By Roland Laffitte
11 February, 2016
There is a profound misunderstanding around
the word "jihad", used today by groups such as the Islamic State
group (known variably as ISIS/ISIL/Daesh). They are looking to hide their
odious intentions behind a term which, in Arab and Muslim societies is prized,
like a cultural value.
In his celebrated work Muqaddimah (often
translated as Introduction or Prolegomenon), Ibn Khaldun sets out two kinds of
war in line with the values of Islam: those named "jihad" in
religious law, and those led by states against the dissidents.
He explains that they fall within the field
of justice ["Adal"] and jihad. In doing so, he gives us the key to
understanding the meaning of the Arabic word jihad - two meanings, linked but
different: the first refers to a value, and the second to a type of war.
If the true sense of jihad refers to
"exerted effort, diligence", it appears throughout the Quran in the
expression "Jihad Fi Sabili L-Lah", literally meaning
"one who fights for the cause of Allah", used in full or in part
where it is not intimated.
Understanding it to mean "war in the
name of faith" in the Quran is anachronistic. A close and impartial
reading shows that even when it is used in the context of war, which is often
the case in the Medina era, it means nothing other than "virtuous
conduct", precisely of the kind Ibn Khaldun speaks of as presiding over
the type of war taking the same name.
The Prophet Mohammed never actually uses
the word jihad to talk of military action led by Muslims, but instead uses
"Ghazwa", meaning "expedition or campaign", and the
conquests led for a good century after him are unanimously named "Maghazi",
another word with the same root and the same meaning.
From 'Virtuous Conduct' To 'Action'
Books about jihad appear at the end of the
8th century and the beginning of the 9th century, after the great conquests had
The term is used in two ways. On one hand,
as "virtuous conduct", implying, along with verses from the Quran and
supporting Hadiths, practices recommended by the Prophet Mohammed in the
context of war - as well as other rules governing relations with other peoples.
For jurists, this leads to the equivalent of what would later be known in
Europe as jus belli (the law of war).
On the other hand, the term is used as an
obligation, and this is where jihad is understood as an action, in
circumstances where the Ummah, or the community of the faithful, is threatened,
as was the case at the time by the Byzantines in Anatolia and the Turks in
And so it was that pious men began to
travel to border regions for jihad.
It was only even later, amid resistance
efforts against attacks from Christian forces in Spain and Sicily, and the
crusaders in the Near East - roughly in the 11th and 12th centuries - and then
with the Mongol invasions of the 13th century and the beginning of the 14th
century, that the real jihad treatises began to flourish.
These later texts describe in different
ways, depending on the theologian or jurist, the aims, conditions of validity
and the different forms of jihad. They differentiate between greater jihad,
understood as spiritual conduct which may take many forms, and lesser jihad
which generally - apart from for some extremist and minority thinkers - takes
the form of a collective duty to defend the Ummah.
How the Notion Has Changed
During the wave of imperial and colonial
conquests, jihad was generally invoked in its traditional forms, whether it
referred to Abdelkader's resistance to the French conquest in Algeria or to
Imam Shamil opposing the Russian advance into Dagestan and Chechnya.
Later it was used in 1882 in the Egypt of
Ahmed 'Urabi and that of Muhammad Ahmad, who known as the Mahdi in Sudan.
A change came about at the end of the 19th
century, with the al-Nahda, the Arab and Muslim renaissance, where jihad was no
longer referred to as a purely religious notion, but instead a secularised one
- or, more accurately, a cultural idea.
It was under the flag of this new jihad
that the wars of independence were led, for example, against French domination
both in the Levant and in North Africa.
It is worth noting that the Algerian
fighters were mujahideen, literally "those who carry out jihad", that
Habib Bourguiba - the spearhead of the Tunisian independence movement - took
the title of "Supreme Fighter", and that at the time of Moroccan
independence, Mohammed V in reference to a popular Hadith, declared that
"we have returned from the lesser jihad to devote ourselves to the greater
And so jihad can also become "a fight
for the transformation of society", or "for progress".
