During the years that followed decolonisation, the Islamic world gradually developed forms of reactions against past and present humiliations, sometimes taking the form of a kind of revenge. Even if it is so often ignored that Western policy caused during the past century many more casualties among people in the Levant (the Second World War, the war in Afghanistan, the Gulf wars…), than terrorist attacks ever have made victims in Europe and elsewhere, this cannot be an excuse: terrorism is a plague that presents of Islam a very bad image to the international public opinion. The discourse by which Muslim fighters try to legitimize their actions is often based on a particular interpretation of Islam and its founding texts, the Qur’ān and the sayings of the Prophet (the Sunnah). Passages are accumulated, only partly cited and bereft from their context in such a way, that one can almost prove anything (and by the way, something similar can be done with the Bible; we think here for example about the stories of the battles between Jews and Philistines). What is most problematic in such fundamentalist presentations is the mixture from Qur’ānic propositions with later statements stemming from classical Islamic times, the period of the Umayyads and Abbasids. Thus an ideal, imaginary society is created that never existed, as if the era of the Prophet and his successors were one single ideological and historical unity. This idealised society is further enhanced by interpretations that introduce modern concepts, views and opinions inside the historical ones (a procedure of interpretative contamination called in German “Hineininterpretierung”). In order to rediscover the original message of Islam and the Qur’ān, we shall have to understand it independent from later doctrinal elaborations. The only way to achieve this, is to carefully analyse the Qur’ānic passages involved. The question will be: what does the discourse of the Qur’ān about the use of violence actually mean?
Often it is stated that in order to bring about a tolerant and moderate form of Islam and accordingly a modern interpretation of Qur’ānic texts, one needs to contextualise those texts, to interpret them as they functioned originally in their historical environment — the environment of the emergence of Islam in the days of the Prophet.
Yet, this is only partially true, or rather: one should implement and consider this contextualisation exactly the other way around. Indeed, starting-point ought to be the Prophet and his religious community; they were supposed to contextualise, i.e. to faithfully execute what had been professed and proclaimed in the Revelation received by the Prophet and communicated to his followers. It was the community of Believers who had to apply the divine instructions in their daily life and endeavours.
There is however another challenge about the principle of contextualisation that is even more problematic. Almost everyone is inclined to understand the origins of Islam alongside with the conquests during the reigns of the orthodox caliphs (the murāshidūn), their Umayyad and even Abbasid successors, as if this expansion was historically inevitable and already implied in the actions of Muḥammad, as a logical and necessary result from the prophecy contained in the Qur’ān. This is however not certain at all and should in any case be proven by solid historical arguments. Was it Muḥammad’s intention to conquer the world? This is a presumption that is not self-evident; it supposes a kind of providence that is not necessarily implied in Qur’ānic doctrine. Of course, the first caliphs did everything they could to legitimate their actions and to make sure that the sharī‘a that was developed under their rule was consistent with the doctrine of the Qur’ān, but this does not imply automatically that their policy of expansion had already been projected by the founder of the community, by the Prophet himself. It is quite possible that generations of ‘ulamā, at the service of their political masters, designed a coherent doctrine about Holy War, converting and/or subduing infidels, including all kinds of Christians and Jews, founding their ideology on Qur’ānic phrases teared from their context, whereupon they projected their elaborations back into the founding legend about the campaigns of the Prophet; indeed, generations of exegetes living after the Prophet «understood the qur’ānic verses on war as legislation regarding the Islamic duty of jihād (…) for which the context was to be found in the tradition rather than the Qur’ān itself.» In order to re-establish the Qur’ān in its original context, we must therefore make total abstraction of the entire history related to the conquest of the Islamic empire, in order to return to the mere facts of the political achievements in the days of Muḥammad. Such an approach also exists among some Muslim scientists — historians, theologians and specialists of the Qur’ān of our present times, such as it is defended most vigorously, for example, by the famous Tunesian scholar and philosopher Youssef Seddik.
