Answering Jihad: A Better Way Forward Question #4 – Is Jihad in the Qur’an and the Life of Muhammad?

answering jihad

This is the fourth in a 17-week series from Answering Jihad: A Better Way Forward by Nabeel Qureshi, author of Seeking Allah, Finding Jesus. Weeks one through sixteen will cover sixteen questions people most commonly ask Qureshi about jihad and Islam. These questions explore the origins of jihad, the nature of jihad today, and the phenomenon of jihad in Judeo-Christian context. After answering these questions, Qureshi will conclude by proposing a response to jihad, in his view the best way forward. His concluding remarks will be presented in week seventeen.

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QUESTION # 4 – IS JIHAD IN THE QUR’AN AND THE LIFE OF MUHAMMAD?

IT IS HELPFUL TO provide some context about the average Muslim’s encounter with the Qur’an and hadith before diving into this week’s question. Even though the Qur’an and the hadith are the foundations of Islam, Muslim’s do not usually engage in systematically studying their teachings. This is true even of those Muslims who have memorized the entire Qur’an; though they may have memorized the Arabic recitation of the text, they often do not know how to determine or analyze its meaning.

This begins to make more sense when we remember that most Muslims are not Arabs, and they do not natively speak Arabic. In fact, nobody natively speaks the Arabic in the Qur’an, as classical Arabic has given way to colloquial forms of Arabic that differ significantly throughout the Arab world, and the only people who speak a form of Arabic that approximates the Qur’an are those who have studied it in schools.

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It is for this reason that, even though Qureshi had recited the entire Qur’an in Arabic by the age of five and memorized the last fifteen chapters by his teen years, his understanding of the Qur’an was limited to what he had been taught by the elders in his community. Similarly, though he had memorized the Arabic of shorter hadith traditions, he never even touched the canonical collections of hadith. The hadith Qureshi knew were those that had been selected by his elders. Often, during Friday sermons, weekend religious classes, or the like, hadith were recounted without any reference whatsoever. Qureshi said, “I do not doubt the good intentions of our teachers.”

Qureshi said none of this is to point the finger at Muslims, because only a small percentage of people in any religious community endeavor to critically engage their canonical texts. The time, education, and financial resources required for such efforts are luxuries not afforded to many. Yet the net effect of all this is that the vast majority of Muslims inherit their understanding of Islam and have not investigated the foundations of Islam for themselves. If they were raised in the West and taught that Islam is a religion of peace, as was Qureshi, then their first foray into the foundations might be somewhat of a shock, and they will probably soon find themselves either in a defensive positions or grappling with significant cognitive dissonance.

MUHAMMAD’S LIFE AND ITS REFLECTION IN THE QUR’AN

Let’s first consider the life of Muhammad as recounted in Islamic tradition and as reflected in the Qur’an, with a focus on peace and violence. Although there are many intractable problems that arise when studying Muhammad’s life, including questions about the historical reliability of the sources, discrepant archaeological findings, the ages of Qur’anic manuscripts, inconsistencies in geographic reports, foreign accounts of early Islam, and problematic merchant records, none of these detract from Qureshi’s aim to simply understand Muhammad according to Muslim tradition.

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Muhammad was born in 750 AD and experienced a very difficult childhood. His father died before he was born, and his grandfather also died. In his young adulthood he became a merchant and was known for his integrity, wisdom, and skill. At the age of forty, Muhammad received his call to become the prophet of Islam while meditating in a cave near Mecca. It came in the form of a revelation given to him by the angel Gabriel. These revelations were ultimately called Qur’an, and they gradually increased in frequency. His first thirteen years as the prophet of Islam were spent proclaiming these Qur’anic revelations to the polytheists of Mecca, primarily proclamations of monothesim. The mercantile economy of Mecca was bolstered by the pilgrimage of other polytheists to their city, which was home to 360 idols, so the polytheists of Mecca did not take kindly to Muhammad’s insistence the there was only one God.

