JIHAD -Islam’s Struggle For Truth
By Mansur al-Mujahid (Vincent Cornell)
Like many other religious terms jihad, often mistranslated as “holy war”, is a deeply nuanced concept that has been relined and relined many times throughout more than fourteen centuries of Islamic history. As Bruce Lawrence, a noted American Islamicist, recently pointed out, jihad historically has had as much to do with political ideology as with religion proper, since “all proponents of jihad, whether writers or actors, intellectuals or politicians, are ideologues.”
Despite this rather obvious but often overlooked fact (which is equally true when applied to the concept of “holy war” in Christianity), it should not be forgotten that within Islam the relationship between religion and ideology is inherently reciprocal; consequently, any ideologue who calls for jihad must come up with sound scriptural and legal justification for doing so. The resulting medley of religious, political, and moral discourses in numerous parts of the world and over many centuries has made jihad into an extremely complex concept so much so, in fact, that a completely thorough discussion of the term can only be conducted on a case-by-case basis.
Such a purely historical approach to a problem of meaning, however, carries the danger of implying that jihad as a concept has no essential reality in and of itself. But for the committed and pious Muslim, whether or not he is a conscious ideologue, jihad is indeed a concept with an “essence” ֖ even its definition has been partially constructed out of the actor’s historical, social, and intellectual environment. It thus remains worthwhile, at least as an introduction, to ferret out the “essence” of jihad in the very sources where the Muslim himself is most apt to look: in the divinely revealed text of the Qur’an and the divinely-inspired corpus or sunna, or usage of the Prophet Muham mad and his companions.
Etymologically, the term jihad derives from the Arabic verb jahada, which means: he strove, labored, or toiled: exerted himself or his power or efforts or endeavors or ability; employed himself vigorously, strenuously ...took pains, or extraordinary pains.Ӕ In the text of the Qur’an the word itself is used only three times (9:24, 25:52 and 60:1). The most noticeable lesson to be learned from these verses is that when jihad is used by the Qur’an in its classic sense there is no indication whatever of the concept of “holy war” nor, for that matter, is there any necessary indication of armed conflict at all, although such an interpretation is widely held to be possible in the last two of the above verses. Instead the term is used to indicate the expenditure of self and property that is to be employed by pious Muslims in the cause defense and in the preservation of the Islamic way of life.
When one expands the investigation of jihad to the twenty-eight other places in the Qur’an where another form of the verb jahada is used, there is still no necessary application of the concept to the subject or war, nor is there any attempt in the text of the Holy Book to narrow its meaning to anything more specific. Even in two identical verses (9:73 and 66:9) which a number of Muslims have viewed as ordering the Prophet to take military action against the hypocrites and rejecters of God, the nature of the divine command is far from explicit. In neither case is it stated exactly how the Prophet is to “strive hard” against the enemies of the faith.
Thus, according to the use of the root jahada in the Qur’an, the most basic definition or jihad in Islam is: “any significant expenditure or effort in the cause of God, the religion of Islam, or the Muslim community, which may or may not entail the abandonment of home, property, or even life itself.”
Such an expenditure of effort may of course include war or armed conflict, but nowhere in the Qur’an is jihad specifically linked to military action. armed strife is denoted in the Qur’an by another Arabic verb, qaatala (“to fight”}, which is employed quite frequently in the text of the Revelation. In the chapter al-Tawha (9) the close proximity of the verb (in verse 29) to the term jihad (in verse 24) indicates that, in some contexts at least, the expenditure of effort in the cause of God may include armed struggle: “Fight (qaatala} those who believe not in God nor the Last Day, nor hold that forbidden which hath been forbid by God and His Messenger, nor acknowledge the Religion of Truth, (even if they are) of the People of the Book” (9:29).
