With support from the University of Richmond

History News Network

History News Network puts current events into historical perspective. Subscribe to our newsletter for new perspectives on the ways history continues to resonate in the present. Explore our archive of thousands of original op-eds and curated stories from around the web. Join us to learn more about the past, now.

Jihad: How Academics Have Camouflaged Its Real Meaning

LAST SPRING, the faculty of Harvard College selected a graduating senior named Zayed Yasin to deliver a speech at the university's commencement exercises in June. When the title of the speech—"My American Jihad"—was announced, it quite naturally aroused questions. Why, it was asked, should Harvard wish to promote the concept of jihad—or "holy war"—just months after thousands of Americans had lost their lives to a jihad carried out by nineteen suicide hijackers acting in the name of Islam? Yasin, a past president of the Harvard Islamic Society, had a ready answer. To connect jihad to warfare, he said, was to misunderstand it. Rather, "in the Muslim tradition, jihad represents a struggle to do the right thing." His own purpose, Yasin added, was to "reclaim the word for its true meaning, which is inner struggle."

In the speech itself, Yasin would elaborate on this point:

Jihad, in its truest and purest form, the form to which all Muslims aspire, is the determination to do right, to do justice even against your own interests. It is an individual struggle for personal moral behavior. Especially today, it is a struggle that exists on many levels: self-purification and awareness, public service and social justice. On a global scale, it is a struggle involving people of all ages, colors, and creeds, for control of the Big Decisions: not only who controls what piece of land, but more importantly who gets medicine, who can eat.

Could this be right? To be sure, Yasin was not a scholar of Islam, and neither was the Harvard dean, Michael Shinagel, who enthusiastically endorsed his "thoughtful oration" and declared in his own name that jihad is a personal struggle "to promote justice and understanding in ourselves and in our society." But they both did accurately reflect the consensus of Islamic specialists at their institution. Thus, David Little, a Harvard professor of religion and international affairs, had stated after the attacks of September 11, 2001 that jihad "is not a license to kill," while to David Mitten, a professor of classical art and archaeology as well as faculty adviser to the Harvard Islamic Society, true jihad is "the constant struggle of Muslims to conquer their inner base instincts, to follow the path to God, and to do good in society." In a similar vein, history professor Roy Mottahedeh asserted that "a majority of learned Muslim thinkers, drawing on impeccable scholarship, insist that jihad must be understood as a struggle without arms."

Nor are Harvard's scholars exceptional in this regard. The truth is that anyone seeking guidance on the all-important Islamic concept of jihad would get almost identical instruction from members of the professoriate across the United States. As I discovered through an examination of media statements by such university-based specialists, they tend to portray the phenomenon of jihad in a remarkably similar fashion—only, the portrait happens to be false.


SEVERAL INTERLOCKING themes emerge from the more than two dozen experts I surveyed.* Only four of them admit that jihad has any military component whatsoever, and even they, with but a single exception, insist that this component is purely defensive in nature. Valerie Hoffman of the University of Illinois is unique in saying (as paraphrased by a journalist) that "no Muslim she knew would have endorsed such terrorism [as the attacks of September 11], as it goes against Islamic rules of engagement." No other scholar would go so far as even this implicit hint that jihad includes an offensive component.

Thus, John Esposito of Georgetown, perhaps the most visible academic scholar of Islam, holds that "in the struggle to be a good Muslim, there may be times where one will be called upon to defend one's faith and community. Then [jihad] can take on the meaning of armed struggle." Another specialist holding this view is Abdullahi Ahmed An-Na'im of Emory, who explains that "War is forbidden by the shari'a [Islamic law] except in two cases: self-defense, and the propagation of the Islamic faith." According to Blake Burleson of Baylor, what this means is that, in Islam, an act of aggression like September 11 "would not be considered a holy war."

To another half-dozen scholars in my survey, jihad may likewise include militarily defensive engagements, but this meaning is itself secondary to lofty notions of moral self-improvement. Charles Kimball, chairman of the department of religion at Wake Forest, puts it succinctly: jihad "means struggling or striving on behalf of God. The great jihad for most is a struggle against oneself. The lesser jihad is the outward, defensive jihad." Pronouncing similarly are such authorities as Mohammad Siddiqi of Western Illinois, John Iskander of Georgia State, Mark Woodard of Arizona State, Taha Jabir Al-Alwani of the graduate school of Islamic and social sciences in Leesburg, Virginia, and Barbara Stowasser of Georgetown.

But an even larger contingent—nine of those surveyed—deny that jihad has any military meaning whatsoever. For Joe Elder, a professor of sociology at the University of Wisconsin, the idea that jihad means holy war is "a gross misinterpretation." Rather, he says, jihad is a "religious struggle, which more closely reflects the inner, personal struggles of the religion." For Dell DeChant, a professor of world religions at the University of South Florida, the word as "usually understood" means "a struggle to be true to the will of God and not holy war."

