Jihad has a number of different meanings and there is a lot of disagreement about what exactly those are and which are more important. Literally, the word translates to “struggle” and is used in Arabic to describe a number of different states. It has two main meanings.
In addition to these two main meanings jihad can mean struggle or striving more generally. Occasionally it is used in a secular context in a similar way to the English word “crusade.”
It depends who you ask. Many believe that the “greater jihad” is the inner struggle against personal imperfection. They frequently cite two hadith of Muhammed. One states “It was narrated that the Prophet (peace and blessings of Allah be upon him), said to his companions when they returned from a military campaign, “We have come back from the lesser jihad to the greater jihad.” They said, “Is there any greater jihad than jihad against the kuffar?” he said, “Yes, jihad al-nafs (jihad against the self).”
However this hadith is not regarded as reliable by scholars, even many of those who view the jihad against the self as more important. Another hadith, which says that the “The ink of the scholar is holier than the blood of the martyr” is also regarded as weak or fabricated.
Ibn al-Qayyim, the foremost disciple of the 14th Century conservative giant Ibn Taymiyyah, opined that the distinction was not so much one of importance as one of chronology, since the process of inculcating self-discipline is a necessary precursor to warfare.
He said “Jihad is of four stages: jihad al-nafs (striving against the self), jihad al-shayaateen (striving against the shayaateen or devils), jihad al-kuffar (striving against the disbelievers) and jihad al-munaafiqeen (striving against the hypocrites).”
He went on to say “the most perfect of people are those who have completed all the stages of jihad. People vary in their status before Allah according to their status in jihad.”
Even among those who hold that the inner jihad is more important, it is still universally accepted that physical jihad is necessary, at least from time to time, to wage wars of self-defense.
There is a big difference between the jihad waged in the Middle Ages and jihad waged by terrorist groups today.
According to some interpretations in classical Islamic theology, jihad is a requirement to extend Muslim political dominion over the entire world. This policy was aggressively pursued by the Ummayad Caliphate, one of the powerful early Islamic empires. However there are disagreements amongt the classical scholars about the exact nature of jihad and which restrictions are to be placed on it.
Jihad had to be declared by the caliph, the political and religious head of the Islamic polity. Jurists divided the world into Dar al-Islam (the land of Islam) and Dar al-Harb (the land of war, ie areas inhabited by non-believers). These were to be conquered, if not all at once then bit by bit.
In traditional Islamic jurisprudence there are strict “rules of engagement” pertaining to jihad. For example, women and children cannot be killed, trees may not be cut down, captured soldiers must be treated humanely etc.
Despite claims by Islamic theologians that jihad is purely an institution of war for self-defense, it is clear that the armies of the Rashidun, Ummayad and Abbasid Caliphates did not conquer an empire from the Atlantic to India in self-defense.
Like the monarchs of medieval Europe, it seems evident that religion (in this case jihad) was pressed into service to provide justification for wars of expansion. Furthermore, it is possible to justify an offensive war as a defensive one if one fears that failure to attack will lead to oneself being attacked.
As the advances of Islamic empires slowed and stopped, jihad lost relevance as an idea and emphasis shifted to a more spiritual understanding of the concept. Jihad regained popularity as a martial imperative in the 19th century, when Islamism began to be developed as a political opposition to Western colonialism grounded in an Islamic framework.
“All these crimes and sins committed by the Americans are a clear declaration of war on God, his Messenger, and Muslims…. [T]he jihad is an individual duty if the enemy destroys the Muslim countries. . . . As for the fighting to repulse [an enemy], it is aimed at defending sanctity and religion, and it is a duty. . . . On that basis, and in compliance with God’s order, we issue the following fatwa to all Muslims: The ruling to kill the Americans and their allies—civilian and military—is an individual duty for every Muslim who can do it in any country in which it is possible to do it.” – Osama bin Laden, “Declaration of the World Islamic Front for Jihad Against the Jews and Crusaders,” 23 February 1998.
Contemporary jihadists regard the current global terrorist conflict they are waging as a war of self-defense waged in response to American and Western colonialism.
Although many Muslims regard the wanton human rights abuses perpetrated by modern day jihadis as being antithetical to the values of Islam, in fact taking sex slaves, carrying out raids and other tactics have grounding in traditional Islamic understandings of jihad. This does not mean that current terrorist doctrine is the correct understanding of the doctrine of jihad, merely that it is an understanding of these concepts.
The contemporary jihadist movement reboots earlier Islamic concepts and theories and applies them in their most brutal and harshest form to contemporary society. They rely on the thesis of Sayyid Qutb, the mid-20th Century Islamist ideologue, who held that all Muslim states which are not governed according to sharia are in a state of “jahiliyya” (the pre-Islamic state of ignorance) and are therefore illegitimate regimes that need to be overthrown. Every government in the world he considered to be in a state of rebellion against Allah.
The idea that Muslim-majority countries have perpetrated heresy by taking on secular laws and aligning themselves politically with the United States and other Western countries is a powerful driver of jihadism today because it legitimizes war against those states.
This understanding of jihad, as a war of conquest against the infidels in order to establish an Islamist state, is part of the broader Islamist movement. Groups like the Muslim Brotherhood, although they are ostensibly peaceful, maintain the option to wage jihad should they see fit.
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