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Jihad and Justice: The Islamic Context

September 14th, 2007 | 4 min read

By Tex

Before examining the Muslim conception of just war and jihad, let’s take a look at the religious context that has shaped the development of Islamic political theory.

Islam is primarily a religion of orthopraxy; it emphasizes the importance of acting properly over having correct theological beliefs. One becomes a Muslim by believing only two theological propositions (the Shahhadah): that there is no god but God, and that Mohammed is the prophet of God. These two beliefs are mandatory; anything beyond them is given, at least theoretically, a great deal of latitude. Besides these two beliefs, the true Muslim is defined as one that lives a life of submission to God, submission that takes a very concrete form in religious duties and prohibitions. The five pillars of Islam—praying daily, giving alms, making a pilgrimage to Mecca, keeping the fast of Ramadan, and saying the Shahhadah—regulate the behavior of the Muslim rather than his beliefs.

Due to this emphasis on right action or behavior, the life and sayings of Mohammed have nearly as much weight in determining true Islam as the Qur’an does—if one wants to know how a true Muslim ought to live, one only has to examine how the truest and best Muslim, Mohammed, actually lived. Stories about Mohammed and many of his sayings (hadith) have been compiled and organized by Muslims. When questions of right practice come up, the collection of these stories (called the Sunna) is referred to as well as the Qur’an. Naturally, there have been disagreements over the correct interpretations of the Qur’an and the Sunna, creating a need for definitive rulings on the correct interpretation and application of these teachings. This helps explain the Islamic dependence on law and legal scholars, which are relied upon to interpret the Qur’an and the Sunna of Mohammed. From these sources, a body of law has been drawn that is known as shari’a. This law, or literally “right path”, is the definitive guide for all Muslims.

Through close adherence to this law the Muslim could gain a sense of identity and security as one who was following in the ways ordained by God. A huge corpus of legal works and commentaries has been compiled over the ages that explicates and comments on the shari’a, the relationship of the Qur’an to human society, and the example found in Mohammed’s life. Since right practice is central to Islam, the comments and judgments of legal experts are highly prized because they help reveal, through consensus, the right application of shari’a to life. In an examination of Islamic conceptions of just war it is important to recognize that the consensus of the jurists on what constitutes a just war carries a lot of weight, more than say, the words of Augustine or Aquinas.

Another important Islamic concept to bear in mind while discussing Islamic political and just war theory is unity. Mohammed specifically set out to unify his followers and call them out of the polytheistic world they were living in. As his power grew, he continued to unify the tribes of the Arabian Peninsula through converting them to Islam. Upon conversion, they took an oath stating that “There is no god but God and Mohammed is the prophet of God;” they swore their allegiance to God and His prophet, and this allegiance was extended to the community of believers (umma). Mohammed recognized the importance of unity among his people and said, “Truly, my Umma shall never agree together upon an error.” Unity runs through Islam, from its strict monotheistic belief to its ideal of true community.
Next week...Islamic conditions of just war.

Other posts in the Jihad and Justice series:

Islamic and Christian Theories of War

Christian Just War Theory, Part 1

Christian Just War Theory, Part 2

The Islamic Conception