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The Holy War Idea in Western and Islamic Traditions

James Turner Johnson


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The Holy War Idea in Western and Islamic Traditions

James Turner Johnson

“Johnson brings a wealth of knowledge to bear on the issues, and his style is clear and elegant. The main strength of this book is the author’s commitment to taking seriously war for religion as a research topic. . . . Johnson’s background and breadth of knowledge force us, as always, to take his arguments very seriously.”


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CHOICE Outstanding Academic Title for 1998

In this book James Turner Johnson explores the cultural traditions of the Christian West and Islam in an effort to encourage a constructive dialogue on the nature of war for religion. No other issue highlights the difference between these two cultures more clearly or with more relevance for their interrelations throughout history and in the contemporary world.

In the West, war for religion is most often dismissed as a relic of the past, belonging to a time less rational and less civilized than our own. From this perspective, Muslims who advocate holy war are seen as religious fanatics who are supporting criminal and terrorist activity. By contrast, war for religion has an honored place in the Islamic world, associated with a perennial religious requirement: striving in the path of faith by heart, tongue, and hands. This striving is designated by the now familiar term jihad. In fact, striving by the sword is the "lesser" jihad, and many Muslims themselves are troubled by reductionistic appeals to jihad to justify terrorism, revolution, and anti-western activity. According to Johnson, for there to be any dialogue between Islam and the West we must understand that in the West religion and politics are placed in separate spheres, while normative Islam regards religion as properly integral to the political order. From this perspective religious concerns should have a place in statecraft, including the use of military force.

Three questions form the heart of Johnson's inquiry: Is there a legitimate justification for war for religion? What authority is required? What is the proper conduct in such wars? In each case, he asks the question by comparing religious wars with other kinds of wars. The picture that emerges is of war for religion not as an expression of fanatical excess but as a controlled, purposeful activity. With an eye to the present day, Johnson examines cases in history where distinctive models of war for religion were implemented by rulers. This in turn sets the stage for critical judgment on contemporary appeals to the idea of jihad in relation to political aims.

Well known for his work on peace and just war, Johnson draws upon a wide base of historical and comparative scholarship. While the book is anchored primarily on the past, on the roots and historical development of the two traditions, his aim throughout is to shed light on contemporary attitudes, ideals, and behaviors, especially as they bear on real problems that affect relations between Western and Islamic cultures in the world today.

“Johnson brings a wealth of knowledge to bear on the issues, and his style is clear and elegant. The main strength of this book is the author’s commitment to taking seriously war for religion as a research topic. . . . Johnson’s background and breadth of knowledge force us, as always, to take his arguments very seriously.”
“The book is a valuable contribution towards the understanding not only of a difficult question in the two traditions [of the Christian West and Islam] but also of the broader issue of the whole relationship between religion on the one hand and the state and society on the other.”
“An impressive work, which contributes to the needed dialogue between these two cultures and religions.”
“Johnson’s The Holy War Idea serves as an important milestone in the study of the culture and tradition of the non-Western ‘other.’ He has shown with convincing evidence the need for a constructive ‘conversation’ between the Islamic and Western Christian traditions on the nature of war for religion and the relation of religion to statecraft.”
“[The Holy War Idea in Western and Islamic Traditions] succeeds brilliantly in articulating the categories through which ideological justification for war is conceptualized in the West and in Islamic civilization.
This book succeeds in bringing to our attention the important role of religion in the political order, not only under Islam but also in the West and even in our own day. This is an excellent example of how a study of premodern history and ideas sheds important light on attitudes, ideals, and behaviors of the present.”
“This is an interesting, informative, and imaginative book, worth reading by anyone interested in the subject.”

James Turner Johnson is Professor of Religion and a member of the graduate program in Political Science at Rutgers University. He is the author of many books, including Can Modern War Be Just? (1986).

