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Justification for Violence in Islam: IV: The Need for Legitimate Authority to Sanction Violence in the Name of God


Previous: Justification for Violence in Islam, Part III: Jih_d as a Defensive Strategy or a Means of "Calling"?

[26] The Prophet through the revelation, then, was not only representing divine goals on earth; he was also engaged in interpreting them to make them relevant in the given cultural context. Any armed struggle like jih_d which, as the Qur'an admits, was by nature reprehensible to humanity since it endangered its sense of security and well-being, presupposed the existence of a divinely designated authority that could resolve the problems of the interpretability of supernaturally ordained obligation involving violence and destruction of human life. Jih_d, as the Muslim jurists correctly inferred, could not be waged without the divine authority being invested in the Prophet or his successor, who alone could justify the reasons and the ends for its undertaking. No bloodshed was warranted if the religious-moral goals were unclear or if there was no guarantee that it would eradicate causes of corruption.

[27] It is in connection with this last statement that Shi'i jurists, by contrast with the Sunni scholars, argued that the presence of a divinely appointed leader (the Imam) would be a necessary precondition of any offensive jih_d. The Sunni jurists did not consider it a necessity that the leader of the Muslims be divinely appointed Imam. Rather, they argued that any de facto Muslim authority ought to advance the purposes of God in the jih_d. This difference of opinion points to the fundamental differences between the two schools of thought in the matter of right authority. It also demonstrates their understanding of the political history of Islam and of the connections of the Qur'anic jih_d with that history.

[28] The Sunni jurists maintained that in the area of constitutional affairs, the community should have a sovereign head in charge of all its affairs, including the declaration of jih_d, and bound to give effect to the general purposes of God for Islamic society by ruling in accordance with the revealed law. This is known as the legal doctrine of "governance in accordance with the Shari'a (siy_sa shar'iyya)." The sovereign in the management of all the affairs of state should always be prepared to consult the community and to listen to the representations of the community. Neither side was to act independently of the other or to impose its own point of view. This was the tradition of the early Muslim caliphs following the Prophet's death. However, ways to assure such consultation and representation were not laid down in the juridical texts to avoid rigidity in the matter of "governance in accordance with the Shari'a" and to allow the political institution necessary flexibility to adapt itself to varying future situations.

[29] Under the legal doctrine of the "governance in accordance with the Shari'a," the Sunni jurists thought of the jih_d as a war for the expansion of Islamic territory- i.e., the sphere where the norms prescribed by the Shari'a would be paramount. In so doing, they offered a religious rationale for the historic practice of Muslim rulers, who are afforded an over-riding personal discretion to determine, according to time and circumstances, how the purposes of God for the Islamic community might be best effected.

[30] The Shi'i jurists did not regard the wars of expansion as motivated by the Qur'an. In fact, it was the Shi'i scrutiny of the Sunni explications of jih_d that gave rise to questions concerning right authority: Who can declare the jih_d? While the majoritarian Sunni jurisprudence is always conditioned by the historic practice of the community, working out its ideas about jih_d with respect to the reality of wars of conquest in the name of Islam, the minority Shi'i jurisprudence characteristically focused on the ideal.1 In the absence of any need to rationalize political power, Shi'ite juridical tradition could remain adamant concerning the questions of right authority and just cause. The Shi'i jurists, therefore, questioned the motives of the Sunni caliphs with respect to the practice of war.2 The original purpose of jih_d, they contended, was not preserved under the Sunni rulers.

[31] For the Shi'i, offensive jih_d -the jih_d for the purpose of calling upon people to respond to God's guidance by accepting Islam- required the presence of the just, divinely appointed Imam, not (as the Sunnites argued) just any de facto ruler under the "governance of the Shari'a"; or, in the absence of the Imam, as is the case with the last of the Shi'ite Imam in concealment, the person deputized by him could authorize such a struggle. The Shi'ite jurists made an explicit distinction between this offensive jih_d and the defensive jih_d, which would protect the welfare of the Muslim community against hostile aggression. The requirement of just authority (in the case of offensive war) was supposed to guarantee that the jih_d against the unbelievers would be waged strictly for the cause of God. In fact, it is only the just Imam who, by virtue of his divinely protected knowledge of Islamic revelation, could initiate the jih_d against the unbelievers. More importantly, it is only the just leader who can avoid errors of judgement in critical matters like shedding of blood and ensure that the jih_d is truly in accord with the goals of Islam. Sunni jurists, although in agreement that there should be an Imam (in the ordinary sense of a ruler and not a divinely appointed leader) to lead the jih_d for the purpose of calling people to Islam, are in disagreement with the Shi'i in regard to the necessity of the infallible Imam's permission for the initiation of such a jih_d.

