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Radical Islamism and Jihad ( 16 March 2012, NewAgeIslam.Com)

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The Qur’anic Perspective on Jihad and Greater jihad: SOS to Global Muslim Community




By Muhammad Yunus, New Age Islam


Muhammad Yunus, co-author (Jointly with Ashfaque Ullah Syed), Essential Message of Islam, Amana Publications, USA, 2009.March 15, 2012 

Languishing in stagnancy of Symbolism and Ritualism, deluded by a quixotic dream of world domination through  militant jihad  – the Muslims have turned misfit among the civilizations of the world and urgently need a major paradigm shift in their religious thoughts to the dynamic spirit of the Greater Jihad.

 As is well known, the connotation of word in any language is liable to change as people or scholars employ the same word in different situations. Thus the English word ‘present’, may connote, physical presence at a given moment, a gift, or to display - present or introduce someone or one’s credentials; struggle can be a struggle for survival in adversity or an armed struggle for liberation or against an occupation force and so on. The same is true of many of the Qur’anic words including jihad (verb jahada).

 While the meaning of Qur’anic words in a different language is informed by the vocabulary of the translator / interpreter and his cognitive proclivities, the surest way to comprehend the Qur’anic internal vocabulary - that is, what the Qur’an actually means by a word in a given verse, is to scan the Qur’an, spot similar usage of the word across its text and then arrive at the meaning or set of meanings that are most fitting logically and thematically. Such an exercise, attempted below, shows that the Qur’an uses the verb jahada and its other roots (JHD) to connote an unremitting struggle to achieve a lawful goal, as Allama Iqbal captured in his line: “Jihade zindagi me surate faulad paida kar”: “Cultivate the strength of steel in the jihad (struggle) of life.”

Thus, on the personal level, jihad is an ongoing struggle to face the hardships and challenges of life with patience and determination, or a sustained endeavor to accomplish a lawful goal. On community level, it is an ongoing struggle to overcome the social, moral, material, intellectual and spiritual deprivations of the time that could also include armed struggle against an invading or occupation army. With this we review the evolution of the notion of jihad with the progress of revelation and change of the political dynamics between the Meccan and Medinite periods. 

 1.1.    Jihad of the Prophet’s followers in Mecca

During the Meccan period, when the Muslims were small in number and in no position to defend themselves, the Qur’an connotes the root JHD with a ‘non-violent struggle’ (25:52, 29:6, 29:69), as well as ‘putting moral pressure’ - such as, parents putting ‘pressure’ on their children (29:8, 31:15).

 “Then do not obey the disbelievers, and wage against them (jahidhum) an intense struggle (jihadan kabirah) with it [the Qur’an]” (25:52).

 “Anyone who struggles (jahada), struggles (yujahidu) only for his soul (nafs), for God is above any need of all Beings” (29:6).

 “We have enjoined on humanity kindness to parents, but if they press (jahada) you to associate with Me that, of which you have no knowledge - do not obey them (in religion). (Remember,) you will (eventually) return to Me, and I will tell you what you did” (29:8).

 “We will guide in Our paths those who strive (jahadu) for Us.  Indeed, God is with the compassionate” (29:69).   

 “If they (your parents) press (jahada) you to associate with Me that of which you have no knowledge, do not listen to them (in religion) but give them company in this world decently…” (31:15).

 1.2.    Jihad of the Medinite Muslims

 In the Medinite period the growing Muslim community came under repeated attack from its powerful Meccan and pagan enemies, when the Muslims had no option but to defend themselves. The Qur’an commands them to struggle with their wealth and their lives (8:72, 49:15, 61:11) – a generic instruction suggestive of a call to take up arms, and predictably, the affluent among the Prophet’s followers preferred to stay back (9:86).

 “(As for) those who have believed, and have migrated and struggled (jahadu) with their wealth and their lives in God’s way, as well as those who sheltered and helped them – it is they who are the protectors of each other...” (8:72).

 “When a Sura is revealed, (saying :) ‘Believe in God, and struggle (jahidu) with His Messenger,’ the affluent among them ask (exemption of) you (O Muhammad,) and say: ‘Let us (stay) with those who sit (back at home)’” (9:86).

 “Only those are believers, who believe in God and His Messenger; then they do not doubt, and struggle (jahadu) in God's way with their wealth and their lives – it is they who are truthful” (49:15).

 “You who believe, shall I lead you to a bargain that will save you from a severe punishment (61:10): that you believe in God and His Messenger, and struggle (tujahidu) in God's way with your wealth and your lives; this will be good for you if you only knew” (61:11).