Approaching War for Religion in Western Cultural Context

I originally became interested in the problem of war for religion or holy war when writing Ideology, Reason, and the Limitation of War (Johnson 1975) two decades ago. In that book war for religion formed a moving focus for understanding the development of Western moral attitudes toward war from the medieval to the modern period. One focal concern was the relation between the ideas and practices of holy war and the broader tradition of just war as it developed from the Middle Ages up through the Catholic-Protestant wars of religion during the Reformation era. A second interest was the resounding rejection of the concept of holy war by Western culture in the aftermath of the Reformation. The issue of holy war lies near the core of the relation between church and state during a critical formative period in Western culture, while the idea of just war reveals a great deal not only about how the West thinks about itself but also about how it is able to view other cultures. Thus to begin the present comparative study it is useful to identify why early modern Western culture first accepted war for religion and then rejected it, exactly what was rejected, and the implications of this cultural decision for subsequent normative conceptions of the justification and conduct of war in Western tradition.

Perhaps the fundamental point is that the idea of holy war never enjoyed a secure place in Western moral doctrine on war and statecraft for a variety of reasons, of which three are the most important. First, the idea of holy war in Western culture had not one but several often competing substantive forms. Rationales for such warfare, and particularly conceptions of justification, authorization, and conduct, have accordingly been discontinuous and sometimes conflicting. Second, the relation of the Christian religion to the state has been ambivalent from the beginning, so that the idea of holy war is not at the core of Christian self-understanding but is rather an idea associated with particular historical periods and forms of religio-political relationships. And, third, the major normative tradition on war and statecraft in the West is not that of holy war but that of the just war, a broad cultural consensus shaped by temporal as well as religious influences. The idea of the holy war developed as an element within the broader and more continuous tradition of the just war, but always in some tension with the content and direction of the broader tradition. As the just war consensus coalesced more and more firmly over a period from the twelfth to the fourteenth centuries, the rationale for holy war—that is, for religious justification and authorization for war—diminished to an element within the normative rationale governing temporal warfare. As a part of this development, in the context of the close relations between church and state characteristic of medieval Christendom there remained a place for princes to undertake war for religious reasons, but there was no longer an understanding of holy war as "the just war of the Church." War for religion thus became a somewhat tainted concept, one which could equally well underwrite religious persecution using the powers of the temporal authorities or provide a religious cover for fundamentally political conflicts.

All these latent difficulties with the idea of war for religion in Western culture decisively came together and reached a critical stage in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, when this culture came face to face with two challengers. First, as the result of the discovery of the New World, it had to confront the problem of whether or how military force might be used in dealing with the non-Christian inhabitants of that world. A particular problem was whether military means might be used to support or coerce conversion, that is, whether war might be fought for the purpose of advancing Christian religion. Second, as a result of the Reformation, Europe had to face the same sort of question at home, with the result a century of internecine warfare in the name of religion. In both cases the final resolution was to reject the concept of war to propagate or enforce religious beliefs, but reaching this resolution was a long and bloody process both in Europe and abroad.

The Western rejection of holy war at the beginning of the modern period was, as a result of these historical experiences, not simply intellectual but also deeply emotional and political. First, against often impassioned arguments to the contrary, normative theological opinion coalesced around the idea that only defense of religion, not its propagation, could justify use of military force. "Difference of religion is not a cause of just-war," wrote the magisterial just war theorist Franciscus de Victoria in the middle of the sixteenth century (Victoria, De Jure Belli, sec. 10, in Victoria 1917). His immediate context was what the Spanish might rightly do in dealing with the pagan Native Americans, but the effect of his judgment was to reject the core justification for offensive war of religion in any context. Victoria went still further, establishing the pattern for other major theological just-war theorists of this time, by limiting the justifying causes of war to those knowable through natural reason. By thus defining justified war in terms accessible in principle to all persons regardless of religion, Victoria removed the possibility of a separate category of religiously defined war, able to be invoked only by those of the true faith. (See further Johnson 1981, 96-98.) Removing the theological justification for offensive holy war was an essential first step.

Nonetheless, a full cultural rejection of war for religion had to await the experience of fratricidal religious warfare which followed on the Protestant Reformation. This experience gave birth to a second element in the Western cultural rejection of holy war, one not intellectual but emotional and psychological: a sense of revulsion at the brutality of war for religion. "Who will believe that your cause is just when your behaviours are so unjust?" a peasant challengers a soldier in a work from the 1580s protesting the ravages of the French wars of religion (La Noue, 1587). This sense or revulsion magnified as religious wars continued to rend Christendom, culminating in the horrors of the Thirty Years War, a bitterly fought conflict that devastated much of northern Europe.

