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Jihad as Change Activism

Jihad: CHANGE ACTIVISM

With the rise of the 'Islamic State' in Iraq and Syria, the term 'jihad' has become, virtually, a dirty word. We must reclaim the profound concept of jihad, and situate it in its proper context.

"For none of you will faith be rectified unless your hearts be made right, nor will your hearts be rectified unless your tongues be made right, nor will your tongues be rectified unless your actions be made right."

This famous and historically authenticated saying of the Prophet expresses the quintessence of the Islamic conception of 'jihad'. The term jihad does not mean war or terror, but literally means 'striving' or 'struggle.' Jihad is the struggle to establish and reflect the Qur'anic maqasid of justice/compassion/love/generosity and other ethical values in one's own self and society at large.

The word jihad appears in the Qur'an for the most part in its verbal form, for instance, jahadu. The Qur'an defines jihad, fundamentally, as a form of striving, effort or exertion to change oneself and one's society for the better, by aligning oneself and society to be more increasingly reflective of the ethical qualities captured in the Divine Names, Love, Justice, Generosity, Compassion, and so on:

“The true believers are those who believe in God and His messenger, then attain the status of having no doubt whatsoever, and strive (jahadu) with their money and their lives in the cause of God. These are the truthful ones.” (49:15)

“Those who believe, and emigrate, and strive (jahadu) in the cause of God with their money and their lives, are far greater in rank in the sight of God. These are the winners.” (9:20) 

“As for the messenger and those who believed with him, they eagerly strive (jahadu) with their money and their lives. These have deserved all the good things; they are the winners.” (9:88)

Walter H. Wagner, Professor of History and Islamic Studies at Moravian College, points out in his book, Opening the Qur'an (University of Notre Dame Press) that: 

J-H-D, the triconsonantal root for jihad-related words, occurs forty-one times in the Qur'an. The root connotes striving, endeavoring, being in earnest, power, ability, struggle, and fighting. Most of the references in the Qur'an do not deal with an obvious call to Muslims to wage war or to fight… Of the forty-one references, ten clearly are military in nature and significance. All ten are in Surahs 2, 8, and 9.”

Similarly, Prof. Nathan Funk and Prof. Abdul Aziz Said highlight a number of well-known authenticated traditions which emphasise the best and most valued forms of jihad: 

“Among the most famous of these is a hadith that states, 'The most excellent jihad is uttering a word of truth in the face of a tyrant.'" (Islam and Peacemaking in the Middle East [Boulder: Lynne RiennerPublishers, 2009])

Sunni and Shi'a scholars largely agree that there are two types of jihad, an inner jihad relating to a spiritual struggle of consciousness and personal conduct, and an outer jihad pertaining to efforts to transform wider society. These aspects of jihad are not just complementary, but integrally conjoined dimensions of a process of inner and outer transformation driven by a form of change activism inspired by love of the Divine, and the Divine Qualities.

Thus, the same root, j-h-d, is the root of other words in the Qur'an emphasising effort and struggle to attain perfection. A wide range of verses use jihad to delineate forms of social struggle and effort relating to economic justice, psychological change, and the moral good (22:78, 25:53, 4:95)