Prophet Muhammad ﷺ received his first divine revelations in Mecca and he peacefully preached the message of Islam to the Meccans for thirteen years until an intolerable level of persecution forced him and his followers to flee to the nearby town of Yathrib, later known as Medina. This emigration marked the new ‘Medinan phase’ of the Prophet’s life ﷺ. Despite fleeing from Mecca, the Meccans headed by the Quraysh aristocracy vowed to exterminate the newly formed religious community in Medina. They wrote a threatening letter to the Prophet’s new allies, saying, “You have given protection to our companion. We swear by Allah that you must fight him or exile him, or else we will come at you in full force. We will kill your fighting men and take your women.”19
Within this context, Allah revealed the first verses permitting warfare in self-defense:
Permission is given to those who are being fought because they have been wronged. Verily, Allah has power to give them victory. Those who have been driven from their homes without right, only because they said, ‘Our Lord is Allah.’ If Allah did not check some people by means of others, many monasteries, churches, synagogues, and mosques, in which the name of Allah is often mentioned, would have been torn down.20
According to the classical exegete Ibn Kathīr (d. 1373), many of the early Muslim authorities considered this to be the first verse to be revealed about war.21
The principle established here is that non-aggression is the general rule but retaliation is permissible if necessary to resolve an unbearable injustice. Muslims were now allowed to fight back as a direct response to prolonged religious persecution and violent threat, whereas previously they had been told to remain patient. This verse also establishes an inherent right of individuals to defend themselves if they are unjustly attacked in their places of worship. Such places must be considered safe zones as long as their occupants stay out of the fighting. The righteous Caliph Abū Bakr رضي الله ﺗﻌﺎﻟﯽ عنه
(d. 634) would say, “No doubt, the monk in his monastery may not be killed.”22
Another important verse revealed early in the Medinan phase reinforces the principle of non-aggression:
Fight in the way of Allah those who fight you, but do not transgress. Verily, Allah does not love transgressors.23
If one reads the Qur’an from the beginning, this is the first verse to mention warfare. In both Medinan verses, the legal justification for war is laid down as a proportionate response to enemy aggression. Non-aggression is the general ruling and war is the exception with conditions. As stated by Ibn Taymīyah, “The default rule (asl
) is that the blood of the human being is inviolable except by right of justice.”24
The key phrase “do not transgress” governs both when a war may be rightly declared and within what limits a military may prosecute it.
ʿAbd Allāh ibn ʿAbbās رضي الله عنهما
(d. 687), the cousin of Prophet Muhammad ﷺ and one of the earliest authorities in Qur’anic exegesis, interpreted this verse as prohibiting aggression against all categories of peaceful people, “Do not kill women, children, old men, or whoever comes to you with peace and he restrains his hand (from fighting), for if you did so, you would have certainly transgressed.”25
The Caliph ʿUmar ibn ʿAbd al-ʿAzīz interpreted the protected classes of people in this verse in a manner consistent with what we call ‘civilians’ today, “(Do not transgress) regarding women, children, and whoever is not waging war against you among them.”26
The interpretations of these two major figures is clear evidence that the verse is still legally operative. In their opinion, it has not been nullified or cancelled by later verses, as explained by al-Ṭabarī, “Nothing from the ruling of this verse has been abrogated.”27
Ibn Kathīr acknowledges the opinion that some commentators considered the verse to be ‘abrogated’ but he disagrees:
This opinion is in dispute because His statement ‘those who fight you’ is only an exhortation and incitement against enemies who are engaged in fighting against Islam and its people… meaning, let your energy be spent on fighting them, just as their energy is spent on fighting you, and drive them from your lands as they drove you from their lands, as a proportional response (qiṣāṣ).28
The Prophet ﷺ stated in several narrations that among the worst sinners are those who initiate hostilities or kill people without a just cause:
Verily, the most tyrannical of people to Allah Almighty is one who kills in the sacred mosque, one who kills those who did not fight him, and one who kills with the vindictiveness of ignorance.29
The fourth righteous Caliph ʿAlī ibn Abī Ṭālib رضي الله عنه (d. 661) reports that engraved upon the Prophet’s ﷺ sword were the sayings, “Maintain relations with those who cut you off, speak the truth even if it is against yourself, and be good to one who is evil to you.”30
ʿĀʾishah رضي الله عنها
(d. 678) similarly reports that it was written on the handle of his sword, “Verily, the worst of people in insolence are those who strike at whoever did not strike at them and a man who kills those who did not fight him.”31
Ibn ʿUmar رضي الله عنهما
(d. 693) reports that a woman was found killed in one of the battles, so the Prophet ﷺ openly condemned the killing of women and children.32
In another narration of this incident, the Prophet ﷺ said explicitly why he condemned her killing, “She was not fighting,” and he gave a subsequent announcement, “Do not kill children or workers.”33
Ibn Taymīyah commented on this narration, writing, “That is because Allah Almighty only permitted taking lives to the extent it is necessary for the welfare of creation.”34
These well-established rules unequivocally and unmistakably outlaw military tactics we refer to as “terrorism” today.
