The Meaning of Jihad

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This article is from the second edition of Jihad in the Qur’an: The Truth from the Source. The book is now in its third edition.

We will start our study of jihad by investigating the general meaning of this term in the Arabic language and its special meaning in the Qur’an.

“Jihad” in Arabic

The Arabic word “jihad” is a noun. Its singular past tense verb is “jahada” (masculine) or “jahadat” (feminine). The singular active participle of “jihad” is “mujahid” (masculine) or “mujahida“(feminine). The root of the word “jihad” is “juhd” which means “effort.” Another related word is “ijtihad“which means “working hard or diligently.”

Jihad is simply the process of “exerting the best efforts,” involving some form of “struggle” and “resistance,” to achieve a particular goal. In other words, jihad is the struggle against, or resistance to, something for the sake of a goal. The meaning of the word is independent of the nature of the invested efforts or the sought goal.

Contrary to common belief, the word “jihad” does not necessarily imply any violent effort, let alone “war” and such instances of extreme violence. It is a general term that can mean violent as well as peaceful actions, depending on the context in which it is used, as we shall indeed see later. Similarly, “jihad” as a generic word can be used even when the sought goals are not Islamic, i.e. in non-religious contexts.

The Qur’an uses the verb of “jihad” in its generic meaning of “exerting the best efforts against something” in the following two verses: 

And We have enjoined on man goodness to parents, but if they jahadaka (do jihad against you) to make you associate [a god] with Me, of which you have no knowledge [being a god], do not obey them. To Me is your return [O people!], so I shall inform you of your past deeds (29.8).

And We have enjoined on man to be good to his parents; his mother bears him in weakness upon weakness, and his weaning is in two years; and that [you must] be grateful to Me and to both your parents. To Me is the eventual coming (31.14). And if they jahadaka (do jihad against you) to make you associate [a god] with Me, of which you have no knowledge [being a god], do not obey them, but keep company with them in this world kindly; and follow the way of he who turns to Me. Then to Me is your [O people!] return, then I shall inform you of your past deeds (31.15).

Jihad in the verses above refers to actions taken by non-Muslim parents against their Muslim offspring to force them to worship other than Allah. This goal goes against the message of Islam which teaches the oneness of God, Allah; obviously this kind of jihad is not Islamic. The verses above also confirm the already mentioned fact that jihad is not necessarily an act of violence.

It is worth noting that the verses above command the Muslims to remain kind and caring toward their parents, but to resist any attempt by the latter to force them to give up the Islamic tenet of monotheism in favor of some polytheistic belief.

“Jihad” in the Qur’an

Aside from its use of the term “jihad” in its generic meaning in the two verses above, the Qur’an uses “jihad” in another twenty eight verses in a specific meaning. In this case, the phrase “fi sabili Allah“, which means “in the way of Allah” or “for the sake of Allah“, either follows “jihad,” or one of its derivatives, explicitly, or is implied by the context. For reference, Appendix A lists all thirty verses that mention the term “jihad” or any of its variations.

Contrary to the common belief that is embodied in the misinterpretation of “jihad” as “holy war,” Islamic jihad does not refer solely to fighting in the way of Allah. This, in fact, is a special case of jihad. The Qur’anic concept of jihad refers to exerting efforts, in the form of struggle against or resistance to something, for the sake of Allah. This effort can be fighting back armed aggression, but can also be resisting evil drives and desires in one’s self. Even donating money to the needy is a form of jihad, as it involves struggling against one’s selfishness and inner desire to keep one’s money for one’s own pleasures. Jihad can, therefore, be subdivided into armed jihad and peaceful jihad. Armed jihad, which is the subject of Chapter 4, is only temporary and is a response to armed aggression. Once the aggression has ceased, armed jihad comes to an end. Armed jihad, thus, can take place only when there is an aggressive, external enemy.

