Jihad Essay

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The word jihad (which derives from the verb jahada, meaning ”to strive, to exert oneself, to struggle”) is one of the most prominent Arabic terms in the western world owing to its vital influence in Muslim society and its significant political role there. It is also one of the most crucial concepts in political sociology for understanding contemporary Muslim society, particularly with the emerging trend of Islamist movements in many parts of the globe.

The origin of the concept dates back to the history of the Prophet Muhammad (570-632), as reflected and written in the Qur’an and the notes of his speeches, sayings, and behavior (hadith and sunnah). The word is generally used to denote an endeavor toward a praiseworthy aim. However, the term has various and ambiguous meanings, as reflected in its different interpretations. In religious contexts it can mean the struggle against one’s evil inclinations (”interior jihad”) or an endeavor for the sake ofIslam and the umma (the Muslim society), for example, attempting to convert unbelievers or working for the moral uplift of Islamic society (”exterior jihad”). Although in the contemporary context the word jihad is more widely associated with acts of violence and terror (”holy war”), the ”jihad of the sword” was originally called ”the smaller jihad,” in contrast to the peaceful form that is ”the greater jihad,” signifying the interior jihad or personal struggle to rid one’s soul of greed, hatred, and egotism.

This is also the line of reasoning used by Osama bin Ladin and his companions in al-Qa’idah to justify activities such as the attacks on the Pentagon and the World Trade Center in New York on September 11, 2001. The asymmetrical power relations between them and their opponents, such as President George W. Bush, Jr., and his allies, became more evident when the latter launched a counterattack targeted at Afghanistan and Iraq. In the period of the global war against terrorism promoted by former President Bush and his allies, jihad was wrongly defined and constructed as being synonymous with ”terrorism,” and many groups associated with jihad thus mistakenly became categorized as ”terrorists.”


  1. Devji, F. (2005) Landscape of the Jihad, Militancy, Morality and Modernity. Cornell University Press, Ithaca, NY.
  2. Peters, R. (1999) Jihad in Classical and Modern Islam: A Reader. Markus Wiener, Princeton, NJ.

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