The many meanings of Jihad

  • Themes: Religion

Just because Jihad doesn’t always mean ‘holy war’, it doesn’t follow that it never means holy war.

Sura 25 of the Qur’an.
Sura 25 of the Qur’an. Credit: Godong / Alamy Stock Photo

‘The word has a number of meanings but we know the public will most commonly associate it with terrorism,’ wrote London’s Metropolitan Police in response to cries of ‘Jihad, jihad’ at a rally organised by the Islamist group Hizb-ut-Tahrir Britain on Saturday 21st October.

While unlikely to fill most Londoners – not least the capital’s Jewish population – with a sense of security, the statement is, strictly speaking, correct. As Elisabeth Kendall and Ewan Stein observe in their introduction to Twenty-First Century Jihad: Law, Society and Military Action (I.B. Tauris, 2015), ‘like other religious and political concepts, jihad has multiple resonances and associations, its meaning shifting over time and from place to place. Jihad has referred to movements of internal reform, spiritual struggle and self-defence as much as to “holy war”’.

In the Qur’an, the Arabic noun jihād and the corresponding verb jāhada, the literal meaning of which is to ‘struggle’ or ‘strive’, are not exclusively used in the sense of ‘holy war’. Nor is this the original Qur’anic meaning. As Nicolai Sinai explains in his recent Key Terms of the Qur’an: A Critical Dictionary (Princeton, 2023), the terms are used in the Meccan suras – those chapters of the Qur’an believed to have been revealed before Muhammad’s ‘emigration’ (hijra) from Mecca to Medina in 622 AD – in the sense of ideological or religious struggle. Sinai recommends the translation ‘contend with’ for passages such as Q. 25:52 – supposedly the earliest verse in which the term appears – which commands the Prophet ‘not to obey the repudiators (al-kāfirūn)’ and ‘to zealously contend against them by means of it’ (wa-jāhidhum bihi jihādan kabīra)’. This, in fact, is how the medieval Islamic tradition understood this and similar verses: ‘by means of it’ is almost always glossed as ‘by means of the Qur’an’ in the exegetical literature.

Nevertheless, in the Medinan chapters of the Qur’an we see a clear shift to what Sinai calls ‘militant activism’. Q. 9:41, for instance, instructs the believers to ‘march out, light and heavy, and contend (jāhidū) on God’s path by means of your possessions and your lives’, which can only really be interpreted as a call to military action. Several Medinan verses also use the verb jāhada alongside qātala, the Arabic word for ‘to fight’. Like jāhada, this word is often followed by the phrase fī sabīl Allāh – ‘on God’s path’. Notably, there are six times as many references to jihad in the Medinan chapters as in the Meccan ones (thirty-one in the Medinan suras and just five in the Meccan). In an earlier work, Sinai identifies the militancy of the Medinan suras as an echo of a late antique Christian militant piety: just as the Qur’anic believers who ‘fight in the way of God’ are willing ‘to kill and be killed’ (Q. 9:111), so a Christian hagiography says of the fifth-century Egyptian bishop Macarius of Tkow (who is said to have been martyred for refusing to submit to Chalcedonian orthodoxy) that ‘he was both willing to die for his faith, and willing to kill for it’.

In the Islamic legal tradition – law being the most important of the Islamic intellectual disciplines – jihad is primarily understood in the militant sense. As Michael Cook observes in Ancient Religions, Modern Politics: The Islamic Case in Comparative Perspective (Princeton, 2014), ‘The scholastic tradition treated war against unbelievers as a standard topic of Islamic law; every comprehensive Sunnī law book included a “book of jihad.”’ Beginning with the Umm of the ninth-century jurist al-Shafi‘i, a key figure in the development of Islamic legal thinking, the classical manuals of Islamic law indicate that defensive jihad (jihād al-daf‘) is an obligation on all Muslims when the lands of Islam are attacked, and that aggressive jihad – or the so-called ‘jihad of choice’ (jihād al-ṭalab) is a communal obligation that must be carried out by some (but not all) Muslims. As Cook notes, ‘a typical juristic view was that the ruler of the Muslim community had to send an expedition out into the lands of the infidel once or twice a year’ to ensure that the communal obligation was being met.

