What is Jihad? By Maulana Wahiduddin Khan

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Jihad is a fact of life. What is called ‘effort’ or ‘struggle’ in English is called ‘jihad’ in Arabic. Jihad is not some mysterious thing. Nor is it synonymous with violence. It simply means making great efforts or striving for a particular purpose.
The root word of jihad is juhd, which connotes making much effort for something. According to the famous Arabic dictionary Lisan al-Arab, the word juhd means utmost effort. Juhd and related words appear in different forms to indicate this meaning. For instance, the phrase jahada al-labn, which means, ‘Making efforts and taking out all the butter’. In Arabic, one says bazala juhdahu, that is, ‘He exerted his utmost power or ability’. Likewise, it is said, jahada ar-rajulu fi kaza ay jadda fihi wa balagha , which means, ‘The man made every effort and tried his best for the cause’. This is precisely what the terms jihad and mujahid (one who engages in jihad) mean.
Striving hard for a particular purpose is something that all human beings do. It is a human characteristic. There are words in every language to denote such effort, and the word for this in Arabic is ‘jihad’. This is the basic meaning of the word ‘jihad’.
There is one difference, though, that must be noted in this regard. The term ‘effort’ or ‘struggle’ ordinarily does not also connote Divine reward or worship. But when the term jihad is used in the Islamic context, these are implied. Thus, jihad refers to a particular sort of effort or struggle that is also a form of worship and that earns Divine reward for the person who engages in it. As the Quran says: Jahidu fillah haqqa jihadihi (22:78). It means: “Strive for the cause of God as it behoves you to strive for it.” (22:78)
In some situations, the act of jihad or struggle might take the form of facing one’s opponents. On such occasions, in terms of usage, and not in the literal sense, jihad can also take on the sense of war. Hence, Imam al-Raghib al-Isfahani, an eleventh century Muslim scholar of Quranic exegesis and the Arabic language, mentions three types of jihad:
a. Fighting one’s external enemies.
b. Fighting Satan.
c. Fighting one’s own self
Jihad in the Quran
In the Quran, the word ‘jihad’ or its derivatives have been used in the same sense as it is used in the Arabic lexicon—that is, in the sense of engaging in great efforts for some purpose. The word ‘jihad’ appears four times in the Quran, and every time it is used in the sense of effort and struggle, and not directly as a synonym for war.
In this regard, the translation of the first relevant Quranic verse (9:24) is as follows:
Say, “If your fathers and your sons and your brothers and your spouses and your tribe, and the worldly goods which you have acquired, and the commerce which you fear will decline, and the homes you love are dearer to you than God and His Messenger and the struggle for His cause, then wait until God fulfills His decree. God does not guide the disobedient people.”
In this verse, followers of Islam are commanded to support the Prophet, at the level of sacrifice, in the in the Islamic mission of dawah, or inviting people to God. They must do this even if their personal interests are affected, if they suffer commercial loss, and if they are forced to undergo physical hardship. In every situation, they must be with the Prophet in this dawah mission. In this verse, the phrase ‘jihad in the path of God’ has been used in reference to the Prophet’s dawah mission, and not war.
The word jihad appears in the Quran for the second time (25:52) in this way:
…so do not yield to those who deny the truth, but strive with the utmost strenuousness by means of this [Quran, to convey its message to them].
In this verse, the term jihad very clearly refers to the jihad of dawah, because there can be no other meaning of engaging in jihad through the Quran.
The term jihad appears for the third time in the Quran in the following verse (60:1):
If you have left your homes to strive for My cause and out of a desire to seek My goodwill [...]
This verse was revealed a short time before the victory over Makkah.
The Prophet’s journey from Madinah to Makkah in 630 CE was not for war. It was actually a peaceful march, engaged in order to obtain the peaceful results that followed from the Hudaybiyyah peace treaty. The treaty was signed between the Prophet Muhammad and the Quraysh of Makkah in the year 628 CE. The Prophet, along with 1,400 companions, was journeying to Makkah from Madinah to perform the Umrah, or the minor pilgrimage. However, when they reached a place called Hudaybiyyah, ten miles from Makkah, the leaders of Quraysh stopped the Prophet from going forward. To resolve the deadlock, the Prophet entered into negotiations with the Quraysh and unilaterally accepted the conditions laid down by them. This resulted in a ten-year no-war pact, known as the Hudaybiyyah Treaty. Two years after the treaty, when the Prophet and his companions were peacefully marching towards Makkah, a Muslim remarked “This day is the day of war”, but the Prophet replied: “This day is the day of mercy.”
