Price Gouging the Desperate

A famous scene from Shakespeare’s Richard III:

ACT V SCENE IV. Another part of the field.

Alarum: excursions. Enter NORFOLK and forces fighting; to him CATESBY


Rescue, my Lord of Norfolk, rescue, rescue!
The king enacts more wonders than a man,
Daring an opposite to every danger:
His horse is slain, and all on foot he fights,
Seeking for Richmond in the throat of death.
Rescue, fair lord, or else the day is lost!



A horse! a horse! my kingdom for a horse!


Withdraw, my lord; I’ll help you to a horse.


Slave, I have set my life upon a cast,
And I will stand the hazard of the die:
I think there be six Richmonds in the field;
Five have I slain to-day instead of him.
A horse! a horse! my kingdom for a horse!


We have previously posted a detailed analysis of whether the trade King Richard proposes would constitute אונאה; the issue is whether one who pays more than the normal price out of desperation subsequently has a claim of אונאה. I recently encountered discussion of this case in R. Dr. Aaron Levine’s Case Studies In Jewish Business Ethics:

While a complaint of overcharge is not given validity when the reference price is anything but the current market norm, an exception to the rule can be identified: “It has been taught, R. Judah b. Batera [mid-1st. cent.] said: The sale of a horse, sword, and buckler on [the field of] battle is not subject to ona’ah, because one’s very life is dependent upon them.”

Given the life-threatening environment of the battlefield, the vendee would pay, if he had to, any sum to acquire the implements of war. Economists describe a desperate need of this sort with the phrase “perfectly inelastic demand.” Consider, too, that the buyer, for all intents and purposes, will not hazard to investigate market alternatives during a raging battle. The vendor therefore enjoys a monopoly position here.

Since the vendee’s demand for a horse or weapon in the battlefield zone is perfectly inelastic, he certainly receives subjective equivalence for whatever price he agrees to pay for these articles. This is the reasoning of R. Judah b. Batera. Whether his ruling represents mainstream talmudic thought is a matter of dispute among the early decisors. [R. Dr. Levine proceeds to cite various poskim who address this question, whom we have cited in our previous post.] …

The acceptability of R. Judah ben Batera’s opinion, according to R. Moses ha-Kohen of Lunel, a thirteenth-century French decisor, hinges heavily upon the validity of assimilating his battlefield case with the fugitive-ferryman case discussed at Bava Kamma 115a. Here, the Talmud relates that if an absconding criminal agrees to pay a ferryman an above-market price to provide him with conveyance across a river, he is entitled to recoup from the ferryman the differential involved.

The point of similarity between the two cases is that in both instances the buyer’s interest in the product involved is price-inelastic; i.e., he would agree, for all intents and purposes, to pay any price the seller insists on. In the ferryman-fugitive case, since the conveyance averts the fugitive’s imminent capture, the latter certainly receives subjective equivalence in his transaction with the ferryman. Nevertheless, if his fugitive status were removed, his demand for the conveyance would probably be described as price-elastic, and he would presumably not value the service above market price. With his price-inelastic demand reflecting transitory subjective value, the fugitive is entitled to recoup from the ferryman any amount he paid him above the competitive norm. Similarly, remove the condition of war and the vendee would presumably not agree to pay the asking price at hand for the implements of war.

Though R. Moses ha-Kohen advances no specifics to explain why this assimilation should be rejected, two points of dissimilarity stand out. First, whereas the demand-inducing factor in the battlefield case affects all market demanders equally, causing the aggregate demand schedule for implements of war to shift upward, no such upward shift in demand occurs in the fugitive-ferryman case. The demand-inducing factor uniquely affects the fugitive’s subjective evaluation of the ferryman’s services, leaving everyone else’s demand for the service unaffected. Second, whereas a competitive norm exists for the services of the ferryman at the time the fugitive struck his bargain, no competitive norm exists at the time an individual buys implements of war on a battlefield. While the commercial market for horses and weapons is normally subject to a competitive norm, the marketplace for these articles completely collapses within the framework of the battlefield zone. The economic environment that prevails in such a scene effectively precludes the emergence of a competitive price for these articles. Resource mobility and knowledge of market alternatives are conspicuously absent here, as the movement of market participants is severely restricted. With economic activity characteristically unorganized and sporadic, the market for these articles becomes minutely fragmented. Within this framework, price is determined by the individual bargains buyers and sellers reach. Since the buyer’s bid determines value here, his ona’ah claim should be denied, notwithstanding the circumstantial nature of his demand in this case.

What proceeds clearly from the school of thought that accepts the analogy between the fugitive-ferryman case and the battlefield case is the general principle that exercise of monopoly power, when the relevant aggregate demand schedule is perfectly inelastic, is ethically immoral.