Concurring views have been voiced by, among others, John Kelsay of John Carroll University, Zahid Bukhari of Georgetown, and James Johnson of Rutgers. Roxanne Euben of Wellesley College, the author of The Road to Kandahar: A Genealogy of Jihad in Modern Islamist Political Thought, asserts that "For many Muslims, jihad means to resist temptation and become a better person." John Parcels, a professor of philosophy and religious studies at Georgia Southern University, defines jihad as a struggle "over the appetites and your own will." For Ned Rinalducci, a professor of sociology at Armstrong Atlantic State University, the goals of jihad are: "Internally, to be a good Muslim. Externally, to create a just society." And Farid Eseck, professor of Islamic studies at Auburn Seminary in New York City, memorably describes jihad as "resisting apartheid or working for women's rights."

Finally, there are those academics who focus on the concept of jihad in the sense of "self-purification" and then proceed to universalize it, applying it to non-Muslims as well as Muslims. Thus, to Bruce Lawrence, a prominent professor of Islamic studies at Duke, not only is jihad itself a highly elastic term ("being a better student, a better colleague, a better business partner. Above all, to control one's anger"), but non-Muslims should also "cultivate . . . a civil virtue known as jihad":

Jihad? Yes, jihad . . . a jihad that would be a genuine struggle against our own myopia and neglect as much as it is against outside others who condemn or hate us for what we do, not for what we are. . . . For us Americans, the greater jihad would mean that we must review U.S. domestic and foreign policies in a world that currently exhibits little signs of promoting justice for all.

Here we find ourselves returned to the sentiments expressed by the Harvard commencement speaker, who sought to convince his audience that jihad is something all Americans should admire.

THE TROUBLE with this accumulated wisdom of the scholars is simple to state. It suggests that Osama bin Laden had no idea what he was saying when he declared jihad on the United States several years ago and then repeatedly murdered Americans in Somalia, at the U.S. embassies in East Africa, in the port of Aden, and then on September 11, 2001. It implies that organizations with the word "jihad" in their titles, including Palestinian Islamic Jihad and bin Laden's own "International Islamic Front for the Jihad Against Jews and Crusade[rs]," are grossly misnamed. And what about all the Muslims waging violent and aggressive jihads, under that very name and at this very moment, in Algeria, Egypt, Sudan, Chechnya, Kashmir, Mindanao, Ambon, and other places around the world? Have they not heard that jihad is a matter of controlling one's anger?

But of course it is bin Laden, Islamic Jihad, and the jihadists worldwide who define the term, not a covey of academic apologists. More importantly, the way the jihadists understand the term is in keeping with its usage through fourteen centuries of Islamic history.


In premodern times, jihad meant mainly one thing among Sunni Muslims, then as now the Islamic majority.** It meant the legal, compulsory, communal effort to expand the territories ruled by Muslims (known in Arabic as dar al-Islam) at the expense of territories ruled by non-Muslims (dar al-harb). In this prevailing conception, the purpose of jihad is political, not religious. It aims not so much to spread the Islamic faith as to extend sovereign Muslim power (though the former has often followed the latter). The goal is boldly offensive, and its ultimate intent is nothing less than to achieve Muslim dominion over the entire world.

By winning territory and diminishing the size of areas ruled by non-Muslims, jihad accomplishes two goals: it manifests Islam's claim to replace other faiths, and it brings about the benefit of a just world order. In the words of Majid Khadduri of Johns Hopkins University, writing in 1955 (before political correctness conquered the universities), jihad is "an instrument for both the universalization of [Islamic] religion and the establishment of an imperial world state."

As for the conditions under which jihad might be undertaken—when, by whom, against whom, with what sort of declaration of war, ending how, with what division of spoils, and so on—these are matters that religious scholars worked out in excruciating detail over the centuries. But about the basic meaning of jihad—warfare against unbelievers to extend Muslim domains—there was perfect consensus. For example, the most important collection of hadith (reports about the sayings and actions of Muhammad), called Sahih al-Bukhari, contains 199 references to jihad, and every one of them refers to it in the sense of armed warfare against non-Muslims. To quote the 1885 Dictionary of Islam, jihad is "an incumbent religious duty, established in the Qur'an and in the traditions [hadith] as a divine institution, and enjoined especially for the purpose of advancing Islam and of repelling evil from Muslims."

JIHAD WAS no abstract obligation through the centuries, but a key aspect of Muslim life. According to one calculation, Muhammad himself engaged in 78 battles, of which just one (the Battle of the Ditch) was defensive. Within a century after the prophet's death in 632, Muslim armies had reached as far as India in the east and Spain in the west. Though such a dramatic single expansion was never again to be repeated, important victories in subsequent centuries included the seventeen Indian campaigns of Mahmud of Ghazna (r. 998-1030), the battle of Manzikert opening Anatolia (1071), the conquest of Constantinople (1453), and the triumphs of Uthman dan Fodio in West Africa (1804-17). In brief, jihad was part of the warp and woof not only of premodern Muslim doctrine but of premodern Muslim life.

