What is Jihad?

The teachings of Islam are quite comprehensive and do not take anything for granted. For example, the Qur’an specifically prohibits marriage with certain close relatives, despite the fact that it might be taken as granted as major cultures and religions have similar guidelines.

Similarly, it is expected that a nation and culture will defend itself from foreign influence and attack and not allow itself to be destroyed or annihilated. However, history shows us that nations and cultures have either self-destructed or come under external influences.  Many nations have been wiped out by internal problems or by external military strength.

Countering such weakness is what Jihad is all about. It is the continuous struggle of a nation to prop itself up against internal decay, and external influence or attack. As such, it is perplexing to Muslims as well as non-Muslims who hear the word being used in different contexts. Cleansing one’s soul, standing up for truth and justice, forbidding evil, combating ideas with the pen, or taking up arms agains an external threat are all forms of Jihad.

All nations practice Jihad. They protect their values and history, and protect themselves against aggression. Islam, like in all other things, quantifies and prescribes this regimen on its followers.

If so, why does it evoke such strong emotions on both sides of a conflict termed as Jihad. Let us find out in the next section.


The Philosophy of Jihad wrt Sovereignty

Jihad is a frontier to imperialism and oppression.

In the first decade of the 21st century, we have seen movements and militias related to 'jihad' appear all over the Islamic World. The word jihad is expressed in different contexts. We will tackle the military context first.


Sovereignty, Sedition and Struggle

(In Arabic: Mulk, Fitnah and Jihad. Or in Urdu: *مُلک، فتنہ اور جہاد*. )

The Quran is completely, and wisely, silent on the form of political government.  At an abstract level, it talks abou these three themes:

  • Sovereignty belongs to Allah, and he gives it to whomsover He pleases, and takes it away from whomsoever he pleases.  Physical strength and knowledge are favourable attributes.  Justice is the task of the sovereign.
  • When a legitimate claimant to sovereignty does not exist, or the legitimacy of the sovereign is credibly challenged, we have a state of fitnah (insurrection, sedition, disorder).  Fitnah is worse than murder.
  • Military jihad is the struggle to re-establish sovereignty and order in the land.

The concept of sovereignty in an increasingly small world is a bit confusing for modern readers. We need a fresh look at how sovereignty is defined, used and misused by nations, both pacifist and imperialist.


Jihad and European Nations - an Uneasy Relationship

From the Crusades to World War II to the Afghan-Russian war to the present times, the European Nations have had a mixed relationship with Jihad.

While the religion of Islam is close to Christianity, and Islamic concepts influenced the Christian reformation, the historic reality that much of the expansion of Muslim empires was at the expense of Christian nations can never be forgotten.

In modern times, the Western point of view is simple: military jihad is “good” when it is against their enemies, but “bad” when Western nations are the direct or indirect targets.  There is nothing wrong with this pragmatic approach: Western Christian nations are entitled to these self-serving perspectives just as Muslims and Muslim nations are entitled to self-preservation.

As an aside, it is interesting to see Western journalists still refer to certain Afghan factions as mujahideen – as in the vintage fighters against the Russian occupation, while referring to the current fighters against occupation as “terrorists”. On the other hand, Western academics have not ventured into much detail on the military or the other — non-military — aspects of jihad.

At the end of the Cold War between the Warsaw Pact and NATO, there was an euphoric feeling of cultural triumph in the West. Boosting the concept of a new cultural world order was the post-WWII cultural influence of the West in the Far East, particularly Japan. It was an unwritten understanding in the West that the world would be homogenized soon — the New World Order.  Or in Fukuyama's words, and the title of his book that presumably spawned the neo-conservative movement to re-shape the world: 'The End of History'.

Yes, there were those pesky Islamist groups to take care of, and Islam was, to paraphrase the words of a NATO official, the last frontier. This is precisely what Jihad was designed to combat.  These are the premises of those who advocate an international showdown.

European intellectuals are grappling with this ideological barrier. They do not see any military might behind this ideological confrontation, as the USSR was. Nor do they see a united military nation like Japan. In their confusion, some then refer to Islam as a destructive force, and some even advocate its “modernization”, oblivious to the fact that unlike medieval Christianity, Islam has no problem with science, technology or progress of civilization. 

Can military and non-military jihad ever be  successful, then, in its goals?  And what are those goals?