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What are the Rules of Armed Struggle in Islam?


By Ali Unal


A believer cannot transgress the limits established by God. Therefore, he must observe the rules prescribed by God for fighting. Some of these rules which we have deduced from the Qur’an and the practice of the Prophet Muhammad, upon him be peace and blessings, are as follows:

  1. A believer is one from whom God has bought his life and wealth in exchange for Paradise (9:111). He has dedicated himself to the cause of God and intends only to gain His good pleasure. So, whoever fights for other causes such as fame or material gain, or for racial or other ideological considerations of similar nature, he will not be regarded as a fighter with whom God is pleased.

God decrees in the Qur’an:


Fight in the way of God against those who fight against you, but do not transgress. God does not love transgressors. (2:190)

  1. The believers are told that they should not take up arms against those who are not in opposition to the true faith, and that they should not resort to unscrupulous methods or to the indiscriminate killing and pillage which have characterized the wars of every era of ignorance, whether in the past or at present. The excesses alluded to in the verse above are acts such as taking up arms against women and children, the old and the injured, mutilation of the dead bodies of the enemy, devastation through the destruction of fields and livestock, and other similar acts of injustice and brutality. The verse stresses that force should be used only when its use is unavoidable, and only to the extent that is absolutely necessary.

Where fighting is absolutely necessary and inevitable, the holy Qur’an exhorts believers not to avoid fighting. To this end:

  • They must not show any neglect in making the necessary preparations and taking the required precautions. They must prepare themselves morally and attain the spiritual state that twenty of them can overcome two hundred of the enemy:

O Prophet! Exhort the believers to fight. If there be of you twenty steadfast men they shall overcome two hundred, and if there be of you a hundred steadfast they shall overcome a thousand of those who do not believe, because they [the unbelievers] are a folk without understanding and sound judgment. (8:65)

Those who knew that they would meet their Lord exclaimed: ‘How many a little company has overcome a mighty host by God’s leave! God is with the steadfast.’ (2:249)

In order to attain such a rank, the belief and trust of a Muslim in God should be very strong, and he should do his utmost to refrain from sins. Belief and God-fearing are two unbreakable ‘weapons’ of a Muslim, his two sources of inexhaustible power:

Faint not nor grieve, for you shall surely gain the upper hand if you are true men of faith. (3:139)

The sequel is for the righteous people. (7:128)

  • Besides the moral strength coming from sound belief and God-fearing, believers should also equip themselves with the most sophisticated weaponry. Force has an important place in obtaining the desired result, so believers cannot be indifferent to it. Rather, they must be much more advanced in science and technology than unbelievers so that they should not allow unbelievers to use ‘force’ for their selfish benefit. According to Islam, ‘right is might’; so, in order to prevent might from being right in the hands of unbelievers and oppressors, believers must be mightier than others. This is explicit in the Qur’an:

Make ready for them all you can of armed force and of horses tethered, that thereby you may dismay the enemy of God and your enemy, and others beside them whom you know not, God knows them. Whatever you spend in the way of God it will be repaid to you in full, and you will not be wronged. (8:60)

Muslims must equip themselves with a strong belief and righteousness in all their affairs, and also with scientific knowledge and the most sophisticated technology. They must combine science and technology with faith and good morals and use them in the service of humankind. For, as stated at the beginning of the chapter, belief in God calls for serving people and the deeper one is in belief in God, the deeper one’s concern for the created. When Muslims attain to this rank, God will never give unbelievers any way (of success) against the believers (4:141).

