The Distortion of a Tradition

Osama Bin Laden’s Concept of Defensive Jihad

In February 1998, styling himself as Shaykh, Osama bin Laden issued a fatwa, or formal interpretive ruling calling for jihad, against «the crusader-Zionist alliance,» which included the following statement:

in compliance with God’s order, we issue the following fatwa to all Muslims: The ruling to kill the Americans and their allies – civilians and military – is an individual duty for every Muslim who can do it in any country in which it is possible to do it, in order to liberate the al-Aqsa Mosque and the holy mosque [Mecca] from their grip, and in order for their armies to move out of the lands of Islam (…) This is in accordance with the words of Almighty God, «and fight the pagans all together as they fight you all together,» and «fight them until there is no more tumult or oppression, and there prevail justice and faith in God.» (World Islamic Front Statement Urging Jihad Against Jews and Crusaders, available at

While bin Laden has issued various other statements since the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center towers and the Pentagon, this fatwa stands as a fundamental statement of his rationale: an appeal to the Islamic tradition of defensive jihad, by which every Muslim is obligated, as an individual duty, to take up arms against the invaders. Yet, as mainstream Muslim scholars up to and including the current Shaikh al-Azhar, the preeminent figure of the preeminent faculty of Islamic law in the world, have declared, bin Ladin uses this traditional idea in a way that distorts its meaning and is invalid as a guide for behavior. My purpose here is to explain the idea of defensive jihad and its counterpart, offensive jihad, in its original context and meaning, sketch the development of appeals to defensive jihad over the last hundred years, show what is wrong in bin Laden’s use of the idea of defensive jihad in this fatwa of 1998, and finally to make some additional comments about the 9/11 attacks and normative Islamic tradition.

While the religion of Islam is ultimately based on the Qur’an, understood as divine revelation given to the Prophet Muhammad, its normative historical form has been that of a religion of law, a religion whose meaning is described by the interpretations provided by the recognized juristic schools. On the subject of the Islamic state, its relations with non-Islamic societies, and the idea of jihad as the form of war between the Islamic and non-Islamic worlds, the juristic tradition coalesced early in the cAbbasid dynasty, with the definitive work being done in the late eighth and early ninth centuries CE (second and third centuries AH). Central to this conception was a division of the world into two realms, that of the dar al-islam or territory of Islam, that is, the Islamic community, and the remainder of the world, defined as the dar al-harbor territory of war. (For fuller discussion of this distinction and the related ideas treated below, see Johnson 1997, particularly chapters 3 and 4.)

The dar al-islam, as the jurists understood it, had existed since its creation by the prophet Muhammad himself, who was its first head. It is a community at the same time religious and political, and thus its ruler, like the Prophet himself, was understood to be supreme in both the spheres of religion and politics. In theory, as the jurists developed this concept, there can be only one dar al-islam and only one right ruler, whom they understood to be the successor of the Prophet and the inheritor of his authority in both the religious and political spheres; they made no provision for a plurality of Muslim states or a plurality of Muslim rulers. (Though the Sunni and Shica traditions differed on the criteria for selection of this ruler and on his title – Caliph for the Sunnis, Imam for the Shica – they both held to this fundamental theory of a single Muslim community and a single legitimate ruler.) Because of its character – its unity, its rule by a successor of the Prophet, its governance according to divinely given law, the sharica – the dar al-islam as understood by the jurists is fundamentally different from the rest of the world, which is different in all these respects and as a result is torn by perpetual conflict and is the source of war directed toward the dar al-islam. A genuine, lasting, universal peace is possible only when the dar al-harb is no more, when the whole world has become the dar al-islam, the space in which submission to God is the law of the land. Until then war between the two territories is the normal state of affairs, and the Islamic community must deal with it.

While treaties with one or another entity from the dar al-harb might preserve peace for a while, the only ultimate solution, as the jurists conceived it, will be the complete triumph of the dar al-islam. In pursuit of this aim the jurists developed the idea of jihadas the form of war waged on behalf of the dar al-islam against the dar al-harb. The fundamental meaning if the idea of jihad as found in the Qur’an is striving (in the path of God) by three means: the heart, the tongue, and the hand. In the Qur’an the term jihad is never used for warfare; another word, qital (fighting) is used there. But the idea that striving in the path of God might require use of the sword is very early, and the jurists developed this idea, an extension of the jihad of the hand, to mean warfare on behalf of the dar al-islam. As they described it, this warfare could take either of two forms: offensive jihad, occasioned by the general threat posed by the dar al-harb,waged by the dar al-islam as a collectivity under the authority of its legitimate ruler, the Caliph for the Sunni tradition, the Imam for the Shici; and defensive jihad,occasioned by a direct attack upon the dar al-islam by a force from some part of the dar al-harb, when every Muslim was obligated to fight in defense on his own authority.

