…although you may dislike it.”
Holy Qur’an 2:216, sometimes known as the jihad verse, is a verse cited by Islamic extremists to justify and rationalise their violence. Islamic extremists paint violence as divinely-ordained, for all times, against all forms of sin and disbelief – and in pursuit of their political agenda. In isolation, as one can explicitly observe, the verse seems to enshrine a violent characteristic: fighting in the way of Allah. Therefore, this article will examine how Islamic extremists understand and utilize this verse.
The Verse in Question
The Holy Qur’an verse 2:216 as translated by Sahih International:
Fighting has been enjoined upon you while it is hateful to you. But perhaps you hate a thing and it is good for you; and perhaps you love a thing and it is bad for you. And Allah Knows, while you know not.
This verse alone has caused a kerfuffle in the Muslim world, especially involving that of scholarly arguments, books, as well as religious apologia ad nauseam (which paints this verse as protecting “rights” among other things – without seeing the irony in justifying violence, initiating revenge-violence against “aggressors,” etcetera – playing into the hands of extremist literature and propaganda). I will ask the reader to look to understand the moderate argument elsewhere, as in this post I will be looking at the verse primarily through the lens of an Islamic extremist.
How do Islamic extremists understand this verse? To gain perspective on this, we will go through a few logical phases of progression. We will examine the historical context related to the verse, we will look at scholarly interpretation of the verse and we will look at justification narratives connected to the verse as promoted by terrorist organisations. Collectively, this will give us a general understanding of how violent Islamists understand the history, context and application of the verse for modern times, in their theater of conflict.
Historical Context of Verse 2:216
The historical context feeds the Islamist narrative by further justifying any act by an aggressor, or any act of disbelief, as being within the realm of ‘permissible fighting.’ Although fighting in and of itself is a sin, it is a greater sin within Islam to allow persecution or fitnah to corrupt the land. Usually moderates use the historic context of a verse to mitigate any potential of misuse or landslide into violence in modern times, however the context to this verse can inspire Islamists to mobilize rather than prevent them from mobilizing. Let us look closer.
When we isolate this verse, we lose grasp of the local issues regarding Arabian paganism, Muhammad’s forced exile from Mecca to Yathrib and brutal murders and humiliation against Muslims at the hands of the Quraysh tribe, Banu Hashim clan. Those historical factors may be seen as justified in the Muslim eye; however, that level of interpretation can be applied today in terroristic form. Sealing this verse as non-applicable due to being an ‘historic revelation’ is simply unimaginable to the fundamentalist and literalist mind; they see this as hypocritical and slanderous. Therefore we must keep in mind that historic context does not desist Islamists from using their scripture violently.
Historical context, historical situation or circumstances of divine revelation is known as asbab al-nuzul. When we look at the historical context of 2:216 and 2:217 we find examples such as:
‘Urwah ibn al-Zubayr informed us that the Messenger of Allah, Allah bless him and give him peace, sent a military expedition and appointed ‘Abd Allah ibn Jahsh al-Asdi as its leader. This expedition proceeded until they reached Nakhlah where they found ‘Amr ibn al-Hadrami leading a trade caravan for the Quraysh. That day was the last day of the sacred month. The Muslims were divided in their opinion. Some of them said: ‘We know for certain that today belongs to the sacred month, we are of the view that you should not violate it because of greed’. The opinion of those who desired the stuff of this world gained the upper hand; they attacked Ibn al-Hadrami, killed him and seized his camels. Ibn al-Hadrami was the first person to be killed in a fight between the Muslims and the disbelievers… ‘Amr ibn al-Hadrami, in the last day of Rajab; they also captured two prisoners and seized the camels of the disbelievers.
The context in the above example shows us that Muhammad’s Yathrib-based followers were ordered to go on a Military Expedition against the trade routes and caravans of the Quraysh tribe. The Muslims violated the then-sacred month of Ramadan by attacking the trade caravan, although apparently done so out of ‘greed’ and that of ‘desire… of this world’. What was the response of Allah?
It was then that was revealed (They question thee (O Muhammad) with regard to warfare in the sacred month) up to His saying (for persecution is worse than killing…), i.e. they were still persecuting you in Allah’s Sacred Precinct after you had believed, and this is greater in the sight of Allah than fighting the disbelievers during the sacred month while they still disbelieved in Allah.
This was the revelation relating to 2:216-17. Persecution and fitnah – tribulations; rebellion, sedition or unrest relating to the Oneness of God, i.e. disbelief and polytheism – is worse than killing. In other words, it is justified to kill the Quraysh caravaneers based on a grievance, namely persecution. Further, this can be interpreted as one rebelling against Allah or undermining Islamic revelations; an aggressive and expansionistic framing of the verse, and similar verses, used by some jihadist groups due to the nature of the state of fitnah and persecution. As ISIS state in the previous reference: “it is the state of kufr” that causes one’s blood to be halal to spill.
