Jihad and Traditional Islamic Consciousness – Part Three

S. A. Schleifer

Just as the Believers must pray behind the Imam, whatever his moral standing, so in orthodox Sunni theory he must follow the Imam in jihad. Ibn Hanbal in kitab al-sunna summarizes this comprehensive position:

The jihad should be pursued alongside all imams, whether good men or evildoers; the injustice of the tyrant or the justice of the just matter little. The Friday prayer, the Pilgrimage, the two Feasts should be made with those who possess authority, even if they are not good, just or pious. The legal alms, the tithe, the land taxes, the fay’, are due to the amirs, whether they put them to right use or not.“38”

Within these limits, the ‘ulama reconfirmed the duty of every member of the community to the practice of jihad as al-amr bi’l-ma’ru, f; commending right conduct and forbidding wrong conduct to the best of their knowledge and means. Since al-amr bz’l-ma’ruf is above all a vehicle for discernment, it is upon the ‘ulama that this obligation falls most heavily. Remaining within the limits of loyalty, the outstanding thinkers among the ‘Mama proclaimed their duty to revive the sunna, to keep public opinion vigilant, and to impose upon the effective ruler proper respect for shari’a.

The frequently quoted hadith, “The most excellent jihad is when one speaks a true word in the presence of a tyrannical ruler, “39” authenticated the ‘Mama’s non-violent but at times fatal struggle to cheek and correct wrongdoing by the state, as a self-conscious jihad.

This consensus of Sunni jurists was not arrived upon without difficulty and debate. Tyrannical and secular modes of rule practiced by the Ummayads profoundly offended the ‘ulama who were also sensitive to the imperative of al-amr bi’l-ma’ruf contained in the canonic hadith.
He who from among you observes something evil should reverse it with his hand; if he is unable to do that he should condemn it with his tongue; if he is unable to do that he should at least resent it in his heart; this is the lowest degree of faith.“40”

According to Hamidullah, the first book of siyar to be composed as a separate discipline within jurisprudence was written by Abu Hanifa and authorized the resort to arms against oppressive rulers. Abu Hanifa’s position was opposed by Malik, who reportedly spent and entire evening arguing the issue with Abu Hanifa in a mosque in Medina, and also by the jurist and disciple of Abu Hanifa, al-Awza’iy, who wrote: “We supported everything from Abu Hanifa until he came with the sword.“41”

Al-Mawardi did not rule out revolt against an impious imam and he considered heresy as one of the conditions (in an otherwise technical listing) to depose an imam. Al-Baqillani, in his political theory of the caliphate, cited heresy, injustice and moral sin (lisq) but he acknowledged that many schools of Sunni thought refused these conditions as sufficient grounds to depose a ruler and al-Baqillani implicitly supported this view.“42” Other ‘Mama attempted to discriminate between types of fisq; there could be no revolt against an imam who isfasiqin his private life, but if a command of his runs counter to a previousshari’ahprecept, disobedience to the command is not only obligatory, but the imam must be deposed if there is a guarantee of success. “43”

But more significant is the overriding concern by the ‘ulama not to reopen the door to armed rebellion against those in authority. Neither al-Baqillani nor al-Mawardi nor any of the other Sunni writers dealing with the theory of the caliphate ever laid down any rules of procedure of how to depose an imam – even though the ethical issue of al-amr bi’l-ma’ruf aside, they had specified such criteria as physical and mental illness, deafness, muteness and senility as grounds for forfeiture of office as Imam “44”

In the end it is the unambiguous declaration of al-Ashari, the great theologian of traditional sunni Islam, which endures and defines the prevailing position:

We maintained the error of those who hold it right to rise against the imams whensoever there may be apparent in them a falling-away from right. We are opposed to armed rebellion against them and civil war. “45”

As noted earlier, the theorists of the caliphate assumed the Imam could be deposed (if only for technical reasons) without articulating any legal means for deposing him. Gibb sees this as a “dilemma” confronting all Sunni political thought of the period, and still another proof that sunni political theory was in fact only the rationalization of the history of the community.

