What Does "Jihad" Really Mean to Muslims?

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Hathout adds: "It is quite clear that if there is any other option to resolve an issue without violence it is preferred no matter what."

While that may be the letter of the scripture, however, there is no escaping the violent contexts within which some extremists wage what they consider jihad. Responding to calls for jihad, fighters leave their own lands to fight in Afghanistan, Iraq, and elsewhere. Terrorist groups adopt the term and frame their cause under its auspices.

One of many examples is Al-Jihad (also known as Islamic Jihad and Egyptian Islamic Jihad), the group responsible for the 1981 assassination of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat, and committed to the overthrow of the Egyptian government, the establishment of an Islamic state, and attacks against U.S. and Israeli interests. This group has merged with Osama bin Laden's al Qaeda organization, another terrorist faction that has employed the language of jihad.

Hathout notes that extremist fringes in Islam, as in other religions, have long used religious philosophies to justify their actions. "It's really the onset of technology, the ability for small numbers of people to wreak significant destruction, and have those acts widely publicized, that has led to the increased attention on them."

"It's categorically mentioned, in clear Arabic language, that you only fight those who fight," Hathout continued. "You don't harm civilians, children, or even infrastructure. And you don't exceed that, you don't transgress. That's the limit. I was startled by the difference between what the Koran is saying and what some self-claimed experts are saying and what other Muslims are saying. I wanted to set the record clear by quoting the highest authority for a Muslim (the Koran)."

Yet quoting the Koran to promote one's own agenda is a game played by extremists. "In the East extremists with their own agendas truncate verses that are talking about rules of engagement of a conflict, and take them out of context to justify their agendas, spread hate, and recruit resistance," Hathout said.

"Both sides have been putting a spin on the text and using it out of context to justify their agendas," he said. "It needs Muslims to speak out and say 'let's go the authority, to the source.' Osama bin Laden or any imam in a small mosque can say whatever they want, but there is no authority for them to talk of jihad."

Aboulmagd-Forster sees an interesting paradoxical correlation between how jihad is defined by extreme political Islamists and by some people who are not Muslims. "They agree on the (incorrect) use of the word, while in the middle you have the huge billion-person-strong Muslim community, people who certainly don't believe that there is some duty to go and fight Christians or Jews."

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