Dr. Maria Alvanou
(RIEAS Research Associate, Research Ph.D in Criminology at the University of Trento, LLM History, Philosophy and Sociology of Law – Aristoteles University of Thessaloniki)


“Allah is the purpose, the Messenger is its Example, the Qur'an is its constitution, Jihad is its way, and death for the sake of Allah is the most sublime of its aspirations”.
                Article 8 of “Hamas” Charter.

Islam declares to be the one and only true religion, the solution (“al-Islam huwa al-hal”) revealed by God through successive prophets, the most prominent of whom were: Abraham, Moses, Jesus and finally Muhammad, the “Seal of Prophets”.  In the Muslim “Manichean” world view, humanity is divided into the followers of Islam (“believers”) and all non Muslims (“infidels”). There can exist only two camps: “Dar al-Islam” (“The House of Islam”, i.e. the Muslim countries) and “Dar al-Harb” (“The House of War”, i.e. countries ruled by any regime but Islam). These two camps are pitted against each other until the final victory of Islam. 

It is implicit that all humanity must ultimately accept the true faith of Allah and it is the duty of the Islamic nation to propagate the faith and to fight for this goal. Among the “infidels”, Islam distinguishes between two main groups: idolaters or polytheists (“al-mushrikun”) and the “People of the Book” (“ahl al-kitab”), that is Jews and Christians. While polytheists must be fought until they accept Islam or face death,  the “People of the Book” are given the option to live as a subjugated community under the rule and protection of Islam (“ahl al-dhimma”). Since these people have received divine revelation and divine laws, but distorted the word of God, the Muslims are ordered to fight them until they choose between accepting Islam or paying a poll tax (“jiya”), a precondition for becoming tolerated and a sign of their humiliation.

The central concepts for a Muslim are: “Islam”, “Jihad” and “Ummah”. Islam denotes the duty of a Muslim is to surrender (which is what the word “Islam” means) him/herself completely to the Supreme Being; “Jihad” the duty to struggle, sometimes vs. a common enemy, and “Ummah” the concept of the just community. “Jihad” is the one Islamic tenet that has been the subject of much interpretation and controversy and carries two crucial meanings that refer to the two fundamental struggles of the Muslim. “Jihad al nafs” is often described as “the struggle for one’s soul against one’s own base instinct”, a struggle that a Muslim undertakes to purify the soul from mundane desires, defects and egotism,  an explanation that has been rejected by Islamists as heretical.

“Jihad bi al saif” is the military struggle, the “holy war by means of the sword.” According to Islamists, the military fight against the non-believers is the real, the “Greater Jihad”.  To support their claims, they invoke only those Qur’anic sections that equate warfare with the duty of the faithful Muslim and the Islamic nation “to open the gates of Jihad, where its strength and honour lie.”  Islamist radicalism has bred a mentality of “bello ergo sum” (“I fight, therefore I exist”). These concepts, carried to their extreme conclusion by the radicals have deep roots in mainstream belief, since the foundation of Islam is the “Armed Prophet” .

While the “five pillars of Islam” (declaration of the faith, prayer, fasting, pilgrimage and paying the zakat-tax)  are personal obligations for the believer, “Jihad” is a collective obligation, incumbent upon the entire Islamic nation. It becomes a personal obligation (“Fard 'ayn”) though, when non-Muslims attack Muslims or invade a Muslim country.    An example for this is Palestine, at the focus of the religious-historic confrontation between the Muslims and their eternal enemies, the Jews. It contains “Baitul-Maqdis”, the holiest place in Islam outside the “Hijaz” and where both “Al-Masjid Al-Aqsa” and the “Dome of Rock” are built. 

It is not only Jerusalem as the third sacred place after Mecca and Medina, but the whole region that serves as an important geopolitical axis that links three continents and constitutes the “Muslims most important homeland”. In the Islamic tradition, Palestine is the “Holy Land” (“al-Ard al-Muqaddasa”) and this goes back to the verse in Surat al-Isra, where Moses tells his people: “Oh people enter the Holy Land” (“Ya qawm, udkhulu al-ard al muqaddasa”).  As Islam is a territorial religion, land once occupied by Islamic people, is irrevocably Islamic. Since the “Holy Land” has been occupied by Islamic people, the state of Israel must never be allowed to remain on “Islamic land”. The Israeli occupation of Palestine induces a sense of shame, because “infidels” controlling the Holy Land are an unacceptable situation. 

Indeed this notion of “Holy Land” is even more important than the geographical term Palestine.  Hence, even with limited recourses the Palestinian Muslims who are sound in spirit and body (“Fard'ayn”) are compelled to wage the “Jihad” against Israel who directly occupies their land and threatens to destroy their Islamic identity. Thus, in its contemporary meaning and in connection with the Palestinian “Intifada”, the term “Jihad” refers to acts of violence and terrorism against Israel, in the sense that the Israeli-Palestinian struggle is perceived to be, at least partly, a struggle between Islam and Judaism.

