Quilliam’s Research Intern Charlie Cooper discusses the problematic nature of the concept of jihad.

Jihad: without a doubt, the most notorious and misunderstood of Islamic terms. Given its unparalleled infamy in today’s world, you’d have thought that it would be easy – courtesy of the internet – to come to a decent and impartial understanding of what jihad really is, to learn what it means within Islam and the basics of its political history. Think again.

Just as with much of the discussion surrounding the quagmire that political Islam presents, any analysis on the topic usually falls into one of two categories:

The first is populated by pseudo-militant rightists who exaggerate beyond measure – sometimes even fabricate – uncomfortable facts about jihad and Islam to non-Muslims. Ironically, just like many militant jihadists, these writers thrive off a Manichean conception of the world in which Samuel Huntington’s Clash of Civilisations thesis reigns supreme.

The other grouping of literature is that of those people seeking to play down the times when violence has been waged under the banner of jihad. While this shortcoming is easier to forgive – more often than not these writers are just attempting to improve the social standing of Muslims and reputation of Islam – they are shortcomings nevertheless.

The fact of the matter is that both of these groups are promoting inaccuracies. The curious reader should steer clear of relying on either for a half-decent understanding of jihad. Blogs like Robert Spencer’s Jihad Watch are flagrantly anti-Muslim, more useful as a means of promoting and selling inflammatory books than anything else. In the same vein, though, apologist explanations of jihad understate and obscure the fact that violence has often been – and will most likely continue to be – waged under its banner.

In the current global context, it is imperative that the term is brought further into the limelight and better discussed. It must be shown, unambiguously, that Islamist violence is based on misinterpretation of religion and not religion itself, as those at either end of the extremist spectrum, the Ayman al-Zawahiris and Pamela Gellers of the world, would have us believe.

Whether we like it or not, jihad has become a regular fixture in today’s media. There remains, however, an immense deficit of understanding. The word refers to a category of practice rather than a single mode of action, of the same relevance whether used in reference to Hizbullah’s post-Lebanese civil war rebuilding projects, regarding the seizure of Nairobi’s Westgate mall by al-Shabaab, or even to describe the lengths that some women (allegedly) go to in order to help the anti-Assad Islamist opposition in Syria. I could go on indefinitely; whatever the case, though, the political salience of jihad seems unfaltering, so it is about time that people understood it, and not just superficially.

Over the next few weeks, I am going to try to right this imbalance and disrupt the binary nature of the debate on jihad. The polarised discussion needs to be set aside for something non-partisan and unbiased, neither conciliatory nor inflammatory. Sure, this kind of thing could be found in academia, but what about those that don’t want to spend their days forehead-deep in scholarship. Here, the hard work has been done for you.

Drawing on Islamic texts as well as historical and political documents, each post will consider a different phase in the history of jihad. To make things simple, after a definition for jihad is discussed, the series will progress century by century from Mohammed’s first revelation in 610 CE until the present day. Needless to say, this cannot – and will not – be a comprehensive guide to jihad, there will have to be some historical picking and choosing throughout. What it will be, though, is a first step towards solving the dilemma that we are currently presented with, a path to cut through the middle of the most skewed (unfortunately, the most accessible, too) analyses of jihad.

Before I really get stuck into the political history of jihad, it is important to set out early on that there is no one way to conclusively define the term. Most scholars steer clear of trying to, instead sticking to outlining the various arguments surrounding it, but, unsurprisingly, there are a few (at both ends of the spectrum) who believe they have cracked the term. They haven’t. There is no ‘cracking’ jihad.

Jahada (jihad its infinitive form) appears in the Quran 41 times and can be loosely translated as ‘to strive or struggle’. In English, though, just as in Arabic, struggle can mean pretty much anything – military, spiritual, financial. It should come as no surprise that, as historical, political and social circumstances changed for Muslims over the last 14 centuries, so did Muslim and non-Muslim understandings of jihad.

In the main, when it appears in the Quran, it has internal, spiritual connotations. And while there are over 150 references to violence or war in the Quran, they are usually derivatives of the verb qatala (‘to fight’), not jahada.

In the hadith – that is, sayings directly attributed to the Prophet and thus Muslims’ other source of divine revelation – the story is slightly different. There are more explicit references to jihad in its military capacity, with entire volumes of hadiths devoted to it. At the same time, though, the hadith are replete with other references to jihad as something that is predominantly spiritual, not practical. Indeed, in one, Mohammed is alleged to have ruled that the more worthy, Greater Jihad (jihad al-akbar) is the spiritual, inner struggle; its violent, external manifestation defined as the Lesser Jihad (jihad al-asghar).

Even according to Islam’s two infallible sources, then, there is ambiguity on the subject. Neither defines it outright and, like many concepts in religion, it is left almost totally to personal interpretation.

This matters because it means that, by drawing on the Quran and hadith, militant Islamist groups can religiously justify – albeit tenuously – the use of violence to achieve their ends. Theological acrobatics is needed, but this matters little if the end result allows groups like al-Qa’ida to release a communiqué ordering Muslims ‘to kill the Americans and their allies – civilian and military’.

Similarly, using the Quran and hadith, those with an Islamophobic agenda can argue that Islam is an inherently warlike religion. Most Islamophobes will use the same theological justifications as violent jihadists for evidence to support their blanket labelling of Islam as a religion of terror. Thus they are able to slander the religion furiously, but with minimal intellectual or academic effort.

This being the case, though, most Muslims interpret jihad as a spiritual struggle, an esoteric act that is performed in an attempt to become a better Muslim, to strive against human flaws like materialism and greed. An understanding of jihad that we do not often hear about, this is the case for nearly all Muslims – they strive mentally, not physically, towards spiritual attunement, their jihad is internal, peaceful, mystical.

I previously wrote that Islamist violence was based on a misinterpretation of religion. Perhaps I should have chosen my words more carefully, for violence can be justified by Islamic sources. But only if the person interpreting wills it to. This is no different to many other religion; when taken out of context, words, no matter how sacred, can be used to legitimate actions that are contrary to the overall message of any religion or movement.

Herein lies the problem with violence waged under the banner of jihad or any religiously legitimated violence, for that matter. Even if the use of violence against, say, civilians, is contrary to Islamic law (as the vast majority of Muslims would agree), certain Muslims who choose to justify their political struggles by labelling their military struggle a jihad can do so. Certainly, it leaves them scraping the theological barrel, but they can do it.

Today, complete consensus on what jihad is, remains far out of our reach. What we need to do in its absence is open our minds to the fact that it is an interpreted concept, no single thing, and that it therefore has no one bearing on what Islam as a religion and set of values is.

Next time, I will be addressing jihad in the context of the Muslim conquests, a time incomparable to our own, when the acts it referred to were nothing if not warlike.

Click here and here to see the original blog at yourmiddleeast.com.

Views expressed do not necessarily reflect those of Quilliam.