Selling at whatever price the market will bear when the relevant demand the monopolist faces is price-elastic, however, presents no moral issue in Jewish law. This is evident from the long-standing sanction given to the communal practice of auctioning the privilege of performing a public ceremonial function of a religious character to the highest bidder. With the ceremonial honor put up for sale unavailable elsewhere, the competitive bidding among the auction participants determines value. Hence, no moral issue is raised here. Capitalizing on “site value”, auctioning a rare painting, and selling the patent rights of a new invention to the highest bidder provide other examples of monopoly pricing under conditions of elastic demand.2

The basic inference from the case of the fugitive and the ferryman of the general principle that a deal made by someone “under pressure” to pay an unfairly high price need not be subsequently honored is also articulated by Ritva:

גמרא קידושין

רב כהנא שקיל סודרא מבי פדיון הבן אמר ליה לדידי חזי לי חמש סלעים אמר רב אשי לא אמרן אלא כגון רב כהנא דגברא רבה הוא ומבעי ליה סודרא ארישיה אבל כולי עלמא לא כי הא דמר בר רב אשי זבן סודרא מאימיה דרבה מקובי שוי עשרה בתליסר:3


פירוש וקים לן ודאי דשוה חמש לדידיה, אבל כולי עלמא דלא שוי’ ליה לא, ואף על גב דקבלי’ עליה לאו כל כמיניה.
ושמע’ מהכא שהמוכר חפץ לחבירו בשית ובשוק לא שוו אלא חמשה, אי להאי לוקח שוי שיתא אין בו אונאה, דבתר דידיה אזלינן, כי היכי דחשבינן ליה הכא דשוי חמש סלעים,
מיהו בדשוי’ לזבונא שיתא כי אורחיה, אבל אי לדידיה לא שוי’ אלא מפני שהוא דחוק בדבר, האי ודאי קציצה מתוך בדחק לא שמיה קציצה, ואפילו נתן לו הדמים חוזר וגובה אותם ממנו, והכי מוכח ביבמות … ושמעינן מינה שכל המתנה בשכירות יותר מכדי דמים מפני האונס ודוחק השעה שלו, יכול לומר משטה אני בך, ומכאן ללוקח סמנין הרבה בדמים יקרים מפני חולי הדוחק, דלא מחייב אלא בדמיהן וכן כל כיוצא בזה, מיהו אם התנה בשכר הרופא הרבה, חייב ליתן, שחכמתו מכר לו ואין לה דמים, וכן כתב אדונינו הרמב”ן ז”ל, וכן שמעתי מפי מורי נר”ו.4

It is worth noting that among contemporary secular economists and philosophers there is also no consensus on whether taking advantage of the misfortune of others to profit by raising prices constitutes immoral “price gouging” or is merely the standard and legitimate business practice of “charging what the market will bear”; here’s how Prof. Michael J. Sandel, an expert on the subject of justice, describes the debate (h/t: Minds and Discourse):

In the summer of 2004, Hurricane Charley roared out of the Gulf of Mexico and swept across Florida to the Atlantic Ocean. The storm claimed twenty-two lives and caused $11 billion in damage. It also left in its wake a debate about price gouging.

At a gas station in Orlando, they were selling two-dollar bags of ice for ten dollars. Lacking power for refrigerators or air-conditioning in the middle of August, many people had little choice but to pay up. Downed trees heightened demand for chain saws and roof repairs. Contractors offered to clear two trees off a homeowner’s roof — for $23,000. Stores that normally sold small household generators for $250 were now asking $2,000. A seventy-seven-year-old woman fleeing the hurricane with her elderly husband and handicapped daughter was charged $160 per night for a motel room that normally goes for $40.

Many Floridians were angered by the inflated prices. “After Storm Come the Vultures,” read a headline in USA Today. One resident, told it would cost $10,500 to remove a fallen tree from his roof, said it was wrong for people to “try to capitalize on other people’s hardship and misery.” Charlie Crist, the state’s attorney general, agreed: “It is astounding to me, the level of greed that someone must have in their soul to be willing to take advantage of someone suffering in the wake of a hurricane.”

Florida has a law against price gouging, and in the aftermath of the hurricane, the attorney general’s office received more than two thousand complaints. Some led to successful lawsuits. A Days Inn in West Palm Beach had to pay $70,000 in penalties and restitution for overcharging customers.

But even as Crist set about enforcing the price-gouging law, some economists argued that the law — and the public outrage — were misconceived. In medieval times, philosophers and theologians believed that the exchange of goods should be governed by a “just price,” determined by tradition or the intrinsic value of things. But in market societies, the economists observed, prices are set by supply and demand. There is no such thing as a “just price.”

Thomas Sowell, a free-market economist, called price gouging an “emotionally powerful but economically meaningless expression that most economists pay no attention to, because it seems too confused to bother with.” Writing in the Tampa Tribune, Sowell sought to explain “how ‘price gouging’ helps Floridians.” Charges of price gouging arise “when prices are significantly higher than what people have been used to,” Sowell wrote. But “the price levels that you happen to be used to” are not morally sacrosanct. They are no more “special or ‘fair’ than other prices” that market conditions — including those prompted by a hurricane — may bring about.

Jeff Jacoby, a pro-market commentator writing in the Boston Globe, argued against price-gouging laws on similar grounds: “It isn’t gouging to charge what the market will bear. It isn’t greedy or brazen. It’s how goods and services get allocated in a free society.” Jacoby acknowledged that the “price spikes are infuriating, especially to someone whose life has just been thrown into turmoil by a deadly storm.” But public anger is no justification for interfering with the free market. By providing incentives for suppliers to produce more of the needed goods, the seemingly exorbitant prices “do far more good than harm.” His conclusion: “Demonizing vendors won’t speed Florida’s recovery. Letting them go about their business will.”

