When most people hear the word jihad the first thing that comes to mind is Holy War by Muslims against all non-Muslims. Is this the actual meaning of jihad, or has this term been misused? How was jihad defined by Prophet Muhammad (pbuh)1, the prophet of Islam? How has jihad been used by Muslims after the death of Muhammad (pbuh)? Has the media presented the Islamic or an alternative meaning of jihad to the public? Is jihad the struggle against one’s self or is it holy war? One fifth of the human population2 has taken Islam as their way of life and it is very important that the real concept of jihad in Islam is presented in its truest form. Jihad means struggle and the greatest struggle is against the self.
The term jihad is taken from the origin of the word from the Arabic verb "jahada" which means to struggle or fight. When discussed in an Islamic context it is mans struggle against nature, man and himself. Man struggles against nature to protect himself from the weather, disease, natural disasters, and from animals that may do him harm. This struggle against nature is not the same as it was 1400 years ago because of advances in technology. We have better housing, living conditions, climate control, vaccinations and technologies that warn us when there is the threat of inclement weather. With all these advances the struggle continues because there are new viruses, no absolute defense against natural disasters, and many people are still getting attacked by wild animals every year. The struggles against nature will always exist. Man throughout history has struggled against one another in matters of land, ideology, wealth and religion. Some of these struggles have been resolved peacefully like the United States and Russia did during the cold war or not so peacefully like the United States and Iraq during this present war. Man’s struggle against man can be traced back Biblically to Cain verses Abel Genesis 4:8, “…So it came about that while they were in the field Cain proceeded to assault his brother and kill him”. This shows one person against another, and there are also wars where communities are against communities, and nations are against nations. This is nothing new and as long as men continue not to disagree agreeably this will continue to exist. Man verses himself is so universal that it effects all men in every society and in all times. There is never a time when man is not with himself. Man struggles constantly with his emotions, morality, mortality, sexuality, and religious beliefs. He struggles to do what’s right in his home in the work place and society at large. These struggles are inescapable. This is why the jihad of the self is called great because it has to be waged at all times and in all places.
The Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) like all prophets before him came to teach men how to be moral and upright. He was not an advocate of war nor did he take part in many. In her book "Muhammed," author Karen Armstrong writes:
Fighting and warfare might sometimes be necessary, but it was only a minor part of the whole jihad or struggle. A well-known tradition (hadith) has Muhammad saying on returning from a battle, ' We return from the little jihad to the greater jihad,' the more difficult and crucial effort to conquer the forces of evil in oneself and in one's own society in all the details of daily life.
Muhammad exhorted his companions to the worship of God alone and to self purification (jihad). While being oppressed in Mecca Muhammad never lifted a finger in his or his followers’ defense. “The opposition began with ridicule and harassment and rapidly accelerated into an economic boycott and a threat to his personal life (Dr. Bashir Datoo 49). Muhammad and his followers were constantly beaten, spat on and two of them Samayya and her husband Yasser were murdered. Their murders and the continued persecution of the early Muslims caused the first migration of the Muslims from Mecca to Abyssinia and a later migration to Yathrib later named Medina. In Medina the first Islamic state was established 623 AD. There were Jews and Christians and pagans living there among each other in peace. There neither was any holy war (jihad) used to establish the Islamic State of Medina nor was there any compulsion used in trying to convert the non-Muslims. In Islam God has said “There is no compulsion in religion,” (Holy Qur’an 2:256). When Muhammad and his followers returned victoriously to Mecca not one drop of blood was shed, and all that were there were forgiven. If jihad “holy war” was to be waged against all non-Muslims all the pagans of Mecca and Jews and Christians in Medina would have been killed. Islamic historian Jafar Subhani writes in his book the Message,
Buoyed by the quickening pace of his revolution, the Prophet wrote letters and sent emissaries to neighboring rulers and heads of other religions to invite them to the fold of Islam. He set the stage for what unfolded, diffusion of Islam through vast areas of the Old World in the succeeding centuries. This was not achieved, as historians had previously alleged, by the force of the “sword,” rather, as they themselves now readily acknowledge, by the intrinsic “appeal” of the message itself. This appeal had to do with the emphasis that Islam laid on the moral and ethical development of a just and equitable society.
Muhammad led by example and his example was one of love, forgiveness and admonishing people to do good deeds and purify themselves through prayer, fasting and charity truly the great jihad.