During that time, Qur’anic proclamations also focused on welfare for orphans and widows and fellowship with other monotheists, such as Jews and Christians. Over the course of some years, many of the humble and weak became Muslims despite the threat of persecution. Some Muslims were indeed persecuted, and a few were even martyred before Muhammad escaped Mecca on the night of an assassination attempt. These early years of Muhammad’s ministry are known as his Meccan years, and they are the only years Muhammad did not deputize or personally engage in raids or battles. The Qur’an reflects this era of teaching in the Meccan surahs, or chapters, though the Qur’an is not neatly categorized. Meccan passages and later passages, usually referred to as “Medinan,” are frequently found side by side in the same surahs.

The next ten years were the last of Muhammad’s life. These were his emblematic years, often called the maghazi years by classical Muslim commentators. Maghazi means “raids,” and it is an appropriate description. At the end of his first year in Medina, Muhammad started launching raids and continued launching skirmishes or battles until he died. The first six such raids, however, were failures.

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The first successful raid that Muhammad ordered, the Nakhla raid, was controversial and remains so 1,400 years later. On Muhammad’s orders, raiders were sent to intercept a Meccan caravan quite some distance from the Muslim base of Medina. Whether by Muhammad’s intention or not, the interception occurred during a holy month, a time of truce between all Arabs. The Muslim raiders shaved their heads, making it appear that they were on a pilgrimage. Upon seeing that the Muslims were observing the holy month, the Meccans let down their guard and began setting up camp. That is when the Muslims attacked, killing and capturing undefended Meccans during a sacred time of truce, a great sin in the eyes of most Arabs.

When news of this treacherous act reached Medina, even many Muslims were understandably indignant. But then came a revelation from the Qur’an, defending Muhammad’s raiders against the inquiries of the dismayed: “They ask you about fighting in the holy months. Tell them, ‘Fighting in the holy months is a great sin, but a greater sin is to prevent mankind from following the way of Allah, to disbelieve in him’… [O]pression is worse than slaugher” (Surah 2:217). According to the Qur’an, the Meccan oppression of keeping people from Islam was worse than slaughtering them during a time of truce. This attack by the Muslims during the holy month, not at all defensive but entirely offensive, was vindicated by the Qur’an.

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Until this time, Muslims had only been victims, but now Allah was blessing their efforts with spoils. Understandably, Muhammad commissioned many more raids, and one of them inadvertently launched the first major battle in Islamic history. As Muhammad ordered a raid against a passing Meccan caravan, the caravan commander perceived his danger and sent to Mecca for reinforcements. The Battle of Badr was the result, and the odds were against the Muslims. Despite the odds, Muslims won the battle, and this victory has been forever etched in the spirit of Muslims and memorialized in the Qur’an.

As mentioned previously, the Qur’an discusses the battle in its eighth Surah, the chapter of the “spoils of war.” 8:42-43 describes the scene of the battle, and that Muhammad had brought the Muslims to attack a caravan based on a dream that it would be lightly defended. Upon arriving, they found a large Meccan army defending the caravan, and they fought an unexpected battle. Surah 8:7 describes the Muslims, upon seeing the Meccan army guarding the caravan, desiring to fight the lesser of the two forces, but Allah intended them to fight the stronger for the sake of “the truth.” This truth, of course, is that Allah is with the Muslims who struggle for him. The Muslims gained the upper hand and killed the Meccans, though it was not the Muslims who killed, but it was Allah who killed. The chapter ends by extolling those who emigrated from Mecca and carried out jihad against the Meccans (Surah 8:72-75).

On account of this victory, the Muslims were emboldened to fight even more, and the Qur’an explicitly told them to be so emboldened: “O Prophet, rouse the believers to fight. If there are twenty patient men among you, they will overcome two hundred. And if there are one hundred with you, they will overcome a thousand disbelievers because they are a people who do not understand” (Surah 8:65) Muslims increased the scope of their battles from raids to larger campaigns. In addition to raids against the Bedouins, Muslims attacked agricultural Jewish tribes to secure their fertile lands, including the Jews of Khybar, who, much like the Meccans during the Nakhla raid, were unarmed and unaware when the Muslims attacked. Muslims also fought campaigns for dominance over the Hijaz, a western region of Saudi Arabia. After Badr came the battles of Uhud, Khandaq, Mecca, and Hunain. In addition to these battles for land, Muhammad led Muslims on attacks against the Christian Byzantines at al-Muta and Tabuk, the former battle a result of Muhammad’s demand that the Emperor submit to Islam, the latter a battle for plunder.

