On the multi-layered concept of jihad


On the multi-layered concept of jihad

Jihad has come to acquire a one-dimensional meaning today - one which goes against the basic precepts of Islam. Islam preaches peace, and jihad through war is only a means of achieving this; the greater jihad is the non-violent one, fought within oneself or for social justice, says Asghar Ali Engineer

Mumbai, December 11

Jihad is projected as an integral part of Islam - as an obligatory duty of all Muslims to fight against infidels. To say the least, this is a highly improper representation of the concept of jihad in Islam. The multi-layered concept of jihad has been projected as a one-dimensional concept - to fight with the sword against all infidels. What happened on September 11 has further harmed the prospects of a correct understanding of the concept.

The first step towards such understanding is to situate the concept of jihad in its historical context. One is often historically determined, without an understanding of how one is historically situated.

Qur'anic pronouncements are multi-layered and multi-dimensional - some of these dimensions are historical, some social, other ethical. To understand the Qur'anic verses in a unidimensional manner is to do great injustice to them, and also misapply them - either because of a wrong understanding of the verses, or on account of some selfish motive.

To understand the Qur'an better, it is important to understand the pre-Islamic Arab society. Violence and inter-tribal wars were rampant. Reconciliation and conflict resolution through negotiations was virtually unknown. Though the pre-Islamic Arab society was not exactly immoral, it did have tribal traditions and customs that ignored certain ethical aspects. Peace, though appreciated, was not always practised. As there was no rule of law in pre-Islamic society, things were settled through inter-tribal wars or tribal customs and traditions. This resulted in a great deal of bloodshed.

This prevailing historical situation was not acceptable to Islam, but some of its elements did persist in Muslim behaviour. Also, we have to bear in mind that it was not a modern democratic society, but a tribal society with its own outlook and intellectual understanding. We cannot apply modern norms to the tribal society, nor should we perpetuate its practices in modern times. Islam, while constrained to retain some of it, rejected most of these practices, and provided for transcendent norms and ethical standards. What some Muslims do (and many non-Muslims too) is ignore the historicity of some Qur'anic and Hadith pronouncements, and place them in an ahistorical context, thus causing great deal of misunderstanding about the Islamic ethics of jihad.

A careful study of the Qur'an and Hadith makes it clear that the concept of jihad is far above mere violence and war. Unfortunately, Islamic history was fraught with wars for several reasons (certainly not for religious reasons), hence the unidimensional concept of jihad. The Sufis, who kept themselves aloof from power-struggles and attempts by rulers at territorial expansions, realised the dangers of misapplying the concept of jihad. They thought it necessary to emphasise the other social and moral aspects of jihad. It is for this reason that they described jihad bi al-sayf (i.e. war with sword) as jihad-e-asghar (i.e. small war), and jihad to control one's greed and selfish desires as jihad-e-akbar i.e. great jihad. This was important because Muslim leaders and their cohorts were ignoring the moral precepts and ethical constraints imposed by Qur'anic pronouncements to fulfil their greed for power and territory.

The Sufis had based the concept of the great jihad on the basis of Qur'anic pronouncements, and had not formulated a precept of their own. Jihad, as is well known to any student of the Arabic language, means to make utmost efforts. One must look at the authentic Qur'anic dictionary Mufradat al-Qur'an by Imam Raghib Asfahani (Urdu translation by Sheikh Muhammad Abduh Firozpuri, Lahore, 1971).

Imam Raghib first discusses the meaning of the root word jahd, which means working hard or making utmost efforts, and juhud, which means one's utmost capacity. The two together would mean making utmost efforts to one's best capacity. Then he goes on to say that jihad wa al-mujahidah means to spend one's utmost capacity in defending oneself in the face of an enemy. Then he divides jihad in three categories: 1) to fight against enemies, i.e. unbelievers; 2) against shaitan (Satan) and 3) against one's own self, i.e. one's own greed and selfishness.

Imam Raghib also maintains that the Qur'anic verse 22:78 ("And strive hard for Allah with due striving. He has chosen you and has not laid any hardship in religion.") comprises all these three categories. The Qur'an also says, "And strive hard in Allah's way with your wealth and your lives. This is better for you, if you know." (9:41). One also finds in the Qur'an, "Those who believed and migrated (from their homes), and strove hard in Allah's way with their wealth and their lives, and are much higher in rank with Allah. And it is these that shall triumph." (9:20)

It will be seen that all these verses in the Qur'an do not use the word jihad in the sense of war, but in the sense of striving with wealth and one's own life. Muslims were a persecuted lot in Mecca, and many of them faced severe persecution, and strove hard in the way of Allah with their own lives, and those who were wealthy, spent all their wealth for that cause. Thus, it was all about suffering and striving. This is real jihad. Nowhere in the Qur'an is jihad used either in the sense of war, or for seeking revenge. Seeking revenge amounts to using concept of jihad for selfish ends, even if the revenge or retaliation is for one's group or community.

