Islam Has Always Embraced "Holy War": Some Surprising Confirmations

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Khaldun, Adams, Jefferson.JPG

These days, many shudder if you point out the historical reality that Islam has had an oftentimes cozy relationship with “Holy War,” or Jihad. This reality is obfuscated, explained away with reference to the “oppressive” West, or simply denied.

These assertions are incorrect.

Have Western countries always treated Islamic nations well? No. Have some wars carried out by Muslims been legitimate and “just”? Probably. But the fact is that Islam has long engaged in warfare out of more than merely prudential reasons—rather, it has embraced the concept of “Holy War” as a matter of its core teachings and practices.

That some Muslims do not live up to or believe this does not change this fact. There are many wonderful Muslims (some of whom I consider dear friends)—but Islam itself, as evidenced through history, its scriptures, and other sacred texts (i.e. the Hadith), evinces itself to be a religion of the sword. I will offer two bits of evidence in this blog to support that claim—from the mouth of Muslims themselves.

In 2007, the Council on American-Islamic Relations said:

“[Jihad] signifies rightful strife, endeavor or struggle to repel evil. Such struggle can be of intellectual, mental, physical, or material nature and is done only to win the pleasure of God.”

The evidence it gave for this proposition? Nothing, except one citation from the Qu’ran that doesn’t even define “Jihad.” They offered no historical, theological, or otherwise scholarly confirmation of their contention. Such has been the case with most assertions of a like character.

This is an enormous topic. But I’d like to provide two pieces of fascinating evidence, from the 14th and 18th centuries, from surprising sources, that show how false this impression of Islam is.

Bowing to the intellectual handicaps of this insane and vacuous age, I again repeat: to make this case is not to affirm that all individual Muslims believe the same thing as the sources I cite here. It is to show, however, that there is a persistent pattern in Islamic history of a willing, and enthusiastic embrace of war for the purposes of religion, not merely out of convenience or pragmatic concerns, but as a matter of doctrine and dogma itself.

We have clearly seen this happen in the 20th and 21st centuries, and the reasons offered for it range from the interesting to the absurd: it was the West’s victory over the Ottomans in World War I; it was the West’s meddling; it was the CIA and “blowback”; it was the “American Empire”; in short, it was anything but Islam itself. All of these explanations likely contain grains of truth. But the reality is that Islam has a long history of embracing “Holy War” that pre-exists all these attempted explanations.

Here are two bits of evidence that illustrate this.

Exhibit #1 (14th Century)

The first is Ibn Khaldûn, an Islamic historian whose classic work, The Muqaddimah, published in 1377, was one of the premier Islamic attempts at a comprehensive history of the world from an Islamic perspective.

In that work, Khaldûn forcefully and proudly asserts that “holy war” (Jihad) was an essential element of Islam. In fact, he said that Islam was unique, and even superior for its its use of “holy war” to spread the faith. He even acknowledges that the “other religions” (in which he certainly included Christianity) did not embrace the concept of a “holy war,” but only defensive wars.

Keep in mind when Khaldûn wrote this: in 1377. The First Crusade was called in 1096 in order to assist the besieged Byzantine Christians, and help protect Christian pilgrims in lands that, for centuries, had been bombarded by Islamic invasions, but had previously been Christian. Between 1096 and 1377, there were numerous Crusades (other than the First) to the Holy Land: the Second Crusade (1147-1149), the Third Crusade (1189-1192), the Fourth Crusade (1202-1204), the Fifth Crusade (1217-1221), the Sixth Crusade (1228-1229), the Seventh Crusade (1248-1254), the Eighth Crusade (1270), and the Ninth Crusade (1271-1272), in addition to several other smaller Crusades—all before Khaldûn wrote his masterpiece.

Born in modern-day Tunisia, he was also one of the most learned scholars and theologians of his day, having memorized the Qu’ran by heart, and receiving certifications in Islamic jurisprudence.

Despite all that, he openly avows that “holy war” is theologically intrinsic to Islam, but not to other religions (i.e. Christianity)—and is proud of this.

For example, in describing the qualifications for an Imam (a leader), Khaldûn asserted that executing a “holy war” was one of their essential duties:

Competence means that he [the Imam] is willing to carry out the punishments fixed by law and to go to war.  He must understand warfare and be able to assume responsibility for getting the people to fight…All of which is to enable him to fulfill his functions of protecting religion, leading in the holy war against the enemy, painting the (religious) laws, and administering the (public) interests. [Emphasis added][1]

Addressing the Islamic critique of what he termed “royal authority,” Khaldûn said this was because royal authorities tended not to pursue “holy war” to the degree they should:

If royal authority would sincerely exercise its superiority over men for the sake of God and so as to cause those men to worship God and to wage war against His enemies, there would not be anything reprehensible in it… [Emphasis added][2]

Later in the work, he outlines how royal authorities are prone to luxury more than “holy war,” and for this, Khaldûn (and, he claimed, Mohammed) were critical of them.

