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Jihad -- 'Holy War', or Internal Spiritual Struggle?

Jihad -- 'Holy War', or Internal Spiritual Struggle?

by Richard Burkholder
Jihad /ji-hahd/ n. a holy war fought by Muslims against unbelievers.
-- Oxford Dictionary of Current English

This is how the West typically understands the word jihad. It is the fight against Islam's enemies -- infidel invaders or military occupiers. But within Islam itself, there is considerable debate about the true meaning of the concept.

In the autumn of 2001, while still crafting the questionnaire for the 2002 Gallup Poll of the Islamic World, I telephoned a number of writers and journalists whose coverage I admired and who specialize in Islam and/or the Middle East. I asked each writer, "If you had the opportunity to ask a representative cross section of all the world's 1.2 billion Muslims a single question, what would that question be?"

Among the most unexpected and provocative suggestions I received came from Chris Hedges of The New York Times, who said, "If I could, I would simply ask each one of them what the concept of jihad means to them."

So we did. Given that the meaning of the word to Muslims can vary enormously from individual to individual, the result was, effectively one, enormous Rorschach test.

The Word Itself

First, the obligatory etymological detour. The word jihad comes from the Arabic jahada, which is perhaps best translated as "struggle," "effort," or "striving." In its theological context, however, jihad's meanings can easily encompass "…any kind of struggle which has spiritual significance. Giving up smoking can count as Jihad, for example, or controlling one's temper."

Current interpreters of Islam are often at pains to distance jihad from its most common meaning in the eyes of the West. Many have also argued that the phrase "Holy War" is itself originally grounded in Christendom, tracing its lineage (ironically) back to the Crusades.

One reference,, in attempting to define jihad, stresses that, "In its primary sense it is an inner thing, within self, to rid it from debased actions and inclinations, and exercise constancy and perseverance in achieving a higher moral standard."

Other Islamic commentators are more pointed. After citing nearly a dozen separate usages and contexts for jihad within the Quran, one goes so far as to say, "We challenge any researcher or scholar to find the meaning of ‘jihad' as holy war in the Qur'an or authentic Hadith collections or in early Islamic literature."

What Muslims Told Gallup "Jihad" Means to Them

Whatever its theological and historical underpinnings, it is clear that the concept of jihad has now acquired a more martial, politicized connotation among many Muslims.

Of the 10,004 adults we surveyed in our poll of predominantly Islamic countries, all but 674 were Muslims (most of the remainder being Lebanese Christians). We therefore received an overwhelming number of descriptions from Muslims in response to the request, "Please tell me in one word (or a very few words) what ‘jihad' means to you."

Of the thousands of self-crafted definitions we received, a significant minority did include some reference to "sacrificing one's life for the sake of Islam/God/a just cause," or "fighting against the opponents of Islam." In four of the eight countries in which this question was asked (Pakistan, Iran, Turkey, and Indonesia), this was the single most identifiable pattern within the verbatim responses received -- though in none of these countries save for Indonesia was it expressed by an outright majority. It is interesting to note that none of these four countries is ethnically Arab.

In the four Arab nations in which the question was asked (Lebanon, Kuwait, Jordan, and Morocco), the most frequently articulated descriptions of jihad included references to one's "duty toward God," a "divine duty," or a "worship of God" -- with no explicit militaristic connotation at all.

There is no simple way to quantitatively summarize the full diversity of the verbatim replies we received to this open-ended question. However, in addition to the two broader groupings mentioned above, personal definitions also included (in roughly decreasing order of frequency) references to:

  • "a commitment to hard work" and "achieving one's goals in life"
  • "struggling to achieve a noble cause"
  • "promoting peace, harmony or cooperation, and assisting others" (interesting, in light of jihad's more frequently ascribed meaning)

and to simply "living the principles of Islam."

One thing is clear, however. Across the Ummah -- Islam's global community of believers -- the concept of jihad is considerably more nuanced than the single sense in which Western commentators invariably invoke the term.

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