Islamic perspective

The real meanings of Jihad


Jihad is projected as if it is integral part of Islam to fight against unbelievers and as if it is the obligatory duty of all Muslims to fight against infidels. To say the least, it is not proper representation of the concept of jihad in Islam.

In fact it is a multi-layered concept which has been projected as a one-dimensional concept - to fight with sword against all infidels. What happened on 11th September 2001 in New York has further given a wrong twist to this very important but complex and multi-dimensional concept of Islam. It must be understood in proper perspective to do full justice to this concept.

Most important thing first of all is to situate the concept of jihad in its historical situation. What is important is to be historically situated, not historically determined forever. What we often do is to be historically determined without ever probing how we are historically situated. Jihad in the sense of fighting with swords or with whatever weapons of war available should also be understood historically.

The Qur'anic pronouncements are also multi-layered and multi-dimensional, some dimensions are historical, some social, some ethical and some eternal. To understand the Qur'anic verses in uni-dimensional manner is to do great injustice to them and also to misapply them either because of wrong understanding or on account of some selfish motives.

The most important thing in this respect is to understand the pre-Islamic Arab society. Violence and inter-tribal wars were rampant. Reconciliation and conflict resolution through negotiations was virtually unknown. Though pre-Islamic Arab society was not exactly immoral but as no immoral society would have sound basis to last, but it did have tribal traditions and customs which ignored ethical aspects. Peace, though appreciated but was not always practised. As there was no rule of law in pre-Islamic society things were settled through inter-tribal wars or through tribal customs and traditions. This resulted in great deal of bloodshed.

This prevailing historical situation was not acceptable to Islam but some of its elements did persist in Muslim behaviour. Also, we have to bear in mind that it was not a modern democratic society but a tribal society with its own outlook and intellectual understanding. We can not apply the modern norms to it nor should we perpetuate its practices in modern times. Islam while constrained to retain some of it rejected most of it and provided for transcendent norms and ethical standards. What some Muslims do (and many non-Muslims too) is to ignore historicity of some Qur'anic and hadith pronouncements and take them in an a-historical sense thus causing great deal of misunderstanding about Islamic ethics of jihad and makes jihad a mono-dimensional concept.

A careful study of Qur'an and hadith makes it clear that the concept of jihad is far above mere violence and war. Unfortunately wars persisted in Islamic history for several reasons (but certainly not for religious reasons) and hence it came to be reduced to Islamic teachings. The Sufis who kept themselves aloof from power-struggles and attempts by rulers at territorial expansions realised the danger of misapplying the concept of jihad and they thought it necessary to emphasise other social and moral aspects of jihad. It is for this reason that they described jihad bi al-sayf (i.e. war with sword) as jihad-e-asghar (i.e. small war) and jihad to control ones greed and selfish desires as jihad-e-akbar i.e. great jihad.

This emphasis was greatly needed as the concept of jihad with sword had become quite mo-dimensional and was being misapplied for selfish reasons and for inter-group wars among the Muslims. The moral precepts and ethical constraints imposed by Qur'anic pronouncements were being totally ignored by Muslim rulers and their cohorts to fulfil their greed for power and territorial aggrandisement. It was for this reason that the sufis intervened at this stage and tried to bring out moral and ethical dimensions of the rich concept of jihad.

The sufis had not added any thing from their own wish but had based the concept of the great jihad on the basis of the Qur'anic pronouncements. Jihad as is well known to any student of Arabic language means to make utmost efforts. One must look at the authentic Qur'anic dictionary Mufradat al-Qur'an by Imam Raghib Asfahani (Urdu trn. By Sheikh Muhammad Abduh Firozpuri, Lahore, 1971).

Imam Raghib first discusses the meaning of its root word jahd which means working hard or making utmost efforts and juhud which means one's utmost capacity and two together would mean making utmost efforts to one's best capacity. Then he goes on to say that jihad wa al-mujahidah means to spend one's utmost capacity in defending oneself in the face of an enemy. Then he divides jihad in three categories: 1) to fight against enemies i.e. unbelievers; 2) against shaytan (Satan) and 3) against one's own self i.e. one's own greed and selfishness.

