Jihad: A word which doesn't mean war against non-Muslims

The Arabic word 'jihad', meaning 'struggle' or 'striving', has gained international notoriety over several decades for its perceived interpretation as a call for Muslims to unite and conduct violent acts against non-Muslims.

Various theologians argue that this interpretation has led to a "misunderstanding" of the word's true meaning, and also fueled militant groups looking to recruit new members and reinvigorated far-right groups pushing an anti-Islamic agenda.

Islamophobia is on the rise in Australia - and religious experts say it's due to the lack of understanding about Islamic teachings and concepts - such as jihad.

So, what does the term actually mean?

A personal struggle for a positive outcome

While jihad is only one term within the Arabic language meaning 'struggle' or 'striving', it's interpretation within Islam is complex.

Associate Professor Mehmet Ozalp believes the word can be defined as a means for Muslim people "to have a personal struggle to achieve a positive outcome".

The Director of the Centre for Islamic Studies and Civilisation at Charles Sturt University, said three central interpretations exist for jihad, derived exclusively from phrases in the Qur’an and various secondary theological texts.

"The first, which Prophet Mohammad called the 'greater jihad' is the struggle of one against his own temptations and inner desires, negative or evil inclinations,” he told SBS.

"The second one is for social activism, trying to correct something that is wrong in society or promote something good. That is going to be a 'struggle' because some people might not want to change, or there are people with an invested interested other than the status quo.

"The last form of jihad is to be involved in a military struggle against a belligerent force that may invade one's country (and) attack civilians or innocent people. But, not every war is jihad."

Much of today's understanding of jihad derive from the Qur’an and hadiths, which are a collection of secondary texts describing the actions, words and habits of the prophet Mohummad, written and circulated after his death.

Many of these secondary texts lay the ground work for various interpretations of jihad as a holy war to convert non-believers to Islam.

In his 1966 publication, The Islamic Law of Nations, Iraqi–born academic Majid Khadduri described jihad as "Islam’s instrument for carrying out its ultimate objective by turning all people into believers, if not in the prophethood of Mohammed, at least in the belief of God".

Khadduri said at the very outset, the law of war, or the jihad, became the chief preoccupation of jurists of an Islamic state.

"The prophet Mohammed is reported to have declared 'some of my people will continue to fight victoriously for the sake of the truth until the last one of them will combat the anti-Christ'," Khadduri said in the book.

"Until that moment is reached, the jihad, in one form or another will remain as a permanent obligation upon the entire Muslim community."

University of Western Australia academic Professor Samina Yasmeen says the "positive" idea of jihad as "struggle for personal purity and piety" prevails within most Islamic societies.

She said this idea resolves that Muslims should behave along the ways the religion tells them too, in being "really good people, kind, submissive to God and making sure that not only they relate to God, but they're also involved with making the community safer and harmonious".

A jihadi war must be justified

Despite consisting of three commonly agreed interpretations of a 'struggle' within Islamic theology, a common belief within western societies is that jihad solely relates to a call for Muslims to conduct an aggressive 'holy war' against non-believers.

This interpretation is exhibited by several militant groups, including Abu Sayyaf in the Philippines.

Since its formation in 1991, Abu Sayyaf has engaged in a ferocious insurgency in an effort to establish an independent province within the Philippines.

The group has conducted a spate of attacks against throughout south-east Asia, including the 2004 SuperFerry 14 bombing where 116 people were killed.

Acclaimed author Mark Bowden claims the group has "only a sketchy notion of Islam, which they saw as a set of behavioral rules, to be violated when it suited them".

Associate Professor Ozalp says the interpretation of jihad as a 'holy war' is being "wrongfully applied" and "misused" by militant groups looking to justify their plight and to recruit new members.

"They name what they do [as] jihad because it becomes easier to recruit people," he said.

"If they can justify the jihad, the moral dilemma is removed. If someone has questions like 'am I really doing the right thing? I’m not supposed to kill people’, they [militant groups] say 'no, what you’re doing is jihad.” They can convince that person, and that person says 'okay, well I’m doing my religion'.

"It doesn’t mean that from an Islamic perspective, that is jihad. Prophet Mohammad himself said some people could die in battle and they could go straight to hell."

He argues that for such a concept, any conflict would need to be "just" and align with several parameters, as mentioned in various theological sources.

Some rules giving justification for a 'just war' reiterate that civilians, people of religion, plants and livestock cannot be killed, and homes and places of worship cannot be attacked.

"There has to be what we classify as a 'just war', a moral reason, a justified reason," he said.

"Prophet Mohammed even said 'do not even wish to meet your enemy, so avoid warfare if you can'.

"Individuals or groups cannot declare war. It has to be a solid, legitimate head-of-state or government. What makes that legitimate is there needs to be a legal justification for a particular war that the judges have to issue proper justification. 

"Fighting in the same society cannot be jihad. Let’s say, an IS follower in Australia decides to carry out an act of violence, thinking they are doing jihad, that is not jihad. They live in the same society, they're attacking the same people in the society."

