Terrorism, Jihad, and the Struggle for New Understandings

Dr. Antony T. Sullivan

Posted Dec 20, 2002      •Permalink      • Printer-Friendly Version
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These are difficult times in relations between the West and the Islamic world.  Wars and rumors of war abound, and terrorism (although rarely its context) dominates the headlines.  A shooting war continues between the United States and al Qaaida in Afghanistan, and war evidently impends between the United States and the United Kingdom on the one hand and Iraq on the other.  Fundamentalisms—Muslim, Jewish, and Christian—metastasize.  Atop all else, violence reigns unchecked in Israel and the Occupied Territories, and makes effective responses to assorted other challenges enormously more difficult.  With polarities unprecedented in modern times between the West and the Islamic world, and seething anger among Muslims worldwide against the United States, it is difficult indeed to discuss objectively concepts with such emotive resonance as terrorism and Jihad.  But the attempt to do so has never been more important.

It is unfortunate that in the West a putative validation of terrorism has come to be understood as incarnated in the Arabic word Jihad.  And in the Islamic world, far too many today understand Jihad as justifying, indeed demanding, the taking of the lives of innocent civilians in countries or cultures against which Arabs and Muslims may have very real and painful grievances.  Misperceptions, and rampant ignorance, reign almost everywhere.  Especially in the United States and the Arab world, there is today an enormous need for an intellectual and spiritual ғJihad, or effort, to readdress soberly the whole issue of terrorism, and the significance of the concept of Jihad over the entire span of Islamic history.

My fundamental argument is that terrorism and Jihad are not identical twins but historic enemies.  I will maintain that a new vocabulary is essential to demonstrate the radical antipathy that has separated these concepts until very recent decades.  Terrorism is not only un-Islamic but anti-Islamic, and those who commit terrorism should be designated as criminals rather than as holy warriors or resistance fighters.  Moreover, this paper will suggest that a new focus by Muslims on the Holy Quran, at the expense of medieval fiqh, is now very much in order (I frequently suggest to Muslim ԓfundamentalists that their only problem is that they are not fundamentalist enough).  In addition, an argument will be made that the meaning of Jihad must be reassessed through analysis of its linguistic roots, and reconceptualized to incorporate the phenomenon of culturally traditionalist and interreligious efforts designed to address some of the most difficult problems of modernity.  Indeed, ԓecumenical Jihad is today not an oxymoron, but a necessity.  If the perceived linkage between terrorism and Jihad can be ruptured, and Jihad reconceptualized as constituting a means by which all of the children of Abraham may strive to create a better world, the foundations for a brighter future will surely have been laid.  This paper will conclude with a discussion of one ecumenical effort already underway which seeks to join Muslims and Christians who are culturally traditionalist and truly religious in a common effort to oppose the radical secularism so characteristic of contemporary Western modernity.

The fact is that apprehension of terrorism may be similar to apprehension of pornography.  Namely, and like pornography, terrorism may be difficult to define in a fashion that wins universal approbation, but we all surely recognize it, as we do pornography, when we see it.  No oneԗanywhereshould infuse terrorism with any sort of religious rationale or justification.  Terrorism constitutes criminal behavior, and specific designation of terrorism as criminal cannot be said too loudly, or too frequently, by the most prominent representatives of Islam, Christianity and Judaism.  Terrorist criminality can be and is indeed being practiced today by states as well as by individuals and groups, and one should never hesitate to make this clear.  In the aftermath of 9/11, the good news is that prominent Muslims have time and again uttered condemnations of terrorism committed by Arabs and/or Muslims.[1]  The bad news is that these condemnations have failed to penetrate the consciousness of most Americans, and most assuredly have not influenced the formulation of U.S. foreign policy in Washington, D.C.

I believe that the title of this particular panel (דConceptualizing Jihad and Terrorism) may have the unintended consequence of projecting exactly the sort of ԓlinkage between the two terms that the conference organizers undoubtedly wish to avoid.  What is now needed, I believe, is a new and authentically Islamic vocabulary that definitively separates the concept of Jihad from that of terrorism.  Some of that Islamic vocabulary already exists, and it is time for ever more Muslims to begin to use it, I would argue, when engaged in discussion of this topic.  Other vocabulary perhaps needs to be resuscitated, and applied in novel ways.  Ijtihad, or interpretation, of the Quran, hadith, and fiqh should today be considered not only permissible, but obligatory, for all Muslims. 

The venerable Islamic concept of Hiraba is one such ancient term that merits greatly renewed emphasis now.  It is that word, designating ԓunholy war and derived from the Arabic root hariba meaning to be ԓfurious or ԓenraged, that Muslims need to begin to employ, I believe, when discussing the phenomenon of terrorism. [2]  Specifically, I propose that anything that is clearly terrorism be described as Hiraba, not Jihad.  Indeed, I believe that Jihad should today largely be restricted to describe non-military endeavors, and used especially in the context of the traditional Islamic understanding of the ԓGreater Jihad.[3]  In addition, of course, Jihad should continue to be used to denote what is clearly defensive warfare:  but the fact that such warfare is defensive only, and why, needs to be clearly explained.  In that particular regard, one can do no better than to begin with the Quranic verse:  ԓTo those against whom war is made, permission is given (to fight), because they are wrongedŔ (22:39). [4]  The key concepts here, of course, are the wrongӔ done to the believers by others who initiate war initiate war against them, and the consequent obligation of Muslims to respond in kind to protect their faith and community.

