“Jihad” - What does it REALLY mean? Featured

By Yahya Bedair

November 11, 2014

One of the most prominent concepts cited by anti-Muslim bigots is the notion of jihad. A quick look at conservative TV channels and websites and one would notice that they universally define jihad as the epitome of evil.

So what is this jihad they speak of? Jihad is an arcane theme that is commonly most misunderstood, or perhaps insufficiently known, by many people. Mainly due to extremist groups and influential Western media, many people tend to associate jihad with waging a “holy war” against non-Muslims.

From 2001 onwards, extremist Muslim leaders, such as Osama Bin Laden, pertinaciously stated that every Muslim should comply with “God’s order” to do jihad and that it is an “individual duty” for Muslims to “kill Americans – civilian and military.” After his assassination in 2011, Bin Laden passed on the torch to ISIS, assigning them the mission of defaming jihad.

To take a deeper look at the issue, it would be best to see how jihad features in Islamic teachings. In the early days of Islam, preaching monotheism in a pagan society that was deeply entrenched in idolatry proved to be a difficult challenge for Prophet Muhammad.

After the Prophet’s migration to Madinah and the eventual break out of battles against the Makkans, Qur’anic Revelations came out to command the Muslims to fight back. Non-Muslims, along with Muslim extremists, often use this definition of jihad as the primary, if not the only, definition of jihad. These verses, despite not explicitly using the word jihad, are often interpreted as advocating for a violent form of jihad.

One of the commonly cited Qur’anic verses that uses jihad as means of fighting says:

And slay them wherever ye find them, and drive them out of the places whence they drove you out, for persecution is worse than slaughter. And fight not with them at the Inviolable Place of Worship until they first attack you there, but if they attack you (there) then slay them. Such is the reward of disbelievers.”

This verse, which is often used as a justification for the current understanding of jihad, calls upon Muslims to fight ‘back’ their enemy (Makkans). Muslims, as stated in the above verse, were for long being persecuted by the Makkans. After not fighting back for the first 13 years since the start of the Islamic message, Muslims were now ordained to fight back those who persecute them. This, however, is basic self-preservation. In order to protect their own existence and message, Muslims had to fight back the aggressor.

Indeed, God says in the same Chapter: “And fight them until persecution is no more, and religion is for Allah. But if they desist, then let there be no hostility except against wrong-doers.”

The fight was not meant to exist endlessly; instead, God commanded the Muslims to fight until there was no more persecution. People who often cite this verse as proof of aggression fail to see neither its purpose nor its context. The verse called upon Muslims to stand up for what they believe in until persecution ends. Moreover, God commanded the Muslims to have no hostility towards the persecutors once they stop their aggression.

Prophet Muhammad also has several Hadiths (sayings) in Sahih Al-Bukhari concerning Jihad. One of these Hadiths was when Aisha, who was the Prophet’s wife, asked him, “O Messenger of Allah, we see jihad as the best of deeds, so shouldn't we join it?" The Prophet then replied saying, "But the best of jihad is a perfect hajj (pilgrimage to Makkah)."

With performing Hajj being the ‘best’ of jihad, it shows how committing to God’s path by being a good Muslim is seen as a better option than engaging in battles. This is critical to our understanding of the word jihad in Islam, which is now commonly associated with waging a “Holy War” and other violent connotations that do not relate to the essence of the word.

Standing up for justice, for example, is another way of performing jihad. When a man asked Muhammad, “What kind of jihad is better?” The Prophet replied, “A word of truth in front of an oppressive ruler.” These are some examples of how jihad held a non-violent meaning in Qur’anic Revelations and also in Prophetic Hadiths.

Mere brutal fighting contrasts with the essential spirit of jihad, which preaches sincerity and giving back to God and to the poor. Many Muslims, along with non-Muslims, do not fully understand the essence of jihad and its relevance in Islamic history. People were encouraged to jahid (v. strive) to become a better person, to get rid of the evil within themselves, and to give back to their communities. A little understanding of Islamic teachings will teach you that the epitome of evil is not jihad- it is ignorance.


Yahya Bedair is a freelance writer. He recently graduated from Brandeis University with a degree in Politics and minors in Economics and Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies. Follow him on Twitter at @TheYB92




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