Imam Raghib also maintains that the Qur'anic verse 22:78 ("And strive hard for Allah with due striving. He has chosen you and has not laid any hardship in religion' ) comprises all these three categories. The Qur'an also says "And strive hard in Allah's way with your wealth and your lives. This is better for you, if you know.' (9:41). One also finds in the Qur'an, "Those who believed and migrated (from their homes), and strove hard in Allah's way with their wealth and their lives, and are much higher in rank with Allah. And it is these that shall triumph.' (9:20)

It will be seen that all these verses in the Qur'an do not use the word jihad in the sense of war but in the sense of striving with wealth and one's own life. The Muslims were persecuted lot in Mecca and many of them faced severe persecution and strove hard in the way of Allah with their own lives and some of them who were wealthy and spent all of their wealth for that cause. Some of them suffered personally as well as spent of their wealth for the sake of Allah. Thus it was all suffering and striving. This is real jihad. Jihad no where in the Qur'an is used either in the sense of war or for seeking revenge. Seeking revenge amounts to using concept of jihad for selfish ends even if revenge or retaliation is be for ones own group or community.

In hadith literature we find ahadith which prohibit Muslims from seeking revenge. Thus in Sahih al-Bukhari we find hadith of Miqdad ibn Amr al-Kindi. Amr al-Kindi asked the Holy Prophet (PBUH) "Suppose I met one of the infidels and we fought. He struck one of my hands with his sword, cut it off and then took refuge in a tree and said, 'I surrender to Allah'. Could I kill him, O Messenger of Allah, after he had said this?' Allah's Messenger (peace be upon him) said, "you should not kill him' Al-Miqdad said, "O Allah's Messenger, but he had cut off my hands, and then he had uttered those words.' Allah's Messenger (PBUH) replied, "You should not kill him, and you would be in his position where he had been before uttering these words.'

Thus it will be seen that in matters of war also Islam teaches higher morality the essence of which is not to seek revenge or retaliate. The Prophet (PBUH) makes this abundantly clear in reply to Miqdad bin Amr's query that the unbeliever surrender's even after cutting off a Muslim's hand with his sword, the Muslim should not kill him. Then there will be no difference between a Muslim and an unbeliever.

This is what I call the transcendent morality. The prevailing practice in the pre-Arab society was retaliation in equal measure - nose for nose and eye for an eye. But this hadith rejects the concept of retaliation and teaches instead higher morality of pardoning the enemy and magnanimity of treatment.

In matters of jihad Imam Raghib quotes an interesting hadith which says "fight your desires as you fight your enemies.' The sufi concept of jihad-i-akbar i.e. the great jihad is to fight ones own vain desires has been based on this hadith. According to the Qur'an man's life is a constant struggle in the way of Allah be it through sword or through one's hands or through one's tongue. Thus there is a hadith which says "strive against unbelievers with your hands and your words.'

Thus this constant jihad, constant struggle in the way of Allah implies again multi-layered efforts. The believers have been charged, by the Qur'an with the important mission of spreading good and fighting evil (amr bi'l ma`ruf wa nahi 'an al-munkar). In this mission a believer has to engage himself continuously, controlling his own desires, spreading justice, equality and compassion with wisdom ('adl - justice, ihsan - benevolence, rahmah- compassion and hikmah - wisdom are concepts of goodness in the Qur'an which are repeatedly stressed). The goodness of humanity lies in this.

As it is duty of believers to engage themselves in spreading what is good it is also the duty of the believers to engage themselves in containing what is evil. Thus a believer has to constantly strive himself to fight against oppression, injustice, iniquity and cruelty. All these result in spreading evil on the earth. The world as we all know is full of injustices and oppression and it will be a lifetime mission of a believer to contain them. This is real jihad.

Fight is not always with weapons - with sword or with guns. Fight could be through proper means which includes moral and intellectual means - through persuasion, through wisdom, through spreading good word and through setting good examples. It is for this reason that the Prophet has said that the ink of a writer's pen is more sacred than the blood of a martyr. The word written with ink is more lasting than martyr's blood.

Jihad is not merely a fight with swords or other weapons. Though jihad also means that but only for self -defence. Jihad is never permitted for aggressive purposes. Then it will not be jihad in any sense of the word at all. The Qur'an is very particular about it. The Qur'an says, "And fight in the way of Allah against those who fight against you but be not aggressive. Surely Allah loves not the aggressors.' (2:190)

Thus from the above verse two things are clear: 1) fight only those who fight you and 2) do not be aggressive, as Allah does not love aggressors. One has to strictly observe these conditions in jihad. Then it is also to be noted that does not only mean fighting with sword or other weapons. It is constant struggle for whole of ones life.

The noted Urdu poet Iqbal has beautifully put the meaning of jihad in day today life in one of his couplets which is as follows:

Yaqin muhkam 'amal payham muhabbat fatihi 'alam
Jihad-e- zindagani mein yeh hain mardon ki shamshiren

The meaning of this verse is that for a man with strong inner conviction and constant efforts and with universe winning love are the real weapons in the jihad of life. The meaning or the essence of the verse is that sword is not the only weapon for jihad. It is but one of the weapons. The real weapons are inner conviction and constant efforts with love and sensitivity.

