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Violence and Terrorism

John L. Esposito

What is jihad?

Jihad (exertion or struggle) is sometimes referred to as the Sixth Pillar of Islam. The importance of jihad is rooted in the Quran's command to struggle (the literal meaning of the word jihad) in the path of God and in the example of the Prophet Muhammad and his early Companions.

The history of the Muslim community from Muhammad to the present can be read within the framework of what the Quran teaches about jihad. These Quranic teachings are significant to Muslim self-understanding, piety, mobilization, expansion, and defense. Jihad as struggle pertains to the difficulty and complexity of living a good life: struggling against the evil in oneself—to be virtuous and moral, making a serious effort to do good works and help to reform society. Depending on the circumstances in which one lives, it also can mean fighting injustice and oppression, spreading and defending Islam, and creating a just society through preaching, teaching, and, if necessary, armed struggle or holy war.

The two broad meanings of jihad, nonviolent and violent, are contrasted in a well-known Prophetic tradition. It is said that when Muhammad returned from battle he told his followers, “We return from the lesser jihad [warfare] to the greater jihad.” The greater jihad is the more difficult and more important struggle against one's ego, selfishness, greed, and evil.

In its most general meaning, jihad refers to the obligation incumbent on all Muslims, individuals and the community, to follow and realize God's will: to lead a virtuous life and to extend the Islamic community through preaching, education, example, writing, etc. Jihad also includes the right, indeed the obligation, to defend Islam and the community from aggression. Throughout history, the call to jihad has rallied Muslims to the defense of Islam. An example of this is the Afghan mujahidin who fought a decade-long jihad (1979–89) against Soviet occupation.

Jihad is a concept with multiple meanings, used and abused throughout Islamic history. Although it is not associated with the words holy war anywhere in the Quran, Muslim rulers, with the support of religious scholars and officials, have historically used the concept of armed jihad to legitimate wars of imperial expansion. Early extremist groups also appealed to Islam to legitimate rebellion, assassination, and attempts to overthrow Muslim rulers.

In recent years religious extremists and terrorists have insisted that jihad is a universal religious obligation and that all true Muslims must join the jihad to promote a global Islamic revolution. A radicalized minority have combined militancy with messianic visions to mobilize an “army of God” whose jihad is to “liberate” Muslims at home and abroad. They have engaged in acts of violence and terror in their attempts to topple Muslim governments and, like Osama bin Laden and others, engaged in a global jihad.

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