One striking feature of the news media coverage of the current Gaza war has been its failure to relate this present conflict to its historical context. For the media reports the current conflict began only with Hamas’s attacks against Israeli civilians and kibbutzim on October 7, 2023. The reactions of the IDF are similarly context-free: the reactions of Israelis cited are often references to the Holocaust, with these citations employed to avoid responsibility for history closer to hand, though there is plenty of this to consider.
Hamas, self-described as the Palestinian Resistance Movement and The Muslim Brotherhood in Palestine, officially came into being with its adoption and publication of its Charter or Covenant in 1988. The Charter (Articles 7-15) lays out in unambiguous terms a program of hatred against Jews and its purpose of utterly eliminating the “Zionist entity,” its term for the state of Israel. The phrase “from the River to the Sea” appears in the Charter as defining the scope of Palestine as reaching from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea. For the Hamas Charter, this territory is an Islamic waqf or divine donation to Muslims that cannot be renounced, and no non-Muslims have the right to rule it. Thus the “Zionist entity” and all who support it must be destroyed. How to do this, for the Charter, is through jihad of the sword, an individual duty for every Muslim. The end of obliterating the “Zionist entity” and all who support it requires the killing of all Jews, and when this is accomplished the end of history, the final Day of Judgment, will arrive, when the entire earth shall be Muslim for eternity.
The ideology expressed here had its roots in the Muslim reform movement known as Salafism, whose name refers to the salaf, the first three generations of Islam after the Prophet. Jurisprudence or fiqh, Islamic law, as later developed in Islam and the core of historical Muslim orthodoxy, was not understood as binding for Salafists. This carried one important implication for the normative doctrine of jihad of the sword, revising it importantly. Jihad means “striving,” and in the religious sense it means “striving in the path of God,” which the jurists in the tradition of fiqh defined as having three forms: such striving by the heart (intention), the hand (actions), and by speech. Warfare was a form of jihad of the hand, and the jurists gave it a special name: jihad of the sword. Those who first coined this phrase and defined its normative parameters were two jurists, al Shabayni and al Shafi’i, who lived at the beginning of the Abbasid Caliphate—much later than the era of the salaf.
These Abbasid jurists and their successors in the tradition of Islamic jurisprudence defined jihad of the sword in terms of three requisites: first, as requiring the authority of the Caliph; second, as being for the purpose of maintaining Islamic law; and third, as requiring certain forms of right conduct, which included avoidance of harm to noncombatants. (Structurally, this definition parallelled that of the just war idea in the West: right authority, just cause, and right intention.) For those Muslims influenced by Salafism, the end of the Caliphate with the fall of the Ottoman Empire in World War I meant that authority for jihad of the sword reverted to every pious Muslim, who had personal responsibility for protecting divine law in the world and ensuring that it is observed. This interpretation drew from the juristic idea of the personal obligation to take part in jihad. During the caliphate, this referred to the obligation to respond to the caliph’s declaration of jihad, but for the new radical generation that emerged in the 1980s, it referred to the obligation of every pious Muslim, so that jihad of the sword became a personal obligation for all Muslims. Its aim, moreover, expanded outside the Muslim community, the Umma, for its enemies were all persons and entities that are not Muslim. For the founders of Hamas and others who followed such lines of thinking, every Muslim individual had the obligation, and hence the authority, to decide when to take up the sword of jihad in the service of God’s law as given in the Qur’an and the early hadith (traditions), and they might kill all non-Muslims unless they converted.
Hamas in its Covenant was a relatively early adapter of this ideology, but it was far from the last. In subsequent years radical militants influenced by Salafism used the same reasoning to justify taking arms against the Arab ruling class, targeting them and their supporters as enemies of the new popularly based jihad of individual obligation for all Muslims, including the United States and various European states with colonial or economic ties to the Middle East. Hamas and other similar groups characterized all their enemies “oppressors,” thus adding another term to be frequently used by people and groups of similar ideology. Ten years after Hamas’s adoption of its Charter, Osama bin Laden and his deputy Ayman al-Zawahiri used elements of the same language in their self-justifying Fatwa, “Jihad Against Jews and Crusaders.”
Writing “the ruling to kill the Americans and their allies—civilian and military—is an individual duty for every Muslim who can do it in any country in which it is possible to do it.” Jihad here is a religious duty for all pious Muslims, and it calls for universal war against non-Muslims and their societies. Now, a fatwa is a juristic ruling made by someone who has been certified as having the right to do so, specifically, a scholar of fiqh. Neither bin Laden nor his deputy were qualified in this way. Their arrogation of the term signals their core Salafist roots but also, for all who shared similar thinking, gave their statement a kind of authority that connected it back to the three “pious” early generations. The upshot was that while the Charter of Hamas gave religious justification to the killing of all Jews and the obliteration of the State of Israel and its replacement by a properly believing Muslim state, “Jihad against Jews and Crusaders” gave religious justification to a worldwide military effort that would target all “oppressors” of Muslims and remake the world so that it would be ruled as a truly pious Muslim state.
After Al Qaeda, this has been the ideology subscribed to by ISIS and by all the various groups who have adopted versions of the name “Islamic Jihad.” This is the history on which Hamas draws and which it hopes to bring to fulfillment. But there are other militant groups and individuals who also share this vision, focusing its implications in whatever direction their own sentiments dictate.
The continuing danger posed by this way of thinking, including not least its embrace of the aim of utter destruction of its enemies and the institutions which they have helped to form and on which they rely, is why we need to know more about the historical context out of which Hamas comes and the commitments carried there. At stake for Hamas is the utter destruction of Israel and the killing of every Jew. The present Gaza conflict is a part of such a universal all-out war. This is a history too important to neglect or forget.
The question remains: what are the dimensions of an ethical response to such a threat? That is the question Israel and the IDF have had to grapple with and to continue to try to craft a response.