The Quran is emphatic and categorical in its condemnation of Hiraba.  Thus:  [Verily] the punishment of those who wage war (yuhariboona) against God and his Messenger, and strive with might and main for mischief through the land, is:  execution, or crucifixion, or the cutting off of hands and feet from opposite sides, or exile from the land:  That is their disgrace in this world, and a heavy punishment is theirs in the hereafterӔ (5: 33).  The classical medieval Arab commentators explained what they understood this Quranic condemnation of Hiraba to mean.  For example, the Spanish Maliki jurist Ibn Abd al-Barr defines the committer of Hiraba as Anyone who disturbs free passage in the streets and renders them unsafe to travel, striving to spread corruption through the land by taking money, killing people or violating what God has made it unlawful to violate, is guilty of HirabaӅ[5]  Imam al-Narwawi states that ԓWhoever brandishes a weapon and terrorizes the streetsmust be pursued by the authorities because if he is left unmolested his power will increaseŅand corruption will spread.[6]  And Ibn Qudamah defines Hiraba as ԓthe act of openly holding people upwith weapons to take their money.Ŕ[7]  What is common to all of these definitions, as Professor Sherman A. Jackson has pointed out, is that Hiraba has traditionally been understood by Muslims to mean the attempt to intimidate an entire civilian population, and the effort to spread a sense of fear and helplessness as widely as possible in society. [8]  Could one ask for better designations of what we today call terrorism?  And is it not precisely the realization of such social paralysis that contemporary groups like al-Qaaida are attempting to accomplish? 

In traditional Islamic parlance, Hiraba clearly means not only ғunholy war, but also ԓwarfare against society.  As defined by Professor Khalid Abou al Fadl, it means ԓkilling by stealth and targeting a defenseless victim in a way intended to cause terror in society. [9]  The concept of Hiraba is closely connected with that of ԓfitna, which designates the disruption of established political and social order.  Fitna, like Hiraba, was long considered by Islamic jurists to be among the crimes meriting the most severe of punishments.  When Muslims refer to the activities of organizations allied with or sympathetic to Usama bin Laden and al QaaԒidamany of which use the word Jihad to describe themselves and their activities but are so evidently engaged in fitnaחthey would do well to begin to describe such organizations as irhabi (terrorist) rather than jihadi.

Moreover, there are assorted terms in traditional Islamic vocabulary in addition to Hiraba that also may deserve revival.  Those terms include mufsidun, tajdif, and shaitaniyya.  The challenge for all those who wish to reclaim Islam from those who currently are deforming it, and thereby to begin to educate the West concerning the true nature of Islamic revelation, is first and foremost to launch a JihadӔ to reclaim the vocabulary of violence from those extremists who are now so blackening the reputation of Islam by their frequently unchallenged use of the words they do.

Of all allied understandings, the Islamic concept of tajdifӔ has long been intimately associated with Hiraba.  Tajdif designates the blasphemy that results from the waging of unholy warfare by evildoers.  Tajdif has traditionally been considered by Muslims as an act of apostasy punishable by death.  The term mufsidunӔ designates those who engage in Hiraba, and who perpetrate what we today understand as terrorism.  Tajdif, and the activities of mufsidun, have traditionally been understood by Muslims as examples of shaitaniyya, or Satanic and anti-Islamic activity.  Today, the fact is that increasing numbers of Muslim scholars and students of Islam, both in the West and the Islamic world, are beginning to use the vocabulary associated with Hiraba and are urging others to do the same.  To the extent that Hiraba can come to replace Jihad, in Jihads deformed and un-Islamic sense, the better off, I would argue, all of us will be.

Indeed, the discussion of Hiraba, and the substitution of the word Hiraba for that of Jihad in the discussion of terrorism, is now becoming apparent in the comments of prominent Muslim personalities throughout the world.  For example, Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi of the United Arab Emirates has categorically condemned the bombing in Bali as terrorist and ғtotal barbarism, and has noted that rather than an act of Jihad the Bali bombing constitutes an ԓact ofHiraba in juristic terms:  a crime in Islam for which a severe punishment is specified without discrimination to race, color, nationality or religion of the culprit.Ŕ[10] Similarly condemning terrorism, and employing the word Hiraba rather than Jihad to describe it, is Dr. Ezzedin Ibrahim, also of the UAE.  Dr Ibrahim states:  What occurred on September 11, 2001, is one of the most loathsome of crimes, which in Islam goes under the name of al-Hiraba.  Hiraba is the most abominable form of murder, in that it involves killing with terrorism and intimidation.Ӕ[11]  Professor Akbar Ahmed of American University in the United States describes contemporary events as constituting a war of ideas within Islam,Ӕ featuring pronouncements that are clearly un-Islamic and even blasphemous toward the peaceful and compassionate Allah of the QuranӅal QaaidaҒs brand of suicide and mass murder and its fomenting of hatred among races, religions and cultures do not constitute godly or holy Jihadђbut, in fact, constitute the heinous crime and sin of unholy בHirabaŒ  Professor Ahmed emphasizes that the act of Hiraba committed on 9/11, through its ԓwanton killing of innocentsboth non-Muslim and Muslim alikeה as a means of terrorizing [an] entire community,Ӕ constituted the most ungodly sort of ӑwar against society and should be condemned as blasphemous and un-Islamic.Ҕ [12]  Radwan Masmoudi, President of the Center for the Study of Islam and Democracy in Washington, D.C., states that The war against society and innocent civilians that Usama bin Laden is calling for is not Jihad.  To the contrary, it is a forbidden and un-Islamic war (Hiraba) which is counter to all of the values and teachings of Islam.  [Hiraba] is a crime against innocent civilians and therefore a crime against humanity.  In Islamic jurisprudence (fiqh), there is no justification for the killing of innocent people.Ӕ [13]  And Robert D. Crane echoes other prominent Muslims, noting that There is no such thing as Islamic terrorism, but there have always been Muslim terrorists.  Today [such] alienated extremistsӅare exhibiting the most serious crime condemned by the Quran, which is the root of all other crimes, namely, arroganceThey are committing the crime of HirabaŅThere can be no greater evil and no greater sin. [14]

In any discussion of terrorism and ԓJihad in the contemporary world, interreligious agreement on certain large issues must be fundamental to the conversation.  On this score, let me suggest that religious liberty must be considered a basic human right.  On religious liberty, one can do no better than to remind oneself of the categorical statement in the Quran: ԓLet there be no compulsion in religion (2:256).  As far as both pluralism and toleration in matters of belief are concerned, the Quran is highly specific: ԓTo each among you, it states, ԓhave we prescribed a Law and an Open Way. (5:48).  And more: ԓIf God had so willed, he would have made you a single People, but (his plan is) to test you in what He hath given you [i.e., the revelation] (5:48).  And still more:  ԓThe goal of you all is to God; It is He that will show you the truth of the matters in which [you] dispute (5:48).  Concerning both religious liberty and communal diversity, the Quran is both emphatic and explicit:  remarkably so, given the age in which it was revealed.  Without agreement on the all-important matter of religious liberty, dialogue among the children of Abraham is all too likely to prove a dialogue of the deaf.

