Eclipse of the Greater Jihad
by Syed Manzar Abbas Zaidi, Journal of Religion, Conflict, and Peace, Volume 3. Issue 1, Fall 2009

[The following is a brief excerpt from an interesting article on the debate over the “greater jihad” in light of Quranic and hadith references. I recommend reading the entire article, which can be done by clicking here.]

The word jihad derives from the Arabic root jhd, signifying intense struggle or effort. It has the connotations of a moral struggle within one’s own self, besides denoting an armed struggle. It thus carries the hermeneutical meaning of a moral endeavour directed toward one’s own improvement or self-elevation on a moral plane, which Muslim jurists of eminence have been quoted as calling jihad-e-akbar, or greater jihad. On the other hand, preparations and participation for defense against an armed conflict that is the consequence of foreign aggression has been known as qitaal, or jihad-e-asghar, lesser jihad…

Many scholars have put forward the hypothesis that the fundamentalist project is more a pursuit of totalitarianism than a struggle to merge the spiritual with the temporal.[47] It has been said that fundamentalism is “first and foremost an ideological and moral challenge to liberal democracy,”[48] thus making it a contemporary phenomenon “thoroughly at odds with Islamic traditions and ethics.”[49] Not only has ijtihad remained static due to deliberate down-playing by ultra-orthodox religious authorities and institutions, the whole institution of ijtihad has been eroded.[50] This has created an imbalance between the two concepts of jihad—the violent version, which has become more dogmatic and public, while the softer variant has been relegated to the realm of the personal. The problem also lies in the fact that the Islamic fundamentalist seems to be rather better at manipulating hermeneutics than his other counterparts. That is a huge part of the jihadist appeal: a selective reading or distortion of fact will garb the message in the respectability and irrefutability of religious sanction. As can be seen from above, the argument for armed jihad claims its lineage from the Qur’an, a stronger source than the weak chain of ahadith supporting greater jihad. A complicating factor is that the sira (biography of the prophet) and maghazi (works detailing the military campaigns of the prophet) literatures, cloaked in the abstract language of the Qur’an (purportedly to enable it to be transhistorical) and ahadiths with weak lineages, do not strongly support the hermeneutical contexts of greater jihad. The hermeneutical distortion of the Qur’anic verses, bolstered by ahadiths about armed jihad, are much more tangible and can be designed into discourse that ignites the fires of passion in the target lay audience, using predominantly emotive narrative to put the message across.