The true meaning of ‘jihad’ and how ISIS fails to accomplish it step by step

Al Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem is one of the most sacred places for Islam. Copyright: SalamPlan

This word is often presented as equal to “holy war” or “terrorism”. Neither of both, although on exceptional occasions the Islamic teachings do establish norms for a military defense.

‘Jihad’ in Arabic means “greatest effort” or “striving”. Applied to Islamic theology, it is about “how a person strives to achieve ethical manners in the different areas of life that are daily put into practice: to work and to earn money for the family in an ethical way, the effort in someone’s studies … (always focused) to serve humanity, to improve the world,” describes the Muslim sociologist and theologian, Abdelaziz Hammaoui, to SalamPlan.com citing ideals that coincide with Christianity and other religions.

Hammaoui was president of the Islamic Cultural Center of Valencia (Spain) and National Youth Prize 2013 in that country. He stresses that before giving accomplishing those kind of efforts for others, what the Prophet of Muslims Mohammed asked was the struggle against one’s own ego, against selfishness. That is what Islam considers the “greater jihad”, striving to improve oneself. In addition, there are scientific, social, cultural, economic jihads … in every field, as long as it intends to serve the good of society and God.

“One of these areas [of jihad], neither the largest nor the most important, is the right of a community to fight to defend its territory from an external attack,” says Hammaoui. Only in such cases, Islam defends a military jihad.

The basic conditions for going to war according to Islam

Former foreign terrorist Hanif Qadir joined the ranks of Al Qaeda in Afghanistan years ago, but he left the terrorist organization when he saw with his own eyes the horror they caused and returned to his home in the United Kingdom. Today he works on preventing radicalization at Active Change Foundation in that country. In his book Preventing and Countering Extremism and Terrorist Recruitment- A Guide to Good Practices (Ed. John Catt Publication) Qadir underlines explicit and concrete restrictions to the military jihad according to Islamic teachings: the war must be declared by a legitimate government, not by individual citizens, nor a preacher and of course not trough social media.

In the Quran, there are passages that call directly to kill. The first one can be found in Surah 2:190-195, according to Muhammad Assads’ translation: “Fight in God’s cause against those who wage war against you, but do not commit aggression – for, verily, God does not love aggressors. And slay them wherever you may come upon them, and drive them away from wherever they drove you away (…). But if they desist, then all hostility shall cease (…). Let not your own hands throw you into destruction and persevere in doing good: behold, God loves the doers of good”.

This passage emphasizes on two occasions that it should never be a Muslim who takes the first step to kill, but he encourages to answer to an attack for “the cause of God” (cause that can be defended, according to Islam, also with the other forms of jihad). In the same line, the Quran establishes permission to fight under three basic conditions (Surah 22:39-41):

  • “those against whom war is being wrongfully waged “;
  • “those who have been driven from their homelands against all right for no other reason than their saying, “Our Sustainer is God!'”;
  • a decision taken by the rulers chosen by the people: “those who, [even] if we firmly establish them on earth, remain constant in prayer, and give in charity, and enjoin the doing of what is right and forbid the doing of what is wrong.”

It is no coincidence that the self-proclaimed calipha Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi of the self-designated Islamic State (Daesh or ISIS) chose to found his terrorist organization as if it were a country. But neither Baghdadi was elected nor the Daesh is recognized as a State by any counterpart in the world. Moreover, ISIS and the Syrian branch of Al Qaeda are the only two groups on which every part in the Syrian peace talks agrees they are terrorists and, therefore, not included in those negotiations.

The list of rules limiting military jihad coincides with everything that terrorists don’t comply with when they claim to kill in the name of Islam: the war must be declared by a ruler chosen by the people, attack only in self-defense, never attack unarmed people, never at night, do not mutilate…

The president of the Islamic Supreme Council of America, Muhammad Hisham Kabbani, and the Cape Town Mufti Seraj Hendricks, defend on the Council’s website that military jihad is considered the last option to protect religion: jihad “can be performed using anything from legal, diplomatic and economic to political means. If there is no peaceful alternative, Islam also allows the use of force, but there are strict rules of engagement.” The rules of military jihad (considered the ‘minor jihad’) are established not only in the Quran, but the prophet of Islam, Mohammed, was very specific in his time, as Hammaoui recalls. And the list of conditions for the prophet coincides with everything terrorists don’t comply with whilst they claim to kill in the name of Islam:

  • not to attack the unarmed,
  • not kill or injure civilians, women and children,
  • never at night,
  • do not destroy crops or kill animals,
  • do not mutilate,
  • do not attack places of worship,
  • do not perform jihad just to show-off …

Does Islam encourage death by killing?

