Social Context of Jihad in Islam

  July 01, 2021   Read time 3 min
Social Context of Jihad in Islam
The world into which Muhammad was born was a strife-torn Arabia. He was in danger for years before he fought back. “Muhammad and the first Muslims were fighting for their lives and they had also undertaken a project in which violence is inevitable.

Sachedina, a leading Muslim peace scholar, is convinced that the notion of jihad, as currently perceived, arose from the needs and circumstances of the early Muslim community rather than any religious sources. “Consequently, these scholars had to formulate terminological stratagems that could reconcile the apparently tolerant tone of the Qur’an with the use of the jihad as a means of ‘calling’ people to the divine path,” he writes. These devices include abrogating those verses in the Qur’an that stress tolerance in favor of those that encourage (defensive) jihad, he notes. To do this, he says, scholars have had to elide several distinctions: that between jihad as a way to make God’s cause succeed and the trivialization of this as a way to increase the domain of Islam. There is further a distinction between moral justifications for jihad, preferred in the Qur’an, and religious justifications that scholars most often proffer. Most important was the concept of Jihad in the Qur’an as a defensive war to counter aggression and the scholars’ notion of a holy war to spread Islam. The confusion between these demarcations was, he says, understandable (because of the blurred lines between state and religion in Islam) but, still, often deliberate.

The Qur’an itself, as indicated previously, draws a clear distinction between jihad and fighting. The term “jihad” connotes struggle or striving, while the Arabic word qital is used for fighting. “In a sense, jihad is seen as a method of ‘bringing religion into practice,’ ” writes Sachedina. “In the Qur’anic usage, specifically military activity is consistently identified by terms other than jihad (e.g., qital ), whereas jihad is reserved for the overall religious struggle, whether in the form of personal purification or the collective effort to establish an Islamic social order.”

But scholars began using the term “jihad” in the seventh century to justify the military action engaged in by Arabs. This was reinforced in the eighth century as an ex post facto way of legitimizing the conquests of the previous century. By the 10th century, the notion of jihad had acquired some of the contours of its currently misunderstood meaning. Scholars interpreted the notion of the prophet being sent on a universalizing mission as justifying the notion of jihad. The Qur’an does give the Prophet Muhammad permission to control discord and establish a just order. However, this permission was granted, as Sachedina points out, in the Mecca period as a way to retaliate against the “folk who broke their solemn pledges” by attacking first and by not willing to be ready for peace. This is defensive jihad.

The question is, Does the Qur’an go further in allowing for offensive jihad? Sachedina maintains that the Qur’an has been misinterpreted to justify mere territorial conquests. (Besides, the Qur’an necessitates the presence of a “divinely guided leadership,” which the Shiites have taken so literally throughout history so as to pretty much negate the concept for them.) There is a preoccupation in the Qur’an, Sachedina points out, with the failure of people to respond to the divine call. But the use of force, Sachedina says, is given only to those who initiate fighting: “Fight in the way of God against those who fight against you, but begin not hostilities. Lo! God loveth not aggressors” (Qur’an 2:190).