Indeed, the Prophet Muḥammad apparently limited himself to the unification and pacification of the Arabic peninsula. We cannot determine historically that he would ever have intended to cross its limits, the only possible exception being that he seems to have tried to advance towards Jerusalem, with the intention to conquer it, for obvious religious reasons and not so much as a strategic, political enterprise. For that purpose, he has been organising and sending in the year 9 H/630 AC a military expedition. Muḥammad’s army advanced as far as Tabūk, but then the Prophet ordered his troops to an orderly retreat to Medina. This decision was most probably also inspired by his religious objectives: further action would have been, in his mind and after negotiations with a Christian delegation from the holy city, not in accordance with the will of God.
When we have a closer look at what the Qur’ān actually says, it appears that the number of verses that could be interpreted as a direct appeal to some sort of violence, is extremely limited. Most verses that contain the notion of jihād, generally translated as «Holy War», may have to be understood otherwise. We do not mean by this the kind of spiritual jihād, as propagated by mystical (Sufi) authors, the so-called «greater Holy War», consisting in a struggle with the lower instincts and evil inclinations of the soul, which results from a metaphorical interpretation of the notion of jihād that is certainly a secondary development. Rather we are referring to the original meaning, which Bravmann defined as a «warlike effort for God and his prophet», implying defiance of death and eventually self-sacrifice, in order to «prove to the deity their worthiness for divine reward (…) by enduring various kinds of hardships and self-mortification». Such an effort is not necessarily referring to violence or military actions, just as when we say: «this politician has been fighting for social justice», we are most probably not saying by this that he has had a physical fight with some people. Nevertheless, in the context of the Arab society in which the mission of the Prophet Muḥammad is to be situated, the striving to which the Qur’ān is summoning, cannot be otherwise than physical and spiritual at the same time. This explains how the term jihād could imply some sort of violence in the Qur’ān, which it originally and fundamentally would not have had in pre-Islamic times at all.
Let us now look at some passages of the Qur’ān. Even if there are more instances in the text where a word is used derived from the same stem, the word jihād as such occurs only four times and each time it is not clear at all that the concept of a Holy War is intended:
– Q 9: 24: Say: “If your fathers and your sons and your brothers and your wives and your tribe, and the properties you acquired, the commerce you fear to lose and the dwellings you like, are dearer to you than Allah and his Messenger and the striving in his cause (wa jihādin fī sabīlihi), then wait until Allah comes with his order.
This verse reminds very much about a famous text of the Gospels; it is almost a comment about it — Luke 14: 26-27: If any man come to me, and hate not his father, and mother, and wife, and children, and brethren, and sisters, yea, and his own life also, he cannot be my disciple. And whosoever doth not bear his cross, and come after me, cannot be my disciple.
– Q 22 : 78: “Strive for Allah as it is right to strive for Him” (jāhidū fi Llāhi ḥaqqa jihādihi — we shall return on this text further on).
– Q 25: 52: “do not obey the disbelievers, but strive against them strenuously with it”.
Obviously, by “it” is meant the Revelation, as it is already indicated two verses before, where we read: “We have explained it to them, so that they might be reminded”. This verse is without any doubt referring to the Qur’ān. As it is unthinkable that someone would brand the Qur’ān as his weapon on the battlefield, there can only be meant here that the message of the Qur’ān is to be used in discussions with disbelievers, in order to convince them of its truth.
– Q 60 : 1: “if you proceeded because of zeal for my cause” (kharajtum jihādan fī sabīlī).
Once again, the following verse (“they will stretch out their hands and tongues against you for evil; they would like you to renounce your faith”) indicates that this kind of jihād is to be situated in a context of apologetics: a dispute in the form of a discussion.
We should therefore conclude that the concept of Holy War, as expressed by the word jihād (and that surely will become its specific, technical term in later times, during the conquest of the Islamic empire), is not yet present as such in the Qur’ān.
