The Modern Transformation of the Duty to Fight

By Adnan Zulfiqar 

This post is the second in a series of four posts on obligation, jihād, revolution and prisons.

In my prior post, I provided a cursory sketch of juristic thought on collective duties between the third/ninth and eighth/fourteenth centuries. Here, I want to demonstrate the potential of premodern thought on legal obligation by exploring its instrumental deployment in a 20th century discourse on jihād. Specifically, I want to look at the doctrine allowing obligations to transform from shared responsibilities for the collective into mandatory acts for every individual. As noted before, jurists use Qurʾānic verses regarding participation in jihād to inaugurate the kifāya category of obligations. As opposed to being required of every individual Muslim, the jihād-duty is satisfied as long as a sufficient number of people from the community step forward to fight. The duty functioned as a mechanism for raising troops to undertake military campaigns.[1] In the Islamic legal tradition, jihād is universally viewed as a collective duty except in cases of self-defense or imminent attack. For a specific town that comes under siege from hostile forces, jihād temporarily becomes individually obligated on each member of that community until the invaders are expelled.[2] Geographic proximity and temporal immediacy are key factors, which I will return to.

While jihad is often associated with the violence of non-state actors, in Islamic legal texts it technically refers to the body of rules and guidelines on waging war, including conditions for military engagement and regulating military conduct. Most classical legal works both implicitly and explicitly assume that a governing entity, usually a ruler, regulates war.[3] The state exercises authority over three important areas of the duty to fight: who participates, how that participation will occur, and when hostilities will cease.[4] However, in the late 20th century, certain jurists, often associated with militant, non-state actors, transformed how the duty to fight had historically been understood and regulated. As a consequence, these jurists divested the state of its exclusive authority over the legitimate use of violence, in the process disrupting traditional legal authority more broadly and introducing new forms of legal interpretation.[5] Among the most instrumental factors in reconceptualizing the jihād-duty was a 1984 fatwa (advisory legal opinion), in Arabic, by ʿAbdallāh ʿAzzām, that called on all Muslims to join the Afghan jihād against the Soviet Union.[6] ʿAzzām was born in 1941, northwest of Jenin in pre-Mandate Palestine.[7] He trained in Islamic theology at Damascus University before earning a doctorate in Islamic jurisprudence in 1973 from al-Azhar University in Cairo. He taught at various universities until 1984 before eventually settling in Peshawar, a town on the Pakistan/Afghanistan border that was the epicenter of activity for the Afghan jihād.[8]

ʿAzzām’s 1984 fatwa was entitled al-Difāʿ ʿan arāḍī al-muslimīn (“In Defense of Muslim Lands”) and its key argument was that jihād against the Soviets was individually obligated on Muslims and no longer a collective duty.[9] Furthermore, the individual obligation was for every Muslim, wherever they resided. This was arguably the first fatwa to issue an explicitly transnational call to arms.[10] Its immediate goal was to activate every Muslim as a potential fighter to help in Afghanistan. From 1984 to 1989, ʿAzzām travelled the globe disseminating this message.[11] His fatwa was translated into a number of languages and eventually incorporated into militant writings worldwide. He also seemed to have a greater objective in transforming the jihād duty: delegitimizing the authority of Muslim states and creating a state of perpetual warfare till the return of historic Muslim dominion.[12] ʿAzzām’s ‘reconstituted’ jihād persists as an individual obligation beyond what was permitted in the classical legal tradition.

For this to happen, ʿAzzām makes two subtle moves in his fatwa that alter aspects of the classical doctrine relating to proximity and temporality. First, he dispenses with the limiting role of proximity in the premodern discussion of jihād. Traditionally, jurists only transform jihād into an individual obligation in emergency cases where a town needs to defend itself. If that locality is fighting a losing battle then the duty to fight extends to others nearby. Premodern jurists thought of the duty as expanding in concentric circles out from the place under attack. If additional reinforcements from neighboring towns did not repel the invaders, then the circle of obligation would grow.[13] Proximity to the conflict controlled when the obligation became individualized. On the other hand, ʿAzzām offers something far more drastic: anywhere there is a conflict involving Muslims, it is immediately obligatory on Muslims everywhere to come to their aid.[14] Proximity to the conflict is removed as a factor; whereas self-defense was always obligated locally, ʿAzzām made it a global mandate.

