the multi-layered concept of jihad
has come to acquire a one-dimensional meaning today - one which goes
against the basic precepts of Islam. Islam preaches peace, and jihad
through war is only a means of achieving this; the greater jihad
is the non-violent one, fought within oneself or for social justice,
says Asghar Ali Engineer
Jihad is projected as an integral part of Islam - as an obligatory
duty of all Muslims to fight against infidels. To say the least,
this is a highly improper representation of the concept of jihad
in Islam. The multi-layered concept of jihad has been projected
as a one-dimensional concept - to fight with the sword against all
infidels. What happened on September 11 has further harmed the prospects
of a correct understanding of the concept.
The first step towards such understanding is to situate the concept
of jihad in its historical context. One is often historically
determined, without an understanding of how one is historically
Qur'anic pronouncements are multi-layered and multi-dimensional
- some of these dimensions are historical, some social, other ethical.
To understand the Qur'anic verses in a unidimensional manner is
to do great injustice to them, and also misapply them - either because
of a wrong understanding of the verses, or on account of some selfish
To understand the Qur'an better, it is important to understand
the pre-Islamic Arab society. Violence and inter-tribal wars were
rampant. Reconciliation and conflict resolution through negotiations
was virtually unknown. Though the pre-Islamic Arab society was not
exactly immoral, it did have tribal traditions and customs that
ignored certain ethical aspects. Peace, though appreciated, was
not always practised. As there was no rule of law in pre-Islamic
society, things were settled through inter-tribal wars or tribal
customs and traditions. This resulted in a great deal of bloodshed.
This prevailing historical situation was not acceptable to Islam,
but some of its elements did persist in Muslim behaviour. Also,
we have to bear in mind that it was not a modern democratic society,
but a tribal society with its own outlook and intellectual understanding.
We cannot apply modern norms to the tribal society, nor should we
perpetuate its practices in modern times. Islam, while constrained
to retain some of it, rejected most of these practices, and provided
for transcendent norms and ethical standards. What some Muslims
do (and many non-Muslims too) is ignore the historicity of some
Qur'anic and Hadith pronouncements, and place them in an
ahistorical context, thus causing great deal of misunderstanding
about the Islamic ethics of jihad.
A careful study of the Qur'an and Hadith makes it
clear that the concept of jihad is far above mere violence
and war. Unfortunately, Islamic history was fraught with wars for
several reasons (certainly not for religious reasons), hence the
unidimensional concept of jihad. The Sufis, who kept themselves
aloof from power-struggles and attempts by rulers at territorial
expansions, realised the dangers of misapplying the concept of jihad.
They thought it necessary to emphasise the other social and moral
aspects of jihad. It is for this reason that they described
jihad bi al-sayf (i.e. war with sword) as jihad-e-asghar
(i.e. small war), and jihad to control one's greed and selfish
desires as jihad-e-akbar i.e. great jihad. This was
important because Muslim leaders and their cohorts were ignoring
the moral precepts and ethical constraints imposed by Qur'anic pronouncements
to fulfil their greed for power and territory.
The Sufis had based the concept of the great jihad on the
basis of Qur'anic pronouncements, and had not formulated a precept
of their own. Jihad, as is well known to any student of the
Arabic language, means to make utmost efforts. One must look at
the authentic Qur'anic dictionary Mufradat al-Qur'an by Imam
Raghib Asfahani (Urdu translation by Sheikh Muhammad Abduh Firozpuri,
Imam Raghib first discusses the meaning of the root word jahd,
which means working hard or making utmost efforts, and juhud,
which means one's utmost capacity. The two together would mean making
utmost efforts to one's best capacity. Then he goes on to say that
jihad wa al-mujahidah means to spend one's utmost capacity
in defending oneself in the face of an enemy. Then he divides jihad
in three categories: 1) to fight against enemies, i.e. unbelievers;
2) against shaitan (Satan) and 3) against one's own self,
i.e. one's own greed and selfishness.
Imam Raghib also maintains that the Qur'anic verse 22:78 ("And strive
hard for Allah with due striving. He has chosen you and has not
laid any hardship in religion.") comprises all these three categories.
The Qur'an also says, "And strive hard in Allah's way with
your wealth and your lives. This is better for you, if you know."
(9:41). One also finds in the Qur'an, "Those who believed
and migrated (from their homes), and strove hard in Allah's way
with their wealth and their lives, and are much higher in rank with
Allah. And it is these that shall triumph." (9:20)
It will be seen that all these verses in the Qur'an do not
use the word jihad in the sense of war, but in the sense
of striving with wealth and one's own life. Muslims were a persecuted
lot in Mecca, and many of them faced severe persecution, and strove
hard in the way of Allah with their own lives, and those who were
wealthy, spent all their wealth for that cause. Thus, it was all
about suffering and striving. This is real jihad. Nowhere
in the Qur'an is jihad used either in the sense of
war, or for seeking revenge. Seeking revenge amounts to using concept
of jihad for selfish ends, even if the revenge or retaliation
is for one's group or community.
