Chivalric Glory and Extremist Ignominy

By Suheil Laher

Chivalry and bravery have long been valued as noble human qualities. I remember a picture book in the library of my Kindergarten 2 class (at St Margaret’s Kindergarten School) about King Arthur’s knights, who are often regarded as emblematic of such ideals in the West. Jihad in Islam includes not only an inner dimension of spiritual struggle, but also an external dimension of helping the weak and striving against injustice. Extremist jihadi groups like ISIS appeal to Muslim youth (and others) on the basis of the latter, but by selective, decontextualized citations from an amalgam of history, medieval law and Islamic sacred texts, they bypass the honorable chivalrous teachings, higher objectives and profound vision of sacred law that are held to by mainstream Muslim scholars.

The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 drew widespread international condemnation, including a resolution by the UN General Assembly. In accordance with both the UN Charter[1] and the Islamic understanding of self-defence against aggression, Afghans as well as many non-Afghan Muslims rallied against the Soviet intervention. The liberation effort was widely recognized in the Muslim world as a glorious jihad, and the United States government (among other Western and Eastern non-Muslim nations) was openly and actively providing financial, material, and moral support to the mujahideen. Naturally, many American Muslims also either supported the Afghan jihad or looked upon it favorably.

It was a euphoric time, but it was not to last. After the departure of the Soviets from Afghanistan in 1989, and the toppling of the Soviet-backed president in 1992, things took  a darker turn. Civil war broke out among the mujahideen in Afghanistan, and some of the foreign mujahideen were left grappling with post-war trauma, along with the difficulty of reintegration into civilian life, compounded by their being unwelcome in some of their home countries due to fears that they would harness popular grievances to foment revolution against those Middle Eastern governments.

It was in such circumstances that some of the former mujahideen began to move in a new direction: away from the honorable chivalry of true jihad towards an ignominous extremist ideology. Al-Qaeda, and eventually ISIS were born. Extremists might capitalize on the acclaimedly glorious status of the Afghan jihad, to present themselves as its heirs and perpetuators. But in Islam, actions are validated by sacred texts, not by appeals to charismatic lineage. A religious rhetoric, similar to that which was once used to enthuse Muslims with the noble spirit of just resistance against Soviets, has now been subverted and perverted to call towards extremism and terrorism. The rhetoric is similar, and might appeal to some of the same principles (such as resisting oppression) and sacred texts, but the big difference is that it is now out of touch with the noble chivalry of true jihad that we find in the Qur’an and Sunna.

I advise Muslims (including, but not limited to, Muslim youth) not to be duped by half-baked religious rhetoric. To realize that while injustices exist in the world, and jihad continues until the day of Judgment, nevertheless true jihad must be carried out through legitimate and honorable means. Radical ISIS-style extremism is a crude and dangerous caricature of jihad. Exercise caution in your charitable giving, and don’t be deceived into thinking that you are helping Islam by supporting groups that are actually hurting the cause of Islam and Muslims. Do not capitulate to a cult mentality, where you take religious teaching from a limited set of scholars, who use emotions to make you feel that you would be betraying faith and justice if you listen to those who condemn terrorist acts. If you are not willing to listen to the other side, how can you be so sure you are correct? Did not the Prophet (peace be upon him) warn of people who would recite the Qur’an, and zealously worship and strive, and yet be a liability to Islam because of their lack of deeper understanding? Truth prevails, and Allah has given you a conscience and a mind that allow you to think for yourself. Islam is a profound religion that seeks to actualize lofty and noble objectives in both individual and society. If you refuse to think about and to see the bigger picture, and content yourself with a narrow tunnel-vision of Islam, I think you are short-changing yourself.

أما الخيام فإنها كخيامهم ** وأرى نساء الحي غير نساءها
(A poet describing with anguish how, in desparate search of the nomadic tribe of his fiancee, he discovers tents that look like their tents, only to discover that the people inhabiting them are different people.)

