Holy War in Islam: Historical Origins

The overwhelming evidence is that pre-Islamic Arabia knew of no notion of ideological war of any kind, let alone religiously sanctioned war. Yet it appears very early in Islam as a highly developed and applied concept. Reuven Firestone’s Jihad: The Origins of Holy War in Islam (1999) attempts to answer why and how the radical development took place. It was published before 9/11, so that political specter is refreshingly absent throughout the study. I suspect that if Firestone had written this book more recently, he might have pushed his thesis harder so as to paint early Islam as diversified as possible. As the book stands, it’s a helpful study on whole, but doesn’t demonstrate a variance of beliefs that can carry the impact Firestone wants.

The Emergence of Holy War in Arabia

Firestone starts with an overview of pre-Islamic Arabia, noting that several trajectories of belief were pulling the culture in different directions. With the advent of Islam came major changes in those beliefs: that life was governed by God rather than fate and time; that people depended on God instead of enjoying simple material well-being; that behavior was governed by moral commandments and the promise of reward and punishment (in this world and the next) rather than by tribal traditions; and that warfare was sacred and morally imperative.

Prior to Islam, war served as it did in most societies (see p 23) — to keep the population at a survivable level and allow the fittest to excel. It was the culturally acceptable means for distributing and redistributing wealth (herds and flocks), access to pasturage, and most importantly tribal honor and prestige. Warfare was non-ideological. Martrydom had no meaning in such a system. Neither religion nor what we would call “moral duty” had any impact on waging war. Despite votive offerings dedicated to tribal deities in thanks for battle victories, these had nothing to do with holy war. They were wars of plunder and military glory, with a focus on control of trade routes. There was little to no interest in expansion and possession.

When Islam emerged, motives for warfare moved from the economic incentive and kinship commitment (material gain and tribal honor) to the ideological responsibility of religious commitment — expansion, the promulgation of Allah’s will, and the subjugation of unbelievers under Islamic law. Religious affiliation replaced kinship affiliation as the religious community replaced the tribe (p 91). This transition occurred within an astonishingly short period, the watershed being the few years following the emigration from Mecca to Medina (the Hijra, in 622 AD). But why?

According to Firestone, Muhammad and his followers had the problem of sustenance in their new home. Medina was an oasis community based on date agriculture with every scrap of land already claimed and cultivated. So they fell back on the custom of tribal raiding, and the natural prey were their own Meccan tribe of Quraysh, despite the fierce taboo against raiding one’s own kin. The Meccans had treated Muhammad and his followers so abusively for their new religion, and they were the ones who regularly sent out lucrative transport caravans. Firestone suggests that “holy war” emerged as a concept in order to justify the unthinkable — raiding one’s own kin (pp 130-131). Divine authority legitimated the outrageous act.

This is a plausible reconstruction, I suppose, but it’s a mark of negligence that Firestone does not explore the possible influence of Judaism. He notes in passing that some forms of holy war may have been engaged by unorthodox Jewish and/or Jewish Christian tribes of southern Arabia, as the Jews and Christians in this region warred on each other during the first half of the sixth century (pp 37-39), but he does not speculate on the degree to which this may have served as a catalyst for Islam, which borrowed heavily from the two religions in any case. This, to me, is the book’s greatest shortfall: failing to explore the nature of the proto-Islamic group as either a sect of Judaism, a Jewish sect of Christianity, or some kind of umbrella monotheistic group which saw itself as encompassing “true” forms of the two monotheistic movements.

Holy War in the Texts

Holy war remains mandatory in Islam to this day. “Jihad” literally means struggling, or exerting one’s utmost power, in contending with something of disapprobation. But as Firestone correctly notes, unless it is specifically qualified with phrases like “jihad of the heart”, or “jihad of the tongue”, it is universally understood as physical war on behalf of Allah (the equivalent of “jihad of the sword”). Muslim theologians distinguish a “greater jihad” (spiritual struggle against the self) from a “lesser jihad” (holy war), but one has always depended on the other (p 17).

The Qur’an, Sira, and Hadith all put this beyond doubt, though the Qur’an preserves some ambiguities which Firestone exploits to suggest that early Muslims were about equally divided in approaches of peace and war. He is not convincing about this, but let’s start with the easy parts and then work backwards to the Qur’an.

The Hadith are straightforward. They are the expansive accounts of Muhammad collected by the ninth century, and are universal in the belief that war must be waged to spread Allah’s name and subjugate unbelievers under Islamic law. They do provide for deferments during war, such for men who have physical handicaps, or newlywed men who want to return home. They also censure the pre-Islamic reasons for warfare (material gain and personal self-aggrandizement, see p 103), but never is there a hint of any resistance to the policy of military expansionism and mandatory warfare against unbelievers.

The same is true with the Sira, which is the hadith-like biography of Muhammad compiled throughout the eighth-ninth centuries. Firestone does flesh out informative details.¬†For example, Muhammad is portrayed as refusing to respond to insults or heated arguments with violence. But this doesn’t undermine the mandatory requirements for waging jihad, slaying idolaters, subjugating Jews and Christians, etc. It simply shows Muhammad as honorable enough not to be baited into violence by the provocation of insult.

