Religious Violence II: What is Jihad?

So as promise, this will be a continuation from my post last week about religious violence and the nature of jihad.  But I’ve now realized that this was pretty much the silliest timing imaginable for this post, as this is also the first week of Ramadan, which, along with the month-long fast, is meant to be a period of peace and contemplation.  In the spirit of Ramadan, I’ve added a few links for donations to this page – just look to your right.  I know we’re all pretty broke right now, so I’ve picked three groups that all do a lot with small donations – if you can spare a fiver, you can make someone’s life better.  Alternatively, just be nice to someone.

Okay, so then, what is jihad? Although the term gets used in a modern context for basically any kind of violence that is connected to Islam in any way, at least at the rise of Islam and in the classical period of Islamic law, there was a precise definition for jihad, so I’m going to talk a bit about the formation of the idea before discussing how the idea was revived in the last century.

The term ‘jihad’ comes from the verb ‘jahada’, meaning to struggle or to strive for, and at the rise of Islam, the term was generally used in the sense of striving for religious commitment.  As Islam was, from its inception, both a religious and a political/military community, jihad was divided into the greater and the lesser jihad, with one being the personal struggle for religious commitment and the other being the continued expansion of the Islamic state.  Muslim authors in the early centuries often differed on which was the greater and which was the lesser – some argued that the greater was the personal struggle, as this was needed for the military expansion to be righteous and others argued for the military expansion as being physically larger.

In the case of jihad as military expansion, Muslim writers applied further requirements, in order to differentiate jihad from warfare generally.  For it be jihad, and thus righteous, the war had to be called by the caliph, with the intention of bringing people to Islam, and, according to some scholars, the war had to be winnable.  There are also chronicles and histories which preserved requirements set down by the caliphs themselves about the behavior of the Muslim army in jihad, that women, children and the elderly should be unharmed, that property should not be destroyed, and the monks and monastic communities should be left alone.

At least in the first two centuries of Islam, when the idea of the Pillars of Islam was being codified through the codification of the hadith, jihad sometimes appeared as a requirement for all Muslims – the list given by the earliest hadith manuals usually included some combination of the statement of faith (that there is no god but God), prayer, fasting, zakat (the poor due), the Hajj, jihad, and the khutba (the fifth of the spoils of war that was used to fund the expansion).  However, these sources rarely specified which jihad was intended, and many later thinkers argued that only the personal jihad was a required practice for all Muslims.

The concept of jihad survived more or less continuously through the first several centuries of Islam, but fell out of usage as the office of caliph lost its independence, and then eventually ended in the thirteenth century.  From the high Middle Ages on-wards, the Islamic world divided into a series of semi-autonomous principalities, no one of whom could claim religious superiority over the others.  Therefore no one of them could claim the right to call jihad, particularly because they went to war with each other as often as they went to war with any outside enemy.

The concept resurfaced in the early twentieth century as part of the Muslim nationalist movements, which attempted to regain control of the Islamic world from the Ottoman empire and the imperial powers.  However, as there was still no existing caliph or any form of centralized Muslim political authority, in particular after the dismantling of the Ottoman empire after World War I,  this new concept of jihad often lacked the precise rules and regulations of the early period.  In some cases, authors argued for the right to call jihad as a test of piety, relying on an argument put forward in the first centuries of Islam that jihad should be a form of monastic asceticism.  But again, with no centralize power, there was also no central authority who could designate or define this piety, and thus nearly anyone could claim the right.

Which is basically how we get to the modern day, with loads of people claiming to perform jihad, generally without any clear definition for the term or requirements for how it should be practiced.  If the classical rules of jihad are applied, none of these acts would qualify, not only because they weren’t called for or organized by the caliph, but also because they have often led to the death of Muslims, and Islamic law has always considered the killing of Muslims one of the worse sins.  But as Islam is an egalitarian community, it lacks an authority who could make these kinds of declarations.  Sadly, it’s the tiny minority who believe that nearly any form of violence is jihad and a required practice who get the attention, and not the millions who reject this idea.


About askanislamicist

I'm an academic who specializes in early Islamic history and the history of religious interactions, who, in her free time, enjoys shouting into the internet.
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6 Responses to Religious Violence II: What is Jihad?

  1. Pingback: Linguistics define | Jamesshulman

  2. Pingback: Fundstücke – 09.08.2011 | Serdargunes' Blog

  3. Effendi says:

    From what I’ve read, most Muslims nowadays believe that jihad is limited to an inner spiritual struggle or defensive warfare. These kinds of ideas were apparently opined by ‘modernists’ like Rashid Rida, Muhammad Abduh, and so on. Even those who disagree know that ‘classical jihad’ can’t be replicated in the modern world due to the numerous you mentioned in your article.

    • I would say in general that is true, although I have read works which try to argue for some modernists as arguing in favour of modern jihadism (and then there’s always the problem of Sayid Qutb). I think the problem is that however much evidence there is for the majority of Islam not accepting the possibility of a modern jihad, it’s impossible to get away from the tiny minority that do believe in it, because they are so vocal and so visible.

  4. Effendi says:

    * numerous caveats

  5. These are impressive articles. Keep up the sunny handiwork.

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