This classic formulation of the ideal Islamic community and its relation to the non-Islamic world remains in normative Islamic thought. Whatever one may say about its accuracy (or rather, lack of accuracy) as a description of the Islamic community at the time it was formulated, there is general agreement throughout Islam today that offensive jihad is no longer possible: for the Shica, it has not been possible since the occultation of the twelfth Imam in the ninth century C.E., for Sunnis since the end of the caliphate, dated either to the death of the last Abbasid caliph in the sixteenth century C.E. or to the end of the Ottoman state in 1924. The reason is that the requisite authority for such jihad no longer exists. That leaves the idea of defensive jihad.

The model the jurists had in mind for defensive jihad was simple: a direct attack across the borders of the dar al-islam in a particular place, staged by the forces of whatever entity from the dar al-harb which happened to be in that place. Against this attack Muslims in the area were to rise up as a levee en masse. Whereas in offensive jihad only the best warriors were to form the army, in defensive jihad everyone, even women and children, had the personal obligation to try to stop the invader. While specific rules for fighting, especially for giving advance notice of hostilities and avoidance of harm to noncombatants, were specified for offensive jihad, these did not apply in the case of defensive jihad, where the enemy who were to be fought against was the enemy’s army, who were all combatants, and they had already commenced hostilities by their aggression. So the idea of defensive jihad, as originally developed, was quite restricted by context. The jurists did not want to define an interpretation of Islamic law that would allow individual Muslims or self-constituted groups to take arms and institute an offense into the dar al-harb on their own, for that would be a threat to the unity and peace of the dar al-islam itself.

The last hundred years or so have seen a development of the idea of defensive jihad which takes it well beyond this context and increasingly distorts its meaning. First, at the end of the nineteenth century and in the early part of the twentieth, it became part of the ideology of the anti-colonial struggle, whereby the presence of governments imposed by the colonial powers was defined as an aggression from the dar al-harb against the dar al-islam, so that any and all Muslims were justified in using armed force to throw out the colonial governments – and perhaps also all the elements of the colonial society or culture that had taken root under colonial hegemony. (On this development see Peters 1979.) By the 1970s and 1980s this conception had expanded to justify armed struggle in such predominantly Muslim states as Iran, Egypt, and Algeria, against rulers who, while nominally Muslim, were deemed in fact to be apostates, governing as tools of the West according to non-Islamic purposes. (See Jansen 1986 and Abedi and Legenhausen 1986 as examples of such reasoning.) What is interesting in this development is that the dar al-islam is defined not as a unitary religio-political community with its special form of government but rather as any territory whose population is predominantly Muslim and which was at one time part of the formal religio-political community ruled by a designated successor to the Prophet Muhammad. By this definition any non-Islamic state established throughout the area once ruled by Islam must be resisted. Since the rules of restraint that apply in offensive jihad do not apply in the case of defense, the war against non-Islamic influences becomes one that in principle may be waged without restraint. The implications of this can be seen in the Palestinian armed struggle against Israel, which is religiously justified as defensive jihad. By definition the state of Israel is illegitimate, since it stands on land that once was part of the dar al-islam and still properly belongs to it. All Israelis, and all their supporters who happen to be in the state of Israel, are legitimate targets, since by their presence there they are guilty of aggression against the dar al-islam. Thus, on this rationale, to bomb an Israeli shopping mall, restaurant, or even school bus is not an attack on innocent noncombatants, but an attack on people who by being where they are taking part in the ongoing aggression against the dar al-islam.