The verse just quoted is one of the most problematical in the interreligious discourse concerning jihad, for it seems to give blanket permission for Muslims to undertake armed, offensive conflict against unbelievers of all types, including Christians and Jews. However, such unequivocal phraseology is extremely rare in the Qur’an, where the commandment to fight is most often couched in terms of self-defense and self-restraint, as is seen further on in the same chapter: ֓Fight the pagans all together as they fight you all together, but know that God is with those who restrain themselves (9:36).
It is therefore reasonable to assume that the early association of warfare with jihad in Islamic history, if not deriving solely from a particular use of the term by the Prophet Muhammad and his companions, might also have been due to the close proximity of the verbs jahada and qaatala in chapters of the Qur’an such as ai-tawba, which as Bruce Lawrence has indicated in the article quoted above, continue to be used by ideologues in both the Shi’a and Sunni traditions as justifications for their armed struggle against Zionism and Western imperialism. But what of the alleged usage of the Prophet Muhammad himself, as revealed in the most widely accepted volumes of hadith (accounts of the Prophet’s commands, prohibitions, and normative behavior)? What light can this supplementary body of scripture shed on the present questions?
A glance at the major collections of hadith in both Sunni and Shi’a Islam reveals that jihad became equated almost exclusively with warfare at a very early period in Islamic history .One example can be found in the text of the Muwatta by the legal scholar Malik ibn Anas (d.795), one of the earliest and most authoritative sources of “orthodox” Islamic sunna: “It was related to me…that the Messenger of God (may God bless and preserve him) said: ‘Shall I inform you as to the one who holds the highest rank among mankind? (He is) the man who takes hold of the reins of his horse in jihad in the way of God. Shall I form you who has the best station after him? (He is) the man who, when alone with his booty, (still) maintains prayer, gives alms (to the poor), worships God and associates no partner with Him.” Clearly, for Malik, the idea of jihad was associated primarily with warfare in the cause of God. Indeed, finding scriptural support for just such a venture would have been a major preoccupation of the Abbasid Caliphs of Baghdad (ca.750-1258), who continually sought to find new recruits for , their military campaigns against Christian Byzantium.
Not surprisingly, for the compilers of the best-known hadith collections in Sunni Islam, who completed their works during the heyday of the Abbasid state in the ninth century, the concepts of jihad and warfare were so closely intertwined that the “books of Jihad” in these volumes were devoted almost entirely to delineating the rules and virtues of combat against unbelievers. In his Sahih, for example, Muslim ibn Hajjaj al-Nisaure (d.875) makes no attempt to define jihad itself, but instead devotes himself to listing details of the prophet’s battles and setting forth acceptable rules of engagement. These include the need to declare, an invitation to Islam before the onset of hostilities; choosing a leader; a prohibition against killing women, children, and sons; justification for cutting down orchards and other forms of economic warfare; rules for the repatriation of prisoners; taking and distributing spoils of war; and justifications for the release of prisoners without a ransom.
In modern times, the precedents set by collections of Prophetic tradition such as Sahih Muslim have often served to limit the excesses of Sunni Muslims in their conduct of “just” warfare. Despite the fact that its image evokes an instantaneous reaction of alarm and consternation among a Western public oversensitized by television images of bombed airplanes, bloodied airports, and murdered hostages, indiscriminate “Islamic” terrorism against noncombatants has actually occurred only rarely-largely because other purposeful killing of innocents is so strongly and unequivocally condemned in hadith literature. In regions of the Muslim world as far apart as the Rif mountains of Morocco in the 1920s and Afghanistan in the 1980s, the military effectiveness of mujadhideen (warriors of jihad) fighting against foreign domination was limited by desire to avoid harming the innocent whenever possible. As recently as six years ago, the brother of a noted Afghani mujahid leader expressed to me his utter contempt for secular Palestinians who resorted to terrorism in their attempt to achieve independence from Israel.
