This thread explores the birth, early development and current thought on the concept of jihad. I’ve put headings on each section so you can read which ever part interests you the most. If you have any questions or suggestions about certain aspects of what I have written please tell me and I’ll try and expand on it. Being an evidence guy (I don’t trust anyone’s “facts” without sources) I’ve tried to reference my assertions here with an appropriate amount of sources, although in terms of information, it is limited as the subject matter beckons a wider discussion. My aim here was to simply review key aspects and moments within the history of the concept of jihad. See the conclusion for the briefest review of what is written here.
Definition of Jihad:
Of all the Islamic precepts discussed, debated and explored, not to mention ‘most often misquoted, misused and misunderstood’ in the West, none seems to more abused than that of jihad. ‘The word itself means “to strive or struggle in the way of Allâh”, not the more popular but incorrect usage, “holy war”.’ ‘The Arabic verb jahada, from which the noun “jihad” is derived, means to struggle or exert oneself.’ In the Quran, it is often followed by the phrase “in the path of God.”(4:96, 9:20) The image of jihad in the West as a medieval concept violently seeking to dominat and coerce non-Muslims into a state of ‘submission’ or to convert them is steeped in social propaganda dating to the Crusades – not fact. The reality is this religious struggle, known as jihad, ‘need not always refer to fighting.’ It can refer to action of a nonviolent, violent, external and internal nature. What is overlooked is the fact ‘Arabic words deriving from the root jhd… occur forty-one times in the Quran [and] of these, only ten refer clearly and unambiguously to the conduct of war.’ Jihad means struggle, not war let alone holy war. In regards to warfare and violence, there is no such thing ‘as 'holy war' but there is 'just war' to establish justice.’ Thus ‘it is important to remember… that the concept of jihad was not, in the Quran, primarily or mainly about fighting and warfare. The “internal,” “spiritual” jihad can thus claim to be every bit as old as its “external,” “fighting” counterpart.’
As you can see, jihad is the Islamic concept of moral striving and the struggle against impurity of the self AND tyranny of society. Whilst it is also a concept of moral striving for personal purification, it has historically been mostly attributed to military ventures. It’s a theory of just war, if we look at it through the eyes of Western concepts of the same caliber, which has experienced various stages of development and use. ‘Beyond the Qur’an, jihad is the subject of extensive reflection by later Muslim scholars.’ Throughout its history, the idea of jihad has been shaped and reformed, utilized and coopted by political and social forces to suit certain ends and has been viewed by Muslims with varying interpretations and directives of application over time and space. The assertion that it has been a continuous, monolithic concept is unfounded. Militarily, it has become more political than religious; the history of its use by those that followed Muhammad indicates this. In the west today, it has more to do with internal striving than external effort, although the latter is certainly still relevance.
Origins of jihad and Islam.
As Muhammad preached his revelations to the people of Mecca, and gradually garnered a following of believers with a creed of monotheistic, social-justice orientated thought (concepts that clashed entirely with the socio-political structure of the day), the ruling Meccan elite, the Quraysh, became increasingly hostile to the early Muslims. Eventually they were attacked, to the extent that there was an attempt on Muhammad’s life. It was in this climate of tyranny that Muhammad fled (this is known as the Hijra) to Medina, where he established his community.
Pre-Islamic Arabia was governed primarily by tribal customs such as where and how to fight, but these were designed as means of limiting warfare and preserving cultural and social stability rather than establishing a principled system of justice. The only prevailing tendency was one of vengeance - an eye for an eye. Once in Medina, Mohammad’s revelations began to describe the code of conduct that Muslims had to abide within their conflict with the Quraysh. It was religiously ordained within the conceptual framework of the term jihad. In the ensuing war between Muhammad’s ummah (Muslim community) and the hostile Meccan elite, the doctrine further progressed. It was essentially a just war theory, defined by Muhammad’s revelations from God;
“And fight in the way of Allah with those who fight against you and do not transgress bounds [in this fighting]. God does not like the transgressors. Kill them wherever you find them and drive them out [of the place] from which they drove you out and [remember] persecution is worse than carnage. But do not initiate war with them near the Holy Ka‘bah unless they attack you there. But if they attack you, put them to the sword [without any hesitation]. Thus shall such disbelievers be rewarded. However, if they desist [from this disbelief], Allah is Forgiving and Merciful. Keep fighting against them, until persecution does not remain and [in the land of Arabia] Allah’s religion reigns supreme. But if they mend their ways, then [you should know that] an offensive is only allowed against the evil-doers. A sacred month for a sacred month; [similarly] other sacred things too are subject to retaliation. So if any one transgresses against you, you should also pay him back in the same coin. Have fear of Allah and [keep in mind that] Allah is with those who remain within the bounds [stipulated by religion].” (2:190-4)
Mohammad also further defined the concept through his teachings and practical example. For instance, he famously remarked to a warrior boasting of a successful military venture that the ‘greater’ jihad was in fact the struggle against impurity of the self, whilst the ‘lesser’ was the struggle against worldly tyranny.
Muhammad’s use of jihad however did not leave a definitive principle of action – it would take the work of his predecessors for it to be properly defined, and even after it would be open to debate and interpretive application in regard to its precise nature and use.
What seems to be clear from the beginning however, is that the concept of jihad is one that seeks social and personal struggle against tyranny, particularly of that oppression that halts the preaching of Islam. Within the external application of the concept, it seems clear the imperative of jihad is to primarily allow Muslims to practice and spread their religion freely. There is no indication it was designed to be a war code seeking to forcibly spread Arab rule with mass conversions. This fact appears validated by early Muslim history.