Tuesday, March 08, 2005

Hayy 'ala el-Jihad

I have been spending some time over at Liberals Against Terrorism trying to clear up the confusion that the non-Muslims are having about the word jihad. Alot of non-Muslims these days use the word jihad to mean terrorism, and that is just wrong. I feel that its important to try to clear the bad connotation attached to this word since this word is an important word in our religion. So, I'm bringing my comments that I've posted over there to my blog here, integrated and edited.

Let's look at it this way. American soldiers fighting in Iraq are jihadists (replace the word jihad with fight or struggle if you wish). They are performing jihad against their own created enemy in Iraq, for a higher national goal back in the United States. They believe that their jihad in Iraq is to divert a great danger against their nation and their people, and they believe that they are at a higher moral ground. They believe that they have to perform jihad against the terrorists and the infidels who are wrongly fighting for their own benefit and for their wronged beliefs (be it free the land from the occupiers, or whatever).

American soldiers say, we're here to help, free the land, and free the people, and anyone against those divine goals must be destroyed. Thousands of innocent civilians have been killed in this jihad, but that is a reasonable price to pay for the valuable goal that everyone should be looking up to.

This is the American jihad in Iraq. Totally illogical to me. However, it doesn't mean that there weren't good American jihads throughout history. Same here. Jihad is not a bad word. Misused alot these days, even by Muslims, but doesn't change the meaning of the word, and by no means is it equivilant to terrorism. Jihad al-nafs (struggle against one's own ego and weakness) is a good fight, and jihad against the occupier can also be a good fight.

Since 9/11 every Muslim out there has been saying to everyone out loud that the literal meaning of jihad in Arabic is simply "struggle". It is not a filthy word, it is not synonymous to terrorism. There are good jihads and bad jihads, and people make that choice. And as soon as an attempted jihad turns sour or if its started with the wrong intentions, it loses its meaning, and is not a jihad anymore. Islam has never called the killing of civilians (non-combatants) jihad.

Groups like JihadWatch are obsessed with the word, trying to diminish Islam to just that. They exploit a verse of the Quran out of context as well as other citations to feed the frenzy of hysteria against the word and hence against Muslims. They use a verse like: --Then, when the sacred months have passed, slay the idolaters wherever ye find them, and take them (captive), and besiege them, and prepare for them each ambush. But if they repent and establish worship and pay the poor-due, then leave their way free. Lo! Allah is forgiving, merciful-- (Suret AlTawba, verse 5).

I would personally be scared to hell reading that verse on its own, and without understanding the reason of the whole Surrah. "What a bunch of savages" is the first thing that comes to mind. That verse is taken out of context ofcourse. That sura is talking about the idolaters, but those who were fighting the prophet and the new Muslims, making deals and breaking them jeaopradizing Islam and Muslim lives. One of the forms of jihad is violent, yes. Justifiable violence however.

So why don't we just stop using the word and avoid the confusion?

We cannot stop using the word because some people don't like it and misunderstand it. It is part of our religion. Continuous struggle defines life; struggle to be better, struggle against your ego, struggle for achievement, as well as struggle against your adversaries, is part of life, and is hence part of Islam.

They are not to blame for misunderstanding the word, or for misunderstanding our religion for that matter. Its our religion. But it doesn't mean that we should change, just to please "the other". Difference is good. And it doesn't mean that we should redefine the word, claiming that jihad only means personal struggle and has nothing to do with violence. It has, what it has nothing to do with, is terrorism.

But if the meaning of the word, and hence that Islamic value doesn't change, even when some Muslims misuse it, what is Islam then? Isn't it a collection of interpretations and scholarly traditions, and different opinions of different people?

I say, Islam is neither of that. Islam is the word of God (as we believe). What Muslims say it is, is not necessarily it, especially what a vocal minority of muslims say it is. Islam is not what people say it is, as it is not a man-made set of values. We try, we try, and we try hard (ijtihad, which is a derivation of the word "jihad") to interpret the word of God, and that is as close as we can get to understanding Islam. It is just beyond us.

Al-Imam Abu-Hanifa (I believe it was), is famous for saying: "what I say is right, and could be wrong, and what you say is wrong, and could be right" (bad translation).

So then, who is qualified to exercise ijtihad?

