"The Use and Abuse of Holy War." A Review of James Johnson’s, “The Holy War Idea in the Western & Islamic Traditions.” Ethics and International Affairs 14 (2000

The Use and Abuse of “Holy War”

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


By Khaled Abou El Fadl


"Holy war” is an ill-defined and misused socio-historical concept. Like other misunderstood and highly politicized concepts such as terrorism or fundamentalism, it elicits strong emotional and intellectual responses. Despite the fact that the idea of holy war is the unique product of European Christian culture, it is often used to project the Western normative experience onto cultures rooted in an entirely different set of socio-historical circumstances. This process is evident in the way the West approaches the Islamic idea of jihad, which is often equated with holy war and mistakenly considered synonymous with Islamic violence.


However, jihad cannot be understood as holy war. It is a more general and nuanced term, produced by its own particular historical normative context. Nevertheless, the Western media, aided by Islam-phobic scholars, have employed sensationalistic expressions such as the “sacred rage” or the “Islamic crusade” to describe the dynamics of jihad. These expressions are derived from the notion of holy war and can only be understood in reference to the Western historical experience of Christianity.


James Turner Johnson’s The Holy War Idea in Western and Islamic Traditions is a refreshing effort to alleviate the misunderstanding and hostility toward the concept of jihad. Johnson tries not only to understand the uniqueness of the Islamic experience of jihad, but to find common grounds upon which a conversation between the West and Islam can begin. He does not demonize the Islamic experience; nor does he shy away from acknowledging areas of dissonance and friction between Islam and the West.


Johnson’s analysis begins with Samuel Huntington’s contention that Islam and the West are divided by distinct civilizational values that are the product of each culture’s unique history. Conflict between traditions is to be expected, Johnson argues, but to avoid a clash of civilizations it is imperative to engage competing traditions in discourse and to search for grounds of commonality. Although skeptical of the possibility of a shared universal civilization, he contends that understanding differences and overcoming points of dissonance are essential for peaceful coexistence.


Johnson examines the interrelation between the idea and practice of holy war in Islamic and Western cultures. Focusing on three distinct issues—the justification of holy war, the authority to wage holy war, and the conduct of holy war—he finds that while there are many areas of commonality, significant areas of fundamental disagreement also exist. Although the concept of war for religion or justified by religion has played an important role in Islam and the West, the historical dynamics and norms of Islam and the West are quite different. In the post-Reformation era, the idea of holy war was soundly rejected in the West. Instead, Western philosophers developed the secular categories of jus ad bellum and jus in bello, by which the justification and methods of warfare are appraised without reference to a religious sanctification.


In contrast to the West, Johnson asserts, the idea of war for religion has retained a meaningful role in Islam. At least in theory, he contends, Islam has continued to believe in the ideal of a single Muslim state in which a blend of political and religious concerns is represented by a single head of state, the caliph. Muslims see jihad as a unifying force that can achieve this ideal. Essentially, the Islamic attitude toward the value and acceptability of war for religion is materially different from the Western historical and cultural experience.


Whereas Western culture’s rejection of the idea of warfare for religion represents an effort to move beyond the destructive effects that may follow from religious difference when religion is mingled with statecraft, for Islamic culture the call to jihad represents a call to transcend differences and conflict in submission to the only true God. While for the West war for religion is divisive and terrible, for Islam jihad as war for religion is not divisive but unifying, and what is terrible is the world of strife jihad seeks to bring to an end (p. 18).


Johnson is not critical of the Muslim tradition, but in his search for points of contact he appears to advocate the emergence of a secularized conception of the justification and limitation of war in Islamic culture. Relying on the thought of the premodern Muslim philosopher al-Farabi, he argues that it may be possible to construct an indigenous Muslim idea of statecraft that rejects war for religiously defined causes. However, because of the term’s essentially theological nature, the general imperative of jihad can hardly be secularized.


This study avoids treating the Islamic tradition with the arrogance and dismissiveness that characterize many orientalist works. The author is aware that the term holy war does not translate well into Arabic and that jihad does not mean fighting or warfare. As he points out, jihad means to struggle, either to defend one’s home or to purify oneself from base or evil desires. Jihad could in fact consist of speaking the truth before a despotic ruler, applying oneself in the pursuit of knowledge, or even struggling internally against one’s own weakness and vanity. Johnson recognizes these subtleties and even explains that according to one tradition, “the Prophet tells his followers, on return from battle, that they have now returned from the ‘lesser jihad’ (battle) and must turn to the ‘greater jihad’ (the inner struggle for true submission to God)” (p. 35).


