Jihad vs. Just War: Understanding Armed Struggle in Islam

Written by Mariam Awaisi 

Pick up the latest New York Times, skim through the top entries on The Huffington Post, or tune into the latest headlines on CNN, and you can be sure to read or hear about how various Muslim groups are perpetrating violence in the name of Islam. And it so follows that for many of these groups – from ISIS to Boko Haram – jihad is the spiritual and ideological vehicle that legitimates these violent demonstrations.

So what exactly does the oft-misunderstood jihad mean, and how does it relate to the Judeo-Christian concept of just war?

These questions formed the crux of our September 18th discussion entitled “Jihad vs. Just War: Understanding Armed Struggled in Islam.” With a turnout of over 50 people, this was the fourth event in Critical Connections’ and Karuna Center for Peacebuilding’s Bridging Muslim-Non-Muslim Divide series.

The featured speaker was Dr. Sohail Hashmi, a Professor of International Relations and the Alumnae Foundation Chair in the Social Sciences at Mount Holyoke College, where he teaches ethics, international relations, and Middle East politics, among other subjects. In 2012, Dr. Hashmi edited an anthology entitled Just Wars, Holy Wars, and Jihads: Christian, Jewish and Muslim Encounters and Exchange: ideas and terms that were at the forefront of the evening’s discussion.

Following introductions from the directors of the Karuna Center and Critical Connections, Bernie Pelletier – Director of Critical Connections’ Addressing Muslim/non-Muslim Divide Initiative – assumed the role of moderator with a series of questions for Dr. Hashmi aimed at addressing both the historical and present-day realities of jihad and just war.

Dr. Hashmi began the conversation by sharing an anecdote that illustrated how jihad is commonly misunderstood to imply violence, when in actuality its true meaning carries a far less bellicose connotation. As Dr. Hashmi explained, the term jihad stems from the Arabic root jahada, meaning to struggle, make an effort, and give one’s utmost towards something.

In its earliest conception, jihad was closely tied to the notion of personal struggle and striving, an idea that still holds weight for many Muslims. It was not until the year 622 – when the Prophet Muhammad migrated from his birthplace of Mecca to the city of Medina – when jihad began to be referred to something more practical as Muslims struggled to defend their nascent community from hostile elements opposed to the Prophet’s message. Nonetheless, while Muslims began conceptualizing jihad as the struggle to defend their community and later as a driving force for territorial expansion beyond the Arabian Peninsula, it was seldom understood as a means for proselytization. Forcible conversions, Dr. Hashmi clarified, are explicitly disallowed in Islam, according to Qur’anic scripture.

From jihad the conversation moved to just war as Dr. Hashmi outlined the two main tenets of the theory. The first of these – jus ad bellum – refers to whether the war in question is permissible and holds just cause. The second concept – jus in bello – concerns conduct in and of war. For example, war must be fought with restraint, meaning that combatants cannot pointedly targeted civilians (discrimination), and must strive to limit civilian casualties (proportionality). Taken together, these two ideas put theory into practice and delineate how war should ideally be waged: in line with the principles of justice and ethics.

Just war, however, is dissimilar from the glorified notion of holy war. As Dr. Hashmi described, when individuals feel that they are acting on God’s commandment – as was the case for the Israelites and the Crusaders – jus in bello is often left by the wayside. Holy war often becomes synonymous with total, unrestrained aggression.

Here the conversation turned directly to the key verses of the Qur’an that address jihad and violence towards non-Muslims. Verse 9:5 in particular – popularly known as the “Verse of the Sword” – has long been upheld as emblematic of the supposedly inherently violent nature of Islam, not to mention a boon for jihadists aiming to advance violent extremism. Yet, as Dr. Hashmi indicated, the verses preceding 9:5 referred specifically to the pagan Arabs who were relentless in their persecution of the early Muslim community. In other words, the Verse of the Sword is not a blanket incitement to fight, but rather, an injunction rooted in a specific time and place.

With new information and insights to ponder, the audience members organized themselves into small groups to consider the similarities and differences between jihad and just war and their historical and modern-day applications. Several group discussions revolved around the actions of ISIS and whether the United States was poised to embark upon its own “just war” in response to these militaristic manifestations.

Among the key takeaways from the evening was the idea that jihad is a multifaceted and complex term that must be understood in its profound theological, juridical, social, and historical context. And so it is the job of all consumers of the media to strive to maintain a critical eye and work to correct statements made about Islam and the Qur’an that lack proper historical and textual context.



Dr. Peter Coleman

THURS, OCT. 19, 7-9 PM


Bangs Community Center       70 Boltwood Walk        Amherst, MA


Watch video here

These events are part of our Transforming this Moment series and are organized in partnership with the Karuna Center for Peacebuilding. For more details, please click here. Our events are made possible by Mass Humanities, whose grants inspire considered thoughts, conversations, and action


Friday, December 8, 2017        9-4pm                               Holyoke Community College Holyoke, MA

A daylong event with  educators, religious clergy, law-enforcement personnel, social workers, and Muslim community leaders committed to building inclusive communities.


Prof. Sudha Setty on the future of American-Muslims under the Trump administration


Watch here

Mr. Daryl Johnson on homegrown extremism


See all episodes