Today, Muslims may wish to remind themselves, and Westerners should understand, that in any emergency situation in which MuslimsԒ lives and lands were to be threatened and therefore defensive war were to be imperative, such defensive warsuch a Jihad—can legally be declared only by a recognized and legitimate ruler.  Usama bin Laden, or Ayman Zawahiri, or the various דresistance groups that invoke military Jihad in their own names, have (under traditional Islamic criteria) no right whatsoever to do so.  Therefore, Usama bin LadenԒs proclamationfrom a cave in Afghanistan—of a Jihad against the United States, דJews, and ԓCrusaders, is a violation of Islamic law. [15]  In this same vein, both Muslims and non-Muslims should understand that there are rules for military Jihad, when it must be waged.  These rules were codified by the first Caliph, Abu Bakr, and are considered authoritative for all traditional Sunnis.  To the Islamic army he led, Abu Bakr prescribed the following:  ԓDo not betray; do not carry grudges; do not deceive; do not mutilate; do not kill children; do not kill the elderly; do not kill womendo not cut down fruit-bearing treesŅYou will come upon (Christian monks), leave them to what they have dedicated their livesŔ [16]  And Abu Bakrs rules for Jihad are based on what is prescribed by the Quran, and endorsed by Muhammad.  In the Quran the believers are enjoined ғnot to let the hatred of othersmake you swerve to wrong and depart from justice.  Be just:  that is next to pietyŅ (5:8).  And the Prophet himself said:  ԓAttack in the name of God, but do not revert to treachery; do not kill a child; neither kill a woman; do not wish to confront the enemyŔ [17]  Clearly, these sources can leave no doubt that the military Jihad proclaimed by some today constitutes not only Hiraba but is illegal and even blasphemous according to traditional Islamic criteria.

Today, few would argue that the United States, and perhaps especially such prominent Arab states as Saudi Arabia, are not uniquely threatened by those who reject all such evidence, and remain determined to continue their campaign of terrorism, Hiraba, and fitna.  The question, then, is What is to be done?Ӕ  And the answer, I would suggest, may lie in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia itself.

There can be no doubt that the relationship between the United States and Saudi Arabia has been of great mutual benefit over the past half century.  Americans should recall the United States itself played an important part in fostering extremism through its support of the anti-Soviet mujahadeen in Afghanistan during the 1980s.  More, Americans should understand that it is not correct to identify most members of the Saudi Royal Family with either Hiraba or terrorism.  The Saudis have been cooperating with the United States in the ғWar on Terror, and can be expected to do so even more closely in the future.  If there is to be any possibility of ԓvictory in the war against Hiraba, the United States must seek to persuade Saudi Arabia to employ the enormous prestige that it enjoys throughout the Islamic world to bring extremism under control.  Most simply stated, winning the war on terrorism will be impossible without a religious imprimatur against extremism from Saudi Arabia.  And of course, all of this requires that the American media campaign mounted against Saudi Arabia since 9/11 must come to an end.

In his important book, TerrorԒs Source:  The Ideology of Wahabi-Salafism And Its Consequences, [18]  Vincenzo Oliveti points out that such Saudi Salafi Sheikhs as Ibn Uthaymin are now making positive statements concerning both Sufi and non-Salafi Muslims.  And Oliveti adds:  ѓThe Saudis may have reasons of their own to want to bring Salafism more in line with [ordinary] Islam, not the least of which is the growing power and independence of Salafi preachers inside Saudi Arabia itself.  Also the Saudis understand full well that the world around them is changing and that at some point change is inevitable even in Saudi Arabia itself.  They know that if they do not take the lead in this change and direct its course themselves, they may well be its first casualties.[19]

Without active Saudi assistance, rampant Hiraba may well provoke the nightmare scenario of a ԓwar of civilizations pitting the Islamic world against the West.  But if encouraging signs are now visible in Saudi Arabia, similar positive indications are also now apparent in Washington, D.C.  In this regard, it appears that President George W. Bush has begun to work his way toward an understanding of Islam that will separate him from the Christian fundamentalists who constitute the bedrock of his political support.  If George Bush can make that journey, is there not at least a chance that many other Americans can do the same?

On this score, a recent commentary by Professor Akbar Ahmed, a distinguished authority on Islam who has long taught in the United States, is inordinately interesting.  Can it indeed be the case that at the summit of political power in the United States, there is in process the generation of a new understanding of Islam that might embolden Muslims to more aggressively challenge the friends of terrorism in their midst, and encourage Americans to more categorically reject those Western ideologues who insist on portraying Islam and Muslims as an uncompromising enemy of Western civilization?  In any attempt to conceptualize the relationship of Jihad, Hiraba, and terrorism, and their likely future, intellectual developments matter a great deal.  Especially when they occur in the White House, and involve the President of the United States.  Ideas, one can never remind oneself too frequently, do have real political consequences.

The following is a report by Professor Ahmed of a recent meeting that he and other leaders of the Muslim community held in the White House with President Bush early in November of 2002.  This report suggests how what occurred on 9/11 may have catalyzed reconsideration of Islam, and perhaps hints why books on Islam have been selling in the United States at a rate unimaginable earlier.