But at the level of consciousness rather than articulation, there is not necessarily a dilemma. The verifying hadith for violent deposal – that the commander does not observe prayer – is verifiable with certainty only within the walls of the palace of the ruler among officers of his entourage; so too, with the technical disabilities leading to forfeiture. The palace coup that minimizes bloodshed without disrupting the order and unity of the community just beyond those walled is neither armed rebellion in the broader, more protracted and disruptive sense, nor civil war, and the sin of Muslim killing Muslim is veiled or hidden from the public. This is a paramount consideration in Islamic consciousness, in which discretion or its lack (for reasons of the corrupting nature of indiscretion) determines the degree of reprehensibility of the wrongdoing or sin and the need or extent of its punishment in this world.“46”

The passing of protracted civil war and revolution as the pattern for political change in the centuries following Abbasid rule; the firm political triumphs of Sunni Islam and the continued appropriateness of the i coup d’etat in preference to revolution or counter-revolution (or, for that matter, to the protraced, non-violent civil war of genuine parliamentary party politics) in the modern sunni world, all argue that it is the history of the community armed this theory-by-elipsis, which within this elipsis has provided a vehicle of deposition without allowing the doctrine of jihadto be turned against the unity of the community. 

So, too, the knowledgement by Ibn Jama’a of an “Imamate by usurpation,” is in this context not a “continuing rationalization of the mances of the historic community,” but an articulation on the level of theory of a consistent and enduring part of Islamic consciousness from the time of the Prophet. Ibn Jama’a continues to insist that the raison d’etre of any ruler, however abominable, is to implement shari’aand wage jihad.

The essence of the final articulation of traditional sunnipolitical theory (developed by Ibn Jama’a’s leading critic), Ibn Taimiyya’s equivalent of concordat between ruler and ‘ulama in which theimplementationof shari’a is acknowledged in exchange for legitimacy, is implicitly contained within Ibn Jama’a’s formulation, as it is also contained within the totality of the same traditional consciousness. “47” 

The price paid by the best of the ‘ulama in the painful circumstances by which this Consciousness was made articulate cannot be categorized as moral bankrupcy. The manner in which an ‘alim such as al-Ghazali could confront the rulers of his time in a work such as Nasihat al-mulukconfirms this – the extensive dire warnings of the torment in hell and on the Day of Judgement for the sultan who rules unjustly, not to mention the dangers he invites in the world of the living. AI-Ghazali quickly informs his sultan of his imamate duties and strongly advises him to learn how to control his passions protect the people from the greed of his administrators, find safety with independent-minded pious ‘ulama and not those who toady to his whims, and to implement shari’a.“48” This work, which so clearly contains a theory of the Islamic state that is profoundly ethical in content without losing its sense of political realism, cannot be dismissed as expedient. 

What the ‘ulama as a class did sacrifice was the collective spiritual legitimacy they had inherited first as the original community of the Prophet and then as the pietist party of Medina, by force of the historic requirement of their identity with the very state they continuously struggled to Islamize for the sake of sacralizing society.

This state was still further deprived of spiritual legitimacy (beyond that void in its own origins) by the requirements of sunni juridical logic as it was deployed against shia’ claims of a spiritual Imamate with inherited lines of legitimacy – claims and rebuttals which are not within the province of this study but which nevertheless involved (as in the case of the khawaridj) the use of the doctrine of] ihad against the sunni state.

