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Understanding Jihad

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From any secular or atheist world view, the word "jihad" can certainly invoke fear. We hear it used all the time, on the news, usually related to a terrorist attack, a terrorist organization plotting attacks, or when the news is describing the motivations of a terrorist that has murdered a group of people in the name of Islam. If you are not a Muslim and have only heard this word in reference to situations such as these, it can cast a dark shadow over the Muslim faith. Whenever there is fear, it is always best to curb that fear with understanding. Shining light onto darkness relieves anxiousness, and understanding the history and proper context of the word "jihad" should have the same effect. This history may not entirely cure your angst, or change its present use in our media, but it will arm you with a little more understanding of where it comes from. Understanding what a jihad is, from a secular, historical viewpoint (I am an atheist and a secular historian), will also take some of the power away from those that try exploit the concept by using it as an excuse for killing civilians, when there is no actual justification for this in its original context.

The concept of jihad began in an era defined by the inception of organized military force and quickly evolving religious thought. The mixing of these two powerful social forces was inevitable at that time and the concept of jihad was a product of this amalgamation. There was a language developed by the military and holy men of the Arabian Peninsula, and this rhetoric was utilized for social control. Spiritual leaders needed to guide audiences and their behaviours, as did the military leaders, and simple commands were used to cultivate that order. From this social dynamic, a word was formed that became known as "jihad," or, loosely translated into English, "striving." This word became a doctrine for both righteous living and a virtuous means to wage war, depending on which of its sources you followed--the holy man or the military commander. Its meaning has also morphed through sociological processes and geopolitical circumstances in the Middle East and throughout the world in the centuries following its origins, to form a more coordinated meaning that has infused one source with the next.

The word "jihad" is a noun that has been formed from two separate Arabic words: "jahd" and "juhd." Based on Arabic principles of meaning in word formations, this combination can only be defined as "striving to exert one's utmost power, influence, efforts, endeavours or abilities (in contending with an object of disapprobation)." In the framework of this noun, there must be a force that is striving or exerting power against you. For example, an army cannot wage jihad against a submissive enemy, or a civilian, as there would be no reciprocating force. In an English context, this mistake would be like telling someone you were chasing an attacking bear. The word would just not fit into this context. The concept of jihad, formed from these two words, is a reconfigured philosophy regarding the rules of inter-tribal warfare that came from the pre-Islamic tribes of the Northern Arabian Peninsula in the 1st to 6th centuries. Since raiding the surrounding territories and tribes for resources was a common and often necessary way of life, some rules of engagement developed for the good of all. These rules were formed through a mixing of the spiritual values with the values of the military leaders of this area.

Jihad has two separate, yet intertwined, meanings. There is the greater jihad (al-jihad al-akbar) and the lesser jihad (al-jihad al asghar). The greater jihad is defined as the internal struggle against evil thoughts and behaviours while the lesser jihad refers to warring in a manner that is righteous in the eyes of God. As the latter is the original meaning of the consolidated words, Jahd and Juhd, words brought together by the military leadership first, and then utilized by the holy men, the circumstances in war it refers to are its primary context. It is this denotation that led to it having a much larger significance during the early years of Islamic thought.

Muhammad, the Prophet of Islam, was born into a clan that was part of the Quraysh, a loose affiliation of Arabs that dominated Medina, Mecca and the surrounding area. After being persecuted by the Quraysh for advocating a rejection of idol worship, Muhammad sought refuge in Medina, only to be followed by an army, sent there by the Quraysh to apprehend or kill him. Muhammad stood his ground at the well of Badr and defeated an attacking army three times the size of his own army. Muhammad's writing on this battle credits his righteous struggle against tyranny as the cause of his success. Here, in Islam, there is a claim to the origin of the concept of the lesser Jihad. If a Muslim faces violent domination by a wicked enemy, then that Muslim will be assisted through divine measures. In the case of Muhammad's battle at the well of Badr, myth has it that he was assisted by angels wearing white robes. Simply stated, in the battle of good over evil, God will assist if the warrior is pious and adheres to the doctrine of Islam. This idea of righteous battle, however, does predate Islam in the Arabian Peninsula, by many centuries. What changed was who was righteous, and why.

Antarah ibn Shaddad is a pre-Islamic, heroic figure from the Arabian Peninsula in the 6th century. This Arabian poet and warrior was the perfect archetype of the Bedouin hero, as emulated by Muhammad nearly a hundred years after Shaddad's death. The legends surrounding this 'Black Knight' precede western literature regarding any tales of chivalrous Knights of the Round Table by more than a thousand years. The stories describing the exploits of Shaddad developed throughout the Middle East in different ways, contingent on the geopolitical context of the region the story came from. In reality, the stories of multiple Bedouin heroes have been amalgamated into Shaddad's storyline. Regardless, Shaddad represented qualities of the Bedouin warrior that affected the ethos of the military leaders of the entire region, from the 6th century onwards. Shaddad is represented as a heroic warrior born from an Ethiopian slave. He is characterized as wearing black armour and often battles white-skinned oppressors, with phenomenal success. His victories are attributed to his faith in God and the righteousness of his cause.