A third theme in the rejection of war for religion was political: the inversion and redefinition of the relation between church and state; the character and rule of the state was no longer subject to right religion, rather, the character of right religion for a given domain was determined by the state. Under the old concept of the relation between church and state, the church claimed the right of judging and disciplining even the highest of temporal rulers for violations of the laws of the church. A well-known example is the papal excommunication of Henry VIII of England for violating church rules on divorce and remarriage: Henry was not a proper Christian, hence the Holy See declared him unfit to rule. In the religious wars following the Reformation, Catholic denial of the right of Protestant princes to rule generate numerous excommunications and numerous demands that Catholic temporal authorities enforce such ecclesiastical judgments.

The new concept, that the church is subject to governance by the state, not only took away the religious pretense to supremacy over temporal affairs but granted temporal authorities supremacy in religious affairs. This change is exemplified by the formula "Cuius regio, eius religio" that ended the first series of wars for religion in Germany in 1555. This formula gave the prince of each of the affected German states the right to determine whether his territory would be Protestant or Catholic. Slow to spread and hotly fought over, this idea did not become universal in Europe until toward the end of the Thirty Years War almost a century later. In the short run, it fomented as much religiously inspired violence as it prevented. Over the long run, though, this development reduced religion from a supreme principle to only one element of the ongoing historical experience of each individual political community.

This change in the relative relationship of religion and the state made the protection of religion a matter internal to each state, not something to be fought for between states. The temporal cause of religion within each state was thus relativized alongside other concerns that were the responsibility of the state but subordinate to fundamental interests without which the state could not exist and function, such as the protection of the state's territory and its sovereignty relative to other states. Both in theory and in the practice of states legitimate the causes for war were redefined in terms of the state's natural and historical rights—in particular, the rights of sovereignty and territoriality. Defense of religion was still permitted, but only as a function of these core rights; offensive war for the sake of religion was consensually erased from the picture.

The normative concept of war in Western culture thus developed in correlation with the theological, psychological, and political rejection of war for religion early in the modern period. This normative concept provided an essential part of the modern concept of the state by assigning the right to make war to states and limiting the justifications of war to reasons of state. In the relations among states this normative concept of war underlay efforts to control the conduct of war by an increasingly specific body of moral and legal rules defining proper targets, specifying the proper treatment of combatants and noncombatants, and distinguishing legitimate from illegitimate means of war.

Grotius's The Law of War and Peace (De Jure Belli ac Pacis), first published in 1625 and subsequently republished and translated many times over, is a landmark in the development of this new conception. Written during the Thirty Years War, this work embodied the growing rejection of war for religion and sought to define relations among states in both war and peace on a basis in nature and historical experience. While the fundamental normative understanding of war remained, for Grotius and for Western culture generally, in the form of the just-war tradition, he shaped and focused this inherited tradition in new ways by his analysis, deemphasizing some elements and emphasizing others. Within the jus ad bellum, the inherited tradition on when it is just to make war, Grotius stressed the right of "defense of persons and property" (bk. 2, sec. 1) while denying claims to authority and justification of offensive war, naming specifically those claims advanced on behalf of the church and the Holy Roman Empire (bk. 2, sec. 22).

While thus emphasizing the restrictedness of the jus ad bellum, Grotius paid much attention (the whole of book 3) to the analysis of rules by which war should be fought, building on the jus in bello of the inherited tradition and developing it in detail. Grotius distanced these restrictions on the period that rights over others in war derive from religious belief. By contrast, his analysis traced some in bello restrictions to natural law and others to the common historical experience of nations in fighting war. Into this latter category he placed rules and customs based in the specific Christian heritage of European societies, developing these rules and customs as limits on the practices of war, not as the basis of a rationale for unlimited war against those of different religious beliefs.