THE MIXED NATURE OF QUR’ANIC VERSES

Most of these battles were offensive campaigns against mutual enemies. Such battles at times resulted in the complete decimation of the Muslims’ enemies, such as the defeat of the Jews at Khybar, who as a result had to pay half of their agricultural produce every year as a jizya, or ransom tax, before being expelled from the land regardless. Some of the battles were defensive, such as the battle of Khandaq, which was a Meccan siege of Medina. That particular battle involved new strategies of fighting, including digging trenches, that resulted in the Meccans leaving Medina after a bitter stalemate. Muhammad recouped some of his losses by decimating a tribe of Medinan Jews whom he accused of supporting the Meccans. He executed all pubescent boys and adult men, took their women and children for slaves, and divided their possessions among the Muslims, including lands the Jews owned that Muhammad had not been to before. This is recorded in the Qur’an (Surah 33:25-27), but with much more detail in the traditions.

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Some battles were complete losses, such as the Battle of Uhud wherein Muhammad was struck down and feared dead for a time. Other battles, though not as bitter, were fruitless, such as the ill-fated Battle of Tabuk where the Muslims were unable to even find their enemies. But the victory that is sweetest among all the eighty-six battles that Muhammad launched was the conquering of Mecca. Almost a decade after fleeing for his life and fighting repeatedly among the Meccans, Muhammad returned triumphantly with 10,000 warriors and conquered his homeland. What is most notable about this account is that even though these were the Muslims’ most inveterate enemies, great mercy was extended as most people who did not fight the Muslim conquerors were allowed to live. Only a handful of those who surrendered were executed.

The greatly varied experiences of the early Muslims are reflected in the Qur’an, and not in chronological order. Therefore, we can find verses commanding great peace and great violence interspersed throughout the text. There are verses that prohibit Muslims from fighting, verses that allow Muslims to fight defensively, and verses that command Muslims to fight even when they don’t want to. There are verses that designate Jews and Christians as friends of Muslims and verses that call them the worst of creatures. There are verses that tell Muslims to desist from fighting those who are peaceful, and verses that command Muslims to fight those with whom they have treaties; verses that say all who believe in God and do good works will receive his mercy, and verses that say anyone who follows a religion other than Islam will not be saved. There are verses that say Allah will certainly grant victory to Muslims if they fight, and verses that say Allay was testing Muslims by allowing them to be defeated.

This is why, according to basic principles of Islamic hermeneutics, it is problematic to single out verses of the Qur’an and draw conclusions without considering the historical context. Sine the Qur’anic text is not presented in chronological order, the endeavor is made more difficult. Especially when it comes to jihad, polemics are plentiful, but we ought to carefully consider assertions in light of the complex reality of Islamic traditions.

THE VIOLENT CULMINATION OF THE FOUNDATIONS OF ISLAM

Through the chronology of Muhammad’s life and the Qur’an, there is one clear trend: The proclivity toward violence in the early Muslim community continued to increase from the moment they could fight, through Muhammad’s death, and beyond. Muhammad’s leadership began peacefully for thirteen years, then ventured into small raids involving only tens of fighters, then engaged in significant battles with hundreds of fighters, and finally Muhammad conquered Mecca with 10,000 soldiers and secured the lands of the Hijaz with 30,000 soldiers. By the time of his death, Muhammad had conquered the Arabian Peninsula and most likely succeeded in his goal of cleansing it of all non-Muslims.

An increasing proclivity towards warfare is reflected in the Qur’an itself. The oft-cited peaceful passages, such as 2.256 and Surah 109, are among the earliest passages of the Qur’an. After them chronologically come statements such as 2.216, which says, “You are required to fight, even if it is hard for you.” Dozens, if not hundreds, of verses that suggest or command violence can be brought forth from the Qur’an, but the example of one particular Surah will suffice. Surah 9 of the Qur’an, called “the Disavowal,” is the last major chapter of the Qur’an to be revealed, according to Islamic tradition, and it is by far the most violent chapter. Because of it sweeping commands and finality, classical Muslim theologians understood it to function as the final orders from Allah to Muhammad, nullifying the earlier, peaceful passages of the Qur’an. (Nullification of former Qur’an passages is normative and called abrogation, as Qureshi will discuss in Question #5).

