Islam – The Concept of Jihad: Meaning and Purposes

English Department, Al-Azhar ObservatoryEver since 9/11, the word “Jihad” has come to be one of the most well-known concepts to non-Muslims. Jihad is considered the main concept that radical groups adopt as a core ideology. It is true that “Jihad” is a genuine Islamic concept that cannot be negated or ignored, yet the point to be considered now shall be “how to correctly understand Jihad”. In fact, understanding the true meaning of Jihad relies much on realising its purposes as understood from the basic sources of Islam. This is the crucial point that reveals the reality of the concept and guides us where to stand regarding this term.

It is interesting to see that mostly all the official Islamic institutions condemn the practices of the radical groups, their understanding and application of Jihad. This urges one to rethink of the commonly propagated image of Jihad and to wonder about the nature and purpose of Jihad from the true Islamic perspective.

The nature of Jihad:

In the beginning, it is necessary to state that Jihad is not synonymous with Holy War as Islam totally refuses to force others to embrace it. Simply, Islam considers faith a result of one’s complete free will as the Qur’an states, “There is no compulsion in religion.” (The Quran, 2:256) The scope of Jihad is much wider than fighting. This becomes clear when we realise that the term Jihad was mentioned in the Qur’an before the Prophet’s migration to Medina, and it is widely known that fighting was only approved after migration. The Qur’an states, “So do not yield to the disbelievers, but strive diligently against them with this ˹Quran˺.” (The Qur’an 25: 52). According to Muslim Exegetes, this verse was revealed before the Prophet’s migration.[1] In its literal meaning, Jihad means to exert utmost effort in doing something. According to the above quoted verse, Allah orders the Prophet to practice Jihad with the Qur’an against those belying him i.e. to use the sound argument proving the authenticity of his faith i.e. Islam. This sort of logical argument is called “Jihad”.

Also, the Prophet used the word “Jihad” in occasions that have nothing at all to do with fighting. ‘Abd Allah Ibn ‘Umar narrated that a man came to the Messenger of Allah asking his permission to go out for Jihad. The Messenger of Allah asked him, “Are your parents alive?” He replied, ‘Yes.’ The Messenger of Allah then said to him, “Then your Jihad would be with them (i.e. in looking after them and being at their service).”

When commenting on the verse, “Do you think you will enter Paradise without Allah proving which of you ˹truly˺ Jaahudu (the base form verb of Jihad) and patiently endured?” (The Qur’an 3: 142) Imam Muhammad ‘Abduh said, “One may understand that a person who does not practice Jihad will not enter paradise. This is true; a person who does not practice Jihad for the cause of truth will not enter paradise. The word Jihad in the Qur’an and Sunnah is used in its literal sense which means to exert one’s utmost effort and to suffer hardships in combating something difficult. In this sense, we use the term jihad al-nafs (Jihad against one’s evil whims) and Jihad with one’s money, supporting the truth, standing against injustice, etc.”

This drives us to discuss the concept of fighting in Islam, which is only one of the various forms of Jihad. Islam, like all systems, permits fighting in specific cases and for certain purposes.

Purposes of Jihad (Fighting) from the Islamic Perspective

Repelling an aggression

It is quite clear in the Qur’an that the first permission to practice Jihad was made to defend the Muslim community (Ummah) after it had been wronged by its enemy. Chapter 22, verse 39, of the Qur’an states “Those who have been attacked are permitted to take up arms because they have been wronged- God has the power to help them.” In his Al-Tahrir wa al-Tanwir, Ibn ‘Ashur, a Muslim exegete of the Qur’an, comments on this verse saying, “This indicates that fighting is permissible when responding to an aggression”. Even in the Sacred Places where fighting is totally prohibited, Islam permits Muslims to fight, only to defend themselves. Thus, the core point is to defend people, faith, nation, etc., not to attack others.

Also, the Qur’an clearly states that it is permissible for Muslims to fight against those fighting them. The Qur’an reads, “Fight in the Way of Allah those who fight you but do not transgress. Indeed. Allah does not like transgressors.” (The Qur’an 2: 190) The phrase “but do not transgress” indicates that even such fight -which is defensive in nature- is subject to the most sublime etiquettes of war…the rules that are being cherished now by the international covenants.

Helping the wronged people and promoting the values of justice and equality

Another purpose of Jihad, as noted in the Qur’an, is to defend the oppressed people. Chapter four, verse 75, reads “Why should you not fight in God’s Cause and for those oppressed men, women, and children who cry out, ‘Lord, rescue us from this town whose people are oppressors! By Your Grace, give us a protector and give us a helper!’?” Imam Muhammad Rashid Rida comments on this verse saying, “Fighting is an awful thing, and thus it is only allowed for the sake of removing greater harm…”[2] Thus supporting an oppressed people is an enough cause to fight against the oppressors, as is clearly indicated in the above-mentioned verse.

Another proof to be quoted here is hilf al-fudul (the Alliance of the Virtuous) in which Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) participated in the pre-Islamic period. This alliance aimed at promoting virtues, caring for neighbors, being kind to foreign guests, ending blood-shedding, and protecting the oppressed. After the spread of Islam, Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) said, “I was invited, in the pre-Islamic period, to participate in an alliance; if I were invited to the like of which now, I will accept [the invitation].” This Prophetic statement indicates clearly that a Muslim should not hesitate to establish or participate in an institution which aims at promoting virtues and morals and achieving reconciliation.

Prevention of persecution or seditions

Fight aims at preventing any sedition in the Muslims community or the human community in general. Allah says, “Fight against them until there is no more persecution—and ˹your˺ devotion will be entirely to Allah.” (The Qur’an 8: 39) This applies to all forms of seditions –religious or non-religious.

The point to be understood here is that Islam aims at establishing a safe and stable society so that people can practice their religions away from any form of persecution or coercion. Allah says, “Had Allah not repelled ˹the aggression of˺ some people by means of others, destruction would have surely claimed monasteries, churches, synagogues, and mosques in which Allah’s Name is often mentioned.” (The Qur’an 22: 40)

Thus, as we see, there is no room in Islam for Jihad to be an instrument by which people are compelled to convert to it or even to fight the followers of other faiths. The general principle stated in the Qur’an is crystal clear in Allah’s Saying, “Allah does not forbid you from dealing kindly and fairly with those who have neither fought nor driven you out of your homes. Surely Allah loves those who are fair.” (The Qur’an 60: 8)

[1] See Mohamed Sa’eed Al Buti, “Al-Jihad fi Al Islam”, pp. 19-22.

[2] Mohamed Rashid Rida, Al-Manar, Vol. 5, p. 211.


English Department, Al-Azhar Observatory
English Department, Al-Azhar Observatory

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