Today, there's a foreign word that, though only meaning "struggle," has led to the slaughter of countless tens of millions. But few want to acknowledge it.
Jihad Literally Means 'Struggle'
This is the Arabic word jihad. Although it used to be translated as "holy war" in English — and for good reason, as we'll see — it literally means "struggle."
The Columbian, for example, recently published an article titled, "Word 'jihad' often misused" to emphasize that,
Contrary to its popular use in the media, jihad simply refers to a 'struggle.' Muslims use the term foremost to discuss a spiritual struggle against one's passions and vices.
As closely examined here, the latter claim is pure, unadulterated nonsense.
That said, the claim that jihad literally means "struggle" — not "holy war" — is absolutely correct. However, this only leads to a massive and rather overlooked irony: those who insist on translating jihad as "struggle," do so thinking they are exonerating this notorious Arabic word from the divisiveness and violence surrounding it. In reality, however, it is only when one understands that jihad literally means struggle that one comes to understand just how dangerous, multifaceted, and subversive the jihad truly is.
'A Holy War Against Infidels'
Let us go to the beginning, etymology. Here is how the authoritative Hans-Wehr's Dictionary of Modern Written Arabic translates the root j-h-d (from which the word jihad is derived): "to strive, endeavor, labor, take pains, and exhaust on behalf or for the sake of something [namely Islam]."
Published in 1961 — that is, before the age of political correctness — the academically rigorous dictionary also makes it a point to place under the j-h-d entry the word jihad, which is translated as "fight, battle; jihad, holy war against the infidels, as a religious duty."
There is a very good reason for this subcategorized entry. Historically, jihad always manifested itself as a "holy war against infidels." It revolved around expanding (occasionally, as during the Crusades, defending) the borders of Islam.
Century after century, the only way for Muslim empires to expand into non-Muslim territory was through offensive warfare. Pre-modern Europeans were still zealous for their faith and culture, and thus not about to submit to Islam without a struggle. So force — Islamic invasion and conquest — was the only way to effectively practice jihad.
Empowering Islam Over the West
Times have changed. With the modern, meteoric rise of the West in material terms, a lax if not gullible attitude has come to prevail, allowing some Muslims to exercise the root meaning of jihad. If they can no longer subjugate the infidel through conventional war, they can at least, to quote from the aforementioned definition, "strive, endeavor, labor, take pains, and exhaust on behalf or for the sake of something" — namely, empowering Islam over the West.
This struggle (jihad) takes many forms. One of the most obvious is known in Arabic as jihad al-lissan — jihad of the tongue — or in English, propaganda. This jihad takes the form of apologetics for Islam and polemics against the West —many of which consist of out-and-out lies. It emanates from Muslim academics, activists, journalists, politicians, and others.
Even the Islamic State, which embodies the concept of jihad as "holy war" more than any other organization today, regularly reminds its followers not to neglect the jihad of the tongue. According to a 2022 report,
The Islamist terrorist group Islamic State-Khorasan Province (ISKP) has urged its supporters and recruits to emphasize media warfare in addition to military combat. 'Fighting with the tongue is as important as fighting physically,' ISKP stated in a new issue of their magazine.
'Charities' That Really Fund Extremism
Another form of striving, recommended both in the Koran and Hadith, is known as jihad al-mal — the "money jihad." Instead of physically participating in jihad, a Muslim supports it financially or materially.
This used to be the caliphate's responsibility. Nowadays and in its absence, every day Muslims — including those living in the West — finance the jihad with their zakat, or "alms." For example, in 2001, the U.S. government designated the Holy Land Foundation — once the largest Islamic charity group in the United States — as a terrorist organization dedicated to financing Hamas's jihad/terrorism against Israel.
Breeding Our Future Overlords
Yet another is the demographic jihad — also known as the "baby-jihad" (jihad al-wilada). Muslim men "strive" to breed with as many women as possible — Muslim or non-Muslim — in order to increase the ranks of Islam vis-à-vis increasingly sterile infidels. This is not just a lusty rationalization for illicit sex; Islamic clerics laud this "endeavor" as a legitimate jihad. Its success can be seen in Western Europe, some regions of which now have more newborn babies named Muhammad than traditional, European names.
In short, yes, the word "jihad" does not simply mean "holy war" to empower Islam over infidels. It means any "endeavor," any kind of "striving" or "labor" — in a word, struggle — that empowers Islam over infidels. Citing this fact, as the apologists often do, should not create less but more apprehension concerning the jihad.
Raymond Ibrahim is the Judith Friedman Rosen Fellow at the Middle East Forum.