In the fourth verse (22:78), the word jihad appears in this way:
Strive for the cause of God as it behoves you to strive for it.
In this verse, by jihad is meant the jihad of dawah, as is clear from the context in which it appears.
What is Jihad?
To better understand what jihad is, the first thing one must know is that whatever Muslims are doing today in the name of jihad is not jihad. These are all wars unleashed by communal sentiments, and have been wrongly named as jihads.
Jihad actually means peaceful struggle. It is not synonymous with war. However, sometimes, the word jihad is used in an extended sense to refer to war. But in the literal sense, jihad and war, or what is called qital in Arabic, are not synonymous terms.
Consider the following Quranic verses and hadith reports, or sayings about or attributed to the Prophet of Islam, to appreciate some usages of the term ‘jihad’:
1. The Quran (29:69) says:
We will surely guide in Our ways those who strive hard for Our cause […]
In this verse, the search for the truth has been called jihad—that is to say, making efforts to discover God, to attain God-realisation and to search for ways to develop closeness with God. Clearly, this jihad has no relation with war or confrontation.
2. In the same way, the Quran (49:15) speaks of true believers as those who strive with their wealth for the cause of God. It says:
The believers are only those who have faith in God and His Messenger and then doubt not, but strive, hard with their wealth and their persons for the cause of God. Such are the truthful ones.
According to this verse, to spend one’s wealth in God’s path is an act of jihad.
3. Likewise, the Quran (25:52) says:
[…] so do not yield to those who deny the truth, but strive with the utmost strenuousness by means of this [Quran, to convey its message to them].

In other words, this is an instruction to engage in peaceful struggle or efforts to spread the teachings of the Quran.

4. Similarly, the Prophet is reported to have said: Al-mujahid man jahada nafsahu fi taʿatillah. It means that a mujahid is one who strives against himself for the sake of obeying God.
From this we learn that to fight against the promptings of one’s self and to persevere on the path of truth is a jihad. Obviously, this struggle takes place inside oneself, in the realm of one’s psyche, and not on a battlefield in the external world.
5. The Prophet is reported to have said: Al-hajj jihad. That is, “Haj is a jihad.” From this we learn that undertaking Haj pilgrimage is an act of jihad. In performing the Haj in the desirable way the haji or Haj pilgrim has to make great efforts.
6. According to a tradition, the Prophet of Islam is reported to have said about serving one’s parents: fafihima fajahid (Sahih al-Bukhari). It means, ‘Do jihad with regard to your parents.’ From this we learn that serving one’s parents is an act of jihad.
The Concept of Jihad in Islam
As noted earlier, the word ‘jihad’ is derived from the root juhd, which means ‘to strive’ or ‘to struggle’. It denotes the exertion of oneself to the utmost, to the limits of one’s capacity, in some activity or for some purpose. Thus, the Quran says, “And strive for the cause of God as it behoves you to strive for it.” (22:78)
In the Arabic language, the word ‘jihad’ actually denotes effort or all-out effort for something. Because fighting one’s enemies is also one form of such effort or striving, it is also referred to as a jihad, in an extended sense. However, the actual Arabic word for this is qital, and not jihad.
Fighting with one’s enemies is something that might happen by chance, and only occasionally. However, jihad is a continuous process, and one that animates every day and night of the life of the true believer. It never ceases. This continuous jihad is the ceaseless efforts a believer makes at every moment to abide by, and remain established in, God’s will in every aspect of his life. Such a person does not let any obstructions affect his life, such as the desires of the self, the allure of gain and personal aggrandisement, the power of culture and the pressure of tradition, the promptings of opportunism, the lust for wealth, and so on. All such things are obstacles in leading a God-oriented life and doing good deeds. Overcoming all such obstacles and abiding by the commandments of God is the real jihad, and this is what jihad’s basic meaning is.
