The meaning and scope of Jihad


JihadThe 9/11 terrorist attacks in New York not only killed 3000 innocent people, they sowed seeds of hatred between the West and Muslims. The wretched process of demonisation was unleashed on both sides; Islamophobia (the dread and hatred of Islam) on the one hand and anti-West rhetoric on the other. In this clash of the extremists many things have become confused and misunderstood, in particular the concept of jihad described as ‘holy war’ or ‘terrorism’. In this article I will shed light on the true meaning of Jihad from contemporary and classical scholars, and show how important Jihad is for bettering the human condition.

Righab Al-Asfhani in his book ‘Mufradat’ defines Jihad as: Al Jihad and Al Mujahada means; to exert utmost effort in defending oneself against the enemy, there are three types of Jihad:

  • Fighting the enemy
  • Fighting the shaitan
  • Fighting oneself

‘Effort’ means a strenuous physical or mental exertion, a vigorous or a determined attempt at achieving one’s goal, it’s making determined efforts in difficult situations (Oxford dictionary). In this article I want to show that Jihad is an important duty of every Muslim; the concerted effort to stand up for justice and peace, in defensive war against the enemy of a homeland, the continuous war with ones passions and ego and frequent fights with Satan.

The meaning of Jihad from classical scholars:

Imam Nawawi:

In his most famous collection of ahadith ‘Riyaz Us Saliheen’ Imam Nawawi has a chapter dedicated to Jihad. It opens with six powerful verses, praising the Mujahideen urging them to fight in Allah’s way, and the wonderful merits awarded to them. He then cites 68 rigorously authenticated ahadith. For example: The prophet (peace be upon him) was asked ‘which is the best deed?’ He said, “Faith in Allah and his messenger”. He was then asked, “Then which?” He replied, “Fighting in Allah’s way and again it was said “then which?” He (peace be upon him) said, “A properly preformed Hajj”.

Followed by a hadith, which praises the soldiers defending the borders and living in the forts; then another hadith praising the Mujahideen; the Prophet (peace be upon him) said, “The dusty feet of a Mujahid will not be touched by hell fire”.

The chapter continues with stories about disciples’ eagerness to fight, being prepared, training for jihad, and keeping horses for jihad. A Bedouin once asked the Prophet (peace be upon him) “a person fights for the loot, another one for chivalry and the third one to show off.” The prophet (peace be upon him) replied “he who fights to raise Allah’s word is the one who is in Allah’s way”.

The penultimate hadith is where the Prophet (peace be upon him) said, “Never wish to fight the enemy, if you do meet him then be patient”. The final hadith reveals the nature of fighting, by describing “War is trickery”.

Ibn Hajar Al Asqalani:

In his book ‘Fath hul Bari’ the famous commentary on Sahih Bukhari, Ibn Hajar says, “Al Jihad literally means toiling, labouring, facing hardship and difficulty and in Shariah it means: Exerting and struggling against the infidels it is also used for ‘mujahada tu shaitan’ struggling against the devil to reject his suggestions to commit evil and his temptation for lust”.

Imam Bukhari’s book of ‘Al Jihad Was-sair’ (Book for fighting and marching) has 199 sections containing 308 ahadith; extolling, praising and teaching about every aspect of Jihad. It outlines the different categories of mujahedeen, the rewards in paradise, the wish to become a martyr, the one who fights to raise the Divine name, the excellence of being a martyr, paradise lies under the shade of the sword, Chivalry in the battlefield. Women’s jihad, being mobilised for jihad, dividing the loot, how the angels shade the martyrs, the mujahids’ wish to return to the world once again to fight and encouragement to take part in Jihad, etc.

From these two classical jurists to contemporary scholars we see the formulation of classical doctrine of Jihad as war. The evidence is from dozens of Quranic verses, which are plain and clear. The details provided in the ahadith literature further elaborate this doctrine of jihad as war against injustice and evil. Allah says, “And if Allah had not enabled people to defend themselves against one another, corruption, chaos would certainly have devastated the earth, but Allah is limitless in his bounty unto all the worlds ” (Baqarah: 251).