Shaddad is rewritten and represented in Islamic writing has having prepared the region for the triumphs of Muhammad and Islam a century after him, and has even been called the "perfect Muslim," even though the religion did not exist at the time of Shaddad's life. Shaddad clearly demonstrates the prominence of a pious, heroic archetype in Arabic culture that predates Islam and promotes the idea of overcoming oppression and gaining adeptness at battle through strict adherence to values and beliefs. This code of ethics for warriors was proliferated throughout the Middle East in the form of storytelling and poetry, the latter having much cultural influence in the Umayyad Period, which runs from 132 A.D. to 749 A.D. Poets would be hired by Umayyad caliph to write poetry that celebrated the magnificence of battles won against rivals, such as the Shi'ites or the Zubayrites, using hyperbolic language that glorified the caliph and justified their success by their adherence to proper Islamic values. As the languages of the Arabian Peninsula were very similar throughout the region, these stories proliferated easily in both urban and rural settings. The archetype that began with Shaddad was superimposed on Umayyad caliph and the assumed ethos acted to secure respect from the Arab patrons of newly-conquered lands. The righteous values shown in battle, and the courtesy and restraint shown in dealing with enemies following their surrender, were qualities of Shaddad that would be described with the words of the holy men and military leaders of his day. Shaddad lived and fought a jihad long before Islam.

Following Muhammad's success at Badr, certain lessons began to form around the principles of jihad. The most important of these lessons was the bargain the Muslim warrior could expect from Allah. As all victories and defeats during battles were explained to be part of Allah's plan, neither was to be celebrated or lamented. What was important was a continuation of the struggle against Islam's active oppressors. If the warrior continued this struggle, while adhering to the principles of Islam as espoused by Muhammad, success would be inevitable in life or in death. If the principles of jihad were not forsaken, the warrior could expect paradise in the after-world.

A short time after the defeat of the Quraysh at Badr, a second army was formed under Abu Sufyan to take back Medina from Muhammad and his coalition of Jews, Pagans and Muslims. Leading a force of 3000 men, Sufyan employed the rhetoric of the Quraysh poet, Kab ibn al-Ashraf to his inspire his men to victory. Sufyan also worked behind the scenes to conspire with a Jewish tribe, the Bani Nadir, to ensure he would not have to face a united Medina. Encouraged by the outcome at Badr, 700 men, under Muhammad, faced their enemy with unalterable resolve. This proved to be their undoing. After having much success in the first phase of the battle, the archers at the rear of Muhammad's army broke loose to chase down their enemy, a move Muhammad had directly forbidden. Sufyan took advantage of this and encircled Muhammad's army with his cavalry and defeated them soundly. Muhammad is said to have lost a tooth in this battle, but managed to escape with many his 700 men. This battle, the battle at Uhud, became a lesson for Muslims fighting a jihad. Muhammad's men had disobeyed him, thus breaking the covenant with Allah, and they believed this was why they had lost.

The Quraysh may have won the battle, but they had failed in their primary goal, which was killing Muhammad. Regardless of their success, this left them feeling humiliated. Their reaction gave Muhammad's followers the impression that Allah had a plan for them all along, even though they had lost the battle. The Quraysh were humiliated and Muhammad was still alive. This insight into their predicament reinforced the idea that Allah's plan was always perfect. This directive was then framed by Muhammad in his writings that would later become a significant part of the Quran, furthering the context of the lesser jihad, describing the legitimacy of defending the ideology of Islam, regardless of the outcome, so long as the fight was honourable and righteous.

Jihad then became closely tied to the idea of defending the practice of worshipping Allah, especially when that worship faces opposition by force. Jihad also could mean the defence of other religious institutions within a Muslim society, as Muhammad originally showed a high tolerance for the plurality of religious thought and worship. As Muhammad employed an army made up of multiple religious backgrounds, the political reasoning for a directive that advocated the defence of more than just Islam made sense. A policy of inclusion ensured collaboration by the religious sects willing to oppose the military campaigns against them. While later directives given by Muhammad have different justifications for violence and who is to be defended in the case of war, this original directive exhibits the original goal of lesser jihad during Muhammad's initial time defending his coalition in Medina.

