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The Islamic World: Past and Present What is This? Accessible coverage of Islam from the seventh century to the twenty-first century


    Generally referring to an endeavor toward a praiseworthy aim, the term jihad has many meanings. Muslims use the term to refer to battles within themselves or to efforts to improve the Islamic community. In the West, jihad is often translated as “holy war.” In books on Islamic law and in the Qur'an, the word often refers to armed conflict in defense of Islam. This “jihad of the sword,” however, is only one of four types of struggle. Muslims can also wage jihad of the heart, the tongue, and the hand, which involve purifying the inner self, supporting good deeds, and halting harmful actions. Many Muslims use the term to refer to a struggle against some type of undesirable situation, much as an American might use the phrase “war on drugs” or “war on poverty.” This article focuses on the military aspects of jihad.

    Historical Concepts of Jihad

    Various religious beliefs and historical circumstances have led to the development of the different meanings of jihad. Early interpretations are rooted in the statements of the Qur'an and hadith, while later ones are derived from the reasoning of Islamic thinkers.

    Martial Origins.

    The concept of jihad arose from the climate of war that pervaded pre-Islamic Arabia. Local tribes fought constantly; their battles were halted only by the occasional truce. Many Qur'anic verses refer to war and to the obligation of Muslims to fight unbelievers in combat. These verses discuss such matters as who can claim exemption from military service, whether one should fight during the holy months, how prisoners should be treated, and when and how one should make peace. The Qur'an states that harsh punishments in the hereafter await Muslims who refuse to fight. Those killed in battle, however, enjoy special privileges in paradise.

    The Qur'an has puzzled many with its conflicting messages on jihad. Scholars have expressed confusion about whether one should fight only if attacked, or if one should initiate battle with unbelievers. Some early verses suggest the first interpretation, but later ones express the opposite view. In the second surah, for example, Muhammad states that Muslims should “aggress not: God loves not the aggressors.” In surah 9, he exhorts Muslims to “slay the idolaters wherever you find them,” and to “lie in wait for them at every place of ambush.” Partly in response to the Christian Crusades, medieval Islamic thinkers decided that the verses commanding Muslims to fight the unbelievers in all circumstances overruled those that justify only defensive warfare.

    Medieval Interpretations.

    Islamic jurists developed a doctrine of jihad in the few hundred years following the death of Muhammad . They based these ideas on the Qur'an, the hadith, and the actions of the early caliphs. The doctrine states that there should be a single Islamic nation that rules the entire Muslim community, or ummah/ This nation is referred to as dar al-Islam, or Land of Islam, where Islamic law is supreme. A second category of nations is dar al-sulh, or the realm of treaty, where rulers have agreed to protect Muslims and their allies and pay a tribute acknowledging peace with dar al-Islam. Everything that lies outside the dar al-Islam and dar al-sulh is considered dar al-harb, or Land of War.

    In this view, the ummah has a collective duty to wage jihad to expand the dar al-Islam. A caliph organizes and leads the struggle. If too few people take part in the struggle, the entire ummah is considered sinful. For his part, the caliph must ensure that the ummah attacks the enemy at least once a year after the conquests have ended to keep the concept of jihad alive. A group of Shi'i Muslims, known as Twelvers, believes that only a rightful imam may lawfully lead an expansionist jihad, although no such imam has existed on earth since 873 . All Muslims, however, consider a defensive jihad just. As with the Arabian tribes that fought around the time of Muhammad , warriors are expected to follow the Islamic code that prohibits them from killing children, women, clergy or religious authorities, and old people.

    Believers who wage jihad must meet certain conditions before they may lawfully attack unbelievers. They must first request that the enemy convert to Islam. If the enemy agrees, the Muslims may not attack, but must ask the enemy to move to the holy city of Medina. If the enemy refuses to convert, the leader of jihad must ask the people to agree to pay a tax to show their submission to Islam while remaining free to practice their own faith. The Qur'an limits this option to People of the Book, specifically Christians and Jews, who practice monotheism according to their own holy scriptures. If the enemy refuses to convert or pay the tax, Muslims must engage them in battle.

    Some Muslims feel that the concept of jihad excludes the possibility of peace. Medieval doctrine, however, follows the example set by Muhammad , who made a truce with the Meccan Arab armies. Some Islamic schools of law argue that a truce must end after a certain period of time, lasting for no longer than ten years. Others suggest that the caliph has the right to break or extend the truce whenever he wishes. All medieval writings, however, emphasize the importance of keeping the idea of jihad alive.

    Modern Variations.

    Since the 1800s, several new and competing interpretations of jihad have arisen. The so-called apologetic interpretation of jihad developed in response to Western colonialism in the Muslim world. This view of jihad states that one may fight only to resist persecution or aggression. The first Muslim to propose this theory was the Indian thinker Sayyid Ahmad Khan .