In a similar verse in Surah Al Hajj Allah says, “If Allah had not allowed people to defend themselves against one another the monasteries, churches, synagogues and mosques…would have been destroyed” (Al Hajj: 40). Here the justification for war is the defence of religious freedom.

In order to fully understand the significance of the term ‘Jihad’ we must look at some other forms of Jihad, so far we have seen that Jihad is in defensive war, to defend one’s country and one’s freedom of religion. It is narrated that when the prophet (peace be upon him) was returning to Medina either from the campaign of Tabuk or after the conquest of Makkah, he (peace be upon him) said, “We have returned from a lesser Jihad to greater jihad”. He was asked, “What is this greater Jihad O Messenger?” He (peace be upon him) replied, “Disciplining oneself”. So here we come across another form of Jihad which is about self disciplining and exerting oneself to improve.

The Quran tells us “surely the self constantly commands evil” (Yusuf: 53). This is called  ‘Nafs-e-Ammarah’. However the human conscience, which is the better part of our self is more critical, ‘Nafsul Lawwamah’. It is this constant critical self that wages a war against the evil Nafs and till it becomes  ‘Nafs-e-Mutmainah’, perfect self. Allah describes it; “O peaceful self, return to your Lord happily. Enter among my slaves enter in my paradise” (Fajr: 27-30).

This greater Jihad is described in a famous hadith where the Prophet (peace be upon him) said, Allah says “My servant continues to draw near to me through voluntary worship until I love him and when I love him, I am the hearing with which he hears, and the sight with which he sees, and the hand with which he holds and the feet with which he walks” (Muslim). The best voluntary activity in the sight of Allah is Zikr, the divine remembrance, calling and praying to Allah, adoring and magnifying his Majesty. Explaining the benefit of this remembrance the Prophet (peace be upon him) said “for all things there is a polish that removes rust and the polish of the heart is Allah’s remembrance” (Bayhaqi).

Imam Razi:

The Quran also talks about a ‘great jihad’ it says, “Don’t follow the disbelievers, and strive against them using this (Quran) with ‘jihadan Kabeeran’ (a great struggle)” (Al Furqan: 52). In other words use rational arguments to convince them of the truth of Islam; “Use your intellect and wisdom to invite them to your Lord and argue with them in a beautiful manner” (Nahl: 125). So the ‘Jihad bil Quran’ is jihad using the Quran.

In Makkah for thirteen years this was the Prophet’s (peace be upon him) only form of Jihad; every day challenging the ignorance of the Quraysh. Imam Razi comments on the verses, ‘jihadan Kabeeran’. Although some take it to mean Qital, fighting, but this is a Makkan Surah, and the permission to fight was given only in Madinah so it can not mean fighting”. The following verse of surah Hajj is also significant; it uses the word jihad in a wider sense than Jihad as war. The Quran comments: “And strive in Allah’s way as you ought to strive” (Hajj: 78).

Imam Razi asks ‘what is this jihad (striving)? He gives six meanings:

  • Fighting the disbelievers for the sake of Allah alone
  • The later generations must struggle for religion like the earlier generations
  • Not to fear criticism of one’s faith
  • Do good works purely for the sake of Allah
  • To make every effort to revive and establish the religion of Islam
  • Striving against the selfish passions and lowly desires

Jihad also implies the carrying out of all Divine commandments, putting religion into practice and avoiding the unlawful” (Tafsir Kabeer Vol 2, P332).

View of contemporary scholars on the concept of Jihad:

Pir Muhammad Karam Shah Al Azhari:

The most common Quranic term for fighting is ‘Qital’. This occurs 44 times in different forms e.g. “And fight in God’s way those who fight you and do not transgress” (Baqarah: 190). “And fight in God’s way and remember God is all hearing and all knowing” (Baqarah: 244).

