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It is commonly assumed in the West that jihad refers exclusively to aggression, and that assumption should not come as a surprise: militant Muslim groups use the word to describe violence in the name of Islam, and Western media, policymakers, and opinion leaders dutifully call such violent extremists “jihadists.” Orientalist scholars and Muslim militants both claim that the Qur’an commands Muslims to wage offensive warfare—which they call “jihad”—against non-Muslims until Islam occupies the whole world. In an influential essay, the Orientalist scholar Emile Tyan asserts that “the fight (jihād) is obligatory even when they (the unbelievers) have not themselves started it.”1 Similarly, the radical twentieth-century Islamist ideologue Sayyid Qutb maintains that the objective of Islam is to win over all humanity to the worship of the one God; whoever resists this hegemonic mission of Islam, as conceived by Qutb, must be ruthlessly fought until death or capitulation.2
Widespread misuse of the term creates confusion and misunderstanding about a core concept in Islam. The Arabic word jihād means struggle, exertion, or effort, and the frequently encountered Arabic phrase al-jihād fī sabīl Allāh means “struggling/striving in the path of God.” Some Western scholars and pundits argue that the concept of internal, nonviolent jihad is a recent and deliberately misleading interpretation lacking a basis in the Qur’an. Rice University professor David Cook, a prominent advocate of this perspective, goes so far as to insist that only Muslim and non-Muslim apologists in the West emphasize the notion of internal or spiritual jihad in order “to present Islam in the most innocuous manner possible.”3
Those who argue that the concept of jihad as an inner struggle is a recent, extra-Qur’anic development fail to recognize that cultivating the attribute of śabr (patient forbearance) is a constant feature of jihad in the Qur’an. This oversight is compounded when Western scholars disproportionately focus on juridical literature relating to combative jihad as a state-sanctioned duty within the context of military security and international relations. If we also consider premodern Muslim exegetical literature, we find that śabr is extolled in these sources as an essential aspect of human striving, as emphasized in the Qur’an.
One particular Meccan verse is often invoked to establish the importance of śabr as a constant feature of human striving in the face of life’s vicissitudes. This verse states, “O those who believe, be patient and forbearing (iśbirū), outdo others in forbearance (śābirū), be firm (rābiţū), and revere God so that you may succeed” (Qur’an 3:200). Early exegetes from the first three centuries of Islam (e.g., Mujāhid b. Jabr and Muqātil b. Sulaymān) uniformly emphasize śabr and its derivatives as referring to patient forbearance in the carrying out of religious duties such as prayer, particularly in the face of ill-treatment by others.16 In his commentary, the late sixth/twelfth century exegete al-Rāzī states that the first imperative in this verse, iśbirū, has to do with the individual, while the second imperative, śābirū, deals with interactions between the individual and others. He also notes that the term muśābarah (related to the command śābirū in Qur’an 3:200) has to do broadly with commanding good and preventing harm, which is a fundamental moral imperative in Islam.17
The struggle to cultivate the Qur’anic virtue of śabr is referred to as jihād al-nafs in typologies of jihad based upon the many prophetic narrations that refer to "fighting" (mujāhadah) one's ego (nafs). In a weak Hadith that Imam al-Bayĥaqī relates, the Prophet ﷺ is reported to have referred to fighting one's desires as "the greater jihad."* The Qur’anic qitāl, meaning "fighting" is later termed jihād al-sayf to distinguish it from the greater jihad of the nafs. The scholars al-Ghazālī (d. 505/1111), an Ash‘arī theologian of a mystical bent, and Ibn al-Qayyim al-Jawziyyah (d. 751/1350), a Ĥanbalī jurist, wrote treatises praising the cultivation and practice of patient forbearance (śabr) as the best expression of jihad, and as an indispensable trait for resisting the incitements of the lower self (al-nafs al-ammārah).18 So while it is correct to state that the terms jihād al-nafs and jihād al-sayf are late coinages, the concepts they embody date back to the earliest Islamic period and correspond to the Qur’anic terms śabr and qitāl, respectively.
Most Western academic and popular discussions of jihad focus exclusively on its aggressive dimensions, which are then projected onto the Qur’anic text itself. The fiery rhetoric of contemporary Muslim militant groups compounds widespread misunderstanding of the term. In reality, “jihad” is a broad term that encompasses different modes of human striving on earth. A closer examination of Qur’anic terms, a contextual reading of verses relating to jihad, and a review of exegetical literature reveal that qitāl, or fighting, is jihad’s conditional feature, restricted to specific circumstances outlined by the Qur’an. The non-combative dimensions of jihad are encapsulated by the term śabr, or patient forbearance. Śabr is the constant feature of jihad: the ongoing internal, personal striving to fulfill God’s commandments in all walks of life.
* Editor's note: Ibn Taymiyyah claimed this hadith had no basis, but, despite his rejection, it has different narrators, including Imam al-Bayĥaqī and al-Khaţīb al-Baghdādī, who both attribute it to the Prophet ﷺ. Imam al-Nasā’ī also narrates the same statement in his Kitāb al-kunā but as a statement made by Ibrāhīm b. Abī ¢Ablah, who is considered a tābi¢ (one of the companions of the Prophet’s companions) and trustworthy in his transmissions. He would not have said it if it did not have a basis.