The meaning of the word "jihad" has been debated by scholars for centuries.
At two recent trials in U.S. District Court in Alexandria, it became clear that the argument -- an especially loaded topic since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks -- is far from settled.
Prosecutors labeled five men charged with preparing stateside for combat abroad as being part of an 11-member "Virginia jihad network" and said they had been readying for "violent jihad." Defense attorneys said the government had twisted the meaning of the word and that jihad is instead a peaceful term that can mean anything from studying Islam to caring for the sick.
The two sides might as well have been speaking different languages. And interviews with experts on the subject last week did little to settle the debate. Even dictionaries disagree on what the word means.
Legally speaking, the government seemed to carry the day. U.S. District Judge Leonie M. Brinkema convicted three of the men -- Masoud Ahmad Khan, 32, Seifullah Chapman, 31, and Hammad Abdur-Raheem, 35 -- on a variety of conspiracy and weapons charges. She acquitted two others -- Caliph Basha Ibn Abdur-Raheem and Sabri Benkhala, 28 -- but said she was troubled that prosecutors had shown that Benkhala was "very interested in violent jihad."
The five were among 11 men indicted last fall on weapons counts and charges of training with Lashkar-i-Taiba, a group trying to drive India from the disputed region of Kashmir. The U.S. government has labeled the group a terrorist organization.
Prosecutors accused the men of being Islamic militants who were preparing for jihad by buying weapons and playing paintball in the woods. Defense attorneys portrayed them as harmless friends and said they played paintball for fun.
Six of the men pleaded guilty. But the rash of convictions did nothing to slow the debate over jihad, a word that dates back to the Koran and that all sides agree packs a particular punch in the post-Sept. 11 era.
William B. Cummings, attorney for Hammad Abdur-Raheem, said last week that the government had manipulated the word. He had said in closing arguments that jihad is "a struggle for good" and can be used to mean studying, caring for the sick, caring for young children and "a number of other things than violence."
John K. Zwerling, attorney for Chapman, said in an interview that the word jihad is "so misunderstood and so charged that it shouldn't be used in court at all." He defined the word to mean "struggle in the service of God" and said jihad can only mean violence in a defensive context, such as a Muslim protecting his family from aggression.
U.S. Attorney Paul J. McNulty said the definition of jihad "is not what matters. These defendants violated federal law, they were a threat to the community and that is how they were charged."
F. Gregory Gause III, director of the Middle East studies program at the University of Vermont, said that there are elements of truth on both sides. "Like a lot of religious concepts, I think jihad is what you make it," he said.
But Gause said jihad "has always been related to combat in the classical Islamic literature" and called defense arguments in the Alexandria case "a stretch. . . . If you're working out on a paintball field, it seems you're getting in shape for a fight."
Peter Awn, a professor of Islamic religion at Columbia University, said it was prosecutors who were "grasping to come up with a subcategory of jihad when the defense arguments were quite legitimate."
"If you want to stigmatize someone today, you use the word jihad," he said. "The word has enormous emotional power, it really does."