Islam has so often been portrayed, even by contemporary scholars such as Bernard Lewis in The Political Language of Islam, as “a military religion, [with] fanatical warriors, engaged in spreading their faith and their law by armed might” that the image of the Muslim horde charging wildly into battle like a swarm of locusts has become one of the most enduring stereotypes in the Western world. “Islam was never really a religion of salvation,” wrote the eminent sociologist Max Weber in The Sociology of Religion, “Islam is a warrior religion.” It is a religion that Samuel Huntington has portrayed as steeped “in bloody borders” in The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order. In recent times, the call for jihad was made more pronounced by the devastating events such as the September 11, 2001 or the Madrid bombings of 2004.
Yet the doctrine of jihad, like so many doctrines in Islam, was not fully developed as an ideological expression until long after Muhammad’s death. The concept was first physically manifested in the first battle in Islam, the Battle of Badr (624 AD) whereupon attaining victory, Muhammad was reported to have said in a famous hadith: “We have returned from the lesser jihad (battle) to the greater jihad (jihad of the soul).” Although many Muslims and non-Muslims render jihad as “holy war,” the word, as it occurs in the Quran – jahada – means “striving” or “struggle,” and not war, much less a holy war, whose defining purpose is to propagate and/or enforce religious beliefs. In fact, there is no scriptural sanction in Islam for a holy war; hence, using the holy war template to explain jihad obscures the specificity of Islamic, and specifically Quranic, formulations of jihad.
To ascribe therefore these intolerant strains in some contemporary thought to Islam ignores that religions do not interpret themselves – people do. We therefore need to ask who is interpreting, how, and in what particular contexts. It is this failure to do so that leads both Muslims and their critics alike to misinterpret Islam and thus also its teachings on jihad. In part, misrepresentations of Islam by its critics are related to their own epistemologies, psyches, and modes of “othering.”
In the Quran, the word “jihad” (and its derivatives) occurs thirty-six times and refers in all cases to a moral-ethical struggle. Thus, the Quran speaks of the jihad of the soul, the tongue, the pen, of faith, of morality – which together are said to constitute the “greater jihad.” The lesser jihad is considered to be the jihad of arms, but the Quran itself uses the word “qital” (fighting) and its derivations (not jihad) for the practice of warfare. James Turner Johnson in The Holy War Idea In Western And Islamic Traditions states that it is due to the construct of Muslim tradition that “very early associated the two concepts.” Thus, jihad, as signifying the waging of war, is a post-Quranic usage and must be understood in light of how Muslims interpreted the Quran at a particular political and historical conjuncture.
Unlike the five pillars of Islam (declaration of faith, prayers, giving alms, fasting and pilgrimage), jihad is not a ritual practice. It is a constructed notion of what and how one should be, thus it is predicated by opinions, cultures, socio-historicity and agendas. Through the passage of its history as illustrated in the previous section, jihad developed around the context of military expeditions and militant philosophies conveniently crept in.
An essential aspect needs also be examined: who has the legitimate authority to call upon Muslims to wage war in the name of God? Muhammad and his succeeding caliphs are no longer available to provide these answers, but guidelines were laid out. The Muslim jurists have not declared war simply because the two main requirements for jihad namely, the existential threat to Islam and/or the defensive nature of warfare, is not present for the call of jihad to be made. Calls for “jihad” have only been made by characters such as bin Laden, Mawdudi and Qutb – who are themselves not experts nor jurists in Islamic law. What defines jihad or terrorism depends on who gets to define it. To the extent that the power of naming is contingent on other (material) forms of power, hegemons always will be able to make opportunistic distinctions between jihad and terrorism. In fact, this definitional power also allows political dissent to be recast as terrorism or as conducive to terrorism.