In Hadith literature, we find a Hadith, which prohibits
Muslims from seeking revenge. Thus in Sahih al-Bukhari, we
find the Hadith of Miqdad ibn Amr al-Kindi. Amr al-Kindi
asked the Holy Prophet (peace be upon him), "Suppose I met one of
the infidels and we fought. He struck one of my hands with his sword,
cut it off and then took refuge in a tree and said, 'I surrender
to Allah'. Could I kill him, O Messenger of Allah, after he had
said this?" Allah's Messenger (PBUH) said, "You should not kill
him." Al-Miqdad said, "O Allah's Messenger, but he had cut off my
hands, and then he had uttered those words." Allah's Messenger (PBUH)
replied, "You should not kill him, and you would be in his position
where he had been before uttering these words." Thus it will be
seen that in matters of war also, Islam teaches higher morality,
the essence of which is not to seek revenge or retaliate. This is
what I call the transcendent morality.
In matters of jihad, Imam Raghib quotes an interesting Hadith,
which says, "Fight your desires as you fight your enemies." The
Sufi concept of jihad-i-akbar i.e. the great jihad
is to fight ones own vain desires has been based on this Hadith.
According to the Qur'an, man's life is a constant struggle
in the way of Allah, be it through sword or through one's hands
or one's tongue. Thus there is a Hadith which says, "Strive
against unbelievers with your hands and your words."
Thus this constant jihad, constant struggle in the way of
Allah implies multi-layered efforts. The believers have been charged,
by the Qur'an, with the important mission of spreading good
and fighting evil (amr bi'l ma`ruf wa nahi 'an al-munkar).
In this mission, a believer has to engage himself continuously,
controlling his own desires, spreading justice, equality and compassion
with wisdom ('adl - justice, ihsan - benevolence,
rahmah- compassion and hikmah - wisdom are concepts
of goodness in the Qur'an which are repeatedly stressed).
As it is duty
of believers to engage in spreading what is good, it is also their
duty to engage in containing what is evil. Thus, a believer has
to constantly strive to fight against oppression, injustice, iniquity
and cruelty. All these result in spreading evil on earth. The world,
as we all know, is full of injustices and oppression, and it will
be a lifetime mission of a believer to contain them. This is real
A fight is not always with weapons. It could equally be through
moral and intellectual means - through persuasion, wisdom, spreading
the good word, and setting good examples. It is for this reason
that the Prophet has said that the ink of a writer's pen is more
sacred than the blood of a martyr. The word written with ink is
lasts longer than a martyr's blood. The Qur'an says, "And
fight in the way of Allah against those who fight against you but
be not aggressive. Surely Allah loves not the aggressors." (2:190)
One has to strictly observe these conditions in jihad.
The noted Urdu poet Iqbal has beautifully described the meaning
of jihad in day-to-day life in one of his couplets as follows:
muhkam 'amal payham muhabbat fatihi 'alam
Jihad-e- zindagani mein yeh hain mardon ki shamshiren
(For a man with strong inner conviction, constant efforts and universe-winning
love are the real weapons in the jihad of life.)
The meaning of jihad is not complete without the Qur'anic injunction
for believers (men as well as women) to enforce good, and contain
evil, and this is the lifelong mission of all the believers. To achieve
this objective, believers have to use their persuasive skills, wisdom
and goodliness. One cannot enforce good with sword. Goodness prevails
only with goodness. What the Qur'an calls maw`izah hasanah
(i.e. exhortation with goodness) and hikmah (wisdom) is more
lasting than enforcing something forcibly.
The Prophet (PBUH) always tried all possibilities of negotiated settlement,
and resorted to war in self-defence only if all efforts to find a
negotiated settlement failed. The best example of this is what is
known in the history of Islam as sulh-i-Hudaibiyah. He even
accepted terms, which were not apparently favourable to Muslims to
avoid human slaughter and in the interest of peace. The terms of peace
appeared to be even humiliating to his senior companions.
We find mention of this in Sahih al-Bukhari. Abu Wa'il narrated,
"We were in Siffin and Sahl ibn Hunayf stood up and said, 'O people!
Blame yourselves! We were with the Prophet (PBUH) on the day of Hudaybiyyah,
and if we had been called to fight, we should have fought.' But Umar
ibn al-Khattab came and said, 'O Allah's Messenger! Aren't we in the
right and our opponents in the wrong?' Allah's Messenger said, 'Yes'.
