What is jihad? Jihad means struggle, to struggle one’s utmost. Both the Qur’an and the Hadith have attached great importance to jihad. It must be appreciated at the outset that this word is used for non-violent struggle as opposed to violent struggle. One clear proof of this is the verse of the Qur’an (25:52) which says: Perform jihad with this (i.e. the words of the Qur’an) most strenuously. The Qur’an is not a sword or a gun. It is a book of ideology. In such a case performing jihad with the Qur’an would mean an ideological struggle to conquer peoples’ hearts and minds through Islam’s superior philosophy. In the light of this verse of the Qur’an, jihad in actual fact is another name for peaceful activism or non-violent activism. Where qital is violent activism, jihad is non-violent activism.
Because of the importance of peace, the Qur’an has clearly declared that no aggressive war is permitted in Islam. Muslims can engage themselves only in a defensive, not in an offensive war, irrespective of the circumstances (2:190).
According to Islam, peace is the rule and war is only an exception. Even in defensive war we have to see the result. If the result is doubtful, Muslims should avoid war, even in a defensive situation. Stray acts of aggression are not enough for Muslims to rush into war. They have to assess the whole situation and adopt a policy of avoidance when war is not certain to achieve a positive result. There are several examples of this kind in the early period of Islam. In Islamic history, one such example is that of the battle of the trench. In this event there was clear-cut aggression on the part of the antagonists, who travelled as far as 300 miles from Makkah to Madinah only to attack the Muslims. But the Prophet dug a trench in order to prevent an armed confrontation and thus avoided engaging in a defensive war.
It is true that jihad is one of the most important teachings of Islam. But jihad is not synonymous with war. In Islam another word is used for war and fighting. This word is ‘qital.’ When the Qur’an refers to war or fighting, it uses the word qital and not jihad.
Jihad literally means to strive or to struggle. So jihad actually means peaceful struggle, especially for Da’wah work. The Qur’an says: Do great jihad with the help of the Qur’an. (25:52)
The Qur’an is simply a book, and not a sword, “so do great jihad with the Qur’an” means ‘do great jihad with the ideological power of the Qur’an. In fact, jihad is only another name for peaceful activism. And peaceful activism is the only weapon by which Islam wants to achieve all its aims and objectives. The Qur’an has this to say of the mission of the Prophet Muhammad, may peace be upon him: We have not sent you forth but as a mercy to mankind. (21:107)
In the Qur’an and the Hadith, there are many such references which go to prove that Islam is a religion of peace, love and human brotherhood. However, it is also a fact that in later times the image of Islam has altered drastically. Now Islam has come to be regarded as a religion of violence rather than as a religion of peace. This transformation in the image of Islam has not simply been produced by the media. The responsibility for this falls on latter-day Muslims, who have failed to maintain the original image of Islam.
In actual fact, the mission of all the prophets right from Adam to Christ was one and the same—of establishing the ideology of monotheism in the world, so that man might worship one God alone. As we know, there came a large number of prophets in ancient times, but the message of monotheism remained at the initial stage; it could not culminate in revolution. This state continued up till the time of Christ, the last but one Prophet. The reason being that in ancient times, the system of monarchy was entrenched throughout the world. The kings, in order to secure their political interests, adopted the course of religious persecution. These kings suppressed all religious movements, which were different from the state religion. They would nip all apostasy in the bud, since they saw religion as a matter of affirming one’s loyalty to the state. If a person adhered to a religion other than the state religion, he was regarded as a rebel.
That is why in ancient times prophetic movements could go no further ahead than the stage of Da’wah. No sooner would a movement based on monotheism arise than the coercive political system would be activated to pull it out by its roots. The reason for the absence of any historical record of prophets (besides the Prophet Muhammad, may peace be upon him) in antiquity is traceable to the intense opposition of these coercive political systems. All the Prophets of ancient times, historically speaking, were like mythical beings, rather than real human beings accepted as historical figures. The Prophet Jesus was the last link in the chain of these persecutions faced by the preachers of monotheism. Then God decreed the abolition of this coercive political system, even if it entailed the use of force in order that the age of religious persecution might be brought to an end forever, and replaced by the age of religious freedom. This divine plan was brought to completion through the Prophet Muhammad, may peace be upon him, and his companions. This is the command given in the Qur’an:
“Fight them until there be no persecution and religion be wholly God’s” (8:39).
Therefore the Prophet Muhammad, may peace be upon him, received special divine succour in the form of a powerful team consisting of one hundred thousand individuals. Equipped with this team the Prophet waged war to end this coercive system of religious persecution, and it was in Arabia that it was first of all overthrown. Then within a very short span of time, they advanced to abolish the coercive system established by the Sassanid and Byzantine empires. In the wake of this Islamic action, the coercive system was abolished forever in the major part of the inhabited world of the time. This war waged by the Prophet Muhammad, may peace be upon him, and his companions was not a war as is commonly understood, but rather a divine operation, which was carried out by a people who possessed a high standard of moral character.
However, this operation was certainly only temporary in nature. Its goal was to put an end to the age of religious persecution and usher in the age of religious freedom. This end was fully achieved during the early period of Islam, the age of the pious Caliphs. Afterwards the time came to keep the sword in its sheath and engage in Da’wah work, that is, the call to God, which was the real and permanent goal of Islam. According to the explicit command of the Qur’an, the call to God is the true and eternal mission of Islam, whereas war is only temporary and allowed only in exceptional cases.
Here it would be pertinent to refer to a great companion of the Prophet. After the period of the pious Caliphate, a group of Muslims once again engaged in war. At that time some senior Companions were present in Makkah and Madinah. But they did not join these wars, one prominent name being that of Abdullah ibn Umar ibn Khattab. He did not approve of these wars, therefore he remained away from them. Some of those involved in these wars came to him and said: God has commanded us in the Qur’an to fight against Fitna (persecution). Then why do you not join with us in these wars? Abdullah ibn Umar replied that “the command of the Qur’an to fight against Fitna is not what you hold to be Fitna. Fitna meant religious persecution and we have already fought and put an end to this Fitna (qad fa‘alna). Therefore now after the removal of this obstacle, we have to engage ourselves in peaceful Da’wah work, rather than initiating hostilities and creating new Fitna once again, which is akin to creating new obstacles for peaceful Islamic Da’wah (al-Bukhari, Sahih, Kitab at-Tafsir, under al-Baqarah and al-Anfal).
Abdullah ibn Umar had made an extremely pertinent point at the most appropriate time, but this point of view was not forcefully taken up by others. Afterwards when the Islamic sciences were developed, this important point made by Abdullah ibn Umar could not be highlighted, with the result that history took the course of wars and conquests, while in terms of the real teachings of Islam, history should have taken the course of Da’wah and the propagation of Islam.
[Excerpt from “Islam Rediscovered” by Molana Wahiduddin Khan]