Such reasoning significantly extends and distorts the original – and still normative – meaning of defensive jihad. Osama bin Laden’s interpretation goes still farther from this normative meaning. Before moving on to his conception of defensive jihad, it is well to pause to identify the distortions of the original concept in the developments mentioned thus far. The most fundamental is the understanding of what properly belongs to the dar al-islam: any territory that once was under Muslim rule. The growth of the dar al-islam can go only one way; since, by Islamic eschatology, it is destined in time to encompass the world, it can only expand, not shrink. Second is the concept of what is proper rule of such territory: it cannot be rule by a non-Islamic government or its proxy, whether the latter be a colonial government or a westernizing ruler like Anwar Sadat or the last Shah of Iran. Third is the requirement that such a society should be governed: by a strict interpretation of Islamic law, the sharica, and such law only. This reconception of the idea of defensive jihad is a harsh one, one that leads to a rejection of much of the actual history of Muslim societies and of Muslim faith. It leaves scant room for toleration of the «people of the book,» as prescribed in the Qur’an, because under the extended definition of what constitutes an aggression against the dar al-islam Jews and Christians present in dominantly Muslim societies become assimilated to the aggression. Because the view of what is properly Muslim is so restricted, the proprietor of a western chain store becomes defined as one taking part in the aggression, guilty of subverting Islamic values. This extension of the idea of defensive jihad also leads to intolerance against Muslims who think differently. It leaves no room for difference of interpretation as to what Islam requires; its reading of the sharicis narrow and unyielding on doctrine and behavior alike. Social developments identified with modernity are rejected as un-Islamic, despite the fact that large numbers of Muslims have adopted them without losing their faith.

Osama bin Laden’s fatwa quoted at the beginning of this discussion begins with the idea of defensive jihad according to the evolution described above and takes it still farther away from the meaning of the normative doctrine. The fundamental justification of defensive jihad cited by bin Laden is that since the Gulf War the United States has been militarily «occupying the lands of Islam in the holiest of places, the Arabian Peninsula»: that is, the presence of U.S. military personnel and materiel in Saudi Arabia, though present there with the consent of the Saudi government, constitute aggression against the dar al-islam. Bin Laden also cites two further forms of aggression: the «protracted blockade» against Iraq and the aim «to serve the Jews’ petty state and divert attention from its occupation of Jerusalem and murder of Muslims there.» So the United States, the embodiment of the dar al-harb, is engaged in aggression against the dar al-islam. This is the same sort of extension ­– and distortion – of the normative idea of defensive jihad as found in the reasoning discussed earlier. Where he goes still farther, though, is in the judgment that this justifies any and all Muslims «who can do it» to kill any and all Americans – «civilians and military» alike – «in any country in which it is possible to do it.» This is not defensive war any longer; it is offensive warfare, taking the battle to the homeland of the nation deemed guilty of aggression. Bin Laden, of course, lacks the requisite religio-political authority to initiate such offensive war, as he is not a designated heir to the ruling authority of the Prophet. This is why he has to describe his war against America as defensive and not offensive. By painting all Americans as equally guilty of the «aggression» identified, bin Laden also sets aside the limits imposed on warfare by normative Islamic tradition: no direct, intended killing of noncombatants, no use of fire, the weapon prohibited for Muslims in offense because it is the weapon God will use in the last days. In his description of the situation there are no noncombatants; Americans are all aggressors. And Americans have used fire against the dar al-islamin the war with Iraq; so it may now be used against Americans.

The traditional, normative conception of defensive jihad is still visible through bin Laden’s reasoning, but its meaning has been distorted into something far removed from what the jurists who first formulated it had in mind and transformed into something they sought to make illegitimate: a justification for the waging of war nominally on behalf of the Islamic community, but in fact by private individuals for their own goals. One may probably call bin Laden’s war against America and the West a holy war on its own terms, but it is emphatically not the striving in the path of God required by the normative Islamic conception of defensive jihad.


Abedi, Mehdi, and Gary Legenhausen, 1986, Jihad and Shadat: Struggle and Martyurdom in Islam. Houston, Texas: Institute for Research and Islamic Studies.

Jansen, Johannes J.G., 1986, The Neglected Duty: The Creed of Sadat’s Assassins and Islamic Resurgence in the Middle East. New York: Macmillan.

Johnson, James Turner, 1997, The Holy War Idea in Western and Islamic Traditions. University Park, Pennsylvania: Pennsylvania State University Press.

Peters, Rudolph, 1979, Islam and Colonialism: The Doctrine of Jihad in Modern History. The Hague: Mouton.

Legg igjen en kommentar

Din e-postadresse vil ikke bli publisert.