The Arabic word jihād relates to the religious commandment to struggle toward a commendable cause, generally used to denote warfare for the defense and expansion of Islam. The term was employed to designate the Muslim counter-crusade, particularly after its consolidation in the middle of the twelfth century.
The imperative to fight unbelievers evolves gradually in the Qur’ān. It concludes in an unconditional command, with the promise of ample reward for those who fight “in the way of God” and with the definition of warriors slain on the battlefield as privileged martyrs of the faith (for example, suras 22:39, 2:218, 9:14, 36, 88-89). In legal literature jihād is generally considered to be a collective duty. That is, it is incumbent upon the community as a whole but not upon every individual in every generation, although under certain circumstances it may become an individual obligation for all able-bodied men. In principle, jihād is to be carried on until the whole world comes under the rule of Islam, polytheism is exterminated, and the adherents of the other monotheistic religions are subjugated to Muslim rule and agree to pay a poll tax—or until all of mankind accepts Islam. Warfare may be suspended altogether only temporarily and only if a truce with the enemy better serves the Muslim cause.
From early times, Muslim tradition, especially that of pietistic and Sufi circles, also developed a different notion of jihād to mean the spiritual struggle for moral perfection. Some scholars consider this form of jihād even more meritorious than jihād on the battlefield.
Historically, during the decades preceding the arrival of the crusaders in Syria and Palestine there was hardly any zeal for jihād, either in the Levant or at the caliph’s court in Baghdad. It reemerged in twelfth-century Syria, at the instigation of religious scholars and poets (some of them refugees from Frankish-held territory) who called for a counter-crusade. The systematic Muslim counter-crusade, beginning with Zangī’s capture of Edessa (1144) and culminating in Sal- adin’s conquest of Jerusalem (1187), was propagated as jihād in treatises and poems, in inscriptions on various edifices, in circular letters to neighboring Muslim rulers and emirs, and through public preaching. During that period, the liberation of Jerusalem and its holiness for Islam became the centerpiece of the propaganda for jihād.
Ideologically, jihād against the Franks was incorporated in a wider political-religious program, namely the revivification of the Sunna (Arab. ihya al-sunna), launched in Baghdad more than a century earlier in face of the political and spiritual decline of the Sunna. Muslim rulers who participated in combat against the Franks were presented in the double roles of mujāhidūn (jihādwarriors) and patrons or revivers of religion.
In practical terms, the counter-crusade went hand in hand with the reunification of Muslim territories in Syria and Mesopotamia. At times, the religious aspects of jihād were no doubt exploited as an ideological cover for the expansionist policies of rulers and for the usurpation of power from their political rivals. Most of Saladin’s successors, the later Ayyûbids (1193-1260), preferred negotiation, accommodation, and commercial relations to military campaigns or were too preoccupied with internal struggles within the Ayyûbid confederation. Religious scholars, however, continued to propagate jihād in writing and in public preaching. Occasionally, they confronted rulers for their lack of commitment to the Islamic cause or mobilized the populace to raid Frankish territory. The Mamlûk sultanate in Egypt and Syria showed an invigorated interest in jihād and achieved a series of victories over the Franks, concluding with their final expulsion from the Levant in 1291.
A major role in the theorization of jihād in Mamlûk times was played by the Damascene Hanbalī scholar Ibn Taymiyya (d. 1328), who presented war against the infidels within a comprehensive framework, calling for the purification of Islam from all “contaminations” and the return to true Prophetic tradition. Saladin’s jihād for Jerusalem and Ibn Taymiyya’s theory of jihād inspired latter-day political-religious movements in Islam, and they continue to do so today.