What Does "Jihad" Really Mean to Muslims?

"Jihad" is a loaded term—and a concept that illustrates a deep gulf of miscommunication between Islam and the West. We asked expert Maher Hathout, author of "Jihad vs. Terrorism," to help set the record straight.

"Jihad" is a loaded term—and a concept that illustrates a deep gulf of miscommunication between Islam and the West. There are those in each community who see jihad as a clash of civilizations—and act on those beliefs. But jihad literally means "exerted effort" to most Islamic scholars and Muslims, and represents a range of activities.

Maher Hathout, author of Jihad vs. Terrorism, believed there was a twofold need to set the record straight about jihad. "Number one was the discovery that everyone is defining us except us, everyone is explaining jihad except for Muslims," he said. "Second, I noticed that some Muslims needed to brush up, to review the issue on their own for clarity and understanding of their own religion. This is why I made the book very textual. I tried to use verses from the Koran, from the Prophet… It includes personal opinion of course, but the backbone is textual."

Hathout concluded that jihad, as projected in the Koran, is not a single concept.

"It's a range of activities all based on the Arabic meaning of the word 'exerted effort.' In the Koran it's projected as exerting effort to change oneself, and also in certain situations physically standing against oppressors if that's the only way."

Which Jihad?

The concept of jihad as a struggle for self-improvement is little known among non-believers. Yet Noha Aboulmagd-Forster, who teaches Arabic at the University of Chicago's Center for Middle Eastern Studies, stresses that it may be the most common interpretation of the term.

"Something widely quoted by the Muslim 'man on the street' is that the most difficult jihad is the one of the soul," she said. "The biggest trouble is not with your enemy but with yourself."

While inner struggle is one meaning of jihad, many others evidently use it to describe engagement with external enemies. It is there that the concept encounters the notions of other faiths.

"Religiously, jihad is the expending of utmost effort in upholding and defending justice," said Sheikh Jaafar Idris, of the Saudi Arabian Embassy. Idris explained that he recognizes two kinds of jihad because there are two kinds of violations of justice: jihad with words against false beliefs, and jihad with the sword against acts of injustice. "The first is the basic and continuous jihad," Idris said. "It was mentioned in the Qur'an very early in the history of Islam and at a time when Muslims were weak and even persecuted. God said to His Prophet, 'Do not obey the kafireen (those who reject the truth) but wage jihad with it (the Qur'an) against them. [25:52]'"

Jihad of the Sword

But it is the jihad of the sword that has received the lion's share of global attention. The concept began when early Muslims were driven from their land by enemies, said Idris, and were first given permission and later ordered by God to fight those enemies. They were not, Idris stresses, given permission to fight non-believers or those who rejected the faith—only those who transgressed against them. Idris references the following verses: "God does not forbid you, regarding those (non-Muslims) who did not fight you because of your religion, and who did not drive you out of your land, that you be good to them and treat them justly. Allah only forbids you regarding those who fought you because of your religion and drove you out of your homes, and came to the help of those who drove you out, that you should befriend them. Any of you who befriend them (and be their allies) are transgressors. [60:8-9]" But even this kind of military jihad is not necessarily a clash of religions. It can also be waged against transgressors who are themselves Muslim.

Hathout adds: "It is quite clear that if there is any other option to resolve an issue without violence it is preferred no matter what."

While that may be the letter of the scripture, however, there is no escaping the violent contexts within which some extremists wage what they consider jihad. Responding to calls for jihad, fighters leave their own lands to fight in Afghanistan, Iraq, and elsewhere. Terrorist groups adopt the term and frame their cause under its auspices.

One of many examples is Al-Jihad (also known as Islamic Jihad and Egyptian Islamic Jihad), the group responsible for the 1981 assassination of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat, and committed to the overthrow of the Egyptian government, the establishment of an Islamic state, and attacks against U.S. and Israeli interests. This group has merged with Osama bin Laden's al Qaeda organization, another terrorist faction that has employed the language of jihad.

Hathout notes that extremist fringes in Islam, as in other religions, have long used religious philosophies to justify their actions. "It's really the onset of technology, the ability for small numbers of people to wreak significant destruction, and have those acts widely publicized, that has led to the increased attention on them."

"It's categorically mentioned, in clear Arabic language, that you only fight those who fight," Hathout continued. "You don't harm civilians, children, or even infrastructure. And you don't exceed that, you don't transgress. That's the limit. I was startled by the difference between what the Koran is saying and what some self-claimed experts are saying and what other Muslims are saying. I wanted to set the record clear by quoting the highest authority for a Muslim (the Koran)."

Yet quoting the Koran to promote one's own agenda is a game played by extremists. "In the East extremists with their own agendas truncate verses that are talking about rules of engagement of a conflict, and take them out of context to justify their agendas, spread hate, and recruit resistance," Hathout said.

"Both sides have been putting a spin on the text and using it out of context to justify their agendas," he said. "It needs Muslims to speak out and say 'let's go the authority, to the source.' Osama bin Laden or any imam in a small mosque can say whatever they want, but there is no authority for them to talk of jihad."

Aboulmagd-Forster sees an interesting paradoxical correlation between how jihad is defined by extreme political Islamists and by some people who are not Muslims. "They agree on the (incorrect) use of the word, while in the middle you have the huge billion-person-strong Muslim community, people who certainly don't believe that there is some duty to go and fight Christians or Jews."