In many parts of the world, Islamic motives are being badly misused to make brutality look like a “holy war”, and as if killing non-Muslims is requisite in order to draw Muslims closer to Allah. However, there are serious and apparent deviations from Islamic teachings with regards to commandments of war and peace and also the outlook about the non-Muslims at large. Even if there are confrontations or war involving some Jews and Christians, there are serious breaches of the Qur’an’s commandments as to the methods and way of thinking in so-called “Islamic grounds” for this war-mentality.
First of all, the word jihad is widely misused due to a great distortion of the true meaning of the term by some Muslims. Although the Oxford English dictionary defines jihad as “a holy war undertaken by Muslims against non-believers” or Merriam Webster defines it as “a holy war waged on behalf of Islam as a religious duty,” the word jihad comes from the word jehd, meaning to strive. Thus carrying out “jihad” refers to “showing effort, struggling, striving in the way of Allah” in the broadest sense as a permanent duty. Jihad is not holy war and it is most certainly not suicide, not killing innocent people, not fighting out of hatred, and not killing others just because they are not Muslims.
It is true that jihad is a central issue in Islam and a responsibility upon all Muslims. However jihad—according to the Qur’an—is spreading the message of Islam, enjoining the good and fighting against evil and injustice; therefore, it can surely mean a struggle carried out on intellectual grounds too. Jihad is not a “justification” for massacres or acts of aggression against innocent people. The Prophet Mohammed explains that “the greatest jihad is the one a person carries out against his lower self” referring to selfish desires and ambitions. Thus, besides jihad al-nafs (inner struggle), the external jihad can be done by knowledge, pen and tongue with the purpose to bring about justice and peace, and to oppose cruelty.
For the times when jihad involves war (jihad al-qital), it is either for self-defense or for defense of an aggrieved people in a situation obliging one to combat in order to survive or save lives. When the Qur’an refers to physical combat (fighting to kill) another word is used: qatal. Qatala is to battle, to kill, and qital is fighting, physical combat. There are verses that do give permission to kill; however, they are for limited circumstances; they are not a license forever, and assuredly not a blind endorsement of unrestricted violence.
From an Islamic point of view, war is an exceptional matter and an unwanted obligation when one’s life is under attack, and Muslims can only resort to it as the last option and for defensive purposes only. Muslims are not supposed to attack; war has to be inevitable at the point that one has to defend oneself. Even if it is considered obligatory for self-defense, it has to be carried out with strict observance of humane and moral values. To put it in another way, God granted permission for war only for defensive purposes, and Muslims are warned against the use of unnecessary violence:
“Fight in the Way of God against those who fight you, but do not go beyond the limits. God does not love those who go beyond the limits.” (Qur’an, 2:190)
In another verse, God commands justice and warns Muslims against feeling rage towards enemies so that their judgments are not impaired:
“You who believe! Show integrity for the sake of God, bearing witness with justice. Do not let hatred for a people incite you into not being just. Be just. That is closer to heedfulness…” (Qur’an, 5:8)
One also has to remember that in times of war, not fighting to defend or to stop persecution of attackers would be a crime since it would mean permitting the murder of innocent people. That is why the commandments to fight were a reminder of an obligation to action for Muslims.
On the other hand, it is important to note that there is obligation to protect peace. When there is a peace treaty, both sides should adhere to the peace agreement meticulously and commit to not attacking each other. Especially for Muslims, after making a peace agreement, according to the Qur’an, one has to remain scrupulous in protecting it and abiding by its terms. God says: “… If they incline to peace, then incline to it [also] and rely upon Allah…” (Qur’an, 8:61) As it is stated in the Qur’an, permission to fight is no longer valid when the other side offers peace: “…If they remove themselves from you and do not fight you and offer you peace, then Allah has not made for you a cause [for fighting] against them.” (Qur’an, 4:90)