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Here's What 'Jihad' Actually Means, Because Nobody Seems to Know

I asked some people who throw the word around a lot. Neither radicals nor white supremacists got it right.
Image by Ben Thomson

Jihad. It's a word that's been bastardised by those within the Islamic faith, and constantly misunderstood by those on the outside. Politicians use it to justify war, while ISIS uses it to justify terrorism. Jihad is all over our newspapers, our radios, and our television.

Jihad has really been defined by this notion of terrorism for a long time. According to Hadia Dajani-Shakeel's Perception of the Counter Crusade, the negative stereotype of Muslims as terrorists stems back to the Crusades, when the image of the Arab warrior religion was developed as propaganda. Muslims were depicted as the Antichrist in blasphemous occupation of Christian Holy Lands, an obvious front for the European Empires real agenda; the Silk Road to China, but that's another discussion altogether.


But what's interesting is that when I started asking my friends for a definition of jihad, very few could provide one. And some of my friends, on both sides of the Christian/Muslim divide, use the word jihad a lot.

I started with my friend Iqbal, a 19-year-old accounting student from western Sydney. Iqbal is also an associate of suspected terrorist Ihsas Khan so I figured his answer would be particularly illuminating. After a long discussion about the Pakistani cricket team, I asked what the word meant. He promptly replied, "jihad is the struggle against oppression."

Iqbal is half-right. But to understand why he's also half wrong, we need a little bit of background about the Islamic faith. Literally "jihad" means "struggle," "striving," or "great effort." In the Quran, the word is a sort of homonym with two distinct connotations—the "greater jihad" which is a personal struggle of a soul in crisis, and the "lesser jihad," which is the worldly struggle of war against an oppressor. Basically, jihad either refers to an internal struggle or an external one.

The most common definition is the spiritual struggle, the battle of a soul that's striving toward God—the greater jihad. This one has been collectively agreed upon across the varying schools of Islamic thought. Yes, even the Wahabis and Salafis.

But Islam considers the inward struggle toward God inseparable from the outward struggle for the welfare of humanity. So, if a Muslim were to commit an act that doesn't benefit humanity—say, terrorism—that would completely contradict the proper definition of the word jihad.


Speaking to me, Iqbal refused to acknowledge that he'd only really defined the lesser jihad—not the greater one. And that's actually a big problem.

The issue is that this definition of jihad is often exploited by militants and extremists to give religious sanction to what is actually a social or political agenda. Iqbal's interpretation of jihad is openly rejected by the masses of Islamic migrants living in the West. It does not reflect how the prophet Muhammad understood the term. In fact, the doctrine of jihad wasn't even fully developed as an ideological expression until long after the prophet's death.

For some though, the idea of jihad as a "struggle against oppression" slips into a misunderstanding that jihad means war. Take Rob, a member of the notorious Barwon Prison gang or the POWs—Prisoners of War, sometimes referred to as Power of Whites. He's in prison so I arranged for him to call me.

When the phone rang, Rob was quick. "Let's not beat around the bush mate, it's about war," he said. "Because at the heart of it Muslims are just vicious, they go on about jihad in prison, pick on the Christians, play the victim card, and start drama because they're bored and angry they and hate us."

I told Rob that there are multiple words that translate to "war" in Arabic, and jihad isn't one of them. He hung up on me.

Finally, I spoke with Abu, a 28-year-old panel beater from Coburg. He was linked to the infamous Islamic cleric Benbrika, a convicted terrorist who allegedly planned attacks on football games and train stations. When I asked him what jihad meant, Hamza very cautiously explained that jihad is "the fight to restore the Ummah [Unity], our obligation."


That specific phrase is commonly linked to an ISIS interpretation of jihad. And it's important to realise that this broad misunderstanding of jihadist ideology has been fuelled by a handful of fanatical Muslims. Jihad has become synonymous with terrorism, largely because of disillusioned young men who think martyrdom will grant them a one-way-ticket to the seventh heaven.

They are ignorant teens, who don't realise their sacrifices are just fantasy. They, in particular, don't understand what jihad really means.

But they get listened to, because in this age of shrinking attention spans, it's often easier to accept the definition spat out by any crackpot with an ego and an iPhone than do some thinking of our own. It's all too convenient to believe rather than refute, which is why we often believe the loudest voice—the one behind the bomb blasts from "Jihadis."

This understanding of jihad is so far away from the majority of Muslims. Their voice isn't ours.

After two coffees, a series of escalating discussions, and about 100 text messages of scholarly references, Abu finally admitted he to me that his definition of jihad was misinformed. It felt like a little victory. Although, maybe, he was just sick of arguing with me.

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