Understanding Jihad

Jihad; possibly the most polarising word in the Arabic language. It provokes a range of varied reactions, depending on the perspective through which one looks at it. And it is true to say that the word has largely been misunderstood in non-Muslim circles. So before I even begin said analysis, I must make a series of clarifications and preliminary disclaimers.

First of all, my article is not intended to be an attack upon the Muslim community. Nor is it meant to be a criticism of individual Muslims. Some of the most kind, brotherly and loving people I have met are devout practicing Muslims and I am grateful to God for their friendship. I also recognise that there are countless members of the Islamic ummah who are peaceful and humane people, truly worthy of our respect as fellow human beings. My article is not meant to be an indictment of the entire Muslim people. Rather, my goal is to analyse the concept of jihad, and how it has been understood by most of the mainstream Islamic schools of thought.

Secondly, I recognise and mourn the tragedies and persecutions which Muslim people have had to endure. I condemn in no uncertain terms the attacks upon innocent Muslims that have taken place on account of their faith. No one should ever be harmed or attacked or despised or be held in suspicion simply for being a Muslim. Indeed, my goal is not to spread suspicion against Muslims. I invite all people to extend their arms wide open in welcome for their Muslim friends, neighbours and fellow human beings, especially to Muslim refugees in need, and to give them the love and the affection that we indeed owe them as fellow citizens of this Earth.

Thirdly, my criticisms will not apply to quite a few schools of thought in Islam. They do not apply, for example, to the Ahmadi Muslim Community, which I consider to be the most peaceful sect of Islam. Nor do they apply to the Ibadis, who have proven themselves to be very tolerant and welcoming, and regarding their theology I have little knowledge and have no wish to pontificate. My criticisms mostly apply to Sunni and Shia schools of thought, but even among them there are exceptions.

Indeed, I do not pretend to be a scholar of Islam. I am merely an interested layperson. So take all my claims with a grain of salt. Fact-check them and see if they are correct. I write with little formal authority on the subject, but with the firmest of convictions that I am right.

Fourthly, please don’t be surprised that the views I document, describe and criticise in this article are not held by many of the average Muslims. Laypeople of all religions are known to have a poor track record of understanding what their religion actually teaches, and it is not uncommon to see that at times the views of laypeople are significantly at variance with the views of their own religious leaders. A good example is seen among some ‘Catholics’ in North America, many of whom practice contraception and have no problem with abortion, both of which are strongly condemned by the leaders of the Church they belong to and claim to profess faith in. Similarly, many ‘Protestants’ in England and Northern Europe don’t even believe in a physical Resurrection anymore, a belief which is absolutely central to historic Protestant orthodoxy. The views of laypeople are rarely barometers for the beliefs of the religion they follow, though, of course, there are exceptions.

With all that said, let us press on the main subject matter.

Now, if you are me and you hail from a liberal background and you’ve had the same experience I’ve had, one of the first things you would have heard about Islam – especially from Westernised non-Muslim liberals – is how wonderful it truly is. You would have been told that Islam promotes peace, harmony, cultural diversity, coexistence and the emancipation of women. You would even have been informed that the word ‘Islam’ has its roots in a word which means ‘peace’. And, of course, you would have been told that the word ‘jihad’ does not mean ‘terrorism’ or ‘holy war’ but rather ‘struggle’. And don’t we all struggle against something or the other, especially against the faults in our own personality?

And yes, much of these claims are true, to some degree or the other. However, the problem is that this narrative, although it certainly has a grain of truth, does not tell the whole story.

Yes, it is true that ‘jihad’ does not mean ‘terrorism’ or ‘violence’ but ‘struggle’. But what many people aren’t told is that the ‘struggle’ in Islam is not merely against personal faults, but also against injustice in general.

Now, some of you might be wondering, “Well, what’s wrong with that? Surely, we all have a duty to fight injustice?”

The problem, of course, is not that Islam exhorts war against injustice. The issue, however, is how Islam defines injustice. And injustice, in the Islamic context, is quite different from the SJW conception of ‘injustice’.

The Islamic word for this is fasad. It literally means ‘corruption’ or ‘rottenness’. Consider, for instance, the following passage from the Quran, which talks about people who promote fasad.

When they are told, ‘Do not cause corruption on the earth,’ they say, ‘We are only reformers!’ Look! They are themselves the agents of corruption, but they are not aware.” (Quran 2:11-12).