Moreover, the Prophet ﷺ forbade Muslims from desiring to fight anyone, “Do not wish to meet the enemy in battle, but if you meet them, be patient.”35
This statement describes war as a last resort, that it is something undesirable and evil in itself, even though at times it may be a necessary evil to prevent a greater harm. Unlike other texts that prohibit aggression, this tradition goes deeper to the level of the heart. A Muslim is not allowed to desire in his or her heart violent retaliation upon the enemy, although it is permissible and sometimes a duty. One can and should desire martyrdom, which is to die serving Allah in a just cause, but that is entirely distinct from being pleased with revenge, killing, and bloodshed. Ibn Taymīyah said, “Indeed, the matter of benevolence and forgiveness towards people takes precedence over the matter of vengeance and revenge.”36
If there is a way to ensure the safety and freedom of Muslims without resorting to violence, that would obviously be a more desired course of action.
There are also some important symbolic meanings that express the spirit of jihad as one of justice and self-defense, not conquest or domination. The Prophet ﷺ described the leader of the Muslim army as a “shield” and not as a weapon:
Verily, the leader is only a shield behind whom they fight and he protects them. If he commands the fear of Allah Almighty and acts justly, he will have a reward. If he commands something else, it will be against him.37
A man asked al-Barāʾ, “Was the face of the Messenger of Allah ﷺ like a sword?” al-Barāʾ رضي الله عنه said, “No, it was like the moon.”38
This defensive imagery is a metaphorical way of conveying to Muslims the general attitude of Islam towards war. The leader of the Muslim army is a shield and a protector, not a tyrant; the face of the Prophet ﷺ was welcoming and inviting, not stern and intimidating. Symbolic meanings do not hold much weight in legal discussions, of course, but they are nonetheless important mechanisms for the transmission of religious meaning to the masses.
The key question in Islamic just-war theory is the issue of ʿillah (legal justification) or casus belli of jihad. What conditions determine when warfare is an appropriate response? According to Ibn Taymīyah, jihad is a legitimate reaction to military aggression by unbelievers and not merely religious difference with them. There is no evidence in the source texts of Islam that permits Muslims to attack or kill civilians or invade non-hostile nations for political or ideological motives alone. He asserts that this was the view of the majority of Muslim scholars:
As for the transgressor who does not fight, there are no texts in which Allah commands him to be fought. Rather, the unbelievers are only fought on the condition that they wage war, as is practiced by the majority of scholars and is evident in the Book and Sunnah.39
Ibn Taymīyah’s view on jihad, which he ascribes to the historical majority, is consolidated in a treatise entitled, “An abridged rule on fighting the unbelievers and making truces with them, and the prohibition of killing them merely because of their unbelief.”40
The title reveals that ‘unbelief’ (kufr
) by itself is not a justification for violence, whether against individuals or nations. As he says elsewhere, “Whoever does not obstruct the Muslims from establishing the religion of Allah, his unbelief harms no one but himself.”41
Some people have tried to discredit this work and to mistakenly ascribe an aggressively violent expansionist policy to Ibn Taymīyah. He certainly does authorize pre-emptive strikes or ‘offensive jihad’ (jihād al-ṭalab) against enemies who threaten the Muslim community or obstruct their citizens from freely accepting Islam, which was an ever-present reality during the harsh times in which he lived. However, the book’s editor makes a compelling case for authenticating the text and cross-references the content with Ibn Taymīyah’s confirmed works, conclusively demonstrating that he consistently held this view throughout his career. His most prominent student, Ibn al-Qayyim, expressed the same opinion regarding casus belli:
Killing is only necessary to confront war and not to confront unbelief. For this reason, women and children are not killed, neither are the elderly, the blind, or monks who do not participate in fighting. Rather, we only fight those who wage war against us. This was the way of the Messenger of Allah ﷺ with the people of the earth. He would fight those who declared war on him until they accepted his religion, or they proposed a peace treaty, or they came under his control by paying tribute.42
