Standing on Common Ground? Explaining Just War and Jihad
Taking of Jerusalem by the Crusaders, July 15, 1099.
Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Standing on Common Ground? Explaining Just War and Jihad


When the Roman Emperor Constantine converted to Christianity, Christian philosophers started to explore the option of conducting a legitimate war, resulting in “the teachings of St Augustine deal[ing] heavy blows to the early pacifist or quasi-pacifist aspects of Christianity” and in the birth of the just war theory. The just war theory states that, under certain conditions, sovereign territories have the needed moral and ethical justification to use mass violence. World War II is a typical example of a war that was just. When it comes to jihad, its origins are fundamentally different.

After returning from one of the wars, Prophet Mohammad shared the following with his companions: “We have returned from the lesser jihad to the greater jihad.” Noah Feldman describes the greater jihad, like many moderate Muslim scholars do too: as the “inward struggle to perfect one’s moral qualities” and the work towards a just governance.

What’s the difference between the “lesser” and “greater” jihad, on the one hand, and the Christian just war tradition, on the other hand?

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An initial comparison shows that the two provide a similar framework to decide why, when, and how to go and conduct a legitimate war, but they differ in their foundations and details. More importantly, these differences could lead to conflicts between Muslims and non-Muslims if not taken into consideration.

A fundamental difference between jihad and just war is the influence of religion in shaping these two traditions, influence that is proportional to their capacity to draw from religious sources. Just war is founded on Christianity, a non-state religion that does not provide specific guidelines on how to conduct state affairs. Moreover, the New Testament does not provide a clear description of Jesus’ position on warfare or what just causes for war could be. Most of the philosophical foundations of the just war theory are based on classical Greco-Roman and Christian values proposed by Aristotle, Cicero, and St. Thomas Aquinas. Jihad is founded on Islam, which is radically different in this sense.

Islam provides a dualistic framework that includes a “universal religion and a universal state.” Majid Khadduri defines jihad as a tool that Muslims can use to confront polytheist beliefs, including Christian ones because of their belief in the trinity, and to punish the enemies of Islam. The Quran replaces many of the parables found in the New Testament by specific rules on why, when, and how to conduct war. Unlike just war, jihad does not make use of secular reasoning to build its foundations, but rather draws directly from divine guidelines found in the Quran and Islamic traditions.

While Christians struggle to determine if the New Testament encourages pacifism or just war, Muslims may read into the details of the ethics of warfare in the Quran and the traditions of the Prophet. It is interesting to note, however, that St. Thomas Aquinas “formulated his theory of just war along lines similar to the Islamic doctrine of the jihad,” resulting in numerous similarities between the two in what refers to what the just intentions, causes, and authorities are to conduct a legitimate war.

In just war, the core just intention to go to war is the “righting of wrongs.” Hence, heads of states, commanders, and soldiers do not necessarily need to go to war with the intention of pleasing god. This is not the case for the jihad, which clearly states that the core intention to wage war must be to please god. A war that is conducted without this premise is not considered jihad, but rather just a war. When it comes to just cause, the main disagreement between just war and jihad is that the first aims at restoring justice, while the latter aims at enforcing god’s law and correcting any transgressions against this law. Both agree, however, that once a just cause has been established, the legitimate authority can only consider going to war when all non-violent alternatives have been exhausted.

When it comes to defining who the legitimate authority is to decide to wage or not wage war, just war limits this authority to the heads of state and their representatives, and condemns popular revolts as illegitimate. Jihad also attributes the default authority to rulers, but it makes revolts permissible in the case that a ruler is exceedingly unjust or has deviated from the path of god. The idea behind this is that “some revolutions are surely less evil than the regimes they overthrow.”

Yet another disagreement between just war and jihad appears in the rules defining who and what should be protected from the harms of war and the treatment of prisoners of war. Just war prohibits the intentional harming or killing of civilians, in particular women and children, and the damage to property and trees amongst others. In jihad similar rules apply, but it allows for the enslavement of women and children, particularly if they are non-Muslim. As for the treatment of prisoners of war, the two agree that they should be protected, but jihad defers the final decision on whether to kill them or not to the commander’s discretion.

It can be concluded that just war and jihad provide similar frameworks to decide why, when, and how to go and conduct a legitimate war. For a war to qualify as a just war or jihad, it must be driven by the right intentions, have a just cause, and be decided by a legitimate authority.

It is in the nature and details of this overall framework that two fundamental differences between these two war doctrines are to be found. The first is that just war is a human creation and that jihad is a divine one. The second appears when defining what the just intention and cause to wage war are, which in the just war tradition are restoring and securing peace and justice, while in jihad are serving god and restoring his sovereignty. These fundamental differences can be irreconcilable at times because they confront rational and doctrinal arguments, and if not addressed adequately, can foster conflicts between Muslims and non-Muslims.

Dr. Patrik K. Meyer is a researcher at Peking University in Beijing, China. This article has previously been published on the EastWest Institute Policy Innovation Blog

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