What Does “Jihad” Really Mean?

by Hoda Katebi

One of the most-asked questions I’ve received is: What is this thing — Jihad — that is causing Muslims around the world to be violent in the name of holy war?

Heh, okay, let’s break it down, shall we? It’s really quite simple, and probably not what you’ve heard on your television screens.

Jihad means “struggle.” Nothing more, nothing less.

A struggle with oneself internally, a struggle against injustice, a struggle against tyranny.

Jihad does NOT mean, on the other hand, holy-war-against-so-called-infidels-that-all-Muslims-are-supposed-to-do-so-non-Muslims-should-be-scared-of-their-Muslim-neighbors-and-kill-recent-college-graduates-over-a-supposed-parking-spot.

Yeah. How about not.

While my neighbors are still probably scared of me and my family regardless (gotta love the racism in the south!), I think it’s important to note that we Muslims are in fact quite friendly (and dare I say quite dashing). But let’s not get too off topic for once.

There are really two types of Jihad: internal and external.

The greatest/major Jihad mentioned in the Qur’an (the Muslim holy book) is the internal struggle with one’s full self and soul in order to constantly self-improve: continually stand up for justice, become more truthful and sincere, and overcome vices and weaknesses. It involves a transformation of one’s character, overcoming an obstacle, and deep self-reflection. This is the Jihad that you don’t really hear about in mainstream news, yet serves as the greatest Jihad for Muslims.

What you do hear, on the other hand, and quite over-excessively, is the mention of the external “Jihad of the sword.” This jihad, or struggle, is not described with the same level of value or importance than jihad an-nifs (Jihad of the self) has within the Qur’an. This Jihad is in reference to using violence — if absolutely necessary — in order to overthrow injustice. Today in mainstream media this is taken out of context (surprise, surprise) and therefore is an incorrect understanding of what the term really means.

This external Jihad is used in the Qur’an in the context of the time when Muslim communities were being attacked on all sides (think: the Crusades – these were of course much later, but you get the point) and needed to defend itself. But the key here is that this is not the same as an unprovoked aggression or holy war that western media makes it out to be.

External Jihad is mentioned in the Qur’an in a highly particular and specific context from which it should not be separated. And when it does become separated, senseless violence still can’t be justified, as “Jihad of the sword” is again, to fight against injustice, oppression, and colonial violence – and this doesn’t necessarily mean through violence. Although, also important to note is that systems of oppression themselves are violent. That imperialism and foreign military occupation are violent. That injustice is violent. “Jihad-of-the-sword” is a form of self-defense.

Jihad continues to be super important, valid, and valuable today for Muslims globally – both internally and externally. It’s a tool of self-betterment and self-reflection, improvement and meditation.

Some Muslims (Muslims cooler than me, clearly) even made a hashtag (#MyJihad) about it.

Of course, I don’t think I will even need to go into how this is different than what is carried out by ISIS – senseless killings (of mostly other Muslims) that violate all of the core tenants of Islam. It’s comparable to Nazis massacring Jews, Gypsys, and others or Zionists massacring Palestinians or KKK lynching Blacks – all in the name of their respective faiths, be it Christianity or Judaism.

This post originally appeared on joojooazad.com and is reprinted here with permission.

Top photo: a 12th-century Qur’an manuscript at the Reza Abbasi Museum, via Wikimedia Commons

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