Skip to main content Accessibility help

Muslim Discourse on Rebellion

  • John Kelsay

We can begin with a story. In his account of the reign of Harun al-Rashid, al-Tabari spends considerable time on the matter of Yahya ibn Abdallah. Scion of the family of ‘Ali ibn Abi Talib, Yahya was the leader of a group active in Daylam, a region in present-day Iran. Al-Rashid and other Abbasid leaders laid claim to the territory, but at the time (the 790s) they did not have effective control over it. Ever-sensitive to the challenge presented by sentiment favoring the house of ‘Ali, al-Rashid and his advisers devised a scheme by which the ruler of Daylam received payment for persuading Yahya to turn himself in. He did so, but only on the condition that al-Rashid provide him with a written aman, or guarantee of security.

Hide All


1 The History of al-Tabari, volume 30: The ‘Abbasid Caliphate in Equilibrium, trans. Bosworth, C. E. (Albany, N.Y.: State University of New York Press, 1989), especially pp. 16–20, 115–31, and 205–08.

2 Ibid., p. 125.

3 Ibid.

4 Ibid.

5 Thanks to Kevin Jacques of Indiana University, who called this to my attention during a visit to Bloomington.

6 For more detail, see my discussion in Arguing the Just War in Islam (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2007). It is worth noting that bughat (which is the plural of baghi) suggests “transgression.” In the juridical context, the term serves to indicate a category of persons as rebels. However, the root meaning helps to indicate why, in some contexts, the term is associated with “tyrannical” behavior. As I shall indicate, there are some instances in which recent invocations of the term carry that sense, so that an established ruler or government may be described as baghi or bughat.

7 Following the translation by M. A. S. Abdel Haleem (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004).

8 The term is usually translated as “spoils” or “booty”; however, it is usually thought to indicate the special category of payments made to the Muslim regime on the part of those who accede to Muslim dominance without armed resistance.

9 As translated by Khadduri, Majid in The Islamic Law of Nations: Shaybani's Siyar (Baltimore, Md.: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1966), pp. 230–31.

10 From this point on, I will simply refer to bughat or ahkam al-bughat in place of the longer ahkam al-khawarij wa al-bughat.

11 As will be evident, my account of these matters is indebted to Khaled Abou El Fadl, “ Ahkam al-Bughat: Irregular Warfare and the Law of Rebellion in Islam,” in Johnson, James Turner and Kelsay, John, eds., Cross, Crescent, and Sword (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood, 1990), pp. 149–78; and also to Fadl's, El expansive study, Rebellion and Violence in Islamic Law (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001).

12 See “Ahkam al-Bughat,” p. 162.

13 Here, the reference is to Rebellion and Violence in Islamic Law.

14 Though El Fadl does identify a few instances in which the notion has been invoked by lawyers (though ultimately ruled irrelevant by judges). See “Ahkam al-Bughat,” p. 168; Rebellion and Violence in Islamic Law, pp. 333–42.

15 For more detail, and indications of relevant literature, see my Arguing the Just War in Islam.

16 Muhammad al-Faraj, Al-Faridah al-Ghaibah is translated by Jansen, Johannes J. G. as The Neglected Duty (New York: Macmillan, 1986). The Hamas Charter is available in a translation by M. Maqdsi (Dallas: Islamic Association for Palestine, 1990). For the World Islamic Front Declaration, see

17 See the translation by Algar, Hamid in Islam and Revolution (Berkeley, Calif.: Mizan Press, 1981), pp. 27168 . Khumayni delivered these lectures to students in Najaf, Iraq, where he taught for a time during his exile from Iran.

18 See

19 See, for example, David D. Kirkpatrick and Mayy El Sheikh, “Egypt Military Enlists Religion to Quell Ranks,” New York Times, August 25, 2013, at

Recommend this journal

Email your librarian or administrator to recommend adding this journal to your organisation's collection.

Ethics & International Affairs
  • ISSN: 0892-6794
  • EISSN: 1747-7093
  • URL: /core/journals/ethics-and-international-affairs
Please enter your name
Please enter a valid email address
Who would you like to send this to? *


Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 0
Total number of PDF views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between <date>. This data will be updated every 24 hours.

Usage data cannot currently be displayed