Why does Islam have the concept of jihad or holy war, which some use to justify violence and terrorism?
Islam and Peace
Islam comes from the root word Salaam, which means peace. It also means submitting one’s will to Allah (swt). The word Salaam is also an attribute of God. In this context, it means ‘The Giver of Peace’.
Muslims greet each other with Assalaamu alaikum which translates to wishing peace for one another. Even when wronged, the Glorious Qur’an advises Muslims to struggle against the temptation for hostility:
And not alike are the good and the evil. Repel (evil) with what is best, when lo! he between whom and you was enmity would be as if he were a warm friend…
The Qur’an refers to Paradise as the “abode of peace”. Thus peace is a goal that Muslims are required to strive for, in their own selves, in their families and in their communities. It is ironical therefore, that Islam is perceived by many as being the motivation behind the wanton killing of innocent people.
Definition of Jihad
While Islam in general is misunderstood in the western world, perhaps no other Islamic term evokes such strong reactions as the word Jihad.
The word Jihad is mistranslated as “Holy War”. The Arabic equivalent of “Holy War” is harb-u-muqadasah. This term is not found in any verse of the Qur’an. There is nothing in the Islamic sources that permit a Muslim to fight against non-Muslims solely on the basis that they are not Muslim.
The word Jihad comes from the root word jahada, which means to struggle. At the individual level, jihad primarily refers to the inner struggle of being a person of virtue and submission to God in all aspects of life.
At the collective level, jihad can take various forms, such as:
- Intellectual Jihad, which comprises of the struggle to convey the message of God to humankind and to combat social evils through knowledge, wisdom and dignified discourse. As the Glorious Qur’an says:
Who is better in speech than one who calls (men) to Allah, works righteousness, and says, “I am of those who bow in Islam”?
- Economic Jihad, which comprises of economic measures, and spending from one’s means to improve the living conditions of the poor and the downtrodden.
- Physical Jihad, which involves collective armed self-defense, as well as retribution against tyranny, exploitation, and oppression.
Thus the concept of Jihad is vast and comprehensive. Admittedly, it’s the last category of Jihad that is a cause for concern to many, and which we shall explore in detail.
Jihad on the battlefield, in the Islamic perspective, is the last resort, and is subject to stringent conditions. It can be waged only to defend freedom, which includes freedom of faith. The Glorious Qur’an says:
“To those against whom war is made, permission is given (to fight), because they are wronged;- and verily, Allah is most powerful for their aid;-
(They are) those who have been expelled from their homes in defiance of right,- (for no cause) except that they say, “our Lord is Allah”.
Did not Allah check one set of people by means of another, there would surely have been pulled down monasteries, churches, synagogues, and mosques, in which the name of Allah is commemorated in abundant measure…”
Moreover, the Qur’an says:
“And why should ye not fight in the cause of God and of those who, being weak, are ill-treated (and oppressed)? – Men, women and children, whose cry is: “Our Lord! Rescue us from this town, whose people are oppressors; and raise for us from thee one who will protect; and raise for us from thee one who will help!”
Thus the conditions of physical Jihad are clearly defined in the Qur’an.
Rules of Engagement
Although Islam permits Jihad on the battlefield under the conditions mentioned above, the rules of engagement reflect Islam’s inherent inclination towards peace:
No aggression towards civilians
Military conflict is to be directed only against fighting troops and not against civilians, as the Glorious Qur’an says:
“Fight in the cause of Allah those who fight you, but do not transgress limits; for Allah loveth not transgressors”
As far as the non-combatant population is concerned such as women, children, the old and the infirm, etc., the instructions of the Prophet are as follows: “Do not kill any old person, any child or any woman” “Do not kill the monks in monasteries” or “Do not kill the people who are sitting in places of worship.”
During a war, the Prophet saw the corpse of a woman lying on the ground and observed: “She was not fighting. How then she came to be killed?” Thus non-combatants are guaranteed security of life even if their state is at war with an Islamic state.
The ravages of war are not an excuse for Muslims to engage in any form of cruelty or violation of human rights. As the Qur’an says:
“O ye who believe! stand out firmly for Allah, as witnesses to fair dealing, and let not the hatred of others to you make you swerve to wrong and depart from justice. Be just: that is next to piety: and fear Allah. For Allah is well-acquainted with all that ye do.”
It is forbidden under Islamic law, to ill-treat prisoners of war or to deny them the essentials of life, including medical treatment.
Respect for religious freedom
Physical Jihad cannot be waged with the objective of compelling people to embrace Islam. The Glorious Qur’an says:
“Let there be no compulsion in religion”
“If it had been thy Lord’s will, they would all have believed,- all who are on earth! wilt thou then compel mankind, against their will, to believe!”
If the enemy offers peace, it should be accepted even at the risk of possible deception. The Glorious Qur’an says:
“But if the enemy incline towards peace, do thou (also) incline towards peace, and trust in Allah: for He is One that heareth and knoweth (all things)”
Can terrorism be compared to Jihad?
Terrorism is usually defined as ideologically motivated indiscriminate violence that targets civilians, with the intention of inspiring terror in order to achieve political ends.
Although this definition ignores the reality of state terrorism, it is clear that terrorism has no place in the noble concept of Jihad. Even Jihad that involves physical conflict is the very antithesis of terrorism, as is clear from the following differences:
- Jihad can be launched only by an established authority as a policy in order to deter aggression. Terrorism, on the other hand, is committed by individuals or groups that have no legitimacy to speak for the majority. When terrorism is committed by states, it usually depends on misleading the masses.
- Jihad is limited to combatants while terrorism involves indiscriminate killing of civilians.
- Jihad, when the need arises, is declared openly, while terrorism is committed secretly.
- Jihad is bound by strict rules of engagement while terrorism is not bound by any rules.
It is clear from the foregoing discussion that Jihad is a vast concept that encompasses various spheres of activity, all directed towards the betterment of self and society.
Regardless of how legitimate a cause may be, Islam does not condone the killing of innocent people. Terrorizing the civilian population, whether by individuals or states, can never be termed as jihad and can never be reconciled with the teachings of Islam.
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