There are many references to this jihad in the sayings attributed to the Prophet in the books of Hadith. For instance, in the Musnad of Imam Ahmad, there are several traditions, such as:
1. Al-mujahid man jahada nafsahu lillah
That is, ‘A mujahid is one who struggles with his own self for the sake of God.’ (6/20)
2. Al-mujahid man jahada nafsahu fi sabilillah
That is, ‘A mujahid is he who exerts himself for the cause of God.’ (6/22)
3. Al-mujahid man jahada nafsahu fi taʿatillah
That is, ‘A mujahid is he who struggles with his own self in submission to the will of God.’ (6/22)
This present world is a testing ground. It has been fashioned in such a way that human beings are constantly faced challenging situations that are tests for them. In the course of these tests, people have to face various hurdles. So, for instance, you might face a situation where you are confronted with something, but you feel that acknowledging it might lower your status. You might have in your possession something that actually belongs to someone else and you feel that returning it to its rightful owner would damage your interests. Or, you think that leading a modest life is tantamount to suppressing your desires and ego. At times, you might think that if you do not give vent to feelings of anger and revenge, you would negate yourself. You might hesitate to uphold justice, for fear of losing your popularity. You might feel that if you act in a principled manner, instead of selfishly, you might lose certain facilities. And so on.
In this way, on various occasions you have to repeatedly suppress or deny your desires. If you are willing to sacrifice your ego totally and surmount all hurdles and face all sorts of difficulties and losses but still remain firmly established on the Truth—this is the actual jihad, or the primary meaning of jihad. It is those who remain steadfast in this jihad who will be eligible for Paradise in the Hereafter.
Jihad is essentially a sort of peaceful struggle. One form of this peaceful struggle is dawah, inviting people to God. As mentioned earlier, the Quran (25:52) says:
[…] so do not yield to those who deny the truth, but strive with the utmost strenuousness by means of this [Quran, to convey its message to them].
The jihad that this Quranic verse refers to is not about military action. Rather, it refers to an entirely intellectual and ideological task. In short, it means refuting falsehood and affirming the truth.
In its primary sense, jihad in the form of qital or war, too, is another name for peaceful struggle. That is to say, if an enemy challenges one militarily, even then, one should initially strive, to the utmost extent possible, to respond to this challenge through peaceful means. Peaceful means can be abandoned only when it is no longer possible to use them, when war becomes the only possible option left to respond to war initiated by others.
In this regard, a statement recorded in the Sahih al-Bukhari, and attributed to Aisha, wife of the Prophet, serves as a guiding principle. According to this report, whenever the Prophet was faced with two alternatives, he would always opt for the easier one. This means that whenever he had to choose between two options, he would always leave the harder option and choose the easier one.
This practice, or sunnat, of the Prophet applies not only to the routine affairs of life but also to serious matters such as war, which by its very nature is a difficult option. A study of the life of the Prophet reveals that he never initiated war himself. Whenever his opponents sought to entangle him in fighting, he would always adopt some way to try to avoid it and stave off war. He engaged in war only when there was no other way left. Thus, going by the Prophet’s method, wars of aggression are forbidden in Islam. Islam allows only for defensive war, and that, too, only when it becomes absolutely unavoidable.
In life, one is always faced with the problem of having to choose between two options: peaceful means, on the one hand, and violent means, on the other. The accounts of the Prophet’s life tell us that always, and in every matter, he shunned violence and adopted peaceful methods. His whole life was a successful model of this principle.
Here are some instances that illustrate this point:
1. Soon after being appointed as a prophet, the Prophet of Islam was faced with choosing between the above-mentioned two options—peaceful and violent methods. As a prophet, his mission was to end polytheism and establish tawhid, faith in and surrender to the one God. The Kaaba in Makkah had been established as a centre of tawhid, but at the time when the Prophet received his prophethood, 360 idols had been installed therein. Hence, one might think that the Prophet should first have been instructed in the Quran to purify the Kaaba of idols and remake it as a centre of tawhid, thus advancing his mission. But had this been the case and had he started his work in this way, it would have been tantamount to warring with the Quraysh of Makkah, who enjoyed leadership among the Arabs precisely because they had become the custodians of the Kaaba.