The former context alone supports two dangerous positions: the one of accepting violence and the one of divinely-ordained violence against a state or position of a person (persecution). This state is open to interpretation and not clearly defined, it is also not fixed to any specific time period (i.e. the Medinan period). The statehood of persecution or fitnah is a forever-problem in the Muslim mind.
Extremists believe that revelation was revealed to the Muslims in time of persecution and that Allah’s command still stands, committing to fighting ‘persecution’ in the modern day is halal. However, that fighting is within limits as fighting is a sin if committed wrongly. Fighting is a transgression but only if that transgression is not done in the face of persecution or fitnah (or criteria there within).
:”And Yusuf Ali’s “The Holy Qur’an: Text, Translation and Commentary
The intolerance and persecution of the Pagan clique at Mecca caused untold hardships to the holy Messenger of Islam and his early disciples. They bore all with meekness and long-suffering patience until the holy one permitted them to take up arms in self-defence?
Some scholars interpret the limit as historical self-defence. This sounds good in practice but in the eyes of an extremist the question because – defence of the Muslim community, the individual or the land? And is this self-defence sealed in history? This question will be answered below in relation to Abdullah Azzam’s works.
Ali further goes on to state:
To fight in the cause of Truth is one of the highest forms of charity. What can you offer that is more precious than your own life? But here again the limitations come in. If you are a mere brawler, or a selfish aggressive person, or a vainglorious bully, you deserve the highest censure.
Helping the Muslim community – the Ummah – involves fighting persecution and maintaining the community from fitnah. Not only that, but even when it is seen as a sin when performed incorrectly; it is seen as one of the highest attainable goods of Muslims when performed correctly. It combines patience, sacrifice and bravery, as well as great reward and virtuous deeds, into a single religious set-piece: jihad.
What we should note from the historical context of this verse is that:
- Historical context of this verse relates to the early Yathribian (Medinan) Muslim community. The Prophet Muhammad ordered a Military Expedition against Quraysh trade caravans. This shows us that Military Expeditions were being ordered by the Prophet Muhammad at this time, and without enemy aggression.
- The Military Expeditions fought during a sacred month, killing one man, taking another two men captive and stealing their camels. This shows us that the early Yathribian (Medinan) Muslim community initiated violence against Quraysh caravaneers.
- Upon returning, the Muslims asked the Prophet Muhammad of his opinion on the events. The Prophet Muhammad received revelation (amongst it, 2:216 and 2:217) which gave permission to fight persecution, rationalising that fighting and killing is not worse than persecution. This shows us that even when the Quraysh caravaneers refrained from violence and did not initiate hostilities, that the early Muslim community justified their actions and sacralized murder of innocent persons.
- The historical context in no way refrains from violence or justifying violence. In fact, it promotes violence against persecution, aggression or rebellion from Allah.
- The scholarly commentaries shield this violence in the light of bravery, sacrifice and the utmost good.
- The historical context in no way counteracts terrorist ideology. It feeds the narratives of justification for violence, initiating violence, raiding caravans and supply routes, destroying fitnah in all the lands, as well as surrounding terrorism in light of the divine origins of violence.
Exegesis of Verse 2:216
This verse states that fighting has been ordained for the Muslims. Some Muslims may dislike it, but perhaps they dislike something that is good for them. Only Allah knows what is good and He, at the time of the revelation, ordains and permits violence. Further, He ordains violence against a state of being: persecution, being persecuted. Even further in 2:217 for fitnah, or shirk, polytheism and disbelief. These states of being can be interpreted in a variety of ways and goes well beyond the time of revelation.
In this isolated, single-frame perspective, the verse espouses violence against violence. Authority is given by Allah, transferred to the Prophet Muhammad, to teach his followers to fight against what is understood as persecution. When I say what is understood as persecution, I mean to say that religious interpretation is radically different from the outlook of a Western non-religious secularist. Persecution in the Islamic sense includes:
- Tafsir Ibn Kathir: “In this Ayah, Allah made it obligatory for the Muslims to fight in Jihad against the evil of the enemy who transgress against Islam.” Further, Ibn Kathir explains that, “Fighting is difficult and heavy on your hearts. Indeed, fighting is as the Ayah describes it, as it includes being killed, wounded, striving against the enemies and enduring the hardship of travel.” Do note how the concept of fighting (qitala) is mixed with the concept of struggling (jihad) in this Tafsir. Struggling against a person who ‘transgresses against Islam’ is seen to be an obligation of the faithful.