    Ahmad Khan developed his concept of jihad in response to the distrust the British felt for Muslims, who had taken part in rebellions against their rule. Because Islamic Mughals had ruled the region before the British, the officials feared that Muslims would use the concept of jihad to try to overthrow them. They began favoring Hindus over Muslims in the government, granting them key positions. In order to ensure employment for educated Muslims, Ahmad Khan argued that the Qur'an obliged only believers to participate in jihad to protect themselves against active oppression. Because the British allowed Muslims to practice their faith, jihad against them remained prohibited.

    Some Muslims developed other views on jihad to adapt it to European standards of war. The modernist approach argues that the Qur'an and hadith do not divide the world into dar al-Islam and dar al-harb. A true jihad aims only to protect lives, property, or honor, and should not be fought to conquer peaceful nonbelievers. Those who support the modernist view feel that jihad should serve as a form of defensive struggle not unlike the “just war” of Western societies.

    A third approach arose as a reaction to apologetic and modernist interpretations. The revivalist view argues that modern theorists have drained the life and vitality from the concept of jihad. Revivalist thinkers argue that Muslims should wage jihad against rulers who turn their societies away from the word of God. They do not advocate the enforcement of Islam, stating that the Qur'an calls for freedom of worship, but urge Muslims to topple regimes that lack religious principles.

    The most radical revivalists call for the overthrow of corrupt governments within the Islamic world itself. Muslim law, however, prohibits revolt against Islamic rulers except in certain circumstances, such as when a leader abandons his beliefs. Many Muslims throughout history have accused their rulers of becoming heretics, or unbelievers, in order to justify waging jihad against established regimes.

    Jihad in Practice

    Throughout Islamic history, Muslims have waged jihad for a number of reasons. In the mid-1900s, many groups formed to promote the overthrow of their own governments, which were considered tyrannical and, therefore, un-Islamic. Jihad against Israel and its supporters has become popular, as well as the overthrow of regimes that some Muslims consider to be secular.

    Functions of Jihad.

    The concept of jihad serves several purposes for Muslims. Most importantly, it motivates them to fight against nonbelievers and to spread their faith. This is based on the belief that only Islam will allow people to live in peace and harmony. To provide an incentive for Muslims to fight, the Qur'an states that those killed in jihad will enjoy certain privileges in the afterlife. Becoming a martyr erases one's sins, enabling an individual to enter heaven and have a place near the throne of God.

    Islamic leaders also use jihad to justify their reign. This function became important after 750 , when the Islamic empire split into several factions, each under a different caliph. Each of these rulers waged war against unbelievers to show himself as a true leader of the Islamic community. Islamic leaders often cited the rules of jihad to show that their policy towards foreigners met the standards outlined in the Qur'an.

    Jihad Organizations and Mujahidin.

    Since the mid-1900s, groups in several Middle Eastern countries have included the word jihad in their names to indicate their willingness to battle their own governments or those they deem heretical. Lebanon's Organization of the Islamic Jihad is probably the best known. It has claimed responsibility for kidnappings and attacks against Westerners and Israelis. This title, however, is just one of the names used by a Lebanese group, Hizbullah, so that it can deny taking part in such activities and thus shield itself from retaliation by Western military forces.

    Other groups include the Islamic Jihad Movement based in Palestine and Egypt's Islamic Jihad Community. The former emerged in 1987 and takes part in violent attacks against Israel. The latter, formed in 1979 , attempts to overthrow Middle Eastern leaders whom the group sees as betraying Islamic principles in favor of Western ideas and lifestyles. In the mid-1980s, the organization splintered into different groups.

    Groups whose names contain the term mujahidin, “those who wage jihad,” have also arisen in some countries. Iran's mujahidin emerged in the 1960s to overthrow the regime of Reza Shah Pahlavi . Consisting mainly of students and intellectuals, the organization called for freedom of the press, elected councils in towns and workplaces, and complete equality for all citizens. Thousands died in Ayatollah Khomeini's Islamic Revolution in Iran in the early 1980s, but those who survived continued to fight against the Iranian government.

    In Afghanistan, regional groups united under the title of Mujahidin arose to expel the Soviet occupiers in 1979 . After the Soviets were defeated in 1989 , the various Mujahidin leaders engaged in civil war as they competed for control of the country. This continued until an extremist group called the Taliban (meaning “students”) arose in 1994 . Some of the Mujahidin chiefs formed the Northern Alliance and attempted to overthrow the Taliban. On September 11, 2001, the United States accused the Taliban of harboring terrorists involved in the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. With the help of the Northern Alliance, the United States drove the Taliban out of the capital and helped establish a new government in Afghanistan. See also Afghanistan; Arab-Israeli Conflict; Hamas; Hizbullah; Iran; Khomeini, Ruhollah al-Musavi; Mujahidin; Muslim Brotherhood.

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