Attorney General Crist (a Republican who would later be elected governor of Florida) published an op-ed piece in the Tampa paper defending the law against price gouging: “In times of emergency, government cannot remain on the sidelines while people are charged unconscionable prices as they flee for their lives or seek the basic commodities for their families after a hurricane.” Crist rejected the notion that these “unconscionable” prices reflected a truly free exchange:This is not the normal free market situation where willing buyers freely elect to enter into the marketplace and meet willing sellers, where a price is agreed upon based on supply and demand. In an emergency, buyers under duress have no freedom. Their purchases of necessities like safe lodging are forced.The debate about price gouging that arose in the aftermath of Hurricane Charley raises hard questions of morality and law: Is it wrong for sellers of goods and services to take advantage of a natural disaster by charging whatever the market will bear? If so, what, if anything, should the law do about it? Should the state prohibit price gouging, even if doing so interferes with the freedom of buyers and sellers to make whatever deals they choose? …

Sandel continues with his analysis of the issue.

I recently gave a brief talk on the possibility of rescission of a deal made by someone under pressure, in the context of the broader question of the halachic valuation of something that is worth more to a specific individual than the price assigned to it by the market; the lecture is available, along with some brief notes on the general topic, at the Internet Archive.

  1. Richard III, Act V Scene IV []
  2. R. Dr. Aaron Levine, Case Studies in Jewish Business Ethics, pp. 158-60. []
  3. קידושין ח.‏ []
  4. חידושי הריטב”א (מוסד הרב קוק) שם עמודים עד-עה ד”ה לעולם. []

Judaism on Jihad

From a recent profile of the very brave, or very foolish, Faizan Peerzada, a Pakistani Muslim theater promoter whose operations have been the target of multiple bombings:

Faizan Peerzada seems to derive some of the strength to function in this security environment from his spirituality, which is suffused with mystical Muslim traditions. He is inspired by a peaceful interpretation of “the concept of Jihad from Prophet Muhammad’s very important speech out of Mecca, when Mecca was won. There were men and women together receiving the Prophet.” This coed welcome was not the only thing today’s Islamists might not approve of. According to Faizan, it was accompanied by music and dance. “And then in celebration the body movement, and in celebration you’re able to clap. In celebration you’re able to play the duff, you can play nay,” he says, referencing respectively the percussion instrument and the reed flute played for centuries across a wide swath of South Asia and the Middle East.

When I Google the names of these instruments, I find that a range of self-proclaimed cyber-imams have condemned them. instructs readers that “learning to give up listening to music is very difficult. It is truly a jihad. You may not be able to go ‘cold turkey.’” Moreover, the singing that often goes along with the duff is only halal—the Muslim version of kosher—“if it is done in a halal setting.” People should not listen to these instruments, or sing or dance along with them, in mixed gatherings. There should be no alcohol or other haram behavior. (Haram means sinful, a notion wielded by fundamentalists everywhere.) Except for the alcohol, which is banned in Pakistan, Rafi Peer events defy all these pseudodiktats. What is life without a little haram behavior?

Meanwhile, a few weeks before I meet Faizan Peerzada in Lahore, the Muslim Salvation Organization posts the even-harder-line view of a Mufti Ebrahim Desai from’s fatwa department who claims that “[t]he use of the drum as a musical instrument is expressly forbidden. . . .” Apparently percussion is not permissible but an online fatwa department is.

In any case, the kitschy prohibitions decreed by these Internet imams have nothing to do with how Faizan interprets or lives his Islam. Dancing right in his chair, and playing air duff and nay to illustrate his story, he recounts: “All these things were present at the fall of Mecca, when Prophet comes down from the camel.” From that moment in Islamic history, Faizan sketches a tolerant, humanist Islam. “The first thing the Prophet Muhammad says is, ‘The smaller jihad is over today. Now begins the biggest Jihad.’ To fight with yourself to be a good human being. Your neighbor on the right and left must eat before you, as simple as that.”

The emphasized idea is much discussed in the Islamic tradition; Dr. Seyed Mostafa Azmayesh’s The Truth on Jihad:

The jihad’s objective is to fight the “Nafs”. In fact, nafs does not really mean “soul” but rather “ego”, the part of each of us that bears the instinctive drives where inhumanity, obscurantism and ignorance originate. Nafs is the most primitive aspect of the human being that corresponds to the reptilian brain. Generally man lingers within the law of the jungle under the pressure of the nafs. Nafs goes against everything that pertains to the divine spirit. The Persian mystic poet of the sixth century of the Hegira, Attar, compares the nafs and its characteristics to a jungle prevailed upon by different animals such as the wolf of savagery, the fox of guile, the bear of sexuality, the tiger of aggressiveness, the snake, the bat, the scorpion, etc. It is incumbent upon the Believer to fight all these animals to turn the jungle of his personality into a garden of flowers and perfumes. The famous seventh century Persian mystic poet Mowlana of Balkh -known in the West as Rûmi- compares the nafs to a dragon endowed with seven hundred heads, each raised between heaven and earth. The prophets come on behalf of God to call men to wake up from the sleep of self-centeredness and to identify the source of danger concealed within themselves. …