 Like their Meccan counterparts, these verses too do not expressly invoke violence. If armed combat was meant as the only course of action, the Qur’an might have used such terms as harb (war), sira’a (combat), ma‘araka (battle) or qital (killing), But instead, it chooses a milder, richer term with a wide range of connotations including earning livelihood through physical labour even if deemed to be lowly and undignified (9:79) and continued struggle for social and moral reform (22:78); and as the community grew, a jihad was undertaken in God’s way (2:218, 5:35).

 “(As for) those who believe, and those who have migrated and struggled (jahadu) in God’s way – it is they (who may) hope for God’s Mercy, for (indeed) God is Most Forgiving and Merciful” (2:218).

 “You who believe, heed God, seek the means towards Him, and struggle (jahidu) in His way, that you may succeed” (5:35).

 “Those [Hypocrites] who find fault with the believers that give charity voluntarily and with those who find nothing but their (physical) labour (juhdahum), and deride them - God will (return) them with derision, and there is a severe punishment for them” (9:79).

  “Strive (jahidu) in God's (way) - a striving (jihad) due to Him. He has chosen you (to convey His message), and placed no difficulty on you in religion - the creed of Abraham, your ancestor. He has named you Muslims before and herein, so that the Messenger acts as your witness and you as witnesses to humanity.…” (22:78).

 To demonstrate the broader concept of jihad, the Prophet is reported to have told his followers after returning from a military campaign: “This day we have returned from a minor jihad to a major jihad,” and added that “by this he meant returning from an armed battle to the peaceful battle for self-control and betterment,” that is intellectual and spiritual regeneration and the eradication of social and moral vices.

 The distorted notion of jihad, purely as a militant activity

 Given that the Medinite verses on jihad reviewed above do embrace a notion of armed struggle (9:86) within its broader ambit, Jihad can be and has been invoked historically to give religious legitimacy to take up arms against an invading or occupation army. However, based on the Qur’an’s shift from non-violent and ‘greater’ jihad (jihadan kabirah) in the Meccan period to a defensive and corporate jihad in the Medinite period under the leadership of the Prophet, the call for a combative jihad must be given by the legitimate leader of the community – the head of state or the elected leader of the community in the present day context, and not by the self appointed leader of any terrorist or splinter group. Thus, from the Qur’anic perspective, the noble epithet of ‘jihad’ will not hold for any act of terror, including suicide bombing, perpetrated by members of splinter groups against unsuspecting civilians going about their lives - to help achieve a political goal however lawful.

 1.3.    The role and the mortification of the greater struggle (jihadan kabirah)

The Qur’an was revealed at a time when the universal notions of liberty, justice and rights were yet to evolve. The rulers, feudal lords, tribal chiefs, and priests exercised unlimited power over common people, women were treated merely as objects of sex and possession of men (fathers, brothers or husbands) and had no legal rights [1], the sick and mendicant were ostracized as God’s accursed creatures, the rich amassed wealth at the expense of the poor with no notion of wealth sharing or distribution, the slaves were brutalized by their masters and remained slave for life – to cite some of the major vices of the era. Islam stripped the ruling class of its power, empowered the oppressed classes and eradicated the major vices of the society, and it achieved all this under the ambit of the greater jihad. Thus the early Islamic societies stood out as models of justice, equity, compassion, tolerance and enlightenment; and this gravitated people of different faiths to its fold and led to the gradual spread of Islam and flowering of Islamic civilization.

However, the Qur’anic precepts were in direct conflict with the established norms of the era. In modern parlour, they were ultra-radical. Therefore, as often happens with such movements, reactionary elements became active soon after the Prophet’s death (632). Within the next thirty years, the elective Caliphate was replaced by a dynastic rule (662). The dynastic rulers (Umayyads, 663-750, Abbasids, 750-1258) introduced old feudalistic values and set aside the Qur’anic dictates on social reform leading to gradual social and moral degeneration. The process of degeneration gained momentum with the transfer of power into the hands of the Tatars (13th century). [2] They “misinterpreted the Islamic doctrine of divine decree so as to frustrate human will and to choke every striving for action… principles which directly contradicted their religion and ran counter to its precepts, became the rule of the day, and were accepted without hesitation.” [3]. This, with time, led to the erosion of the spirit of the Greater jihad, and reduced the faith of Islam to “the Islamic ritual of prayer, fasting and pilgrimage, as well as some sayings, which have been, however, perverted by allegorical interpretations.”[4]

This happened over a long historical span, any discussion of which will tax the reader and detract from the theme. Therefore, leapfrogging to the present era, the all-embracing notion of jihadan kabirah (the Greater struggle), overshadowed over time by a singular emphasis on Islamic rituals [4], is getting totally eclipsed by a thick veneer of symbolism that focuses on un-Islamic issues like beard, burqa, dress code, and Arab mannerism.