After the death of Prophet Muhammad, Islam continued to expand at an unprecedented rate. However the Muslims were divided after the Prophet’s death into two main groups the Sunnis and the Shiites. The divide came because one group the Sunnis believed that the Prophet never named a successor to follow him so one needed to be elected and the other “Shiites” believed that any successor to any Prophet had to be divinely chosen. This split did not lead to any wars directly following the death of the Prophet and the leaders that followed him were careful not to use compulsion in converting the people to Islam. This may seem contradictory and controversial in view of the state of Islam today in a place like Iraq where civil war between the Sunnis and Shiites is taking place. Some leaders from among the Islamic sects do see this type of fighting as Jihad, holy war, against other Muslims that don’t exactly believe the same way they do, they refer to them as Kufars “non-believers” and they feel like it is their duty to purify the Muslim ranks of these non-believers. These groups misinterpret passages and verses from the Qur’an and traditions to try to justify their actions. Craig Branch agrees when writes, “A small percentage of Muslims who are from the extreme, radical and violent wing of Islamic Fundamentalism, and who are "...passionate, [deeply] religious and anti-Western...” might dwell on passages or verses dealing with conflict, war, and resistance to oppression.” The majority of Muslims adhere to the advice that was given by Ali ibn Abi Taleb3 to his governor in Egypt, “Oh Malik always remember that if a man is not your brother in faith he is your brother in humanity” (Ordak 86). So despite the few renegades the majority of the Muslims view the greater jihad as, “the intimate struggle to purify one's soul of evil influences -- both subtle and overt. It is the struggle to cleanse one's spirit of sin” (Al-Hajj Talib 'Abdur-Rashid).
In recent years Islam has come under attack in the media some justified some not. The biggest buzz words used by the media are Islamic Jihad, terrorism and fundamentalism. All have become terms that non-Muslims view as calls for all Muslims to unite against them. The majority of the conflicts that involves Muslims take place in the Middle East where there are mostly Arabs involved. This is ironic because the vast majority of Muslims are non-Arabs and according to Abdulrahman Al-Motrif, “Arabs only make up ten percent of the world wide population of Muslims”, and it seems like the call for holy war comes from that part of the world according to the media. Osama bin Laden is from Saudi Arabia and it has been reported that the majority of the hijackers in the 911 tragedy were also from Saudi Arabia. Some Muslims have begun to adopt the westernized view of jihad that has been reported from the Middle East by the media, that they should fight non-Muslims. This goes against the thinking of the majority of the Muslims and against what God says in the Qur’an, “Invite (all) to the Way of thy Lord with wisdom and beautiful preaching; and reason with them in ways that are best and most gracious: for thy Lord knoweth best, who have strayed from His Path, and who receive guidance”. (H.Q. 16:125). It would be unfair to say that all media on Islam has been negative, many in the media have tried to explain the Islamic view of jihad most notably, PBS video "Muhammad: Legacy of a Prophet" (Dec. 18, 2002), The PBS video "Islam: Empire of Faith" (2001) and History Channel/A & E's (summer 2002) "Inside Islam". The media it seems has been reflective of society, some view Islam as a terrorist religion bent on ruling the world through holy war and others see the few renegades as derelicts misrepresenting what Islam and jihad are ultimately about. Although the overwhelming reports given by the media has shown jihad to mean holy war there are those that have championed jihad as the struggle against the self.
The question still remains, is jihad the struggle against the self or holy war? The answer is, it is both. Jihad means struggle and struggles exist internally and externally. Jihad of self on a personal level involves as stated by Al-Hajj Talib 'Abdur-Rashid:
Putting "Allah ahead of our loved ones, our wealth, our worldly ambitions and our own lives."
Resisting pressure of parents, peers and society; strive against "the rejecters of faith..." (Quran 25:52)
"...strive and struggle to live as true Muslims..."
"Striving for righteous deeds."
Spreading the message of Islam. "The (true) believers are only those who believe in Allah and his messenger and afterward doubt not, but strive with their wealth and their selves for the cause of Allah. Such are the truthful." (Quran, 49:15)
He further stated jihad has a verbal level:
To strive for justice through words and non-violent actions. Muhammad encouraged Muslims to demand justice in the name of Allah. When asked: "'What kind of jihad is better?' Muhammad replied, 'A word of truth in front of an oppressive ruler!'" According to the Institute of Islamic Information and Education: "The life of the Prophet Muhammad was full of striving to gain the freedom to inform and convey the message of Islam. During his stay in Makkah [Mecca] he used non-violent methods and after the establishment of his government in Madinah [Medina], by the permission of Allah, he used armed struggle against his enemies whenever he found it inevitable."