The prophets’ first call to their addressees is to initiate a jihad, because this supreme effort opens the way to perfection: a jihad against one’s own ego, because our own nafs is each of us’ harshest enemy, and as long as we do not manage to conquer our nafs, we cannot develop the latent capacities that hide within us. Distinction between Jihads The Fogaha (Doctors in Islamic Law) have therefore distinguished in the Sunna (i.e. the Muslim tradition) three kinds of jihad, namely: 1. the biggest jihad (“jihad to al-akbar”), or that against the internal enemy; 2. the smallest jihad (“jihad al-asgar”), or that against the outside enemy to defend the religion; and 3. the noblest jihad (“jihad al-afdal”). The latter means: “saying the truth in front of an oppressor.” (Hadith quoted by Muslim and Bokhari). One particular event that took place during the wars of Islam’s early days clarifies the importance of the evolutionary and spiritual meaning of jihad. One day, after an army from a heathen tribe attacked the Prophet and his followers. Muslims organized resistance from their defensive positions and won the battle. After the enemy’s retreat, the Prophet, upon finding Muslims very satisfied with their efforts and their victory, threw out at them: “We now return from this small battle to the big battle and engage into the biggest jihad.” (“farajénâ ménal jihad alasgar elâ aldjihad alakbar”) (Hadith quoted by Muslim and Bokhari and quoted by Mowlana in Maçnawi, 5:1). Understandably, these words shocked the Muslims who retorted: “But this is the most mortal enemy we ever defeated!” Muhammad then replied: “No, your biggest enemy dwells within each one of you; each must fight one’s own ego.” (“à’dâ àdovokom alnafs allati baina djanbeikom”). Mowlana of Balkh remarks on this case: “Consider as little brave a lion who bores the ranks of the enemies; consider as the real lion the one who subjugates himself” (Maçnawi, 5:1, p. 38).

The kooky, anti-Semitic truther Nashid Abdul-Khaaliq’s take:

Jihad is a term that is VERY much misunderstood in the West and also by MANY Muslims themselves. The first thing that comes to the mind of westerners is the picture of Muslim terrorists senselessly striking out against the West with blind hate in some IDEA of a holy war. But in reality, there is no such concept in the religion of Al-Islam. …

Few have actually looked into what Jihad truly means for Muslims, nor the historical record of Jihad in Al-Islam and the actual Arabic meaning of the word Jihad. It should be noted that Muslims apply two ASPECTS to the word Jihad. One Jihad is what is called the little Jihad and the other is called the big Jihad. The little Jihad is the reverse of what the western world will call little. The little Jihad according to Al-Islam includes fighting physical wars. It refers to the exterior battle waged against others to defend the Muslims and protect the teachings of Al-Islam. The BIG or greater Jihad is “self government” or the struggle that every human being must fight against the forces of evil within themselves. The struggle against greed, selfishness, arrogance, hatred, anger, envy, falsehood and other human weaknesses that each human being must battle is referred to as the big Jihad in Al-Islam. This big Jihad is considered to be vastly more important than the little Jihad of fighting against others in a war.

This seems odd that the individual struggle that one makes against the “weaknesses and demons” one may find within oneself is considered vastly more important than the external wars fought against enemies attacking a nation. The natural question to ask is why? Why is the struggle against the weaknesses of myself considered to be a greater struggle than fighting an external enemy who might be attacking my whole nation? Before answering this question I want to give a short background of where the reference to little Jihad and big Jihad came from. It has to do with the history of Al-Islam involving one of the battles fought by the Prophet of Al-Islam (saaw) against the pagans of Makkah:

When the Islamic community had just established itself in the city of Medina north of present-day Makkah, the Makkans were still not Muslims. They tried to attack the people of Medina and destroy the early Islamic community. The Battle of Badr was fought, in which the Muslims, although a much smaller number, were victorious and were able to defend themselves. So, the Muslims were very happy. When they were coming back to the city, the Prophet said to those around him – “You have now come back from the smaller Jihad.” And they were all surprised. What could be greater than having gained this victory which would protect the early Islamic community? They asked, “What is the greater Jihad?” He said, “To fight against one’s inner passions, against the evil tendencies within oneself.” So, human beings should always be in an inner Jihad to better themselves, to overcome the infirmities and imperfections of our inner soul.

So the Prophet (saaw) himself gave the true definitions for the smaller and greater Jihad. By defining Jihad this way he identified exactly where the real problem lies. Wars, struggles, battles, discord, etc., are not things that come into being from a vacuum. They are not self created entities that have nothing to do with the hearts of men. No, the seeds of wars, conflicts and struggle are born in the hearts, in the minds and in the thinking of human beings. It may be one person or several persons but that seed is then planted in many other human beings and as a result wars and struggle break out. Any doctor will tell you that in order to really cure a disease it is better to treat the cause of the disease, the root, not just the symptoms. …

As we shall discuss below, the earliest documented source of this hadith is apparently the Ta’rikh Baghdad by the eleventh century Sunni Muslim scholar and historian “Abu Bakr Ahmad ibn `Ali ibn Thabit ibn Ahmad ibn Mahdi al-Shafi`i, commonly known as al-Khatib al-Baghdadi (Arabic: الخطيب البغدادي‎) or the lecturer from Baghdad”; remarkably, the story appears in an almost exactly contemporary work, Rav Bahya ibn Pakuda’s great classic חובות הלבבות, where the protagonist is described as a “חסיד”:

ואמרו על חסיד, שפגע אנשים שבים ממלחמת אויבים, ושללו שלל אחר מלחמה חזקה, אמר להם: שבתם מן המלחמה הקטנה שוללים שלל, התעתדו למלחמה גדולה. אמרו לו: ומה היא המלחמה הגדולה? אמר להם: מלחמת היצר וחייליו.1

