the Muslims that helps define the nature of jihad:

Allah has bought from the believers their lives and their wealth in return for Paradise; they fight in the way of Allah, kill and get killed. That is a true promise from Him in the Torah, the Gospel, and the Qur'an; and who fulfills His promise better than Allah? Rejoice, then, at the bargain you have made with Him; for that is the great triumph. (9:111)

Like much of the language of the Qur'an, this covenant is presented in contractual terms. The exchange is clear: the Muslims' lives and wealth are given to Allah in return for an assurance of Paradise. Given the verse's unique power and relevance to the subject, it is no wonder that this verse is prominently cited in collections on the subject of jihad (for example, that of alBukhari).

However, sura 9 has many more important verses to offer concerning jihad. The sura's main subject is the revocation of the immunity granted by God and Muhammad to those tribes that had not converted to Islam prior to this revelation. After the lifting of the immunity, the Muslims must fight the unbelievers:

Then, when the sacred months are over, kill the idolaters wherever you find them, take them [captive], besiege them, and lie in wait for them at every point of observation. If they repent afterwards, perform the prayer and pay the alms, then release them. Allah is truly All-Forgiving, Merciful. (9:5)

This verse, together with the salvific covenant, is one of the most important verses on the subject of jihad. It is usually called the "Verse of the Sword" and is said to abrogate all other verses in the Qur'an on the subject of war and peace. While its immediate subject is the pagan Arabs — a narrow application sustained by early commentators — later Muslim jurists would use the verse to proclaim a universal jihad against all non-Muslims.

Sura 9 also deals extensively with social relations between believers and nonbelievers — again of decisive importance for the later development of Islam. According to 9:23–24, a Muslim should distance himself from his kin and friends if they persist in unbelief (see also 3:28, 4:139, 5:51, 57). This sura also establishes the paradigm of Muslim dominance over Jews and Christians that would dictate the social system of Islam for centuries to come:

Fight those among the People of the Book [Jews and Christians] who do not believe in God and the Last Day, do not forbid what God and His Apostle have forbidden, and do not profess the true religion [Islam] until they pay the poll-tax out of hand and submissively. (9:29)

One of the goals of jihad was to conquer and dominate non-Muslims. Reading through sura 9, and understanding that this sura was probably revealed toward the end of Muhammad's life, just a few years before the conquests (making the final revelation a declaration of war), explains the aggressiveness of the early Muslims.

In summarizing the teachings of the Qur'an with regard to the subject of jihad, it is important to emphasize that we have a very martial and well- developed teaching here. Although it not an exhaustive treatment of jihad — many of the hadith and subsequent jurisprudence are devoted to annotating topics only adumbrated in the suras — the Qur'an nonetheless presents a well-developed religious justification for waging war against Islam's enemies. It covers questions concerning prisoners, the fate and rewards of martyrs, disunity and doubt within the Muslim ranks, and a number of other issues as well. The Qur'an even reveals that many Muslims were reluctant to fight (2:216, 9:38). The text provides the religious basis for the doctrine of jihad that would result in the great Muslim conquests of the seventh and eighth centuries.


The early Islamic conquests are one of the great bursts of military achievement known to history and arguably one of those with the longest-lasting effects. After Muhammad's death, the Muslim armies embarked upon a series of campaigns in the ancient Fertile Crescent (present-day Syria and Iraq) and quickly conquered the territory. The conquest of Egypt soon followed, and by 650 the heartlands of Islam — the area between Egypt on the west and the Iranian plateau on the east, and the Arabian Peninsula — were ruled by the Muslims.

After a five-year hiatus (the civil war of 656–61), the Muslims, now centered in Syria under the Umayyad dynasty (661–749), embarked on a further surge of conquest in all directions. To the northeast, the regions of Central Asia and Afghanistan were conquered, albeit with great difficulty, while to the southeast, the Muslims mounted attacks in the area of the Indus River valley (present-day Pakistan) and parts of northern India. To the north, Armenia and the Caucasus were conquered, while two major unsuccessful attempts to take Constantinople — the seat of the Byzantine Empire — were undertaken in 676–80 and 715–17. To the south, the Muslims of Egypt launched unsuccessful attacks upon the Christian kingdom of Nubia (what is today the northern Sudan). To the west, the Muslims conquered and pacified North Africa and converted the native Berber population to Islam (by 699). By 701 the Muslim armies, using Berbers as reinforcements, had conquered the Iberian Peninsula and in the early 730s entered France, where they were defeated in 732 by Charles Martel at Poitiers.


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Table of Contents

Preface to the Second Edition


1. Quran and Conquest
2. The “Greater Jihad” and the “Lesser Jihad”
3. The Crystallization of Jihad Theory: Crusade and Counter-Crusade
4. Jihad during the Nineteenth Century: Renewal and Resistance
5. Radical Islam and Contemporary Jihad Theory
6. Globalist Radical Islam and Martyrdom Operations
7. The Rise of Jihadi States

Appendix: Some Translated Documents

Communiqué from the Armed Islamic Group (Algeria; September 8, 1995)
World Islamic Front for Jihad against Zionists and Crusaders: Declaration of War (February 23, 1998)
A Communiqué from Qa Idat Al-Jihad Concerning the Testaments of the Heroes and the Legality of the Washington and New York Operations (April 24, 2002)
The Importance of Jihad, on the Goals of Jihad (by Ali al-Aliyani)
Under the Shadow of the Spears (by Sulayman Abu Ghayth)
Translation of “The Last Night”
“Our Sharii Stance with Regard to the Government of the Iraqi Karzai” (by Abu Musab al-Zasqawi¯)
“Proclamation of the Caliphate” (by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, June 29, 2014)
The Revival of Slavery before the Hour (from Dabiq, October 14, 2014)


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