The importance of this refocusing of the traditional just-war categories is seen vividly from the perspective of later developments in Western normative conceptions of war, including the emergence of positive international law. After Grotius the authority to make war came to be specified as a competence de guerre possessed only by sovereign states, a concept still effectively the core of the contemporary international order. In the twentieth century such agreements as the League of Nations Covenant, the Pact of Paris, and the United Nations Charter have restricted the right to make war to defense and sought to outlaw offensive warfare. (For discussion in the context of ideologically justified war, see Johnson 1975, 259-74). At the same time, much attention has been directed to achieving what Geoffrey Best (1980) has called "humanity in warfare," and Georg Schwarzenberger (1967, 197-99 and passim) describes as the requirements of "civilisation" in the practice of war through the development of moral doctrine, strategies and tactics of limited war, and especially, since the mid-nineteenth century, the creation of international treaties and conventions specifying the "laws of war" (cf. Roberts and Guelff 1989).

This normative understanding of "civilized" war as it has taken shape in Western culture in the modern era explicitly seeks to rule out appeals to transcendent points of reference such as provided by religion for the justification and authority to fight; the rules for such warfare, moreover, define restraints that apply to all belligerents regardless of creed or any other dividing characteristic. The jus in bello restraints of international law apply even to belligerents fighting without proper jus ad bellum, as well as to their victims. Because this understanding of war is intentionally secular and universal, it leaves no room for arguments, claims, or behavior based in sectarian belief structures. Not only does this normative conception of war preclude war for religion, the fact that it is understood to express universal standards of "civilization" or "humanity" means that it has no place for different normative conceptions in which war for religion might be a possibility.

The normative rejection of war for religion has been reinforced by the success of the secular state in modern Western society and the experience of the West in colonial rule of nonsecular societies. This colonial experience shaped a connection between the idea of the superiority of Western culture, the rejection of war for religion, and the concept of civilization itself. Any culture that practiced war for religion, on this view, was less civilized and hence inferior to the culture of the West. That religion was often the rallying-point for anticolonialist efforts simply underscored the Western scorn for religiously motivated warfare and for the religious leaders who often led the efforts in question. As a result of the fundamental cultural rejection of war for religion by the West early in the modern period, it has been especially difficult for Western culture to accept and make sense of the ongoing presence of the phenomenon of jihad as war for the faith in modern Muslim societies.

Approaching War for Religion in the Context of Islam

In distinct contrast with the West, and for deeply embedded reasons, war for religion has retained a meaningful place in Islamic religion and culture, where a different set of understandings about the justification for war, the proper authority for war, and the right conduct of war have developed. The cultural world of Islam experiences normative standards regarded in the West as objectively rational and universal but which contrast or conflict with those of Islam not as universal but as a hegemonic intrusion of Western culture. (For discussion in the context of international law, see Mayer, in Kelsay and Jouhnson 1991, 195-226.) The deep difference between the two cultures in their normative conception of war for religion exemplifies the difficulty of finding common ground: while the West, rejecting holy war for theological, psychological, political, and later philosophical reasons, sees in jihad a threat to civilization itself, traditional Islamic culture finds in the Western concept of the secular state, the very political institution which makes holy war unthinkable, an offense to God's will for the right ordering of human community.

Various reasons exist for this cleavage, which is expressed through two competing sets of universal claims. Fundamental, and in sharp contrast with the relation between Western Christianity and the state, is the deep doctrinal and historical linkage between religion and politics found in Islam from the very first, that is, in the Qur'an and the practice of the Prophet Muhammad and the early Muslim community. Another reason is specifically historical: Islamic culture has not developed its own indigenous normative division between the secular and the sacred spheres and, indeed, has experienced such a division in practice mainly as a legacy of fragmentation and foreign domination. The result is that within normative Islamic tradition there is no theoretical place for the idea of a scholar state, no place for the plurality of distinct states operating on a common functional level, and a tendency for individual empirical Muslim states to declare themselves the true Islamic state by contrast with all others. This tendency, well exemplified in the contemporary world by Iran, appeared very early in Islamic history and has been a recurrent theme in the self-definition of Muslim politics.