It should be noted that “Jihad”, if taking the form of Islamic terrorism, is perceived as “holy war” that can only end when total victory is achieved. According to Islam, Allah promised the Muslims victory and superiority over all other religions worldwide.  While “any other weapon is defeatable”, the weapon of religion will bring the victory.   The Islamist version of “Jihad” includes and legitimises terrorism against civilian targets, even against elderly people, women and babies, with distortion and “clever” translation of the quoranic text.  

Though according to Qur’an you should “fight in the way of God against those who fight against you, but do not exaggerate. Verily God does not love those who exaggerate”,  this term is much stretched and the struggle is often seen as a war of self-defence; one that has been imposed on the Muslims and that justifies even the most vicious form of violence .

In terms of religious justification for suicide bombings, “Jihadists” follow a general line of argument supported even by more moderate Muslim scholars: so long as the suicide bombing is part of a struggle against occupying disbelievers and the perpetrator is motivated by a desire to worship God and not other non-spiritual reasons, it is legitimate.   The radicals distinguish themselves by arguing that civilians support the disbelievers, are involved in the conflict, and are therefore legitimate targets.

Since the beginning the concept of the “Shaheed”, the “martyr” was connected to “Jihad”.  “Jihadists” outline the religious justification for these suicide operations and extensively outline the spiritual payoffs, hoping to impact the cost-benefit calculations of true believers who are concerned with salvation . “A suicide bombing is the highest level of Jihad and highlights the depth of... faith” , but is important to note that when “Jihadists” discuss “martyrdom”, they are not necessarily referring to suicide bombings in particular. Any death while struggling for God is considered the death of a “martyr” and “martyrdom” in their view, is quite common.  In fact, a suicide bombing is the rarest- yet holiest- vehicle to “martyrdom”. Some sceptics have argued that “if those who claim to be religious believers were as sure of the afterlife as they are that the sun will rise tomorrow and if they thought they could get there by performing good actions, we would observe a vastly greater number of martyrs than we actually do.”  The answer may be that a Muslim should not willy-nilly pursue “martyrdom”.
This is an opportunity created by God, who Himself determines the time, place, and form of death. Just as Muslims cannot postpone their death, nor can they select whether they are hit by a car or die in battle; such decisions are the province of God alone. The only choice the “Mujahid” (“Islamic warrior”) can make is to embrace the opportunity for martyrdom when provided by God.   It is for this reason that we do not see “Jihads” randomly blowing themselves up or acting as “lone wolfs”. Their role is part of the broader struggle of the “Party of God” against the “Party of Satan”, driven by the larger needs of the global struggle of good against evil. 

It is important to understand how and why the quoranic interpretations that favour violent “Jihad” have a grave effect on simple Muslims. The “Jihadists” frame themselves as endowed with important characteristics of sacred authority: dignity, pride, courage, generosity, truthfulness and sacrifice, since Islamic learning hinges upon the authority and reputation of teachers and scholars. For most Muslims, determining the validity of a particular religious interpretation is a difficult task, since there is no central political or theological authority capable of adjudicating competing perspectives and rendering definitive decisions regarding “true” Islam, because “there are as many Islams as there are situations that sustain them.”  The vast majority of Muslims is not trained in the complexities of “Fiqh” (“Islamic jurisprudence”) or other Islamic sciences and are therefore ill-equipped to weigh the considerable religious evidence marshalled to defend competing religious interpretations.

Any number of arguments or opinions might seem reasonable and convincing and within this context of interpretive pluralism, Muslims often rely upon the reputation of scholars as a heuristic device to ascertain the authenticity and validity of a religious ruling. In Islamic practice, scholars play a critical role as intermediaries between the sacred texts and everyday religious rituals and practices.  As “cultural brokers” they interpret religious sources in an effort to apply the immutability of divine law to rapidly changing conditions.  They are seen as the inheritors of the prophetic mission, intellectually equipped to pass on the message of God and guide Muslims to the straight path of Islam. Scholars provide religious lessons, sermons, books, and other outlets for religious learning. They serve as community resources and act as mediators for those seeking to properly follow Islam. While offering religious guidance, scholars are also supposed to represent models of the “good Muslim,” shining examples to be emulated by others. 

