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From Encyclopedia of Politics and Religion, ed. Robert Wuthnow. 2 vols. (Washington, D.C.: Congressional Quarterly, Inc., 1998), 425-426.


The Islamic idea of jihad, which is derived from the Arabic root meaning "to strive" or "to make an effort," connotes a wide range of meanings, from an inward spiritual struggle to attain perfect faith to an outward material struggle to promote justice and the Islamic social system. The former meaning was emphasized by Sufis (Muslim mystics), who popularized a tradition describing the inner jihad as greater than the outer jihad. When used in the latter sense, jihad is closely identified with the injunction in the Qur'an, the revelation of God to the prophet Muhammad, to the Muslim community to "command the right and forbid the wrong" (3:104, 110). The close connection of jihad with the struggle for justice is reinforced in the hadith, the sayings and actions attributed to Muhammad. One of the best known states that a Muslim must strive to avert injustice first by actions, and if that is not possible, by words, and if that is not possible, at least by intentions.

During the period of Qur'anic revelation while Muhammad was in Mecca (610-622), jihad meant essentially a nonviolent struggle to spread Islam. Following his move from Mecca to Medina in 622, and the establishment of an Islamic state, fighting in self-defense was sanctioned by the Qur'an (22:39). The Qur'an began referring increasingly to qital (fighting or warfare) as one form of jihad. Two of the last verses on this topic (9:5, 29) suggest a war of conquest or conversion against all unbelievers.

The Medieval Doctrine

In medieval legal sources (compiled roughly between the eighth and eleventh centuries), jihad generally referred to a divinely sanctioned struggle to establish Muslim hegemony over non-Muslims as a prelude to the propagation of the Islamic faith. Islamic legal scholars divided the world into two spheres: Dar al-Islam (land of Islam), where Islamic law applied, and Dar al-Harb (land of war), where the absence of Islamic law presumably fostered anarchy and immorality. The Islamic state's duty was to reduce Dar al-Harb--through peaceful means if possible, through war if necessary--until it had been incorporated into Dar al-Islam. Jurists differed on the possibility and duration of peace between the two spheres. The majority held that jihad could be suspended if the Muslim commander deemed it in the interest of the Islamic state, but usually not for more than ten years. The Qur'anic verses that suggest peaceful accommodation or coexistence with unbelievers (especially 2:193, 8:61) were declared abrogated by the later, more belligerent ones.

The medieval theory included elaborate rules on the right conduct of jihad. No war was a jihad unless authorized and led by the imam, the leader of the Islamic state. Enemies were to be given fair warning, and, should they choose not to accept Islam or to fight, they were to be offered protected (dhimmi) status, which allowed them to retain communal autonomy within the Islamic state in return for tax payments. This provision initially applied to Christians and Jews but later was broadened to include other religious communities living under Muslim rule. Noncombatants were not to be killed, nor was enemy property to be destroyed unnecessarily.

In addition to the expansionist jihad, medieval scholars also dealt with internal conflicts against rebels within Islam. In this form of jihad, stricter rules of engagement and greater protection for the lives and property of the enemy applied than in the case of non-Muslims. The aim of this type of jihad was to rehabilitate the rebels as quickly as possible into the Muslim body politic.

Modern Interpretations

Three broad approaches to the modern reinterpretation of jihad may be discerned. First, the apologetic arose in the late nineteenth century in response to Western criticism that jihad meant "holy war" and that Islam was spread through force. Muslim apologists argued that the Qur'an and Prophetic traditions allow war only for self-defense against persecution and aggression. Some Muslim writers, particularly those in British India, restricted even further the legitimate scope of jihad by arguing that so long as no direct threat to Islamic worship was posed by European imperialists Muslims should not challenge colonial rule. The medieval theorists who had defined jihad as expansionist war were, according to this view, simply misguided.

The second approach, the modernist, also diminishes jihad's military aspects and emphasizes its broader ethical dimensions within Islamic faith and practice. Like the apologists, the modernists dismiss the medieval theory as a distortion of Qur'anic ethics, pointing out, for example, that the division of the world into Dar al-Islam and Dar al-Harb is found nowhere in the Qur'an or Prophetic traditions. A war is jihad, therefore, only if it is fought in defense of Muslim lives, property, and honor. Unlike the apologists, however, the modernists are motivated less by Western criticisms of jihad than by the desire to interpret this concept in a way compatible with modern international norms. Jihad in the modernist view is the Islamic equivalent of the Western idea of just war, a war fought to repel aggression with limited goals and by restricted means.

The third approach, the revivalist, arose in response to the apologist and modernist writings. By limiting jihad to self-defense, the revivalists claim, the apologists and modernists have debased the dynamic qualities of jihad. In the final years of the Prophet's life, the revivalists argue, jihad clearly meant the struggle to propagate the Islamic order worldwide. The goal of jihad today ought not to be to coerce people to accept Islam, because the Qur'an clearly encourages freedom of worship (especially 2:256); rather, it ought to be to overthrow un-Islamic regimes that corrupt their societies and divert people from service to God.

For revivalist writers, un-Islamic regimes include those ruling in most Muslim countries. The immediate goal of the revivalist jihad is to replace hypocritical leaders with true Muslims. Only when this long and painstaking internal struggle has succeeded in reestablishing an authentically Islamic base can the external jihad resume. Thus jihad is today largely synonymous with Islamic revolution in the works of most Muslim activists.

See also Crusades; Islam; Muhammad; Sufism; Violence; War.

Author: Sohail H. Hashmi


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