Tamara Sonn, linking the division of the religious and political spheres in Western culture to the historical experience of modernization, notes that for Islamic culture modernization has proceeded along a different course and according to a different schedule. "For Islam," she argues, "modernization began in the tenth and eleventh centuries C.E., when regional powers began to exercise virtually autonomous control over limited areas of the central caliphate's domain" (Sonn 1990, 131). This was a process that might have produced a division between the religious and political spheres like that which developed in the West, with the religious unity of the world of Islam remaining centered in the caliph in Baghdad while political authority devolved to regional rulers. Yet within the self-understanding of Islamic culture, the rise of regional powers did not produce that result. As Sonn observes, normative doctrine made no room for such a split between religions and political leadership; instead it continued to hold fast to the concept of a single Islamic religious and political community under a single ruler who had inherited the mantle of political and religious rule from the Prophet. The regional claims to independence were accordingly "tantamount to heresy" (131).

Decentralization and fragmentation of the 'Abbasid empire by indigenous forces nonetheless continued, Sonn observes (132), with the challenge to normative doctrine being further magnified and confused by the impact of a series of invasions of the core Islamic lands: that of the Selijuk Turks in the eleventh century, the Christian crusaders in the late eleventh and twelfth centuries, and the Mongols in the thirteenth. These were followed in turn by the creation of the Ottoman empire in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries (leading to the assumption of the title of caliph by the sultan) and European conquest and colonial domination in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The result of this history is that the importance of the indigenous fragmentation of the unitary world of Islam has been overridden by the experience of invasion and domination, so that the problem such fragmentation poses for the doctrine of a single religio-political community of all Islam has come to be identified with the legacy of foreign domination. The reestablishment of a single Islamic community that is both religious and political in nature, thus making the world over in accord with normative Islamic doctrine, requires overcoming this legacy (132-33). On this view, the religion of Islam is not a threat to statecraft, as it tends to be seen from the perspective of the West; rather, it is the only way to an authentically Islamic statecraft free of foreign domination and able to reestablish the unity of the Muslim community.

Sonn's analysis and conclusion are aimed directly at providing a background from which to view the rise of contemporary Islamist movements—movements often as critical of the existing secular governments of traditionally Muslim states as of the West itself (see, for example, Jansen 1986). Her point is that while these movements make conscious use of historical normative tradition, they are nonetheless responses to modernity. A similar point is made by Sheila McDonough in commenting on the ethics of the Islamic fundamentalist theorist Abul Alla Mawdudi (McDonough 1984, 55-80).

Stressing the importance of the historical tradition, Emmanuel Sivan draws attention to the direct influence on contemporary Islamist movements of medieval Muslim theoreticians such as Ibn Tamiyya, who stressed the necessity of the connection between the religious and political within the normative Islamic community (Sivan 1985, ix-xi, 68-73, 90-107, and passim). The focus of Sivan's argument, like Sonn's, is on the rejection of secular societies and the embrace of a unified religious and political Islamic order as a central part of the contemporary quest for Islamic identity. Sonn calls this the "repoliticization" of the religion of Islam (Sonn 1990, 133); on the traditional normative view, though, Islam can never be truly depoliticized; it is inherently political and religious at once, or it is not Islam.

Thus the actual relationship between religion and politics in the practice of statecraft within the historical experience of Islam is somewhat more diverse than what is allowed by the normative doctrine of the Sunni juristic schools. Adjustments have in fact historically been made, sometimes consciously and sometimes unconsciously, in understanding the force of this doctrine without the political communities in question considering themselves any the less Muslim or in any way distinct from the larger dar al-islam. But within the context of Sunni Islam no normative doctrine has emerged from this practical experience with enough force to replace that put together by the medieval jurists working in the context of the 'Abbasid caliphate at its height. And likewise within Shi'ism, which came into being as a rejection of the Sunni caliphate, the concept of the community of Islam as a single religio-political entity also remains robustly alive and well, though differently constituted from that defined by Sunni tradition.

Conflict or Dialogue Between Cultures?