[32] However, the question of obtaining the permission of the Imam does not arise in defensive warfare, because defense, the Shi'i argue, is a moral requirement founded upon such Qur'anic passages as 2:190-91. Moreover, the Shi'i jurists assert that from the tenth century on when the last Imam went in concealment the obligation to engage in offensive jih_d has lapsed until the messianic leader reappears in future. But the Imam's absence has no connection to the discharging of the obligation of self-defense. Whenever the Muslims are attacked by enemies, and they fear for the safety of the boundaries and peoples of Islam, it is their duty to undertake defensive measures and defend themselves against those who threaten their security. This defense, as the Shi'ite jurists remind their followers, should be undertaken with the intention of repelling the enemy only. All forms of defense, against those who attacked Muslims, against those who want to kill and drive away people from their homes, and against those who rise up against a just ruler, were regarded as "defense" rather than strict jih_d in the meaning of furthering the cause of God against unbelief among the human race. It was also in this sense of defense, that Muslims living in d_r al-sulh (the "sphere of peace"), as a minority under non-Muslim government in peace and were able to practice their religion freely, had the military obligation to fight in defence of d_r al-sulh.3 Evidently, the obligation of self-defense was regarded universal enough to require Muslims, whether Shi'i or Sunni, living under any government to undertake proper measures for self-preservation.

[34] Sunni jurisprudence based its notions of jih_d on the existence of an authority invested with political power to preserve and maintain the public order and to protect the Islamic norms from being infringed or tampered with from inside or from outside. Consequently, Sunni jurists did not feel the need to pursue the discussion concerning the various types of jih_d or the diverse justifications for it, because all types of warfare were afforded religious legitimation. By contrast, Shi'i jurists presupposed their own lack of power. Hence, their indulgence in the exercise of defining the goals, the preconditions, the various types of jih_d, and so on. Moreover, Shi'i political jurisprudence was not justified in its theoretical formulations about jih_d by the actual historic practice of the Muslim community. Consequently, there is a substantial discussion in the works of the Shi'i jurists concerning moral and religious restrictions on use of violence in making God's cause succeed- the knowledge of that being restricted to the infallible Imam.

[35] In the final analysis, from the point of comparative perspectives on the ethics of war, jih_d in its Qur'anic ordainment made it possible for Muslims to assert that the only "just" war is one fought for religious purposes under the legitimate political authority.4 The reason is that concern for peace which has led to the visions of a just society has also required the proscriptions on use of force, in particular legal force to procure that peace. Just war tradition even in the West in general is connected with the desire to strive and to achieve true peace by removing the causes of conflict. Accordingly, violent or nonviolent approaches to confrontation in Islam has depended upon the ultimate outcome of the conflict.

Next: Justification for Violence in Islam, Part V: The Law of Rebellion


End Notes

1   In the chapter on the Shi'ite theory of political authority in my The Just Ruler in Shi'ite Islam: The Comprehensive Authority of the Jurist in Imamite Jurisprudence (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988), pp. 105-117 I have discussed the intimate relationship between jih_d and the question of right authority in Twelver Shi'ite jurisprudence.

2  There are a number of narratives related in the Shi&=javascript:goNote(39ite sources that question the legitimacy of the various jih_ds of the Sunni caliphs as motivated by the Qur'anic demand to make God's cause succeed. See: Mumammad B_qir al-MajlisA, Bim_r al-anw_r (Tehran: Kit_bfur_shA-yi Isl_miyya, 1957), Volume 100, p. 18f.

3  Dar al-sulh as a spatial-religious conception conveys the essence of Muslim cognition of their emigration in the non-Muslim countries. It provides a Muslim minority with the legal and ethical sources for furthering the ways that are necessary to relate themselves as members of a family and a community in predominantly non-Muslim environment. Closely related to this concept is the notion of d_r al-mijra (the sphere of emigration) which not only suggests that every corner of the earth is open to such emigration to seek God's universal bounty; it also considers any part of the earth unrestrictedly and potentially capable of providing humanity with all necessary conditions to direct it toward obedience to God. See my article on: "Islam and Muslims in Diaspora," in the Bulletin of the Institute of Middle Eastern Studies, International University of Japan, Volume 7, March 1993, pp. 109-146.

4  John Kelsay, Islam and War: The Gulf War and Beyond, A Study in Comparative Ethics (Westminster/John Knox Press, 1993), p. 2.



© February 2003
Journal of Lutheran Ethics
Volume 3, Issue 2