The misinterpretation of 'Jihad'

The misinterpretation of 'Jihad'
Comment: The word has taken on a meaning in the non-Islamic world which undermines centuries of academic and theological struggle, writes Roland Laffitte.
8 min read
11 Feb, 2016
The Islamic Jihad movement in Gaza was established in 1981 [Getty]
There is a profound misunderstanding around the word "jihad", used today by groups such as the Islamic State group (known variably as ISIS/ISIL/Daesh). They are looking to hide their odious intentions behind a term which, in Arab and Muslim societies is prized, like a cultural value.

In his celebrated work Muqaddimah (often translated as Introduction or Prolegomenon), Ibn Khaldun sets out two kinds of war in line with the values of Islam: those named "jihad" in religious law, and those led by states against the dissidents.

He explains that they fall within the field of justice ["ᶜadal"] and jihad. In doing so, he gives us the key to understanding the meaning of the Arabic word jihad - two meanings, linked but different: the first refers to a value, and the second to a type of war.

If the true sense of jihad refers to "exerted effort, diligence", it appears throughout the Quran in the expression "jihād fī sabīli l-Lāh", literally meaning "one who fights for the cause of Allah", used in full or in part where it is not intimated.

Understanding it to mean "war in the name of faith" in the Quran is anachronistic. A close and impartial reading shows that even when it is used in the context of war, which is often the case in the Medina era, it means nothing other than "virtuous conduct", precisely of the kind Ibn Khaldun speaks of as presiding over the type of war taking the same name.

The Prophet Mohammed never actually uses the word jihad to talk of military action led by Muslims, but instead uses "ghazwa", meaning "expedition or campaign", and the conquests led for a good century after him are unanimously named "maghāzī", another word with the same root and the same meaning.

From 'virtuous conduct' to 'action'

Books about jihad appear at the end of the 8th century and the beginning of the 9th century, after the great conquests had ended.

The term is used in two ways. On one hand, as "virtuous conduct", implying, along with verses from the Quran and supporting hadiths, practices recommended by the Prophet Mohammed in the context of war - as well as other rules governing relations with other peoples. For jurists, this leads to the equivalent of what would later be known in Europe as jus belli (the law of war).

On the other hand, the term is used as an obligation, and this is where jihad is understood as an action, in circumstances where the ummah, or the community of the faithful, is threatened, as was the case at the time by the Byzantines in Anatolia and the Turks in central Asia.

And so it was that pious men began to travel to border regions for jihad.

It was only even later, amid resistance efforts against attacks from Christian forces in Spain and Sicily, and the crusaders in the Near East - roughly in the 11th and 12th centuries - and then with the Mongol invasions of the 13th century and the beginning of the 14th century, that the real jihad treatises began to flourish.

These later texts describe in different ways, depending on the theologian or jurist, the aims, conditions of validity and the different forms of jihad. They differentiate between greater jihad, understood as spiritual conduct which may take many forms, and lesser jihad which generally - apart from for some extremist and minority thinkers - takes the form of a collective duty to defend the ummah.

How the notion has changed

During the wave of imperial and colonial conquests, jihad was generally invoked in its traditional forms, whether it referred to Abdelkader's resistance to the French conquest in Algeria or to Imam Shamil opposing the Russian advance into Dagestan and Chechnya.

Later it was used in 1882 in the Egypt of Ahmed 'Urabi and that of Muhammad Ahmad, who known as the Mahdi in Sudan.
It was under the flag of this new jihad that the wars of independence were led

A change came about at the end of the 19th century, with the al-Nahda, the Arab and Muslim renaissance, where jihad was no longer referred to as a purely religious notion, but instead a secularised one - or, more accurately, a cultural idea.

It was under the flag of this new jihad that the wars of independence were led, for example, against French domination both in the Levant and in North Africa.

It is worth noting that the Algerian fighters were mujahideen, literally "those who carry out jihad", that Habib Bourguiba - the spearhead of the Tunisian independence movement - took the title of "Supreme Fighter", and that at the time of Moroccan independence, Mohammed V in reference to a popular hadith, declared that "we have returned from the lesser jihad to devote ourselves to the greater jihad".