“The terrorists obligate what they call jihad in any situation and have thus hijacked the term. They fight without a legitimate ruler, they kill those whom it is not permitted to kill, Muslims and non-Muslims alike; they plant bombs in civilian areas; they kill themselves in suicide bombings, which is forbidden,” Qadir writes in his book. Suicide is “one of the greatest sins, it would only be beneath murder: these people commit the two most serious sins in Islam together,” Hammaoui adds.

“The excuse the terrorists find is a historical, not a theological one. They are based on some historical event of a Muslim fighter like when one of them committed suicide to open the door of a wall to infiltrate the ranks of the enemy… It is as if you took the opinion of a wise man from the time of the Crusades and applied it to the present [circumstances]. It doesn’t make any sense,” he says.

“The excuse that terrorists find for suicide is a historical, not a theological one. It is as if you took the opinion of a wise man of the time of the Crusades and applied it to the present circumstances”

And what is more important: Islam considers martyrs those who die for their faith in all types of jihad described. “Martyr is not only the one who dies on a battlefield. For example, if a person dies on the way to university with that intention of serving others (and therefore, serve God) in the scientific field, this person is also a martyr,” explains the Muslim theologian.

He recalls a fatwa (legal pronouncement of a Muslim scholar) that was “very controversial” only a few years ago. It was related to the Palestinian cause: “Some wise men said that if the Palestinian people had no other way of fighting, they can afford to immolate themselves as an exception. It raised much controversy and did not obtain a majority consensus”. In this sense, Hammaoui remembers that a fatwa is not obligatory, but only the Quran and the Sunna (the teachings of Mohammed).

Is there a religious war?

The Quran seems to call for a war between religions: “It is not conceivable that a believer should slay another believer, unless it be by mistake. And upon him who has slain a believer by mistake there is the duty of freeing a believing soul [other translations talk about ‘believing slaves’] from bondage and paying an indemnity to the victim’s relations (…). But whoever deliberately slays another believer, his requital shall be hell, therein to abide; and God will condemn him, and will reject him, and will prepare for him awesome suffering” (Surah 4:92-93).

But does Islam allow or encourage to kill non-Muslims then? Hammaoui assures that in compiling all texts about the same subject, it is clear that his religion condemns the act of killing any human being. “The very Prophet speaks of the ‘sacred human soul’, without distinction of his religion”, he emphasizes. The Quran also offers a clarification: “If anyone slays a human being unless it be [in punishment] for murder or for spreading corruption on earth – it shall be as though he had slain all mankind; whereas, if anyone saves a life, it shall be as though he had saved the lives of all mankind” (Surah 5:32).

“If anyone saves a life, it shall be as though he had saved the lives of all mankind” (Surah 5:32)

Kabbani and Hendricks assert that “jihad is not a declaration of war against other religions” and underline that “the Quran specifically refers to Jews and Christians as ‘people of the book’ who should be protected and respected.” They consider that “all three faiths worship the same God” and remind that ” Allah is just the Arabic word for God”.

Hammaoui quotes the Muslim prophet to insist on Islam being against non-Muslims: “Whoever kills a non-Muslim who has not declared himself an enemy fighter will not get even the smell of paradise” and “whoever does any kind of damage to a protected non-Muslim [he who lives in Islamic territory], will have me as an enemy on the day of judgment.”

In any case, terrorists do not distinguish between killing Muslims or people professing another faith. For them, all those who do not agree with their way of living the faith are “infidels”. It may be enough to recall the example of ISIS’ attack on a Muslim (Sufi) temple in Pakistan in February 2017 or the multiple Muslim victims in the Nice bombing in 2016 (one in three of the dead).

