Tags: islam | jihad | muslims

West Struggles With Definition of Jihad

Tuesday, 01 Sep 2009 10:11 AM

By Dr. Tawfik Hamid

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Since Sept. 11, few words have been considered more controversial than the term "jihad" in theological, political, and military discussions.

Apologists for Islamic radicalism immediately raced after 9/11 to convince the West that "jihad" is predominantly understood in a peaceful way. Many in the West accepted and relied on this comforting definition without adequate scientific research in Arabic and Islamic literature.

For example, John O. Brennan, assistant to the president for Homeland Security and Counterterrorism, mentioned that the meaning of jihad is to ". . . purify oneself or to wage a holy struggle for a moral goal" in a speech at the Center for Strategic and International Studies on Aug. 6.

In addition, John Esposito and Dalia Mogahed defined jihad in their book “Who speaks for Islam” in the same peaceful way.[1]

Hiding the violent meaning of jihad has also permeated reputable encyclopedias for terrorism such as “Encylopedia of Terrorism” by Combs & Slann (See Revised Edition Infobase Publishing, page: 165)

According to classical Islamic texts and sources, jihad can be understood in several ways. Some are very violent and others are peaceful.

Scientific honesty necessitates that we present all views about the meaning of the word jihad instead of selecting the definition that makes us feel most comfortable.

The following facts MUST be addressed to understand the most dominant meaning of the word jihad in the Muslim world:

  • Currently, the words "jihadi Islam" are used by the mainstream Arab media to refer to the violent form of Islam. If jihad is mainly peaceful, why do the Arab media use the word predominantly to describe violent Islam? (Note: jihad is the noun, jihadi is the adjective)

  • The word jihad is interpreted in most of the reputable traditional Islamic books in a violent manner. One of the many available examples, al-Shawkaneei's interpretation for the Quran[2] mentions for Sura 9, Verse 73 that "Jihad against the Infidels is achieved by fighting them until they submit to Islam". Is this the moral goal that Brennan's speech writers and "Islamic experts" are alluding to? Why would it be that he the most reputable Islamic scholars understood jihad in such a way if it was predominantly peaceful?

  • Modern Islamic books written by top Islamic scholars and distributed globally still adopt the violent meaning of the word to fight the disbelievers until "Allah alone is worshiped". For example, Minhaj al-Muslim [3] states clearly that the aim of violent jihad is that "Allah alone is worshiped." Minhaj al-Muslim is published in Saudi Arabia, London, Houston, and New York and is written by al-Jaza'iry, who is a lecturer in the Noble Prophetic Mosque in Saudi Arabia. This position is one of the highest positions in Islam that could be attained by any Muslim scholar. It is unrealistic to assume that he, too, does not understand the definition of jihad.

  • If the word jihad is primarily understood in a peaceful way, why do we not hear about peaceful jihadi organizations? The word jihad is almost always used by the violent radical groups. If the word is understood predominantly in a peaceful way, we would have seen it used predominantly by peaceful Islamic organizations rather than the violent ones.

  • The hadith (or sayings of the Prophet Muhammad) that described jihad as a struggle against one's desires ("It is the striving of the servant against his desires") is a Daiif or weak (unbinding) Hadith. [4]

  • Modern Islamic scholars such as Yusuf Al-Quradawy who are considered "moderates" by many in Western media and academia mention clearly that jihad has to be conducted via wars to spread Islam and make Islam as the only religion [5]. How is it that such a knowledgeable and leading "moderate" Islamic scholar is not aware of the meaning of the word jihad while non-Arabic speakers are aware of it?

    It is fair to say that jihad "can be" understood in a peaceful way. However, there is huge difference between saying that "Jihad can be understood in a peaceful way" and "Jihad is a peaceful concept." The former is an honest and accurate statement, while the latter is a wrong and deceiving one that indicates a serious lack of knowledge.

    Creating a Western definition for a word that does not represent how it is primarily used by native Arabic speakers and in Islamic text is both misleading and dangerous to our national security. It would be great to convince Arabic speakers and the Muslim world to change the meaning of the word instead of deceiving ourselves. The change must occur in Muslims’ educational books rather than in the public statements they release to the West to convince it that jihad is peaceful.

    The most effective way to know the true meaning of jihad is to simply evaluate how the word is used by the Arab street and how it is defined in Islamic texts and in the Arab media, as seen above. As Brennan wisely put it in his speech, "How you define a problem shapes how you address it," and eight years after September 11, we are still having problems defining the problem.”


    [1] John Esposito and Dalia Mogahed, “Who Speaks for Islam” (Gallop Press, 2007), p. 75.

    [2] Fath Al-Quadeer, Dar Al-Kitab Al-Arabi [Arabic] 2005

    [3] Darussalam Publisher 2001 First Edition

    [4] See: “Mihaj Al-Muslim First Edition” by Al-Jaza'iry, Chapter 5 (Volume two), page 167

    [5] Islamic Revival series by Yusuf Al-Quradawy, Islamic Solution is an Obligation and a Necessity [Arabic], page 91.

    Dr. Tawfik Hamid is the author of "Inside Jihad." He was a former associate of Dr. al-Zawahiri (second in command of al-Qaida) and currently he is a reformer of Islam. To know more about Hamid please visit www.tawfikhamid.com. Hamid's writings in this blog represent only his thoughts and not the views of the institute where he works.

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