R. Bahya’s significant indebtedness to Islamic sources is well known:

For all the attention Jewish pietists in medieval Christendom (and their followers and successors down to the present) have lavished upon Bahya ibn Paquda and the twelfth century Hebrew translation (Hovot ha-levavot by Judah ibn Tibbon) of his Duties of the Heart (Al-Hidaaya ilaa faraa’id al-quluub), one would scarcely know Bahya as an eleventh century Andalusi Jew, devotional poet, and rabbinic judge who wrote in Arabic. Diana Lobel’s A Sufi-Jewish Dialogue: Philosophy and Mysticism in Bahya ibn Paquda’s Duties of the Heart rescues Bahya from the seemingly exclusive place his Franco- German admirers reserved for him in translation and outside his own cultural milieu.

As the title of her book indicates, Lobel identifies Bahya as a characteristic Jewish religious intellectual in a Muslim society who found himself in deep conversation with Islamic thought and its religious sensibility. Her analysis of the contours of a Sufi-Jewish dialogue thus speaks to Bahya’s own inner dialogue between the devotee of Islamic mysticism on the one hand and the Jewish traditionalist on the other as much as it provides evidence of the Jews’ close encounters with Sufi terminology and concepts under the orbit of Islam. Lobel’s subtitle is also instructive: it signals that for Bahya and others like him such as Solomon ibn Gabirol (also associated with 11th century Saragossa) philosophy and mysticism did not represent completely distinct paths for making sense of the world and the individual’s place in it in relation to God. Rather mysticism and philosophy are seen as continuously rubbing up against one another, interacting dialectically and ultimately overlapping. …

Lobel’s Ibn Paquda is himself steeped in competing and overlapping intellectual traditions. Although he too is immersed in his sources, Bahya’s unique contribution to Jewish thought lies in the creative uses to which he puts his Jewish and Muslim predecessors and contemporaries in interpreting biblical and rabbinic materials. For example, Lobel identifies the complex ways in which Bahya harkens back to select elements of Sacadia Gaon’s (10th century) Muctazila-inspired dialectical theology and anticipates Moses Maimonides’ (12th century) views on the necessity yet limitations of an intellectual approach to knowing, serving and loving God. So too Ibn Pauqda’s emphasis on the significance of direct religious experience, awareness of divine presence, and the mutuality governing the relationship between believer and God (the individual’s love of God and God’s love for the individual) lays the groundwork for much of Judah Halevi’s devotional orientation. At the same time Lobel shows how Ibn Paquda draws freely upon the sources of various classic Sufi masters such as Sulami, Abuu Nucaym, Qurayshii, and Muhaasibii. Citing a critical insight of Sarah Stroumsa, Lobel shows that it was precisely Ibn Paquda’s situation as a Jewish outsider that enabled him to develop an eclectic approach to religious thought, to cite Muslim sources of various schools and spiritual and intellectual orientations selectively, and to adopt terms and concepts with discrimination for his own particular purposes.

The anecdote is picked up by R. Yeshayah Ha’Levi Horowitz in his שני לוחות הברית (where the חסיד is transmuted into a philosopher):

וילחם עם יצרו, שזוהי המלחמה גדולה, כמאמר הפילוסוף שפגע באנשי חיל שכבשו מלחמה גדולה, אמר להם כבשתם מלחמה קטנה ולא כבשתם מלחמה הגדולה, היא מלחמת אדם עם יצרו, שזו המלחמה אינה פוסקת ועל זה אמר איזה גבור הכובש את יצרו2

But while in Judaism, this is quite an unexceptionable notion – after all, as the של”ה notes, the idea is already present in פרקי אבות – Islam is another story entirely, with many considering the very idea that there can be anything greater than the slaughter of infidels dubious or even heretical:


In his work, The History of Baghdad, Al-Khatib al-Baghdadi, an 11th-century Islamic scholar, referenced a statement by the companion of Muhammad Jabir ibn Abd-Allah. The reference stated that Jabir said, “The Prophet… returned from one of his battles, and thereupon told us, ‘You have arrived with an excellent arrival, you have come from the Lesser Jihad to the Greater Jihad—the striving of a servant (of Allah) against his desires (holy war).” This reference gave rise to the distinguishing of two forms of jihad: “greater” and “lesser”. Some Islamic scholars dispute the authenticity of this reference and consider the meaning of jihad as a holy war to be more important.

According to the Muslim Jurist Ibn Hajar al-Asqalani, the quote in which Muhammad is reported to have said that greater Jihad is the inner struggle, is from an unreliable source:

“This saying is widespread and it is a saying by Ibrahim ibn Ablah according to Nisa’i in al-Kuna. Ghazali mentions it in the Ihya’ and al-`Iraqi said that Bayhaqi related it on the authority of Jabir and said: There is weakness in its chain of transmission.” Hajar al Asqalani, Tasdid al-qaws, see also Kashf al-Khafaa’ (no.1362)

Sh. G. F. Haddad

The “Greater Jihad” hadith comes to us

  • marfu` (as a Prophetic saying),
  • mawquf (as a Companion-saying), and
  • maqtu` (as a Tabi`i-saying or later).

