In the name of Allah, the Gracious, the Merciful
One of the most serious of questions being asked today, by both Muslims and non-Muslims, is this: Is Islam a religion of empire and conquest?
On this issue, the Arabs have a saying:
إِنَّ الرُّوْم إِذَا لَمْ تُغْزَ غَزَتْ
When the Romans are not campaigned against, they campaign (against you).
Siyar A’lām al-Nubalā’ 14/85
In other words, the best defense against the Romans is a good offense. This was the nature of pre-modern empires and it was the general rule in international relations until the UN charter outlawed military aggression between nation-states in 1945. In this pre-modern historical context, Muslim jurists developed the jurisprudence of “offensive jihad” (jihād al-ṭalab), which is analogous to the Western concept of “preemptive war.”
For example, the Prophet (ṣ) preemptively marched his army to Tabūk in order to deter an expected Roman invasion. This is the use of offense as a limited tactic – as a response to a realistic threat or persecution – within an overall defensive strategy. It is not a foreign policy of violent imperial expansion.
Muslim extremists reinterpret the legal term ‘offensive jihad’ in a fresh ideological way. They claim the purpose of jihad is to expand the borders and power of the singular utopian Islamic state, or Caliphate, because any non-Muslim government by their definition must be destroyed whether they give Muslims religious freedom, or offer peace, or not.
This ideology is based upon the ahistorical and idealized myth that the Caliphate was always equivalent to a modern nation-state, applying a single codified interpretation of Sharia law. In reality, the concept of a nation-state with a uniform code of law originated in Europe in the 19th century (by most historians’ accounts). Throughout most of Islamic history, by contrast, the Caliphate was a largely symbolic and sometimes politically irrelevant office that exercised little real-world influence over the behavior of neighboring Muslim dynasties.
Islamic jurisprudence (fiqh) in pre-modern times was usually tailored to a local setting, as each village or city had its own jurist (mufī) to issue legal opinions. Most disputes were solved informally without centralized government intervention.[i] Religious scholars and jurists were independent of central government and often in opposition to it.[ii] It was not until the Ottoman sultan Sulaymān I that Islamic law started becoming more centralized. Suleiman was known as the “law-giver” (kanuni) because of his synthesis of traditional Islamic law and Turkish customs into a uniform code of civil law.[iii] By the 19th and 20th centuries, Islamic law became appropriated as a tool of dynastic modern-nations states.[iv] Only in the past few centuries has Islamic religious law (sharī’ah) become synonymous in the minds of Muslims with modern state “law” (qānūn).
Hence, extremists are artificially imposing 20th century definitions of “state” and “law” onto pre-modern Islamic legal terminology. The historical Caliph did not impose a single interpretation of Islamic law on Muslims through a coercive state apparatus. There was always a decentralized flexibility to how the law was applied.
In fact, Imām Mālik rejected Caliph al-Manṣūr’s request to make the Maliki school the official law of the Caliphate, saying:
يَا أَمِيرَ الْمُؤْمِنِينَ لَا تَفْعَلْ هَذَا فَإِنَّ النَّاسَ قَدْ سَبَقَتْ إِلَيْهِمْ أَقَاوِيلَ وَسَمِعُوا أَحَادِيثَ وَرَوَوْا رِوَايَاتٍ وَأَخَذَ كُلُّ قَوْمٍ مِنْهُمْ بِمَا سَبَقَ إِلَيْهِمْ وَعَمِلُوا بِهِ وَدَانَوْا بِهِ مِنَ اخْتِلَافِ النَّاسِ وَغَيْرِهِمْ وَإِنَّ رَدَّهُمْ عَمَّا اعْتَقَدُوهُ تَشْدِيدٌ فَدَعِ النَّاسَ وَمَا هُمْ عَلَيْهِ وَمَا اخْتَارَ أَهْلُ كُلِّ بَلَدٍ لِأَنْفُسِهِمْ
O commander of the faithful, do not do so, for the people have received sayings, heard narrations, and transmitted various accounts. Each people adheres to what it has received and acts by it. They deal with their differences accordingly and, indeed, to turn them away from their beliefs would be very difficult, so leave the people with what they are upon and with what the people of every country has chosen for themselves.
Jāmi’ Bayān al-‘Ilm 1/532
Each country should choose the laws most appropriate to its circumstances, in consultation with their local scholars. Muslims have never agreed upon a single code of law to represent the entire Sharia, because each school of jurisprudence follows a different set of interpretative principles. Some schools accept the authenticity of a prophetic hadīth and others do not. Some schools allow a broad interpretation of legal analogy (qiyās) and others do not. These are all valid differences of opinion.
Rather, what the Muslims agree upon are the objectives (maqāṣid) of the Sharia, the universal ethical values that precede the law and guide its practice.