This initial doctrine of defence underwent a theoretical modification during the next major battle that Muhammad and his followers fought on March 21st, 627 A.D. In this, the Battle of Khandaq, Muhammad faced a coalition of Arab and Jewish attackers whose goal was also to extricate Muhammad and his followers from Medina. Drastically outnumbered, Muhammad opted to dig a trench for his army to fight from, making the cavalry of his enemies useless. This tactical manoeuvre, combined with diplomatic endeavours that split the loyalties of his attackers, resulted in another victory for the Muslim fighters. This time, Muhammad had mainly employed a contingent of Muslims, as opposed to the coalition of various religious followers utilized in his previous battles. This empowered Muhammad to modify his rhetoric, and jihad, to be more specific to the goals of Islam, rather than pandering to the multiple religious sects that had assisted him in previous battles, some of which had turned against him and joined the coalition he fought during the Battle of Khandaq.

Verses in the Quran that refer to this battle and the battle for Mecca three years later are inscribed with much more militant rhetoric. They are the only sura of the Quran that is not preceded by the phrase "In the Name of Allah, the Compassionate, the Merciful." Moreover, this is also where the initial bargain with Allah is expanded to offer a specific place in paradise, complete with a company of virgins, for those who fight and die in the name of Allah. This is an essential component of the lesser jihad, as Muhammad guarantees victory here, regardless of the outcome of any battle, so long as the warrior is fighting for the righteous defence of Islam, and doing so in a proper manner, which means following his directives exactly, honorably, and against an opposing force that means to destroy Islam and its followers.

While the rhetoric displayed in Muhammad's writings conveyed a message of fighting only in the defence of Islam, all of the military actions of the original Muslim armies under Muhammad's command cannot be accurately defined as defensive. The Battle at Badr and the Battle of Khandaq are exceptions in Muhammad's military career. A more appropriate reading for the justifications of Muhammad's choices for armed conflict would be a policy of pre-emptive strikes when he felt the security of his domain was threatened. On his path to capture Mecca, Muhammad was made aware that the Bedouin tribe of Hawazin had presumably planned to intercept him when he laid siege to Mecca. Altering his route, Muhammad moved in the assumed direction of this army to engage them, only to be ambushed on the course of this trek. Muhammad soundly defeated this military force, showing the rest of the surrounding tribal leaders he was a force to be reckoned with. Before Muhammad attempted to convert the remaining tribal leaders in the north-east portions of the Arabian Peninsula, leaders began sending delegations to Medina to converse with Muhammad about what would be required to ensure peace. While Muhammad's doctrine of righteous military behaviour, the principles of jihad established in his rhetoric and actions, contained a message of only fighting to defend the name of Allah, there was certainly an aggressive, expansionist element to his actual methodology.

Further clarification on the rules of jihad began to surface shortly after Muhammad's death and these clarifications were based on interpretations of Muhammad's supposed words and actions. Malik ibn Anas was a religious scholar, born in Medina in 710 A.D., sixty-eight years after Muhammad had died. Anas offers the oldest known works on Islamic jurisprudence and his goal was to codify and structure Muhammad's teachings for practical application in Islamic society. Amongst other elucidations, Anas pontificated on the role of the martyr during a jihad and what was to be expected of the Muslim warrior in the course of his military duties. Foremost in Anas' directives was the imperative that Muslim combatants must fight for the good of Islam, not the desire for spoils following a successful campaign. In this manner of conducting himself, the warrior who dies during a jihad will be guaranteed a successful passage into the paradise offered by Muhammad to his soldiers at the Battle of Khandaq. The codification of this principle, and its subsequent proliferation throughout Muslim lands, further reinforced the idea of Muhammad's bargain amongst the Muslim population. Moreover, Anas' work began a long line of scholarly work on Islamic jurisprudence that has continued in Islam up until the present day.

Another significant Islamic scholar to clarify the rules of jihad was Abu al-Walid Muhammad ibn Muhammad ibn Rushd, a lawyer born in the Arabic town of Cordoba in 1126 A.D. In his work, Bidayat al-Mujtahid wa-Nihayat al-Muqtasid, he clarifies the details of the rules of jihad, including who is obliged to take part in a jihad, who may be considered an enemy, the damage that is allowed to be inflicted upon an enemy during a war, the prerequisites for entering into a state of war, the maximum number of enemies one is obliged to stand one's ground against, how a truce may be applied, and all the goals of war in general. Rushd draws from all previous scholarly work on these subjects to create a precise handbook for initiating, fighting and completing jihad according to the principles advocated by Muhammad in his writing. Careful consideration is given to the idea that an enemy may submit to the Muslim attacker and then they may become subjects of the latter. Furthermore, courage and righteous behaviour of Muslim men during a jihad is of utmost importance. Wars with Ethiopians or Turks are to be avoided if possible and the rules for proper handling of slaves are debated with varying conclusions.

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Michael Goodliffe was born in Winnipeg, Canada, where he was raised by a pack of wild hippies. He has since traveled the world seeking knowledge, wisdom, love, and happiness, finding all four, and more. Michael has completed a double major in (more...)
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