[1] “Nothing in the present Charter shall impair the inherent right of individual or collective self-defence if an armed attack occurs against a Member of the United Nations” Chapter VII, Article 51.

Muslim Sacred Texts Against Terrorism

Islamic rulings are derived from the Qur’ān (the word of God revealed by the Angel Gabriel to the Prophet Muhammad, God bless him and grant him peace) and the Sunna (the way shown by the Prophet, including his sayings, deeds, and tacit approvals or disapprovals). What follows is a compilation of Muslim sacred texts in condemnation of wanton destruction and indiscriminate killing.


1. “[…]We decreed upon the Children of Israel that whoever kills a soul – unless for a soul1 or for corruption [done] in the land 2 it is as if he had slain mankind entirely. And, whoever saves one, it is as if he had saved mankind entirely”. (Qur’ān, 5:32)

This verse establishes the sanctity of life.

2. “[…] And do not kill the soul3 which God has forbidden except by right […]”. (Qur’ān, 6:151)

3. “And do not kill the soul which God has forbidden except by right. And whoever is killed unjustly, We have given his heir authority4 but let him not exceed limits in [the matter of] taking life. Indeed, he has been supported [by the law]”. (Qur’ān, 17:33)

4. “And [the believers are] those who do not invoke any deity with God, nor kill the soul which God has forbidden except by right, nor commit zina”.5 (Qur’ān, 25:68)

This verse conveys the heinousness of unjustifiably taking a human life, and indicates that wrongful murder is close in enormity to shirk6 and zina.

5. “And fight, in the path of God, those who fight you […]”. (Qur’ān, 2:190)

This verse indicates that only those involved in combat are to be fought, which excludes non-combatants such as women, children and civilians; a regulation detailed further by narrations from the Sunna, as mentioned in the following section.

6. “Among mankind is he whose speech impresses you in worldly life, and he calls God to witness as to what is in his heart, yet he is the fiercest of opponents. And, when he goes away, he strives throughout the land to cause corruption therein, and to destroy crops7 and lives.8 And God does not love corruption”. (Qur’ān, 2:204–5)

These verses indicate that wanton destruction and indiscriminate killing are tantamount to working mischief / corruption upon the earth.


Prohibition against causing suffering even to animals

1. “A woman entered the Fire on account of a cat, which she tied up, neither feeding it, nor letting it eat [for itself] from the vermin of the earth, until it died, and as a result she entered the Fire [of Hell]”.9

2. “Do not take something with a soul as a target”.10

Another version says, “Ibn ‘Umar passed by some youths of Quraysh who had set up a bird and were shooting at it, giving any arrows which missed to the owner of the bird. Thereupon, Ibn ‘Umar said, ‘God curses the one who does this. Verily, the Messenger of God cursed the one who takes something with a soul as a target’”.11
Another version says, “The Messenger of God forbade taking something with a soul as a target”.12
Another version says, “God curses the one who takes something with a soul as a target”.13

3. “Indeed, God tortures those who torture people in this world”.14

The narrator of this h.adīth, H.akim ibn H.izam, saw some people in the Levant who had had oil poured over their heads and were being made to stand in the hot sun as a punishment for not paying taxes, and he cited the h.adīth in condemnation of this. This establishes the severe prohibition of inflicting torturous suffering on people, even when they are duly-convicted criminals.

4. “Do not punish with the punishment of God, the Mighty, the Majestic”.15

This h.adīth specifically prohibits the infliction of burning on human beings.