The second move ʿAzzām undertakes is addressing the requirement of temporal immediacy: classical jurists only allow the duty to transform if an attack was imminent. Even this transformation was temporary since the immediacy would eventually dissipate. For ʿAzzām’s purposes, he needs a perpetual, individualized jihād-duty, thus he introduces what we might call the idea of “retroactive liberation.” In addition to requiring individuals to fight an attacking enemy, ʿAzzām argues that any land that had once been under Islamic rule must also be liberated.[15] In other words, both past and present enemies must be fought and the duty remains on every individual until their defeat. Practically speaking, given the extent of territory that would need to be liberated, ʿAzzām reconstitutes the duty to fight as perpetually triggered for everyone: it becomes permanently individualized.

What results from making these moves to transform the jihād-duty? Jihād as an individual obligation allows ʿAzzām to bypass the regulatory power of political authority over warfare. ʿAzzām recognizes this consequence and justifies it by arguing that just as you would not let “your father prevent you from missing the morning prayer,” no one, not even the state, can stop you from participating in jihād.[16] Only in the context of shared responsibility does the state have a measure of control over participation and strategy in war. Whenever jihād is individualized, the state loses its oversight ability. When the state is divested of its authority in the context of warfare this disrupts its vital role in regulating war conduct based on necessity and facilitating the cessation of hostilities. For example, some jurists outline strategic assessments needed for military engagement; all of them require political authority. These include determining the strength of the opposing force, securing supply routes and identifying tactical advantages.[17] The state acting on behalf of the collective can make these determinations; individuals operating in their personal capacity cannot. In other words, when you remove the state from the equation you remove an essential component for administering law.

Even during the colonization of Muslim territories, when classical prerequisites existed to make jihād an individual obligation and forgo state oversight, many resistance movements nevertheless inclined towards recreating statist models. Sometimes this involved moving to territory outside colonial control to establish political governance before pursuing resistance. For instance, Tarīqa-i Muḥammadī in India, led by Sayyid Aḥmad Barēlwī (1786-1831) and inspired by his teacher Shāh ʿAbd al-ʿAzīz (1746-1824), set up a government in the North West frontier on the border with Afghanistan.[18] In 1827, Barēlwī declared himself imām and started receiving individuals who pledged their personal loyalty to him and his cause. By early 1829, he had taken on more state functions such as appointing judges in different parts of the frontier, overseeing issues of public order, regulating intoxicants in the marketplace and collecting the ʿushr tax on production.[19] At other times, resistance movements utilized the hierarches of pre-existing religious networks, namely Sufi brotherhoods, and incorporated political functions into their structure. The religious authority at the top of the brotherhood was empowered with governing authority; the Sufi shaykh functioned not only as a spiritual guide, but political leader as well. For instance, in 1832, ʿAbd al-Qādir b. Muḥyi al-Dīn al-Jazāʾirī (1808-1883) assumed leadership of his people in Algeria and led a confederation of tribes against the French. He used the organizational structure of the Sufi tariqa to form an army, appoint judges, collect taxes and assign deputies at the provincial, district and village levels.[20]

In contrast to these examples of colonial resistance, ʿAzzām’s fatwa initiated an unprecedented transformation of the duty to fight, producing far reaching consequences. The duty went from a state-regulated, localized, collective responsibility to an unregulated, universal obligation, with no oversight which every Muslim around the world was required to fulfill. It is my contention that divesting the state of the regulatory authority over warfare has undermined its authority in other areas like criminal law. Just as people feel individually obligated to bypass the state and engage in jihād, they feel empowered to institute their own criminal punishments. The prevalence of vigilante violence against suspects in cases with Islamic law implications, such as blasphemy, demonstrate another space where state authority over violence is usurped.[21]


[1] Adnan Ahmad Zulfiqar, “Collective Duties (Farḍ Kifāya) in Islamic Law: The Moral Community, State Authority and Ethical Speculation in the Premodern Period,” (PhD diss., University of Pennsylvania, 2018), 114-18.

