Jamal A. Badawi, Ph.D.
Professor of Religious Studies
St Mary’s University, Halifax, NS, Canada
The Qur’anic Arabic term Jihad has been commonly mistranslated as “Holy War”. The original Qur’an is in Arabic, not English. The Arabic equivalent of the English expression “Holy War” is “ Harb Muqaddasah”, an expression which is not found anywhere in the Qur’an or in the authentic sayings of the Prophet of Islam. Even when the Qur’an speaks about defensive war, it never glorifies it or calls it “Holy”, but as something which is inherently hated [2:216-217]. However, as a last resort, it may be better [than doing nothing in the face of aggression or oppression]. Furthermore, the term “Holy War” means, lexically, a fight on behalf of one religion against the other [s]. There is no verse in the Qur’an that condones fighting any peaceful non-Muslim on the sole ground that he/she is a non-Muslim. The Qur’an prohibits compulsion in religion [2:256] and even allows some form of interfaith marriage. For example, a Muslim male may marry a Jewish or Christian woman [5:5]. It may be argued, from religious perspectives that the expression “Holy War” is a contradiction of terms as there is nothing “Holy” about war and its results; bloodshed, destruction and human suffering. It may be a lesser evil, but not holy in itself.
It may be useful then to find out the meaning of “Jihad” in both its literal and religious meanings. Jihad is an Arabic term derived from the root “JHD” which means, literally, to strive or exert effort. The term Jihad and other similar terms derived from the same root are used in the Qur’an [the Muslim holy book] and in Hadeeth [sayings of Muhammad, Prophet of Islam] in three contexts. Firstly, it is used in the context of prayers, doing righteous deeds and self-purification; inward Jihad or struggle against evil inclinations within oneself [Qur’an, 22:77-78; 29:4-7]. Secondly, it is used in the context of social Jihad, or striving for truth, justice and goodness in one’s relationship with other humans. Examples of this usage include the payment of charity to the needy [49:15] and striving to persuade those who reject God’s prophets by referring to the arguments presented in the Qur’an [25:51-52]. Thirdly, it is used in the context of the battlefield, which is often called, more specifically, Qital, which means fighting. That later form; the combative Jihad, is allowed in the Qur’an for legitimate self-defense in the face of unprovoked aggression or in resisting severe oppression, on religious or other grounds [2:190-194]. No other verse in the Qur’an, when placed in its proper textual and historical context, permit fighting others on the basis of their faith, ethnicity or nationality [60:8-9]. The Qur’an recognizes plurality in human societies, including religious plurality, as part of God’s plan in creation [10:19; 11:118-119]. It calls for peaceful and respectful dialogue, not forced conversion whether through war or other forms of coercion [3:64, 16:125, and 29:46].
Combative Jihad is not only restricted in terms of what may or may not justify it, it is also strictly regulated. Prophet Muhammad taught how to behave in the battlefield. As an “hated act”, war should not be resorted to if other peaceful and just means may stop aggression or oppression. Intentions must be pure and no selfish personal or nationalistic agenda should be the driving force. There must be a declaration of war by a legitimate authority after due consultation. No non-combatants should be hurt. All must refrain from looting and unnecessary destruction. Prisoners of war and the injured must be treated humanely.
It should be noted, in the long history of Muslim people, there were times when such conditions and rules were adhered to and other times where there were violations in differing degrees. There were also some misinterpretations of the concept by some scholars, possibly influenced by the circumstances of the world in which they lived. The fact remains, however, that Islamic teachings are not to be driven by either what some Muslims did or are doing today, nor by misinterpretations, past or present. It is a duty of Muslim scholars to clarify these issues to both Muslims and Non-Muslims alike. Some are already doing that in the pursuit of the true Qur’anic vision of a peaceful and just society and world.