Causes of peaceful jihad, on the other hand, are always existent, which is why this form of jihad is permanent. One major form of peaceful jihad is the war of the Muslim against his “nafs,” an Arabic term that may be translated as the “lower self,” and which refers to the individual’s inferior drives and evil motives. This most dangerous enemy never disappears, hence this war knows no end.

The other form of peaceful jihad involves every act of peaceful struggle undertaken by the Muslim against external sources of evil. Preaching the message of Islam in a hostile environment, opposing an evil act, and all such peaceful good actions are instances of jihad because they involve some form of resistance and struggle to achieve a good goal. For instance, the Prophet’s patience at the accusations and abuse that the disbelievers directed at him for preaching the Qur’an was peaceful jihad: 

Therefore [O Muhammad!] be patient with what they say, and glorify your Lord by praising Him before the rising of the sun and before its setting, and during hours of the night do also glorify [Him], and during parts of the day, that you may be well satisfied (20.130).

It is interesting to note how the terms “jihad” and “Islam” relate to each other in Arabic and in the Qur’anic sense. Linguistically, the general term “jihad,” which refers to “struggle” and “resistance,” has almost exactly the opposite meaning of the general term “Islam,” which means “surrender” or “submission.” The Qur’anic “jihad,” however, which is about resisting the lower self and other sources and forms of evil, is the route that the individual must take to attain the state of Qur’anic “Islam” or “submission to Allah.”

Although Islamic jihad is a Qur’anic concept, the Qur’an, in reality, is rarely consulted for understanding this concept. The widespread misunderstanding of jihad can only be attributed to an endemic neglect of the Qur’an, not only by non-Muslims, but by Muslims as well. The Qur’an has charged Muslims with the responsibility of educating others about its message and disseminating its teachings. Unfortunately, Muslims have had a big share in propagating the common misunderstanding that jihad is all about violence. Many Muslims think that “jihad” means “holy war.” It is a sad but undeniable fact that many Muslims learn about Islamic practices and concepts, such as jihad, from secondary, often unreliable, sources. It is not uncommon even for cultural beliefs and narratives to be among those sources.

Those who misunderstand the Qur’anic term jihad as armed jihad only have totally failed to notice, among other things, this particularly important fact: in the majority of verses in which the Qur’an talks about fighting the enemy, it uses variations of the word “qital,” which means “fighting.” Here are some examples, and we will encounter more later on: 

And qatilu (fight) [O you who believe!] in the way of Allah, and know that Allah is Hearing, Knowing (2.244).

Falyuqatil (then let) those who sell this world’s life for the hereafter (fight) in the way of Allah. And whoever yuqatil (fights) in the way of Allah so he gets killed or turns victorious, We shall grant him a great reward (4.74).

Faqatil (then fight) [O Muhammad!] in the way of Allah; you are not held responsible but for yourself; and urge the believers [to fight]. May be Allah will restrain the might of the disbelievers; and Allah is greatest in might and greatest in punishment (4.84).

The term jihad actually refers to the more general concept of exerting efforts in the way of Allah, of which fighting the enemy, or armed jihad, is only one aspect. In Qur’anic terminology, it is wrong to equate the words “jihad” and “qital,” as this reduces a broad concept to a more specific one.

Let’s look at an example. The Qur’an refers in several verses to doing jihad with “one’s properties and self,” i.e. sacrificing one’s properties and self in the cause of Islam, as in the following verse: 

The believers are those who believe in Allah and His Messenger, then do not doubt [the verity of Islam], and jahadu (do jihad) with their properties and selves in the way of Allah; those are the truthful (49.15).