When we further investigate the verses where a form of the word-stem jahada is appearing, then we see that only in some ten cases it has something to do with warfare; in many other occasions, it appears in a context about some endeavour in a more general sense. Also, most often forms of jahada are linked to the notion of the way, the path the believers are supposed to follow — as it is for instance already the case at the end of the fore-mentioned verses Q 60: 1 and Q 22:78, where the expression struggle for God a righteous struggle «clearly does not refer to warfare, but to other forms of effort made by way of obedience to God», as the context of the verse is explicitly referring to Abraham and his religion. Likewise, we read in Q 4: 74: “So let those who exchange the present life for the Hereafter, fight in the way of Allah (falyuqātil fī sabīli Llāhi); whosoever fights in the way of Allah, whether he is killed or is victorious, We shall bestow on him a great reward” and in Q 2: 190 and 194: “Fight in the way of Allah (fī sabīli Llāhi) against those who fight you, but do not provoke hostility” — “if any are harming you, you may harm them likewise”. In this last case the verse 191 seems to be unequivocally violent: “Slay them (waqtulūhum) wherever you find them and expel them from whence they have expelled you; persecution is worse than slaughter”. Once again however, it is clear from verse 75, following immediately after the fore-mentioned Q 4: 74, that the only reason for which the Muslims were allowed to fight according to the Qur’ān and by the authority of the Prophet was, to defend themselves against «aggression directed against them, expulsion from their dwellings, violation of Allah’s sacred institutions and attempts to persecute people for what they believe». In general, the Qur’ān rejects any kind of coercion in order to convert people by force, as any conversion obtained in this manner would be invalid indeed. Killing opponents is sometimes allowed, for instance in the case of oath-breaking (Q 9: 4-6, 36), but always for defensive reasons, so that the repentant and those who did remain faithful to the treaty are to be spared; nowhere in the Qur’ān there can be found any permission to execute prisoners or harm them physically. This is what the Qur’ān (2: 256) unequivocally states: «There is no compulsion in religion», a phrase that has been so correctly analysed by the late Patricia Crone: in the Arabian society of the time of the Prophet «converts had to be won by persuasion; fighting over religion was regarded as morally wrong, so that war, when it came, required much justification. Both Christianity and Islam began as freely choses systems of belief about the nature of ultimate reality». So, if there was any violent reaction of the Prophet and his followers, it was provoked by the enemy and it was supposed to be an act of self-defence, a reaction against intolerable wrongdoings endangering the survival of the community.
Now there is an important fact that one should always keep in mind. The battles the followers of the Prophet Muḥammad have been delivering during his days were no wars of conquest; they were not directed against foreigners. As a matter of fact, Muḥammad never left the Arabian Peninsula. When he waged war, it was against fellow-countrymen who tried to overcome and subdue him, who wanted to get rid of his movement of — what they considered to be — troublemakers. It was for this reason that the faithful supporters of the Prophet were obliged to fight with other Arabs and in the first place with their former fellow-citizens from Mecca. This is the reason why the exhortations in the Qur’ān for firmness and courage in battle are especially directed to his disciples — the muhājirūn — who followed him on his departure from Mecca to Medina and that they are nearly always somehow related to the hijra, as Ella Landau-Tasseron rightly remarked: «Strangely, there is no qur’ānic reference to the military contribution or warlike attributes of the Helpers — anṣār, i.e. those Medinans who helped the émigrés; such references do, however, abound in the historical and ḥadīth literature». How is this to be explained? We think there is a very simple reason.
Regularly the Qur’ān (Q 4: 77; 8: 15-16; 9: 42; 47: 20) is reporting about some kind of aversion from the combat which the believers are expected to deliver. Furthermore, in Q 8: 17 it is stated: «No, it was not you who killed them [= the enemies], but it was Allah who killed them». This proposition can be understood in two ways. It could be an exhortation to fight: God is backing you! Don’t hesitate! But it could also be a form of a consolation: God knows that the fact that you had to deliver a battle with your kinsmen and that you were forced to injure and even kill some of them, is saddening you, but God is taking the burden of your regret and remorse from your shoulders; God is assuming the responsibility of what is inevitable and necessary for a cause that is basically just. We prefer this second way to understand this remarkable verse.
