In the Name of God

The real meaning of Jihad

One statement of Prophet Mohammed is enough to explain what the term Jihad implies. After returning victorious from a particularly bloody war, he said: “We return from a lesser Jihad to a greater one.” There are no two ways of interpreting this statement. The lesser Jihad was Jihad -al-Asghar, the one fought with swords on a battlefield. The greater Jihad was Jihad-al-Akbar, the one every Muslim must wage to kill the evil within. To strive to become a better Muslim and thereby a better human being.

It would be reasonable to infer that the Prophet worried about Jihad and the possibility of it getting corrupted over the years enough to make this distinction. Islam came to Arabia at the time of political chaos and incessant violence. The early Muslim community was being hounded and persecuted throughout Arabia, so much so, that the Prophet had to migrate with the small band of his followers form Mecca to Medina. This migration became one of the landmarks of Islamic history and tradition. The importance of this event can be gauged by the fact that the Islamic calendar also begin from this date. The migration or ‘Hijra’ can also be interpreted in another way. The Prophet didn’t run away from Mecca. He migrated to preserve himself and his followers so that they live and consolidate themselves for another battle where they would have a fair chance ow winning. This means that if you are sure of defeat or total annihilation don’t enter into war. Retreat and live to fight another day. A very reasonable war strategy. Given this, it is difficult to imagine that the Prophet would justify suicide killings; because the only thing that is assured when a fidayeen goes to attack his target is his own death. But that’s jumping the gun.

The Hijra was followed by many wars, fought between the Prophet and the Arabs who hadn’t yet accepted the word of God as conveyed by the Prophet. There were reverses as well as victories. The Prophet also used these wars to demonstrate the appropriate war behavior: attitude towards non-combatants, women, children and the elderly; treatment of prisoners of war; response to those seeking peace after fighting a brief war or not fighting at all and so on. By all this, he wanted to remove all the ambiguities about the holy war. He made it clear that the war is essential so long as it is fought to preserve the life, honour and property of self and the family (by extension community). This qualified Jihad an essentially a defensive war. Says Akhtarul Wasey, director of Zakir Husain Institute of Islamic Studies, Jamia Millia Islamia University, “If one looks at all the wars that the Prophet fought in his lifetime, it becomes clear that none of those were initiated by him. He only fought wars that were forced upon him.” The Quran is very explicit on this score. It says, “Fight in God’s cause against those who wage a war against you but do not commit aggression, for verily God does not love aggressor.” Another Quranic verse says that war is permissible only in self-defence.

Subsequent interpretations said that Jihad could also be waged against oppressive regimes, or regimes that presecuted Muslims and didn’t let them follow their faith with honour. But even this clause was subject to a number of conditions which had to be met before a call for Jihad could be given. For instance, individuals did not have the authority to give a call for Jihad, only appointed head of Islamic states could, which means, individuals like Osama bin Laden has no authority to give a call for Jihad. Besides, Jihad could not be waged against non-combatants. “Jihad was supposed to be a directly proclaimed war, not guerrilla warfare,” says Dr S.M. Asghar, department of theology, Aligarh Muslim University. This renders the activities of various terrorist outfits unIslamic.

Jihad also made a clear distinction between good and evil. “It is a pity that because the US has raised the bogey of Islamic terrorism, even Indians, especially the Sangh Parivar has started viewing Jihad in a blinkered manner, when ironically, the biggest similarity between Islam and Hindustan is in the spirit of Jihad,” Says Wasey, the sermons given by Lord Krishna to Arjun on the importance of waging a battle against evil is reflective of the essence of Jihad. Islamic scholar Shabbir Akhatar in his book The Final Imperative: An Islamic Theology of Liberation ‘writes. “One might say that the Quran, like the Bhagawad Gita, was revealed on a battlefield. The forces of good and evil are entrenched in their positions. The Quran’s Arabian context is one of militant impiety versus militant righteousness.”

Though after the Prophet’s time various Muslim conquerors waged Jihad against other kingdoms, there isn’t much evidence in Prophetic traditions to suggest that one could wage Jihad to propagate Islam, because then it would have been similar to the Christian Crusades; and Islamic scholars have always been at pains to distinguish between the two. Another Quranic verse- ‘Let there be no compu8lsion in religion’-makes it clear that there was no concept of conversion by sword. According to Maulana Wahiduddin, the Prophet wanted to capture the hearts and minds of the people not their land. But that perhaps is the difference between prophets and kings. While the former are happy with hearts and minds latter want land as well. Probably more land than hearts. Hence, in less than a century of the advent of Islam, the crescent had overpowered substantial parts of Asia, Africa and Europe. Since America was yet to be discovered, the Semitic religions didn’t reach there. The early Islamic battles were fought in the name of Islam, partly to carry forth the banner of the religion and partly to defend the nascent community from constant Crusades being waged by Christian warriors from Europe. As Crusaders put pressure on Muslim warriors in the east, they swept across in the West, capturing North Africa, Mediterranean and finally Spain. Victories are addictive. Hence with each new territory being annexed in the name of Allah, there was a clamour for more. And every few years a new warrior would emerge with the promise of adding a new territory to the Islamic map.

It is debatable how many of these wares can be termed as Jihad in the true sense but the fact is that most warriors sought a qualification from the Khalifa (Islamic ruler) of the day before going for war. Ober the years, Muslims across the would have periodically tried to qualify their wars as Jihad to provide it with religious legitimacy and most of these wars have been declared against oppressive Muslim rulers. But in the last few years, just about anybody has given a call for Jihad had gullible youngsters have responded without understanding the concept.

“Somebody needs to tell these young people who think they are fighting a holy war that actually what they are doing is suicide and suicide is a sin,” laments Dr Asghar.  “Shahadat (sacrifice in the name of God) does not mean that you kill yourself. It means that you die in the name of God. There is a huge difference between the two.” While the former implies suicide, the latter means that you stand up to oppression and torture without straying from the path of faith.

It is true that the Prophet emphasized on the importance of fighting to ensure survival, not just of the self but of the religion as well, but he laid more emphasis on fighting Innumerable temptations within oneself. According to Dr Malik Faisal, president, Students Islamic Organisation, every minute a Muslim is under stress to keep himself on the path of Islam. “A Muslims is faced with so many temptations and diversions that he has to struggle constantly with his desires to stay on the path of faith.” He says. Prophet called this a greater and a more important Jihad for the simple reason that while it is easy to call others names and fight with them, it is very difficult to be honest with oneself and fight one’s desires. Prophet Mohammed knew that this would be a tall order and hence he laid a greater emphasis on this. His fears were not unfounded. Over the years, Muslims have not only strayed from the path for the greater Jihad. They have actually made it subordinate to the lesser one.


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