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Jihad exists within Christianity

The concept of jihad is not exclusive to Islam - it's also exhibited in Christianity.

The term's interpretation within Christianity related to striving against sin, and there are exerts from the Bible speak of striving being associated to to spiritual life. 

Jesus taught about jihad, including the reference which encouraged his followers to “strive to enter in at the narrow gate”.

Other references are exhibited by Jesus' disciples, including in the Bible verse, Peter 3:14, which said: “So then, dear friends, since you are looking forward to this, make every effort to be found spotless, blameless and at peace with him.”

Another example is in Peter 1:5-7, which states: “For this very reason, make every effort to add to your faith goodness; and to goodness, knowledge; and to knowledge, self-control; and to self-control, perseverance; and to perseverance, godliness; and to godliness, brotherly kindness; and to brotherly kindness, love.”

Islamophobia the winner

Many in Australia's Muslim community point to political groups such as Pauline Hanson's One Nation party for adding to a rise of anti-Islamic sentiment, also known as Islamophobia.

Following July's federal election, where One Nation won several senate seats, the party called for a ban on Muslim immigration, an inquiry or Royal Commission to determine if Islam is a religion or political ideology, and also a ban on the Burqa and Niquab in public places.

In regards to jihad, One Nation's page on Islam states: "All may not follow the teachings of the Qur’an, but if jihad is called (applying any methods, including threats, deceit and IS-style warfare, to establish Islam as the dominant power, completely endorsed by Allah and Mohammed) where do their loyalties lie?"

Associate Professor Ozalp said right-wing politics has the power to inflame Islamophobia.

"Islamaphobic circles knit-pick certain events – Muslims doing terrible things or terrorist attacks – and they generalise it onto all Muslims and Islam," he said.

"It prevents proper communication between Muslims and non-Muslims - so they can really address issues of radicalisation, extremism.

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"Thirdly, it weakens the handle of moderate Muslims within the Muslim community, against radicals.

Professor Yasmeen believes open discussion, to express ideas about religion, is the only way forward.

"The fact that people in Australia don't see the nuance differentiation between different groups of Muslims on what jihad is basically reflects the reality of not just non-Muslim communities but also Muslims," she said.  

"When a Muslim very confidently says there is  only one kind of jihad, he or she is giving you a simplified version of jihad. So the non-Muslims have no way of knowing the diversity. 

"There's also a problem that because those who engage in acts of violence are so obvious and dramatic, that when people look at Islam they straight away tie it to acts of violence. Then jihad becomes the military struggle."

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A fairly new concept

Despite stemming from original theological texts and various secondary interpretations calling for the defence of Islam, Professor Samina Yasmeen says today's interpretation of a 'holy war' is a fairly new concept.

She points to the word's application throughout several phases of history - including periods where Arab lands were being colonised, the Crusading period where Christian and Islamic forces fought over ownership of the holy lands, and also modern conflicts in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria.

She argues that the modern "international" call for Muslims to join the fight stems from the writings of Islamic theorist Sayyid Qutb in the 1950s.

Qutb was a leading member of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, whose writings inspired ideas that a conflict may bypass authoritative sanctioning for a 'just war' - giving inspiration and justification to several militant groups to wage aggressive conflict.

Prof Yasmeen believes the first situation where this idea was visible was during the Soviet war in Afghanistan (1979-89), where the US encouraged Afghans in Pakistan and Iran to wage a guerrilla campaign to take back Afghanistan from invading Soviet forces.

"They (US) employed the terminology of jihad, until then jihad wasn't really presented as the main solution to all problems Muslims face,” she said.

"When the Americans encouraged Afghans based in Pakistan to engage in a struggle against the Soviets, we saw an interesting number of other ‘jihadi’ groups being allowed to participate.

"Cross-national jihadi thinking emerged as a result of that. Technology has now made it possible to learn from each other. The trouble is that the acts are so visible, we seem to think that Jihad is about killing people."

Qutb's concept has evolved over the past half-century, and been adapted by numerous militant groups throughout the Middle East, Africa, Europe and south-east Asia, and extended to recent wars in conflicts in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria.

Former al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden made frequent calls for the Islamic world to unite, including a 1996 fatwa urging Muslims to "take part in fighting against the enemy".

Washington Institute fellow Aaron Zelin explains how the idea of a collective jihad is exhibited in the Syrian conflict. 

"In less millenarian ways, many militant Salafists [fundamentalists] are attracted to Syria for more altruistic reasons," he said in a 2013 interview.

"They see their fellow Sunni Muslim brethren being slaughtered by the al-Assad regime, and therefore, want to go to Syria and help their brethren since they believe the Arab states, as well as Western nations, are not helping the Sunnis of Syria."

A recent evolution of the concept has seen a spate of terrorist acts in France, Germany, Turkey and Belgium, apparently organised by militant group IS.

IS recently called on its followers to carry out 'jihad' in Russia.

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