This is leading us to the fundamental question. What is it, that the Prophet had so unconditionally to defend? What was the ‘way’ he had to follow and for which he and his followers had to be ready to give their lives? In our mind the path he engaged himself in was the way that was pointed out and initiated by the hijra. In the Qur’ān, the image of the ‘way’, the path of the right direction (sabīl, ṣirāṭ al-mustaqīm) is appearing in a great number of verses and on many occasions. It often has an eschatological connotation. It would be wrong therefore to think about the hijra as a kind of flight; it was not out of some fear that the Prophet decided to evacuate Mecca together with his followers; his decision was not even a tactical retreat. What is more, according to Q 2: 218 those who emigrated are the ones who believe, they are those who have striven for God’s cause (jāhidū fī sabīli Llāhi). The retirement, the hijra, is therefore a religious obligation; «whosoever emigrates on the path of Allah shall find on earth many places of refuge». The emigration is only temporal in such a way, that it prepares for the final migration, indicating already in this world the road to Paradise: eternal joy shall be the reward for those who surrendered themselves to the will of God. The hijra is about a spiritual struggle that every human being is to engage himself in: «Allah has bought from the believers their lives and their belongings in order that the Garden may be theirs. (…) And who is more faithful to his promise than Allah?» The special kind of struggle indicated by the notion of jihād is therefore basically an eschatological struggle, as many classical Muslim theologians have rightly observed: it can only come to an end at the final completion, with the End of Time.
On many occasions during the economy of sacred history, a migration, an exodus, was linked to an effort (jihād) for abandoning polytheism and idolatry. Abraham had to leave Babylonia, he had to oppose king Namrud (Q 2: 258) and to deny the gods of his father (Q 6: 74-83 etc.); Moses had to get away from Pharaoh (Fir‘awn) and now finally Muḥammad had to conduct his own exodus, his hijra, too; after his final victory, he will eventually have to strip the Temple of Mecca of its idols, at the end of his life. The purpose of the migration and of jihād is for instance an act of purification. It is to purify the community of believers from evil, to extirpate idolatry from the Arabian soil. Meanwhile, the city of Medina is acting as a prefiguration of the eternal Temple in heaven, as long as the retirement of the community of the Prophet would last, waiting for the moment that it could again be represented on earth by the purified Ka‘ba.
When Muḥammad went on his journey to Medina, when he engaged himself on the path of God — fī sabīl Allāh — he undertook a similar spiritual journey as did Moses when he was leading his Exodus out of Egypt. Just as did Moses so many centuries earlier, Muḥammad acted as the spiritual leader who had to accompany his people to the promised land, the prefiguration of paradise. His mission was not so much political; even if it was still temporal, it was at the same time paradigmatic and therefore eschatological. As such this pilgrimage was the fundamental mission of every prophet. The only purpose for Muḥammad’s jihād was the protection of his people, their struggle to survive, their victory on the forces of evil.
Just as we stated from the beginning, the original concept of jihād is certainly different from the “greater Holy War” of the later Sufi tradition; nevertheless, this spiritual transformation of the concept of jihād came much more closer to the actual intentions of the Prophet and the Qur’ān than its instrumentalisation by later ideologists, working for political masters who wanted to consecrate their military achievements and to give their empire some theological foundation. Muḥammad’s first goal was not so much to conquer and establish a dominion; his battle was a final battle against the forces of Evil, a battle of conversion, purification and religious submission to a divine destiny.
In those remoted times of eternal tribal conflicts, the instauration of such a new society, anticipating its eternal destination in Paradise, could only be achieved by way of the conjugation of a spiritual and a physical battle at the same time, that imposed itself for the survival of the Muslim community. The purification of the soul had to be joined to an apocalyptic combat against the armies of Hell and their human associates. But this battle was only delivered because Muḥammad had been forced to do so by his opponents.
In any case, as we already have remarked before, in the few cases that the word jihād is used as such in the Qur’ān, it is never employed in the technical sense of Holy War. To this observation we may now add as a conclusion from our analysis that the Qur’ānic notion of jihād was something completely different from what became to be the classical concept of Holy War, as developed during the glorious days of the Islamic Umayyad and Abbasid empire. It can therefore by no means furnish a justification according to Qur’ānic precepts for aggression or an intolerant attitude; there can be no compulsion in religion (Q 2: 256). Otherwise such a kind of battle or war would not be pious and holy. It would not be a jihād in its basic Qur’ānic significance.