In general, the term “islamic terrorism” is a misnomer when applied to the modern Middle East. The most notorious Palestinian terrorist groups, such as the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine and the Abu Nidal organization, are actually secular and leftist in orientation, as is the Palestine Liberation Organization as a whole, since its leaders must cater simultaneously to the conflicting interests of Palestinian Muslims, Christians, and Marxist atheists alike. Even the ShiԒa extremist group Hizbollah in Lebanon prefers to confine its operations to attack against targets that are purely military in nature, such as the U .S. Marine barracks in Beirut or Israeli army patrols. The Islamic mentor of Hizbollah, Shaykh Uhammad Husayn Fadlallah, has more than once criticized the actions of the so-called “Islamic Jihad” terrorists for their excesses in taking hostages, although he has apparently done little to put a stop to their activities.
In another volume of hadith, the Sunna of Ibn Aja (d.886), the definition of jihad was broadened to include the practice of ribat, or devoting oneself exclusively to warfare against the unbelievers for a specified period of time. The inclusion of this new concept as a part of jihad was also most likely a reflection of contemporary military policy within the Abbasid Oiliphate, which sought to maintain a permanent “state of war” with Byzantium along relatively stable borders manned by “warriors of the ribat” (murabitun) and raiders in fortified outposts.
More importantly, however, one also finds in the Sunna of Ibn Maja an attempt to expand the concept of jihad into the sphere of domestic politics. In a tradition that was to become widely popular among both Sunni and Shi’a reformers, the Prophet is alleged to have said: The best jihad is a statement of justice before a tyrannical ruler.” In 1970, this later definition of jihad, usually found in conjunction with the Qur’anic com mand to “enjoin the good and forbid evil” (9:71) because a cornerstone of Ayatollah Khomeini’s treatise on Islamic government (Hukumat-i- Islami). In this work he states that sociopolitical jihad comes second only the governance of the religious scholar in importance, since the scholars, “by means of jihad…must expose and overthrow tyrannical rulers and rouse the people so that the universal movement of all alert Muslims can establish Islamic governments in place of tyrannical regimes.”
Other nuances added to the definition of jihad by medieval hadith scholars such as Malik Muslim and Ibn Maja indicate that by the end of the ninth century the term had been incorporated into a wider theory of justice in Islam, a position it was to retain until modern times. In particular, the legal schools which were founded in the ninth century sought to place jihad within as islamic “law of nations” that conceptually divided all human societies into two categories: the “House of Islam” (Dar aI-Islam), where Islamic principles of justice governed social relations, and the “house of War” (Dar al-Harb), where tyranny, injustice, and the prevention of Islamic practice were seen to hold sway. According to some jurists, relations between noncombatants could at times be governed according to a third category, the “house of Concord” (Dar al-Sulh), where periodically renewed treaty arrangements assured reciprocal freedoms of life, property, and religion for inhabitants of Islamic and non-Islamic states. The “house of War” however, remained a target of concerted action by the Muslim community as a whole and it was deemed incumbent upon the imam, or Muslim ruler, to extend Islamic justice within its borders to the best of his ability.
Although the instrument chosen to achieve this objective was jihad, the goals of moral penetration of the Dar al-Harb did not have to be met by violent means alone, but could include economic and political measures as well. When conflict , became unavoidable because of the belligerent actions of a non-Muslim state, however, jihad then became a proper and “just” war in the classic sense accepted by our own Western legal tradition. Indeed, it stood as the only fully permissible form of warfare allowed to the Muslim community. This multifaceted “moral power” of jihad against the Dar al-Harb provided the theme for Khomeini’s message to the pilgrims in Mecca; and on September 13, 1980. Seeing the United States as an object of warfare and the “Great Satan” because of its role as the “number-one enemy of the deprived and oppressed people of the world,” he exhorted all Muslims to: “Repel the treacherous superpowers from your countries and your abundant resources. Restore the glory of Islam, and abandon your selfish disputes and differences, for you possess everything! Rely on the culture of Islam, resist Western imitation, and stand on your own feet. Attack those intellectuals who are infatuated with the West and the East, and recover your true identity ...Know that your moral power will overcome all other powers. With a population of almost one billion and with infinite sources of wealth, you can defeat all the powers. Aid God’s cause so that He may aid you. Great ocean of Muslims, arise and defeat the enemies of humanity .”