ԓLike many Americans and most non-Americans, Professor Ahmed writes, ԓI underestimated George W. Bush. [20] And he continues:

ԓOn November 7 [2002], Bush invited Muslim ambassadors and a few other guests [to the White House] for an iftar dinnerWe assembled shortly before the breaking of the fast.  It was prayer time and I wondered whether and where prayer would be held.  At the appropriate time I heard theŅcall to prayer.  It was a beautiful voice.  I looked around to see who was calling us to prayer, expecting a traditional religious leader.  I was startled to see the person calling the prayer.  It was a young captain from the U.S. Air Force.

After the prayer, as we walked to the dining room through the corridors, I glanced outside to see a thin, sparkling silver crescent in a clear blue sky.  It was an auspicious sign.  There were other startling juxtapositions that evening.  The president greeted Imam Hassan Qazwani from Detroit with obvious warmth, embracing him.  Bush has many close Muslim friends, like Malik Hassan and Seeme Hassanӗwho were there.  The Hasanstold me Bush was a warm and intelligent man.  Not an enemy of Islam as portrayed by some in the media.

œFor me the most significant aspect of Bushs address was his reference to Abraham:  ґWe see in Islam a religion that traces its origin back to Gods call to Abraham.  We share your belief in GodҒs justice, and your insistence on mans moral responsibility҅  [This reference] to Abraham is a significant acknowledgement that Islam falls within the Judaeo-Christian tradition; that all three religions refer to Abraham as a central patriarch and prophet; and that for all the differences and problems and controversies҅the three religions arepart of the same religious family.

œThis was no mere diplomatic nuance Bush was putting out but a major statement.  These were important points the president needed to maketo the Muslim world and to Americansחand he made them.

I was privileged to be seated at BushӒs table and was able to take part in the conversation.  Over dinner he acknowledged that like most Americans he was relatively unfamiliar with Islam before September 2001.  Slowly but surely he was now becoming involved in the process of understanding.

During dinner, I noted that while Bush himself had taken welcome steps forward, for example, by visiting the Islamic CenterӅhis work had been made more difficult by those who had chosen to abuse the Prophet of Islam.  The Muslim street would not differentiate what Bush said and what eminent religious figures associated with him said.  The perception was that America was waging a war against Islam.  I said that however liberal or orthodox a Muslim is, he or she will always respect the Prophet of Islam.  This is not only a theological but also a cultural compulsion for Muslims.  Attacking the Prophet would pit Muslims against Americans.  At a time when Bush is contemplating an invasion of a Muslim country, Iraq, amid dire warnings of enflaming public opinion in the Muslim world, the attacks on the Prophet appeared surreal.

A few days later, for the first time, Bush took on the religious leaders who support him for their criticism of Islam.  This is itself is a significant shiftӗboth for him and the society he represents

œThe warm embrace of the President of the United States of anImam in his traditional robes, the azan called by an officer of the U.S. air force, the President placing Islam firmly within the Abrahamic tradition, the Ņkeenness of Bush to learn about Islam [meant] that I was at a moment in history when America and Islam were beginning to discover each other in a more nuanced and sophisticated way than the cardboard stereotypes that had dominated the land after September 11. [21]

It is now time that fundamentalist Christians, and radically Islamist Muslims, halt the ԓJihad that some from each side seem determined to wage against the other.  There can be no justification of any sort for the unconscionable words used by such ignorant but influential preachers as the Reverend Jerry Vines (whom Professor Ahmed surely had in mind during his conversation with President Bush), who has called the Prophet a ԓdemon-possessed pedophile.  Equally, there can be no toleration of Muslim clerics calling religiously practicing Christians and Jews as Kaafir (or Kuffar), and persecuting or discriminating against them.  From a traditional Muslim perspective, Christians and Jews are People of the Book, and today as in the past they should be treated as such with all that that Islamic concept implies.  The anger, bitterness, and hatred that such epithets produce only enflame the passions that lead ignorant individuals to undertake Hiraba, which only serves to move the world ever closer to a true clash of civilizations.  If the ԓfundamentalist George Bush can undertake a remarkable spiritual Jihad, is it too much to ask Muslim fundamentalists to do the same?

For Muslims, part of any such Jihad will surely require them to repudiate the views of extremists within their own community, just as President Bush appears to have begun to do as far as his some of his own core supporters are concerned.  One contemporary work which deserves the most critical scrutiny by Muslims, it seems to me, is the tract by the Egyptian engineer ԑAbd al-Salaam Faraj,  entitled al-Farida al-Ghaiba, or The Neglected Duty.  This 54 page pamphlet was originally published in the early 1980’s. [22] Faraj has acted as the ideologue of Islamic Jihad in Egypt, and must be held partially accountable for creating the intellectual climate for the anti-Islamic ғJihad, or ԓHiraba, undertaken by the likes of Usama bin Laden and Ayman Zawahiri in the years since.  ԑAbd al-Salaam Faraj of course made his own contribution to the assassination of President Anwar Sadat, and was executed along with the actual killers.  The Neglected Duty unfortunately continues to exert major influence on the understanding of Islam by many uneducated or half-educated youth in Egypt and elsewhere.

