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The True Spirit of Jihad

Jihad means striving to the utmost extent of one’s ability and power by exerting oneself spiritually in the way of Allah

Source: Muslim.org / 12 Mar 2013 

“The believers are those only who believe in Allah and His Messenger, then they doubt not, and struggle hard with their wealth and their lives in the way of Allah. Such are the truthful ones.”(Al-Hujurat 49:15)

Jihad is an Islamic institution that is widely misunderstood. The non-Muslims fearfully regard it as an Islamic practice that aims to wage ‘Holy War’ against all disbelievers, to convert them to Islam or to kill them. To the common western mind, the word ‘Jihad’ is synonymous with ‘terrorism’ and Islam is a ‘militant’ religion.

Here, I will attempt to present the real meaning of jihad in Islam, as taught by the Holy Quran and practiced by the Holy Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) and his Companions, and revived in this age by the promised Messiah.

The word ‘jihad’ is derived from the root ‘jahd‘ or ‘juhd‘ whose meaning is given by Imam Raghib Al-Asfahani as ability, exertion or power and ‘jihad’ and ‘mujahida‘ mean the exerting of one’s power in repelling the enemy. He then goes on to say:

‘Jihad is of three kinds; viz., the carrying out of a struggle against: 1. a visible enemy, 2. the devil, 3. one’s nafs (self).’

Thus, in a broader sense, jihad means striving to the utmost extent of one’s ability and power by exerting oneself spiritually in the way of Allah and doing one’s best to preach the message of Islam to others. This is the jihad that a Muslim can carry out for Islam throughout his life. When used in the narrower sense of fighting against a visible enemy, jihad means fighting only in self-defense, when the initiative of attack is taken by the other party.

Let us consider the sense in which the word is used in the Qur’an in an early Makkan revelation:

“And those who strive hard (the word used is jahadu) for Us, We shall certainly guide them in our ways, and Allah is surely with the doers of good.”(Al-‘Ankabut 29:69)

A similar injunction occurs in:

“And strive hard for Allah with due striving.”(Al-Hajj 22:78)

The jihad referred to here is clearly jihad by nafs; the spiritual exertion to curb one’s lower desires and evil inclinations and to try to increase in the doing of good in order to attain nearness to Allah. I believe this form of jihad against one’s own self is perhaps the most difficult of all.

It would have been easy enough if jihad had only meant the defense of Islam by fighting against an enemy bent upon the extermination of the Muslims when the occasion so demanded; but to be constantly engaged in fighting against one’s inner demons, to guard against all sorts of temptations and greed and never to allow oneself to weaken for a moment lest one be overcome is by far more arduous a struggle. Yet when a believer sincerely tries to purify his soul and asks help from his Creator, he finds Him nigh and God guides him in his efforts.

Let us now take a look at the Qur’anic injunction of ihad al-qital or jihad with the sword, which is the most commonly understood meaning of jihad. Consider the circumstances under which the first permission to fight is given to the faithful. The Muslims had patiently borne the most ruthless persecution at the hands of the Quraish for thirteen years in Makkah.

The flight to Madinah, however, had further fanned the fire of the wrath of the Quraish since the Muslims were now out of their reach. With individual persecution no longer possible, they now planned the extinction of the Muslims as a nation. They would either annihilate the Muslims or compel them to return to unbelief. In these circumstances came the earliest permission to fight:

“Permission (to fight) is given to those on whom war is made, because they are oppressed. And surely Allah is able to assist them – Those who are driven from their homes without a just cause except that they say: Our Lord is Allah. And if Allah did not repel some people by others, cloisters and churches and synagogues and mosques, in which Allah’s name is much remembered, would have been pulled down. And surely Allah will help him who helps His cause.”(Al-Hajj 22:39-40)

Indeed, war with such a pure motive as to establish the principle of religious liberty was truly a jihad, a struggle carried on simply with the object that truth may prosper, and that freedom of conscience may be maintained.

The second verse giving the Muslims permission to fight runs as follows:

“And fight in the way of Allah against those who fight against you, and be not aggressive; surely Allah loves not the aggressors.”(Al-Baqarah 2:190)

Here again the condition is plainly laid down that the Muslims shall not be the first to attack. They had to fight – it had now become a duty – but only against those who fought against them; aggression was expressly prohibited. The words fi sabilillah (in the way of Allah) are misinterpreted by most Western writers as meaning for the propagation of Islam, when nothing could be further from the truth since the Muslims were not fighting to force Islam on others, rather they were being fought to force them to renounce their faith. Moreover, Allah says:

“There is no compulsion in religion.”(Al-Baqarah 2:256)

This verse was revealed after the permission for war had been given, and it is therefore certain that fighting had no connection with the preaching of religion.

The fifth verse of chapter 9 of the Qur’an is mistakenly called by some people “the verse of the sword”, as if it inculcated the indiscriminate massacre of all idolators or unbelievers. The misconception is due to the fact that the words are taken out of their context and a significance is forced on them which the context cannot bear. The words of the fifth verse are:

“So when the sacred months have passed, slay the idolaters wherever you find them, and take them captive and besiege them and lie in wait for them in every ambush. But if they repent and keep up prayer and pay the poor-rate, leave their way free. Surely Allah is Forgiving, Merciful.”(At-Tawbah 9:5)

It is asserted that this verse offers to the disbelievers the alternative of the sword or the Qur’an. Nothing is farther from the truth. As the title of this chapter and the opening verses show, the Muslims are granted ‘immunity’ from their obligations with such of the idolatrous tribes as had repeatedly broken their engagements with the Muslims and repeatedly dealt telling blows to the Muslims whenever they had an opportunity of doing so.

The injunction in the fifth verse to wage war is clearly against these idolaters who repeatedly violated their agreements with the Muslims, while clear exceptions are made with regard to those idolatrous tribes who adhered to their treaties and those who sought the protection of the Muslims. The latter were to be conveyed the message of Islam but in case they did not accept it, they were to be safely conveyed to their homes.

This clearly shows that the reason why the Muslims were fight against the idolaters, as mentioned in that verse, was not because they were idolaters but because they repeatedly violated the trust of the Muslims and invited them to war.

Nowhere does the Qur’an give the Muslims permission to enter on an unprovoked war against the whole world. Conditions are also laid down as to when war should cease. Says verse 193 of Chapter 2:

“And fight with them until there is no more persecution, and religion should be only for Allah.”(Al-Baqarah 2:193)

The words ‘religion should be only for Allah’ are sometimes misinterpreted as meaning that all people should accept Islam. This misconception, however, is soon dispelled upon comparison with another verse which carries very similar words.

“And fight with them until there is no more persecution and all religions are for Allah.”(Al-Anfal 8:39)

This clearly shows that both the expressions ‘religion should be only for Allah’ and ‘all religions are for Allah’ carry the same significance, namely that religion is a matter between man and his God, in which nobody has a right to interfere.

This teaching was supported by the practice of the Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him) who gave full religious liberty to a people who had been subjugated in war. A well-known example is the occasion of the conquest of Makkah.


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