Since the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States of America there is not an Islamic word used more commonly in daily life than jihad. Jihad has appeared regularly in news broadcasts and everyday conversations with the connotation of “holy war.” This widespread understanding of jihad is inaccurate and has unfortunately bred a fear of Islam in many different people. Jihad has a far more complex meaning than the simplistic phrase, holy war. While one element of jihad may involve the use of physical force, jihad does not mean holy war in translation, nor is war the most common form of jihad among Muslims. To understand how holy war is an element of jihad but not jihad itself, jihad's origins in the Qur’an must be fully understood, and the application of physical jihad in history and modern times must be analyzed. In this concise study, we discover that there is an element of holy war within jihad that differs greatly from both the general perception of jihad and the attacks in recent years that radical Muslims have deemed jihad. Physical jihad, or a holy war, is allowed by Islamic law in certain cases but it must follow the strict rules and guidelines of the Qur’an. Not all physical aggression in the name of Islam can be classified as jihad, and there are many examples today of attacks claimed as jihad by Muslims that are not permitted by the boundaries of the Qur’an and Islamic law.
Therefore, holy war can be an element of jihad, but is restrained by strict rules. Many modern interpretations of jihad are not congruent with classical jihad and many physical aggressions by Muslims today cannot be classified as the specific kind of holy war that is legitimized by the Qur’an.
The Prophet Muhammad described jihad as the “apex of lofty Islam.” Jihad literally translates to struggle or striving in English and it is derived from the root Arabic word jahada—to strive, strain, or exert oneself to the utmost. Jihad is a very important duty of Islam; some even consider it the sixth pillar of Islamic faith. Jihad encompasses many types of struggles that Muslims are meant to overcome throughout their daily life in different forms. In the Qur’an, jihad is striving in the name of Allah through four stages: jihad against the soul, jihad against Satan, jihad against disbelievers, and jihad against dissemblers. Jihad against the soul is meant to solidify firm belief within a person while jihad against Satan will create tenacity. For jihad against disbelievers, Muslims are meant to strive by pen, tongue, hand, media, and only if inevitable, with arms. Jihad against disbelievers is not purely peaceful and at times, the use of arms is inevitable in this stage, described in the Qur’an as qital, or fighting.
Contrarily, jihad against dissemblers is by the tongue, through educated arguments and persuasion. Therefore jihad is much more than physical aggression, and far greater emphasis is placed on striving by all other means before war. The most important struggles for Muslims will come from inside themselves, which will be a lifelong jihad of following Allah and living by his way. Jihad should then be described as the striving journey of Muslims to become aware and learn the injunctions of Islam, teach them to others, and make constant practice of them in their life while encouraging others to do the same. It is also the act of calling others to Islam and dealing with any obstacles that may arise from fulfilling this journey. This journey will encompass many obstacles that do not relate to physical violence and emphasize the importance of striving by other means throughout one’s life. Jihad with the tongue is viewed as very important because Muslims are meant to be peaceful in their struggle if possible and it is important to be expressive verbally rather than resorting to violence immediately. However, when words are not sufficient and qital, physical fighting, is necessary within jihad, there are strict guidelines that must be followed in the aggression. Not every war fought by Muslims can be defined as jihad; not every jihad can be generalized as holy war. In order for physical jihad to be legitimate, the opposing side receiving the aggression must be in a state of war against Islam, or a large group of Muslims, or non-Muslims who have had their personal freedoms and civil rights violated. A classical interpretation of jihad from the Qur’an clearly outlines that any physical jihad must be conventional warfare, with ambush fighting and the killing of civilians prohibited. There have been many examples of physical jihad in history that were legitimate in the eyes of the Qur’an, and exemplify the rules that limit aggression, as well as the circumstances necessary for a holy war to be considered jihad.
In Islamic history there are many instances when jihad was a holy war. This can partially be explained by the era. Arabia was engulfed in constant warfare throughout the Prophet Muhammad’s time, and for the centuries of empire rule that followed. Muslim tribes were often provoked by aggression and forced into numerous defensive jihads with their surrounding neighbors. The original physical jihad originated from Muhammad’s migration from Mecca to the city of Yathrib, modern day Medina, in 622. The Prophet and his Muslim followers were met with violent pilfering by the Meccans and Muhammad delivered verses from the Qur’an authorizing the Muslims to fight against the Meccans. The Muslim war with the Meccans began Muhammad’s career as military commander, a title that he had to carry in the remaining years of his life. This jihad follows the rules outlined by the Qur’an because it was in defense of Muslim land that was being physically threatened; it also follows the rules of jihad by keeping the warfare traditional and targeting only those directly involved in the aggression. Muhammad had decided physical jihad was necessary and fought in the name of Islam. But upon returning from battle he said, “We have returned from the lesser jihad to the greater jihad,” underlining the importance of a believer’s internal struggle against his or her carnal self. While the time demanded physical jihad from the Muslims for their very survival, the significance was placed on the other forms of jihad, most importantly those within the hearts of each Muslim. In addition to Prophet Muhammad’s own view of physical jihad, Muslim scholar Said Nursi supported physical jihad in response to physical aggression but also believed in continuing jihad through the written and spoken word. When he was required to fight, his jihad was with his pen. Nursi highlighted the shift between pre-modern civilization and modern civilization and believes jihad should follow this shift. Pre-modern civilization was plagued by violence and conquests from Islam’s neighbors and required defensive war in response. Modern civilization has seen the rise in science and reason, secularism and materialism, and therefore the most appropriate jihad is one that persuades hearts and minds. Muslims are called to fight a cultural and economic war through ideas and thoughts, not arms.