This does not mean that the non-violent interpretation of jihad disappeared entirely, however. From the eleventh century, a Hadith circulated according to which Muhammad, on returning from battle, is alleged to have said that he had returned from ‘the lesser jihad’ to ‘the greater jihad’ – a term that was interpreted to mean ‘spiritual combat’. While the authenticity of this Hadith is called into question by some Islamic scholars, not least the famous Ibn Taymiyya, the notion of jihad as a spiritual struggle is widespread in the Sufi (Islamic mystical) tradition. ‘All acts of obedience to God,’ writes the ninth-century mystical commentator on the Qur’an, Sahl Tustari, ‘are a struggle against the self (jihād al-nafs). No jihad is easier than the jihad of the sword, while no jihad is harder than combatting the self.’ Though this spiritual interpretation was not the dominant one – and though, as Harry S. Neale has argued, Sufi writers often presented the military and spiritual interpretations as complementary – it must nevertheless have worked its way into mainstream Islamic thinking on the subject through the wide diffusion of the Sufi brotherhoods in the later Middle Ages.

In recent times, Muslims uncomfortable with the militancy of the classical juristic interpretation have often tended to stress the defensive character of jihad or the notion of a spiritual ‘greater jihad’. A Declaration to Mankind, a text issued in the 1980s by Egypt’s al-Azhar, the historic centre of Sunni orthodoxy, insists that, on its own, jihad does not mean armed conflict, which it strongly condemns. In his introduction to the 2004 Amman Message, a statement of the ‘true nature of Islam’ endorsed by political and religious leaders from across the Muslim world, Prince Ghazi bin Muhammad of Jordan similarly condemns ‘wanton, offensive “jihad” (“holy war”) and murder in the name of the religion’. Statements such as these, of which many more examples could be cited, give the lie to the common claim that Islamic religious authorities have failed to condemn aggressive jihad. More radically, in contemporary Islamic reformist literature, the term is often employed in the context of social activism. The American Muslim feminist Amina Wadud, for instance, talks of a ‘gender jihad’, while Muslim environmentalists frame their work in terms of an ‘eco-jihad’.

Of course, the militant interpretation of jihad – often coloured by the revolutionary, anti-imperialist mood introduced by the South Asian Islamist Abu A’la Mawdudi and the resurgent apocalypticism that has been traced by David Cook and Jean-Pierre Filiu – remains a potent one. This is especially so among radical Islamist groups. When the Hamas Covenant of 1988 declares that ‘there is no solution for the Palestinian question except through jihad’ (Article 13), and that ‘the jihad for the liberation of Palestine is an individual duty’ (Article 15), there is no suggestion that it is ideological or spiritual struggle that is intended. Likewise, a 2021 article on the Arabic website of Hizb-ut-Tahrir, the group that prompted the Met’s intervention, is clear that jihad means ‘fighting the unbelievers’ (qitāl al-kuffār) and ‘encompasses both defensive warfare and aggressive warfare’.

In this modern, revolutionary and millenarian version of jihad, Israel and the Jewish people are especially targeted. The Hamas covenant cites the Protocols of the Elders of Zion (Article 32), antisemitic conspiracy theories about Jewish control of the media and global finance and Jewish instigation of revolution and war (Articles 17 and 22), and a Hadith about a final apocalyptic battle with the Jews. Hamas’s antisemitism closely echoes the views of the Palestinian cleric ‘Abdallah ‘Azzam, ideologue of the anti-Soviet jihad in Afghanistan and a key figure in the globalisation of jihad in the late twentieth century. As Thomas Hegghammer writes in The Caravan: Abdallah Azzam and the Rise of Global Jihad (Cambridge, 2020), ‘He viewed Islamic history as a constant struggle between Islam and other religious groups, especially the Jews. Deeply antisemitic, he blamed Jews not only for the occupation of Palestine, but also for many other things, including the fall of the Ottoman Empire and the spread of socialism and secularism.’ It is likewise notable that the late and highly influential Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated cleric Yusuf al-Qaradawi, author of a massive two-volume book on The Jurisprudence of Jihad, though he condemns the global jihad of groups like Al-Qaeda and rejects the classical view that aggressive jihad is a collective obligation on Muslims, nevertheless justifies suicide bombing in the context of the Israel-Palestine conflict.

It is evident that the concept of jihad can and has been used in a variety of ways. While the militant interpretation has historically been dominant, it is not the only or even the original one, and in any case no contemporary Muslim is a prisoner of past linguistic usage. Basic logic tells us that just because jihad doesn’t always mean ‘holy war’, it doesn’t follow that it never means holy war. For a group like Hamas, it does, in a very real and deadly way.

When that militant interpretation is combined with millenarianism, antisemitism, a glorification of death, and the belief that Muslims must engage in violent struggle to be classed as true believers, it becomes jihadism, a destructive ideology whose principal victims, besides the casualties of transnational terrorism, have been the peoples of the Middle East – Muslims, Jews, Christians, Yazidis, and other religious minorities. One hopes that no one, whatever their views on the Israeli-Palestinian tragedy, would be prepared to entertain so dark a worldview, but let us also hope that those who protect us are able to recognise it when they see it.


Fitzroy Morrissey