Explaining Jihad: Speaking Truth to Power
June 27, 2007 § 10 Comments
Looking to the title of this article I presumed that some, wading through the vast sea of Google searches, may have crossed this title and felt appalled that someone would attempt to explain jihad. I considered this title for nearly a day and eventually decided that, Explaining Jihad was the best fitting title for what we are about to indulge here. I will briefly address the classic tenor of jihad and move on to address the intentions and action that purport to be jihad. And though I may meet a substantial amount of opposition in this effort, I may likewise, by the mere ratiocination of this article’s claim, make a reasonable case in the minds of many.
Islam is a religion that has relied on the authenticity of its teachings as one of its main points of reasoning. Whether that authenticity is in divine writ or the recorded traditions of its prophet (may peace be upon him) this authenticity must remain intact in order to protect the deep-seeded roots within the hearts and minds of Muslims. However, today it is less known to the general population that the traditional method to protect our religion and our hearts from corruption was through a successive transmission of authenticity. In the past the transmission of knowledge was established through a chain of authority. Typically, if you were a a student of an Islamic scholar you may or may not be given the authority to transmit and expound on his or her (there are many accounts of female scholars in Islam) work. However if one has been given permission to teach based on the Islamic scholar’s teachings this position creates authenticity and a formidable position against opponents.
Unfortunately, in our present day society the malaise of authority and subsequently, the post-colonial condition of Muslim countries has created an opportunity for sinister developments with destructive consequences. One of these consequences is the perversion of the Islamic concept, jihad. For the record jihad taken from its triconsonantal root (J – H – D) means “to struggle” or “exert effort”.  It is this meaning that is at the heart of each use in the Qur’an. The classic Islamic scholar Al-Jurjani (d. 816/1413) in his Ta’rifat wrote that, jihad is “inviting to the truth” (al-dua’ ila al-haqq). This position is also supported by the Prophet himself (peace be upon him) who said,
“The greatest jihad is speaking truth to unjust power.” 
In fact in Islamic disquisition, there are two manner of jihad, the lesser and the greater. These two types have been discussed by American Islamic scholar Hamza Yusuf, in the appendix (part B) of his translation of Imam Tahawi’s al-Aqidah al-Tahawiyyah, where he writes,
“The lesser jihad entails calling others to the truth and defending oneself from those who oppose that call; it also means using state-sanctioned martial forces to move from a condition of disequilibrium to one of harmony and balance. The greater jihad is the internal struggle with one’s own self in opposing its appetites and impulses until it is in submission to God.”
In this brief discourse, Imam Hamza also refers to a verse of the Qur’an which has been the axon of discussion and a classic debate concerning the legitimacy or illegitimacy of an armed struggle. Historically and in modern times it is used to encourage both the extremists aggrandizing their respective position seeking legitimacy, such as in the case of suicide bombing.  And also by the traditionalists who attempt to isolate extremist’s arguments and anchor them outside the context of legitimacy in Islam. Thus marginalizing the argument of the extremists in order to prevent senseless violence. The verse reads,
“and that you struggle (tujahiduna) in the way of God with your possessions and your lives.” (Qur’an, 61:011)
Imam Hamza also points out that although there are two types of jihad, there are also “varying levels” of jihad as well. And this he notes is one of the outstanding features of traditional Islamic exegetical and theological discourse. For example, he refers to a excerpt from the noted theologian and exegete, Fakhr al-Din al-Razi (d. 606/1210) who states,
“Jihad, after these two basic divisions [i.e., the greater and lesser jihads], is of three types: a person vis a vis his own self, which involves suppressing his ego and denying it its destructive lusts and appetites; a person vis a vis the generality of humanity, which involves not craving their possessions, and it involves being compassionate and merciful with them; and finally, a person vis a vis the world which involves taking it as a provision for the Hereafter. Hence, there are five types of jihad.”
In addition, I think that it must be noted that these references are not apocryphal text or aberrant views of sectarian Muslims. No, these scholars are in fact the classic scholars of the Qur’an and Sunnah. With that said, I believe I have covered the classic tenor or the usage of jihad as promised. And that my point concerning the misappropriation of the word jihad has been made and if not then at least I have proved that jihad in its literal sense has a broad spectrum of implications.
Therefore, jihad does not mean “holy war”.  Nor can persons or leaders of groups make the call to Muslims to defend truth, as we previously discussed is one of the meanings of the lesser jihad, by committing “unlawful warfare” or hirabah as per Islamic discourse. Consequently, there have clearly been attempts by Muslims to utilize the historical text and psychological bonds that exist to inspire resistance, avoiding a discussion on intent, and rationalize that resistance to present day Muslims of the post-colonial Middle-East.
In conclusion, despite the bitter consequences of the modern world on the Middle-East – European colonization, the subsequent nationalist regimes and finally internal decay within the Muslim world – this does not change the purpose of Islam nor does it alter the meaning of the Qur’an. And therefore a condition of hirabah could never equate the lesser jihad despite aberrant claims that seductively suggest just that. Ibn Taymiyyah said,
“Islamic warfare is always defensive, because the basis of relationship with the non-Muslims is peaceful coexistence (musalamah); if one reflects deeply on the causes of the Prophet’s (peace be upon him) military expeditions, one will find that ll of the were of this type.”
While I think the above explanation does shed light on the misapplication, whether intentional or unintentional, of the Islamic term jihad, I also think it is appropriate to close this article with an approximately ten minute statement by Imam Zaid,  an American Islamic Scholar, recently featured on Bill Moyers – in which you may also briefly spot me attending a lecture – as he discusses hirabah and its violent implications.
 al-Tahawi, Abu Ja’far. al-Aqidah al-Tahawiyyah. Trans. Hamza Yusuf. United States: Zaytuna Institute, 2007. 89.
 al-Sijistani, Abu Dawud, Kitab al-ta’rifat. Riyadh: Dar al-Salam, 1999. 610.
 Abdullah, Abdul-Hakim. “An Islamic View of Suicide Bombing.” Hakim Abdullah/Wa Salaam (2007): 25 Jun. 2007 .
 Jackson, Abdul-Hakim. “Jihad in the Modern World.“ Seasons. Spring (2003): 31-48.
 Shakir, Zaid. “An Islamic View of Suicide Bombings”. Classical Islamic Political Theory. Zaytuna Institute, CA 2006.
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