Kaaba, Mecca, Saudi Arabia. Holiest site in Islam.
© Basil D Soufi
Kaaba, Mecca, Saudi Arabia. Holiest site in Islam.
Last updated: November 17, 2013

The Jihad blog – towards a definition

Banner Icon Jihad Is it possible to reach complete consensus on what jihad is? Charlie Cooper investigates as he continues with another blog post on the concept of jihad.

Before I really get stuck into the political history of jihad, it is important to set out early on that there is no one way to conclusively define the term. Most scholars steer clear of trying to, instead sticking to outlining the various arguments surrounding it, but, unsurprisingly, there are a few (at both ends of the spectrum) who believe they have cracked the term. They haven’t. There is no “cracking” jihad.  

Jahada (jihad its infinitive form) appears in the Quran 41 times and can be loosely translated as ‘to strive or struggle’. In English, though, just as in Arabic, struggle can mean pretty much anything – military, spiritual, financial. It should come as no surprise that, as historical, political and social circumstances changed for Muslims over the last 14 centuries, so did Muslim and non-Muslim understandings of jihad.

CONTEXT The Jihad blog, post 1

In the main, when it appears in the Quran, it has internal, spiritual connotations. And while there are over 150 references to violence or war in the Quran, they are usually derivatives of the verb qatala (‘to fight’), not jahada.

Even according to Islam’s two infallible sources, there is ambiguity on the subject.

In the hadith – that is, sayings directly attributed to the Prophet and thus Muslims’ other source of divine revelation – the story is slightly different. There are more explicit references to jihad in its military capacity, with entire volumes of hadiths devoted to it. At the same time, though, the hadith are replete with other references to jihad as something that is predominantly spiritual, not practical. Indeed, in one, Mohammed is alleged to have ruled that the more worthy, Greater Jihad (jihad al-akbar) is the spiritual, inner struggle; its violent, external manifestation defined as the Lesser Jihad (jihad al-asghar).

Even according to Islam’s two infallible sources, then, there is ambiguity on the subject. Neither defines it outright and, like many concepts in religion, it is left almost totally to personal interpretation.

This matters because it means that, by drawing on the Quran and hadith, militant Islamist groups can religiously justify – albeit tenuously – the use of violence to achieve their ends. Theological acrobatics is needed, but this matters little if the end result allows groups like al-Qa’ida to release a communiqué ordering Muslims ‘to kill the Americans and their allies – civilian and military’.

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Similarly, using the Quran and hadith, those with an Islamophobic agenda can argue that Islam is an inherently warlike religion. Most Islamophobes will use the same theological justifications as violent jihadists for evidence to support their blanket labelling of Islam as a religion of terror. Thus they are able to slander the religion furiously, but with minimal intellectual or academic effort.

This being the case, though, most Muslims interpret jihad as a spiritual struggle, an esoteric act that is performed in an attempt to become a better Muslim, to strive against human flaws like materialism and greed. An understanding of jihad that we do not often hear about, this is the case for nearly all Muslims – they strive mentally, not physically, towards spiritual attunement, their jihad is internal, peaceful, mystical.   

In my last post, I wrote that Islamist violence was based on a misinterpretation of religion. Perhaps I should have chosen my words more carefully, for violence can be justified by Islamic sources. But only if the person interpreting wills it to. This is no different to many other religion; when taken out of context, words, no matter how sacred, can be used to legitimate actions that are contrary to the overall message of any religion or movement.

Complete consensus on what jihad is, remains far out of our reach

Herein lies the problem with violence waged under the banner of jihad or any religiously legitimated violence, for that matter. Even if the use of violence against, say, civilians, is contrary to Islamic law (as the vast majority of Muslims would agree), certain Muslims who choose to justify their political struggles by labelling their military struggle a jihad can do so. Certainly, it leaves them scraping the theological barrel, but they can do it.

Today, complete consensus on what jihad is, remains far out of our reach. What we need to do in its absence is open our minds to the fact that it is an interpreted concept, no single thing, and that it therefore has no one bearing on what Islam as a religion and set of values is.  

Next time, I’m addressing jihad in the context of the Muslim conquests, a time incomparable to our own, when the acts it referred to were nothing, if not warlike.

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Charlie Cooper
Charlie is a London-based researcher of Middle Eastern politics and Islamist movements. He is currently based at the Quilliam Foundation and regularly contributes to the Next Century Foundation's Iran blog. He holds an MA in Middle Eastern Studies from KCL and a BA in Arabic from Edinburgh University. Opinions are his own.
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