Prohibitions Against Wrongfully Taking Life

5. “A Muslim remains in latitude concerning his religion as long as he does not take a life”.16

6. “Avoid the seven ruinous [sins] […] associating partners with God, sorcery, unlawfully taking life which God has prohibited, consuming interest (riba), consuming the property of an orphan, fleeing on the day of marching [in battle], and accusing a chaste, unaware believing woman of adultery”.17

Specific Narrations Regulating Killing During War

7. Ribah ibn al-Rabi‘ al-Tamimi says, “We were with the Messenger of God in a battle. He saw people gathered, and then he saw a slain wo man, whereupon he said, ‘This [woman] was not fighting!’”18

Another version adds, “Thereupon, the Prophet repudiated (i.e. prohibited) the killing of women and children”.19

Another adds, “Catch up with Khalid and tell him: The Messenger of God commands you not to kill [women and] children, nor hired workers”.20

  1. Ibn ‘Abbas says: The Messenger of God, when dispatching his troops, would tell them, “[…] Do not behave treacherously, nor misappropriate war-booty, nor mutilate [those whom you kill], nor kill children, nor the people in cloisters”.21Another version contains, “[…] Do not kill a decrepit old man, nor a child, nor a youngster, nor a woman […]”.22

Another contains, “[…] Do not kill a woman, nor a child, nor an old, aged man […]”.23

Another contains, “Do not kill a child, nor a woman, nor an old man, nor obliterate a stream, nor cut a tree […]”.24

9. The words of anyone after the Prophet do not carry independent religious authority, but the above teachings of the Prophet are clearly reflected in the practice of his immediate successor, the first Caliph, Abu Bakr. Abu Bakr gave ten directions to Yazid ibn Abi Sufyan, one of his commanders, when dispatching him at the head of an army to the Levant:
Do not kill a woman, nor a child, nor a decrepit aged person; do not cut down a fruit-bearing tree; do not destroy a dwelling; do not kill a sheep or camel, unless [you need to kill it] for food; do not set date-palms on fire, nor drown them; do not misappropriate war-booty; and do not be cowardly”.25



1i.e. in legal retribution for murder, through the requisite channels of justice.

2i.e. that requiring the death penalty, again through the requisite legal channels.

3 i.e. person.

4Grounds for legal action.

5Illicit sexual intercourse. The Arabic word encompasses both fornication and adultery.

6Polytheism or associating partners with God, a sin which is never forgiven to one who dies insistent upon it, as declared in Qur’ān, 4:116.

7The Arabic word used here, al-harth, is generally understood, based on its common lexical meaning, to refer to crops, but see the next footnote for other explanations. Al-Qamus al-Muhit also mentions one of the meanings as “earnings”.

8The Arabic word I have translated here as “lives” is al-nasl, which a number of English translations of the Qur’ān have translated as “cattle”—an inaccurate translation as we proceed to explain. Al-Qamus al-Muhit, an authoritative dictionary of classical Arabic, explains al-nasl to be created beings, or offspring. Renowned exegetes have mentioned similar explanations. Qurt.ubī says, “al-nasl is the child which emanates from any [type of] female”. See Al-Jami` li-Ahkam al-Qur’ān, 3/19. Alusi says, “al-nasl is every being with a soul […] Al-Azhari [an authority in Arabic] said: al-harth here is women [as in Qur’ān, 2:223] and al-nasl is children. [And it is reported] from [Imam] al-Sadiq that al-harth here is the religion, and al-nasl is people”. See Ruh al-Ma`ani, 2/144. Shaykh Zadah Rumi says, in his marginal annotations on Baydawi’s exegesis, “al-nasl is the noun of yansilu, used when something emerges distinct from something else, [ …] and so the child is the nasl of his parents”. See Hashiyat Shaykh Zadah `ala Tafsir al-Qadi al-Baydawi, 1/514. This selection of quotes establishes clearly that the meaning of al-nasl encompasses life in general, and is not restricted to cattle. Perhaps the reason why some translators selected the word cattle here is that the verse, when revealed, first referred to a man at that time named al-Akhnas ibn Shurayq al-Thaqafi, who matched the description of the verses, and destroyed crops and cattle [details of the incident can be perused in most books of Qur’ānic exegesis], which in turn led some briefer exegetes to explain al-nasl as cattle. However, there is unanimity among scholars—indeed among all rational people—that the import and significance of Qur’ānic verses derives from the general implication of their wording, and is not restricted to the specifics of the circumstances or situation in which they were revealed. See Suyuti’s Al-Itqan fi `Ulum al-Qur’ān (“The Perfection in the Sciences of the Qur’ān”), 1/39-40. Hence, there appear no grounds for departing from the literal and general implication of al-nasl as “life”, and replacing it with “cattle”.

