Answering Jihad: A Better Way Forward Question #3 – What is Jihad?

answering jihad

This is the third in a 17-week series from Answering Jihad: A Better Way Forward by Nabeel Qureshi, author of Seeking Allah, Finding Jesus. Weeks one through sixteen will cover sixteen questions people most commonly ask Qureshi about jihad. These questions explore the origins of jihad, the nature of jihad today, and the phenomenon of jihad in Judeo-Christian context. After answering these questions, Qureshi will conclude by proposing a response to jihad, in his view the best way forward. His concluding remarks will be presented in week seventeen.

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QUESTION #3 – WHAT IS JIHAD?

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THE ENCYCLOPEDIA OF ISLAM defines jihad in this way: “In law, according to general doctrine and in historical tradition, the jihad consists of military action with the object of the expansion of Islam and, if need be, of its defense.” This is a fairly standard definition of jihad among scholars of Islam in the West.

In broader Muslim literature there appears to be no such widely accepted definition, but that makes sense given the various kinds of jihad and the myriad application of the term found in classical and modern Islamic literature. The primary meaning of jihad as used by pre-modern Muslim jurists is “warfare with spiritual significance.” This definition appeals more to Qureshi than the standard scholarly definition, because it reflects the reality of a less than rigid use of the term.

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The popular definition of jihad as “Islamic holy war” is misleading. The words holy war are charged with connotations of the Christian Crusades, but the impetus and theological justification of the Crusades were markedly different from jihad, as Qureshi will explore in Question 17.

THE DEVELOPING DOCTRINE OF JIHAD

Part of the reason why jihad is so difficult to define is that the Arabic word itself means “strife” or “struggle,” and it is not always used in a doctrinal sense. The Qur’an appears to use the term to mean a “struggle for spiritual purposes,” at times remaining ambiguous about whether a violent or non-violent struggle is in view. In fact, some verses do use the word jihad as a purely spiritual struggle, such as Surah 22:78.

The Qur’an frequently uses the word in reference to a violent struggle for spiritual purposes. A clear example of this is a discussion of warfare in Surah 2:216-218, which culminates in Allah’s approval of those who undertake this jihad: “Warfare is prescribed for you, though you dislike it… Behold, those who believe, emigrate, and undertake jihad, these have hope of the mercy of Allah.” It is incorrect to argue, as do some apologists for Islam in the West, that the word can only refer to a spiritual struggle. Even in the Qur’an that is demonstrably false, let alone in the tradition of Muhammad’s life.

In fact, when it comes to the hadith, far and away the most frequent context of jihad is violent physical struggle. Qureshi will explore this issue further in Question 4, which will be published here next Friday. But for now, we will merely note that this meaning makes sense when we consider the time during which the canonical hadith collections were compiled, which was at the pinnacle of Islamic conquests. The Muslim community then preserved those traditions that were most relevant to them. In so doing, they solidified the term jihad in the direction of a violent spiritual struggle.

By the time of the great Muslim jurists, the generations that founded various schools of Islamic thought and enumerated codes of Sharia, jihad had developed into a fairly systematized doctrine of warfare. Conditions and rules of jihad conduct had been developed based on the relevant verses of the Qur’an and hadith traditions of Muhammad. For example, jihad could not be the endeavor of a rogue Muslim, but had to be formally declared by a legitimate authority among the Muslim people, most likely the caliph, the leader of the Muslims. [So much for validation of the “lone wolf” ISIS sympathizers.] The impetus for jihad must be of critical importance for the religion of Islam itself, or at least for a great number of Muslims. The causes ought to be specified prior to engaging in warfare, as well as the terms for resolution. These rules of conduct explain why al-Qaeda regularly broadcasted proclamations of jihad with Usama Bin Laden prominently displayed as an authority, airing lists of grievances against the West and demands for the cessation of hostilities. The endeavor was not simply for dramatic purposes, but also to fulfill the classical conditions for appropriately launching jihad.

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There are other requirements of jihad that classical jurists upheld, conditions that were grounded in Muhammad’s teachings for the sake of humane warfare. These included refraining from killing non-combatants or looting their property, restraint from disfiguring the corpses of fallen enemies, prohibitions against scorched-earth policies, and more. Depending on the jurist, treatments of jihad differed in exact rules and emphases. Although many jurists appeared concerned with combatant conduct for legalistic purposes, by the classical era of Islam there was a definite concern for moral warfare and attempts to limit collateral damage by some jurists.

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Of course, the mere enumeration of rules of jihad did not necessitate their enforcement, and it is clear that Muslims did not always follow them. For example, non-combatants were frequently slaughtered in eighth- and ninth-century Islamic conquests. In addition, Muslim-on-Muslim jihad was proclaimed at times during the classical era, even though these pronouncements should have been categorized as non-jihad hostilities. To be clear, examples of Muslim-on-Muslim violence in the past were not the same as contemporary Muslim-on-Muslim jihad, which is often rationalized by accusing enemies of being apostates. This is a modern development, though with ancient roots, as Qureshi will demonstrate in Question 7.