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The chapter begins with a disavowal. Now that the Muslims had conquered Mecca, all treaties they had made with the polytheists were to be nullified, though time would be allowed for the polytheists to decide whether they would convert to Islam, leave Arabia, or fight the Muslims. At the end of those months, the Muslims were commanded to “kill the polytheists wherever you find them, lay siege to them, take them captive and sit in ambush for them everywhere. If they (covert to Islam) leave their way.” (Surah 9:5) Of course, some of these polytheists were family members of recent converts to Islam. 9:23 says, “O believers, do not take your fathers and your brothers as family if they prefer disbelief over faith. Those of you who have friendship with them are doing wrong.” This was to be the categorical end of all relationships, the disavowal, between Muslims and polytheists.

The problem with this was that polytheists who came to Mecca brought trade to the city and income to Meccan Muslims. The next section of the Qur’an answers those who fear the economic repercussions of killing the polytheists of Arabia: “O you who believe, surely the polytheists are impure, so do not allow them to approach the sacred mosque after this time. If you fear poverty, Allah will provide for you from His grace, if He wills.” (Surah 9:28) How exactly will Allah provide? The next verse explains: “Fight those who do not believe [in Islam]… from among the people of the book [the Jews and Christians] until they pay the jizya and feel their subrogation” (9:29) In other words, Jews and Christians will be made to pay a ransom tax, helping to ameliorate the financial loss of expelling the polytheists.

A justification must be provided for unprovoked attacks on Jews and Christians, so the next verse (9:30) provides the reasoning. “The Jews say ‘Ezra is the Son of God’ and the Christians say ‘Christ is the Son of God.’ These are the very words of their mouths, they imitate what disbelievers said before them. May Allah destroy them!” It is not the actions of the Jews and Christians but their beliefs that have earned them their doom.

The following verses continue to make it clear that Jews and Christians, according to their beliefs, have set up partners with Allah, the unforgivable sin of “shirk” in Islam, and they will receive their just punishment. “They have made their rabbis and their monks into gods other than Allah: (9:31). This makes Jews and Christians like the polytheists, and thus Muslims ought to conquer them. According to Surah 9:33, “He [Allah] is the one who sent the messenger [Muhammad] with the guidance [the Qur’an] and the true religion [Islam] in order to prevail over every faith.” Note these last words. Islam is now to be dominant over every other faith. For this reason, Jews and Christians will be subjugated and made to pay tribute. Verses 34-35 clarify that these proclamations are still ultimately related to the financial concerns of Muslims, because they point out that the Jewish and Christian leaders have great wealth. These verses also taunt Christians, saying their “good news” is actually that they are going to hell.

So chapter 9 expands the scope of Islamic warfare tremendously. It begins as a command to disavow all treaties with polytheists and to kill them wherever they may be found unless they convert. It continues by telling Muslims not to worry about the financial impact of this policy, as Jews and Christians deserve to be conquered for being like polytheists themselves. Out of their great wealth they ought to pay Muslims, as Islam is the best religion and will “prevail over every faith.” This is the command of the last major chapter of the Qur’an, the final marching orders of Muhammad to his men.

JIHAD AND THEN NEW BARGAIN WITH MUSLIMS

Within this chapter, we see that an incredibly expansive scope of war is the new norm for jihad. In Surah 9:38-39, the Qur’an warns Muslims that if they do not fight they will be punished. “O you who believe, what is wrong with you? Have you become happy with the worldly life instead of the afterlife? If you do not march forth, He will punish you with a great punishment…” They are then literally commanded to fight jihad. “March, whether heavy or light, and carry out jihad with your wealth and your lives in the way of Allah. That is good for you, if you only knew” (9:41). Turning to Muhammad, the Qur’an tells him that no true Muslim would avoid jihad. “Those who believe in Allah and in the last day do not ask you to excuse them from jihad” (9:41). 9:49 goes even farther, saying that such people are already encircled by hell.