That said, jihad also had two variant meanings over the ages, one of them more radical than the standard meaning and one quite pacific. The first, mainly associated with the thinker Ibn Taymiya (1268-1328), holds that born Muslims who fail to live up to the requirements of their faith are themselves to be considered unbelievers, and so legitimate targets of jihad. This tended to come in handy when (as was often the case) one Muslim ruler made war against another; only by portraying the enemy as not properly Muslim could the war be dignified as a jihad.

The second variant, usually associated with Sufis, or Muslim mystics, was the doctrine customarily translated as "greater jihad" but perhaps more usefully termed "higher jihad." This Sufi variant invokes allegorical modes of interpretation to turn jihad's literal meaning of armed conflict upside-down, calling instead for a withdrawal from the world to struggle against one's baser instincts in pursuit of numinous awareness and spiritual depth. But as Rudolph Peters notes in his authoritative Jihad in Classical and Modern Islam (1995), this interpretation was "hardly touched upon" in premodern legal writings on jihad.

IN THE vast majority of premodern cases, then, jihad signified one thing only: armed action versus non-Muslims. In modern times, things have of course become somewhat more complicated, as Islam has undergone contradictory changes resulting from its contact with Western influences. Muslims having to cope with the West have tended to adopt one of three broad approaches: Islamist, reformist, or secularist. For the purposes of this discussion, we may put aside the secularists (such as Kemal Ataturk), for they reject jihad in its entirety, and instead focus on the Islamists and reformists. Both have fastened on the variant meanings of jihad to develop their own interpretations.

Islamists, besides adhering to the primary conception of jihad as armed warfare against infidels, have also adopted as their own Ibn Taymiya's call to target impious Muslims. This approach acquired increased salience through the 20th century as Islamist thinkers like Hasan al-Banna (1906-49), Sayyid Qutb (1906-66), Abu al-A‘la Mawdudi (1903-79), and Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini (1903-89) promoted jihad against putatively Muslim rulers who failed to live up to or apply the laws of Islam. The revolutionaries who overthrew the shah of Iran in 1979 and the assassins who gunned down President Anwar Sadat of Egypt two years later overtly held to this doctrine. So does Osama bin Laden.

Reformists, by contrast, reinterpret Islam to make it compatible with Western ways. It is they—principally through the writings of Sir Sayyid Ahmad Khan, a 19th-century reformist leader in India—who have worked to transform the idea of jihad into a purely defensive undertaking compatible with the premises of international law. This approach, characterized in 1965 by the definitive Encyclopedia of Islam as "wholly apologetic," owes far more to Western than to Islamic thinking. In our own day, it has devolved further into what Martin Kramer has dubbed "a kind of Oriental Quakerism," and it, together with a revival of the Sufi notion of "greater jihad," is what has emboldened some to deny that jihad has any martial component whatsoever, instead redefining the idea into a purely spiritual or social activity.

For most Muslims in the world today, these moves away from the old sense of jihad are rather remote. They neither see their own rulers as targets deserving of jihad nor are they ready to become Quakers. Instead, the classic notion of jihad continues to resonate with vast numbers of them, as Alfred Morabia, a foremost French scholar of the topic, noted in 1993:

Offensive, bellicose jihad, the one codified by the specialists and theologians, has not ceased to awaken an echo in the Muslim consciousness, both individual and collective. . . . To be sure, contemporary apologists present a picture of this religious obligation that conforms well to the contemporary norms of human rights, . . . but the people are not convinced by this. . . . The overwhelming majority of Muslims remain under the spiritual sway of a law . . . whose key requirement is the demand, not to speak of the hope, to make the Word of God triumph everywhere in the world.
In brief, jihad in the raw remains a powerful force in the Muslim world, and this goes far to explain the immense appeal of a figure like Osama bin Laden in the immediate aftermath of September 11, 2001.

Contrary to the graduating Harvard senior who assured his audience that "Jihad is not something that should make someone feel uncomfortable," this concept has caused and continues to cause not merely discomfort but untold human suffering: in the words of the Swiss specialist Bat Ye'or, "war, dispossession, dhimmitude [subordination], slavery, and death." As Bat Ye'or points out, Muslims "have the right as Muslims to say that jihad is just and spiritual" if they so wish; but by the same token, any truly honest accounting would have to give voice to the countless "infidels who were and are the victims of jihad" and who, no less than the victims of Nazism or Communism, have "their own opinion of the jihad that targets them."