Umar said, 'Then why should we accept hard terms in matters concerning
our religion? Shall we return before Allah judges between us and them?'
Allah's Messenger (PBUH) said, 'O ibn al-Khattab! I am the Messenger
of Allah and Allah will never degrade me.'"
Sulh-Hudaibiyuyah is of fundamental significance in the interest
of peace. Peace is the real objective, and war only a necessary evil
in certain unavoidable situations. Also, it is a wrong assumption
that it is duty of the Muslims to fight against all non-believers
or kafirs. The Qur'an itself mentions treaties with
unbelievers, and according to the Qur'an and Hadith,
it is the duty of all Muslims to honour all treaties and alliances
with non-believers. All such alliances must be respected by the Muslims
as long as they are honoured by non-Muslims.
Thus we find again in Sahih al-Bukhari, "The pagans were of
two kinds as regards their relationship with the Prophet (PBUH) and
the believers. Some of them were those with whom the Prophet was at
war, and used to fight against, and they used to fight him; the others
were those with whom the Prophet (PBUH) made a treaty, and neither
did the Prophet fight them, nor did they fight him.
Those who work for social justice are as good as mujahideen
i.e. warriors in the way of Allah. Thus we find in Sahih al-Bukhari:
The Prophet (PBU) said, "The one who looks after and works for a widow
and for a poor person is like a warrior fighting for Allah's cause,
or like a person who fasts during the day and prays all the night."
Thus any one striving for social justice and working to ameliorate
the plight of the poor is like a warrior in the way of Allah. Thus,
those who spend their own money or collect from others and spend for
the poor in the way Allah is no less than a mujahid. According
to the Qur'an, zakat money is to be spent on poor, widows,
needy, paying off the debt of indebted and for liberation of slaves.
These are all weaker sections of society. It is thus a great merit
to help these poorer and weaker sections and to work for them is as
meritorious as waging jihad in the way of Allah. One should
wage war against poverty in all possible ways - by increasing production,
by ringing about redistribution of economic resources and by not allowing
wealth to be circulated only among the rich. (59:7)
Even when first permission was given to fight in the Qur'anic verse
4:77, it was basically to defend the rights of weak from among the
old men, women and children. In some extreme situations, it might
mean fighting a war, but it could be a fight in various other ways,
particularly in a democratic and modern society. It could be through
democratic movements or parliamentary debates also. In those days,
when the holy Qur'an was being revealed, such possibilities
did not exist. Today, we will have to creatively re-interpret such
Qur'anic provisions as above.
The 'Ulama and jurists in early Islam had divided the world in darul
harb and darul Islam. The countries where Muslims could
not enjoy the freedom of their faith, and were persecuted were declared
by the Muslim jurists as darul harb. And it was thought necessary
for Muslims to wage war (jihad) in such countries. However,
it is important to note that the Hanafi jurists had also created a
third category of darul aman i.e. those countries where Muslims,
though in minority yet, could enjoy freedom of religion and were not
persecuted because of their religious beliefs. India was always considered
as darul aman by Islamic jurists, as Muslims here were not
persecuted for their religious beliefs. India was always a pluralist
But in today's conditions when, democracy prevails, even if Muslims
are persecuted in any country or any place, democratic remedies will
have priority over waging war. Terrorism which involves shedding the
blood of innocent people, and can never be elevated to the category
of jihad in any sense of the Qur'anic term.
Also, a few individuals cannot get together and decide to wage jihad.
The decision to wage jihad can be taken only by a properly
constituted Islamic government ensuring that there is no other way
left but to declare jihad. This can be done after due deliberation,
and examining all possible consequences, including loss of human lives.
In the modern democratic world such decisions can be arrived at only
by a duly-elected government. And as far as the Qur'anic injunction
on jihad is concerned, it should not in any case involve a
selfish motive like grabbing the territory of others or consolidating
any group's rule, but should be strictly for higher goals, like justice
and fighting persecution.
It should also be noted that peace is far more fundamental to Islam
than war. War at best could be an instrument of establishing peace
in some exceptional circumstances, or for defending against aggression.
It is unfortunate that some youth come together, and decide that there
is no way out but to use violence, and call it jihad. These
youth ultimately shed a great deal of innocent blood, without achieving
the ultimate objective. Such extremist violence results in more in-group
fighting. Such extremist violence is not jihad.
In a modern world, real jihad is to use democracy and democratic
institutions to realise the noble goals for which the Prophet of Islam
(PBUH) struggled all his life.
(The author is a well-known expert of Islamic affairs, and heads
the Institute of Islamic Studies, Mumbai.)