Let me put it this way. How would a Scientist (in Physics say) become one? through years of study and years of research.

Well, a Scientist in Physics is the same as an Islamic Scholar. They are both discovering and researching the same thing, the laws and values (natural and human) put by God on Earth (and beyond). And the work of both is prone to error.

Being just a practicing Muslim to scholarly research is similar to being a human being who lives in the natural physical world. Without the proper preparation, one cannot do what a Physicist can do (scientific research), or what an Islamic scholar can do (ijtihad).

So then, how can Islam be preserved without deviating so far off from its core, and retaining some kind of "establishment" control over the exercised ijtihad and fatwas?

This is a challenge. Some sincere scholars have chosen to undertake it through the World Union of Muslim Scholars which is definetely a worthwhile effort.

Aziz P. from City of Brass has also written about Jihad, Hiraba, and how some Muslims grossly misuse the word.

Hellme writes more about Jihad and the Physicist analogy.

Also (just remembered), please read Zayed Yasin's Harvard commencement speech, My American Jihad. He took alot of heat for using that word in the title.


Hellme said...

I love the analogy mate...btw, posted an extension of this thought process on my blog.

The Biased Reporter said...

I know that this may sound a little weird. Do you find people questioning you about really off the wall things, especially after 9/11 about Arabs. Also, have you been racially profiled yet?

MG said...

Great post Mohamed, Thank you... I posted a comment few months ago trying to explain the meaning of the "Jihad" too but obviously to the wrong kind of audience because it was on the Big Pharoah's blog.


If you mean by of the wall things, questions like "Do you go to work by a car or a camel?" "Do you kill Christians and Jews in your spare time or lunch breaks?"... yeah I've been asked these kind of questions!
The last time I was in the US it was pre 9/11 and everything was fine there!
I've been to Europe post 9/11 and to the UK just recently and no I wasn't racially profiled! It just became harder and longer to get a visa. And you would probably have to tell your whole life story to the customs officials at the airport.

Oscar said...

While I like the analogy science/fiqh, there seems to be one place the analogy fails: How we determine when the scientist/scholar is wrong? The standard view of science is that if an experiment does not conform to prediction, then there is an error somewhere in the science. Can you explain how (or if) this works on the fiqh side of the analogy?

Mohamed said...

"if an experiment does not conform to prediction, then there is an error somewhere in the science"

Would the error be in the science (nature), or in the scientist's original hypothesis?

I quoted one of the four main Islamic thought Imam (scholar) up in my original post, saying something in the meaning of: "What I say is right, and could be wrong, and what you say is wrong, and could be right". So he's performing his ijtihad and admitting that its not the final truth (wish more would do that these days). That's the same to me as a scientist who publishes his work in a scientific journal, and presents it in conferences for scrutiny.

Hellme said...


If the error is in the science, it is our perception of nature that is flawed, i.e. our hypothesis is flawed, as Mohammed puts it, because it did not account for nature's behavior.

The problem with fiqh is that it is stagnant. It refuses to look at nature, even when nature obviously challenges its hypothesis. We have been stuck with the same science, by the same scientists for so long, I'd think we've actually warped our understanding of nature.

Oscar said...

Hellme - thanks! Your first paragraph explains what I was getting at quite well. Your second paragraph may be correct, I don't know about fiqh, but Western adherance to texts over experience has done the same thing: whether the Chrisitian looking to the bible instead of the world, or the early scientists looking to Aristotle's works without trying to verify them.

Note that religions which try to be more experimental (all those which use meditation and other techniques to achieve certain states of "God Conciousness") have a similar but not identical problem: this was expressed well by St. Teresa of Avila "How do I know my vision is from God and not from Satan?"

Anyway, thanks again for your insights

Solomon2 said...

We cannot stop using the word because some people don't like it and misunderstand it. It is part of our religion. Continuous struggle defines life; struggle to be better, struggle against your ego, struggle for achievement, as well as struggle against your adversaries, is part of life, and is hence part of Islam.When YOU use it, maybe. Not so much to worry about there. But when Bin Laden instructs his followers to initiate jihadi activities it means, "Go kill Americans."

So we are both "right" -- but the struggle for control of the meaning of the word jihad is the struggle for the soul of Islam. And for now, for us Americans, all too often the jihad means terrorism when this word is employed by America's enemies, terrorists whose first victims usually consist of their fellow co-religionists.

