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Islam FAQ
What is Jihad?

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Muslims themselves disagree on what jihad is supposed to mean. Many modernists in the West deny that it has anything to do with violence. The Council on American-Islamic Relations, a Washington-based group, asserts that jihad "does not mean 'holy war.'" Instead, jihad is "a central and broad Islamic concept that includes the struggle to improve the quality of life in society, struggle in the battlefield for self-defense . . . or fighting against tyranny or oppression." CAIR even denies that Islam includes any concept of a "holy war."

In the Qur'an, however, and even in later Muslim usage, the term jihad is usually followed by the expression fi sabil Illah, which means "in the path of God." The description of violence against the enemies of the Muslim community as jihad fi sabil Illah gave a sacred meaning to what was otherwise just tribal warfare.

The Hadith is a collection of reports of sayings and actions of Muhammad, and it follows the Qur'an as the most important source of Islamic law. In Hadith collections, jihad almost always refers to armed action. As an example, there are nearly 200 references to jihad in the most standard collection of hadith, Sahih al-Bukhari, and all assume that jihad means warfare. It is not surprising, then, that the majority of classical theologians, jurists, and traditionalists understand jihad in a military sense.

Contrary to popular perception, jihad is not about forced conversions. It certainly may have filled that role very early on, when Islam was first expanding, but that hasn't been the case for a very long time. It is instead a political goal: bringing as much of the world under the control of Islam as is possible. This then allows for the fulfillment of two other goals: promoting Islam among non-Muslims and establishing a just political and social order (only possible under Islam).

Ibn Taymiya (1268-1328) took an even more active view of j'ihad. He argued that a ruler who fails to enforce the Shari'a (Islamic law) in all aspects forfeits his right to rule - thus, jihad against this ruler becomes acceptable, if not mandatory. One of the aspects of Shari'a which a Muslim ruler must enforce is, in fact, jihad itself - but against the enemies of Islam, especially those who threaten it form the outside. Taymiya's thoughts have heavily influenced Muslim extremists in the twentieth century, including the Muslim Brotherhood and Osama bin Laden.

But the root meaning of jihad simply refers to "effort," and that sense of the word never entirely disappeared. Thus, it is not unreasonable to point to jihad as involving both inward struggle (directed against evil in oneself) and also an outward one (against injustice in society or the world generally).

A Hadith expounds upon this understanding by recounting how Muhammad, upon returning from a victorious battle, told others that "We have returned from the lesser jihad (al-jihad al-asghar) to the greater jihad (al-jihad al-akbar)." When asked what this "greater jihad" could be in relation to the battle just fought, he informed them that it was the struggle "against oneself."

Of course, it must be noted that this particular Hadith does not appear in any of the authoritative collections, and even with the idea that the "greater jihad" is against internal evil, it nevertheless remains true that the battle against external evil remains a valid form of jihad. This Hadith has, however, been very influential among Sufi mystics through the centuries.

With this we can see the three principle paths of understanding jihad that have developed over the years. The first is a mandatory effort by the entire ummah (community of believers) to defend and expand Dar al-Islam (the house of Islam, contrasted with "Dar al-Harb," the house of war, which is every place not ruled by Muslims). The second, and closely related, is Ibn Taymiya's idea of an active jihad against even internal problems as a fundamental characteristic of legitimate rule. The third and final is the more mystical notion of a "greater jihad" which involves the struggle against one's own internal problems.

All of these together have, to an extent, come together to develop modern notions of a peaceful jihad. More liberal Muslims still see jihad as a necessary and fundamental component of their religion, but they are trying to understand it in a nonviolent way which allows for peaceful coexistence with other religions.

Fazlur Rahman, for example, has argued that jihad exists so that Islam can accomplish its social and political goals of justice and equality:

There is no doubt that the Qurían wanted Muslims to establish a political order on earth for the sake of creating an egalitarian and just moral-social order. Jihad is the instrument for doing so.

But not all Muslims today believe that jihad should be peaceful - some, in fact, explicitly recommend violence and war. Important examples of this strain of thought are Hasan al-Banna (1906-49) and Sayyid Qutb (1906-56), who followed Taymiya's arguments that jihad includes the overthrow of governments that fail to enforce the Shari'a, but then added that this jihad must occur first, before any jihad against external enemies can take place.

Muhammad 'Abd al-Salam Faraj wrote a pamphlet called The Neglected Duty, which is perhaps the best expression of this sort of thinking. This work was used to explain and justify the actions of those who assassinated Egyptian leader Anwar as-Sadat, and its author was executed right along with those directly involved in the plot.

Faraj argued not simply that armed, violent jihad is a cornerstone of Islam, but also that it is something which has been woefully negelected by Muslims in recent decades. This neglect is the direct cause of the current position of Islam in the world. To rectify this situation, force is required. Most current leaders of Muslim nations are defined as apostates - and since Islam traditionally prohibits warfare among Muslims, the assertion that these leaders are not "really" Muslims allows for violent action against them.

We are required to focus on our Islamic duties, first to apply the Law of God (the Shari'a) and the Word of God. And there can be no doubt that the first battleground of jihad is the removing of those shackles of unbelief that constrain us and substituting for them an Islamic order.

Ayatollah Khomeini believed similarly, arguing that Muslisms "by means of jihad and enjoining the good and forbidding the evil, must expose and overthrow tyrannical rulers and rouse the people so the universal movement of all alert Muslims can establish Islamic government in the place of tyrannical regimes."

And after the current crop of apostates has been dealt with, the next step of course is to expand the boundaries of Dar al-Islam in an effort to elimate Dar al-Harb completely. This proposal is partically messianic in nature, exhorting Muslims to ensure that the Shari'a is completely enforced so that a truly just social and political order will exist.

These ideas of a violent jihad are not the ravings of a few fringe lunatics. On the contrary, they are ideas which have influenced Islamic fundamentalism and Islamic political movements throughtout the Middle East. That these ideas have gained legitimacy is the reason why an extremists like Osama bin Laden can say to someone:

I know that you are living in stifiling poverty while other Muslims are living the good life, and I know why this is so. It is because our so-called Muslim leaders are really apostates who have sold out to the godless infidels of the West, corrupting our society and our religion. But if we fight back, restore the Shari'a, and drive off the disbelievers, then everything will be fine because a new, just social order just as Allah desires will be established.

And he won't be laughed at or driven off as someone who is polluting the pure, peaceful nature of Islam.

Even leading Muslim clerics send mixed messages regarding how peaceful Islam is. Two days before the September 11th attacks, Hamza Yusuf was outside the White House giving a speech in which he said that the U.S. "stands condemned," and that "this country has a great, great tribulation coming to it."

On September 20th, he was meeting with the president, having joined with other religious leaders in a show of unity. There, he said that Islam had been hijacked, and now he says he regrets his earlier statements.

So if groups like CAIR wish to argue that jihad should not include violence, they are welcome to do so. However, they should not pretend that jihad has not historically included violence, and that a Muslim cannot believe in a violent jihad while also being theologically consistent.

There are Muslim traditions of a personal, non-violent jihad, and modern Muslims can make use of them. But they won't succeed if they simply deny the existence and validity of the more standard traditions. They must instead demonstrate that theirs is ultimately the superior choice out of many.


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