Jihad is an ominous word to most Americans, conjuring up images of terrorism. But the word “jihad” in Arabic merely means “to strive” or to make a “determined effort.”
The association with terrorism represents a distortion of the true Koranic meaning of the term. According to an oft-repeated hadith (sayings of the prophet Muhammad), jihad is supposed to encompass both a struggle against one’s sinful proclivities, known also as “greater jihad,” and a struggle against injustice, known also as “smaller jihad.” But over time, both Shi’a and Sunni Islam have developed distinct distortions of jihad, both of which contribute to the current association we have between jihad and terrorist acts. This tie, however, advances a twisted concept with little to do with the mainstream teaching of Islam.
The concept of jihad began being distorted almost immediately. During the expansion of Islam between the 7th and 13th centuries, jihad came to have an offensive connotation — to expand the territory of Islam as a collective duty — in addition to a defensive one — to defend against foreign aggression. Medieval scholar Ibn Taymiyyah affirmed that rebellion against a ruler who failed to enforce or govern by Islamic law was permissible.
Yet the modern concept of jihad developed mostly in the 20th century, with a watershed transformation occurring as part of Islamic anti-colonial movements.
In 1939, the Sunni jurist Abu Ala Mawdudi sharpened the definition of jihad to mean a movement of liberation throughout the world that enabled Islam to reign supreme. Mawdudi also transformed the concept of jahiliyah (the age of ignorance before God’s message to the prophet Muhammad) into a condition that exists in any time or place where an Islamic state has not been actualized. Mawdudi split the world between an Islamic divinely ordained world and an infidel world that needed to be overturned.
In the 1950s, Sayyid Qutb of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood built on Mawdudi’s work. Qutb argued that Muslim society under corrupt rulers was dominated by jahiliyah, and therefore it was the duty of righteous Muslims to bring about God’s sovereignty over society. But Qutb went further because he perceived the modern world as steeped in jahiliyah. Jihad for Qutb was as much about re-imposing God’s sovereignty over mankind as about political transformation.
This understanding of jihad drove the Muslim Brotherhood to try to assassinate Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser in 1954 and remove the Syrian regime in 1964. Why? Because these leaders advanced the anti-religious secularism, jahiliyah, that the Brotherhood wanted to overthrow.
In 1986, the assassins of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat made this conception of jihad explicit in a pamphlet, “The Neglected Duty.” The author Muhammad Abd al-Salam Faraj argued that jihad had been neglected by leading Muslim scholars and that “there is no doubt that the idols of this world can only be made to disappear through the power of the sword.”
The ideas of Mawdudi, Qutb and Faraj enabled Sunni Islamists to advance this distorted concept of jihad. They framed efforts to excommunicate secular rulers as an armed struggle against jahili secularism, contesting the mainstream Islamic view that Muslims should submit to political authority in order to prevent strife. Their teachings also transformed jihad into a mandatory, individual obligation for all Muslims.
Qutb’s thinking especially motivated Osama bin Laden to launch his global, anti-Western jihad. Bin Laden subscribed to the puritanical Salafi school of Islam that seeks to create an Islamic utopian state by returning to the authentic beliefs and practices of the first generations of Muslims. Salafi-jihadis believe that only violent struggle can achieve this goal.
Bin Laden’s organization, al-Qaeda, ultimately aims for the overthrow of the “apostate” regimes in the Middle East that are preventing the creation of this Islamic state; but it has focused its violence on the United States, because America’s support of these regimes has enabled and perpetuated their rule.
The Islamic State, an offspring of al-Qaeda, shares its ideology, but has a different focus: establishing an Islamic government. The Islamic State has selectively chosen controversial verses from the Koran and citations from radical classical and contemporary scholars to legitimize its rule. It has dehumanized, bastardized, “apostasied” and targeted for death all “others” who don’t subscribe to its vision, Muslim or non-Muslim.
The concept of jihad has also been heavily influenced by the history of the Shi’a Islam, the other major strain of Islam.The Shi’a believe that the descendants of Prophet Muhammad should lead the umma (community of believers).
The most formative event for Shi’a ideology and tradition was the martyrdom of the prophet’s grandson Hussein in 680. Imam Hussein became the prince of martyrs who opposed tyranny and oppression and epitomized the struggle against chronic injustice that pervaded the world. The murder of his heirs, with the exception of the 12th Imam (who Shi’a theology teaches went into occultation and will return as the Mahdi (Guided One) to bring justice to earth), by reigning Sunni caliphs only reinforced Shi’a belief in the struggle or jihad against injustice and tyranny.
Critically, the Shi’a concept of jihad that developed over centuries viewed offensive jihad as illegitimate, while considering jihad in defense of the Muslim community facing foreign aggression obligatory.
In the 1970s, former Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Rullolah Khomeini honed this Shi’a conception of jihad by arguing for the establishment of an Islamic government ruled by a senior jurist (Wilayat al-Faqih) after deposing a non-Islamic enemy. He believed that only an Islamic government could enforce Islamic precepts, provide justice and unite the umma.
Khomeini saw no alternative but to revolt against tyrannical regimes — including the Iranian one governed by Shah Muhammad Reza Pahlavi, whose alignment with the West and push for modernization placed him in the category of an anti-Muslim tyrant. After helping to lead a successful rebellion in Iran, Khomeini elbowed aside secular allies and imposed this vision.
This jihad against tyranny sharpened the Shi’a view of the necessity of active resistance. Ayatollah Muhammad Hussein Fadlallah, considered the spiritual leader of the US-designated Lebanese based terrorist group Hezbollah, endorsed jihad as a defensive movement against a purported occupation by Israel.
Moreover, Fadlallah endorsed suicide operations as an encouraged form of resistance on par with ideas of martyrdom. The leadership of Hezbollah turned jihad and violent resistance to Israel into almost synonymous ideas. Deputy secretary general Naim Qassem emphasized that “the movement of Hezbollah is a jihadi movement whose primary objective is the jihad against the Zionist enemy.” From a Western standpoint, this firmly cemented the ties between the Shi’a version of jihad with terrorism.
While the Sunni and Shi’a concepts of jihad have a different history, both see jihad as a way to fight tyranny and oppression. For Shi’a Muslims jihad must be defensive and blessed by senior Muslim jurists, unlike the Sunni version which aims to reconstitute Muslim power under the pretext of defending or propagating Islam. But this conception has still blessed what, to many in the West, appear to be offensive actions that violate the modern rules of warfare — like not targeting civilians.
While many Westerners conflate jihad with terrorism, it’s meaning is not so specific. Jihad is a malleable concept with many potential meanings. Nevertheless, both Sunni and Shi’a extremists have crafted conceptions of jihad with a tremendous impact on the West. The Sunni version is a triumphalist religious ideology incapable of co-existing with Western values or societies, and the Shi’a version animates regimes hostile to the West as well.
But it’s important to recall that these are both distortions of Islamic teachings, propagated by extremists. Most Muslims do not support jihad as warfare unless they are under attack. Rather than demonizing Islam, the United States should be mindful of not painting with an overly broad brush that pushes Muslims towards these extremist conceptions.