The sacralizing jihad of the ‘ulama to Islamize state and society was successful to the degree that a vast network of juridical and educational institutions arose defining and preserving orthodox rites and doctrines and popularizing them through the turbulent centuries that led finally to the flowering of medieval sunni Muslim society -institutions, doctrines and rites that generally enjoyed the generous support of a state legitimatized by the ulama in exchange for the state’s acknowlegement of the sovereignty of shari’a interpreted by the ‘ulama, a concordat with worldly rule towards which the ‘ulama had been moving from the beginning of their jihad

But religious legitimacy, particularly in its juridical sense, which is so paramount to Islamic consciousness, is not necessarily the same as spiritual legitimacy. And while the earliest sunni theory of the Caliphate/ Imamate effectively rebutted shia’ as well as kharadji political claims on a juridical plane, the very sunni arguments, based on the example of the Rashi dun as the sunna of political legitimacy, could not help but contrast the spiritual quality of rule in the Prophet’s community to the sunni dynasties that followed with the emergence of the state.The main thrust of this argument was not so much to deny shia’ claims on behalf of their lines of imams to a spiritual legitimacy (the Prophet’s family retained a special position characterized by the deepest attachment in sunni religiosity) as to deny the relevance of this spiritual legitimacy to the ca liphate/imamate, its functions (and thus to its political heir, the sultanate), just as the ‘ulama’s response to the excessive ethical content of kharidji thought was to deny or severely limit the role of jihad as an instrument for the ethical rectification of unjust, tyrannic government.The juridical response to kharidji and shia’ threats to the unity of the community was to further concentrate the employment of jihad as an armed struggle in the hands of the state – a state whose own historic convolutions could not but still further deprive this facet of jihad of its personal, ethical, voluntaristic character and its spiritual dimension, for all the courage and dedication of the ‘ulama.

Mercenary Armies, Sufi Response

The concept of the Prophet’s Community-in-arms had been displaced only partly in spirit and form by the tribal militias that made up the Muslim Army at the time of the Rashidun caliphate.

Progressive professionalization rapidly followed, first of the Arab tribal warriors settled in Syria who were the mainstay of Ummayad power and then with recruits from the waves of converts (largely Persian and Turkish) enrolled in the armies of the caliphs during Abbasid period or the armies of the various independent kingdom and amirates that emerged during Abbasid rule. All of this suggests that the juridical literature on jihad had become as much an ideal response to the degeneration of Islamic sensibility under arms as it was, in its earliest phase, a practical response to the momentum of the wars of conquest.“49” 


Mishkat, XVIII, Ch. I.
39) Al-Bukhari and Muslim, Mishkat, XVII, Ch. I.
40) Ibn Hanbal, cited by H. Laoust, “Ahmed b. Hanabal,” in Encyclopaedia of Islam, 1st. ed, 1965.
41) Abu Dawud and Ibn Majah, Mishkat, XVIII, Ch. II
42) An-Nawawi, Riyad as-salihin. Gardens of the Righteous, M. Z. Khan, trans: (London: Curzon, 1975), p.48.
43) Hamidullah, Muslim Conduct of State, pp. 64-66.
44) Ibish, op. cit. p. 103.
45) L.Gardet, “Fasik,” in Enc. Islam.
46) Ibish, op. cit. p. 104-105.
Cited by Gibb, in “Al-Mawardi’s Theory …,” p.161.
48) This is but the other side of the coin of the concept “Islamic Conformism.” To the degree wrongdoing is public is to the degree thewrongdoer sins against his fellow man (bycorrupt example, by seductive intention, by defiance of community) as well as he sins against God. Examination of the fikr literature on the hadd (unalterable punishment prescribed by shari’a) and the hadith dealing with the haddpenalities will bear out the above analysis not to mention, as more immediately relevant to this study, the ‘ulama’sdiscrimination between the ruler as public fasiq or private fasiq.
49) Ibn Jama’s, Emancipated Judgement in the Government of Muslims,” in Williams, Thames of Islamic Civilization, pp. 90-94. Ibn Taimiyya, Private and Public Law in Islam,Omar A. Farruhk , trans. (Beirut: Khayats, 1966). pp. 187-188, 192. The Islamic Quarterly, London 
Fourth Quarter 1983