In Hadith literature, we find a Hadith, which prohibits Muslims from seeking revenge. Thus in Sahih al-Bukhari, we find the Hadith of Miqdad ibn Amr al-Kindi. Amr al-Kindi asked the Holy Prophet (peace be upon him), "Suppose I met one of the infidels and we fought. He struck one of my hands with his sword, cut it off and then took refuge in a tree and said, 'I surrender to Allah'. Could I kill him, O Messenger of Allah, after he had said this?" Allah's Messenger (PBUH) said, "You should not kill him." Al-Miqdad said, "O Allah's Messenger, but he had cut off my hands, and then he had uttered those words." Allah's Messenger (PBUH) replied, "You should not kill him, and you would be in his position where he had been before uttering these words." Thus it will be seen that in matters of war also, Islam teaches higher morality, the essence of which is not to seek revenge or retaliate. This is what I call the transcendent morality.

In matters of jihad, Imam Raghib quotes an interesting Hadith, which says, "Fight your desires as you fight your enemies." The Sufi concept of jihad-i-akbar i.e. the great jihad is to fight ones own vain desires has been based on this Hadith. According to the Qur'an, man's life is a constant struggle in the way of Allah, be it through sword or through one's hands or one's tongue. Thus there is a Hadith which says, "Strive against unbelievers with your hands and your words."

Thus this constant jihad, constant struggle in the way of Allah implies multi-layered efforts. The believers have been charged, by the Qur'an, with the important mission of spreading good and fighting evil (amr bi'l ma`ruf wa nahi 'an al-munkar). In this mission, a believer has to engage himself continuously, controlling his own desires, spreading justice, equality and compassion with wisdom ('adl - justice, ihsan - benevolence, rahmah- compassion and hikmah - wisdom are concepts of goodness in the Qur'an which are repeatedly stressed).

As it is duty of believers to engage in spreading what is good, it is also their duty to engage in containing what is evil. Thus, a believer has to constantly strive to fight against oppression, injustice, iniquity and cruelty. All these result in spreading evil on earth. The world, as we all know, is full of injustices and oppression, and it will be a lifetime mission of a believer to contain them. This is real jihad.

A fight is not always with weapons. It could equally be through moral and intellectual means - through persuasion, wisdom, spreading the good word, and setting good examples. It is for this reason that the Prophet has said that the ink of a writer's pen is more sacred than the blood of a martyr. The word written with ink is lasts longer than a martyr's blood. The Qur'an says, "And fight in the way of Allah against those who fight against you but be not aggressive. Surely Allah loves not the aggressors." (2:190) One has to strictly observe these conditions in jihad.

The noted Urdu poet Iqbal has beautifully described the meaning of jihad in day-to-day life in one of his couplets as follows:

Yaqin muhkam 'amal payham muhabbat fatihi 'alam
Jihad-e- zindagani mein yeh hain mardon ki shamshiren

(For a man with strong inner conviction, constant efforts and universe-winning love are the real weapons in the jihad of life.)

The meaning of jihad is not complete without the Qur'anic injunction for believers (men as well as women) to enforce good, and contain evil, and this is the lifelong mission of all the believers. To achieve this objective, believers have to use their persuasive skills, wisdom and goodliness. One cannot enforce good with sword. Goodness prevails only with goodness. What the Qur'an calls maw`izah hasanah (i.e. exhortation with goodness) and hikmah (wisdom) is more lasting than enforcing something forcibly.

The Prophet (PBUH) always tried all possibilities of negotiated settlement, and resorted to war in self-defence only if all efforts to find a negotiated settlement failed. The best example of this is what is known in the history of Islam as sulh-i-Hudaibiyah. He even accepted terms, which were not apparently favourable to Muslims to avoid human slaughter and in the interest of peace. The terms of peace appeared to be even humiliating to his senior companions.