[2] See for example, Ibn ʿAbd al-Barr, Kitāb al-Istidhkār, vol. 14, ed. ʿAbd al-Muʿṭī Amīn Qalʿajī (Damascus: Dār Qutayba li-al-Ṭibāʿa wa-l-Nashr, 1993), 292.

[3] See for example, Abū Isḥāq al-Shīrāzī, al-Muhadhdhab fī fiqh al-Imām al-Shāfiʿī, vol. 3 (Beirut: Dār al-Kutub al-ʿIlmiyya, 1995), 270.

[4] See Zulfiqar, “Collective Duties,” 162-172.

[5] See generally, Adnan A. Zulfiqar, “Jurisdiction over Jihād: Islamic Law and the Duty to Fight,” West Virginia Law Review 120, no. 2 (2017).

[6] The earliest physical copy of the fatwā seems to be from 1987, but it was likely first written in 1984. Thomas Hegghammer, Jihad in Saudi Arabia: Violence and Pan-Islamism since 1979 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010), 41fn6.

[7] Thomas Hegghammer, “ʿAbdullāh ʿAzzām and Palestine,” Welt des Islams 53 (2013): 359.

[8] Ibid., 376.

[9] See generally, ʿAbdallāh ʿAzzām, al-Difāʿ ʿan arāḍī al-muslimīn: Ahamm Furūd al-Aʿyān (n.p.: Minbar al-Tawḥīd wa al-Jihād, n.d., ca. 1987). This is the book version of the fatwā.

[10] Hegghammer, “ʿAzzām and Palestine,” 354.

[11] Aryn Baker, “Who Killed Abdullah Azzam?,” Time, June 18, 2009,,28804,1902809_1902810_1905173-2,00.html.

[12] Zulfiqar, “Jurisdiction over Jihād,” 460.

[13] See for example, ʿAlāʾ al-Dīn al-Kāsānī, Badāʾiʿ al-anāʾiʿ, vol. 7, ed. ʿAbbās Aḥmad al-Bāz (Beirut: Dār Kutub al-ʿArabī, 1974), 98. See also, Zulfiqar, “Jurisdiction over Jihād,” 443-445.

[14] ʿAzzām, al-Difāʿ, 10 & 25.

[15] Ibid., 16

[16] Ibid., 26.

[17] Ibn Qudāma al-Maqdisī, al-Kāfī fī fiqh Ibn Ḥanbal, vol. 5, ed. ʿAbd Allah b. ʿAbd al-Muhsin al-Turkī (Giza: Dār al-Hajr, 1997), 497. For a modern discussion of prerequisites to military engagement, see Jāved Aḥmad Ghāmidī, Mīzān, 11th ed. (Lahore: al-Mawrid, 2018), 603-04.

[18] Rudolph Peters, Islam and Colonialism: The Doctrine of Jihad in Modern History (The Hague: Mouton Publishers, 1979), 49.

[19] Sultan Mahmood, et. al., “Struggle for Islamic State and Society: An Analysis of Syed Ahmad Shaheed’s Jihad Movement,” Pakistan Annual Research Journal 50 (2014): 183.

[20] Raphael Danzinger, ʿAbd al-Qādir and the Algerians: Resistance to the French and Internal Consolidation (New York: Holmes and Meier Publishers, 1977), 190-93.

[21] Zulfiqar, “Jurisdiction over Jihād, 468; see also, Jürgen Schaflechner, “Blasphemy and the appropriation of vigilante justice in ‘hagiohistoric’ writing in Pakistan,” in Outrage: The Rise of Religious Offense in Contemporary South Asia, eds. Paul Rollier, Kathinka Frøystad & Arild Engelsen Ruud (London: UCL Press, 2019), 215-17.

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