The Concept of Jihad
By Shaibu Asali*
The meaning of jihad and the type of jihad
The word jihad has attracted a lot of controversy, and misunderstanding about Islam. It has led to a negative portrayal of the Muslims. This has been partly due to the fact that the word jihad has been mistranslated in English dictionaries. The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines jihad as “holy war.” This definition is totally wrong because the concept of a “holy war” does not exist in Islam. The Arabic equivalent of “holy war” is harb muqaddas, and that term does not exist in any Islamic texts. In any case, the true meaning of an Arabic word like jihad can only be found in an Arabic dictionary. The Arabic dictionaries define jihad as to “exert the utmost, to strive, to expend one’s best efforts.” (an-Nihaayah fee Ghareeb al-Hadeeth wa al-Athar,1/319).
The unfortunate translation by the English dictionary gives the impression that jihad is limited to warfare. However, that is far from the truth. Ibn al-Qayyim mentioned several types of jihad which are jihad an-nafs (jihad against one’s self), jihad ash-Shaytaan (jihad against the devil), and warfare. He went on to say:
“Jihad an-nafs (jihad against one’s self) is of four kinds:
1 – Striving to learn the teachings of Islam.
2 – Striving to make oneself act in accordance with what one has learned. Simply knowing without acting, even though it may not cause any harm, is not going to bring any benefit.
3 – Striving to call others to Islam, and teaching those who do not know about it.
4 – Striving to bear patiently the difficulties involved in calling people to Allah and the insults of people; bearing all that for the sake of Allah.
If a person achieves all these four levels, then he will be one of the rabbaaniyyeen (learned men of religion who practice what they know and also preach to others).
Jihad against the devil is of two types:
1 – Warding off the doubts that he stirs up to undermine faith.
2 – Striving against him to ward off the corrupt desires that he provokes.
The first jihad is followed by certainty of faith, and the second is followed by patience. Allah said: “And We made from among them (Children of Israel), leaders, giving guidance under Our Command, when they were patient and used to believe with certainty in Our Ayaat (proofs, evidences, verses, lessons, signs, revelations, etc.)” [Qurꞌan 32:24] (Zaad al-Ma’aad, 3/159)
The concept of jihad can be extended to cover everything which a person strives to do well. A man passed by the Prophet (peace be upon him), and the companions of the Prophet (peace be upon him) saw his strength and activeness, and they said: “Would that he was fighting in Allah’s cause (jihad). The Prophet (peace be upon him) said: “If he has gone out striving for his young children, then he is in the path of Allah. If he has gone out striving for his elderly parents, then he is in the path of Allah. If he has gone out striving for himself, then he is in the path of Allah. If he has gone out for show-off, then he is in the path of the devil.” [at-Tabaraani, 19/129] Thus, an ordinary task like working and seeking a livelihood to sustain oneself, one’s children, and parents is considered to be jihad.
Jihad also involves warfare. However, the declaration of warfare is the prerogative of the head of a Muslim state who may after consultation decide to engage in warfare for the best interests of the country. So, jihad is an instrument through which the Islamic state can preserve itself if the need arises. Warfare is not child’s play whereby some people buy guns or bombs and start slaughtering people in the name of religion. That is not what Islam teaches, and nothing of that sort was mentioned in the Islamic texts.
Does Islam support terrorism?
Islam has often been portrayed as the religion of war, suicide bombers, and wanton killing. However, this is not what is reflected in the Islamic texts. Human life is protected, and unjust killing is prohibited. It is a major sin. Serious types of punishments have been legislated for a murderer. Whoever kills one person unjustly it is as if he has killed the entire humanity, and whoever saves one person’s life, it is as if he has saved the life of the entire humanity. [Quran 5: 32]
However, the question which naturally arises is that why do extremist groups like Boko Haram, Al-Qaidah, Al-Shahab exist, and fight in the name of Allah? The answer is that Islam is defined by what is stated in the Quran and the Sunnah, and not the wrong actions of people. Therefore, the Islamic texts are against terrorism and murder. So, that is the position of Islam on the matter. The extremist groups are a tiny minority who account for less than one percent of the Muslim population. The majority of the Muslims live their life in a normal, and peaceful manner, and they are not a threat to anyone. The extremist groups and organizations do not fight for the sake of Allah. This is because they have been known to declare other Muslims as apostates, and to attack them in mosques, and homes. Thus, they fight for economic, political or other agendas which are best known to themselves.
1. “The concept of jihad has been greatly misunderstood.” Discuss
2. Evaluate the importance of jihad.
Shaibu Asali is an Author and Islamic Scholar based in Harare-Zimbabwe.
Author, historian & columnist
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