  • When fighting is unavoidable, Muslims must not hesitate to take up arms and hasten to the front. The Qur’an exhorts Muslims to fight when necessary and severely reprimands those who show reluctance in mobilizing in the way of God:

O you who believe! What ails you that when it is said unto you, ‘Go forth in the way of God’, you sink down heavily to the ground. Are you so content with the life of the world, rather than the world to come? Yet the enjoyment of the life of the world, compared with the world to come, is a little thing. If you go not forth, He will afflict you with a painful doom, and instead of you He will substitute another people; and you will not hurt Him anything. God is powerful over everything. (9:38-39)

God loves those who battle for His cause in ranks, as if they were a solid structure. (61:4)

O you who believe! Shall I show you a commerce that will save you from a painful doom? You should believe in God and His Messenger, and should strive for the cause of God with your wealth and your lives. That is better for you, if you did but know. He will forgive you your sins and admit you into Gardens underneath which rivers flow, and to dwelling places goodly in Gardens of Eden. That is the mighty triumph; and other things you love, help from God and a nigh victory. Give you good tidings to believers. (61:10-13)

  • A community is like a ‘body’ in structure and functioning; like a body, it demands a ‘head’ having intellect. Therefore, obedience to the ‘head’ is of great significance for the prosperity of the community.

When God’s Messenger, upon him be peace and blessings, was raised in the desert of Arabia, the people resembled the scattered beads of a rosary. They were unaware of the importance of obedience and the benefits of collective life. God’s Messenger, upon him be peace and blessings, inculcated in them the feeling of obedience – obedience to God, His Messenger and to their superiors – and used Islam as an unbreakable rope to unite them:

O you who believe! Obey God, and obey the Messenger and those of you who are in authority; and if you have a dispute concerning any matter, refer it to God and the Messenger if you believe in God and the Last Day. That is better and more seemly in the end. (4:59)

O you who believe! When you meet an army, hold firm and remember and mention God much, that you may be successful. And obey God and His Messenger, and dispute not one with another lest you falter and your strength depart from you; but be steadfast! God is with the steadfast. (8:45-46)

It was because of the consciousness of obedience which God’s Messenger, upon him be peace and blessings, developed in his Companions that when he appointed a young man of eighteen, the son of his emancipated slave, as a commander over an army in which many elders like Abu Bakr, ‘Umar and ‘Uthman were present, none of the Companions thought of objecting to him. Likewise, in a military expedition, the commander ordered his soldiers to throw themselves into the fire they lighted. This was not an Islamic order, but some attempted to obey it. However, the others prevented them from committing a suicide and persuaded them to refer the matter to God’s Messenger and ask him whether they had to obey even the un-Islamic orders of the authority. (Sahih al-Muslim, ‘Imara, 39) Although it is unlawful to obey sinful orders, obedience is of vital importance in the collective life of a community.

  • One of the important points to be mentioned concerning jihad is that a believer cannot flee the battlefield. He must be steadfast in fighting and must not turn his back on the enemy in battle. Concerning this, the Qur’an decrees:

O you who believe! When you meet in battle those who do not believe turn not your backs to them. Whoever on that day turns his back to them, unless maneuvering for battle or intent to join a company, he has truly incurred wrath from God, and his habitation will be Hell – an evil homecoming! (8:15-16)

In the Battle of Yarmuk during the caliphate of Abu Bakr, may God be pleased with him, 20 thousand valiant men fought against 200 thousand Byzantines, and won the victory. Qabbas ibn Ashyam was one of the heroes of this battle. He lost one of his legs around noon, but he became aware of it only hours later when he dismounted from his horse. Years later, his grandson introduced himself to the Caliph ‘Umar ibn ‘Abd al-‘Aziz, saying: ‘O Caliph! I am the grandson of the one who lost his leg at noon but became aware of it towards evening.’

The Muslim army was made up of three thousand valiants in the Battle of Muta which they fought against the Byzantine army of about 100 thousand men. They fought heroically, and both of the armies retreated at the same time. Despite this, the Muslim soldiers regarded themselves as having fled the battlefield and were ashamed to go in the presence of God’s Messenger, upon him be peace and blessings. However, the Prophet welcomed them and consoled them, saying: You did not flee. You retreated to join me. You will collect strength and go to fight with them again. (Sunan Abu Dawud, Jihad, 96; Sunan al-Tirmidhi, Jihad, 36.)