History tells us that at this stage, the Prophet completely abstained from practically purifying the Kaaba of idols, and limited himself only to the ideological dawah of tawhid.
This was, thus, an early example set by the Prophet of choosing a peaceful method over a violent one.
2. Firmly abiding by this peaceful principle, the Prophet carried on his preaching work in Makkah for 13 years. Yet, despite this, the Quraysh turned into his fierce opponents, so much so that their leaders plotted to kill him. Accordingly, they armed themselves with swords and surrounded his house.
This was, in effect, an open challenge to war issued to the Prophet and his companions. However, following God’s guidance, the Prophet decided to avoid armed confrontation. And so, in the silence of the night, he left Makkah and secretly travelled to Madinah. This incident is known in Islamic history as the Hijrah.
The Hijrah clearly exemplifies the choice of a peaceful method, as opposed to a violent one.
3. The ‘Battle of the Trench’, also known as the Battle of Ahzab, is another illustration of this sunnat of the Prophet. On this occasion, a vast number of the Prophet’s opponents from different tribes assembled and marched towards Madinah in order to attack it. This was an open challenge to war on their part. However, in order to avoid war, the Prophet arranged for a trench to be dug around the town. This served as a buffer against the attackers. And so, the Quraysh army, having spent just a few days on the other side of the trench, turned back in retreat.
Making this trench, too, was an example of the Prophet’s choosing a peaceful option, as opposed to a violent one.
4. The Treaty of Hudaybiyyah is also an example of this policy of the Prophet. The Prophet and his companions wanted to enter Makkah and perform the Umrah or minor pilgrimage, but they were stopped by the leaders of Makkah at a place called Hudaybiyyah and were told to go back to Madinah. The Quraysh said that they would not allow them to enter Makkah at any cost.
This was, in other words, a challenge to war on the part of the Quraysh. Had the Prophet proceeded towards Makkah in accordance with his plan of performing the Umrah, it was certain that armed confrontation with the Quraysh would have broken out. However, he ended his journey at Hudaybiyyah. There, he entered into a peace treaty with the Quraysh by unilaterally accepting their conditions, and then he returned to Madinah.
This is yet another clear example of the Prophet choosing a peaceful method over a violent one.
5. This same sunnat or practice of the Prophet was also exemplified in the victory over Makkah. On this occasion, he was accompanied by 10,000 devoted companions. They could certainly have successfully fought the Quraysh. However, instead of using force, the Prophet chose to give a demonstration of force. He did not set out with this 10,000-strong army by making an announcement and then set about fighting the Quraysh and capturing Makkah. Instead, what he did was that he made preparations for the journey in complete secrecy and travelled along with his companions to Makkah and silently entered the town. His entry into Makkah was so sudden that the Quraysh were unable to make any preparations against him, and so Makkah was won over without any bloody confrontation.
This, too, is an example of the Prophet’s choice of a peaceful, over a violent, method.
These examples prove that not only in ordinary conditions, but also in extreme emergency situations, the Prophet adopted the principle of peace, as opposed to war. All his successes are practical examples of this very sunnat of peace.
As indicated above, in Islam peace is the general commandment, while war is only a rare exception, to be resorted to only when it becomes an absolutely unavoidable compulsion. Keep this principle in mind and survey the world today. You will find that the modern age is completely different from the world of ancient times in this regard. In the past, the use of violent methods was a common or general practice, while adopting peaceful methods was an extremely difficult thing to do. However, today the situation has completely changed. In today’s world, violent methods have become completely undesirable and unacceptable. In contrast, peaceful methods are now the only acceptable option. Moreover, today, peaceful methods now enjoy very strong intellectual and practical supports, that have made them extremely powerful and effective.
These supports for peaceful methods are very many—for instance, the right to express one’s views, the possibilities of widely disseminating one’s views using modern means of communications, employing the power of the media in one’s favour, and so on. These modern transformations have made peaceful methods both much more popular, and, at the same time, much more effective, options.
