MANY non-Muslims in the West and Muslims who perpetrate violence to achieve their aims equate jihad with holy war. The West expands it to imply terrorism. This connotation is often used by the former to justify their deliberate or otherwise (mis)understanding of Islam and to perpetuate their vilification of Muslims, and by the latter to provide religious legitimacy to their wars and fanatical activities and to recruit vulnerable youth.
To do this, one part of a Quranic verse is quoted out of context: "And slay them wherever ye catch them, and turn them out from where they have turned you out. ..." (2:191). The complete verse and the one preceding it clarify that the wars are to be fought only in self-defence and protection of religious freedom and that not only should Muslims respond positively to peace efforts but also that they should forgive the transgressors.
In fact, Muslims are instructed to deal with people of other religions with kindness and dignity (60:8). Also, this fighting was ordered only against the Quraish when the Prophet (PBUH) had migrated to Madina and after he had spent more than 13 years trying to convince the Quraish to leave their sinful ways, having completed his arguments.
The word 'jihad' in its various forms is mentioned 41 times in the Quran. It comes from the root letters of Arabic: 'ja-ha-da' and means struggle or effort. Three types of jihad are described: against one's own base desires and weaknesses; against the devil's whispers and temptations and against an enemy that has declared war. The first two are the 'greater jihad'; the latter a lesser one. The first also means struggle for justice and promotion of what is right.
Another related but less known word is 'ijtihad' which has the same root alphabets and is based on the same concept. Ijtihad means an extensive and hard struggle by persons (scholars in the traditional sense) to undertake critical analysis and independent reasoning to arrive at Islamic decisions for matters which are not mentioned or detailed in the Quran, including those that refer to situations that may have changed over time. It was a regular practice and considered essential as Muslim societies evolved and faced new challenges between the seventh and 12th centuries.
Scholars trained in various fields of Islamic discipline (jurisprudence, hadith, exegesis of Quran etc) were called mujtahids. They spent years coming up with solutions to new situations, and debating their findings. The process was mainly supported by the state. In the 12th century, Sunnis decided that their four madhahib (Hanafi, Hanbali, Shafa'i and Maliki) were complete and the door on ijtihad was closed, although recently, some scholars have reinitiated it. Shia scholars have been continuously engaged in the process of rational reasoning and differ in the use of sources and process from Sunnis.
While ijtihad is understood to be a rigorous process that can only be carried out by trained scholars who must produce hujjah (evidence or arguments) to support their decisions, ultimately it is a human exercise, necessarily based on personal assessments and views.
With the closure of ijtihad for most Sunnis, critical thinking, analysis of new issues and relevance of earlier religious decisions came almost to a stop. Over the centuries, religious schools for Sunnis discouraged debate and came to be known for rote learning. At the same time, state support of scholarship dwindled and, as a result, the number of mujtahids declined. Ossification of intellectual analysis and discourse took root. Islamic scholarship also declined, with notable exceptions, including Dr Fazlur Rahman, Hamiduddin Farahi, Khaled Abu El Fadl, Abdolkarim Soroush, Farid Esack and Farhad Shafti.
Societies have changed drastically and it is essential that not only more scholars turn to both extensive and intensive effort to perform ijtihad, especially on issues that trouble Muslims, such as personal laws of marriage, divorce, inheritance, democracy and human freedom, inequity and injustice, but that they should do so in a deeply critical and disciplined manner, and with neutrality. It has become very common for scholars coming from the narrow curriculum of madressahs to develop one set of opinions and claim that they are right. Ijtihad should explore and dissect differing opinions and offer arguments in favour of the one being proposed as the better one.
The intellectual impoverishment in the Muslim world, promoted globally by literalistic and restrictive interpretations of the Quran and hadith, can be overcome if more Muslims are honest in recognising their failures and are ready to open their minds to new ways of thinking. As Omid Safi writes, "a fundamental part of our struggle ... (jihad) to exorcise our inner demons and bring about justice in the world at large should be to engage in a progressive and critical interpretation of Islam (ijtihad)".