 M. Bonner, Le Jihad. Origines, interprétations, combats, Paris 2004, p. 47-49.
 P. Crone, «War», in : Encyclopaedia of the Qur’ān, vol. 5, Leiden 2006, p. 459 ; see also E. Landau-Tasseron, «jihād», in : Encyclopaedia of the Qur’ān, vol. 3, Leiden 2003, p. 38; Bonner, Le Jihad, p. 146-150.
 Such is the general flaw in the otherwise interesting article «guerre et paix» by M.-T. Urvoy in : M.A. Amir-Moezzi, Dictionnaire du Coran, Paris 2007, p. 372-377, who is continuously intermingling Qur’ānic statements and precepts with elaborations stemming from the classical mufassirūn and lawyers.
 Some historians cast some doubt as to the historicity of the episode — a question into which we shall not enter here.
 M.A. al-Bakhit, «Tabūk», EI2, vol. 10, p. 50; J.M.F. Van Reeth, «L’Hégire et la fin du monde», Oriens Christianus 100, 2017, p. 216-219.
 H. Corbin, Avicenne et le récit visionnaire, Paris 1954, p. 169-173; A. Schimmel, Mystical dimensions of Islam, North Carolina 2011, p. 112; Bonner, Le Jihad, p. 22.
 Landau-Tasseron, «jihād», p. 37, strongly emphasized the fact that such a spiritual sense is completely absent in the Qur’ān.
 M.M. Bravmann, The spiritual background of early Islam. Studies in ancient Arab concepts, Leiden 1972, p. 8.
 Landau-Tasseron, «jihād», p. 37.
 Landau-Tasseron, «jihād», p. 36.
 Landau-Tasseron, «jihād», p. 36.
 Cp. Bonner, Le Jihad, p. 31.
 Landau-Tasseron, «jihād», p. 36.
 Landau-Tasseron, «jihād», p. 38 ; M. Azaiez, in : Le Coran des Historiens II, p. 840.
 R. Peters, Jihad in Mediaeval and Modern Islam, Leiden 1977, p. 37-38, 41-46 (the citation is from p. 45).
 Landau-Tasseron, «jihād», p. 39-40; Crone, «War», p. 456. One should remark that text of Q 9 is problematic, see K.-Fr. Pohlmann, in : Le Coran des Historiens II, p. 383-385, 393-394. We cannot enter here into these complicated textual problems.
 Landau-Tasseron, «jihād», p. 42.
 P. Crone, «No compulsion in religion. Q. 2 :256 in mediaeval and modern interpretation, in : M.A. AmirMoezzi (a.o., ed.), Le shī‘isme imāmite quarante ans après. Hommage à Etan Kohlberg, Turnhout p. 169. For some alternative interpretations of this verse, see C.A. Segovia, , in : Le Coran des Historiens II, p. 108 (who does not express any preference), but Crone’s explanation is in our mind by far preferable.
 Landau-Tasseron, «jihād», p. 37.
 Van Reeth, «L’Hégire et la fin du monde», p. 189.
 Q 4 : 100 ; D. Cook, «Muslim Apocalyptic and Jihād», JSAI 20, 1996, p. 80 ; Van Reeth, L’Hégire et la fin du monde, p. 190-192, 207.
 Q 9 : 111 ; D. Cook, Understanding Jihad, Berkeley and Los Angeles 2005, p. 9.
 W. Madelung, «Has the Hijra come to an end ?», Revue des études islamiques 54, 1986, p. 227-235.
 Van Reeth, in : Le Coran des Historiens II, p. 1011.
 Segovia, in : Le Coran des Historiens II, p. 108.
 Van Reeth, «L’Hégire et la fin du monde», p. 207.
 Landau-Tasseron, «jihād», p. 42 ; Van Reeth, «L’Hégire et la fin du monde», p. 225-226.