As mentioned earlier, the Prophet’s sunnat or practice was that when peaceful methods are available in practice, these methods alone must be used for the Islamic movement, and violent struggle should be abandoned. In today’s context, because of the vast transformations that have taken place, not only are peaceful methods now freely available, but also, on the basis of the supporting factors mentioned above, they have become much more effective. It can be safely said, without any fear of exaggeration, that today, violent methods have not only become difficult but that they are also completely useless in practical terms. In contrast, peaceful methods are far easier to adopt and also very effective.
No longer is the use of peaceful methods a question of choosing between two possible options—peaceful versus violent. Rather, the peaceful method is now the only possible and effective option. And so, it is absolutely correct to say that violent methods must now be abandoned in practice. They should be, in the language of the Shariah, regarded as mansukh, or abrogated. The followers of Islam are now left, at the practical level, with only one method to adopt—and that, without any doubt whatsoever, is the peaceful method, unless such changes take place in prevailing conditions that once again change the rules that apply in this regard.
It is true that in the past, violent methods were used on some occasions, but these were only a choice compelled by the conditions of the age in which the Prophet lived. But since, as a result of changes in the age, no longer does any such compulsion exist, the choice of violent methods must now be considered to be unnecessary and not in consonance with the Prophet’s sunnat. In the changed conditions of today, only peaceful methods must be used.
An instructive example from recent times in this regard is the life of Mahatma Gandhi. Because of the changes our times have witnessed that are referred to here, it was possible for Mahatma Gandhi to engage in a full-fledged political struggle and succeed. And all of this happened by adhering, from start to finish, to non-violent methods and peaceful activism.
According to a well-known principle of fiqh or Muslim jurisprudence, certain rules can or should be modified to suit the change of time and place. This accepted principle of fiqh demands that when times have changed, one must, if need be, seek the re-application of relevant Shariah commandments in accordance with the prevailing conditions. This principle of fiqh applies as much to issues of war as it does to many other matters. It, too, demands that violent methods should now be abandoned and that peaceful methods alone be considered legitimate according to the Shariah.
Contemporary Self-Styled Jihadi Movements
Today, in many countries across the world, Muslims are engaged in violent movements in the name of jihad. But the fact is that no movement can become a jihad simply because its flag-bearers give it that name. An action can be considered an Islamic jihad only if and when it completely fulfills the conditions that Islam has established for jihad. Without these conditions of jihad being fulfilled, a movement cannot be a jihad in actual fact. Rather, it is what is condemned in the Quran as fasad, or corruption and chaos. Those who are engaged in such activities will not gain the rewards meant for those who participate in jihad. Instead, they will deserve only punishment.
I have discussed in considerable detail in several of my books the various conditions for jihad in the sense of qital or war. Here, I wish to clarify just one point. And that is that jihad in the sense of war does not have the same status as individual actions such as prayer and fasting. Instead, it is an action that has wholly to do with the state.
This status of jihad in the sense of war is very clearly explained in the Quran and Hadith. For instance, the Quran (4:83) ordains that if an atmosphere of fear is created because of an enemy, people should not launch action against it on their own. Instead, they should turn to those who are in authority—that is, people who are in-charge of the government, so that the latter can properly understand the situation and take appropriate and necessary steps.
This Quranic verse tells us that in the event of fear (a situation of war), it is not permissible for members of the general public to act on their own. The only thing they can do is to leave the matter with the rulers and assist the latter in the actions they may take.
According to a hadith report in the Sahih al-Bukhari, the Prophet is said to have declared that the leader is a shield; war is undertaken under his leadership; and protection is procured through him. From this we learn that military defence must always be conducted under the ruler’s leadership. The general Muslim public must obey their rulers in this regard. Lending them their support, they must help them in their efforts.
