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The Evolution of the Concept of Jihad

Dore Gold writes, “According to Islamic tradition, a warrior who gives his life in a true jihad, a holy war, becomes a shahid, or martyr (literally, “witness), and is guaranteed entry into Paradise. But beginning in the ninth century, as two centuries of Muslim holy wars and territorial expansion ended, Muslim theologians broadened the meaning of jihad, emphasizing armed struggle and, under the influence of Sufism (Islamic mysticism), adopting more spiritual definitions. True, some sectarians who broke off from Islam continued to stress the older, militant meaning of jihad....But the Islamic mainstream had shifted away from this focus on the religious requirement of a universal campaign of jihad. Consequently, the meaning of shahid changed as well. Whereas the term had originally applied to one who gave his life in battle, a scholar or someone who led Muslim prayers could now be compared to a shahid when his day of judgment arrived. The Wahhabi, however, restored the idea of jihad as armed struggle, and they spread their new doctrine across the Arabian peninsula and beyond in the latter part of the eighteenth century. Even today the revival of jihad, and its prioritization as a religious value, is found in the works of high-level Saudi officials....”

According to Bernard Lewis, “Conventionally translated ‘holy war,’ [jihad] has the literal meaning of striving, more specifically, in the Qur’anic phrase ‘striving in the path of God’ (fi sabil Allah). Some Muslim theologians, particularly in modern times, have interpreted the duty of ‘striving in the path of God’ in a spiritual and moral sense. The overwhelming majority of early authorities, however, citing relevant passages in the Qur’an and in the tradition, discuss jihad in military terms.”

In premodern times, Daniel Pipes explains, jihad meant “the legal, compulsory, communal effort to expand the territories ruled by Muslims (known in Arabic as dar al-Islam) at the expense of territories ruled by non-Muslims (dar al-harb). In this prevailing conception, the purpose of jihad is political, not religious. It aims not so much to spread the Islamic faith as to extend sovereign Muslim power...its ultmate intent is nothing less than to achieve Muslim dominion over the entire world. By winning territory and diminishing the size of areas ruled by non-Muslims, jihad accomplishes two goals: it manifests Islam's claim to replace other faiths, and it brings about the benefit of a just world order.”

Pipes also notes that jihad has been interpreted as justifiable against impious Muslims. Thus, “Islamist thinkers like Hasan al-Banna (1906-49), Sayyid Qutb (1906-66), Abu al-A‘la Mawdudi (1903-79), and Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini (1903-89) promoted jihad against putatively Muslim rulers who failed to live up to or apply the laws of Islam.”

Sources: Dore Gold, Hatred’s Kingdom, DC: Regnery Publishing, 2003, pp. 7-8; Bernard Lewis, The Middle East: A Brief History of the Last 2,000 Years. NY: Scribner, 1995, p. 233; Daniel Pipes, “Jihad and the Professors,” Commentary, (November 2002).