The Concept and Practice of Jihad in Islam

By Knapp, Michael G. | Parameters, Spring 2003 | Go to article overview

The Concept and Practice of Jihad in Islam


Knapp, Michael G., Parameters


"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 et al., in "Declaration of the World Islamic Front for Jihad Against the Jews and Crusaders," 23 February 1998

The word "jihad" means "struggle" or "striving" (in the way of God) or to work for a noble cause with determination; it does not mean "holy war" (war in Arabic is harb and holy is muqadassa). Unlike its medieval Christian counterpart term, "crusade" ("war for the cross"), however, the term jihad for Muslims has retained its religious and military connotation into modem times. The word jihad has appeared widely in the Western news media following the 11 September 2001 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, but the true meaning of this term in the Islamic world (it is sometimes called the "sixth pillar" of the faith) is still not well understood by non-Muslims.

In war, the first essential is to know your adversary--how he thinks and why he thinks that way, and what his strategy and objectives are--so that you can attempt to frustrate his plans and protect the lives of your fellow citizens. Understanding how radical Muslims see jihad and are employing it asymmetrically against us can provide us with that kind of perspective.

This article will trace the development of jihad through early Islamic history into the present day, and will focus on how jihad in concept and practice has been appropriated and distorted by Muslim extremists as part of their violent campaign against the West and their own governments. Jihad as a centerpiece of radical thought is illustrated by examining the doctrines of prominent extremist groups such as Hamas and Egyptian Islamic Jihad. Misuse of the term by prominent extremist leaders, such as by Osama bin Laden and others in the quote above, is also addressed.

The Classical Concept of Jihad

Qur 'anic and Early Legal Perspectives

Muslims themselves have disagreed throughout their history about the meaning of the term jihad. In the Qur'an (or Koran), it is normally found in the sense of fighting in the path of God; this was used to describe warfare against the enemies of the early Muslim community (ummah). In the hadith, the second-most authoritative source of the shari 'a (Islamic law), jihad is used to mean armed action, and most Islamic theologians and jurists in the classical period (the first three centuries) of Muslim history understood this obligation to be in a military sense.

Islamic jurists saw jihad in the context of conflict in a world divided between the Dar al-Islam (territory under Islamic control) and the Dar al-h arb (territory of war, which consisted of all lands not under Muslim rule). The inhabitants of the territory of war are divided between "People of the Book" (mainly Jews and Christians) and polytheists. This requirement to continue jihad until all of the world is included in the territory of Islam does not imply that Muslims must wage nonstop warfare, however. Although there was no mechanism for recognizing a non-Muslim government as legitimate, jurists allowed for the negotiation of truces and peace treaties of limited duration. Additionally, extending the territory of Islam does not mean the annihilation of all non-Muslims, nor even their necessary conversion: jihad cannot imply conversion by force, since the Qur'an (2:256) states that "There is no compulsion in religion. …

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