The Pakistani Jurist Pir Muhammad Karam Shah comments on these verses as follows: ‘In these verses the oppressed Muslims are being given Divine permission to use force against force. For fifteen years they had been bitterly persecuted and they endured patiently and silently. In order to understand the Quranic command of Jihad three things must be understood:

  1. For what purpose
  2. With whom
  3. What are the conditions for fighting

These eloquently and concisely answer these questions about the purpose of jihad it says, “In God’s way”, for upholding the truth and justice and not for looting, economic and industrial competition, racial prejudice or other lowly instincts. The believer does not fight for such degrading purpose. Who does he fight? The answer is “Those who fight you“ but with the condition: “you do not transgress”. When passions are inflamed and the fire of revenge is raging do not be unjust! Since “God does not befriend the transgressors”. Women, children, disabled, elderly, peasants, priests and labourers who are non-combatants should not be harmed in anyway (Zia ul Quran vol 1:P132).

Shaykh Abdallah Bin Bayyah:

This beautiful word “jihad” has been subject to extreme points of view at both ends. What does the concept of jihad literally and technically mean and what are its reasons in the Noble Quran? The word Jihad is an infinitive of the verb ‘jahada’. It means to do one’s utmost and exert one’s effort to reach an end that is usually desirable.

The truth is that the concept of jihad in Islam is not always synonymous with fighting. Jihad is a wider concept. It is a sort of defending the truth and calling to it through the tongue. Almighty Allah said in the chapter of al-Furqan “Persevere in impelling them with this [Quran], with a mighty impelling”; that is, establish the compelling arguments and present to them the proofs one after the other. Obviously, reciting the Quran does not involve military actions. Hence, not every jihad is fighting and not every fighting is jihad. Jihad is also a call for freedom.

Jihad could be a military action. There are military actions that are not jihad. Ibn Khaldun divided wars into four kinds according to their motives. He said that the origin of all wars is the desire for revenge. But two kinds of wars constitute transgression and turmoil: competitive war (expansive war) and transgressive war waged by brutal nations.

The other two kinds are just wars: one waged out of anger for the sake of Almighty Allah and His religion, which is the meaning of jihad, and the other waged against those who rebel against authorities, which is a war to safeguard the regime as he called it.

Declaring war against others on the false pretext of “jihad” is something strongly disapproved of by any religion as well as by any sound mind. It distorts the pure image of Islam, drives others away from it, and misrepresents the true concept of jihad, reducing it to militia operations, murder, and destruction.

Abdullah Yusuf Ali:

He further endorses these views: “War is permissible in self-defence and under well defined limits. When undertaken it must be pushed with vigour, but not relentlessly, but only to reinforce peace and freedom for divine worship”. Further on he says: “Islam is the religion of peace, good will, mutual understanding and good faith. But it will not encourage wrongdoing, and its men will hold their lives cheap in defence of honour, justice and religion, which they hold sacred. Their ideal is that of heroic virtue combined with unselfish gentleness and tenderness, such as is exemplified in the life of the prophet (peace be upon him). They believe in courage, obedience, discipline, duty and constant striving by all means in their power, physical, moral, intellectual and spiritual for the establishment of truth and righteousness”.

Muhammad Asad:

A contemporary European commentator of the Quran understands the following from these verses: “These verses lay down unequivocally that only in self-defence (in the widest sense of the word) makes war permissible for the Muslims”. “Permission to fight is given to those against whom war is wrongfully waged” (Al Hajj: 39). This verse lays down the fundamental principle of self-defence as the only possible justification of war” (The message of the Quran P51). Further evidence for the defensive war comes from the prophet’s march to Tabuk in the 9th year of Hijrah. When the Romans failed to appear on the battlefield, the Prophet did not go and attack. He returned home with his mighty army of 30,000 soldiers”.