The Boston marathon bombing has focused attention on the word “jihad.”
Vice President Biden characterized the alleged bombers as knockoff jihadis.” The Associated Press reported that the elder brother had “vaguely discussed jihad” with his mother over the phone in 2011.
“Jihad” is derived from the Arabic word juhd (meaning effort, exertion, or power) and literally translates to “struggle” or “resistance” for the sake of a goal. Used 30 times and in multiple contexts in the Koran, jihad most often denotes a struggle against external enemies, the devil, or one’s self. One example from the Koran (49.15) is: “The believers are those who believe in Allah and His Messenger … and jahadu (do jihad) with their properties and selves in the way of Allah.”
Mark Wilks, an early 19th-century British author, introduced jihad into the English lexicon, defining it as a Muslim “holy war,” in his Historical Sketches of the South of India. It’s retained that meaning in English; the Oxford English Dictionary defines jihad as “a religious war of Muslims against unbelievers.”
Because of its roots and context in the Koran, jihad has a positive meaning to Muslims. Whatever form jihad may take, the struggle is always noble. When the term is evoked against external enemies, it can be used only during just or defensive wars.
During the 20th century, certain Islamic thinkers expanded the concept, says Mary Habeck of the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, and began speaking of jihad as a revolutionary movement, a response to colonial occupation, or an effort to defeat all ideologies opposed to Islamic belief. The most radical definition came in 1980s Afghanistan: Abdullah Azzam preached that it was the duty of all Muslims to take up arms and fight non-Muslims invading or occupying Muslim lands. Islamic militants seized on this interpretation.
By claiming the title mujahid (the Arabic equivalent of the Anglicized “jihadist”), militants and terrorists asserted the legitimacy of their violent actions, even if they involved the killing of innocents, which is explicitly forbidden by the Koran.
Over the last 40 years, Westerners have come to see the term “jihad” as virtually synonymous with terrorist. Many Islamic scholars and activists have argued against Westerners using the term as a shorthand for Islamic militancy. “They are legitimizing the terrorists by calling them jihadis,” said Nihad Awad, executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations. “The concept has been hijacked.”
In February the Council on American-Islamic Relations launched a media campaign to “reclaim” the original meaning of the word and educate the public via bus-side ads in Chicago and San Francisco. But the misapplication of the term is confined to Westerners and Islamic fundamentalists alone, according to Awad and Habeck. The adoption of the term by Islamic militants has not added negative connotations to the concept within Muslim communities because, Awad noted, Muslim scholars and leaders have been able to push back against the word’s corruption. “They will not allow jihad [to be tainted]. This will not fly in the Muslim world.”