Surprisingly, at least for those brought up to believe that Islam was spread by the sword, the implementation of Islamic values through jihad does not necessarily include conversion to the religion of Islam itself. Although the establishment of any Islamic state continues to be seen as a positive duty by many contemporary Muslim “fundamentalists,” the Qur’an explicitly forbids believers from exercising “compulsion in religion.” By way of adhering to this commandment, early jurists of the Hanafi school of law such as al-Shaybani (d.804) chose to disallow any form of warfare waged against unbelievers solely on religious grounds. On the contrary, al-Shaybani urged Muslims to be especially tolerant toward Christians and Jews in particular and advised the Caliph, as imam of the Muslim community, to wage war on unbelievers only when they came into conflict with Islam of their own accord.
Despite the fact that this position was disputed by the noted jurist al-Shafi’i (d.820), who chose to quote with approval the Qur’anic injunction to “slay those who assist partners of God wherever you may find them,” the interpretation of jihad as primarily a defensive form of warfare continues to prevail in many parts of the Muslim world. This also appears to be the case among the majority of the Shi’a, whose present mujtahid (supreme authority on questions of Islamic practice), Sayyid i Abu’l-Qasim al-Musawial-Khu’i, implies support for the hanafi point of view by maintaining that jihad in defense of one’s rights or territory is more fundamental than jihad undertaken for the propagation of Islamic principles. he also holds that it is obligatory for Muslims to migrate away from the lands of the unbelievers only when they are prevented from practicing Islam. By making this statement, Ayatollah al-Khu’i seems to imply, in apparent disagreement with Khomeini, that a non-Muslim country’ such as the United States should not be considered part of the “House of War” so long as the free practice of the Islamic religion remains unhindered within its borders.
Indeed, it is among the Shi’a that one finds the earliest reference to the form of jihad most familiar to students of Islamic esotericism that of the inner struggle against the passionate soul (nafs). The authoritative Shi’ite hadith scholar al-Kula- yni (d.940) reported that when a group of mujahideen returned from a raid against the unbelievers, the Prophet said: “Welcome to those who have finished the lesser jihad. The greater jihad, how- ever, remains to them.” When the Prophet was asked what the greater jihad was, he replied: “it is the Jihad against one’s elf (nafs).” Slightly more than a century later, the Sunni traditionist al-Bayhaqi (d.IO67) was also to report a similar hadith stating that the “greater jihad” was that of the heart.
From this point on, the concept of jihad in Sunni Islam was seen more often as a way of spiritual warfare and inner purification for the individual Muslim and less as the prosecution of military action against non-Muslim states in the Dar al-Harb. In such a context the concept of ribat, first mentioned in ninth-century hadith collection such as that of Ibn Maja, took on an added significance. No longer did this term D’ merely signify a personal commitment to military action against unbelievers. Now the murabit, like , his counterpart the mujahid in general, found his mandate broadened lo include spiritual struggle of all types, from the introduction of orthodox Islam in regions given over to unbelief and heresy to “holy warfare” against the passionate soul.
In North Africa, for example, both terms were to develop strong Sufi connotations by the beginning of the eleventh century. In Morocco especially, the murabit more often than not fought with the pen rather than the sword, and “fighting the jihad” was often used as a term that denoted struggle against the ֖ the greater adversary within the self. For the fifteenth century Moroccan reformer Muhammad ibn Sulaymanal- Jazuli, common social ills such as gross ignorance among the Muslim masses were themselves seen as reflections of a subtle form of unbelief, and hence as objects of the “greater jihad”. Understanding that the only proper warfare against ignorance is education, al-Jazuli urged his followers to “teach what God has given (them) in the way of useful knowledge,” so that they may establish learning among “women, children, the Sufis, and the masses, whether they be free or slave,” for"the Prophet has said: ‘God will not afflict anyone with a sin greater than the ignorance of his own people.