In al-Farida al-Ghaiba, Abd as-Salaam Faraj based his argument on two fetwas issued by the Arab jurist Ibn Taymiyya (1263-1328) which denounced Mongol rule because the Mongols had implemented their own customary law rather than the sharia.  In and of itself, failure to implement the sharia, in Faraj’s opinion, was sufficient to categorize the Mongols or any other rulers as atheists.  In this regard, Faraj argued that the situation in modern Egypt is almost identical to that which existed under Mongol rule.  Specifically, Faraj maintained that the contemporary regime in Egypt is made up of apostates, and that there is a religious obligation incumbent on all Muslims to rise in armed rebellionҗa military Jihad—to replace that regime with a Muslim state based entirely on the sharia.  In his opinion, ignorance (jahaliyya) even worse that what existed in Arabia before the coming of Muhammad reigns today unchecked in Egypt and other supposedly Muslim countries.  Apparently, for Faraj, no act of Hiraba is too atrocious not to be adopted if it may contribute to the reshaping of Egypt (and, by implication, other countries in the region) into a pristine MuslimӔ polity.  In modern times, the line of descent (isnad) of a deformed understanding of Jihad seems to have traveled from Seyyid Qutb through Abd al-Salaam Faraj to Usama bin Laden. [23]

Faraj insisted that the word Jihad denotes force, violence and aggression. ѓThe aim of fighting in Islam,” Faraj maintains, “is…raising Gods word on earth, both by attacking and defense.  Islam was spread by the sword…” [24]  In FarajҒs messianic world view, Jihad is in fact the sixth pillarӔ of Islam, and the concept of Hiraba does not exist.  The sad fact is that Farajs The Neglected Duty provides the worst enemies of Islam with excellent grist for their denunciations of the faith. [25] Both in the Islamic world and in the West, there is today an urgent need for the development of a corpus of scholarly criticism to demonstrate how un-Islamic, and how excellent an example of incitement to Hiraba, FarajҒs strident tract truly is.

To clearly distinguish Jihad from terrorism and Hiraba, one would do well to recall that Muslims have historically understood Jihad to be of three possible kinds.  Namely, Jihad for most Muslims has meant the carrying out of a struggle (1) against a visible enemy, (2) against the devil, and (3) against oneself .  In the Meccan revelations in the Quran, the word Jihad is consistently used to exhort the believers to exert energy and effort, without implying any resort to war or violence.  This of course what is meant by the Greater Jihad.Ӕ [26]  For example:  And strive (jahidu) in His cause as [you] ought to strive, (with sincerity and under discipline)Ӕ (22:78).  And again:  And those who strive (jahadu) in Our (Cause)—We will certainly guide them to Our Paths, for verily God is with those who do rightӔ (29:69).  Jihad is also used in the Meccan revelations in the sense of argument or debate, involving words and without violence.  Thus:  Therefore listen not to the Unbelievers, but strive against them (jaahidhum) with the utmost strenuousness, with the (Quran)Ӕ (25:52).  Where it is not associated with moral or verbal striving or struggle, Jihad in the Meccan revelations is associated with patience (sabr).  For example:  But verily [your] LordӗTo those who leave their homes after trials and persecutionsand who thereafter striveׅand patiently persevere (jaahadu wa sabaru)[Your] Lordׅis Oft-Forgiving, Most Merciful(16:110). In all of this, the main point is that the earliest or Meccan revelations employ Jihad in the sense of moral or spiritual effort unconnected with the use of militarism or violence.

The Medinan revelations, of course, do have a somewhat different timber.  In Medina, defensive warfare was essential, if the infant Muslim community were to survive.  But even in the Medinan suras, the word Jihad is used in the wider sense of struggle by word or deed as well as in the sense of defensive warfare.  One example of Jihad employed in both the sense of verbal and physical struggle are two identical Medinan verses:  ԓO Prophet!  Strive hard (jahid) against the Unbelievers and the Hypocrites, and be firm against them; Their abode is Hell; an evil refuge indeed (9:73; 66:9).  Certainly, war against the so-called ԓhypocrites, or those who officially had become Muslim but were insincere or wavering in their faith, was inconceivable for any Muslim.  At the same time, ԓstriving hard against the disbelievers might legitimately be understood to advocate an effort to win such disbelievers over through missionary endeavors, while at the same time legitimizing warfare against those disbelievers if deemed necessary to guarantee the survival of the infant Muslim community in Medina.

There is, of course, one verse among the Medinan suras that might seem to be radically at odds with the argument made above.  That verse is what some have called the ԓverse of the sword, and it is a verse that might well be understood to fuse terrorism with Jihad and to advocate promiscuous war by Muslims against non-Muslims.  The verse in question reads:  ԓBut when the forbidden months are past, then fight and slay the Pagans wherever [you] find them, and seize them, beleaguer them, and lie in wait for them in every stratagem (of war) (9:5).  But the context in which this verse was revealed makes clear that those targeted are not all pagans (or idolators), but rather those non-Muslims with whom the Muslim community had made political agreements and who subsequently had broken those agreements and attacked the Muslim community first.  Verse 9:13 makes clear that the offenders designated in 9:5 were those who ԓviolated their oaths, plotted to expel the Messenger, and [undertook] aggressive [action] by being the first (emphasis added) to assault you. This radical limitation in the applicability of the injunction in 9:5 is also made clear by the verse that immediately precedes 9:5.  Namely:  ԓ(But the treaties are) not dissolved with those Pagans with whom [you] have entered into alliance, and who have not subsequently failed you in aught, nor aided anyone against you.  So fulfill your engagements with them to the end of their term:  for God loveth the righteous (9:4).  Even earlier in the Quran, this limitation in the applicability of 9:5 is suggested.  For example:  ԓ(They) are those (who reject Allah and will not believe) with whom you did make a covenant, but they break their covenant every time, and they have not the fear (of Allah) (8:56).  In other words, only those idolators who had broken covenants entered into with the Muslim umma, and not those who had remained faithful to such engagements and ԓhave not failed you in aught, fall under the interdiction of 9:5.  More specifically, only those idolators with a demonstrated track record of political and military treachery in the Arabia during the third decade of the 7th century are those who should be understood to fall under 9:5Ԓs anathema.  Today, anyone who might invoke 9:5 to justify terrorism against civilians, or to justify or excuse actions that in fact represent Hiraba, surely would merit the condemnation of Muslims everywhere. [27]

Throughout the Quran, the concept of Jihad is employed not to sanctify unbridled violence but to facilitate the realization of a political and social order in which peace might prevail.  Even when war was imposed on the Muslim community, believers are counseled not [to] transgress limits; for God loveth not [such] transgressorsӔ (2:190).  In other words, war when unavoidable should be fought in a fashion to enhance the possibilities for peace, rather than in any way that might make the subsequent realization of peace difficult or impossible.  Perhaps most famously, the Quran commands Muslims to accept peace even in the middle of hostilities if the enemy suddenly indicates a desire for it .  Thus:  But if the enemy incline towards peace, do you (also) incline towards peace, and trust in God:  for He is the One that heareth and knoweth (all things).  Should they [the enemy] intend to deceive youӗverily God is sufficient to you:  He it is that has strengthened you with His aid and with (the company of) the Believers (8:61, 62).  Today, when some have so badly confused Jihad with terrorism, and have forgotten that Jihad is the antithesis of Hiraba, a rereading of the Quran would seem to be very much in order.

