Understanding Jihad

By Farida Khanam
Date: 4 July 2000

In its literal sense jihad in Arabic simply means struggle - striving to one's utmost to further a worthy cause. There is a difference, however between the word, struggle and jihad. The word struggle does not connote the sense of reward or worship in the religious sense of the word. But when the word jihad became a part of Islamic terminology, the sense of reward or worship came to be associated with it, that is to say, if struggle is struggle in the simple sense of word, jihad means a struggle which is an act of worship, the engagement of which earns reward to the person concerned. As the Quran says: Strive for the cause of God as you ought to strive.(22:78)

In its literal sense jihad in Arabic simply means struggle - striving to one's utmost to further a worthy cause. As we say in English, "We must struggle against this prejudice".

It is a common human trait to work very hard in order to achieve some goal. There are words in every language including Arabic, to express this human quality. The word Jihad conveys this same sense of striving, that is, a great striving.

There is a difference, however between the word, struggle and jihad. The word "struggle" does not connote the sense of reward or worship in the religious sense of the word. But when the word jihad became a part of Islamic terminology, the sense of reward or worship came to be associated with it, that is to say, if struggle is struggle in the simple sense of word, jihad means a struggle which is an act of worship, the engagement of which earns reward to the person concerned. As the Quran says:

"Strive for the cause of God as you ought to strive." (22:78)

Jihad in the Dictionary
The root of the word jihad is judh, which means striving one's utmost. For instance we say in Arabic bazala juhduhu (I exerted my  utmost struggle). Jihad or ijtihad thus means, striving one's utmost in any matter.

The word Jihad in the Quran
The word Jihad or its derivative has appeared in the Quran for four times in the same literal sense, as we find in the Arabic dictionary. At each place it has been used in the sense of effort and strength and not in the sense of  war and fighting.

The first verse in the Quran in this connection is: "Say: 'If your father, your sons, your brothers, your wives, your tribes, the property you have acquired, the commerce in which you fear a decline, the homes in which you love, are dearer to you than God. His Apostle and the striving in his cause (Jihad fi sabilihii), then wait until God shall fulfill his decree. God does not guide the rebellious." (9:24)

In this verse of the Quran the Muslims are enjoined to extend their full support to the mission of the prophet, to the extent of making sacrifices. Here the phrase "jihad fisabilil lah" has appeared for helping the Prophet in his mission of dissemination of the message of Islam, and not for waging war.

Another verse of Quran says:

"Do not listen to the unbelievers, but strive with them strenuously with it (the Quran)" (22:52)

The word jihad is again clearly used for the mission of the Prophet . No other sense can be implied by the word jihad in this context of doing jihad with the Quran.

The word jihad has appeared in the Quran for the third time in chapter titled "Mumtahana" .

"If you have come out to strive in My Way and seek My Good pleasure." (60:1)

This verse was revealed shortly before the conquest of Mecca. The Prophet was preparing for the journey from Mudinah to Makkah. It was indeed a peaceful journey made for achieving peaceful results in the form of Hudaiybiya peace treaty. One incident makes it clear that it was a march of peace. For during this march one Muslim uttered these words aloud: "Today is the day of fighting". The Prophet  responded immediately, saying that " No today is the day of mercy."

The fourth time the Quran has used this word in chapter 22:

"And strive in his cause as you ought to strive." (22:78)

Here too jihad  is used for struggle for the cause of God's religion.

The word "Jihad" has nowhere  been used in the Quran to mean in the sense of war in the sense of launching an offensive. It is used rather to mean struggle. For fighting and war another word called qital is used. Qital is to engage in war at the time of aggression on the part of the enemies. The qital or war is purely in self-defence in accordance in accordance with God's commandment also involves a struggle this came to be called jihad as well.

The command of war in Islam

There are certain verses in the Quran conveying the command to do battle (qital) 22:39. The first point in this connection is that the launching of an offensive by the believers is not totally forbidden. It is permissible with certain conditions. The Quran states:

"Fight for the sake of God those that fight against you, but do not be aggressive."(2:190)

This clearly shows that only defensive war is permitted in Islam. The believers are allowed to fight in self defence. Initiating hostility is not permitted for Muslims. The Quran says: "They were the first to attack you." (9:13)

What is to be noted is that even in the case of the offensive being launched by the other party, the believer's are not supposed to retaliate immediately. Instead, all efforts should be made to avert war. Only when avoidance has become impossible battle is the inevitably resorted to in defence.

This stand point is fully supported by the example of the Prophet.

The biographers of the Prophet have put the number of ghazwa (battle) at more than 80. This gives the impression that the Prophet of Islam in his 23 year Prophetic career waged four battles in a year. But this impression is entirely baseless. The truth is that in his entire Prophetic life , he engaged in war only on three occasions. All the other incidents described as ghazwa (war) were intact examples of avoidance of war, and not instances of involvement  in battle.

For instance, in this books of Seerah (Biography) the incident of Al Ahzab is called a ghazwa (battle), where as truth is that on this occasion, the armed tribes of Arabia, twelve thousand in number, reached the borders of Madina for waging war, but the Prophet advised his Companions to dig a trench between them. This successfully prevented a battle from taking place. The same is the case of with all the other incidents called ghazwa.

The opponents of the Prophet repeatedly tried to get him embroiled in war, but on all such occasions, he managed to resort for some such strategy as averted the war, thus defusing the situation invariably.

There are only three instances of Muslims really entering the field of battle. Badr, Uhud and Hunayn. The events tell us that at all these occasions, war had become inevitable.

The prophet was compelled to encounter the aggressors in self-defence. Furthermore, these battles lasted only for  half a day, each beginning from noon and ending with the setting of the sun.

Thus, it would be proper to say that the Prophet in his entire life-span had actively engaged in war for a total of a day and a half that is to say, the Prophet had observed the principle of non-violence throughout his 23-year Prophetic carrier, except one and a half days.

Another well-known instance of the Prophet's dislike for hostilities is the Hudaibiyyah peace treaty made by accepting, unilaterally, all the conditions of the enemy. In the case of the conquest of Mecca, he avoided battle altogether by making a rapid entry into the city with ten thousands Muslims - a number large enough to awe his enemies into submission. In this way, on all occasions, the Prophet endeavored to achieve his objectives by peaceful means.

This makes it quite clear that Muslims are not permitted to initiate hostilities. Except in cases where self-defence has become inevitable. The Quran in no circumstances gives permission for wanton violence.

In the past, when the sword was the only weapon of war, militancy did not lead to mass loss of life and property such as modern warfare brings in its wake. In former times, fighting was confined to the battlefield; the only sufferers were those engaged in the battle. But today, the spear and the sword have been replaced by megabombs and devastating long range missiles, so that killing and destruction take place on a horrendous scale. It is the entire human community which has now become the global arena of war. Even the air we breathe and the water we drink are left polluted in war's aftermath. Hence people find Islam outdated and irrelevant today precisely because of its militant interpretation.

What is needed is to discard the militant and political interpretation of Islam, and to adopt the original 'old' version of Islam based on peace, mercy and the love of mankind. The so called Muslim Fundamentalists have been exhorting their co-religionists to do battle all over the world. But the Quran says: "...and God calls to the home of peace." (10:25).


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