Perhaps the most perfect example of a synthesis between the inner and outer traditions of jihad in Islam can be found in the figure of the “warrior saint,” who typically appears during moments of great crisis in later Islamic history. Coming most often from a rural or semirural background, this quintessential mujahid may conduct his struggle anywhere in the Muslim world, from Morocco to Indonesia, and most commonly mixes his call for the defense of Islam with an advocacy of social and spiritual reform. In Morocco, one of the most influential of these figures was a Berber Sufi of the Qadiriyya order named Muhammad ibn Yaggabsh al- Tali (d.IS14), who exhorted his countrymen to defend themselves against the ravages of Portuguese colonialism.
After witnessing the bloody Portuguese conquest of the northern Moroccan port city of Asia and the expulsion of its inhabitants in 1471, al-Tazi composed a Book of Jihad in which he evoked the image of a society gravely threatened by advanced spiritual decline and impending moral and social collapse: ԓServants of God, what is this great heedlessness which has begun to establish itself in hearts, upon which the ego relies, and which has made proper guidance and God’s approval nonexistent? Do you not know that your enemies are investigating you and are utilizing every stratagem in order to get to you? ...They will gather together… and set out for this land. They will not, however, be satisfied, either with possessing it or obtaining money or slaves. Instead, they will cause glory and happiness to turn into debasement and sadness. They will cause despair and expulsion to prevail over (the land), both in feeling and in fact; (the people) will be shackled with chains and irons and every day will suffer grievous torture. They will become like chattel and slaves, and those who only yesterday were rich and secure will tomorrow become poor and afraid… Their women will be separated from them, their daughters will be taken from them, and the unbelievers will compete over the prices at which they will buy them. Then they will be split up and sent to every land and (the unbelievers) will seduce them away from their religion…they will encounter neither pity nor mercy… their tears will pour down their cheeks, and they will be overcome by sorrow that knows no relief.”
For al- Tazi, as for other reformers who continue to advocate both spiritual and political jihad today, the ideal community of believers can be found only among those who are manifestly devoted to the Real and have overcome their passions with disciplined struggle for the sake of God: “Where are the lovers? Where are those in whom the fire of love has burned their hearts? Here is he who hungers to attain his desire in the sweet ness of union? By the Grace of God, you have attained your hopes, oh Seeker! You have reached you desires, oh Lover! The One that you have longed for will surely not frighten you with fear of the onset of death, nor will he deny you the eternal happiness you so passionately desire by the cessation of that which is ephemeral!”
These are the believers who are as rare as hidden pearls in contemporary Muslim society: the just man, the rich man with humility, the repenter who maintains his resolve, the man with a merciful heart who strives in the way of God-such are the true “friends of God”. It is only the true warriors of God who can rectify the damage caused by the “friends of Satan” the tyrannical sultan, the rich man who is arrogant, the corrupt merchant, the usurer, the adulterer, the murderer, the cheat who robs orphans of their money: “you have sold your religion for the world and for the dirham,” warns Shaykh aI- Tazi. “The outcome of the first fire and the outcome of the second is distress.”
It is interesting to note that the same themes were again to be echoed more than four hundred and fifty years later by none other than Ayatollah Khomeini, who, in an often overlooked exegesis of the opening chapter of the Qur’an, also stresses the primacy of the inward, spiritual jihad over other forms of struggle for the truth: forms of jihad that may be waged in the world depend on this greater jihad; if we succeed in the greater jihad, then all our other strivings will count as jihad, and if not, they will be satanic.”
This article was originally published in GNOSIS Magazine, No. 21, Fall 1991. Additional copies are available from the publisher. http://www.gnosismagazine.com It was reprinted in the Fall 1992 issue of TAM with permission of the author.
See also our Research topic on JIHAD for many more articles on this topic.