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The Meaning of Jihad in the Modern Context

Updated on April 3, 2014

Meaning of the Word "jihad"

The word “jihad” has an ominous ring about it and the moment one hears this word the image that comes up is of bearded men holding Kalashnikov rifles. This is not a phobia for after the death of Muhammad in 632 the Muslim armies conquered lands that stretched across a vast crescent from the borders of China, India to the entire North Africa and Iberia. The Muslim conquest spread over 1000 years really was a defeat of Christianity as the areas the Muslims conquered were Christian. Thus all converts to Islam in that phase were earlier Christians. Europe was thus under constant threat.

No wonder most non Muslims understand the word jihad to mean a “holy war.” The question is how this word rubs off against claims by many Muslims that Islam is a religion of peace.

Jihad and Holy War

Many scholars claim that the word jihad does not mean holy war. If we take a literal translation the word jihad means “struggle” or “striving.” It is derived from the word jahada, which again does not refer to holy war but means an endeavor or ability in contending with an object of [disapproval].

Theoretically Jihad may be waged against: a human enemy, own evil desires, even Satan. Generally, one can say that jihad is a word used as non Muslims use the word crusade. Hence, you can have a Jihad against poverty, illiteracy as brought out by President Musharraf of Pakistan in a famous speech.

However stated above, the fact is that the primary meaning of jihad is physical combat. We shall now see how this works out through out the pages of history to the present age.

Jihad in Early Islam

Firstly the word Jihad as physical warfare plays an important part of all Islamic writings. The Quran alone contains many verses about it. The Koran has many verses on military matters. To the layman they may appear ambiguous.

a) Firstly there are verses in the Koran that advice Muslims to face opposition to them with patience and persuasion. These are the “Verses of Forgiveness and Pardon”.

b) Secondly there are verses that give permission to fight in either retaliation or defense. To quote

"To those against whom war is made, permission is given (to fight), because they are wronged—and verily, God is most powerful for their aid—(They are) those who have been expelled from their homes in defiance of right (for no cause) except that they say, “our Lord is God.” (22:39-40a)

c) In a third instance the Quran does lay out tenets of war against unbelievers: There are many verses regarding this injunction. An example is

Fighting is prescribed for you, and ye dislike it. But it is possible that ye dislike a thing which is good for you, and that ye love a thing which is bad for you. But God knoweth, and ye know not. (2:216)

Over the centuries this became the dominant view and has again been revived in the 20th and 21st century.

The Tide Against Islam

The tide began to turn against Islam from about the 17th century. After reaching the gates of Vienna in 1683 they were forced back. Even in India the Mughal Empire collapsed with the rise of Hindu power in the shape of the Maharattas and the Sikhs who were ultimately replaced by the British. Islam now stopped its expansionist course. This was not due to a change of heart but due to superior military power of the Christian nations and British in India.

Modern concept of Jihad and Islamic World Revolution

The modernist concept of “jihad” is “Islamic world revolution.” This was given substance by the father of Islamic fundamentalism Spayed Qutb (1903-1966). He wrote extensively and built up a large following till he was executed in 1966 in Egypt. His ideology is followed by most militants and has resulted in the assassination of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat in 1981. This ideology has also fueled Islamic terror in the shape of Osama bin Laden and his al-Qaida network.

Muhammad was a Great Military Thinker

We must credit Muhammad as a military leader along with his religious leadership. He waged a relentless war against his opponents when he had the means. The Muslims quickly carved out a great empire, but it collapsed against superior military might. With the result that in the 20th century the western nations were able to fragment the Muslim world.

Trying to Recover Lost Glory Through Jihad.

Many Muslims are nostalgic of the old days and look to establish a Muslim caliphate across the world. Thus the traditional doctrine of jihad as a military battle against unbelievers is very much alive today. For teh modern Jihadi, the verses in the Koran of peace have no meaning as he is intent on furthering an impossible dream of a Islamic empire like of old. The battle against such fanatics will be long and hard and will require a strong will as well.


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    • MG Singh profile image

      MG Singh 3 years ago from Singapore

      Thank you Au fait. Its a pleasure reading your comment

    • Au fait profile image

      C E Clark 3 years ago from North Texas

      Very interesting read. So glad you write on HP so that I may get insights about a different way of thinking from someone who has lived this way of life from his beginning.

    • RK Sangha profile image

      RK Sangha 4 years ago from USA

      Thanks for historical insights.

    • Gypsy Rose Lee profile image

      Gypsy Rose Lee 4 years ago from Riga, Latvia

      Thanks for another fascinating and informative hub about a world I know nothing about. You make it a great read from start to finish.

    • MG Singh profile image

      MG Singh 4 years ago from Singapore

      Thank you Angela for encouraging me.

    • Angela Blair profile image

      Angela Blair 4 years ago from Central Texas

      Thank you so very much for this Hub -- I had heard the word "jihad" many times and basically knew what it meant but certainly knew none of the history behind it. Excellent work! Best/Sis