Origin of “Jihad”

In Islam there is the concept of striving toward perfection. The Quran says that a good Muslim must “strive for the cause of Allah.” In Arabic this striving or struggle is called jihad. Jihad originally meant striving with great intensity. But this striving was meant to be an internal struggle to become the perfet Muslim that God–Allah–wanted each Muslim to be. Some scholars have even argued that when the Quran speaks of conquering unbelievers with jihad, it is saying to persuade them with the force of argument, and thus jihad means nonviolent activism. This is why numerous notable Islamic clerics have said that the prophet Jesus also instructed his followers to wage jihad.

Islamic scholars have always debated the meaning of the thirty-five references to jihad in the Quran. But as medieval Muslims became engaged in a series of difficult wars, the word jihad began to be used to denote the struggle to prevail militarily in place of the original word for such a physical battle, qital. All successful leaders understand the importance of words, and it seemed a good Muslim would fight harder if the struggle were called jihad rather than qital. After the death of Mohammed, Muslims began speaking of two kinds of jihadal jihad al akbar, greater jihad, and al jihad al asghar, lesser jihad. Greater jihad was the struggle to be a pure and good person, while lesser jihad referred to armed struggle.

Mark Kurlansky, Nonviolence


6 thoughts on “Origin of “Jihad”

  1. This reminds me of something I read (and I wish I could remember where) that reported on how American personnel in the Middle East were to try and change the language when talking to locals. The use of “jihadists” instead of “terrorists” was specifically prohibited, as I recall, because most people interpreted it as a compliment, and painting the enemy in a good light is usually a bad idea. Who knew?

    Also, any use of the term “crusade” was right out, because for some *strange* reason the average Muslim of the Middle East gets very nervous when armed Christians from the West start using the word “Crusade.”

  2. That may have been an original meaning (or interpretation), and it may be the meaning for some sects today, but no doubt the concept of a violent jihad is real. There are other scriptures in the Quran that do call for violence, and the doctrine (if you can call it that) of violence against the “infidels” is taken seriously.

  3. What Mark might want to consider is that it was the Crusades of Christians cleared a way with their violence for clerics to begin to shift the meaning of the word from a war of ideas to a war of swords and spears.

    with that said, obviously the word seems to take on a much different meaning today and I’m not dismissing that, neither is Kurlansky.

  4. @jon: I said nothing of the Bible. I only was bringing up that violent jihad is a true and present ideal.

    @Zach: “What Mark might want to consider…”, it is fine to address me directly. 😉

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