The call of the Quran to take up arms is only in self-defense

The Quran promises heaven to those who “believe and do good”, which may include on some exceptional occasion – with the above requirements – to kill for their faith. “Do you think that you could enter paradise unless God takes cognizance of your having striven hard (in His cause), and takes cognizance of your having been patient in adversity?” (Surah 3:142). Other translations say “fought” instead of “striven hard”; Hammaoui argues it means the widest term of all kind of jihad. In Surah 4:75 the cause for the jihad is extended to “fight[ing] (…) in the cause of God and of the utterly helpless men and women and children who are crying”.

It must be taken into account that what is translated as “fight” actually results from a verb that in Arabic implies self-defense. “Combat in Arabic is a term that although it has the same root as the word ‘killing’, it requires a prior attack. There must always be an attack on the other side first,” says Hammaoui.

Even in these cases, the Quran did not necessarily incite the enemy to be killed in the historical context in which it was written; rather, it was enough to take them as prisoners of war and then release them: “When you meet [in war] those who are bent on denying the truth, smite their necks until you overcome them fully, and then tighten their bonds; but thereafter [set them free,] either by an act of grace or against ransom, so that the burden of war may be lifted” (Surah 47:4).

Emigrate to fight in Syria

As for travelling to Syria to join what Daesh calls jihad, Qadir -the Al Qaeda former terrorist now devoted to prevention- points out that there should be two additional conditions: the consent of the parents and the spiritual leader of the person who wants to join the terrorists. Hammaoui disagrees: “There has to be legislation and (in this case) the opinion of the Syrians counts a lot. What if they do not want anyone to go to defend them? Islam respects human agreements and legislation for world peace.”

It may seem that the Quran encourages to migrate and fight, although a simple comparison of English translations shows a more literal interpretation versus one that includes the meaning of hijrah or exodus “in its spiritual connotation as well- namely, a ‘forsaking of the domain of evil’ and turning towards God”, as Muhammad Assad argues in his translation. Sahih International translates Surah 8:74 this way: “Those who have believed and emigrated and fought in the cause of God and those who gave them shelter and aided – it is they who are the believers, truly. For them is forgiveness and noble provision.” Assad translates the same vers this other way: “They who have attained to faith, and who have forsaken the domain of evil and are striving hard in God’s cause, as well as those who shelter and succour [them] – it is they, they who are truly believers! Forgiveness of sins awaits them, and a most excellent sustenance”.

Hammaoui explains: “Daesh is based on false arguments (to call for migration). The texts that speak of emigration in the Quran refer to the prophet after the period of oppression in Mecca (when he had to) migrate to Medina to live his faith in freedom and peace. That’s not applicable to today’s situation; perhaps for the Rohingya, persecuted only for reasons of faith, who migrate from Myanmar to Bangladesh. But that’s no reason to kill.”

“Europe remains a place -in terms of freedom– which is light years ahead of any Arab country and of course Syria, which is a shattered country”

In France the Muslim scholars of that country did not encourage Muslim believers to emigrate when the veil in the institutes was banned, “because faith is much more than that”, says the Muslim theologian as an example. “It’s possible that they (the terrorists) use the excuse of Islamophobia in Europe and say ‘we invite you to a place where you can live the faith in freedom’, but it is a hoax, because despite all Europe is still a place -in terms of freedom- which is light years ahead from any Arab country and of course from Syria, which is a shattered country without freedom.”

How is peace possible?

It has already been said that the Quran only allows to combat if there has been an attack first from another part, but it also calls for peace in such cases. In a passage dedicated to “the traitors” the Quran exclaims: “if they incline to peace, incline thou to it as well” (Surah 8:61). In this sense, the holy book of Islam also says: “if any of those who ascribe divinity to aught beside God seeks thy protection, grant him protection” (Surah 9:6).

“If they incline to peace, incline thou to it as well” (Surah 8:61)

Expert Julio Cortés explains in his translation of the Quran to Spanish that at the time it was written, “the pagan [or polytheist] was invited to embrace Islam. During the time of his instruction he enjoyed protection, which continued even in the case of not becoming a believer, until he was out of the immediate reach of the Muslims. ”

There is no denying that Islam speaks of the possibility of going to war to defend its faith, territory or dignity. But it is equally clear that it is not a priority goal -much less the only way to carry out jihad-, that the limitations to war established by the reference texts of this religion are many and that the terrorists of the self-proclaimed Islamic State and other similar groups fail to comply with those rules.