Nothing in the putative sayings or actions (hadith) of the Prophet, even if reported by the most respected of collectors, can ever be accepted as valid if it is clearly at variance with what was said by God in the Quran.  Muslims today may have a special need to remind themselves of that truth.  For any Muslim, the Quran must constitute the ultimate authority against which all else must be measured.  On this score, even what is reported by the most authoritative of the medieval collectors of Hadith, Abu ԑAbdullah Muhammad Ibn Ismaiil al-Bukhari, must be regarded as a mixed bag.  Muslims today may need to invoke ijtihad to properly understand Bukhari, as well as to understand so much else.

Clearly, aspects of Jihad were understood by Bukhari in the traditional sense:  namely, the exertion of individual moral endeavor.  For example, Bukhari reports that the Prophet said, ғThe Hajj is the most excellent of all Jihads (Bukhari, v.4, 52:43).  Obviously, Hajj has nothing to do with violence or warfare.  Bukhari also reports the Prophet using Jihad to refer to the effort involved in missionary activity, or the invitation to Islam.  All of this is understood by Bukhari to constitute a moral and intellectual effort.  Perhaps most tellingly, Bukhari reports the ProphetԒs remark,  Religion is to be easyӅDo not be extremists. [28] But that was then, and this is now.  Today, if one consults the contemporary website maintained by Islam-online.net, one discovers BukhariԒs collection of hadith on warfare, fighting, and killing generally all categorized under the concept of Jihad.  No distinction is evident between Jihad on the one hand and killing (qital) or war (harb) on the other.  To put it otherwise, Jihad, Hiraba, and terrorism here appear to be one and the same.  If there is any doubt about what the meaning of a hadith is as reported by Bukhari, Islam-online.net gives that hadith a military connotation.

Take, for example, the citation by Islam-online.net of a hadith narrated by Anas bin Malik: The Prophet reported, a single endeavor in AllahӒs cause in the forenoon or in the afternoon is better than the world and whatever is in it.  Islam-online.net suggests that ԓendeavor (Jihad) here means only ԓfighting (see its reference to Bukhari, v. 4, 52:50).  Various hadith associated with martyrdom are also associated with Jihad by Islam-online.net.  Again drawing on Bukhari, Islam-online.net associates Jihad with the killing of Jews.  For example:  ԓThe Hour will not be established until you fight with the Jews, and the stone behind which a Jew will be hiding will say:  O Muslim!  There is a Jew hiding behind me, so kill him (v. 4, 52:177).  Unfortunately, Islam-online.net repeats the error of many of the medieval jurists who succeeded Bukhari and who over time did come to understand Jihad as primarily meaning killing.

Once more, the corrective to much of this lies in the Quran.  To explain why, it may be helpful to engage in a bit of dictionary analysis of the various meanings of the Arabic root (j*h*d* ) as revealed in the two best Arabic-English dictionaries.

The dictionaries to which I refer are Hans Wehr, A Dictionary of Modern Written Arabic (3rd edition, Librairie du Liban, 1980), and William Edward Lane, An Arabic-English Lexicon (3rd Edition, Librairie du Liban, 1980.)  Wehr’s Dictionary is today the dictionary most commonly used English-speaking foreign students of Arabic.  The Lexicon by Lane is a monumental and classic work of scholarship that was originally published in many volumes between 1863 and 1893 and is heavily based on Quranic understandings.

Now, the linguistic root of jihad—j*h*d*—appears in four of the ten basic categories of Arabic verbs.  Three of these four categories of verb meaningsԗ according to the finest Arabic-English lexicons available have nothing whatsoever to do with military action, violence, or warfare.

Referring to verb class one, Wehr states the meaning of jahada, yajhudu as: ד to endeavor, to strive; to labor; to take pains, to put oneself out; to overwork, overtax, fatigue,  exhaust someone. [29]

For his part, Lane defines the meaning of the same root as follows:  ԓHe strove, he labored or toiled; (he) exerted himself or his powers or efforts or endeavors or ability; (he) employed himself vigorously, strenuously, laboriously, diligently, studiously, sedulously, earnestly, or with energy; (he) was diligent, or studious; he took pains, or, extraordinary pains.[30]

Turning to verb class four, Wehr defines the word ajhada, yujhidu thus:  ԓTo strain, to exert; to tire, wear out, fatigue someone; to go to great lengths to; to go out of ones way to; to concentrate on ; to put oneҒs mind to; to apply oneself to. [31]

Lane defines the meaning of verb class four as follows:  ԓHe made, or incited, another, to strive or labor or toil, to exert himself or his power or efforts, or endeavors, or ability.[32]

As far as verb class eight is concerned, the word ijtahada, yujtahidu Wehr defines as ԓto put oneself out for something, and ԓto work hard.  He also notes that in Islamic law, the meaning of this wordԒs verbal noun ijtihad is to formulate an independent judgment in a legal or theological question.Ӕ [33]

Edward Lanes statement of the meaning of verb class eight includes only the legal signification, but treats that in detail: ғExerting the faculty of the mind to the utmost, for the purpose of forming an opinion in a case of law [respecting a doubtful and difficult point]; the seeking to form a right opinion; investigation of the law, or the working out of a solution of any difficulty in the law, by means of reason and comparison; the referring of a case proposed to the judge [respecting a doubtful and difficult point]. [34]

Therefore, one should understand clearly that three of the four verb forms in which the Arabic root j*h*d* appears make no reference to combat, fighting, war or holy war.

