Lesser Jihad

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Lesser Jihad


Jihad, or "holy war", though a new concept to the western world has a long-standing

tradition in Arabia predating the foundation of Islam as a religion but incorporated into it

as a primary tenet of the religion. The concept served a legitimate purpose in the

Jahiliyya period of Arabic history and perhaps even in Muhammad's time, but has

become a dangerous force in the present day world, presenting an increasing threat to the

developed world just as national animosities are cooling down among the larger powers.


The term jihad stems from the root J.H.D. meaning to strive, exert oneself, or take

extraordinary pains (R. Firestone, p. 16). Considered a sixth pillar of Islam, jihad

actually takes two forms within Islam, lesser jihad and greater jihad. Greater jihad refers

to a personal struggle within oneself, a struggle to remain pure of heart, to attempt to

keep one's base instincts at bay, and to remain devoted to God and to keep the faith of

Islam. Lesser jihad, the one familiar now to westerners and the topic of this paper, is the

struggle against outside oppressors, enemies, and detractors from Islam. Lesser jihad,

though ostensibly to be undertaken only in self defense, encompasses all forms of

resistance, including armed combat.

Early origins

In Jahiliyya Arabia, raiding was a common practice between different clans. The

nomadic life and paucity of arable land made it virtually an economic necessity to acquire

the goods and breeding stock unavailable to them otherwise. Clan solidarity and loyalty

was a primary aspect of nomadic life. In addition, personal honor was paramount. As a

consequence, retribution against raiding clans became the norm. Personal honor was at

stake, and so began a long tradition of exacting revenge for perceived wrongs. As

Arabian society gradually embraced Muhammad and his new religion, Islam, religious

allegiance took the place of clan loyalty but the sense of honor and retribution remained,

transforming from mundane materialistic raiding to the total declaration of war on all

who did not accept and believe in Islam (R. Firestone, p.134).

Muhammad's View/The Qur'an

The prophet Muhammad was no stranger to warfare nor to detractors from his

message. The Qur'an is rife with references to the enemies of Islam, and includes many

references to violent consequences for unbelievers. Though Muhammad's words as

related by the Qur'an seem explicit as to fighting only in self defense: "Fight for the sake

of Allah those that who fight against you, but do not attack them first. Allah does not

love the aggressors" (Qur'an 2:190), other suras seem to contradict that message: "When

the sacred months are over, slay the idolaters wherever you find them, and take them

(captive) and besiege them, and lie in wait for them everywhere." (Qur'an 9:5). A case

has been made that the apparent contradictions in the Qur'an are actually due to

differences in the circumstances in which they were revealed. The revelations

encouraging avoiding physical conflict were revealed early in the prophet's career in

Mecca, when his followers were few. As the followers of Islam grew after the Hijra to

Medina, the revelations became increasingly militaristic until initiating attacks was not

only condoned but commanded: "O you who believe! Fight the disbelievers who are near

to you, and let them find a harshness in you; and know that Allah is with the

righteous."(Qur'an 9:123) and: "Fighting is obligatory for you, though it be disliked by

you; but it may be that you hate a thing although it is good for you, and love a thing

although it is bad for you. Allah knows, but you know not."(Qur'an 2:216). This last

verse is the one usually cited as the commandment to Muslims to engage in...
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