As unbelief is not a good enough justification by itself for spilling blood, it follows that jihad is simply a means to a greater end. An important difference between Islamic law and a modern Western conception of just war is the objective of protecting Islam’s mission to provide free access to the religion for all humanity. Someone came to the Prophet ﷺ and asked, “A man may fight to be courageous, another may fight for zeal, and another may fight to show off. Which of these is fighting in the way of Allah?” The Prophet ﷺ said, “He who fights to raise the word of Allah is in the way of Allah.”43
But what is the ‘word of Allah’ to be raised? Does it mean an Islamic political system? According to Ibn Ḥajar al-ʿAsqalānī, the outstanding commentator on Ṣaḥīḥ al-Bukhārī
, the word of Allah here means the call to Islam (daʿwah
The meaning of the ‘word of Allah’ is the invitation of Allah to Islam. It potentially means that jihad would not be in the cause of Allah unless the purpose of fighting is only to raise the word of Allah, such that if anyone were to add another reason to it among the reasons mentioned, that would violate it… In this tradition is blame for seeking worldly gains and for fighting to acquire personal fortune in disobedience to Allah.44
In other words, Muslims are not allowed to fight for base motives like money, power, politics, revenge, hatred, and so on. The only legitimate jihad is in the defense of Islam’s missionary imperative, the freedom to fully practice Islam and preach it to all humanity.
What is the matter with you that you do not fight in the way of Allah for downtrodden men, women, and children who say, ‘Our Lord, take us out of this city of oppressive people and appoint us a protector from You and appoint us a supporter from You?’45
If there was a hostile nation that prevented people from accepting Islam, such as the Byzantine Roman or Sasanian Persian empires, an offensive jihad would be warranted in order to deliver God’s message to them and allow their people to freely embrace the religion without fear.
In the time of the Prophet ﷺ and his companions, the Romans had been executing their prominent citizens who embraced Islam. Farwah ibn ‘Amr al-Judhāmī رضي الله عنه was one such subordinate of Caesar who wrote to the Prophet ﷺ to tell him he accepted Islam and even sent him gifts. When the Romans found out about Farwah’s conversion, they imprisoned him, killed him, and displayed his body in public crucifixion-style.46
This transgression signaled to everyone in the region that conversion to Islam was not tolerated in the Roman empire; the peaceful spread of Islam was under threat. Ibn Taymīyah mentions such incidents as the legal justification for the offensive military campaigns waged by the Prophet ﷺ and his companions:
The Christians waged war against the Muslims first, and they unjustly and oppressively killed those who accepted Islam among them; otherwise, messengers were sent to them to call people to Islam willingly, without compulsion, and no one was forced into Islam.47
Islam is the birthright of every human being to voluntarily accept or reject. The Romans and Persians had brutally persecuted new Muslims and the only way to save these oppressed converts and protect their rights was to take the initiative against those tyrannical empires.
By extension, jihad may be waged to protect human life and end injustice, because one cannot practice the religion if they are dead or greatly suffering. In this regard, Ibn Ḥajar al-Haytamī (d. 1566), citing scholars such as al-Zarkashī (d. 1392), maintain that jihad is an obligation in so far as it achieves this primary religious objective, according to the principle, “Its necessity is the necessity of means, not ends.”48
If the Muslim community and the mission to share Islam with the world can be protected without resort to warfare, then the way of non-violence is given precedence.
In practice, the early Muslims did not attack their peaceful neighbors. The best example of this is the amicable relations the Muslims had with Abyssinia (in present-day Ethiopia). Before the migration to Medina, some Muslims were granted asylum in Abyssinia. The generosity of the Abyssinians did not go unappreciated. The Prophet ﷺ encouraged Muslims to maintain peaceful relations with them as long as they remain friendly, and this instruction was taken seriously, “Leave the Abyssinians alone as long as they leave you alone, and leave the Turks alone as long as they leave you alone.”49
Ibn Rushd (d. 1198), known in the West as Averroës, reported that the inhabitants of Medina never attacked the Abyssinians or the Turks, “Mālik was asked about the authenticity of this tradition. He did not acknowledge it, but said: People continue to avoid attacking them.”50
It strains credulity to imagine the Prophet ﷺ commanded his weaker companions to migrate to Abyssinia, only to later attack their hosts just because they were not Muslims, as if he would have responded to their goodwill with backstabbing violence. On the contrary, Islam could be safely practiced in their kingdom, so there was no legal justification for attacking them, even though the Abyssinians themselves did not rule by Sharīʿah law.