Only verb class three refers in any way to fighting or the waging of war.  Even here, according to both the Wehr and Lane dictionaries, fighting is only a secondary meaning. Concerning verb class three—jaahada,yujaahidu—Hans Wehr states the primary meaning as ԓto endeavor, to strive.  The secondary and tertiary meaning he states as follows, respectively:  ԓ to fight for something, and ԓ to wage holy war.[35]  In other words, even here, fighting, or holy war, is only the third meaning offered.

On verb class three, I submit that Edward LaneԒs statement of the meaning is both more descriptive and more precise than that of Wehr.  Thus:  Using, or exerting, oneӒs utmost power, efforts, endeavors, or ability, in contending with an object of disapprobation. Then, to illustrate what this means, Lane quotes the Quran (22:77) as follows: ԓAnd this (contention with an object of disapprobation) is of three kinds, namely, (contention with) a visible enemy, the devil, and oneself.[36]  In other words, contending with a ԓvisible enemy is the way in which Lane denominates what Hans Wehr calls holy war.

Indeed, LaneԒs definition of the meaning of verb class three, and specifically his reference to the devil, and oneself,Ӕ brings us precisely to what Muslims have always recognized as constituting the Greater Jihad.Ӕ  In other words, it has been understood by many if not most Muslims throughout history to refer to the effort by individuals to purge themselves of evil, and to exemplify in this life, to the greatest degree possible, a degree of ethical and spiritual perfection worthy of the great and merciful God who has created all humanity.

And it is exactly this sort of Jihad, set in an ecumenical context in this age so badly scarred by terrorism and Hiraba, that the world needs so urgently today.  Never before, perhaps, have there been more compelling reasons for the Abrahamic faiths to unite to confront the forces of materialistic, secular and atheistic modernity.  And on this score also, there is some good news to report.

Several years ago, such distinguished Muslim intellectuals as Kamal Abu al Magd (Egypt), Taha Jaber Alwani (USA), Muhammad Amara (Egypt), Tariq al Bishri (Egypt), Abdelwahab al Massiri (Egypt) and Yusuf al-Qaradhawi (Qatar) participated in the establishment of an association to undertake a dialogue with Christians and Westerners of a religious and culturally traditionalist orientation.  This association, The Circle of Tradition and Progress, states its purpose as the promotion and enhancement of “dialogue, discussion, and scholarly research among academics and public figures committed to the preservation of religious and traditional values…Special emphasis will be placed on counteracting the excesses of modernity, with particular attention to a critique of the contemporary materialistic, behavioralist, and radically secular experiment….Among much else, this effort will include an encouragement of holism in both the individual and society.  The societal holism we seek will incorporate accountable and democratic government, basic individual liberty and human rights, and an economic system that is both free and humane.  What we propose is to reestablish an equilibrium between the spiritual and the material, and reclaim for our time what have been called the ‘permanent things’.  Most broadly, the intention of the Circle is to foster intellectual activities designed to rectify the modern rupture between economics and ethics, reason and religion, and man and God.  Above all, we hope to encourage greater understanding between religions and to contribute to reconciliation of peoples and to international cooperation.” [37]

      Laudable principles, those:  all of them.  It will be of great interest indeed to see whether this experiment in traditionalist but ecumenical dialogue, in which such Christian scholars as David B. Burrell, Charles E. Butterworth, Louis J. Cantori, John L. Esposito, Leonard P. Liggio and Antony T. Sullivan are also participating, will be the forerunner of similar efforts by others.

But neither the Circle of Tradition and Progress nor other ecumenical initiatives will flourish unless toleration and religious liberty are explicitly recognized as fundamental human rights.  Nor will the efforts of the Circle or other organizations have significant impact unless Hiraba and terrorism, whether in their statist incarnation or as represented by individual and group action, receive the universal condemnation as criminality that they so richly deserve.  The beneficent meaning of Jihad must be recaptured from those who have hijacked the concept and deformed it to suit their own political purposes.  Indeed, the launching of that particular Jihad of terminological reconquest has never been more urgent.


1 One recent example of such condemnation is the statement released by the Center for the Study of Islam and Democracy on September 9, 2002.  That statement was signed by over 200 prominent Muslim personalities from around the world.  The statement reads (in part):  “As American Muslims and scholars of Islam, we wish to restate our conviction that peace and justice constitute the basic principles of the Muslim faith.  We wish again to state unequivocally that neither the al-Qaa’ida organization nor Usama bin Laden represents Islam or reflects Muslim beliefs and practice.  Rather, groups like al-Qaa’ida have misused and abused Islam in order to fit their own radical and indeed anti-Islamic agenda.  Usama bin Laden and al-Qaa’ida’s actions are criminal, misguided and counter to the true teachings of Islam.  We call on people of all faiths not to judge Islam by the actions of a few” (see the Muslim Democrat, Vol. 4, No. 3, November 2002, p. 3).

2 One catalyst in stimulating the discussion of Hiraba among Muslims worldwide has been Mr. Jim Guirard, President of Truespeak Institute in Washington, D.C.  I am indebted to him for suggesting the contours of much of the discussion that follows.

3   In other words, to designate spiritual warfare against the devil and one’s own moral failings.

4 Here and below, all Quranic citations are taken from the translation by Abdullah Yusuf Ali, The Meaning of the Holy Quran, revised edition, Amana Corporation, 1989.  Where Ali uses the Arabic word “Allah,” I have substituted “God.”