As Ibn al-Qayyim stated:
فَإِنَّ الشَّرِيعَةَ مَبْنَاهَا وَأَسَاسُهَا عَلَى الْحِكَمِ وَمَصَالِحِ الْعِبَادِ فِي الْمَعَاشِ وَالْمَعَادِ وَهِيَ عَدْلٌ كُلُّهَا وَرَحْمَةٌ كُلُّهَا وَمَصَالِحُ كُلُّهَا وَحِكْمَةٌ كُلُّهَا فَكُلُّ مَسْأَلَةٍ خَرَجَتْ عَنْ الْعَدْلِ إلَى الْجَوْرِ وَعَنْ الرَّحْمَةِ إلَى ضِدِّهَا وَعَنْ الْمَصْلَحَةِ إلَى الْمَفْسَدَةِ وَعَنْ الْحِكْمَةِ إلَى الْبَعْثِ فَلَيْسَتْ مِنْ الشَّرِيعَةِ وَإِنْ أُدْخِلَتْ فِيهَا بِالتَّأْوِيلِ
Verily, the Sharia is founded upon wisdom and welfare for the servants in this life and the afterlife. In its entirety it is justice, mercy, benefit, and wisdom. Every matter which abandons justice for tyranny, mercy for cruelty, benefit for corruption, and wisdom for foolishness is not a part of the Sharia even if it was introduced therein by an interpretation.
I’lām al-Muwaqqi’īn 3/11
Muslims most certainly agree upon the need for just governance, but the exact details of it are open to a wide variety of interpretations. Indeed, some of what people claim is Islamic law is not part of it in any way. To force a single interpretation of Islamic law upon all Muslims is only a means of division and fracture. What we need is an ongoing conversation about the law, not the coercion of a single ruler or political party.
But what of jihad? Is not the purpose of jihad to conquer the world for Islam?
Extremists point to classical jurists’ use of phrases expressing the purpose of jihad to be “to manifest Islam over all religions” or “to make the word of Allah highest,” as if the manifestation of Islam and the word of Allah were equal to the coercive application of a unitary codified Sharia law in a modern nation-state.
However, classical scholars like Ibn Ḥajar al-’Asqalānī interpreted the meaning of “to make the word of Allah highest” to be the invitation to Islam (al-da’wah).[v] As stated by Al-Zamakhsharī and repeated by Ibn Ibn Ḥajar al-Haytamī, jihad is “a means and not an end in itself” as the purpose is only to preach the guidance of Islam, thus “if it were possible to provide guidance otherwise, then that would come first.”[vi]
Jihad is only a means of safety and freedom, to secure the natural right of every human being to voluntarily embrace Islam, to pray and give charity and fast and perform the Hajj pilgrimage, all for the sake of pleasing Allah alone and not for any worldly authority or under duress from any threat.
Beyond purely interpretive textual arguments, though, we ought to keep in mind that all of our interpretations in Islam should be rational, just, and compassionate. The ideology of violent expansionism is immensely cruel for obvious reasons, but it is also irrational in that it gives arbitrary authority to any self-proclaimed “caliph” to justify unprovoked military aggression against peaceful non-Muslim neighbors (or, more likely, Muslims that he claims are really infidels).
As the pious early scholar Wahb ibn Munabbih said about Kharijite extremism:
وإذا لقام أكثر من عشرة أو عشرين رجلا ليس منهم رجل إلا وهو يدعو إلى نفسه بالخلافة
If there were to arise among them ten or twenty men, there would not be a man among them but that he would claim the Caliphate for himself.
Tārīkh Dimashq 63/383
Allah would never allow in His divine law such a massive legal loophole by which any ambitious tyrant may usurp the sacred lives and properties of His creatures.
Thus, the ideology of violent imperial expansionism under the cloak of psuedo-Islam is baseless, invalid, falsehood, rooted in the confusion of the colonial and post-colonial periods. It relies upon distorting, deliberately or mistakenly, the meaning and context of the Quran and Islam’s historical legal texts.
If Muslims want to properly resist the callous excesses of Western foreign policy and post-colonialism, it will never be accomplished by means of this unjust ideology. Victory will come when we are more just to our enemies than they are to us, when we go high when they go low, when we repel their evil with our good, for that will win the hearts and minds of their people to our friendship.
We have the potential to create a social space in which all people can follow their conscience without fear of government oppression, all can live safely without the terrible buzzing of drones or the bloodshed of innocents in streets and cafés, and they have finally ‘beaten their swords into plowshares.’
This vision of hope is what we firmly believe in and we will work for it until the day we die, in sha Allāh.
Success comes from Allah, and Allah knows best. Amīn.
Hallaq, Wael B. Sharī’a: Theory, Practice, Transformations. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2009.
al-Haytamī, Ibn Ḥajar. Tuḥfat al-Muḥtāj bi-Sharḥ al-Minhāj. Miṣr: al-Maktabah al-Tijārīyah al-Kubrá, 1983.
Ibn Ḥajar al-’Asqalānī, Aḥmad ibn ’Alī. Fatḥ al-Bārī bi-Sharḥ al-Bukhārī. (Bayrūt: Dār al-Maʻrifah, 1959) v.6 p.85.
Kumar, Deepa. Islamophobia: The cultural logic of empire. Chicago: Haymarket, 2012.
Kunt, Metin. Suleyman the Magnificent and His Age: The Ottoman Empire in the Early Modern World. Routledge, 2014.
[i] Hallaq, Sharī’a, p.159.
[ii] Kumar, Islamophobia, p. 84.
[iii] Kunt, Suleyman the Magnificent, p. 28.
[iv] Hallaq, Sharī’a, p.19.
[v] Ibn Ḥajar, Fatḥ al-Bārī bi-Sharḥ al-Bukhārī, v.6 p.85.
[vi] al-Haytamī, Tuḥfat al-Muḥtā, v.9 p.211.