What does jihad actually mean?

September 12, 2014

We’ve been hearing a lot about jihad since 9/11 in connection to Islamist extremism, and it has been in popular usage once again with the rise of ISIS. But what does the word actually mean?

In the Oxford English Dictionary, “jihad” is defined as “a holy war fought by Muslims against unbelievers.” And this is the view commonly held in Western cultures. In Islam, however, the word has an entirely different meaning, taught to Muslims from childhood.

I first heard about this meaning of jihad as a kid on a radio show on the way to school. The radio show host was explaining how helping the needy and going to school are forms of jihad. I scoffed at him. “Really?” I said mockingly.

My dad turned to me. “Yes,” he said.

“So if I die now, do I go to heaven?”

“Yep. You would be a martyr.”

So what was the radio show host talking about? Where does this meaning of jihad as he was using it come from?

The Root

In Arabic, to find the meaning of a word, one needs to find its root. Every word has a three-letter root, and all roots are weighted on the word “f-3-l” (the “3” here representing the letter ‘ayn). “F-3-l” literally means “he did”, but acts as the infinitive verb “to do”, since all verbs in Arabic take either a masculine or feminine form.

To give an example, the word for office or desk is “maktab”, which in Arabic is written “m-k-t-b” (since the vowels are diacritics and not letters). Its root is “k-t-b”, which literally means “he wrote”, but acts as the infinitive verb “to write”.

As well as all roots being weighted on “f-3-l”, all derivatives of a word are based on a specific pattern derived from this root. For instance, a word with the weight of “m-f-3-l” denotes a place where the verb happens. Using the above example, “m-k-t-b” is the place where writing happens.

Another common pattern is “f-3-a-l” (here, the “a” sound is long, so it’s a letter rather than a diacritic). This pattern always denotes the noun associated with a verb. For instance, in the above example, since “k-t-b” has the pattern “f-3-l”, if you add an “a” between the second and third letters to make it weighted on “f-3-a-l”, the word becomes “k-t-a-b”, which literally means “a book”.

“Jihad” in Arabic is spelt “j-h-a-d”. This has the weight of “f-3-a-l”. To find the root word of “j-h-a-d”, all one has to do is turn the word from one weighted on “f-3-a-l” to one weighted on “f-3-l”, i.e. remove the “a”. Thus, the root word is “j-h-d”. This word literally means “he strove”, and acts as the infinitive verb, “to strive”. And since words weighted on “f-3-a-l” indicate the noun associated with an infinitive verb, “j-h-a-d” literally means “the act of striving”.

The Definition

“Jihad” appears many times in the Quran, usually in the phrase “jihad fi sabeel Allah.” Literally, this translates to “striving in the way of God.” And there are many forms of this struggle Muslims believe they are called upon to put towards God, an offensive war being the most controversial and condemned one of them among Islamic scholars. More common forms of jihad, or exerted effort, that Muslims are called upon include prayer, giving to the poor, taking care of the needy, and education. In fact, given that Muslims believe the first word from the Quran ever revealed to Muhammad is “read”, it is a commonly held belief among mainstream Muslims that education is the most vital form of struggle towards God. And this is what the show host that morning was talking about.

In Islam, actions derive their purpose from their service towards society. Islamic culture is communal, and morality is directed towards society. As such, jihad can be seen as the Islamic equivalent of the existential struggle. Whereas Western secular culture is individualist, and thus the purpose of life is derived from self-fulfilling actions, jihad is the day-to-day acts that serve the community to ensure its cohesion and improvement, and thus give Muslims meaning to their lives and bring them closer to God.

The definition of jihad as “holy war” is incredibly reductionist. It has no basis in Arabic linguistics, and as such, any theological argument monopolizing the concept towards violence is fundamentally flawed.

Interestingly, in 2002, a year following the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Gallup conducted a poll asking Muslims from different countries what they believe the meaning of “jihad” is. The results showed a clear distinction between Arabic and non-Arabic countries. A majority of Muslims in non-Arabic countries defined jihad in violent terms, but the vast majority of Muslims in Arabic countries defined it in peaceful terms, whether as “achieving one’s goals in life” or going so far as to say that it means “promoting peace, harmony or cooperation, and assisting others”—in radical opposition to the Western popular view of jihad. This, if anything, shows that it is much easier to believe in a violent definition of jihad if one did not have a grasp of its meaning in its native language, and is instead informed about it by popular culture, and by extremist religious elements, without the proper linguistic tools to be able to think about the term critically.