Wednesday, July 19, 2017

So what DOES jihad mean?

Part I: What the Quran says.
By Michael Isenberg.

I confess I’m not very fond of Linda Sarsour. The Brooklyn-born activist, former head of the Arab-American Association of New York and co-chair of the 2017 Women’s March, makes me think of Delores Umbridge in a hijab. In my humble opinion, her speeches have as many laughs in them as a dictionary. Or maybe it just bugs me that despite her dearth of humor, she’s actually a rather gifted speaker, but she's chosen to put those gifts in the service of causes with which I disagree.

In any case, her recent address to the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA) set off a firestorm of controversy because of her call for “jihad” against the Trump administration. While writing this post, I subjected myself to the torture of listening to her speech in its entirety so that you, my dear reader, wouldn’t have to, and could focus merely on the relevant section:

There was a man who once asked our beloved prophet Muhammad, salla Allahu alayhi wa sallam [May the prayer and peace of Allah be upon him], he said to him, “What is the best form of jihad or struggle?” And our beloved prophet Muhammad, salla Allahu alayhi wa sallam, said to him, “A word of truth in front of a tyrant ruler or leader, that is the best form of jihad,” and I hope that we, when we stand up to those who oppress our communities, that Allah accepts from us that as a form of jihad that we are struggling against tyrants and rulers not only abroad in the Middle East or in the other side of the world, but here in these United States of America where you have fascists and white supremacists and Islamophobes reigning in the White House.

Since this is a blog about Islam, I’ll leave aside the questionable proposition that the White House is crawling with fascists, white supremacists, and Islamophobes, and whether they “reign” over us, and confine myself to the stuff about jihad.

In response to conservative critics who accused her of inciting violence, Ms. Sarsour claimed that her remarks were taken out of context. “I sent not a call to violence,” she wrote in the Washington Post, “but a call to speak truth to power and to commit to the struggle for racial and economic justice.” In all fairness, the text of the speech seems to back her up. But conservatives remain skeptical. During an appearance on Fox Business last week, Dr. Zuhdi Jasser, founder of the American Islamic Forum for Democracy, said in no uncertain terms that “jihad” means “armed struggle.” He called Ms. Sarsour “dishonest” for saying otherwise.

This debate—what does “jihad” really mean?—flares up from time to time; Ms. Sarsour merely set off the latest round. Often translated “holy war,” "jihad" is an Arabic word whose literal meaning is “struggle.” But whether that is necessarily an armed struggle against an enemy, or could be a struggle to speak truth to power, or even an internal struggle against our own personal demons, well…it’s complicated.

As with everything in Islam, the jumping off point is the Quran.

It’s well known that there are many verses in the Quran which command Muslims to make war on unbelievers. But these verses generally use the word “qatl” rather than “jihad.” “Qatl” means to battle or fight, and is related to the word for “kill.”

So where does “jihad” appear in the Quran? According to the online concordance at, it appears forty-one times in various forms (jihad, jahid, tujahidun, etc.). The majority of these are ambiguous as to what jihad actually is. Verse 61:11 is typical: “Believe in Allah and His Messenger and struggle (tujahidun) in the Way of Allah with your wealth and your soul.” The verse doesn’t actually say what the “Way of Allah” is. I suppose you could make the argument that since other verses say to fight the unbeliever, that’s the Way of Allah. Armed conflict. But you could equally say that fasting, or the haj, or abstaining from wine, or any of the other privations Islam imposes on its adherents is the Way of Allah, and therefore what jihad is all about. Or all of the above.

In another half a dozen verses, jihad is clearly a conflict between Muslims and non-Muslims. For example, 25:52, “And do not obey the unbelievers, and struggle (jahid) against them with a Great Jihad.” But the text doesn’t specify whether it requires armed conflict, or whether a vigorous debate would suffice.

However, there are two passages, 2:216-218 and 9:14-16, which bring the words “qatl” and “jihad” together. The passages are similar in how they use the two terms; in the interest of space I'll just quote the second one:

Fight them [qatiluhum] and Allah will torment them at your hands and disgrace them and make you victorious over them and soothe the breasts of the believers, and take away wrath from their hearts. And Allah turns away from sin those whom he wants. And Allah is knowing and wise. Do you reckon that Allah would leave you when he doesn’t yet know who among you would struggle (jahadu) and who would not take anyone for a friend besides Allah, and His Messenger, and the faithful.

It would seem here that we finally have a passage that uses the word “jihad” in terms of all out sword-clanging, blood-flowing, kill-or-be-killed holy war. Albeit if someone really wanted to be stubborn about it and continue to insist that “jihad” means struggle with oneself, they could claim that the second half of the passage is a different topic from the first half.

The bottom line then, is the Quran is not a lot of help in understanding jihad. There are a couple places where it definitely seems to mean a clash of arms, but most of the time, it’s ambiguous, leaving the door open to other interpretations.

Despite pride of place, however, the Quran is not the only source of authority in Islam. There’s also the Hadith, the collected sayings of Muhammad. I cover what they have to say about jihad in Part II of this series.


Michael Isenberg writes about the Muslim world, medieval and modern. His forthcoming novel, The Thread of Reason, is a murder mystery that takes place in Baghdad in the year 1092 and depicts the battle for the Muslim soul between those who embrace science and tolerance, and those who would throw in their lot with mysticism and persecution instead.

Photo credit: AP

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