To whom does this passage refer? To corruption in general? To things like stealing, murder, adultery, etc., which most human beings would agree are corrupt deeds? No doubt, in Islam, these things are certainly sinful and are also part of corruption.

However, in the context of this particular passage, the corruption refers not to sin in general, but very specifically to the sin of unbelief. Here’s what the preceding five verses say. I have added some emphasis to bring out the major themes.

“As for the faithless, it is the same to them whether you warn them or do not warn them, they will not have faith.

Allah has set a seal on their hearts and their hearing, and there is a blindfold on their sight, and there is a great punishment for them.

And among the people are those who say, ‘We have faith in Allah and the Last Day,’ but they have no faith.

They seek to deceive Allah and those who have faith, yet they deceive no one but themselves, but they are not aware.

There is a sickness in their hearts; then Allah increased their sickness, and there is a painful punishment for them because of the lies they used to tell.” (Quran 2:6-10)

Note that this passage is condemning a very specific form of fasad – the sin of kufr or unbelief, and the telling of lies based upon this kufr. The word kufr is the one from which comes the word kafir or non-believer.

To make the point even clearer, here is what the Quranic passage says right after verse 12.

And when they are told, ‘Believe like the people who have believed,’ they say, ‘Shall we believe like the fools who have believed?’ Look! They are themselves the fools, but they do not know. When they meet the faithful, they say, ‘We believe,’ but when they are alone with their devils, they say, ‘We are with you; we were only deriding [them].’ It is Allah who derides them, and leaves them bewildered in their rebellion.” (Quran 2:13-15).

So not only is the passage condemning a particular form of fasad (corruption) – kufr (unbelief) – it is condemning a very specific kind of kufr: the sin of pretending to be a Muslim.

As noted before, Islam places a lot of emphasis upon justice (adl). Striving to achieve justice is a virtue in Islam.

But, once more, the simple fact is that justice is defined very differently in Islam from the way a liberal might understand justice. Justice in Islam is, to put it simply, Islam itself, and anything which detracts from Islam or diverges from Islam is, in some sense, to varying degrees, injustice.

So, the struggle (jihad) against corruption (fasad) in order to achieve justice (adl) is nothing more and nothing less than a struggle to achieve the triumph of Islam, in every sphere of life.

Now, there are different kinds of jihad in Islam. And there are many interpretations of jihad. Hardly any of these interpretations are pacifistic, but not all of them are hyper-militaristic. Let’s stop there for a moment and consider some important facts.

Islamic theology and jurisprudence are based upon the Quran (believed to be the Word of God) and the Sunnah (the path of the Prophet). The latter is known from the various hadith. These are narrations, orally transmitted across several centuries, which relate stories about or quotations from the Prophet and/or his family (the Ahlul Bayt) and/or his companions. Sunnis and Shias have different Hadith collections. The Sunnis have the six books, chief among them being Sahih Bukhari and Sahih Muslim. The Shias have the Kitab-al-Kafi and three others.

Not all hadith are uncritically accepted. Some are strong (that is, believed to be reliable narrations). Others are thought weak and unreliable. And contradictions among them abound, thereby producing a variety of schools of thought and interpretations thereof. Generally speaking, however, there are three main classifications of hadith - sahih (authentic), hasan (good) and da’if (weak). Sahih is the highest epithet that can be applied to a hadith.

Islamic theology about jihad comes from the Quran. But the Quran is not written like other books. For one, it is not arranged chronologically in the order in which it was written. The first chapter of the Quran that was allegedly revealed to Muhammad was Chapter 96, Surah Al-Alaq. Even the different passages in the Quran were sometimes revealed at different times and in very specific contexts. All of these are haphazard in arrangement. This can be seen especially in Surah Maryam, in which several Biblical prophets are mentioned, but in a mixed up order.

This is why on the one hand you have passages which seem to call for peace and others which seem to urge violence. Unless we want to affirm that the author(s) of the Quran was/were confused, we must realise that there is great ambiguity in understanding the intent, purposes and context of these conflicting verses. Some scholars even say that if commands in the Quran contradict, the one which was revealed later repeals the one which came before. This interpretation is quite common and well-known among scholars in the Muslim world (though not, thankfully, universally accepted) and is itself based upon a Quranic verse.