Next, Khaldûn explicitly affirms the Islamic duty to engage in “holy war,” and functionally criticized “other religious groups” (i.e. Christianity, etc.) for never adopting the same posture:

In the Muslim community, the holy war is a religious duty, because of the universalism of the Muslim mission and (the obligation to) convert everybody to Islam either by persuasion or by force.  Therefore, caliphate and royal authority are united in Islam, so that the person in charge can devote the available strength to both of them at the same time.

The other religious groups did not have a universal mission, and the holy war was not a religious duty to them, save only for purposes of defense. [Emphasis added][3]

For Khaldûn, “holy war” was intrinsic to Islam’s unique and universal mission—a mission which was reserved to Muslims alone, as adherents of God’s final revelation. Christians may have thought they had a universal mission, but they didn’t. Allah had assigned that mission to Muslims, who were thereby empowered to spread the faith via “holy war.”

Among his four categories of wars, Khaldûn explicitly lists “holy war”—and no, these were not internal, merely personal and spiritual types of wars he was categorizing, but actual, physical wars—the ones where lots of bleeding takes place:

Wars and different kinds of fighting have always occurred in the world since God created it…The third is the (kind) the religious law calls ‘the holy war.’…[Holy wars are] holy and just wars. [Emphasis added][4]

Indeed, the duty to engage in “holy war” on behalf of the universal mission of Islam, and the apparent success Muslims enjoyed because of it, was, for Khaldûn, proof of Allah’s guidance and favor. Writing about the very beginnings of the Islamic faith, he observed:

(The Muslims) gained the upper hand over the Persians and the Byzantines in the three or four years that followed the death of the Prophet, and there was no long waiting period.  It should be realized that this was one of the miracles of our Prophet.  The secret of it lay in the willingness of the Muslims to die in the holy war against their enemies because of their feeling that they had the right religious insight, and in the corresponding fear and defeatism that God put into the hearts of their enemies. [Emphasis added][5]

Why did those early Muslims engage in the “holy war”? Khaldûn’s answer is clear: “they had the right religious insight.”

In Islam, even after centuries of Crusades, which Khaldûn implicitly acknowledges to be merely defensive (he had to have known about them), “holy war” was normal, accepted, and just for Muslims. Don’t take my word for it. Take Khaldûn’s.

Exhibit #2 (18th century)

In 1784, Congress appointed Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, and Thomas Jefferson as the primary diplomatic representatives responsible for negotiating treaties of commerce and friendship with nations in the Europe/Mediterranean region.

Among those they negotiated with were the Barbary States, a group of countries such as Tripoli (modern day Libya), Tunis (modern day Tunisia), Algiers (modern day Algeria), and Morocco, ruled by Muslim leaders who had exacted massive tribute from European kingdoms in exchange for not attacking their ships and kidnapping their subjects. Several American ships had already been captured, and some had resorted to flying European flags, or sailing in European convoys for protection. But this was often grating on the Europeans themselves, who were footing the costs through tribute. The American diplomats quickly learned they had two options: pay tribute themselves, or go to war.

Ultimately, this conflict would go on for decades. The intricacies of it are not the subject of this post. Rather, I’d like to share with you a fascinating letter written by John Adams and Thomas Jefferson to John Jay (who was Secretary of Foreign Affairs).

Adams and Jefferson were both in London in 1786 (Adams had been appointed ambassador to Great Britain in 1785). There, they met the ambassador of Tripoli to attempt to negotiate their way out of the mess in the Mediterranean. After discussing details and logistics, they described how they asked the ambassador why he and the other Barbary States indiscriminately attacked the ships of peoples who had shown no aggression toward them. Sadly, the ambassador’s answer aligned with Khaldûn’s stance on “holy war.”

Reporting back on their meeting with the ambassador of Tripoli, Adams and Jefferson observed as follows:

We took the liberty to make some inquiries concerning the Grounds of their pretensions to make war upon Nations who had done them no Injury, and observed that we considered all mankind as our friends who had done us no wrong, nor had given us any provocation.

The Ambassador answered us that it was founded on the Laws of their Prophet, that it was written in their Koran, that all nations who should not have acknowledged their authority were sinners, that it was their right and duty to make war upon them wherever they could be found, and to make slaves of all they could take as Prisoners, and that every Musselman [Muslim] who should be slain in battle was sure to go to Paradise. [Emphasis added][6]

It would seem that long before 9/11, long before the fall of the mighty Ottoman Empire, long before CAIR, long before the CIA, long before the advent of the American Empire, long before there were those in the present who who dared to conclude that Islam’s relationship with war was a bit too cozy for comfort, that Muslims themselves not only confirmed this fact, but were proud of it.

I didn’t say it. They did.


[1]Ibn Khaldûn, The Muqaddimah (Chapter 3, §24) (1377); Ibn Khaldûn, Franz Rosenthal, trans., The Muqaddimah (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2015), 158.

[2]Id. 161. (Chapter 3, §26)

[3]Id. 183. (Chapter 3, §31)

[4]Id. 223, 224. (Chapter 3, §35)

[5]Id. 255. (Chapter 3, §48)

[6]John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, American Commissioners to John Jay (March 28, 1786).