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The words of the Qur’an here are important to grasp. A Muslim’s willingness to engage in jihad is an indicator of whether he or she really believes in Islam. This is because the outcomes of jihad are only good. Either one receives spoils, which are good, or one receives martyrdom, which secures eternal bliss (9:52). Those who do not engage in jihad are revealed to be hypocrites. Hypocrites are a category of people often discussed in the Qur’an, which portrays them as people who outwardly display belief in Islam but are actually liars. This is an important category which Qureshi will explore in more detail in Question #7.

As for those who do fight, 9:111 is axiomatic and essential for understanding the future development of jihad. “Surely Allah has bought from the believers their lives and their properties in order that paradise be theirs. They fight in the way of Allah, so they kill and are killed, on which there is a true promise… Rejoice in the bargain you have made!” Those who fight and die in the way of Allah have made a bargain. If they die, they are guaranteed paradise. A true Muslim ought to rejoice at this, according to the Qur’an.

This is the salvific contract that paved the way for the zeal of early Muslim conquests. On account of this verse, later Muslims would say that “the sword wipes away sins” (Ibn Mubarak, Kitah al-Jihad). It is no wonder that early Muslim warriors famously said they desired death more than their enemies desired life. They believed the promise of the Qur’an. The final major chapter of the Qur’an launched Muslims into warfare with no clear endpoint and a desire to fight to the death. This was the ethos that led to Muslims conquering fully one-third of the known world within 150 years of the advent of Islam.

OFFENSIVE VERSUS DEFENSIVE JIHAD

While many Muslims are aware of the battles in Muhammad’s life, they often believe the battles were all defensive. As we have seen, that is not true, not even of the very first battles that Muslims fought. Both Nakhla and Badr were offensive endeavors. The Qur’an attests of the Battle of Badr that Muhammad led Muslims out to battle expecting to find a lightly guarded caravan. After Muhammad had fled Mecca and had the ability to live peacefully, it was his command that let to the first blood spilled.

The Qur’an in 9:29 also gives Muslims the command to fight Jews and Christians because of their beliefs, not because of any aggression on their part. This understanding is verified by Muhammad’s launching of his fighters against the Byzantine Christians who had never even threatened Muslims. When Qureshi first discovered these facts, his response was to try and find a way to say they were, despite appearances, defensive battles. The raids Qureshi dismissed as historically uncertain, the Battle of Badr an attempt to reclaim what Meccans had stolen, the Battle of Tabuk a preemptive strike under threat of Roman attack. But these were Qureshi’s knee-jerk responses to defend the teachings he had inherited, and they were implausible at best. When considering the big picture, such explanations are wholly indefensible.

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The early Muslim community certainly had nothing against offensive attacks, as its conquests demonstrate. Common sense precludes them from believing that the vast conquests of the early Muslims all came from defensive campaigns, but the records of the conquered remove all doubt. One such record, The Chronicles of John, Bishop Nikie, reveals what happened during the Muslim conquests of northern Egypt in 640 AD. One of Muhammad’s companions, Amr ibn al-As, came with his army to an undefended city whose soldiers had run away in fear.

“Amr and the Muslim army… made their entry into Nakius [Nikiu] and took possession. Finding no soldiers, they proceeded to put to the sword all whom they found in the streets and in the churches, men, women, and infants. They showed mercy to none. After they had captured this city, they marched against other localities and sacked them and put all they found to the sword… Let us now cease, for it is impossible to recount the iniquities perpetrated by the Muslims after their capture of the island of Nakius.”

This is how history recounts one of Muhammad’s companions enacting jihad. Even though the record contains the slaughter of non-combatants, it appears to be more consistent with a plain reading of Surah 9 than do views of peaceful or defensive jihad.

THE HADITH AND JIHAD

What ultimately convinced Qureshi that jihad was primarily violent and often offensive was reading the hadith collections. For example, in Sahih Bukhari, the collection of hadith that Sunni Muslims consider most trustworthy, we find an entire book dedicated to Muhammad’s teachings on jihad. There Qureshi found a tradition in which Muhammad says, “I have been ordered to fight against the people until they testify that none has the right to be worshipped by Allah, and that Muhammad is Allah’s Messenger… [O]nly then will they save their lives and property from me” (Sahih Bukhari 1.2.25). Similarly, in the next most reliable collection of hadith, Sahih Muslim, there is also a book on jihad, and in it Muhammad says, “I will expel the Jews and Christians from the Arabian Peninsula and will not leave any but Muslims” (Sahih Muslim 1767a).