As noted earlier, much debate has been occasioned by Samuel P. Huntington's vision of the future as likely to be characterized by a pattern of conflict fed by cultural or civilizational differences (Huntington et al. 1993). With particular reference to the relation between the cultures of the West and Islam, that a "clash of civilizations" is already under way is also the view of the respected scholar of Islam Bernard Lewis (cited in Huntington 1993, 32; cf. 30-33). Whatever the result of this particular debate, conflict over such differences is not new or simply a prospect for the future. In the relation between the cultures of the West and Islam, their fundamental difference of perspective on the relation of religion, war, and statecraft has often come to a head within the framework of colonialism.

The colonial Western powers in the Muslim world in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries experienced the call to jihad as the rallying cry of self-proclaimed Mahdi, Muhammad Akhmad, against the British in Sudan in the mid-nineteenth century and that of the Moroccan tribal leaders against the French in the first two decades of the twentieth. In this context defeating the jihad was, from the Western perspective, not only part of maintaining colonial overlordship but an obligation of seeking to ensure the progress of civilization. In the contemporary period jihad has also been the war cry of the revolutionary movements in the Arab world, movements whose methods have often been those of terrorism directed at the West. If the Western perception of jihad in the colonial period was a struggle aimed at turning back the tide of civilization, the contemporary perception for practical purposes tends to reduce it to terrorism—uses of violence whose forms and targets make it deeply repugnant to Western sensibilities. As a result, between Western and Islamic culture there is possibly no other single issue at the same time as divisive or as poorly understood as that of jihad.

Yet an understanding of Islamic religion and culture reveals that this colonial and contemporary Western conception of jihad is not all there is to the idea of jihad in Islam, and the idea of jihad is not all Islamic tradition has to say about war. The concept of jihad, rooted in the very earliest stages of Islamic history, fundamentally denotes striving or effort expended by the individual Muslim to walk in the path of God. The jihad of the sword, the "lesser" form of striving according to one tradition associated with the Prophet Muhammad, is but one form alongside other, greater ones; the jihad of the heart (moral reformation), that of the tongue (proclaiming God's word abroad), and that of the hand (works in accord with the will of God). Where the idea of jihad centrally refers to war in classical Islamic tradition is in the statecraft of the Muslim community as it deals with the disorder and strife imposed by unbelief in the world. This jihad may be directed within the community at other Muslims (in special cases such as apostasy, heresy, or rebellion) or outside the community at non-Muslim political communities that pose a threat to Islam. Further, not all wars of the Muslim community are properly jihad, since they may lack religiously defined purpose or authorization.

Recent Western scholarship has probed the idea of jihad and its role in statecraft in the early stages of the Islamic community (e.g., Blankinship 1994; Ali 1977), in the critical period of the formation of normative juristic doctrine (e.g., Khadduri 1966; Sachedina 1988), from this foundational period through the Muslim response to the Crusades (e.g., Noth 1966), and (in the form of ghaza) in the rise of the Ottoman empire (e.g., Inalcik, in Holt, Lambton, and Lewis 1970, vol.1). Other works have examined jihad in the context of nineteenth- and twentieth-century colonial wars (e.g., Peters 1979; Porch 1983) and contemporary Middle Eastern political and military conflicts (e.g., Sivan 1985; Wright 1985). Scholars of Islam have as yet provided no longitudinal study of the development of the idea of jihad and its role in statecraft in Islamic societies. Comparative study of possible thematic points of contact between the Islamic and Western cultural traditions on war have also been slow to develop. To establish a meaningful conversation between these traditions depends, however, on the continued pursuit of both kinds of inquiry.

At the same time, Western scholarship must examine anew its own historical experience and normative traditions on the relation of religion to statecraft and to warfare. The resolution reached in the modern period, that religion must be separated from politics and that it has no place in authorizing or justifying war, needs to be placed in its own historical and intellectual setting. Doing so is necessary to make possible a conversation with Islamic tradition on religion, statecraft, and war; it also is a fundamental contribution to such a conversation.

The idea of conversation, though, implies more than two separate inquiries; there must be interconnection and interaction between the inquiries. Comparison implies commonality; yet between Islamic and Western culture there are great asymmetries. What problems must be dealt with in carrying on this comparative conversation?

© 1997 The Penn State University

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