This issue is one on which there is a consensus among the fuqaha or scholars of Muslim jurisprudence. Perhaps no noted scholar of Muslim jurisprudence has any objection to it. According to the unanimous consensus of the fuqaha, only an established government can declare war. Or, as it is said in Arabic, ar-raheelu lil-imam, that is to say, the declaration of war is the sole prerogative of the ruler. Non-governmental actors, including groups and individual members of the general public, do not have the right to make such a declaration.
The fact of the matter is that war is something that requires great organisation. It is only an established state that can engage in such an organised action. This is why only states can engage in war. It is not at all legitimate for members of the public to initiate war.
In present times, in numerous countries Muslims are engaged in violent confrontation. But almost without exception, these are not Islamic jihads, but, rather, what is called fasad, or anarchy. This is because none of these so-called jihads has been launched by an established government. All of them have been launched and are being carried out by what in today’s parlance are called non-governmental organisations. If some of their so-called jihadi activities enjoy the support of some Muslim government, this support is being provided in a clandestine and undeclared manner. According to the Shariah, a Muslim government has the right to engage in jihad only if it openly and explicitly announces this. According to Islam, it is unlawful for a Muslim government to engage in war without an open declaration of it.
The violent activities presently engaged in by Muslims in the name of jihad in various parts of the world are of two types: guerilla war and proxy war. Both of these are, without any doubt, wholly illegitimate in Islam. Guerilla war is illegitimate in Islam because it is conducted by non-governmental actors, and not an established government. And proxy war is illegitimate because it is engaged in by a government without making an open declaration of hostilities, which is not legitimate in Islam.
Three Types of Jihad
Islamic jihad, properly understood, is a constructive and continuous action or process. It continues uninterrupted throughout the life of a true believer. It has three aspects:
1. Jihad-e Nafs: This is the struggle against one’s negative feelings and improper desires and persevering to remain steadfast on the path that is pleasing to God.
2. Jihad-e Dawah: This is the struggle to convey the message of God to all of humankind and to make utmost effort for this cause with feelings of compassion and well-wishing for all. This is an exalted task, and so it is called jihad-e kabir or ‘great jihad’ in the Quran (25:52).
3. Jihad in the face of enmity: In the past, this jihad was actually a peaceful one, and so it remains now as well.
In this sense, then, jihad is a peaceful struggle, and not a violent one.
There are numerous similar Quranic verses and hadith reports that clearly tell us that the act of jihad is basically a peaceful action. It is a form of struggle for a Divine task that is conducted within peaceful limits. The correct translation of jihad, then, would be ‘peaceful struggle’.
The Importance of Peace
The Quran (4:128) says:
[…] reconciliation is best.
What is reconciliation? It is but another name for the results of peace. Where there is reconciliation, there is peace. Where there is no reconciliation, there is no peace. In this sense, then, it can be said that in Islam peace is the summum bonum, or the greatest good.
Generally, people think that justice is very important. But in fact justice is just a concept or notion. The real question is how this concept should be made a reality. There is only one way for this—and that is through peace. If peace is established, numerous opportunities can be opened up, which, when availed of, can lead to justice. An individual or group can secure justice only when it recognises available opportunities and wisely avails of them.
Across the world today, there are people who are engaged in violent conflicts in order to secure justice. Yet, all of them have failed to get the justice that they seek. There is only one reason for this—and that is because their methods are wrong. In this world, the question of the method you use to get what you want is of utmost importance. Even if your goal or purpose is good, you cannot achieve it if the means you adopt are wrong. This is a universal rule, and no individual or group is an exception as far as this is concerned.
A group or community that seeks justice must first establish peace among its own members. Peace is so important that it must be established at any cost. It can never be established on a bilateral basis. Rather, it is always on the basis of unilateral patience. There is simply no other way to establish peace.
The scheme of nature is based on opportunities. Nature provides us with plenty of opportunities. An atmosphere of hate and violence closes off these opportunities. Hate and violence act as trapdoors. To avail of the many opportunities that nature provides us, one needs to first put an end to hate and violence, to seal these trapdoors. And when this happens, one is deluged with a flood of all sorts of opportunities that one can avail of in order to achieve one’s goals.
These opportunities can help you in both the secular and the religious spheres. They can enable you to engage in efforts to advance educationally and economically. You can also avail of these opportunities for religious purposes—to invite people to God. Engaging in this work of dawah, you can become eligible for Divine reward.
