What ISIS – and the West – gets wrong about ‘jihad’

Editor’s Note: Abed Awad is an attorney, an expert in Islamic law and the laws of the Middle East, and an adjunct law professor at Rutgers Law School. The views expressed in this commentary are solely his.

Story highlights

The term "jihad" has become associated with carnage and terrorism

The Western notion of jihad meaning "holy war" is not entirely accurate, argues Abed Awad

Most Arabic dictionaries define it as the striving, effort to do good, Awad explains

Violence of ISIS and groups like them violate the fundamental tenets of Islam, he adds

CNN  — 

The Lord is “a man of war” with little patience for unbelievers, we are told in the pages of the ancient text.

When the LORD thy God shall deliver them before thee, thou shalt smite them and utterly destroy them. Thou shalt make no covenant with them nor show mercy unto them”, the Lord directs.

“But ye shall destroy their altars, break their images, and cut down their Asherah poles.”

Upping the ante against the unbeliever even further, God demands: “Now therefore kill every male among the little ones, and kill every woman who hath known a man by lying with him. But all the women children, who have not known a man by lying with him, keep alive for yourselves.”

The divinely-ordained carnage reaches its climax when God directs believers: “But of the cities of these people which the LORD thy God doth give thee for an inheritance, thou shalt save alive nothing that breatheth.”

The verses sound like propaganda used by ISIS to justify their blood-drenched reign of terror in Iraq and Syria. But these words aren’t from the Quran – they’re from the Bible (21st Century King James Version).

Seemingly every day brings a new story about the horrific violence and bigotry carried out by ISIS in the name of “jihad” for the Lord. Not surprisingly, the term has become associated with carnage, holy war and terrorism.

But what is jihad anyway?

Western readers assume that jihad means “holy war,” but that is not exactly accurate.

Jihad means the striving, effort and exertion to do good, according to most Arabic dictionaries and authoritative books on Islamic law.

When I was teenager, my mother would remind me all the time that my father’s job was part of performing jihad to provide for our family. Working hard to feed your family or supporting the poor are examples of jihad. This understanding is second nature to the majority of Muslims.

On the other hand, from a technical jurisprudential perspective, the concept of jihad also includes the rules that govern war and peace treaties. In this regard, jihad against occupation or against political regimes could be described as justified war, or war that draws legitimacy from Allah to spread his message to defend Muslims or to remove oppression.

Jihad also includes the inner spiritual struggle of life. The Prophet Muhammad emphasized the spiritual core of jihad to his followers. When he returned from war he told them that the jihad of the battlefield is a lesser form of the concept when compared to the greatest jihad – “jihad ul-nafs,” the inner struggle to lead an ethical and pious life.

Jihad as a concept is complex and multi-layered. ISIS doesn’t want to acknowledge the historical context nor the Quranic context to accurately understand jihad. They don’t want to see the overriding compassionate moral Quranic message, they just want to manipulate the text to feed their political violence.

The word jihad (including its different forms) appears in about 19 chapters (in 35 verses) in the Quran – most of them revolving around the spiritual and non-violent aspects of the word.

And yes, some of the verses address war and self-defense, but the word “qital” is used more than jihad, like in the following verse:

And when the sacred months have passed, then kill the polytheists wherever you find them and capture them and besiege them and sit in wait for them at every place of ambush.

But if they should repent, establish prayer, and give zakah, let them (go) on their way. Indeed, Allah is Forgiving and Merciful.” (All Quran quotes are from The Saheeh International translation).

At the time this and similar verses were revealed, the Muslim community was under constant attack by the non-Muslim Arabs who had one objective in mind – to annihilate the entire nascent Muslim community. This was a time of war, a time of utter survival.

This verse can only be read within its historical context – and with the numerous other verses in the Quran directing the faithful to strive hard in the way of Allah.

Fight those who fight you and fight them until there is no more oppression, God commanded in the Quran – although he prohibited the Muslims from war during the holy months.

Even though God permitted Muslims to fight back, he ordered them to keep prisoners humanely – and if an unbeliever asks a Muslim for asylum, God directs Muslims to grant it and to escort the person to safety. If the enemy is inclined toward peace, a Muslim must reciprocate.

Islamic law, or Sharia, is a jurist-made law based on the Quran and the example of the Prophet Mohammed.

The jurists prohibited violence towards women, children, the elderly, the sick, and the wounded. They prohibited fighters from attacking religious figures, and places of worship for Christians and Jews. They prohibited the burning of harvest, the cutting down of trees and the like.

After Omar Ibn al-Khattab – the second successor to the Prophet – defeated the Romans in Palestine, he made a pledge to residents that he would protect their homes and their places of worship, and guaranteed the freedom of access and protection of Christian crosses. Khattab also warned his commanders not to mutilate the enemy and not to kill women, children or the elderly.

While in Jerusalem, Khattab discovered that a large building covered in dirt was in fact a Jewish temple that had destroyed by Romans. Angry at the desecration of this house of worship, he and his soldiers began to remove the dirt with their bare hands, restoring the temple for the city’s Jewish residents.

Six hundred years later, Saladin – in accordance with the Quranic message of tolerance – treated Christian Crusaders with humanity and respect, something the Crusaders had not done to the Muslims.

ISIS and groups like it seek regime change. They advance supposed religious justifications for their own violent political means.

But those violent means directly contradict and violate the fundamental tenets of Islam. In the hands of these political ideologues, jihad has been bent into a destructive tool for very un-Islamic political violence couched in Islamic terminology.

Allah in the Quran set the moral and ethical framework for Muslims. No political doctrine of jihad and the associated political violence can supersede or transcend the divine humanitarian message laid out in the Quran.

This unequivocal divine voice prohibits the killing of women, children and the elderly. It prohibits torture, compulsion in religion, destruction of houses of worship, the rape and pillaging of towns and the humiliation of fellow humans.

The criminals of ISIS do not want to hear this divine voice because it contradicts their reign of terror. But it is the only absolute divine voice of jihad that the rest of us Muslims hear loud and clear.