Jihad is a frequently used but little understood word in the Western media, it is routinely translated as holy war, often makes headlines. For example, Yasir Arafat’s May 1994 call in Johannesburg for a “jihad to liberate Jerusalem” was a turning point in the peace process; Israelis heard him speak about using violence to gain political ends, and questioned his peaceable intentions. Both Arafat himself and his aides then clarified that he was speaking about a “peaceful jihad” for Jerusalem. Many Muslim groups state that Jihad “does not mean `holy war.’” Rather, it refers to “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.” In fact some Muslim scholars insist that no concept of “Holy War” actually exists in Islam. Despite this many Islamic militants would disagree and see the concept of Jihad as central to the war against the west, so does jihad mean a form of moral self-improvement or war in accord with Islamic precepts? There is no simple answer to this question, for Muslims for at least a millennium have disagreed about the meaning of jihad.

Jihad is a verbal noun with the literal meaning of striving or determined effort. The active participle mujahid means someone who strives or a participant in jihad. The term jihad in many contexts means fighting (though there are other words in Arabic that more unambiguously refer to the act of making war, such as qital or harb). In the Qur’an and in later Muslim usage, jihad is commonly followed by the expression fi sabil Illah, “in the path of God.” The description of warfare against the enemies of the Muslim community as jihad fi sabil Illah sacralized an activity that otherwise might have appeared as no more than the tribal warfare endemic in pre-Islamic Arabia. The belief that jihad should continue until Islam covers the entire world does not imply that the jurists of the Muslim faith expect Muslims to wage non-stop war. The Prophet Muhammad made a peace agreement with the Meccans in 630, the Treaty of Hudaybiya, and several of the early caliphs made peace treaties with the Byzantine Empire (some of which even required them to pay tribute to the Byzantines). Although there is no mechanism for recognizing a non-Muslim government as legitimate, the jurists built on these precedents to allow the negotiation of truces and peace treaties of limited duration. The jurists provide for military prudence, permitting the withdrawal of badly outnumbered or overpowered forces.

The jurists understand jihad not as an obligation of each individual Muslim but as a general obligation of the Muslim community. Only in emergencies, when Dar al-Islam comes under unexpected attack, do they expect all Muslims to participate in jihad warfare. Under normal circumstances, the failure of the community to fulfil the obligation of jihad is sinful; but an individual Muslim need not participate so long as other Muslims carry the burden.

What is clear is that Islamic law condemns all warfare that does not qualify as jihad, specifically all warfare among Muslims. Military action against Muslims is justified only by denying them the status of Muslims, classifying them as apostates or against legitimate authority. For example, when Caliph al-Ma’mun and his brother al-Amin struggled for control of the caliphate in 809-13, Ma’mun called Amin an apostate. Warfare is only one interpretation of the concept of jihad. The root meaning of effort never disappeared. Jihad may be an inward struggle (directed against evil in oneself) or an outward one (against injustice) so could even be defined as a struggle against temptation.

Jihad as a concept of a rallying cry to encourage all Muslims to rise up against the enemies of Islam has failed. The most systematic attempt to mobilize Muslims against the West, the Ottoman declaration of jihad against the Allies in 1914, failed entirely. With its declaration of war, the Ottoman regime simultaneously published a fatwa (ruling according to the Shari`a) calling the war a jihad that every Muslim had to participate in -- including the Muslim subjects of Russia, France, and Great Britain. More recent invocations of jihad have been equally ineffective. Frequent calls for jihad against Israel have not overcome division among Israel’s opponents or produced an effective mobilization of their capability against Israel. Saddam Hussein's call for a jihad against the United States, part of an overall effort to Islamize the image of his secular regime, may have resonated among Islamists but they did not affect the outcome of the crisis. The same applies to Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatullah `Ali Khamanei’s similar designation of war against U.S. forces as jihad. Neither pronouncement had significant political or military results.

Even in Afghanistan, where resistance fighters went by the title mujahidin, the idea of jihad had surprisingly little power. The Afghan cause did attract considerable support from the rest of the Islamic world, but only three Islamic states (Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, and Iran) actually allocated significant resources to the mujahidin. The other outside participants in the Afghan resistance were individuals who represented a marginal element within the Islamic world. Bin Laden’s calls for a Jihad against the US have also fallen flat to a large extent. The debate over the meaning of the word Jihad serves to illustrate the gap of understanding between the Muslim and Western worlds and sadly it is this gap in understanding which had lead to conflict.

How to cite this article: Dugdale-Pointon, T. (5 July 2005), Jihad, http://www.historyofwar.org/articles/concepts_jihad.html

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