The ‘Beautification’ of Violence
Violence is in every sense a destructive action. The whole of human history is a testimony to the fact that no individual or group has ever secured any positive success through violence. Whenever an individual or group has taken to violence, it has only met with destruction, and not with any real benefit or progress. Yet, despite this, why is it that some people routinely resort to violence? This is because of what is called ‘Satanic beautification’. The Quran (15:39) tells us that Satan has a special method—of portraying a wrong action in seemingly beautiful words. Satan gives strife the name of ‘reform’. In this way, he influences peoples’ minds. He entangles them in the false belief that whatever they are doing is not violence, but, rather, a holy jihad. It is the path to martyrdom that will take them straight to heaven, he tells them.
Falling prey in this way to Satanic ‘beautification’, people take to violence. They engage in wrong actions, and Satan deludes them into believing that what they are doing is good.
There is only one way to save oneself from this Satanic ‘beautification’—and that is, to judge one’s actions in terms of their results. One should realise that violent actions that lead to destruction and that destroy available opportunities are a result of Satan’s ‘beautification’. One must, therefore, implore God for His forgiveness and abandon this path.
Violence in itself is completely undesirable. It can never bring about any reform. It only works to inflict more damage. It always emerges from hate and enmity. One must cleanse one’s mind of hate and enmity, and then Satan will not be able to exercise control over you.
No Reaction in Islam
If you ask people who are engaged in violence, whether as individuals or as members of groups, why they are involved in destructive activities, they will answer that their violence is a ‘natural reaction’. If an individual or group is oppressed or denied justice, they will say, there is bound to be a reaction. And in so reacting, they will explain, they might even go to the extent of taking to arms and even suicide-bombing. If their violence is to end, they will tell you, the oppression by, and injustice of, the other party must first cease. Otherwise, they will contend, their violence will continue. If this reaction of theirs is to stop, they will say, the action of the other party must stop first. There is no use, they will argue, preaching only to them to give up violence.
This philosophy of reaction is completely unnatural. The fundamental error people who argue like this make is that they have adopted a wrong yardstick for their actions. The proper yardstick to evaluate an action is to evaluate the results that emerge from it. A proper or appropriate action is one is that produces beneficial results for the one who engages in it. If it does not produce such results, it must definitely be given up.
Actions can either produce beneficial results or prove to be counter-productive for those who engage in them. There is no third alternative. The best form of action is one that produces positive results. An action that does not produce such results only further magnifies your problem. And magnifying one’s problem is not something that a wise person would want to do.
To emotionally react to something, including someone else’s actions, is, then, not the proper response to it. The proper response is to take stock of the prevailing situation, and, guided by a positive mindset, to plan one’s course of action in a manner geared to producing positive results. Instead of reacting through confrontation and violence, one should respond in a constructive manner. This is the proper Islamic approach and method.
The Lesser and the Greater Jihad
According to a hadith, when the Prophet and his companions returned to Madinah from a battle, the Prophet said: rajaʿna min al-jihad il-asghar ila al-jihad il-akbar. (Kanz al-Ummal) That is, “We have returned from a lesser jihad towards a greater jihad.” In other words, it was an announcement that the believers had come back from temporary jihad to permanent jihad. By temporary jihad is meant defensive jihad, whose necessity might arise only occasionally. By permanent jihad is meant spiritual jihad, which continues non-stop in every person’s life.
This point is narrated in another hadith report in this way: jahidu ahwaʾakum kama tujahiduna aʿdaʾakum. That is, “Do jihad with your desires as you do jihad with your opponents.”
In Islam, fighting against one’s enemy is an extremely temporary act, whose need arises when someone has attacked a Muslim state. This is a defensive jihad, and only some trained people participate in it, not the entire Muslim community. In contrast to this, jihad against one’s nafs or self is something that pertains to an individual, and goes on throughout the life of a true believer.