In Western eyes often suicide bombers seem irrational deranged fanatics who defy our axiom that natural selection has programmed in all of us a powerful love of life. By viewing it this way, analysts underestimate the calculated ideological nature and social framework in which the phenomenon takes place. Yet, without recognising that the Islamist belief system contributes a great deal to the root of suicide operations, we cannot possibly understand their nature and the motivation of the actors. More than one criminologist has pointed out that the disciplines of theology, religion and philosophy have had important things to say about terrorism.

It is also a fact that about a quarter of all terrorist groups and about half of the most dangerous ones on earth are primarily motivated by religious concerns. They believe that God not only approves of their actions, but that God even demands their actions. Thus, any counter-terrorism strategy against international terrorism based on Islamic beliefs, has to consider first seriously the religious notions and the social mechanism of their impacts to the Muslim population.

1)On Islam and Jihad, information was taken from a lecture titled “Reform vs. Islamism in the Arab World Today” on May 31 2004 at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem- Israel by Menachem Milson, Professor emeritus of Arabic Literature. Prof. M. Milson was also interviewed on the subject and kindly gave the text of his lecture, used as a source of information on Islam.

2) On the general issue, W.C. Chittick, The Theological Roots of Peace and War According to Islam (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1994); Taheri, 20. This bipolarity of Islam is very well explained by Esposito: “The tendency to view the world in bipolar terms is a human propensity that has always utilized any difference in identity in the process of self definition, social relations, and international affairs- I belong to this family or village versus that family or village; I am secular versus religious; a believer versus a non believer; capitalist versus communist; First World versus Third World. It is fed by a past tendency in our educational systems to either ignore other religious traditions and cultures or to treat them as mysterious, strange, foreign, inferior or atavistic.
As a result, both illiterate and highly educated people for different reasons are often ignorant of other traditions, more prone to view them in an “us” and “them” context, more likely to compare the ideals of their country, religion, or civilization with the negative realities of another. Moreover, as Huntington rightly notes, “A world of clashing civilizations, however, it is inevitably a world of double standards: people apply one standard to their kin-countries and a different standard to others”, J.L. Esposito, “The Islamic threat: Myth or Reality,” 3rd edition (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999), 231.
3)This is enjoined in Koran, in what has become known as “the verse of the sword”: “Then when the sacred months have passed, slay the idolaters wherever ye find them, and take them captive, and besiege them, and prepare for them every ambush. But if they repent and establish worship and pay the zakat, then leave their way free. Lo! Allah is forgiving and merciful” (Qur’an 9: 5).
4)Sheikh Abdul Hadi Palazzi, “Islam Perverted: The Islamists Have It Wrong, The Review 26, no.10, (October 2001): 25.
5)Though when the Prophet was asked “O messenger of Allah, what is the grater Jihad?”, he answered “it is the Jihad against one’s soul”, see Palazzi, 26.
6)Excerpts from the Friday (August 17, 2001) sermon broadcast live on Palestinian TV from the Sheik 'Ijlin mosque in Gaza, of the preacher Sheik Isma'il Aal Ghadwan, “PA TV Friday Sermon Calls for Jihad and Martyrdom.”
7)Islam has not shown religious tolerance, but had to apply force to expand, Elie Carmon, interview, 07/06/04.
8)Al-Muhajabat, “Introduction to Islam,” online, (November 4 2004).
9)Bin Laden and the adherents of extremist Islam claim that this is the situation today: Islam is under attack, both physically and ideologically. The infidels, Christians and Jews, are invading the Lands of Islam: Saudi Arabia, Palestine, Chechnya. “...O sons of Islam everywhere, Jihad is a fad'ayn upon you, to establish the rule of Allah on earth, and to liberate your lands and yourselves from the hegemony of America and its Zionist allies. It is your battle, and either victory or shahaadah....O Muslims, O Believers we must prepare ourselves for a long battle...”, Shaykh Ahmad Yassin, in is message to the Umah, “Message to the Ummah from Shaikh Ahmad Yaseen on the Struggle in Palestine”, Muslimedia International, March 16-31 2002, online (November 4 2004).
10)Actually Baitul-Maqdis was the first Qibia, direction towards which Muslims face when praying, before that was changed to Kaaba in Mecca. For more on why and how important is Palestine for Islam see “The Islamic Cause of Palestine,” online, (November 2 2004).
11)Haim Gerber, “Zionism, Orientalism and the Palestinians,” Journal of Palestine Studies 33, no.1, issue 129 (Fall 2003):26.
12)Especially when repeatedly the Arabs have faced military defeats in any and every military confrontation with the Israelis.
