World Faiths & Religions

Frequently Asked Questions

Does Islam advocate violence, and what is jihad?

Muhammad spent the first thirteen years of his prophethood living under oppression in his home city of Mecca. During this time, the Quran specifically prohibited Muhammad from armed resistance. Instead it encouraged him to "bear with patience" and tell his opponents "to you your religion, to me mine." After assuming the leadership of a Muslim community in Medina, however, Muhammad and his followers were in a state of open war with the Meccans. The Quran guided them in matters of war, limiting justifiable violence to situations of self-defense, reclaiming property taken unjustly and fighting oppression. Within these guidelines, however, the Quran repeatedly encouraged Muslims to fight and die in God's cause and to fight the unbelievers until they submit to Muslim rule (although they need not convert to Islam). This notion of fighting in God's cause became known as jihad (literally, ‘struggle). After the death of Muhammad in 632, the Muslim polity expanded rapidly throughout the Middle East and beyond, driven by a combination of religious zeal and a desire for spoils of war. Converting people to Islam was not an objective. In fact, conversion was discouraged because Muslims paid fewer taxes than non-Muslims. The Muslim governments that ruled the new lands of Islam relied on continued expansion or raiding into non-Muslim territories for spoils to pay their armies, so jihad became an essential part of the political economy of medieval Muslim states. The Muslim scholars elaborating Islamic law relied on good relations with these states for their authority, and it is thus no surprise that they enshrined offensive jihad as a laudable act and even a duty of the Muslim ruler. The Quran's emphasis on limiting warfare to self-defense and remedying injustices was put aside in favor of specific Quranic verses that appeared to justify war categorically. Today, many modern Muslim scholars are arguing for a rejection of jihad as it was understood in medieval Islam in favor or a return to the more evident Quranic principles on justifiable violence.