The result is a steady transformation of Islam from a universal religion that brought about the greatest social and intellectual revolution in human history into a cult that concerns itself with a set of rituals and symbols, and therefore is a misfit among the nations and civilizations of the world that are geared to the principles of the greater jihad (unknowingly of course): unremitting struggle to achieve excellence in performance at a personal level and improving the quality of life such as through advancement of knowledge, breakthroughs in science and technology and medical, agricultural and communication fields, addressing the physical needs of the common citizens, tackling of global issues like climate change and rising sea levels and so on  - on a corporate level.

 As probably the last nail on its coffin of demise, the notion of the Greater jihad has of late mortified by contracting a cancerous outgrowth – the politicized, antiquated and desiccated Salafi Islam that is feeding radicalization on a global scale and thus playing in the hands of the terrorist outfits, now a great threat to the West and a great menace to the rest of the world, including the Muslim majority and minority countries.

 The forgoing pernicious developments in Islam have created an overriding need for the Muslims to revive the spirit of the Greater jihad, failing which they could face grave consequences that may be hard to predict at this stage.

 Conclusion: The condition of the minority Muslim communities in predominantly non-Muslim or secular countries – in many ways, is akin to those of the Meccan Muslims in the Prophet’s era. Though not necessarily physically abused or oppressed institutionally as citizens of secular world, they remain utterly deprived and marginalized as any realistic statistics on asset/ real estate ownership, academic performance, and representation in administration, civil service, armed forces, professions, upper echelons of corporate business world, and arts and sports arena is bound to reveal. This abysmal social, educational, cultural and performance decline together with the advent of militant jihad and the cancerous outgrowth of radicalization adversely affects the peace, prosperity and wellbeing of the global Muslim community and must be resisted by reviving the true spirit of the Greater Jihad. This, in light of the Qur’an’s key enunciations of its concluding phase, needs be attained through cultivation of exemplary conduct and behaviour and excellence in good deeds and all forms lawful pursuits in positive competition with the global community (49:13, 5:48), and broad compliance with the social, moral and ethical paradigms of the Qur’an as it had directed the Meccans in the Prophet’s era (25:52 above).    

  “O People! We have created you as male and female, and made you into races and communities* for you to get to know each other. The noblest among you near God are those of you who are the most heedful (atqa*). Indeed God is All-Knowing and Informed” (49:13). *[atqa is a derivative form of the word Taqwa that denotes excellence in conduct and behaviour by preserving against all base impulses, and heeding one’s social, moral and ethical responsibilities.]

 “…For each of you We have made a (different) code, and an open way (of action). If God so pleased, He would have made you (all) into one community. Therefore vie (with each other) in goodness (so that) He may test you by what He has given you. (Remember, you) all will (eventually) return to God, and He will tell you in what you differed” (5:48).



1.  Roman law treated women as the possession of their husbands who, under extreme circumstances, exercised the right of life and death over them.

 Over a period of some forty years (1220-1258), the Mongol hordes fanned out westwards from Mongolia, and completely destroyed the various domains of Islamic civilization that had flourished in the eastern regions of the Islamic Caliphate, across the central plains of Asia. After the surrender of Baghdad, the capital of the Caliphate, to Halagu Khan (1258), the Mongols virtually occupied the conquered Islamic lands. However, before long they embraced Islam and became known as Tatars. The faith won with peace what its soldiers had lost in war.

2.   Quotation from Muhammad Abduh, extracted from Muhammad Husayn Haykal, The Life of Muhammad, English translation by Ismail Ragi, 8th edition, Karachi 1989, p. 584

3.  Ibid. Quotation from Muhammad Abduh, p. 585.

About the author:

 Muhammad Yunus, a Chemical Engineering graduate from Indian Institute of Technology, and a retired corporate executive has been engaged in an in-depth study of the Qur’an since early 90’s, focusing on its core message. He has co-authored the referred exegetic work, which received the approval of al-Azhar al-Sharif, Cairo in 2002, and following restructuring and refinement was endorsed and authenticated by Dr. Khaled Abou El Fadl of UCLA, and published by Amana Publications, Maryland, USA, 2009.

Muhammad Yunus, a Chemical Engineering graduate from Indian Institute of Technology, and a retired corporate executive has been engaged in an in-depth study of the Qur’an since early 90’s, focusing on its core message. He has co-authored the referred exegetic work, which received the approval of al-Azhar al-Sharif, Cairo in 2002, and following restructuring and refinement was endorsed and authenticated by Dr. Khaled Abou El Fadl of UCLA, and published by Amana Publications, Maryland, USA, 2009.