Although the concept of jihad continues to develop to this day, one theme remains consistent. Because jihad is a struggle for spiritual purposes, a mujahid enjoys the benefit of Allah’s blessing. This promise is in the Qur’an itself, and it partially explains the prevalence of jihad throughout Islamic history, especially among those most zealous for Allah’s approval.

THE USE OF TERROR

Although the Qur’an probably does not envision something similar to twenty-first century terrorism, it does command Muslims to use terror and spread fear: “Prepare against them all the strength and war horses that you can to strike terror into the enemies of Allah and your enemies.” This teaching of the Qur’an is corroborated through the hadith, as Muhammad said, “I have been made victorious with terror.” (Sahih al-Bukhari 4.52.220). Casting fear into the heart of Allah’s enemies is thus enjoined in the Qur’an and has a precedent in Muhammad’s life.

THE GREATER JIHAD AND THE LESSER JIHAD

A regular feature in Western scholarly discussions about jihad is the distinction between the greater jihad and the lesser jihad. The account reads: “A number of fighters came to the Messenger of Allah, and he said: ‘You have done well in coming from the lesser jihad to the greater jihad.’ They said: ‘What is the greater jihad?’ He said: ‘For the servant [of God] to fight his passions.'” (Al-Bayhaqi, Al-Zuhd al-Kabir). From this tradition, a number of scholars and apologists defend the notion that jihad ought to be primarily understood as a spiritual struggle and secondarily understood as a physical one.

Although Sufi Muslims did develop the notion of “greater jihad” beginning in the twelfth century, there are significant problems with using the quotation above as a proof text for the primacy of peaceful jihad. Perhaps the most significant problem is that the Qur’an teaches the exact opposite. In Surah 4:95, the Qur’an says, “Not equal are those believers who are sedentary, other than the disabled, and those who undertake jihad in the cause of Allah with their wealth and their lives. Allah has granted a grade higher to those who strive with their wealth and lives than to those who sit.” The exemption for the disabled makes the verse particularly clear. Physical fighting is more virtuous than not, according to the Qur’an.

This may be why none of the canonical collections of hadith include the tradition of the greater jihad; those compilers either did not know the hadith or considered it too dubious for inclusion in their collections. As Muslim scholars assert, and as Western scholars ought to agree, it is inappropriate to look at an entire doctrine through the lens of a single hadith, especially if that tradition is not in any of the canonical collections. The fact that the tradition directly contravenes a Qur’anic teaching should put the matter out of dispute: The notion that spiritual jihad is greater than physical jihad has no place in the foundations of Islam.

THE “SIXTH PILLAR” OF ISLAM

On the contrary, physical jihad was given such a place of prominence in the foundations of Islam that it has been honorifically referred to by some Muslim scholars as “the sixth pillar.” The Five Pillars of Islam are the minimum practices incumbent on all Muslims: proclaiming the shahada, reciting daily prayers, paying alms, fasting during Ramadan, and performing the pilgrimage to Mecca. However, in the canonical hadith collections, a great emphasis is also placed on the Muslim’s duty to participate in jihad. Perhaps this is why, even in the earliest categorized hadith collections, the sections on jihad usually followed immediately after the sections on the Five Pillars. These traditions, as we shall see ahead, seem to imply that fighting is a requisite duty of all who are able.

CONCLUSION

Though the word jihad literally means “struggle,” and the Qur’an at times uses it in a spiritual context, the primary use of the word has always implied a physical struggle for spiritual purposes. The doctrine of jihad has been developing from the time of the Qur’an until today, in the classical era being expounded to include a code of conduct with injunctions designed to preserve innocent lives and lesson collateral damage. These rules, however, have not always been enforced.

The portrayal of jihad as primarily a spiritual endeavor, often by referring to the tradition of the “greater jihad,” is inconsistent with the Qur’an, the canonical hadith collections, Islamic history, and classical Islamic hermeneutics. It is an argument that has little grounding in reality. On the contrary, the foundations of Islam consistently portray jihad as primarily a physical struggle, as will be explored in Question 4 next Friday.

Thanks for reading.

Please join me next Friday for Qureshi’s Question #4 – Is Jihad in the Qur’an and the Life of Muhammad? It is important for me to state that I do not support the religion of Islam ideologically or theologically. I am a Christian, who is a novice scholar of comparative religious study and an apologist. Indeed, Nabeel Qureshi is no longer a Muslim, having converted to Christianity after his exhausting study on the question of violence and jihad in Islam.

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