I. Marfu`

As a Prophetic saying this hadith has two similar wordings from Jabir:

1. “Some troops came back from an expedition and went to see the Messenger of Allah MHMD sallallahu `alayhi wa-Sallam. He said: “You have come for the best, from the smaller jihad (al-jihad al-asghar) to the greater jihad (al-jihad al-akbar).” Someone said, “What is the greater jihad?” He said: “The servant’s struggle against his lust”(mujahadat al-`abdi hawah).

Al-Bayhaqi narrated it in al-Zuhd al-Kabir (Haydar ed. p. 165 §373 = p. 198 §374) and said: “This is a chain that contains weakness” (hadha isnadun fihi da`f). One might cautiously conclude from this that al-Bayhaqi himself does not consider it a forgery in view of his shart [ie. condition]Â that he does not narrate forgeries in any of his books except he indicates it.

2. “The Prophet MHMD upon him and his Family and Companions blessings and peace returned from one his expeditions and said: “You have come for the best. You have come from the smaller jihad to the greater jihad.” They said, “What is the greater jihad, Messenger of Allah?” He said: “The servant’s struggle against his lust.”

Al-Khatib narrated it in Tarikh Baghdad (13:493=13:523).

Both their chains contain Yahya ibn al-`Ala’ al-Bajali al-Razi who is accused of forgery as per Ibn Hajar in the Taqrib, in addition to Layth ibn Abi Sulaym – Ibn Hajar said he was abandoned as a hadith narrator due to the excessiveness of his mistakes in addition to being a concealer of his sources (mudallis). (Al-Bukhari and Muslim did narrate three hadiths from him but only as corroborations of established chains.)

This shows that the statement of Ibn Taymiyya in Majmu` al-Fatawa (11:197 = his anti-Sufi tract al-Furqan bayna Awliya al-Rahman wa-Awliya al-Shaytan) “La asla lahu” is inaccurate, as this expression in their terminology denotes chainlessness. Al-Zayla`i also could not find it but, instead of positively denying the existence of hadiths he does not know like Ibn Taymiyya, he uses the expression “gharib jiddan” (extremely solitary/odd) as he does here in his Takhrij Ahadith al-Kashshaf (2:395 §825).

Most accurate is the verdict of Ibn Hajar: “its chain contains weak narrators” in his Takhrij Ahadith al-Kashshaf (p. 114) while al-Ahdab in his Zawa’id Tarikh Baghdad (9:309-311 §2077) says “isnad talif” (a worthless chain).

All of the above negative verdicts concern the chain. The hadith in its meaning is confirmed by the Qur’an and established reports, at least two of them explicit in the preference of the mujahada or jihad of the ego over any other type but without using the specific term jihad akbar. This has been discussed elsewhere …

III. Maqtu`

… Ibn Taymiyya himself leaves no doubt as to the fact that jihad al-nafs comes first and is the precondition sine qua non of military jihad as he states it in and as related from him by Ibn al-Qayyim toward the very end of Rawdat al-Muhibbin: “I heard our Shaykh say, ‘The jihad of nafs and hawa is the foundation of jihad of the disbelievers and hypocrites; one cannot do jihad of them before he first does jihad of his nafs and hawa, then he goes out and fights them.'”

As for Ibn al-Qayyim then haddith wala haraj, he goes on and on about the jihad of the ego as the “prime” (al-muqaddam) and “most obligatory” (al-afraD) jihad in al-Fawa’id, Zad al-Ma`ad, al-Ruh, Ighathat al-Lahfan….

But neither he nor his teacher uses the term al-jihad al-akbar.

Jihad Al Akbar, from Shaykh Hisham Kabbani’s “Islamic Beliefs and Doctrine According to Ahl al-Sunna: A Repudiation of “Salafi” Innovations”

Hadiths On The Jihad Against The Ego

The hadith master Mulla `Ali al-Qari relates in his book al-Mawdu`at al-kubra, also known as al-Asrar al-marfu`a:

Suyuti said: al-Khatib al-Baghdadi relates in his “History” on the authority of Jabir: The Prophet came back from one of his campaigns saying: “You have come forth in the best way of coming forth: you have come from the smaller jihad to the geater jihad.” They said: “And what is the greater jihad?” He replied: “The striving (mujahadat) of Allah’s servants against their idle desires.”

Ibn Hajar al-`Asqalani said in Tasdid al-qaws : “This saying is widespread and it is a saying by Ibrahim ibn Ablah according to Nisa’i in al-Kuna. Ghazali mentions it in the Ihya’ and al-`Iraqi said that Bayhaqi related it on the authority of Jabir and said: There is weakness in its chain of transmission.”

`Ali al-Qari, al-Asrar al-marfu`a (Beirut 1985 ed.) p. 127.

The hafiz Ibn Abu Jamra al-Azdi al-Andalusi (d. 695) says in his commentary on Bukhari entitled Bahjat al-nufus:

`Umar narrated that a man came to the Prophet asking for permission to go to jihad. The Prophet asked: “Are your parents alive?” He said that they were. The Prophet replied: “Then struggle to keep their rights” (fihima fa jahid) … There is in this hadith evidence that the Sunna for entering the path and undertaking self-discipline is to act under the expert guidance, so that he may be shown the way that is best for him to follow, and the soundest for the particular wayfarer. For when that Companion wished to go out to jihad, he did not content himself with his own opinion in the matter but sought advice from one more knowledgeable than him and more expert. If this is the case in the Lesser Jihad, then what about the Greater Jihad?

