Understanding Jihad

Understanding Jihad

Understanding Jihad

Understanding Jihad


Jihad is one of the most loaded and misunderstood terms in the news today. Contrary to popular understanding, the term does not mean "holy war." Nor does it simply refer to the inner spiritual struggle. This book, judiciously balanced, accessibly written, and highly relevant to today's events, unravels the tangled historical, intellectual, and political meanings of jihad. Looking closely at a range of sources from sacred Islamic texts to modern interpretations, Understanding Jihad opens a critically important perspective on the role of Islam in the contemporary world.

As David Cook traces the practical and theoretical meanings of jihad, he cites from scriptural, legal, and newly translated texts to give readers a taste of the often ambiguous information that is used to construct Islamic doctrine. He looks closely at the life and teaching of the Prophet Muhammad and at the ramifications of the great Islamic conquests in 634 to 732 A.D. He sheds light on legal developments relevant to fighting and warfare, and places the internal, spiritual jihad within the larger context of Islamic religion. He describes some of the conflicts that occur in radical groups and shows how the more mainstream supporters of these groups have come to understand and justify violence. He has also included a special appendix of relevant documents including materials related to the September 11 attacks and published manifestoes issued by Osama bin Laden and Palestinian suicide-martyrs.


Jihad. The word has entered into common usage in the United States in the wake of September 11, 2001. Politicians use it to conjure up terrifying images of irrational foreigners coming to destroy American freedoms; religious figures use it to define Islam. Jihad has even entered our everyday vocabulary, associated (by most non-Muslims) with unrestrained, unreasoning, total warfare. But what does it really mean?

Jihad, like other words taken from a religious context, has a long history and a complex set of meanings. Conventionally it is translated as “holy war,” but this definition, associated with the medieval Crusades, is usually rejected by Muslims as too narrowly Christian. In Arabic, the word’s literal meaning is “striving” or “exerting oneself,” with the implication, on the basis of its usage in the Qurʾan, “with regard to one’s religion.” Many contemporary Muslim writers, recognizing the negative connotations that jihad has acquired in European languages, maintain that the word means nothing more than “striving.” Yet this position, predominant among Muslim apologists writing in non-Muslim (primarily Western) languages, is disingenuous. To gain a sense of the word’s true meaning, one must begin by looking at its usage in classical Muslim literature, primarily in Arabic, but also in other Muslim languages, as well as at its function in Muslim history and historiography.

To complicate matters further, there are different types of jihad. The term’s complexity is not surprising given the centrality of the concept of jihad for Islam and the length of time—fourteen centuries—that Mus-

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