For instance, it is an act of merit that when a Muslim meets someone, he greets him with the phrase Assalamu Alaikum, which means ‘peace be upon you.’ These words are so lofty that according to a hadith, one who greets another this way is given the good tidings of Paradise. But in this world, where we live along with many other people, we are repeatedly face bitter experiences. On account of this, every person develops complaints against, and negative feelings for, others, which he nurses in his heart. In such a situation, only a person who has already purified his heart of all negative emotions and is genuinely concerned for the well-being of others can genuinely wish Assalamu Alaikum to someone else. This task is very difficult. It requires the enormous efforts that are termed as ‘jihad’.
There is a tradition, recorded in the Sahih Muslim, according to which the Prophet said: Alhamdulillah tamla ul-mizan. This means, “The word Alhamdulillah (‘Thanks be to God’) fills up the scale.”
On the Day of Judgment, one’s good deeds and bad deeds will be weighed on the scale set up by God. According to the above-mentioned tradition, the scale will be filled up for a person who says the word Alhamdulillah. That is, his good deeds will outweigh his bad deeds.
This is no simple matter. To genuinely say Alhamdulillah requires a great intellectual effort. To say Alhamdulillah is to express gratitude for God’s blessings. Man receives these blessings in various forms all the time. Every person receives them without any effort on his part. People generally become habituated to them, because of which they do not consciously recognise them as blessings.
In such a situation, to genuinely say Alhamdulillah requires one to engage in an intellectual jihad. One has to bring into action one’s powers of thinking and bring what is in the subconscious into the conscious mind. One needs to give a new direction to one’s feelings. One needs to struggle as a mujahid, or one who engages in jihad, to awaken one’s intellectual powers. Only after this can he utter such words as can fill up the scale on the Day of Judgment.
Human beings have various kinds of desires and mental states, such as greed, superiority complex, scorn, impatience, anger, revenge, and so on. Often, people remain dominated by these negative states. In addition to this, they get deeply attached to certain things—for example, wealth, fame, their children, and so on.
People oscillate between negative and positive emotions, hate and love. Their thinking is shaped by these emotions. Consciously or otherwise, they mould their lives according to these emotions. Given this, it is undoubtedly an act of jihad for someone to continuously make God the focus of his or her attention and to not deviate from the straight path. This is the immensely difficult task that is called in the Hadith as jihad-e nafs, or jihad against one’s self.
Summary
The Arabic word ‘jihad’ means precisely what is called ‘peaceful struggle’ in English. And what is meant by this peaceful struggle is basically the dawah effort, as the Quran (25:52) says:
[…] so do not yield to those who deny the truth, but strive with the utmost strenuousness by means of this [Quran, to convey its message to them].
This verse refers to communicating the message of the Quran to people through peaceful efforts.
Dawah is essentially an ideological struggle. It is a very wide-ranging effort. It has various demands. When efforts are made to engage in dawah together with all its necessary demands, it becomes a major struggle. This is why dawah work is called ‘jihad’.
Jihad means precisely this. However, sometimes the word ‘jihad’ is also used in an extended sense to denote war. But this is only an extended meaning. The commandments and etiquette of jihad and war are totally different. The actual aim of the jihad of dawah is to transform the other party’s thinking, whereas, in contrast, war aims at the extermination of the other party.
A basic difference between jihad and war is that jihad in the sense of dawah is a general commandment. The dawah jihad has to be engaged in at all times and under all circumstances. The objective of the jihad of dawah is to convey the message of God to all people. Dawah is a constructive action, based on wishing well for others, and this must carry on at all times, in every generation. In contrast to this, jihad in the sense of war is a temporary action, engaged in only when another country militarily attacks a Muslim country. The responsibility for countering this attack does not lie with individuals. Rather, it is the sole responsibility of an established state that makes necessary arrangements for this purpose.
Most Islamic acts are governed by conditions. Jihad in the sense of war is also subject to certain conditions. Present-day Muslim movements that are fighting in the name of jihad do not fulfill these conditions. Merely labeling one’s actions as jihad does not mean that they qualify as jihad. In this matter, it is important to refer to Islamic teachings about jihad, rather than form an opinion through the actions of certain Muslims. Muslims should be judged in the light of Islamic teachings, and not vice versa.

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