We say Islam is the religion of peace and it truly is, even if that peace must sometimes be enforced by the sword. Peace, mercy, and justice are fundamental values in Islam, and this wider moral ethos cannot be separated from the objectives and practical rules of jihad. In one verse, the word “peace” is used as a synonym for Islam, “O you who have faith, surrender completely in peace (silm
) and do not follow the footsteps of Satan, for he is your sworn enemy.”51
Many early Muslims considered the word “peace” in this verse to mean Islam itself.52
peace. The Prophet ﷺ said, “The Muslim is the one from whose tongue and hand the people are safe.”53
Put differently, Islam is to be in a state of peace with the Creator and non-aggression towards His creation, surrendering to the will of God and not making war against Him.
Peace itself is one of the attributes of God in Islam. The Prophet ﷺ instructed Muslims to pray for peace after every prayer, saying, “O Allah, You are Peace and from You is peace. Blessed are You, the Majestic and Generous.”54
In fact, the first sermon of the Prophet ﷺ upon arrival in Medina exhorted Muslims to spread peace, as recalled by ʿAbd Allāh ibn Salām (d. 630):
I came along with the people to see him and when I looked at the face of the Messenger of Allah ﷺ, I realized that his face was not the face of a liar. The first thing he said was this, ‘O people, spread peace, feed the hungry, and pray at night when people are sleeping and you will enter Paradise in peace.’55
Consider the context of this tradition. As mentioned earlier, the Quraysh had sent a threatening letter to the people of Medina, promising to kill their men and take their women and children prisoner if they did not give up the Prophet ﷺ. But how did he respond to their intimidation? Was his first sermon a rousing call for war and revenge? No, rather, it was a calm appeal for peace, charity, and worship of the Lord as a way for believers to achieve peace in this life and the next.
As a legal matter, other verses instruct Muslims to accept peace offerings from their enemies. If the enemy proposes reasonable terms of peace, there is no legal justification for hostilities:
But as for those who seek refuge with people with whom you have a treaty, or who come to you because their hearts were strained from fighting against you or their own people, Allah could have given them power over you and they would have fought you. If they withdraw and do not fight you and offer you peace, Allah gives you no way against them.56
In another verse, “If they incline towards peace, you incline to it as well and put your trust in Allah.”57
The Prophet ﷺ instructed ʿAlī ibn Abī Ṭālib رضي الله عنه to seek peaceful resolutions to conflicts whenever possible, “Verily, after me there will be conflicts or affairs, so if you are able to end them in peace, then do so.”58
Again, this is an explicit statement of limiting war as a last resort, exactly because peace is an essential value in Islam. In this regard, the companion ʿAmmār ibn Yāsir رضي الله عنهما (d. 657) considered the message of world peace to be integral to Islamic faith, “Whoever has three qualities will have completed the faith: fairness from yourself to others, offering peace to the world, and spending in charity even while poor.”59
Not only should avenues of peace and reconciliation be pursued as much as possible, but covenants, promises, and truces with the enemy must be strictly upheld. The Prophet ﷺ said, “Whoever kills a person protected by a treaty (muʿāhid
) will never smell the fragrance of Paradise.”60
Those who use treachery to gain an advantage in warfare will be exposed, humiliated, and punished on Judgment Day. The Prophet ﷺ said:
When Allah gathers together the earlier and later generations on the Day of Resurrection, He will raise a banner for every treacherous person. It will be announced that this is the treachery of this person, the son of this person.61
In one incident, there was a peace treaty between the Caliph Muʿāwiyah رضي الله عنه
(d. 680) and the Romans. Muʿāwiyah was marching his army towards their country so that when the covenant came to an end, he would take the initiative in attacking them. A man came riding on a horse, saying, “Allah is Most Great! Allah is Most Great! Let there be faithfulness and not treachery!” Muʿāwiyah sent for him and questioned him, so the man said he heard the Prophet ﷺ say, “If one has a covenant with people, he must not (unilaterally) modify it until its term comes to an end, or he brings it to an end in agreement with them.” Thus, Muʿāwiyah returned with his army.62
