What does the Arabic word jihad mean?
One answer came last week, when Saddam Hussein had his Islamic leaders appeal to Muslims worldwide to join his jihad to defeat the "wicked Americans" should they attack Iraq; then he himself threatened the United States with jihad.
As this suggests, jihad is "holy war." Or, more precisely: It means the legal, compulsory, communal effort to expand the territories ruled by Muslims at the expense of territories ruled by non-Muslims.
The purpose of jihad, in other words, is not directly to spread the Islamic faith but to extend sovereign Muslim power (faith, of course, often follows the flag). Jihad is thus unabashedly offensive in nature, with the eventual goal of achieving Muslim dominion over the entire globe.
Jihad did have two variant meanings through the centuries, one more radical, one less so. The first holds that Muslims who interpret their faith differently are infidels and therefore legitimate targets of jihad. (This is why Algerians, Egyptians and Afghans have found themselves, like Americans and Israelis, so often the victims of jihadist aggression.) The second meaning, associated with mystics, rejects the legal definition of jihad as armed conflict and tells Muslims to withdraw from the worldly concerns to achieve spiritual depth.
Jihad in the sense of territorial expansion has always been a central aspect of Muslim life. That's how Muslims came to rule much of the Arabian Peninsula by the time of the Prophet Muhammad's death in 632. It's how, a century later, Muslims had conquered a region from Afghanistan to Spain. Subsequently, jihad spurred and justified Muslim conquests of such territories as India, Sudan, Anatolia, and the Balkans.
Today, jihad is the world's foremost source of terrorism, inspiring a worldwide campaign of violence by self-proclaimed jihadist groups:
- The International Islamic Front for the Jihad Against Jews and Crusaders: Osama bin Laden's organization;
- Laskar Jihad: responsible for the murder of more than 10,000 Christians in Indonesia;
- Harakat ul-Jihad-i-Islami: a leading cause of violence in Kashmir;
- Palestinian Islamic Jihad: the most vicious anti-Israel terrorist group of them all;
- Egyptian Islamic Jihad: killed Anwar El-Sadat in 1981, many others since, and
- Yemeni Islamic Jihad: killed three American missionaries on Monday.
But jihad's most ghastly present reality is in Sudan, where until recently the ruling party bore the slogan "Jihad, Victory and Martyrdom." For two decades, under government auspices, jihadists there have physically attacked non-Muslims, looted their belongings and killed their males.
Jihadists then enslaved tens of thousands of females and children, forced them to convert to Islam, sent them on forced marches, beat them and set them to hard labor. The women and older girls also suffered ritual gang-rape, genital mutilation and a life of sexual servitude.
Sudan's state-sponsored jihad has caused about 2 million deaths and the displacement of another 4 million - making it the greatest humanitarian catastrophe of our era.
Despite jihad's record as a leading source of conflict for 14 centuries, causing untold human suffering, academic and Islamic apologists claim it permits only defensive fighting, or even that it is entirely non-violent. Three American professors of Islamic studies colorfully make the latter point, explaining jihad as:
- An "effort against evil in the self and every manifestation of evil in society" (Ibrahim Abu-Rabi, Hartford Seminary);
- "Resisting apartheid or working for women's rights" (Farid Eseck, Auburn Seminary), and
- "Being a better student, a better colleague, a better business partner. Above all, to control one's anger" (Bruce Lawrence, Duke University).
It would be wonderful were jihad to evolve into nothing more aggressive than controlling one's anger, but that will not happen simply by wishing away a gruesome reality. To the contrary, the pretense of a benign jihad obstructs serious efforts at self-criticism and reinterpretation.
The path away from terrorism, conquest and enslavement lies in Muslims forthrightly acknowledging jihad's historic role, followed by apologies to jihad's victims, developing an Islamic basis for nonviolent jihad and (the hardest part) actually ceasing to wage violent jihad.
Unfortunately, such a process of redemption is not now under way; violent jihad will probably continue until it is crushed by a superior military force (Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, please take note). Only when jihad is defeated will moderate Muslims finally find their voice and truly begin the hard work of modernizing Islam.
- "The [Suicide] Jihad Menace." Jerusalem Post, 27 July 2001. On the issue of suicide vs. martyrdom.
- "Harvard ♥ Jihad." New York Post, 11 June 2002. About an egregious commencement address and its implications.
- "Jihad and the Professors." Commentary, November 2002. A critique of specialists who hide the true meaning of the word jihad.
- "What is Jihad?" New York Post, 31 December 2002. This article - an overview.
- "Jihad in the American Courtroom." DanielPipes.org, 13 March 2003. Focuses on Middle East studies specialists' legal testimony.
- "Computer Gamers Join the Jihad." DanielPipes.org,
May 18, 2003.
- "Jihad's Total Fatalities since 9/11." DanielPipes.org,
April 16, 2004. Where to find the latest casualty figures.
- "The U.S. Bureau of Prisons Explains Jihad." DanielPipes.org,
February 10, 2005.
- "Jihad through History." New York Sun, 31 May 2005. A summary of David Cook's fine study.
- "Jihad on Trial." DanielPipes.org,
July 15, 2005. How the word is dealt with in courtrooms by lawyers and translators.
- "Can Infidels be Innocents?" DanielPipes.org,
August 7, 2005. Are non-Muslims legitimate targets of jihad?
- "The U.S. Government Defines Jihad." DanielPipes.org,
September 22, 2005.
Mar. 14, 2006 update: I coin the phrase "sudden jihad syndrome" in an article today about Mohammed Reza Taheri-azar, the would-be North Carolina mass-murderer. Jan. 2, 2008 update: More on this topic at "Sudden Jihad Syndrome – It's Now Official."