9 Narrated by Bukhārī, Muslim.

10Narrated by Muslim, Nasā’ī, Ibn Mājah, A h.mad.

11Narrated by Muslim via Ibn `Umar as quoted, and by Nasā’ī via two routes (Ibn `Umar and Ibn ‘Abbās) but without mention of the incident of the bird.

12 Narrated by Tirmidhī (who graded it hasan s.ah.īh.) and Ah.mad, via Ibn `Abbas. Both of them included mention of Ibn ‘Abbās witnessing an incident involving a pigeon, similar to that witnessed by Ibn `Umar as in the preceding narration.

13Narrated by Ah.mad, through a sound, continuous chain of transmitters (Hushaym-Abu Bishr-Sa`id ibn Jubayr-Ibn `Umar).

14 Narrated by Muslim, Abu Dāwūd and Ah.mad.

15 Narrated by A h.mad (with this wording), as well as by Bukhārī, Tirmidhī (who graded it s.ah.īh. hasan), Abu Dāwūd and Nasā’ī.

16 Narrated by Bukhārī and al- H.ākim.

17 Narrated by Bukhārī, Muslim, Nasā’ī, Abu Dāwūd.

18 Narrated by Abu Dāwūd, Nasā’ī, Ibn Hibban.

19 Narrated by Bukhārī, Muslim, Tirmidhī (who graded it hasan s.ah.īh.), Abu Dāwūd, Ibn Mājah.

20 Narrated by A h.mad, Ibn Mājah, Tahawi and others.

21 Narrated by A h.mad, Tirmidhī (who graded it hasan s.ah.īh.). Shawkānī says, “Its isnad contains Ibrahīm ibn Isma`il ibn Abi Habibah, who is weak, but Ah.mad regarded him as reliable”. The Muhaddith (H.adīth master) Zafar A h.mad `Uthmani adds, “`Ijli also said, “he is a reliable Hijazi”, as in al-Tahdhib (1/104), and the disagreement is of no detriment, and so the h.adīth is hasan“. See I`la al-Sunan

22Narrated by Abu Dāwūd. Shawkānī says, “Its isnad contains Khalid ibn al-Fizr, and he is not that [strong]”. `Uthmani graded it as hasan, observing that Khalid ibn al-Fizr is rated as “acceptable” in al-Taqrib (p. 51), “a shaykh” by Abu Hatim as in al-Tahdhib, and accredited by Ibn H.ibbān. See I`la al-Sunan, 12/31.

23Narrated by Baghawi, through his isnad See Shar h. al-Sunna, 11/11. He said, “This is an authentic h.adīth, narrated by Muslim”. It may be observed that Baghawi’s wording is more detailed than Muslim’s, the latter mentioning only children.

24Narrated by Bayhaqī, who said, “Its isnad is weak, but it is strengthened by attesting narrations”. (see I`la al-Sunan, 12/31). Among the supporting narrations is that which A h.mad has narrated— through a chain containing mediocrity (on account of Ibn Lahi`ah, who is upright but weak in memory) as well as an unnamed narrator:— “Whoever kills a youngster or an old person, or burns a date-palm, or cuts down a fruit-bearing tree, or kills a sheep for its skin, will not return sufficed”.

25 Narrated by Mālik. Qadi Shawkānī said, “It is discontinuous”. However, it is known that the discontinuous narrations of Mālik’s Muwatta‘ can all be found continuously narrated elsewhere, and are regarded as reliable by Mālik, as pointed out by `Uthmani, and others. See for example, Dihlawi, Hujjat Allāh al-Balighah, 1/249; `Umari, Buhuth fi Tarikh al-Sunnah al-Musharrafah, 242; `Uthmani, I`la al-Sunan, 12/25.