Johnson notes that the term used by the Qur’an in reference to fighting is qital, not jihad. He also recognizes that the term holy war is the progeny of the Western historical experience and does not fit comfortably within the Islamic tradition. Yet despite the awareness of these subtleties demonstrated in his cautious analysis, Johnson ends up projecting the Western symbolism of holy war upon the Islamic tradition anyway. After listing ten different possible definitions of holy war, he adopts a minimal definition according to which holy war is a war fought for God or religion. He then consistently speaks of the Islamic concept of holy war. Apparently, Johnson believes that by using a minimal definition of holy war, he is able to avoid the methodological problems inherent in using value-laden terms produced by one culture to evaluate another culture. His methodology in this regard is not successful.


As mentioned above, jihad means to struggle for a just cause. Therefore, according to Islamic theology, a broad array of activity, including seeking knowledge and working to take care of the poor, qualifies for the status of jihad. Individuals are rewarded by God for undertaking these tasks, and those who die in pursuit of them will be rewarded with heaven in the afterlife. But Islamic theology does not recognize the idea of a sacred or consecrated war per se; a war is not considered God’s war merely because it is fought for the purpose of serving God. A caliph may declare a war to be intended to serve God, but that does not mean the war is sanctified by God. Nor is everyone who takes part or dies in such a war necessarily rewarded by God; according to a report (hadith) attributed to the Prophet Muhammad, martyrdom and reward depend on the intent of the combatant. A person who fights in a war because of desire for financial gain is not engaged in a jihad. The distinction is placed within the context of a general moral imperative: a Muslim must seek to serve God in whatever he or she does. In other words, struggling in the service of God is a general category that is much broader than the concept of holy war.


Johnson does not address the concept of jihad in its general sense, however. He focuses his analysis on the notion of jihad waged to bring the whole world under God’s dominion. Johnson seems to have in mind the Muslim discourses on the obligation to convert the world to Islam through the constant waging of jihad. Three forms of jihad emerged in Islamic history, he argues. The original juristic form of jihad was a perpetual state of war waged against non-Muslims in order to convert the world to Islam. According to this theory, the world is divided into two perpetually hostile spheres: the abode of Islam and the abode of war. The abode of Islam is under an obligation to conquer the abode of war. In fact, Johnson argues, Muslim jurists required that the caliph wage war against the infidels at least once a year. The second form of jihad, according to Johnson, was defensive in nature. It emerged during the period of the Crusades as Muslims attempted to regain lost territories. Pursuant to this model, the emphasis shifted to a defensive jihad that aimed to protect Muslims and Islamic territory. The third form of jihad, which Johnson calls the ghaza model, was an offensive jihad during the Ottoman period. Pursuant to the ghaza model, Muslims were obligated to wage war to enlarge the territory of Islam. If Muslims were victorious, that meant the war was blessed by God, and if they lost, that meant that the war did not meet with God’s approval.


Johnson argues that the division of the world into an abode of Islam and an abode of war was functional, not theological. The idea of a unified abode of Islam existing in a state of mutual hostility with the rest of the world was the product of a specific historical context that generated a normative ideal. However, the normative ideal was always under serious challenge because the abode of Islam was rarely united and, furthermore, it was difficult to maintain a perpetual state of hostility between Islam and its neighbors. In response to this later historical challenge, jurists from the Shafi’i school of thought, in particular, introduced the notion of an abode of treaty, reconciliation, or peace. Such an abode consisted of territory that had a treaty or agreement with the abode of Islam; therefore Muslims were under no obligation to conquer it.


There are several problems with Johnson’s analysis of this aspect of Muslim thought. He fails to assess the full implications of the interplay between the theory and reality of the abode of Islam. While Johnson acknowledges that historical reality seriously challenged the ideal of a unified, ever-expanding abode of Islam, he does not recognize that the very theory behind the idea of the abode of Islam was transformed in response to that historical reality. It is simply not true that Muslim jurists continued to accept the idea of the inevitability of a state of mutual hostility between Muslims and non-Muslims. A substantial number of jurists from different Sunni schools, not just the Shafi’i school, accepted the category of the abode of treaty or peace as a permanent realm enjoying full treaty rights, not as an aberration or unwelcome concession to reality.