Whatever communications We abrogate or cause to be forgotten, We bring one better than it or like it. Do you not know that Allah has power over all things?” (Quran 2:106)

The problem with this interpretation, of course, is that many of the violent passages seem to have popped up at a later date than the more peaceful ones, according to Islam’s own sources! If this interpretation is to be followed, we would perhaps have to adopt a more violent form of Islam, because the more militaristic-sounding verses would then repeal the more peaceful and tolerant-sounding ones and become, as David Wood says, “the final marching orders” of that religion.

But, of course, interpretations are manifold and varied. As stated before, while jihad is an integral part of Islam, it is certainly true that not every school of thought takes a hyper-militaristic view of it. In many schools, jihad is non-violent for the most part. However, once jihad becomes successful and Islam gains dominance in society, a different picture emerges. Most of the mainstream Islamic schools of jurisprudence affirm that if Islam manages to take hold of a society, it should become the state religion and the entire country – both Muslims and non-Muslims - should be governed according to the law of Allah. It is now that the persecution of minorities becomes almost inescapable.

Consider for instance what is considered one of the most peaceful verses in the Quran:

On that account: We ordained for the Children of Israel that if any one slew a person - unless it be for murder or for spreading mischief in the land - it would be as if he slew the whole people: and if any one saved a life, it would be as if he saved the life of the whole people.” (Qur’an 5:32)

Liberals often cite this verse as an evidence of the peaceful and tolerant nature of Islam, but what they fail to understand is that “spreading mischief in the land” (the word originally used in Arabic, again, is fasad) means a whole host of things in Islam, and many Islamic scholars and theologians would gladly agree that insulting the religion, mocking the prophet or preaching other religions to Muslims is a part of fasad. In other words, rather than being an exhortation to promote equality and egalitarianism as some silly liberals vainly imagine, the exhortation would actually justify the killing and/or incarceration of Christian missionaries who preach Christianity in Muslim lands!

Another good example is the case of apostasy. What if there is a Muslim who has lost faith and wishes to leave the ummah? Here again, the Islamic testimony seems contradictory. Qur’an 2:256 literally states that there is ‘no compulsion in religion’. For many ears, this sounds pretty peaceful. However, can this text be applied to apostates, or does it refer only to the non-Muslim embracing Islam (for the first time)?

Certain hadith seem to indicate that it is the latter. Consider for instance the following citation from Sahih Bukhari, one of the most respected Sunni Hadith collections:

“Narrated Abdullah:

Allah’s Messenger said, “The blood of a Muslim who confesses that none has the right to be worshipped but Allah and that I am His Apostle, cannot be shed except in three cases: In Qisas for murder, a married person who commits illegal sexual intercourse and the one who reverts from Islam (apostate) and leaves the Muslims.” Sahih Bukhari 9:83:17

Similar Hadith are also found in Sahih Muslim 16:4152 and 4154. And all three of these hadith are considered authentic (sahih) which, as stated earlier, is the highest epithet that can be given to a hadith.

As noted before, the evidence seems ambiguous and difficult to interpret. However, historically, most of the major Islamic schools of jurisprudence have indeed advocated the death penalty for apostasy. Even a peaceful liberal Muslim who interprets the texts in a different way cannot deny this.

Once one understands this, one will realise why Muslim countries tend to be more religiously intolerant than non-Muslim countries.

Yes, it is true that many Muslim scholars and theologians advocate a non-violent form of Jihad which mostly involves prayer, memorising the Quran, fasting and preaching Islam in a peaceful, non-coercive manner. However, once Islam gains dominance and a large portion of the population has embraced the faith, most schools of jurisprudence would gladly advocate the setting up of an Islamic state. And one need only look at the Middle East to see what that would be like.

One must also realise that Islam is quite stringently theocratic. Except in certain less influential schools of thought, setting up a religious state is always considered the ideal. The only thing is, setting up an Islamic state is not always possible for Muslims, especially in lands where Islam has little influence. It is only in these settings that puritanical Muslims advocate secularism. The separation of mosque and state is always considered a compromise by the mainstream schools of jurisprudence, never the ideal.

The ideal is always an Islamic state. And all jihad – even the most peaceful forms of it – is ultimately meant to accomplish the ideal. And I will only leave the reader to contemplate the ominous implications that entails.


Soham Gupta

I believe that the relentless pursuit of truth is the most exalted goal a person could possibly strive for. And the truth, as far as I have experienced it, has only made me zealous for the greater glory of God.

The Pangean does not condemn or condone any of the views of its contributors. It only gives them the space to think and write without hindrance.