“Jihadism” refers both to the use of force employed by Islamist movements for various ends and to the belief that such force is legitimate, regardless of whether it is deemed permissible or obligatory. Jihadism, for these movements, is the functional equivalent of warfare for states and guerilla, or resistance, actions for non-state actors. The primary distinction is that while warfare is rooted in, recognized by, and governed by international law—indeed, even acts of “resistance” have been increasingly incorporated into international law since the end of twentieth century—jihadism derives its legitimacy from the Islamic legal tradition, as reconceived by twentieth-century Islamism.
At the origin of modern jihadism lies the Islamic concept of jihad. Literally meaning the “exercise of effort,” jihad, in the Islamic religious context, assumes a different meaning—one of engaging in divinely mandated actions for the betterment of self and society. While an elaborate spectrum of jihad “categories” exists, ranging from the “highest” form of jihad, that of the soul, to the more common definition of jihad as military action, it is the latter understanding that has established itself as the word’s most-recognized meaning.
Prior to the emergence of the nation-state system in the post–World War I Middle East, jihad, in states ruled by Muslim dynasties, was indistinguishable from conscription regimens in effect in non-Muslim countries. In the four schools of jurisprudence that constitute Sunni Islam, the consensus was that the declaration of jihad, in most cases, was the exclusive prerogative of the Muslim ruler, and that jihad, as such, was a collective obligation—one incumbent on the Muslim community as whole but not necessarily on individual Muslims. The level of conscription was thus at the discretion of the Muslim ruler. While Shi‘i Islam, in practice, was fundamentally similar, it differed in theory in two fundamental ways. Shi’i Islam restricted the call to jihad to the person of the Mahdi, the messianic leader believed to be in occultation, and considered jihad an individual obligation, applicable to every believer who satisfied the legal and religious requirements.
The Islamic scholastic tradition distinguished between two types of military jihad: jihad al-daf‘, defensive warfare to repel an invading enemy, and jihad al-talab, warfare initiated against a non-Muslim enemy. While a consensus existed across the various schools of jurisprudence that the latter was the exclusive domain of the Muslim ruler, differences emerged over the applicability of defensive jihad, notably in determining its obligatory character in the absence of a Muslim ruler’s order. It is in this context that twentieth-century jihadism reconfigured the conditions set by traditional jurisprudence to allow Islamist movements a wider margin of action. Its main contribution to the jurisprudence of jihad was its reallocation of the right of initiation from the Muslim state to Islamist movements.
As a result of its treatment of jihad, the scholastic tradition also developed a division of the known world into categories that govern the applicability of different rules of jihad. The basic, oft-referred-to binary division of the world into dar al-Islam, the abode of Islam, and dar al-harb, the abode of warfare, was generally accepted by the various jurisprudence schools as reflective of both existing conditions and the universal message of Islam to spread “the word of God” globally. Considerable differences among scholars did exist, however, about the definition of dar al-Islam. In the most liberal definition, dar al-Islam was conceived to encompass any land in which Muslims could freely practice their faith. The binary definition was also substantially qualified in the scholastic tradition by the elaboration of the concepts of ‘ahd and aman. The former (Arabic for “covenant” or “treaty”) applied to non-Muslim states with friendly relations with the Islamic state, while the latter (Arabic for “safety of person”) applied to non-Muslim individuals—even from hostile states—who were granted safe passage into the Islamic state. It was thus accepted that such states and individuals were explicitly excluded from the warfare measures applicable to dar al-harb.
Prior to their reinterpretation in twentieth-century Islamism, much of these scholastic elaborations were attempts at rationalizing existing conditions: they were descriptive rather than prescriptive, and no consensus about their authoritative nature existed. With the emergence in the Muslim world of the nation-state system in the aftermath of WWI – a system rooted in European concepts of state sovereignty – the status of the Islamic scholastic tradition as a source of legitimization of the state receded considerably. The jurisprudence of jihad was effectively abandoned by mainline scholars, resulting in two important developments: 1) a failure to incorporate and formalize the evolving practice of international diplomacy into the Islamic legal framework (in particular, the emergence of an international order could effectively have yielded the confirmation of the whole world as dar al-‘ahd, the abode of the covenant, thus rendering the nation of dar al-harb obsolete); and 2) an appropriation by Islamist ideologues of the scholastic formulations on jihad, which they recast as prescriptive and re-read (and misread) to favor the most aggressive behavior.
Jihadism has thus “liberalized” the conditions of jihad al-daf‘. It has widened the scope of “aggressions” that call for its applicability while stipulating that the totality of the world’s Muslims—not just the affected community—be responsible for active countermeasures. The declaration of jihad has thus been usurped from the leaders of Islamic states; responding to its call is now incumbent on all Muslims. Traditional constraints, ranging from the rules of the conduct of war and the safeguarding of noncombatants, to the unanimously agreed-upon stipulation that joining jihad is subject to the consent of one’s parents, are solemnly ignored with apologetic, rushed jurisprudence providing retroactive justification.
Usamah bin Ladin’s fatwa (authoritative opinion) urging Muslims to kill U.S. citizens, for instance, dismissed the previously agreed-upon presupposition of aman for non-Muslims in any Muslim society. Indeed, the massive slaughter of civilians in Al Qaeda terrorist attacks has violated the explicit injunctions of the Prophet Muhammad to spare noncombatants. So too has Hezbollah’s and Hamas’ deliberate endangerment of Lebanese and Palestinian societies, which contradicts the fundamental aims (maqasid) of Islamic law as understood over centuries of jurisprudence. Jihadist “jurists,” however, are able to identify and enlarge loopholes in their quest for total warfare.
The two main characteristics of jihadism today are its reference to Islamic law as a source of legitimacy and its reconfiguration of the underlying jurisprudence to suit its purposes. Jihadism, accordingly, has emerged in movements that stem from Sunni as well as Shi‘i backgrounds, and, in the Sunni context, from Salafist and non-Salafist affiliations.