Ibn Abu Jamra, Bahjat al-nufus sharh mukhtasar sahih al-bukhari 3:146.

Ibn Hibban relates in his Sahih from Fadala ibn Ubayd:

The Prophet said in the Farewell Pilgrimage: “… The mujahid is he who makes jihad against himself (jahada nafsah) for the sake of obeying Allah.”

Tirmidhi, Ahmad, Tabarani, Ibn Majah, al-Hakim, and Quda`i also relate it. The contemporary hadith scholar Shu`ayb al-Arna’ut confirmed that its chain of transmission is sound in his edition of Ibn Hibban, Sahih 11:203 (#4862). Al-Haythami related the following version in the chapter on Jihad al-nafs in his Majma` al-zawa’id and declared it sound:

The strong one is not the one who overcomes people, the strong one is he who overcomes his ego (ghalaba nafsah)

“Lesser vs Greater Jihad” at WikiIslam

Explanation of the Concept

The two forms of Jihad are sometimes explained by Muslims as follows:

  • Lesser outer jihad (al-jihad al-asghar); a military struggle, i.e. a holy war
  • Greater inner jihad (al-jihad al-akbar); the struggle of personal self-improvement against the self’s base desires

They claim this “inner Jihad” essentially refers to all the struggles that a Muslim may go through, in adhering to the religion. For example, a scholarly study of Islam can be an intellectual struggle that some allegedly may refer to as “jihad.”


During Prophet Muhammad’s lifetime, and onwards to the present, the word ‘Jihad’ was, and is, almost always used in a military sense. This idea of a greater and lesser jihad was a later development which originated from the 11th century book, The History of Baghdad, by the Islamic scholar al-Khatib al-Baghdadiis, by way of Yahya ibn al ‘Ala’, who said,

We were told by Layth, on the authority of ‘Ata’, on the authority of Abu Rabah, on the authority of Jabir, who said, ‘The Prophet (salallaahu ‘alayhee wa sallam) returned from one of his battles, and thereupon told us, ‘You have arrived with an excellent arrival, you have come from the Lesser Jihad to the Greater Jihad – the striving of a servant (of Allah) against his desires.’

In fact, all four schools of Sunni jurisprudence (Fiqh) as well as the Shi’ite tradition make no reference at all to the “greater” jihad, only the lesser. So even before we examine the evidence against the validity of this hadith, we know that the concept of the greater jihad is unorthodox and heretical to the majority of the world’s Muslims.

Qur’an, Hadith and Scholars


One of the most important factors in the classification of a genuine hadith, is that it must conform with what is written in the Qur’an. However, this hadith directly contradicts the explicit teachings of the Qur’an.

“Those believers who sit back are not equal to those who perform Jihad in the Path of Allah with their wealth and their selves. Allah has favored those who perform Jihad with their wealth and their selves by degrees over those who sit back. To both (groups) has Allah promised good, but Allah has favored the mujahideen with a great reward, by ranks from Him, and with Forgiveness, over those who sit back. And Allah is Oft-Forgiving, Most-Merciful.” – Qur’an 4:95


In all six major Hadith collections (Sahih Bukhari, Sahih Muslim, Dawud, al-Sughra, Tirmidhi and Ibn Majah), jihad almost always refers to the “lesser” outward physical struggle and not the so-called “greater” inward spiritual struggle. As an example, there are nearly 200 references to jihad in the most trusted collection of hadith, Sahih Bukhari, and every single one assumes that jihad means literal warfare.

This fabricated hadith does not appear in any of the famous hadith collections, and in fact goes against the teachings found in corroborated (Mutawatir) sahih hadith. Some of these hadith state that fighting jihad is second only to the belief in Muhammad and Allah, and that standing for an hour in the ranks of battle is better than standing in prayer for sixty years.

Furthermore, Muhammad himself refutes the claim that the “greater” jihad is the inward spiritual struggle, when he states the best jihad is that of a man whose “blood is shed and his horse is wounded”.

It was narrated that Amr bin Abasah said: “I came to the Prophet and said: ‘O Messenger of Allah, which Jihad is best?’ He said: ‘(That of a man) whose blood is shed and his horse is wounded.’” – Sunan Ibn Majah 2794

It was asked, ‘Oh messenger of Allah!, which of makind is most excellent?’. He (Sallallahu alyhi wa salam) replied: “A believer who strives in the path of God with his self and his wealth. – Saheeh Bukhari 4/45

Allah’s Apostle was asked, “What is the best deed?” He replied, “To believe in Allah and His Apostle (Muhammad). The questioner then asked, “What is the next (in goodness)? He replied, “To participate in Jihad (religious fighting) in Allah’s Cause.” – Sahih Bukhari 1:2:26

Standing for an hour in the ranks of battle is better than standing in prayer for sixty years. – Saheeh related by Ibn Ade and Ibn Asakir from Abu Hurayrah 4/6165. Sahih al Jaami as Sagheer no. 4305

A morning or evening spent in the path of Allah is better than the world and all it contains. – Saheeh al Bukhari 4/50 , agreed upon

Shall I tell you who has the best degree among people? A man who takes the rein of his horse to do jihad in the way of Allah – Al-Muwatta 21 21.1.4b

