Letter: Why jihad means struggle, not a holy war

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The Independent Online
Sir: The word jihad seems to be misunderstood by Western media as 'holy war'. Carrying this meaning, this term has recently been in frequent use - as in the case of Sarah Helm's article 'A mother of war striving for peace' (11 July) - only to underline the existence of such a negative concept in Arabic and/or Islamic culture.

Recently, Yasser Arafat attempted to point out that jihad does not mean holy war. The word is derived from the Arabic three-letter root verb JaHaDa which means 'to consciously focus one's energies towards achieving a certain goal'. In religious terminology, jihad is simply a derivative noun of this root, where 'achieving a certain goal' is replaced by 'advancing the cause of God'. Thus, charity or alms-giving are considered part of jihad, because one of the main tenets of Islam is social justice. Yasser Arafat's use of the term in South Africa simply meant he would do his utmost to secure Eastern Jerusalem as his capital. Nothing more.

There is a parallel between so- called 'legitimate political violence' frequently used by the governments of the West to 'further the cause of democracy', or other similarly depressing slogans, and that of 'holy violence' used by Islamic militants to 'fight the enemies of Islam'. The former type of violence is, unfortunately, morally acceptable to many Westerners, while the latter, which in the Middle East is usually at least a partial reaction to the former, is regarded by Westerners as a product of inferior culture, religion or sometimes even genes.

It is regrettable that jihad is too often equated with holy war. In a political context, it is best defined as 'struggle' - which could be either armed or peaceful. And when it is used by extremists to mean violence, it should be denounced not as a bad fundamental Muslim tenet, but rather as another example of the global phenomenon of politicians using morally acceptable concepts to exonerate themselves in advance from the killings they are about to order.

Yours faithfully,


Department of Arabic

University of St Andrews

St Andrews, Fife

11 July