He final says jihad has a physical level:
This relates to the use of physical force in defense of Muslims against oppression and transgression by the enemies of Allah, Islam and Muslims. Allah commands that Muslims lead peaceful lives and not transgress against anyone. If they are persecuted and oppressed, the Qur'an recommends that they migrate to a more peaceful and tolerant land: "Lo! Those who believe and those who emigrate (to escape persecution) and strive (Jahadu) in the way of Allah, these have hope of Allah's mercy..." (Quran, 2:218). If relocation is not possible, then Allah also requires Muslims to defend themselves against oppression by "fighting against those who fight against us." The Qur'an states: "To those against whom war is made, permission is given [to defend themselves], because they are wronged - and verily, Allah is Most Powerful to give them victory." (Quran 22:39)
The above references show that both views of jihad are used in Islam. It can also be said from the above references that violence is looked at as the final alternative to resolving issues. It shows that problems should be talked out and if that isn’t working that one should leave the place where the conflicts are taking place to avoid physical fighting. Then when all else has failed permission has been given to fight in order to protect oneself. Nowhere in the Qur’an or tradition of the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) is there to be found any passage that makes it okay for a Muslim to be aggressive against any other human being. The Qur’an urges Muslims to fight against the oppressions and transgressions from the enemies of Islam and it warns the Muslims not to transgress the limits of others, “And fight in the way of Allah those who fight with you, and do not exceed the limits, surely Allah does not love those who exceed the limits”. (Quran 2:190)
Ayatollah Aga Pooya in his commentary of this verse says:
. Islam promotes peace, order and harmony in the human society and keeps man on the right path. When the enemies of Islam found that the light of this message was sweeping darkness from every corner, the disbelievers vowed to annihilate it. It was only then that, no recourse being left for the believers, they had to resolutely take up the sword in defense. Verses 39 and 40 of al Hajj also give permission to fight when any people is wronged, oppressed and persecuted.
If Numbers 25: 1 to 3 and 31: 7 to 18 in the Old Testament are read carefully one comes to the conclusion that when the Israelites, in Shitim, began to worship the gods of Moab the Lord God asked Moses to "take all the leaders of the people and hurl them down to their death before the Lord."
And they made war on Midians as the Lord has commanded Moses, and slew all the men. The Israelites took captive the Madianite women and children, and carried off all their cattle, their flocks and their property. They burnt all their cities. Moses asked them to kill every male child and every women who has had intercourse with a man.
So in the way of Allah, the prophets were commanded to put an end to the activities of the disbelievers who wanted to destroy the true devotees of Allah in order to stop the advancement and progress of the religion of Allah. The Quran commands the Muslims not to exceed the limits but to fight evil until its power base is dislodged, and if the kafirs (non believers)desist then to show mercy.Compared to what the other prophets did, as commanded by Allah, to destroy the unbelievers, the role assigned to the Holy Prophet as the "mercy unto the worlds" was the most benign of all the campaigns undertaken by His messengers to liberate mankind from the clutches of the enemies of Allah. He fought and killed the enemy whenever war was imposed on him.
Here Pooya shows how other Prophets (pbut) killed their enemies and how Muhammad was told to desist killing the enemy if they stopped fighting.
In conclusion Islam is growing about 2.9% per year which is faster than the total world population which increases at about 2.3% annually. It is thus attracting a progressively larger percentage of the world's population4. This is happening despite the overwhelming negative reports given by the media. According to aimpress.com, “6.4% of the world's population is converting to Moslem every year.” They aren’t converting to Moslem they are converting to Islam. The Middle East Media Research Institute reported that after 9/11, 34,000 Americans converted to Islam. In an article written in the New York Times October 2001 says, “One expert estimates that 25,000 people a year become Muslims in this country; some clerics say they have seen conversion rates quadruple since Sept. 11. With people entering the religion of Islam in such great numbers, reason must dictate that the Holy war that is being waged has to be one of the intellect and not of weapons. More people are asking about Islam and the answers they are finding are that Islam appeals to them and they are converting. Most people want peace and statistics show that more people are moving toward Islam which incidentally means peace. This shows that although jihad means Holy war more people believe that it is the struggle of each individual to please his maker. Again both views of jihad are present in Islam but as the Prophet Muhammad has said,”The best jihad [struggle] is (by) the one who strives against his own self for Allah, The Mighty and Majestic."