Doctrine of Jihad as Defensive War
Appendix V
By Suhas Majumdar
Danish translation: Jihad-doktrinen som forsvarskrig
Source: Voice of Dharma
Published on May 11, 2015

This book has attempted to show by means of adequate citations from the Koran that jihad is aggressive war par excellence, with one or two verses thrown in, in between, to indicate that counsels of moderation and non-aggression are not wholly absent from the Islamic scheme of things. But as Islamic apologists the world over have of late started protesting rather loudly that Koranic [1] jihad is war in self-defence and nothing else, it is important that we discuss threadbare the worth of the Koranic verse which is most often referred to in this connection.

The verse in question is K. 2:190 which in Marmaduk Pickthall’s translation professes to enjoin:

“Fight in the way of Allah against those who fight against you, but begin not hostilities, Lo! Allah loveth not aggressors.” (K. 2:190)

Taken in isolation, this verse has almost a Gandhian ring. But as indicated in Chapter 11, the immediately succeeding verse makes the uncompromising declaration:

“And slay them wherever ye find them, and drive them out of the places whence they drove you out, for persecution is worse than slaughter.” (K. 2:191).

This verse has nothing Gandhian in it - quite the contrary. It breathes a spirit of uncompromising vengeance rendered worse by the commoner versions of the last clause, which in Sir William Muir’s, N. J. Dawood’s and Yusuf Ali’s translation says: “for idolatry is worse than carnage” instead of “for persecution is worse than slaughter”. If the ultimate justification for such fierce vengeance is the enemy’s alleged crime of idolatry, we are driven to conclude that the non-aggression counselled in K. 2:190 is only a cover behind which the ferocity of the jihad business is to be cleverly concealed. The ferocity comes out no less clearly in Pickthall’s rendering of 2:191 than in the other renderings.

This explanation of the matter receives added confirmation from other versions of K. 2:190 in which the reference to non-aggression is conspicuous by its absence, and the verse turns out to be nothing more than a plea for compensatory retaliation (so to speak). Thus in Muir’s rendering the verse has this to say:

“Fight in the way of God with them that fight against you: but transgress not, for God loveth not the Transgressors.” (K. 2:190)

In this rendering as also in Pickthall’s version, the first sentence enjoins compensatory retaliation. The second part merely asks the ‘believer’ to desist from transgression and nothing else. Now as transgression of the limits of Allah is one of the stock phrases of the Koran, the balance of credibility is in favour of Muir’s rendering which is totally silent about the non-aggression clause. Pickthall’s rendering is suspect on two counts. First, in his rendering the verse 2:190 is completely at variance with the succeeding verse which enjoins terrible vengeance upon the putative peace-loving Mussalman with a Gandhian outlook. In the second place, the fact of the Koran preaching non-aggression is totally out of tune with other verses, notably the Immunity Verses (K. 9:1-12) and many others of a similar tenor.

As for compensatory retaliation the sentence ‘fight against those who fight you’ does not preclude the possibility of starting the fight on one’s own, but merely emphasizes the duty of hitting back when the fighting is started by the enemy. But even the plea for hitting back when attacked has a ring of speciousness in the Koran which comes out clearly when contrasted with such verses as:

“Warfare is ordained for you although it is hateful unto you; but it may happen that ye hate a thing which is good for you and ye love a thing that is bad for you. Allah knoweth, and ye know not.” (K. 2:216, Pickthall’s translation)

This verse, which preludes the second set of jihadic pronouncements included in the second chapter of the Koran, is disarming in its candour as regards the excellence of jihadic war as an end in itself. Certainly this verse does not preach compensatory retaliation, - very far from it. Allah ordains warfare for the believer and there’s an end of the matter. The believer can do nothing about it for Allah has foreclosed all avenues of escape. [2]

As if to drive the point home with redoubled emphasis, the immediately succeeding verse (K. 2:217) sets out to justify unprovoked bloodshed even in the season of peace. All commentators agree that this verse refers to the raid at Nakhla (Late 623 AD) in the sacred month of Rajab against an unarmed caravan of the Meccans. It was in this raid (as the earliest biographer of the Prophet, Ibn Ishaq remarks) that “the first booty was obtained by the Muslims, the first captives seized and the first life taken by them”. Far from being an act of non-aggression it could not even count as compensatory retaliation by any stretch of imagination. If it was intended as compensatory retaliation for the Muslims’ supposed expulsion from Mecca in the first place – such in fact is the drift of the reasoning used in this verse – it was the most dastardly act of retaliation possible. [3] As for being an act of non-aggression, such an interpretation is of course absolutely frivolous.

To sum up, the Koran does not even preach the doctrine of compensatory retaliation in the sense of adequately hitting back at an enemy who was the first to attack. It preaches hitting back ten-fold or hundred-fold. As for non-aggression, the whole tenor of the jihadic verses of the Koran is against such an interpretation. The handful of verses with a conciliatory ring, when closely examined, brings out the vengeful and aggressive intent lurking beneath a string of plausible words. The theory of jihad as defensive war must, in the circumstances, be rejected as a figment of the modern apologists imagination. The figment does not bear even the most superficial scrutiny.


[1] The emphasis is on the qualifying expression “Koranic”.

[2] The reader will remember that the Koran often refers to the believer’s reluctance to engage in violent confrontations. Allah everywhere holds such reluctance culpable.

[3] Historically, the Migration (Hijrat) was not an expulsion but a voluntary withdrawal from Mecca for the purpose of waging war against the Koreish. Thus the reasoning itself is worthless.

Sri Suhas Majumdar teaches mathematics in a Calcutta college. He was born in 1937 in an obscure village in the Mymensingh district of East Bengali, now Bangla Desh. He has written quite a few books in Bengali on the subject of re-incarnation of the 7th century Islam on the soil of present-day India. He feels he is particularly fitted to write on the subject of jihad as his early days passed under the shadow of the Noakhali slaughter. The subject has been in his mind for the last 50 years, but it was only recently, after reading the section Kitab Al-Jihad Wa'l Siyar of Sahih Muslim, that the idea of writing a book on it occurred to his mind. Source


Chapter 1.           Jihad in the Koran
Chapter 2.           Jihad in the Hadis
Chapter 3.           Ghanimah or Plunder in the Koran
Chapter 4.           Plunder (Ghanimah) in the Hadis
Chapter 5.           Islamic Expansion through Jihad: The Evidence of the Sunnah
Chapter 6.           Destruction of Idols and Idol-Temples in Jihad: The Evidence of the Sunnah
Chapter 7.           Slaughter of Infidels in Jihad: The Evidence of the Sunnah
Chapter 8.           Plunder (Ghanimah) in Jihad: The Evidence of the Sunnah
Chapter 9.           Jihad in the Shariat
Chapter 10.         Jihad and Religious Riot
Chapter 11.         Recapitulation
Chapter 12.         Conclusion


I.           Jihad and Expulsion of Non-Muslims from Islamic Countries
II.          Jizyah and the Zimmi
III.         Development of the Doctrine of Jihad in the Koran
IV.          Akbar's Attitude to Jihad
V.           Doctrine of Jihad as Defensive War