March 2008

“The idea of jihad takes on different features at different stages—it changes all the time,” says Ayesha Jalal, the Mary Richardson Professor of History and author of Partisans of Allah: Jihad in South Asia.

The Greater Jihad

Ayesha Jalal shines light on a term that exemplifies inner religious struggle—and religious war

By Taylor McNeil

Jihad is a loaded term in the West. It instantly brings to mind hordes of young men burnishing weapons and shouting slogans urging death to unbelievers. But the term is far more nuanced than that, and provides an ideal prism to view faith and identity in the Muslim world, says Ayesha Jalal, the Mary Richardson Professor of History at Tufts. Her new book, Partisans of Allah: Jihad in South Asia, published this month by Harvard University Press, takes on jihad and its history in South Asia, home to more Muslims than the Arab lands to its west.

There is a hadith, a popular saying attributed to the Prophet Muhammad, that upon returning from an early war in defense of their newly established community, he “told his companions they were coming back from waging jihad al-asghar, or the lesser war, to fight the jihad al-akbar, or the greater war, against those basic inner forces which prevent man from becoming human in accordance with his primordial and God-given nature,” she writes. That division between an ethical jihad and a military jihad is often ignored in considerations of Islam, but it is a critical difference, she says.

Jalal, who was born in Pakistan and educated in the United States and Britain, spoke with the Tufts Journal by phone from her family home in Lahore, Pakistan.

Tufts Journal: How did you come to write a book about jihad?

In my previous book, Self and Sovereignty: Individual and Community in South Asian Islam since 1850, I made an analytical distinction between religion as a demarcator of identity—an assertion of social difference with others—and religion as a matter of faith, something that is personal, ethical, about what you believe in, and that there is a difference between the two. The wars between Muslims and Hindus during the final decades of British rule, for example, were not necessarily driven by religious doctrine; they were political battles, battles of identity.

After I finished writing that book, I thought that I hadn’t really talked much about religion as faith. Pursuing it made me realize that the concept of jihad—which means effort, endeavor in the positive sense, against something negative—was intrinsic to faith. That’s when I realized that this much-abused and much-misused term needed a systematic historical study.

I’ve argued in Partisans of Allah that jihad is an ethical concept, insofar as its literal meaning is to strive to attain the high ethical ideals of Islam. It is often said that one is not born a Muslim; you become one through a constant struggle to be human.

And jihad is also used in the sense of fighting wars.

I don’t deny that it is used for waging war against infidels. At specific moments in history, jihad as warfare was upheld. But even during the wars of conquest, beginning in the expansion of Islam, it was always countered by the notion of the inner jihad, the ethical jihad, which is the greater jihad. It is clear that military warfare is the lesser jihad, and the greater jihad is against the forces that prevent human beings from being human, as it were.

I have shown that the greater jihad always existed, but the fact is that in certain periods, wars of conquest become more important. However, in the case of the subcontinent, once the wars of conquest were over, the consolidation of state power required accommodations with non-Muslims.

After the Muslim conquest of South Asia, Muslims were always in the minority, which must have affected the relationship.

I think South Asia is a very interesting instance, because here you have a scenario where the population was predominantly non-Muslim. Here the discourse on the obverse of jihad, aman, or protection, became very important. Non-Muslims who accepted Muslim sovereignty were offered protection (aman) of life, property and also religious worship.

Jihad seems a pretty malleable term.

In the book I show how the idea is variously deployed, and when war is waged in the name of jihad, I argue that the using arms in the way of God is always very questionable. Whether a particular war is in the name of God, or is really motivated by worldly factors, is something that has always been debated. Jihad as warfare, especially in the colonial period, becomes an anti-colonial struggle as well as a jihad. But in many instances, invocations to jihad placed more of an emphasis on identity, and many of the ethical aspects had to be ignored in order to fight these worldly, temporal wars.

It’s not just a question of Muslims distorting a normative concept in the Koran, but that the idea of jihad takes on different features at different stages—it changes all the time. It is not decided once and for all; it depends on circumstance, and people can change their minds. I think that’s happening in the world today as we see people generally sort of frowning on this very narrowly construed idea and questioning it.

And what about Muslims today who argue for a jihad against the West?

The so-called jihadis today have built on the contributions of anti-colonialist intellectuals. But what they are doing is a complete departure from Islamic tradition. The jurists always argued that jihad could only be waged under specific conditions. The likes of Al-Qaeda want these conditions to be waived. According to earlier Muslim legal texts, only a state can declare a jihad. These people want to wage jihad against Muslims who are deemed to be collaborators of the infidels. It’s really a quest for state power.

The contemporary so-called jihadists—I say “so-called” because they claim to be steeped in Islamic tradition, but they also reject a lot of the classical Islamic points of view to further their own interests—have turned what was deemed to be a collective duty into an individual duty. It’s a complete departure. Jihad is utilized for purposes of legitimacy, but throughout history, Muslims have internally debated the questions of when a particular war against an infidel power is deemed to be a jihad and when it’s judged to be a secular war.

As the meaning has changed over the centuries, do you see jihad coming back to its ethical meaning, as opposed to its warlike meaning?

The real point of my work is to show that any armed struggle, because it has to be fought in this world, cannot avoid the taint and compromises of temporal warfare. In a sense, I do feel that the only kind of jihad that can be waged and needs to be waged in the Muslim world today is the greater jihad, for self-improvement rather than simply waging military war. But you’ll always have people who want to wage armed warfare.

In many ways jihad also becomes a measure for ethical improvement. The message to Muslims is that the real issue is faith. You can’t just emphasize identity. You need to look at the other side, the most important dimension of faith. You have to be ethically engaged.

Taylor McNeil can be reached at

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