The Arab nationalist backlash and its
submersion by Islamist movements in the modern period as of 1975, sees the
notion of jihad return essentially to its cultural meaning, sharing with
One indication of this can be found in the
group officially established in 1981 named Harakat al-Jihad Al-Islami fi
Filastin - or the Islamic Jihad Movement in Palestine - which, as is clear,
was obliged to classify its jihad as "Islamic".
Close to this idea, is the notion of jihad
championed for Palestine by the Muslim World League. The organisation was set
up by Prince Faisal of Saudi Arabia in 1962, and is part of the shared heritage
of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and Hamas in Palestine.
In parallel, in the Shia world, the Iraqi
army and the Shia militias' struggle against IS is based on a call to jihad,
made by Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani on 13 June 2014, three days after the
fall of Mosul.
'Salafi Jihadism' and Jihad
There is, however, an even more apparent
claim to jihad, which today is monopolising the limelight. It is that of those
movements claiming to adhere to the Salafiya jihadiyah, literally "Jihadi
Salafism", whose proponents earned their stripes in the fight against the
Russian occupation in Afghanistan.
It was at this time that al-Qaeda,
responsible for the attacks on 11 September 2001 and many other less famous
dates, was born. In recent years, the movement has spawned al-Dawla
al-Islamiyya (known as the Islamic State group) which broke away from its
parent, while Jabhat al-Nusra or "the Victory Front" remains part of
the al-Qaeda family.
These two rival groups provide a rallying
force for myriad local copycats across Muslim societies, from the African Sahel
to Pakistan, and even stretching far east into Asia. For them, jihad is allied
to the struggle against the superpowers, presented as "a coalition of
Christian crusaders and Jews" against the Shias and the "Muslim
States" classed as "ungodly".
In a fusion of politics, fantasising about
a return to roots that never were and a morbid fascination with eschatology -
these groups reach a rare degree of rigid religious ideology, ostentatious
violence and sectarian intolerance.
A 'Holy' War?
The Church classed the Crusades and the
wars against the Ottomans as "blessed by saints" in order to amplify
their value. While the concept of "just and legal war" has existed in
the Church since the time of Thomas Aquinas, there is no concept of "holy
However, these days, the quasi-blanket
translation of the Muslim concept of jihad is as "holy war" - which
is taken from a different register, and dates from the times of colonial
ventures, to present wars of resistance as if they were simply inspired by
This did not stop imperial powers from
invoking it against their adversaries in the First World War: following the
Ottomans' call for jihad against the Allies at the request of Germany, the
French and English gained muftis, obliging to the calls of jihad in the hope of
countering the propaganda of the central empires among their Muslim
To sum up, the notion of jihad is much
broader than simply that of "war". It is first and foremost in Islam
taken as religion and as civilisation - a virtue. In its military sense, it is
generally seen as defensive, as is also the case for both its religious meaning
and its cultural development.
A parallel can be drawn with the notion of
"lawful war" in Europe. Though there is one significant difference,
at least in religious terms - Islam adds an element of personal ethics.
We must ensure that, on the pretext of
condemning the crimes falsely committed under the flag of jihad, we do not
grant exclusivity to those very groups who are staining it.
Roland Laffite is an independent researcher and essayist, and the
secretary of the Society of French and Arabic Linguistic and Eytmological
studies (Société d’études linguistiques et étymologiques françaises et arabes,
Selefa) in France.
is the author of the project, Les mots de l’Islam and is also the author of
several works on relations between Europe and the Arab world, including La
ronde des libérateurs, de Bonaparte à Hollande,Alfabarre, 2013, and Où en
sommes-nous de l’Empire (collective work), Alfabarre, 2014.
This is an edited translation of an article originally published in
French by our partners at Orient XXI.
Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author