It is unfortunate that jihad has been used in Islamic literature in a very narrow and constricted sense. This narrow understanding of jihad must change. The meaning of jihad is not complete without the Qur'anic injunction for believers (men as well as women) to enforce good and contain evil and this is life long mission of all the believers and to achieve this objective believers have to use their persuasive skills, wisdom and goodliness. One cannot enforce good with sword. Goodness prevails only with goodness. What the Qur'an calls maw`izah hasanah (i.e. exhortation with goodness) and hikmah (wisdom) is more lasting than enforcing something forcibly.

In war or war-like situation also it is efforts to avert bloodshed and find out ways and means to promote negotiated settlement is far more important. The Prophet (PBUH) always tried all possibilities of negotiated settlement and resorted to war in self -defence only if all efforts to find a negotiated settlement failed. The best example of this is what is known in the history of Islam as sulh-i-Hudaibiyah. This is major contribution by the Prophet of Islam in promoting negotiated settlement and avert needless bloodshed. He even accepted terms, which were not apparently favourable to Muslims. The terms of peace appeared to be even humiliating to his senior companions. The Prophet accepted these terms to avoid human slaughter and in the interest of peace.

We find mention of this in Sahih al-Bukhari. Abu Wa'il narrated: "We were in Siffin and Sahl ibn Hunayf stood up and said, `O people! Blame yourselves! We were with the Prophet (PBUH) on the day of Hudaybiyyah, and if we had been called to fight, we should have fought. But Umar ibn al-Khattab came and said, 'O Allah's Messenger! Aren't we in the right and our opponents in the wrong?' Allah's Messenger said, 'Yes'. Umar said, "Then why should we accept hard terms in matters concerning our religion? Shall we return before Allah judges between us and them?' Allah's Messenger (PBUH) said, O ibn al-Khattab! I am the Messenger of Allah and Allah will never degrade me.'

Sulh-Hudaibiyuyah is of fundamental significance in the interest of peace. Peace is the real objective and war only a necessary evil in certain unavoidable situations. Also it is a wrong assumption that it is duty of the Muslims to fight against all non-believers or kafirs. The Qur'an itself mentions about treaties with unbelievers and according to the Qur'an and hadith it is the duty of all Muslims to honour all treaties and alliances with non-believers. All such alliances must be respected by the Muslims util they are honoured by non-Muslims.

Thus we find again in Sahih al-Bukhari, "The pagans were of two kids as regards their relationship to the Prophet (PBUH) and the Believers. Some of them were those with whom the Prophet was at war and used to fight against, and they used to fight him; the others were those with whom the Prophet (PBUH) made a treaty, and neither did the Prophet fight them, nor did they fight him.

Jihad for social justice

Those who work for social justice are as good as mujahidin i.e. warriors in the way of Allah. Thus we find in Sahih al-Bukhari: The Prophet (PBU) said, "The one who looks after and works for a widow and for a poor person, is like a warrior fighting for Allah's cause or like a person who fasts during the day and prays all the night.' Abu Hurayrah narrated that the Prophet said as above.

Thus any one striving for social justice and working for ameliorating the plight of the poor is like a warrior in the way of Allah. Thus those who spend their own money or collect from others and spend for the poor in the way Allah is no less than a mujahid. According to the Qur'an zakat money is to be spent on poor, widows, needy, paying off the debt of indebted and for liberation of slaves. These are all weaker sections of society. It is thus a great merit to help these poorer and weaker sections and to work for them is as meritorious as waging jihad in the way of Allah.

One must remember that much of the conflict in the world is because of poverty, hunger and unemployment. If these problems are solved much of the conflict will be resolved. One should wage war against poverty in all possible ways - by increasing production, by ringing about redistribution of economic resources and by not allowing wealth to be circulated only among the rich. (59:7)

Even when first permission was given to fight in the Qur'anic verse 4:77 it was basically to defend the rights of weak from among the old men, women and children. In some extreme situations it might mean fighting a war but it could be fight in various other ways, particularly in a democratic and modern society. It could be through democratic movements or parliamentary debates also. In those days when the holy Qur'an was being revealed such possibilities did not exist. Today we will have to creatively re-interpret such Qur'anic provisions as above.

The 'Ulama and jurists in early Islam had divided the world in darul harb and darul Islam. The countri