What Does "Jihad" Really Mean to Muslims?

Brian Handwerk
for National Geographic News
Updated October 24, 2003

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"Jihad" is a loaded term—and a concept that illustrates a deep gulf of miscommunication between Islam and the West. There are those in each community who see jihad as a clash of civilizations—and act on those beliefs. But jihad literally means "exerted effort" to most Islamic scholars and Muslims, and represents a range of activities.

Maher Hathout, author of Jihad vs. Terrorism, believed there was a twofold need to set the record straight about jihad. "Number one was the discovery that everyone is defining us except us, everyone is explaining jihad except for Muslims," he said. "Second, I noticed that some Muslims needed to brush up, to review the issue on their own for clarity and understanding of their own religion. This is why I made the book very textual. I tried to use verses from the Koran, from the Prophet… It includes personal opinion of course, but the backbone is textual."

Hathout concluded that jihad, as projected in the Koran, is not a single concept.

"It's a range of activities all based on the Arabic meaning of the word 'exerted effort.' In the Koran it's projected as exerting effort to change oneself, and also in certain situations physically standing against oppressors if that's the only way."

Which Jihad?

The concept of jihad as a struggle for self-improvement is little known among non-believers. Yet Noha Aboulmagd-Forster, who teaches Arabic at the University of Chicago's Center for Middle Eastern Studies, stresses that it may be the most common interpretation of the term.

"Something widely quoted by the Muslim 'man on the street' is that the most difficult jihad is the one of the soul," she said. "The biggest trouble is not with your enemy but with yourself."

While inner struggle is one meaning of jihad, many others evidently use it to describe engagement with external enemies. It is there that the concept encounters the notions of other faiths.

"Religiously, jihad is the expending of utmost effort in upholding and defending justice," said Sheikh Jaafar Idris, of the Saudi Arabian Embassy. Idris explained that he recognizes two kinds of jihad because there are two kinds of violations of justice: jihad with words against false beliefs, and jihad with the sword against acts of injustice. "The first is the basic and continuous jihad," Idris said. "It was mentioned in the Qur'an very early in the history of Islam and at a time when Muslims were weak and even persecuted. God said to His Prophet, 'Do not obey the kafireen (those who reject the truth) but wage jihad with it (the Qur'an) against them. [25:52]'"

Jihad of the Sword

But it is the jihad of the sword that has received the lion's share of global attention. The concept began when early Muslims were driven from their land by enemies, said Idris, and were first given permission and later ordered by God to fight those enemies. They were not, Idris stresses, given permission to fight non-believers or those who rejected the faith—only those who transgressed against them. Idris references the following verses: "God does not forbid you, regarding those (non-Muslims) who did not fight you because of your religion, and who did not drive you out of your land, that you be good to them and treat them justly. Allah only forbids you regarding those who fought you because of your religion and drove you out of your homes, and came to the help of those who drove you out, that you should befriend them. Any of you who befriend them (and be their allies) are transgressors. [60:8-9]" But even this kind of military jihad is not necessarily a clash of religions. It can also be waged against transgressors who are themselves Muslim.

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