Dispatching the troops before the end of the treaty was an unlawful act of war itself, and a surprise attack would inevitably undermine any possibility of reconciliation, so Muʿāwiyah recognized his mistake and pulled back his troops. Fidelity to Islamic values is far more important than any tactical military advantage. In this regard, ʿUmar ibn Abd al-ʿAzīz used to say, “I am more afraid of sins for people than the plots of their enemies.”63
Those who imagine a politically aggressive, violent, expansionist, and warmongering Islam are unable to convincingly reconcile these texts with their ideology. While some of these texts could be explained away, certainly not all of them can be without resorting to completely implausible interpretive mechanisms. The standard response to the ‘peaceful texts’ is to invoke the doctrine of abrogation (naskh
) in which it is claimed a handful of ‘sword verses’ cancel everything we have cited to this point. Many classical jurists rejected this sweeping view of abrogation, including Abū Jaʿfar al-Naḥḥās (d. 949), Ibn al-Jawzī (d. 1201), and al-Suyūṭī (d. 1505).64
A more detailed analysis and rebuttal of this claim have been offered in our paper about abrogation in the Qur’an.65
According to Ibn Rushd, only a minority of classical jurists appealed to abrogation to justify their opinion that peace with non-Muslims was forbidden unless Muslims were too weak to fight. In contrast, the majority held that peaceful verses restricted verses of war:
Those who upheld the permission of making a truce (ṣulh) when the Imam saw an interest (of the Muslims) in this are Mālik, al-Shāfiʿī, and Abū Ḥanīfah…66 Those who maintained that the verse implying peace has restricted [mukhaṣṣaṣah] the other said that truce is permitted if the Imam considers it proper. They supported this interpretation with the act of the Prophet ﷺ in this case because his truce in the year of al-Ḥudaybīyah was not based upon necessity.67
The Prophet ﷺ himself conducted a peace treaty with the Quraysh and, rather than being a sneaky tactic based on dire necessity, it was a brilliant diplomatic move in the best interest of Islam and Muslims. He took advantage of the truce to spread the message of Islam peacefully until he gained so many converts the Quraysh had no choice but to yield. Some jurists placed limits on the allowable time period for a peace treaty, which was a common practice in the pre-modern world. al-Shāfiʿī (d. 820), for instance, did not allow a treaty to be set for longer than ten years. This condition did not preclude the treaty from being renewed, of course, if it was for the benefit of Muslim society. Plenty of other jurists allowed peace treaties for an indefinite length of time. Imam Mālik said, “It is permissible to conduct a peace treaty with the idolaters for one, two, or three years, or without any duration.”68
There is absolutely nothing in Islam to prevent lasting peace with non-Muslims as long as the security and freedom of Muslims are guaranteed.
To recap, the Islamic approach to war is concisely encapsulated in the verse, “Fight in the way of Allah those who fight you, but do not transgress.”69
Muslims are allowed, even commanded in some circumstances, to fight back against aggressors to secure their lives and religious rights, and to remove tyrants who obstruct the right of all human beings to hear the message of Islam and accept it without compulsion. It is decisively forbidden in Islam to kill civilians and non-combatants, or to conduct ‘terrorist’ military operations that result in wanton death and destruction. Wahbah al-Zuḥaylī, a contemporary traditional scholar and leading expert on Islamic international law, summarizes the aims and limits of jihad in his erudite commentary on the Qur’an:
The lessons derived from this verse (“Fight in the way of Allah those who fight you…”) and others related to the legislated conditions of warfare and the permissible rulings in jihad are as follows:
1) Warfare is legislated in the cause of Allah to repel aggression, protect preaching of Islam, and freedom of divine religion.
2) This legislation is characterized by justice and truth, in which there is no transgression against anyone, nor overlooking what is necessary in war. The aim is not to demolish and tear down, nor merely to terrorize. Thus, non-combatants are not killed, nor are women, children, and those like them among monks, the disabled, the sick, and the elderly. Crops and fruits are not razed, nor are animals slaughtered except for food, as has come in the prophetic instructions and those of the righteous Caliphs.
3) Warfare is not to be employed for compelling people to embrace Islam, as that would defeat the principal ruling of the Qur’an in many verses.70