The U.S.A. is trying to change this. Are you?

Mohamed said...

No, we're not both right, I'm sorry. You are wrong, and Bin Laden is wrong. I am right (and this is one of the few times I say this). Bin Laden is misusing the word, and you are misunderstanding the word (I'm not blaming you for that, read my post again), neither of which change the meaning of the word. And that's what I'm simply doing here, confirming the meaning of the word.

Oscar said...

" And that's what I'm simply doing here, confirming the meaning of the word."

Well, I see your point and agree with you, but sol2 has a point as well: the meanings of words change over time, even technical terms. At least this is true of English and Japanese, so I would hope it is true of Arabic as well. If OBL and friends keep mis-using the word jihad, the meaning will change in every day Arabic, even if not in Muslim technical terminology.
That linguistic change is what you are fighting to stop, and I think you may be successful, but that is not certain.

Hellme said...

Ah but you see Oscar, here's where the problem is - the word currently exists within a religious context, which means it is referred to exclusively from a supposedly divine text. People don't go around saying 'jihad' to each other in the Arab world when they have a bad day. They say 'kefa7' or whatever. I am not sure whether the word 'jihad' even existed before it was referred to in the Quran. Before you ask how the meaning came about, it probably came about from another word (as ijtihad came from jihad, or vice versa).

So, a change in the meaning of the word cannot be tolerated as it is in English (eventhough I can't really think of an example of where the literal meaning of a word, i.e. the dictionary definition, ever changed), because the meaning of the word reflects on the meaning of the text. If the change was to come from increased, mediated understanding, then so be it. But to leave OBL and his kabal to alter the meaning (which I doubt they set out to do actively) would be like allowing 5 year olds to define the meaning of the word 'democracy.'

Me thinks...

Oscar said...

Hellme - thanks for the explanation. I typed up a nice long response which blogger ate, so this will be shorter.

Generally words change in exactly the way you describe at the end of your comment: our kids have a slightly different understanding of a word than we do, their kids do the same and so it goes. Since your English is very good, you might like the OED (Oxford English dictionary) which has loads of examples of words whose meanings have changed, some becoming opposites over time.

I suggested that "democracy" was such a word, as the current common understanding (which you sort of suggest on your own blog) is "good stuff happens and everything is cool", when the Founders and most other people 250-200 years ago in America and England had a somewhat more procedural definition in mind when using the word.

Mohamed said...

Oscar, coming back to the word in question here, and even if we go along with you, and agree that meaning of words do change based on how people use them.

The situation with the word "jihad" is that a minority of Arabic speakers are misusing it, and a majority of non-Arabic speakers misunderstand it. I don't think that this qualifies to change the meaning of the word in the dictionary. The majority of the Arabic speakers still use it and understand it for its original meaning (explained above). Bin Laden is not the only person using that word, its just that non-Arabic speakers only listen to him, because he has a gun. So his definition of the word shouldn't make us run to the dictionary with our typewriters.

Anonymous said...

I've heard people say in Egypt "ehna beneghad fil haya" and they meant that we struggle in life. So clearly it is used to mean struggle or strive. I dont know why this definitio is not used.

Anonymous said...

Sorry, but Jihad mean 'Holy War'. Period. Check the newspapers. Check Islamic websites. Look at any Muslim book published from 1700-2000.

It only means 'struggle' when explaining it to stupid infidels, and this only the last few years.

As used everywhere, it means fighting and killing non-muslims to spread Islam for the glory of Allah.

Or maybe Grand Mufti Sheikh Abdel-Aziz Al al-Sheikh, Saudi Arabia's leading Muslim cleric, doesn't understand Jihad. I quote:
Saudi Arabia's leading cleric said on Monday Saudis should not join jihad outside the kingdom...

See, once again, Muslims cannot be honest about the hate and violence in Islam. Pathetic!
Why cant you be honest about the Quran? Have you guys actually read the hadith? Did you perhaps notice anything that is evil? Do the stories of raids, the enslavement of men, women and children, the beating and mistreatment of women, the killing of critics, the plunder, etc... Do they bother Muslims at all?

I guess not.

J. Kactuz

John Kactuz