5 Al-Kaft fi Fiqh Ahl al-Medinah al-Maliki, (Beirut:  Dar al-Kutub al-‘Ilmiyah), 1997, pp. 582-583. 

6 Al-Nawawi, Kitab al-Majmu’, 23 vols. (Cairo:  Dar Ihya’ al-Turath al-‘Arabi, 1995), 22:227.

7 Al-Mughni, 14 vols.  (Beirut:  Dar al-Kutub al-‘Ilmiyah, n.d.), 10:315.

8 See Sherman A. Jackson, “Domestic Terrorism in the Islamic Legal Tradition,” Muslim World, vol. 91, Fall 2001, especially pp. 295-297.  This article is easily the best scholarly essay published on Hiraba to date.

9 As quoted by Robert D. Crane, “Hirabah versus Jihad,” unpublished manuscript.  Crane adds:  “This is the Islamic definition of terrorism.  It is the very opposite of Jihad.”

10 As quoted in an undated electronic communication from Jim Guirard to Antony T. Sullivan, 2002.

11 Ibid.

12 Ibid.

13 Electronic communication from Radwan Masmoudi to Jim Guirard, November 15, 2002.

14 See Crane, loc.cit.

15 “Sheikh” Usama bin Laden’s statement is entitled “Jihad Against Jews and Crusaders” and is signed by Ayman al-Zawahiri, Abu Yasir Rifa’i Ahmad Taha, Sheikh Mir Hamzah, and Fazlur Rahman.  Zawahiri is designated as the “Amir of the Jihad Group in Egypt.”  Ahmad Taha states his affiliation as the “Egyptian Islamic Group.”  Mir Hamzah is identified as the “Secretary of the Jamiat-ul-Ulema-e-Pakistan.”  And Fazlur Rahman is identified as “Amir of the Jihad Movement in Bangladesh.”  Concerning Americans, the statement does not mince words.  Muslims are charged to “kill the Americans and their allies-civilians and military.  [This is] an individual duty for every Muslim who can do it in any country in which it is possible to do it.”

16 KhairAllah Tulfah, Abu Bakr, V. 12, p. 36.

17 See al-Waqidi, Kitab al-Maghazi, V. 3, pp. 1117-1118.

18 Published by Amadeus Books, Birmingham, United Kingdom, 2001, 2002.

19 Oliveti, Terror’s Source, p. 101.

20 In his comments that follow, Professor Ahmed surely is not offering any endorsement of the contemporary foreign policy of the Bush administration.  Much of American policy toward the Middle East remains unacceptable to almost all Muslims.  Rather, the interesting phenomena that Professor Ahmed describes are of a different nature.

21 See Akbar S. Ahmed, “Sighting of the Crescent Moon at the White House,” as published online by Religion News Service at http:// www.religionnews.com/, 20 November 2002.  Copyright 2002 Religion News Service.  Used by permission.  For an indication of the political courage required from President Bush to publicly recognize Islam as a “faith based upon peace and love and compassion” and a religion committed to “morality and learning and tolerance,” see Dana Milbank, “Conservatives Dispute Bush Portrayal of Islam as Peaceful,” Washington Post, November 30, 2002, p. A04.  This article details the mounting criticism of the President by such “conservatives” as Kenneth Adelman, Eliot Cohen, Paul Weyrich, Pat Robertson, Jerry Falwell, and Franklin Graham for his legitimation of Islam as part of the Abrahamic tradition. 

22 For an occasionally unreliable English translation of Faraj’s pamphlet and one critical analysis of it by the distinguished Egyptian Mufti Jadd al-Haqq Ali Jadd al-Haqq, see J.G.G. Jansen, The Neglected Duty, New York:  Macmillan, 1986.

23 For an extended commentary on this isnad see Gilles Kepel, Jihad:  The Trail of Political Islam, I.B. Tauris, London, United Kingdom, 2002.  However, Kepel’s book, like almost all others dealing with political Islam, fails to identify the important doctrinal differences separating the various Islamic groups.  For one book that does identify such differences, see Oliveti, op. cit.  Oliveti suggests that understanding of the contemporary Islamic reality would be greatly enhanced were the Western media to begin to use such categories as “ordinary Muslims” (rather than “traditional Muslims”), “fundamentalists” (to designate most Salafis), and “Takfiris” to designate that tiny minority of Salafis who, like Usama bin Laden, have opted for terrorism. 

24 As quoted in Rudolf Peters, Jihad in Classical and Modern Islam, Princeton: Markus Wiener Publishers, 1996, p. 165.

25 For one example of this see Daniel Pipes, “Jihad and the Professors,” in Commentary Magazine, Vol. 114, No. 4, November, 2002, as published on the Commentary Magazine website at http://www.commentary magazine.com/.

26 For a balanced discussion of Jihad, see Douglas E. Streusand, “What Does Jihad Mean?,” in The Middle East Quarterly, V. 1V, No. 3, September 1997, as published on the Middle East Quarterly’s website at http://www.meforum.org/meq/  Unlike Daniel Pipes, Streusand is a serious scholar who emphasizes that although warfare is one possible interpretation of Jihad, moral and spiritual effort have always been another.  Unfortunately, Streusand associates the Greater Jihad with Sufis, as though Sufism is something alien to the vast Sunni majority in the Islamic world.  The fact of the matter is that most Sufis are indeed Sunnis.  One might go so far as to say that in some sense every Sunni must be a Sufi, since the necessity for moral and spiritual striving in domains far removed from warfare is so explicitly mandated in the Quran.

27 And of course “Sheikh” Usama bin Laden is precisely one such person.  The first sentence of his proclamation of “Jihad Against Jews and Christians” quotes this verse and all of the recommendations that follow are based upon it.

28 Sahih Bukhari, ‘Kitab al-Iman,’ ch. 29.

29 Wehr, p. 142.

30 Lane, Volume 1, part 2, p. 473.

31 Wehr, p. 142.

32 Lane, p.473.

33 Wehr, p.142.

34 Lane, p. 473-474.

35 Wehr, p.142.

36 Lane, p 473.

37 For the full text of the statement of principles of The Circle of Tradition and Progress, see the MESA Newsletter, August 1997, p. 11.

Antony T. Sullivan, Center for Middle Eastern and North African Studies, The University of Michigan