The battles fought by Muhammad and Nursi are historical examples of jihad as holy war used to protect Islam and guarantee its growth within the world. There is a physical aspect in battle, but the focus on Islamic law as derived from the Qur’an is never ignored in jihad. Jihad includes, but is not encompassed by, legitimate, defensive warfare against aggressive enemies, which contrasts with the modern usage of jihad among a minority of Muslim laymen and mainstream society. Most conflicts engaged in by some Muslims today are a crime under Islamic law, and jihad is defined solely as war, with its other aspects ignored. Today in Muslim-majority countries, and in non-Muslim media and discussion around the world, jihad means war. The usage in Muslim countries can be interpreted as rationalization, that all wars their governments involve themselves in are just, similar to the justification most countries do that any war they are involved in is just.
Though it is debatable whether a war is just and follows Islamic law, the more troubling factor is the shift of the entire meaning of the word jihad. Jihad has evolved from meaning struggle, usually internal, sometimes external by the written or spoken word, to simply being a synonym for war. This semantic evolution has perpetuated misunderstandings of Islam as a violent religion, with war and physical aggression central to its tenets. Jihad has evolved from struggle in classical Islam, with the occasional legitimate war, to representing necessary, continuous physical aggression within modern Islam. This linguistic shift has created a grave misunderstanding of jihad around the world, and its sole definition as holy war in popular culture.
Jihad has come to hold a new meaning with the general population because of the differing interpretations of jihad by classical and modern Muslim scholars. Without background knowledge of jihad’s origins in the Qur’an, most people would believe that jihad is a holy war without rules or guidelines, based on modern scholars and media portrayal. Most laymen are not aware that classical jihad explicitly prohibits aggression towards civilians, and must be limited to conventional war tactics. This misconception of jihad is a result of the rise in world terrorist attacks carried out by Muslims who claim their actions as jihad in the name of Allah and the Qur’an. The misinterpretation of jihad by a small group of Muslims has spread around the world because of globalization and effective media coverage. This misinterpretation has resulted in the current perception. Some modern Muslim scholars and popular figures within Islam who have catalyzed this new definition, refer to jihad as, “war against oppressors, particularly those who oppress Muslims.” Osama bin Laden said in many of his speeches that Americans resemble the medieval Crusaders, with the desire to subjugate the Muslim world in a colonial war. Therefore, bin Laden believed that Muslims are currently fighting a defensive jihad against the West in response to their actions. The West as an enemy is described as similar to the Christian knights of the Crusades who also attacked Muslim civilization. Egyptian Islamist Adb al Salam Faraj called for a new jihad against the subjugation of the Muslim world, and Osama bin Laden has expanded on the ideas of a new jihad to legitimize terrorist attacks against the West that result in the death of civilians. In addition to Faraj, the Muslim scholar Maududi’s thesis on the change in Muslim society has also been viewed as spawning the modern interpretation of jihad. Maududi believed that because not all Muslim societies were ruling based on Sharia law, there was a decline in the society as a whole, and the only viable response was to wage a jihad against this dark age. In order to confront the decline of Muslim society and loss of Muslim lands, Sharia law and the doctrine of jihad had to be reinterpreted and applied both internally within Muslim societies as well as externally to the West for its role in seeking Muslim land and fighting against Muslim civilization. Muslim countries have witnessed an internal “jihad” through the removal of leaders classified as un-Islamic based on an unwillingness to impose Sharia law within their nations. This internal “jihad” has taken place historically with the Iranian Revolution’s removal of Muhammad Reza Shah Pahlavi, the assassination of Egyptian President Anwar El Sadat, and the overthrow of Sudanese President Jaafar Nimeiry. External “jihad” against foreign occupiers of Muslim lands has taken place many times throughout history, recently in the Afghan fight for independence against Soviet occupation and Palestinian and Lebanese liberation movements against Israeli-occupied territories. Modern “jihad” has become a war with the goals of reshaping Islamic society by ridding it of Western influence and presence, economically and politically.
What has been described as jihad, and then reported by worldwide media, is far removed from classical jihad described in the Qur’an. Terrorist attacks that aim at killing large numbers of civilians, including women and children, are unilaterally condemned under Sharia law. Their fights do not comply with the rules outlining when physical jihad can take place and how it may be fought. It is not wrong for people to believe jihad can be violent, but it is wrong to only hold this belief without an understanding of the other aspects of jihad. Some modern Muslims have provided this misinterpretation and perpetuated the fear that Islam as a violent religion able to wage wars at any time, on any grounds.
Jihad is popularly misunderstood in today’s world as a synonym for holy war. This misunderstanding has been prevalent for decades but has become more widespread because of a handful of terrorist attacks being labeled as jihad against America and Europe by radical Islamists. By examining jihad, as defined by the Qur’an, and analyzing historical accounts of jihad, it becomes clear that jihad can involve physical violence if all the rules outlined by the Qur’an are followed, including only the use of conventional warfare and killing of combatants. The modern interpretation of jihad does not consider the context of the Qur’an or classical Islamic law, and it ignores the other aspects of jihad. Jihad is the internal struggle Muslims face to fight off evil, the striving effort to become a better person, a more pious follower of Islam. Jihad focuses primarily on internal struggles, with external struggles such as warfare being secondary, and only if physical force is necessary and legitimate. It is very unfortunate that the true meaning of jihad has become lost in today’s society. Jihad is one of most admirable and good-natured duties within Islam, from which many could learn from to better themselves and their lives.