It has been narrated on the authority of Abu Sa’id Khudri that the Messenger of Allah (may peace be upon him) said (to him): Abu Sa’id, whoever cheerfully accepts Allah as his Lord, Islam as his religion and Mubammad as his Apostle is necessarily entitled to enter Paradise. He (Abu Sa’id) wondered at it and said: Messenger of Allah, repeat it for me. He (the Messenger of Allah) did that and said: There is another act which elevates the position of a man in Paradise to a grade one hundred (higher), and the elevation between one grade and the other is equal to the height of the heaven from the earth. He (Abu Sa’id) said: What is that act? He replied: Jihad in the way of Allah! Jihad in the way of Allah! – Sahih Muslim 20:4645

On the authority of Rashid, on the authority of Sa’d (radiallaahu ‘anhu), on the authority of one of the Companions, that a man said, “Oh Messenger of Allah! Why is it that the believers are all put to trial in their graves, except for the martyrs?” He (salallaahu ‘alayhee wa sallam) said, “The clashing of swords above his head was sufficient trial for him.” – Sahih al-Jam’i

The importance placed on physical jihad in Islam, is never more apparent than in the sahih hadith which record Muhammad calling Muslims who refuse to fight or consider going to jihad as ‘hypocrites’.

It has been narrated on the authority of Abu Huraira that the Messenger of Allah (may peace be upon him) said: One who died but did not fight in the way of Allah nor did he express any desire (or determination) for Jihad died the death of a hypocrite. – Sahih Muslim 2:4696

Whoever dies but neither fought (i.e., in Allah’s cause), nor sincerely considered fighting, will die a death of Jahiliyyah (pre-Islamic era of ignorance. – Sahih hadith, Tafsir Ibn Kathir


Lesser vs Greater Jihad Hadith

The “lesser versus greater jihad” hadith’s isnad (the completeness of the chain of narrators and the reputation of each individual narrators within the chain of oral tradition) has been categorized by scholars as “weak” (da`if), and generally in Islamic law, only the authentic (sahih) and good (hasan) hadiths are used in deriving the rules. The weak hadiths have no value for the purpose of Shari’ah. Contemporary Islamic scholars have even classed it as “maudu” (fabricated), meaning this narration, by some, is not even considered to be a hadith at all.

Dr. Abudllah Yusuf Azzam:

is in fact a false, fabricated hadith which has no basis. It is only a saying of Ibrahim Ibn Abi `Abalah, one of the Successors, and it contradicts textual evidence and reality….The word “jihad”, when mentioned on its own, only means combat with weapons, as was mentioned by Ibn Rushd, and upon this the four Imams have agreed.

Ibn Taymiyahh (also known as Shaykh ul-Islam to Muslim clerics):

There is a Hadith related by a group of people which states that the Prophet [peace be upon him] said after the battle of Tabuk: ‘We have returned from Jihad Asghar [lesser jihad] to Jihad Akbar [greater jihad].’ This hadith has no source, nobody whomsoever in the field of Islamic Knowledge has narrated it. Jihad against the disbelievers is the most noble of actions, and moreover it is the most important action for the sake of mankind.

Ibn Hajar al-`Asqalani:

This saying is widespread and it is a saying by Ibrahim ibn Ablah according to Nisa’i in al-Kuna. Ghazali mentions it in the Ihya’ and al-`Iraqi said that Bayhaqi related it on the authority of Jabir and said: There is weakness in its chain of transmission. – Hajar al Asqalani, Tasdid al-qaws, see also Kashf al-Khafaa’ (no.1362)

Al Bayhaqi:

Its chain of narration is weak. Ibn Hajr said that this was a saying of Ibraaheem bin Abee Ablah, a Taabi’ee, and not a Ahaadeeth of the Messenger (SAW). – Hajar ibn al Asqalani ’Kashf al-Khafaa’ (no.1362)

Al Haakim:

His hadith are unreliable.

Abu Yala al Khalili:

He often Adulterates, is very weak and narrates unknown hadith. Their is also a narrator, Yahyah bin Alulah, who is a known liar and forger of hadith (Ahmed). – Mashir al Ashwaq, Ibn Nuhad pg 1/31

Amru bin Ali an Nasai and Ad Darqutni:

His hadith are renounced.

Ibn Adi:

His hadith are false. – Tahzeeb ut Tahzeeb 11/261-262]

Abu Dahadbi:

Abdu Hatim said he is not a strong narrator, Ibn Ma’een classified him as weak and Ad Daqatuni said he is to be neglected.

Mufti Zar Wali Khan (who is given the title Sheikh ul hadith) mentioned in his Dora Tafsir that this hadith was fabricated by Sufis.

  1. חובות הלבבות (ירושלים תרפ”ח) שער יחוד המעשה ריש פרק ה’ עמוד 156 – קשר, קשר, ועיין לוח ארז פרשת מטות על הפסוק ויאמר אלעזר הכהן, עמוד פה. – קשר, שער בת רבים במדבר (מטות) על הפסוק ויקצוף משה על פקודי החיל, עמוד עג: – קשר, מעינה של תורה שם עמודים קמא-מב – קשר, בתי אולפנא אהרן וישראל א’ חורף תש”ע עמוד נב – קשר []
  2. שני לוחות הברית (חלק ב’: ווארשא ה’תר”ץ), תורה שבכתב, פרשת קרח – במקום גדולים אל תעמוד, סוף עמוד סט: – קשר ,קשר []