Americans need more knowledge about Islam, especially considering the rise of the ISIS, which is engulfing Syria and Iraq. Media reports often use Arabic words in reference to Islamic theological terms. The term "jihad," for example, is a particularly well-known idea that the media cite all the time. But what does it mean?
"Jihad" is found in the Quran and is translated as "striving in the path of God" (Quran 9, 24). It is interpreted both as a moral and military struggle. Historically speaking, the concept refers more often to military campaigns to assert Islamic hegemony. One example in the Quran where the term is used in this context is "God has promised reward to all who believe, but he distinguishes those who fight, above those who stay at home, with a mighty reward" (Quran 4, 95).
Middle East historian Bernard Lewis states that "jihad is a religious obligation ... most commonly used to refer to the armed struggle for the defense and advancement of Muslim power." In a theological sense, the core idea underlying jihad is that jihad continues until the non-Muslim world adopts the Muslim faith and Muslim rule. In the hadith -- a body of sacred literature that contains the traditions and actions of the prophet -- there is a connection between jihad and holy war. "Jihad is your duty under any ruler be he godly or wicked. He who dies without having taken part in a campaign dies in a kind of unbelief."
In another body of sacred Muslim literature that provides commentaries on the Quran, called the Shari'a, there is a chapter on jihad that describes the rules of warfare, which focus on war against infidels and apostates. Such rules of warfare include material on the proper conduct of war, including treatment of prisoners, non-combatants and when to begin and end hostilities.
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The history of jihad is tied with the expansion of Islam beyond the Arabian Peninsula and extended to the Ottoman rulers and Caliphate beginning in the 16th century. The idea of jihad was the underlying concept behind the growth of the Ottoman Empire and the Tartars (Muslims in Russia) who both sought to expand into Europe in the Middle Ages.
There is a connection between the Muslim idea of jihad and the Christian concept of crusade. Both use the term in a similar sense to refer to a holy war. Muslim scholars today in Islamic universities also emphasize the moral and spiritual component of the idea of jihad even though armed struggle has been part and parcel of the idea since the beginning of Islam. Khalid Duran, a contemporary scholar on Islam, writes that there is a "Greater Jihad" that refers to the internal self-purification process on a moral and spiritual level. The "Lesser Jihad" is meant to refer to the Muslim's military obligation.
Today, terrorists such as Osama bin Laden, Aiman Az-Zawahiri (current leader of al-Qaida), Sheikh Omar Abdel Rahman (convicted in the first World Trade Center bombing in 1993), and Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of ISIS, are part of the generation of jihadists who created al-Qaida and now the ISIS terrorist groups. Other groups like Islamic Jihad are part of Hamas and continue to use their methods of terror against their fellow Muslims and Israelis.
There is, however, a small but growing recognition by Islamic authorities that these leaders do not represent authentic Islam or the proper way of practicing jihad.
The problem for America is that the dominant frames of reference for jihad are related to the military and terrorists. Even now, American authorities, such as the Department of Homeland Security and Muslim communities in America, are very concerned that some Muslim and even non-Muslim youth who are seeking adventure and a new direction in their lives will fall prey to this violent brand of jihad.
I hope Americans will learn more about these ideas and that the Muslim communities will do their part to educate American citizens about how jihad also has a positive and non-violent message for Muslims that does not automatically and necessarily lead down the road to terrorism.
Columnist Rabbi Brad L. Bloom is the rabbi at Congregation Beth Yam on Hilton Head Island. He can be reached at 843-689-2178. Read his blog at www.fusion613.blogspot.com and follow him at twitter.com/rabbibloom.