13)The holiness of this geographical region has promoted more than Islamic terrorism.  On November 4 1995, Yigal Amir, a law student of Bar-Ilan University and religious extremist assassinated the Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, for the had to stop the peace process, perceived to him as a threat to the spiritual and territorial integrity of Eretz Yisrael.
14)Allah validated this message with the military victory of the Muslims, under Muhammad's command, at the battle of Badr (some 300km north of Mecca), in Ramadan of 634 AD. There, 300 Muslim warriors vanquished the 3 times larger army of the Quraysh tribe, in a feat that played a crucial role in shaping the Islamic consciousness. This victory was the harbinger of an impressive series of victories that led to a Muslim empire from India to the Atlantic Ocean.
15)See Khalil Osman, “Ulama Meeting in Beirut Reaffirms Ummah's commitment to the fight against Zionism,” Muslimedia International, February 1-15, 2002, Lebanon,, (January 1 2004).
16)Fortunately there are moderate voices in Islam that condemn these atrocities, like Mufti Farit Salman, quoted in Palazzi, 26.
17) Palazzi, 26.
18) Another historical example of the use of suicide attacks as Jihad is found among Muslim communities in Asia during the eighteenth, nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, particularly on the Malabar coast of Southwestern India, in Atjeh in Northern Sumatra, and in Mindanao and Sulu in the Southern Philippines. Muslims in these regions engaged in suicidal Jihads aimed at inflicting punishment and instilling fear among the European colonial powers. In all of these places, the perpetrators engaged in religious rituals prior to carrying out the attacks, aspired to a perceived heroic status of martyrdom, and carried out their killings as religious acts intended to serve the interests of their own community. In each case, a shift to the use of suicide attacks followed a period of unsuccessful open warfare against the militarily much stronger Europeans. The suicidal Jihad against civilians was seen as a means of desperate counterattack and even a means of keeping awareness of the cause alive, see Stephen F. Dale, “Religious Suicide in Islamic Asia: Anticolonial Terrorism in India, Indonesia, and the Philippines,” Journal of Conflict Resolution 32, no. 1 (March, 1988): 37-59, and Crenshaw, “Suicide Terrorism in Comparative Perspective”, 27-28.
(19)Scholars like Yusuf al-Qaradawi and Mohammed Sayyed Tantawi. For details about Jihadi arguments regarding the legitimacy of suicide bombings, see Cook, 7-44 and idem., “The Implications of “Martyrdom Operations” For Contemporary Islam,” Journal of Religious Ethics 32, no. 1 (March 2004): 129-52.
20)Quintan Wiktorowicz and John Kaltner, “Killing in the Name of God: al-Qaeda’s Justification for September 11,” Middle East Policy 10, no.2 (Summer 2003): 76-92.
21)Bukay, 107; Also, “Martyr Operations a Means of Jihad (struggle)” Islamic Insights, online, (November 4 2004).
22)The commitment to witness the faith and, if necessary, undergo death “for the Name” is not an Islamic exclusivity. It was from the beginning essential in the Christian community, following a tradition of  Judaism regarding voluntary martyrdom first at the time of the Maccabean revolt against the Seleucid kingdom in the second century B.C., and then again in the revolts against the Roman overlords of Judea in the first and second centuries A.D. The vast majority of the martyrs were drawn from the ordinary members of the Church, including a score of prominent clergy, middle-class, law-abiding men and women. During the last and most infamous, the so-called Great Persecution directed by emperor Diocletian and his associates which lasted from A.D. 303-305 in the West and, intermittently, from 303-311 in the East a mid-range estimate of the number of victims yields  to 2500-3000 people in the East and some 500 in the West, adding up to a grand total of 3000-3500 for the whole empire, see  W.H.C Frend.,  Martyrdom and Persecution in the Early Church (Oxford: Basil Blackwell,  1965), 536-537 and D. Boyardin, Dying for God: Martyrdom and the Making of Christianity and Judaism (Stanford University Press, 1999).
23)Statement by Hassan Salameh, a “Hamas” member from Gaza now imprisoned for life for his role in the 1996 suicide bombings, in Jerrold M. Post and Ehud Sprinzak, “Terror's Aftermath: A convicted “Hamas” Terrorist Talks About His Mission to Destroy Israel,” Los Angeles Times, July 7, 2002.
24)Members of the Taliban and its allies killed in the war against the U.S. are all martyrs, so long as they were motivated by a desire to fulfil God’s commands.  One should therefore be careful not to confound martyrdom with suicide bombing.  The latter is only one way to achieve the former. 
25)Jon Elster, “Motivations and Beliefs in Suicide Missions,” in Making Sense of Suicide Missions, ed. D. Gambetta (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005). 
26)Note that there is a tension between God choosing martyrdom for particular individuals and the group’s need to convince people to engage in the act.
27)As Aziz Al-Azmeh argues in his work Islams and Modernities (London: Verso, 1993), 1.
28)Richard Antoun, Muslim Preacher in the Modern World: A Jordanian Case Study in Comparative Perspective (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1989).

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