Furthermore, by the twelfth century, the idea of the abode of Islam had become reconstructed and reformulated in substantial ways.1 For instance, a territory in which justice or security prevailed or that allowed Muslims to practice their religion freely, although under non-Muslim rule, could be considered a part of the abode of Islam. This, however, did not mean that Muslims had the right to invade and subdue such a territory, but that a territory in which justice and security prevailed could become a part of the moral and symbolic construct of the abode of Islam.2


At a more fundamental level, Johnson overlooks a rather significant point about the very purpose of war in Islam. He contends that the purpose of jihad is to establish a universal order under the guidance of Islam. Jihad theory, according to Johnson, assumes that the non-Muslim world exists in a perpetual state of war against itself and against Islam. The abode of Islam is under an obligation to subdue the abode of unbelievers and institute the reign of peace by forcing non-Muslims into submission. Johnson seems to conclude that the original view of jihad was one of an offensive war fought against the unbelievers, but it is not clear why or how he reaches this conclusion.


In analyzing the early Islamic tradition, Johnson relies rather heavily on the thought of the influential early jurist al-Shaybani (d. 189/804). Nonetheless, al-Shaybani’s own writings do not support Johnson’s views. Johnson himself seems to acknowledge this. For instance, he notes: “Like his teacher Abu Hanifa, Shaybani never says that the unbelievers are to be attacked by the Muslims solely on account of their unbelief; they must show themselves a hostile threat” (p. 70).


Muslim jurists thought in terms of presumptions consistent with their historical context. The jurists would often declare that certain areas or people, such as the Nubians, Ethiopians, or Turks, were presumed to be friendly to Muslims, and therefore could not be fought unless they attacked Muslims first.3 On the other hand, the rest of the world was presumed to be in a perpetual state of hostility to Muslims unless the presumption was rebutted, and such presumption could be rebutted by treaty or practice. The juristic position was thoroughly contextual and historical, not necessarily moral or theological. In fact, the classical juristic discourses paid very little attention to discussions of the purpose of war. Muslim jurists hardly discussed issues relating to jus ad bellum; they focused nearly exclusively on jus in bello. This is not because they assumed a state of war as a matter of right, but because they seemed to consider the world in which they lived to be volatile and dangerous. As a result, they deferred to the rulers to protect Islam and Muslims as long as some outer limits were observed. Some of these limits, which have to do with basic principles such as a treaty or a guarantee of safe conduct (’aman), may not be breached. Other limits have to do with the mechanics of the conflict, such as the prohibition against the killing of children or women. However, if the world in which these jurists lived was rendered less volatile by treaty or custom, they were willing to accept it as a matter of right, and not as a concession to some compromised ideal. I disagree with Johnson that Muslim jurists believed that only Islam could bring an end to the chaos and conflict in the world, or that Islam must eventually become the universal world order.


Johnson assumes that, with the limited exception of what he calls Saladin’s jihad during the era of the Crusades, offensive jihad is a basic doctrine of classical Islam and has a strong hold on the contemporary Muslim mind. But it is important to note that the notion of defensive jihad is well rooted in the classical juristic tradition, and that contemporary Islam has not had a problem adopting the idea of defensive jihad.4 The so-called ghaza model has become an anomaly in contemporary Islamic discourse. Even Muslim fundamentalists insist that they are fighting either to defend the integrity of Islamic sovereignty or to regain occupied territory. On no occasion in recent memory have Muslims pursued a jihad in order to convert the world.


The analysis is further hampered by the fact that it uses no original sources on Islamic tradition. Therefore, Johnson is forced to rely on the inadequate secondary sources that have been published to date.5 He recognizes that studies on the normative Islamic tradition are considerably less developed than scholarship on the Western tradition, and he acknowledges the prejudicial legacy of orientalism. Nonetheless, there are some points at which he seems insufficiently mindful of the fact that when it comes to the Islamic tradition, he is relying on limited, sometimes unbalanced, secondary sources. As a result, his conclusions are problematic.


Regarding the issue of the conduct of war, Johnson maintains that both the Islamic and Christian traditions set limits on the proper conduct of war. Commenting on the Christian tradition, he notes that while the church’s effort to restrain the conduct of war took three major forms—the Peace of God of 975, the Truce of God of 1027, and the ban on certain weapons first adopted at the Second Lateran Council in 1139—none of these efforts was aimed at limiting warfare against non-Christian belligerents. Christendom had no clear doctrine limiting the conduct of warfare against non-Christians, but Johnson contends that there were broad notions of Christian charity and knightly virtue that asserted that the innocent should not be harmed and that the evil of war should not exceed the good. In contrast, he does not deal with the Islamic laws that place severe limits on the conduct of war against Muslims, though he could easily have drawn parallels between Christian efforts to restrain war against fellow Christians and Muslim efforts to restrain war against fellow Muslims.6