It is simply wrong to suggest that the verb jahadu (do jihad) in this verse is equivalent to the verb qatalu (fight). Doing jihad with one’s properties and self in the way of Allah covers every effort that the person exerts to please Allah. Even when such efforts are in connection with a war, they would include more than the act of fighting. In other words, jihad is more than armed jihad, which itself is more than just fighting. Going to war means coping with the fear of getting killed or seriously injured, overcoming concerns over the family and properties that the person left behind, losing earnings for being out of work during that time, and all such testing sacrifices. Braving the heat of the desert sun when traveling to and from the battle field is one aspect of armed jihad that is different from fighting itself: 

Those who were left behind were glad to stay home and not join the Messenger of Allah. They were averse to yujahidu (do jihad) with their properties and selves, and said [to other Muslims]: “Do not go forth in the heat.” Say [O Muhammad!]: “The fire of hell is far hotter,” if they understand (9.81).

The following verses make the point absolutely clear. They detail a number of different forms of hardship involved in armed jihad; the act of fighting itself is only one of those hardships: 

It would not be fitting for the people of al-Madina and the Bedouin Arabs of the neighborhood to stay home and not join the Messenger of Allah, nor should they hold themselves back from doing what he wants them to do. That is because no thirst, fatigue, or hunger in the way of Allah afflicts them; no path they tread which angers the disbelievers; and no success they achieve against an enemy but a righteous deed is written down for them on account of it. Surely, Allah does not waste the reward of the doers of good (9.120). And they do not spend anything, small or great, or cut across a valley but it is written down for them [as a credit], that Allah may reward them according to the best of their past deeds (9.121).

Qital in the way of Allah is, thus, only one aspect of armed jihad. It is, however, the most prominent aspect and the climax of that form of jihad, which is why it is usually possible to use “qital in the way of Allah” and “armed jihad” interchangeably. Armed jihad in turn is one of two forms of jihad; the second is peaceful jihad.

So, one major aspect of the widespread misunderstanding of “jihad” is reducing it to “fighting in the way of Allah.” What has made this confusion of “jihad” with “fighting” particularly disastrous is another serious misunderstanding, which is that of the characteristics of Islamic fighting, i.e. “fighting in the way of Allah.” The erroneous view of the Qur’anic concept of fighting in the way of Allah has been extended to the Qur’anic concept of jihad. Thus, the true Qur’anic meanings of “jihad” and “fighting in the way of Allah” have both been distorted.

In the next chapter, we will study armed jihad. The other, more permanent form of jihad, peaceful jihad, is examined in Chapter 5.

          

Copyright © 2004 Louay Fatoohi
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3 thoughts on “The Meaning of Jihad

  1. Jihad has been mentioned in the stories -Hadith- of mohammed (pbuh) as fighting those who are fighting us and who are fighting us is fighting Islam. So I hate when i see some Muslims try to void Jihad from this meaning just to show to the non-muslim that Jihad is peaceful.
    yes Jihad is peaceful but also it’s not peaceful to whom are fighting us, explaining Jihad as peaceful thing to who support wars in the Islamic countries and who fight us is something (Idiot).
    Mohammed (Pbup) has been sent to teach us the Quran so use his Hadith to explain the word of Jihad
    by using Quran and Hadith it’s clear to see that fighting and Jihad are the same thing.
    1- Jihad is this: if they used the bible and studies and whatever like media to attack the Islam and to prove its wrong we will use the Quran and Hadith and studies and media to prove it’s true that’s a type of Jihad
    2- if they used Weapons we will use weapons and this is also Jihad end of story.

  2. Isn’t it true that all people originated from several tribes coming out of captivity in Egypt from the same parent (Abraham) and that all 3 main religions believe in one (same)God? If so why don’t we embrace one another instead of being suspicious of one anothers’ intentions.There are a majority of good and many fewer bad people in all areas of the world but it does not mean that the folly of a few should overshadow the wisdom of the many.

  3. jihad do certainly have many rule as per given by caliphs that one should not hurt the children,women or elders. the tress and nature should not be harmed, and if the enemy themselves accept Islam, war should be ended. Almighty Allah and beloved Prophet (P.B.U.H) knew that all are not evil this is why He promised the ones hiding in the houses, that they are secure. My friends, Islam is a religion of peace.

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