The Qur’an is the sticking point. It’s massively weighed in favor of warfare, but there is a counter-tradition which seemingly opposes it. I say “seemingly”, because the Qur’an actually resolves the tension. When Firestone asks, “Does Islamic scripture prescribe avoidance of violence in propagating and defending the faith (16:125), defensive wars only (22:39-40), or unrestricted warfare (9:5)?” (p 49), the Qur’an itself answers that question.

That answer has been the standard line for centuries. In cases of contradiction, earlier revelations — that is, the peaceful texts of Mecca — were given to assist with the contingency of the moment. Later revelations — the violent ones of Medina — are normative and eternal. The Qur’an provides the basis for this doctrine of abrogation in 2:106 and 16:101. Muslims cannot pick and choose the commandments they like or prefer; they must go with history and follow the latest injunction. This isn’t to say that the few peaceful revelations have no enduring value, but they apply only when Muslims are outnumbered and have no chance of winning a war (the situation of Muhammad in his early days, when he was slowly building a movement; or, say, of modern Muslims living in secularized nations). “The logic is superb,” as Firestone admits, “for it demonstrates that divine authority for total war was withheld from Muslims only until they were ready and well organized; God was in effect preparing and guiding his community for the role of world conquerors and propagators of Islam.” (p 50)

Scholars are obviously aware that the jihad traditions may not have evolved so straightforwardly. There could have been some variance within each period. Though it’s doubtful any of the violent passages come from early Meccan traditions (when Muslims didn’t have the numbers to wage war, nor perhaps the balls to define their tribal kin in close quarters as the enemy), it could be the case — and Firestone does indeed argue — that at least some of the peaceful texts come from the later Medinan period. These would reflect the views of rival factions within the Muslim community who opposed war-mongering in favor of more peaceful strategies.

That’s a fair enough suggestion, though speculative. As Firestone admits, the context of the Qur’an sayings have been lost, and it’s virtually impossible to reconstruct those original contexts (see pp 47-48). But it’s not just that. The idea of rival factions, if true, isn’t especially novel. In considering the eight verses which express peaceful means of propagating or defending the Islamic faith, Firestone argues that four fit the Meccan context (6:106, 15:94, 16:125, 50:39) as usually assumed, but the other four are Medinan (2:109, 5:13, 29:46, 42:15). But Suras 2 and 5 have always been recognized as Medinan anyway (see here for a list that orders all the suras according to the classical theory). There has always been an implied variance recognized on the classical model, and which indeed only makes sense. Evolution seldom breaks entirely with the past, even when superseding it. That doesn’t nullify the model, though Firestone’s points are helpful reminders of the complexities involved in any ideological system.

I believe the classical theory has stood the test of time for good reason. It derives from historical reality. It fits the sitz im leben of the Muhammad movement. Scriptures, as a rule, justify what happens. While Firestone is correct to say that we cannot exegetically prove an evolution of non-aggression to holy war, we can certainly make a strong case for it. He makes too much of the possibility of co-existing factions. If I were a Muslim reformer, I wouldn’t argue against the necessity of jihad on a flimsy basis like this. I would accept the historical legitimacy of the classic model — for all the difficulties it poses — and call for the abolition of jihad on other grounds, for example by using the scriptural process of ijtihad. Reinterpreting scripture is preferable to either revising history or making mountains out of its molehills.


Firestone’s book is a helpful look at the origins of jihad in Islam’s earliest period, during and immediately after the mission of Muhammad. It suggests that different groups may have taken opposing stands on the question of holy war, for a variety of reasons. However true that is, those voices never carried the day. Jihad did, and still does.

In thenext post, we will look at Firestone’s sequel book, Holy War in Judaism: The Fall and Rise of a Controversial Idea.

4 thoughts on “Holy War in Islam: Historical Origins

  1. Thank you so much for putting all this effort into your blog. There are not many places I can go to get movies, D&D, and religious history all in one sitting. Even if your religious material doesn’t fetch as many comments, I still enjoy reading it immensely. It’s very rare to find this sort of writing online.

    Have you read the Sira and the Hadith? What sources would you recommend?

  2. Thanks for the feedback, Brian, I’m glad to hear this is useful. Pretty much any translation of the Sira and hadith will do, to get you started. I have Bill Warner’s translations.

  3. I read Bill Warner’s Sira and I completely disagreed with its basic philosophy.

    I find his decision to remove all miracles from the original source indefensible, especially considering that miracles were quite common. He was doing this to make his source as “accurate” as possible, but reading Ibn Ishaq’s original with miracles throughout helps show the reader just how inaccurate these texts really are. Bill Warner obviously wants people to think that Mohammed was a bloodthirsty marauder and rapist (which of course we have no reason to doubt) so he doesn’t want them to question any the atrocities depicted in the Sira, so he has chosen to remove all of the miraculous material. But the reality is, in a text rife with the supernatural, when we have no competing non-Muslim sources, we should doubt the truth of many of the events in Mohammed’s biography. The “criterion of embarrassment” doesn’t apply, because most people in late antiquity would naturally admire a successful warlord-rapist.

    I thought it was passable as Cliff-notes, but I don’t think it stands on its own.

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