Johnson does acknowledge that Islamic law placed constraints on the conduct of war against non-Muslims. It prohibited the killing of women, children, the crippled, the diseased, the insane, clergymen, and hermits as well as the needless and disproportionate destruction of property. Many jurists also prohibited the killing of peasants and serfs. Johnson concedes that “not killing blind, crippled and insane captives seems to be a pure act of moderation outside considerations of benefit” (p. 123). Nonetheless he argues that, overall, the Islamic rules of limitation are functional, and thus motivated by considerations of gain. “The reason given in the text is not that these [people] have rights of their own to be spared harm, rights derived either from nature or from considerations of fairness or justice,” he claims, “but rather that they are potentially of value to Muslims” (p. 122). This conclusion can only be the result of a limited reading of texts. In fact, a large number of Muslim jurists specifically state that disbelief is not a sufficient reason to kill a non-Muslim; non-Muslims lose immunity only to the extent that they fight or are capable of fighting Muslims. This is why the lives of peasants, serfs, clergymen, and hermits were considered inviolable unless they took part in the war against Muslims. Moreover, Johnson overlooks Islamic schools of thought that argued it was contrary to the law of God to execute any prisoner of war. According to this view, regardless of the religion, gender, age, or condition of a captive, or of the danger he or she posed, a captive may not be executed.7


The point of this review is not to cast doubt on the quality or integrity of Johnson’s book. It is probably one of the best books on the subject in the English language, and it deserves a wide readership. But Johnson seems to believe that Islam adapted to the demands of the modern world by de facto compromises and by abandoning the principles underlying the classical division between the abode of Islam and the abode of war. This argument, I believe, is based on a simplification of the Islamic classical tradition. The Islamic tradition did not produce a discourse that mirrors the Western tradition of jus ad bellum and jus in bello, but it is complex and rich enough to be able to support a normative tradition that is as moral and principled as the Western one. The story of Islam is not necessarily one of bitter compromises and tragic concessions to history. Like the Christian tradition, the Islamic tradition is a repository of a variety of intellectual orientations, all of which have an equal claim to authenticity.


While the just war tradition emerged in response to the excesses of wars fought in the name of Christian religion, the Western secular solution does not necessarily need to be replicated in the Islamic tradition. The important point is that we are unable properly to assess the Islamic tradition or its full potential because of the paucity of serious works on the issue of Islam and war. The absence of quality studies on the microhistorical practices and discourses of Islamic jurists and rulers prevents the emergence of any accurate and sophisticated understanding of the totality of the Islamic experience. Until this situation is remedied, fair-minded scholars such as Johnson will find that the conversation between Islam and the West will have to be conducted with a very partial vocabulary.




* I thank my assistant Anver Emon and my wife Grace for their assistance with this review. I would also like to thank the anonymous readers who contributed helpful comments.


1 Khaled Abou El Fadl, “Islamic Law and Muslim Minorities: The Juristic Discourse on Muslim Minorities from the Second/Eighth to the Eleventh/Seventeenth Centuries,” Islamic Law and Society 1 (1994), p. 161.


2 See ibid., pp. 157–61.


3 Khaled Abou El Fadl, “The Rules of Killing at War: An Inquiry into Classical Sources,” The Muslim World 59 (1999), p. 150.


4 Several contemporary Muslim scholars have argued that offensive jihad is fundamentally inconsistent with Islamic morality. See Muhammad Abu Zahra, “Nazariyat al-Harb fi al-Islam,” Revue egyptienne du droit Int'l, 14:1; Mahmud Shaltut, al-Islam wa al-‘Ilaqat al-Dawliya (Cairo: al-Majlis al-A’la lil-Su’un al-Islamiyah, 1951), p. 38; Sobhi Mahmassani, “The Principles of International Law in the Light of Islamic Doctrine,” in Recueil Des Cours (Hague: Academie de droit international, 1966), Tome 117: 201–328; M. M. Qureshi, Landmarks of Jihad (Lahor: Sh. Muahammad Ashraf, 1971), pp. 4–8; and Fathi Osman, Sharia in Contemporary Society: The Dynamic of Change in Islamic Law (Los Angeles: Multimedia Vera International, 1994), p. 62.


5 There are some secondary sources that Johnson apparently did not use that could have been quite informative. For instance, Muhammad Hamidullah, The Muslim Conduct of State (Lahore: Sh. Muhammad Ashraf, 1977); and Mahmassani, “Principles of International Law in the Light of Islamic Doctrine.”


6 See Abou El Fadl, “Rules of Killing at War,” pp. 144–49.


7 Ibid., pp. 151–55.