“Jihad is primarily a tool for self-defense—and even then, the killing of children, women and the infirm along with wanton destruction of property and animal life is prohibited even in a legitimate war.” So claims Islamic scholar and former president of Maldives (1978 to 2008), Abdul Gayoom: “the definition and purpose of jihad had been maligned by Western media and general ignorance and prejudice against Muslims.”
What, then, does one make of the fact that Muslims themselves—neither “Western media” nor “prejudice against Muslims”—habitually insist on the opposite? Earlier this month, for example,
One of the three radical Islamist extremists who plotted to blow up a residential building in Paris claimed that killing babies was justified, according to the Islamic prophet Mohammed. Aymen B., one of the three plotters along with his cousin Sami B. and another man named Amine A., wrote that the prophet Mohammed authorised jihadists to “attack the enemy at night with the risk of killing babies and children.
Although the bomb they planted was discovered and neutralized, it was reportedly “powerful enough that if it had detonated, it would have ripped the building apart,” killing many, including families and children in its 29 apartments.
As to the question on whether “killing babies and children”—indeed, anyone potentially deemed innocent in Islam—it has already been closely examined and answered by one of the modern era’s chief theoreticians on jihad, al-Qaeda leader Ayman Zawahiri, in his treatise, “Jihad, Martyrdom, and the Killing of Innocents” (first translated and published in 2007 in The Al Qaeda Reader, pp.137-171). What makes his account especially useful is that it contains, not the words of the “Western media” nor the words of supposedly misguided Muslim youth, but rather the only words that matter when it comes to determining what is or is not permissible in Islam: those of Allah (in the Koran), his prophet Muhammad (in the hadith), consensus of the ulema (ijma‘), and the use of analogical reasoning (qiyas).
Zawahiri begins by laying out the question:
[Often] mixed among the infidels, whom the mujahidin target in warfare, are those whom it is not permitted to kill—such as Muslims, dhimmis, women and children, and so forth. So, is jihad, which is assigned us, to be abandoned on account of their protected blood, or is killing ones such as these—accidentally, not on purpose—forgiven in face of the highest goods that would be realized from waging jihad against the infidels, the enemies of Allah Supreme?
After going through the various schools of thought, Zawahiri distills them to three main views:
The first view: total prohibition … The second view: total legitimacy with blood money and atonement [as the price]… The third view: permissibility to bombard the idolaters even if Muslims and those who are cautioned against killing are intermingled with them as long as there is a need or an obligation for Muslims to do so, or if not striking leads to a delay of the jihad. As for blood money and atonement, these are to be judged individually. This [third] view is the one that we hold to, that is, permitting bombardments in order to expedite the jihad and never cause it delay.
In this, Zawahiri presents al-Qaeda as taking the “middle road.” After all, there is ample precedent validating the second view—bombarding infidels with virtual impunity, even if innocents are intermingled with them. He quotes al-Awza‘i (707-774), founder of one of Islam’s earliest school of Islamic jurisprudence, a madhhab:
[T]he biographers relay that the Prophet besieged the inhabitants of Ta’if [in 630] and fired at them with catapults, despite his ban on killing women and children. He did so knowing full well that women and children would be struck, for it was not possible to differentiate between them. This demonstrates that if Muslims are intermingled with the people of war, it is still permissible to fire at them, as long as the intended targets are the idolaters. [On another occasion] the Prophet was asked about whether it was permissible to attack the idolaters in the dark even if this led to their women and children being struck. He [Muhammad] replied: “They [women and children] are from among them [the infidels].” He also used to command that if those whom his armies intended to attack agreed to prayer [i.e., embraced Islam], then they were to be left alone, but if not, then they were to be attacked. This is the course that the righteous caliphs followed [during the Arab conquest of Persia, Egypt, and Syria, circa. 632-661]. And it is well known that whoever follows such a course, bombarding infidels, will inevitably hit their women and children, who are otherwise forbidden from being killed. Likewise, the same goes if there are Muslims among them. It is compulsory that this [the possibility of hitting women, children, and Muslims] not dissuade the launching of an incursion against them, firing arrows and utilizing other [weapons]—even if one dreads hitting a Muslim. …… He should never abandon this obligatory duty because some Muslims might be killed mistakenly, not intentionally. Whoever does die is in the hands of Allah, and we trust that he is a martyr [emphasis added].
Moreover, throughout his treatise Zawahiri repeatedly stresses that the ulema’s discussions on whether the lives of fellow Muslims, women, and children should forestall the jihad were always held in the context of offensive jihad—the primary manifestation of jihad throughout history, when Muslims invaded non-Muslim territory for no other “pressing reason” than to conquer, plunder, and subjugate. However, in a defensive jihad, which al-Qaeda and even the Islamic State claim to be waging, and where Islam itself is perceived to be under attack by the “Crusader-Zionist” alliance, all these questions fade away in the background of Muslims fighting any which way they can. As the preeminent “Sheikh of Islam” himself, Ibn Taymiyya (1263-1328), wrote:
Defensive warfare is the most critical form of warfare, [since we are] warding off an invader from [our] sanctities and religion. It is a unanimously accepted duty. After belief, there is no greater duty than to repulse the invading enemy who corrupts faith and the world. There are no rules or conditions for this; he must be expelled by all possible means. Our learned ulema and others have all agreed to this. It is imperative to distinguish between repulsing the invading, oppressive infidel [Defensive Jihad] and pursuing him in his own lands [Offensive Jihad]…. Based on the consensus of the ulema, those Muslims who are accidentally killed are martyrs; and the obligatory jihad should never be abandoned because it creates martyrs [emphasis added].
As for those dubious persons who say that jihad should be abandoned for now due to certain ambiguities [the question of killing innocents], let them know that forfeiting the faith is a much greater harm than forfeiting money or lives. Moreover, we see that the ‘ambiguities’ they speak of have no value in light of what we have meticulously demonstrated here—especially the fact that what the mujahidin undertake in many countries has to do with Defensive—not Offensive—Jihad.
Such is the standard Islamic view on when and why the jihad should be waged—and who can and cannot be killed. Perhaps the takeaway from all this is that, so long as Muslims see and/or portray themselves as on the defensive—and most Muslims, “moderate” or “radical,” see the Muslim world as on the defensive, including those young Muslims who plotted to bomb a Paris building and even most members of the Islamic State and virtually every other terrorist group—so long will anything go in the jihad.