We find mention of this in Sahih al-Bukhari. Abu Wa'il narrated, "We were in Siffin and Sahl ibn Hunayf stood up and said, 'O people! Blame yourselves! We were with the Prophet (PBUH) on the day of Hudaybiyyah, and if we had been called to fight, we should have fought.' But Umar ibn al-Khattab came and said, 'O Allah's Messenger! Aren't we in the right and our opponents in the wrong?' Allah's Messenger said, 'Yes'. Umar said, 'Then why should we accept hard terms in matters concerning our religion? Shall we return before Allah judges between us and them?' Allah's Messenger (PBUH) said, 'O ibn al-Khattab! I am the Messenger of Allah and Allah will never degrade me.'"

Sulh-Hudaibiyuyah is of fundamental significance in the interest of peace. Peace is the real objective, and war only a necessary evil in certain unavoidable situations. Also, it is a wrong assumption that it is duty of the Muslims to fight against all non-believers or kafirs. The Qur'an itself mentions treaties with unbelievers, and according to the Qur'an and Hadith, it is the duty of all Muslims to honour all treaties and alliances with non-believers. All such alliances must be respected by the Muslims as long as they are honoured by non-Muslims.

Thus we find again in Sahih al-Bukhari, "The pagans were of two kinds as regards their relationship with the Prophet (PBUH) and the believers. Some of them were those with whom the Prophet was at war, and used to fight against, and they used to fight him; the others were those with whom the Prophet (PBUH) made a treaty, and neither did the Prophet fight them, nor did they fight him.

Those who work for social justice are as good as mujahideen i.e. warriors in the way of Allah. Thus we find in Sahih al-Bukhari: The Prophet (PBU) said, "The one who looks after and works for a widow and for a poor person is like a warrior fighting for Allah's cause, or like a person who fasts during the day and prays all the night."

Thus any one striving for social justice and working to ameliorate the plight of the poor is like a warrior in the way of Allah. Thus, those who spend their own money or collect from others and spend for the poor in the way Allah is no less than a mujahid. According to the Qur'an, zakat money is to be spent on poor, widows, needy, paying off the debt of indebted and for liberation of slaves. These are all weaker sections of society. It is thus a great merit to help these poorer and weaker sections and to work for them is as meritorious as waging jihad in the way of Allah. One should wage war against poverty in all possible ways - by increasing production, by ringing about redistribution of economic resources and by not allowing wealth to be circulated only among the rich. (59:7)

Even when first permission was given to fight in the Qur'anic verse 4:77, it was basically to defend the rights of weak from among the old men, women and children. In some extreme situations, it might mean fighting a war, but it could be a fight in various other ways, particularly in a democratic and modern society. It could be through democratic movements or parliamentary debates also. In those days, when the holy Qur'an was being revealed, such possibilities did not exist. Today, we will have to creatively re-interpret such Qur'anic provisions as above.

The 'Ulama and jurists in early Islam had divided the world in darul harb and darul Islam. The countries where Muslims could not enjoy the freedom of their faith, and were persecuted were declared by the Muslim jurists as darul harb. And it was thought necessary for Muslims to wage war (jihad) in such countries. However, it is important to note that the Hanafi jurists had also created a third category of darul aman i.e. those countries where Muslims, though in minority yet, could enjoy freedom of religion and were not persecuted because of their religious beliefs. India was always considered as darul aman by Islamic jurists, as Muslims here were not persecuted for their religious beliefs. India was always a pluralist society.

But in today's conditions when, democracy prevails, even if Muslims are persecuted in any country or any place, democratic remedies will have priority over waging war. Terrorism which involves shedding the blood of innocent people, and can never be elevated to the category of jihad in any sense of the Qur'anic term.

Also, a few individuals cannot get together and decide to wage jihad. The decision to wage jihad can be taken only by a properly constituted Islamic government ensuring that there is no other way left but to declare jihad. This can be done after due deliberation, and examining all possible consequences, including loss of human lives. In the modern democratic world such decisions can be arrived at only by a duly-elected government. And as far as the Qur'anic injunction on jihad is concerned, it should not in any case involve a selfish motive like grabbing the territory of others or consolidating any group's rule, but should be strictly for higher goals, like justice and fighting persecution.

It should also be noted that peace is far more fundamental to Islam than war. War at best could be an instrument of establishing peace in some exceptional circumstances, or for defending against aggression. It is unfortunate that some youth come together, and decide that there is no way out but to use violence, and call it jihad. These youth ultimately shed a great deal of innocent blood, without achieving the ultimate objective. Such extremist violence results in more in-group fighting. Such extremist violence is not jihad.

In a modern world, real jihad is to use democracy and democratic institutions to realise the noble goals for which the Prophet of Islam (PBUH) struggled all his life.

(The author is a well-known expert of Islamic affairs, and heads the Institute of Islamic Studies, Mumbai.)


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