And so jihad can also become "a fight for the transformation of society", or "for progress".

The Arab nationalist backlash and its submersion by Islamist movements in the modern period as of 1975, sees the notion of jihad return essentially to its cultural meaning, sharing with religious justifications.

One indication of this can be found in the group officially established in 1981 named Harakat al-jihād al-islāmī fi Filastīn - or the Islamic Jihad Movement in Palestine - which, as is clear, was obliged to classify its jihad as "Islamic".

Close to this idea, is the notion of jihad championed for Palestine by the Muslim World League. The organisation was set up by Prince Faisal of Saudi Arabia in 1962, and is part of the shared heritage of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and Hamas in Palestine.

In parallel, in the Shia world, the Iraqi army and the Shia militias' struggle against IS is based on a call to jihad, made by Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani on 13 June 2014, three days after the fall of Mosul.

'Salafi jihadism' and jihad

There is, however, an even more apparent claim to jihad, which today is monopolising the limelight. It is that of those movements claiming to adhere to the salafiyya jihādiyya, literally "jihadi Salafism", whose proponents earned their stripes in the fight against the Russian occupation in Afghanistan.

It was at this time that al-Qaeda, responsible for the attacks on 11 September 2001 and many other less famous dates, was born. In recent years, the movement has spawned al-Dawla al-islamiyya (known as the Islamic State group) which broke away from its parent, while Jabhat al-Nusra or "the Victory Front" remains part of the al-Qaeda family.

These two rival groups provide a rallying force for myriad local copycats across Muslim societies, from the African Sahel to Pakistan, and even stretching far east into Asia. For them, jihad is allied to the struggle against the superpowers, presented as "a coalition of Christian crusaders and Jews" against the Shias and the "Muslim States" classed as "ungodly".

In a fusion of politics, fantasising about a return to roots that never were and a morbid fascination with eschatology - these groups reach a rare degree of rigid religious ideology, ostentatious violence and sectarian intolerance.
The concept of 'just and legal war' has existed in the Church since the time of Thomas Aquinas

A 'holy' war?

The Church classed the Crusades and the wars against the Ottomans as "blessed by saints" in order to amplify their value. While the concept of "just and legal war" has existed in the Church since the time of Thomas Aquinas, there is no concept of "holy war".

However, these days, the quasi-blanket translation of the Muslim concept of jihad is as "holy war" - which is taken from a different register, and dates from the times of colonial ventures, to present wars of resistance as if they were simply inspired by religious fanaticism.

This did not stop imperial powers from invoking it against their adversaries in the First World War: following the Ottomans' call for jihad against the Allies at the request of  Germany, the French and English gained muftis, obliging to the calls of jihad in the hope of countering the propaganda of the central empires among their Muslim populations.

To sum up, the notion of jihad is much broader than simply that of "war". It is first and foremost in Islam taken as religion and as civilisation - a virtue. In its military sense, it is generally seen as defensive, as is also the case for both its religious meaning and its cultural development.

A parallel can be drawn with the notion of "lawful war" in Europe. Though there is one significant difference, at least in religious terms - Islam adds an element of personal ethics.

We must ensure that, on the pretext of condemning the crimes falsely committed under the flag of jihad, we do not grant exclusivity to those very groups who are staining it.

Roland Laffite is an independent researcher and essayist, and the secretary of the Society of French and Arabic Linguistic and Eytmological studies (Société d’études linguistiques et étymologiques françaises et arabes, Selefa
) in France.

He is the author of the project,
Les mots de l’Islam
 and is also the author of several works on relations between Europe and the Arab world, including La ronde des libérateurs, de Bonaparte à Hollande,Alfabarre, 2013, and Où en sommes-nous de l’Empire (collective work), Alfabarre, 2014.

This is an edited translation of an article originally published in French by our partners at Orient XXI.

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arb, al-Araby al-Jadeed, its editorial board or staff.