These traditions in hadith collections that Muslims consider most authentic seem to go even further than Surah 9 of the Qur’an. They imply that Jews and Christians will not be allowed to live in Arabia. While Surah 9 does not command this of Muslims, it does not prohibit it either. Consider another hadith that says fighting in jihad is better than praying and fasting ceaselessly.

“A man came to Allah’s Messenger and said, ‘Instruct me as to such a deed as equal Jihad [in reward].’ He replied, ‘I do not find such a deed.’ Then he added,’Can you, while the Muslim fighter is in the battle-field, enter your mosque to perform prayers without cease and fast and never break your fast?’ The man said, ‘But who can do that?’ Abu-Huraira added, ‘The Mujahid [Muslim fighter] is rewarded even for the footsteps of his horse while it wanders about tied in a long rope.” (Sahid al-Bukhari 4.52.44)

Another hadith from the same book bolsters an understanding of Surah 9, focusing on the good outcomes of jihad and Allah’s bargain with Muslims.

“I heard Allah’s Messenger saying, ‘The example of a Mujahid in Allah’s Cause… is like a person who fasts and prays continuously. Allah guarantees that He will admit the Mujahid in His Cause into Paradise if he is killed, otherwise He will return him to his home safely with rewards and war booty.'” (Sahih al-Bukhari 4.52.46)

A pithy hadith tells Muslims that jihad is the best thing in the world.

“The Prophet said, ‘A single endeavor [of fighting] in Allah’s Cause in the forenoon or in the afternoon is better than the world and whatever is in it.” (Sahih al-Bukhari 4.52.50)

These are but five of hundreds of hadith in the canonical collections that clarify the nature of jihad in the foundations of Islam. Islam is built on Muhammad’s teachings, and these teachings are contained within the canonical traditions. Simply reading the books on jihad found in these collections clarifies much.

CONCLUSION

Although the average American Muslim agrees that the Qur’an and hadith are the ultimate basis of their faith, many have not critically read the traditions. They would be surprised to find violent, offensive jihad shot through the foundations of Islam. The Qur’anic revelations reflect the development in Muhammad’s life as he moved from a peaceful trajectory to a violent one, culminating in Surah 9 of the Qur’an, chronologically the last major chapter of the Qur’an and its most expansively violent teaching.

Surah 9 is a command to disavow all treaties with polytheists and to subjugate Jews and Christians so that Islam may “prevail over every faith.” The scope of violence has no clear limits; it’s fair to wonder whether any non-Muslims in the world are immune from being attacked, subdued, or assimilated under this command. Muslims must fight, according to this final Surah of the Qur’an, and if they do not, then their faith is called into question and they are counted among the hypocrites. If they do fight, they are promised one of two rewards, either spoils of war or heaven through martyrdom. Allah has made a bargain with the mujahid who obeys: Kill or be killed in battle, and paradise awaits.

Qureshi says the summary in this week’s Question #4 is not an alarmist attack against Islam or intended in any way to be polemical. It is simply an overview of Islam’s foundational teachings on jihad with a focus on final orders. These teachings propelled a people to conquer much of the world at a speed and with a lasting impact arguably unparalleled in human history, save Alexander the Great. Yet most Muslims today do not live their lives based on chapter 9 of the Qur’an or on the books on jihad in the hadith, and there are good reasons for this. Qureshi will show us why in the answer to the next question, “What is Sharia?”

Thanks for reading.

Please join me next Friday for Qureshi’s Question #5 – What is Sharia? It is important for me to state that I do not support the religion of Islam ideologically or theologically. I am a Christian, who is a novice scholar of comparative religious study and an apologist. Indeed, Nabeel Qureshi is no longer a Muslim, having converted to Christianity after his exhausting study on the question of violence and jihad in Islam.

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