The Full Meaning of Jihad in the Muslim Religion

Academic Discipline: Religious Studies (World Religions)
Course Name: World Religions and Belief Traditions
Assignment Subject: Full meaning of Jihad in Islam
Academic Level: High School-Grade 12
Referencing Style: APA
Word Count: 1,197

For North Americans who aren’t Muslim, the word ‘jihad’ conjures up visions of mad bomb-carrying Arabs arriving to blow up the heart of your city. The word is often simply and inaccurately translated as ‘Holy War’, as in an unceasing combat to eliminate as many infidels as possible – although this translation is inaccurate, since the actual Arabic word for holy war is ‘harb-u-muqadasah’ (Ali, 2014, np). Nonetheless, the concept of ‘jihad’ as waging war against ‘infidels’ is sometimes presented as an obligation of every true follower of the word of Allah. A right-wing anti-Muslim website declares:

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“I will explain how Jihad, the word jihad has been repeated 108 times in the Quran, which is words of Allah, with a description of killing non-Muslims, committing Jihad against us, the non-Muslims, to conquer us. I will explain how Allah has mentioned in the Quran that, as a Muslim, it is your duty to kill Non-Muslims” (Cyrus 2019, np).

However, jihad actually has a number of meanings. As Maher Hathout, author of Jihad vs. Terrorism, concluded that jihad, as projected in the Koran, is not a single concept, but a range of meanings having their origin in the Arabic term for a strenuous effort.: “In the Koran it’s projected as exerting effort to change oneself, and also in certain situations physically standing against oppressors if that’s the only way” (quoted by Handwerk 2003, np).

Another way to express the Arabic root word, jahada, is to use the word ‘struggle’. This struggle can be military, but when this meaning is selected, we must in turn consult the extensive Qur’anic literature on when such struggle is permissible, and under what conditions. This we will do. But first, we must look at the other meaning of ‘struggle’: the constant individual and personal effort to lead a proper Islamic life – or in other words, the spiritual discipline to adhere to the Five Pillars of Islam, to constantly study the Qur’an, and to work for greater social justice As Khalil explains, “this falls under the category of ‘jihad of the self’, an important subject in Islamic devotional works” (Khalil 2019, np). This jihad takes place between our imperfect human nature and the ideals of a better society.

Some contend this personal meaning is a recent invention of more public-relations minded Islamic spokespeople. However, it is definitely espoused by many scholars. For example, an Islamic education website (“Why Islam?”) cites the Qur’an in support of those who struggle for faith and justice: It notes Surah (Quranic verse) 41:33: “And whose words are better than someone who calls ˹others˺ to Allah, does good, and says, ‘I am truly one of those who submit?’”

Dr. Ali notes that the term mujahid (pl. mujahidin) was used by Mohammed, not for a soldier, but for one “who strives against himself for the sake of Allah” (Sahih Ibn Hibbanm, No. 4862, quoted by Ali). He also notes an occasion when someone asked Mohammed whether he should take up arms for Islam. He asked in return ‘Do you have parents?’ The man said, ‘Yes!’ The Prophet replied: ‘Then strive (jihad) by serving them!’” (Sahih Al-Bukhari, No. 5972).

That said, there is a dimension of jihad that has to do with waging war. But according to another hadith, Mohammed praised a contingent of his army returning from a battle with the words: “Blessed are those who have performed the minor jihad and have yet to perform the major jihad”. When asked what the major jihad entailed, he replied “The jihad of the self (struggle against self)” (BBC 2009, np). So the prime struggle is not against external enemies, but against personal temptations.

The rules for launching an external jihad – of waging actual war – are fairly extensive. First and foremost, Islamic law forbids the waging of aggressive war, meaning armed efforts to secure more wealth, power, or territory. Rather, the wars must be defensive and/or in pursuit of justice for the oppressed. Surah 2:190, states this clearly: “Fight in the cause of Allah only against those who wage war against you, but do not exceed the limits. Allah does not like transgressors”. Moreover, it enjoins that the war be ended once the enemy surrenders: “If they desist, then let there be no hostility except against transgressors”.

One is permitted to take arms against religious persecution, and in defence of one’s community. In the Qur’an, Surah 22: 39 and 40 state: “Permission to fight back is hereby granted to those being fought, for they have been wronged. And Allah is truly Most Capable of helping them ˹prevail˺. ˹They’ are those who have been expelled from their homes for no reason other than proclaiming: “Our Lord is Allah”. But by the same token, Allah protects all God-acknowledging people; Surah 22:40 declares: “Had Allah not repelled the aggression of some people by means of others, destruction would have surely claimed monasteries, churches, synagogues, and mosques in which Allah’s Name is often mentioned. Allah will certainly help those who stand up for Him”.

Also included within the definition of justified conflict is aiding the oppressed. Surah 4:75 asks “And why should ye not fight in the cause of God and of those who, being weak, are ill-treated and oppressed? – Men, women and children, who cry out, “Our Lord! Deliver us from this land of oppressors! Appoint for us a saviour; appoint for us a helper—all by Your grace.”

In addition, the Qur’an gives armed conflict clear rules of engagement. Civilians – including women and children, as well as the aged and the disabled – are not to be attacked. Hospitals and places of refuge must not be destroyed. The same rule applies to places of worship (including churches and synagogues). In Surah 2:256, forced conversions are not allowed: “Let there be no compulsion in religion, for the truth stands out clearly from falsehood”. Nor are crops or animals, or any sources of food and water, to be destroyed. In addition, prisoners of war are to be treated with respect (Ahmadiyya Moslem Community, np).

So overall, war must be waged only for just reasons, and it must be waged within strict boundaries and abandoned as soon as peace is possible. As Surah 5:8 states “O believers! Stand firm for Allah and bear true testimony. Do not let the hatred of a people lead you to injustice. Be just! That is closer to righteousness”.

It is for the reasons that jihad must be approved by a religious authority that is guided by the spirit of the Qur’an and not by personal considerations (like the Turkish Sultan trying to protect the Ottoman Empire in World War I). So there is no way that a secular figure like Osama Bin Laden can declare a legitimate jihad.

As Dr. Ali sums up the entire concept, “Jihad in Islam is striving in the way of Allah by pen, tongue, hand, media and, if inevitable, with arms. However, jihad in Islam does not include striving for individual or national power, dominance, glory, wealth, prestige or pride” (Ali 2014, np). So the popular Western image of jihad as a worldwide Moslem terrorist initiative is totally mistaken – and at odds with the actual teachings of mainstream Islam.

References:

The Qur’an (circa 632) Trans. Khattab, Dr. M. Retrieved: https://quran.com/

Ali, Dr. M.A. (2014) The J Word Explained. Why Islam? Retrieved: https://www.whyislam.org/jihad-2/what-really-is-jihad/

Cyrus, A. (2019) The Islamic Meaning of Jihad. The American Truth Project. Retrieved: https://americantruthproject.org/the-islamic-meaning-of-jihad/

Handwerk, B. (2003) What does Jihad really mean to Moslems. National Geographic. Retrieved: https://www.nationalgeographic.com/culture/article/what-does-jihad-really-mean-to-muslims

Khalil, Dr. M.H (2019) So what really is Jihad? The Conversation (with Michigan State Univ) Retrieved: https://theconversation.com/so-what-really-is-jihad-118660\

(anon) What does the term jihad mean? (2022) Ahmadiyya Moslem Community. Retrieved: https://www.alislam.org/question/what-does-jihad-mean/

BBC (2009) Jihad. Retrieved: https://www.bbc.co.uk/religion/religions/islam/beliefs/jihad_1.shtml

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