- Tafsir al-Jalalayn: “Prescribed for you obligatory for you is fighting disbelievers though it be hateful to you by nature because of the hardship involved.” And the Muslim “soul inclines towards those desires which result in its destruction and its rejection of the religious obligations that would bring about its happiness.” Thus fighting the rejectionists of the Islamic faith becomes obligatory. In fact he goes so far as suggest that there may be “much good in fighting” such as “victory, booty, martyrdom or reward.” Violence is seen as an inherently good act because there is a reward offered from Allah by doing so in His Cause, fighting disbelief is on par to fighting persecution in this tafsir.
- Tafsir Ata Ibn Khalil (Abu Rashta): “[T]his is a command from Allah – glorified is He! – to the Muslims to fight which is a request (talab) to fight.” Further, Abu Rashta goes on to justify expansionistic and aggressive Islamist, “Perhaps you hate the hardship that comes with Jihad but it is good for you because it is the means by which you will attain victory, might, dignity and the spread of Islam as well as the means to two great rewards: victory and martyrdom.” Jihad and fighting is thus seen as an ‘immeasurable good’ and that ‘benefit and harm’ is not always likened to what is ‘good’ and bad (see previous reference); rather, Islamists see violence as just – instead of a wrong that makes a right or a last line of resort.
What we learn when we examine the scholarly exegesis of this verse is that:
- There is a mixed-bag of interpretations, even when those interpretations relate to violence, fighting and bloodshed.
- Persecution is not just seen as Muslims being harmed but evil existing in the lands. This includes shirk, polytheism, disbelief and disobeying Allah.
- Further, reward is offered for fighting in the Cause of Allah. Martyrdom is seen as an acceptable sacrifice in face of fighting for religious causes, or basing those causes on grievances.
Justification Narratives and Grievances in Verse 2:216
This very verse gives permission to fighting, to conflict, to struggling, against those who have harmed the religious community. In other words, it justifies Muslim grievances using a religious and sacred narrative, as well as the narrative or permissible violence, self-defence and revenge-vigilantism. One who agrees with the Islamist narrative does not just sympathise with a Cause, but begins to mentally justify it. The sympathiser becomes the rationaliser and the justifier.
These Muslim grievances shielded by this verse include:
- Seeing the harm or death of innocent civilians not as ‘part and parcel’ of warfare in a highly-technological and divided sectarian civil war, but as a ‘sacrifice‘ permitted by the West, who kill innocent Muslims and as a persecution against the entire community of Muslims. This leads to the ever-growing question as the conflict persists: Who will shield the Muslims? Who will stand up for them? Who will fight persecution?
- Seeing the spread of fitnah – disbelief, polytheism, rejection of the Oneness of God, or any such impact on the Muslim community, as a state worth fighting. This grievance is a religious one, in that it impacts the spread of ‘truth’. Questions motivate further radicalisation: Who will stop false worship? Who will spread Tawheed? Who will counter-act the spreading of falsities?
Abdullah Azzam’s, “In Defence of Muslim Lands” best describes these conflicts in the Muslim mind. The Sheikh’s book goes so far as stipulating this defence includes migrating to Afghanistan to fight the Soviets (during the Soviet Invasion of Afghanistan) either by your wealth or your sword. He goes so far as stating that it is fard ‘ayn – a global obligation on every capable Muslim. Azzam even includes conditions for fighting. One being if the “kuffar enter Muslim lands.” One should realize that this is a xenophobic and impossible stance in our globalised and modern world. It would lead to all-out chaos and violence – Muslims versus non-Muslims.
Furthermore, Azzam applies the stance against persecution, fitnah and shirk:
[Other obligations include] repulsion of the enemy aggressor who assaults the religion and the worldly affairs.
But this interpretation is exactly what the verse stipulates to the extremist, fundamentalist, literalist: 1) stopping persecution, and, 2) stopping the spread of fitnah. When we look through this prism, we understand the extremist Muslim mind. It is justified rationally and religiously. It becomes a tool of warfare, and one that can be manipulated and used for the purposes of terrorism, terrorist organisation agendas, and political advocacy. Extremists use these verses to paint themselves as the ones following Allah’s commands, in fighting as ordained for the Muslim community under threat, and draw young Muslims into their grasp. Everyone else to the extremist is hypocritical for ignoring it or interpreting it in a different way.
In conclusion, this verse in the Holy Qur’an is used by Islamic extremists as a justification for violence. Violence comes in the form of a chivalrous defence of persecution, but also in the aggressive approach to fighting unrest and disunity in the land, including that of disbelief and polytheism. I hope this article has helped you understand this verse through the frame of an extremist Muslim, namely Abdullah Azzam.