Jihad: What Is It?

Jihad is a word heard often in the news. Its meaning is complex, its application diverse, and its interpreters give it differing degrees of expression. As persons struggle to understand the complexities facing our nation in relating to the Islamic world a better understanding of the word is needed.

It literally means “struggle” or “exertion.” In its religious setting it always refers to fighting evil. It can mean jihad of the heart, of the mouth or pen, of the hand, and of the sword.

All Muslims are to engage in jihad of the heart which means to fight personal evil desires.

Jihad of the mouth refers to verbal disparagement on all that is in opposition to Islam. This can involve defense of their faith by advocating its virtues or saber-rattling. Saddam Hussein did the latter before the Gulf War in declaring “the mother of all battles” was about to begin.

Jihad of the pen involves either or both tactics as jihad of mouth in written form.

Jihad of the hand involved doing good deeds.

Jihad of the sword has four progressive stages advocated in the Qur’an. It is a summons to combat on behalf of Islam. Muhammad engaged in such and urged his followers to do so. As the followers of Muhammad increased in number his writings in the Qur’an on the topic grew more aggressive.

As his small movement began it was heavily persecuted. During this stage they were encouraged to engage in peaceful persuasion (Sura 16: 125-126). Many Muslims today still believe this to be the best approach.

In 622 when Muhammad fled to Medina he was still opposed and survived by raiding caravans. He now declared fighting was permissible to oppose aggression and recover property form infidels (Sura 22:39).

Soon rewards in the highest heights of heaven were promised those who sacrificed their lives in battle. Also those who were able to engage in battle and did not were to receive divine punishment (Sura 9: 38, 39). Armies expanded immediately. The next progressive move involved military offensive jihad. Muslims were told to take the initiative in war but to avoid doing so during four sacred months.

“When the forbidden months are past then fight and slay pagans wherever you find them, and seize them, beleaguer them, lie in wait for them in each and every ambush. But if they repent, perform the prayers and give alms, then leave their way free” (Sara 9:5).

The ultimate state of jihad removes all restraints against battle in any season and land not yielded to armies of Islam (Sura 9:29).

The law of abrogation in Qur’anic hermeneutics says the last revelation always takes precedence over previous ones (Sura 2: 106 13:39). It should be noted that though many Muslims do not advocate the latter posture on war there are those who do. It is expedient to try to discern between the groups and befriend those who do not advocate aggression while governments try to deal with those who do.