ISLAMISTS SEEKING to advance their agenda within Western, non-Muslim environments—for example, as lobbyists in Washington, D.C.—cannot frankly divulge their views and still remain players in the political game. So as not to arouse fears and so as not to isolate themselves, these individuals and organizations usually cloak their true outlook in moderate language, at least when addressing the non-Muslim public. When referring to jihad, they adopt the terminology of reformists, presenting warfare as decidedly secondary to the goal of inner struggle and social betterment. Thus, the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), the most aggressive and prominent Islamist group in the United States, insists that jihad "does not mean ‘holy war'" but rather is a "broad Islamic concept that includes struggle against evil inclinations within oneself, struggle to improve the quality of life in society, struggle in the battlefield for self-defense (e.g., having a standing army for national defense), or fighting against tyranny or oppression."

This sort of talk is pure disinformation, reminiscent of the language of Soviet front groups in decades past. A dramatic example of it was on offer at the trial of John Walker Lindh, the Marin County teenager who went off to wage jihad on behalf of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan. At his sentencing in early October, Lindh told the court that, in common with "mainstream Muslims around the world," he himself understood jihad as a variety of activities ranging "from striving to overcome one's own personal faults, to speaking out for the truth in adverse circumstances, to military action in defense of justice."

That a jihadist caught in the act of offensive armed warfare should unashamedly proffer so mealy-mouthed a definition of his actions may seem extraordinary. But it is perfectly in tune with the explaining-away of jihad promoted by academic specialists, as well as by Islamist organizations engaging in public relations. For usage of the term in its plain meaning, we have to turn to Islamists not so engaged. Such Islamists speak openly of jihad in its proper, martial sense. Here is Osama bin Laden: Allah "orders us to carry out the holy struggle, jihad, to raise the word of Allah above the words of the unbelievers." And here is Mullah Muhammad Omar, the former head of the Taliban regime, exhorting Muslim youth: "Head for jihad and have your guns ready."

IT IS an intellectual scandal that, since September 11, 2001, scholars at American universities have repeatedly and all but unanimously issued public statements that avoid or whitewash the primary meaning of jihad in Islamic law and Muslim history. It is quite as if historians of medieval Europe were to deny that the word "crusade" ever had martial overtones, instead pointing to such terms as "crusade on hunger" or "crusade against drugs" to demonstrate that the term signifies an effort to improve society.

Among today's academic specialists who have undertaken to sanitize this key Islamic concept, many are no doubt acting out of the impulses of political correctness and the multiculturalist urge to protect a non-Western civilization from criticism by making it appear just like our own. As for Islamists among those academics, at least some have a different purpose: like CAIR and other, similar organizations, they are endeavoring to camouflage a threatening concept by rendering it in terms acceptable within university discourse. Non-Muslim colleagues who play along with this deception may be seen as having effectively assumed the role of dhimmi, the Islamic term for a Christian or Jew living under Muslim rule who is tolerated so long as he bends the knee and accepts Islam's superiority.

As I can attest, one who dares to dissent and utter the truth on the matter of jihad falls under enormous censure—and not just in universities. In June of this year, in a debate with an Islamist on ABC's Nightline, I stated: "The fact is, historically speaking—I speak as a historian—jihad has meant expanding the realm of Islam through armed warfare." More recently, on a PBS Lehrer NewsHour program about alleged discrimination against Muslims in the United States, a clip was shown of a role-playing seminar, conducted by the Muslim Public Affairs Council, in which Muslim "activists" were practicing how to deal with "hostile" critics. As part of this exercise, my image was shown to the seminar as I spoke my sentence from the Nightline debate. The comment on this scene by the show's PBS narrator ran as follows: "Muslim activists have been troubled by critics who have publicly condemned Islam as a violent and evil religion." We have thus reached a point where merely to state a well-known fact about Islam earns one the status of a hostile bigot on a prestigious and publicly funded television show.

AMERICANS STRUGGLING to make sense of the war declared on them in the name of jihad, whether they are policymakers, journalists, or citizens, have every reason to be deeply confused as to who their enemy is and what his goals are. Even people who think they know that jihad means holy war are susceptible to the combined efforts of scholars and Islamists brandishing notions like "resisting apartheid or working for women's rights." The result is to becloud reality, obstructing the possibility of achieving a clear, honest understanding of what and whom we are fighting, and why.

It is for this reason that the nearly universal falsification of jihad on the part of American academic scholars is an issue of far-reaching consequence. It should be a matter of urgent concern not only to anyone connected with or directly affected by university life—other faculty members, administrators, alumni, state and federal representatives, parents of students, students themselves—but to us all.

* To see what the public is told, I looked at op-ed pieces, quotations in newspaper articles, and interviews on television rather than at articles in learned journals.

**This analysis relies on Douglas Streusand, "What Does Jihad Mean?" Middle East Quarterly, (September 1997).