“Jihad” By Sir Thomas W. Arnold

In our present times, the term ‘Jihad’ has generally been used to imply “killing the opponent (non-Muslim) using any means, whatsoever”. This implication of the term, if seen in the light of the Qur’an as well as the life of the Prophet(P) does not seem to be accurate.

In the following article, which actually forms the Appendix ivof his book, The Preaching of Islam, Sir Thomas W. Arnold has defended with extraordinary talent the thesis that the basic meaning of “jihad”, is: “the using or exerting one’s utmost power, effort, endeavor or ability, in contending with an object of disapprobation”, and that primarily the word bears no reference to war or fighting, much less to fighting against unbelievers or forcible conversion of them, but derives its particular application from the context only. Sir Thomas Arnold accomplishes this by collecting and carefully examining all those Qur’anic verses where the word jih?d or its other forms have been used. He rightly concludes that it is due to the later Muslim legalists and commentators that jihad came to be interpreted as a religious war waged against unbelievers, but such a doctrine is wholly unauthorized by the Qur’an.

Sir Thomas W. Arnold was one of the leading orientalists of the early 20th century who also taught philosophy and Islamic studies in the Indian sub-continent. He was also the teacher of the famous poet-philosopher Muhammad Iqbal. His other books, besides the one mentioned above, are: Painting in Islam. A Study of the Place of Pictorial Art in Muslim Culture, Oxford, 1928; and The Legacy of Islam (with Alfred Guillaume), Oxford, 1931.

“Jihad”, By Sir Thomas W. Arnold

Any account of Muslim missionary activity would be incomplete without some mention of the Jihad, or religious war, as the word is commonly translated, if only for the fact that the faith of Islam is commonly said to have been propagated by the sword and the typical Muslim missionary is represented as a warrior with a sword in one hand and the Qur’?n in the other, offering to the unbelievers the choice between the two.

How inadequate is such an account of the spread of Islam may be judged from the preceding pages[1]; it remains now to see whether the teaching of the Qur’?n authorizes forced conversion and exhorts the believer to an armed and militant propaganda, in fact whether Islam has been missionary despite itself. There are no passages to be found in the Qur’?n that in any way enjoin forcible conversion, and many that on the contrary limit propagandist efforts to preaching and persuasion. It has further been maintained that no passage in the Qur’?n authorizes unprovoked attacks on unbelievers[2], and that, in accordance with such teaching; all the wars of Muhammad were defensive.

It is further maintained that the common, popular meaning of ‘warfare against unbelievers’ attached to the word Jihad,

    [1] i.e., throughout the book. For instance p. 5, f.n. 1:

    “This misinterpretation of the Muslim wars of conquest has arisen from the assumption that wars waged for the extension of Muslim domination over the lands of the unbelievers implied that the aim in view was their conversion.”

    [2] Maulvi Cheragh Ali, A Critical Exposition of the Popular Jihad (Calcutta, 1885) showing that all the wars of Muhammad were defensive; and that aggressive war, or compulsory conversion, is not allowed in the Qur’an.

“No precept is to be found in the Kuran which, taken with the context, can justify unprovoked war.” (E. W. Lane, The Manners and Customs of the Modern Egyptians, 5th Ed., London, 1860, p. 93).


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is post-Qur’anic, and that the passages in which this word or any of the derivates from the same root occur, should be translated in accordance with the primitive meaning.

The meaning of the simple verb “jahada” is “to strive, labor, toil; to exert oneself; to be diligent or studious; to take plans:” it is applied to exertion in any kind of affair, even the churning of butter or the eating of food, — in the IVth form “ajhada,” — also to swearing, and (in the case of things) to their becoming much and spreading; the VIIIth form, “ijtahada,” denotes “to take pains to form a right judgment,” and the noun of action from the same form, — “ijtihad” — a lawyer’s exerting the faculties of the mind to the utmost for the purpose of forming an opinion in a case of law, respecting a doubtful and difficult point.

The meaning of the noun of action, “jihad,” is: “the using or exerting one’s utmost power, effort, endeavor or ability, in contending with an object of disapprobation”, and it is obvious from the above account of the various meanings of different forms that the root assumes, that primarily the word bears no reference to war or fighting, much less to fighting against unbelievers or forcible conversion of them, but derives it particular application from the context only.

In the following passages it is proposed to give all the passages in which jihad or any other derivatives from the same root occur, arranging the passages in chronological order:

“If We willed, We could raise up a warner in every village. So obey not the disbelievers, but strive against them herewith with a great endeavor [Jahid-hum biha Jihadan kabaran]” [25:51?52] (Pickthal’s translation)

The reference is here clearly to preaching, as these verses were revealed in Mecca, and to translate ‘Jihadan’, “warfare” is as absurd as it is illegitimate.

“Whoso after he hath believed in God denieth Him, if he were forced to it and it his heart remain steadfast in the faith, (shall be guiltless)…” [16:106]


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“Then to those, who, after their trials, fled their country and strove [jahadu] and endured with patience, verily thy Lord will afterwards be forgiving, gracious.” [16:110]

Verse 106 is said to refer to the tortures inflicted on some of the converts, and verse 110 to the flight into Abyssinia; the jihad of these persons, therefore, was the great exertions and toils they had to make through persecution and exile.

“And whosoever striveth [jihada], striveth [yujahidu] only for himself, for lo! Allah is altogether Independent of (His) creatures.” [29:6] (Pickthal’s translation)

“Moreover we have enjoined on man to show kindness to parents; but if they strive [jahada] with thee in order that thou that with Me of which thou hast no knowledge, then obey them not.” [31:14?15]

“And those who have striven [have exerted themselves; jahadu] for Us, in Our path will We surely guide: for verily God is with those who do righteous deeds.” [29:69]

“And they have sworn by God with their most strenuous [jahada] oath” [6:109]

“And they swore by Allah with the strongest [jihada] of their oaths” [35:42] (M. H. Shakir’s translation)

“Lo! those who believe, and those who emigrate (to escape the persecution) and strive [exert themselves, jahadu] in the way of Allah, these have hope of Allah’s mercy. Allah is Forgiving, Merciful.” [2:218] (Pickthal’s translation)

?Lo! those who believed and left their homes and strove [jahadu] with their wealth and their lives for the cause of Allah, and those who took them in and helped them: these are protecting friends one of another… Those who believed and left their homes and strove [jahadu] for the cause of Allah, and those who took them in and helped them — these are the believers in truth. For them is pardon, and bountiful provision.? [8:72, 74] (Pickthal’s translation)

“And those who afterwards believed and left their homes and strove [exerted themselves, jahadu] along with you, they are of you” [8:75] (Pickthal’s translation)


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“Lo! those who turn back after the guidance hath been manifested unto them, Satan hath seduced them. Think these men of diseased hearts, that God will not bring other their malice to light?

And We will surely test you, until We know those who have striven (mujahidin) and those who have been patient among you; and We will test the reports of you.

Verily those who believe not, and turn others from the way of God, and separate themselves from the Apostle after that the guidance hath been clearly shown them, shall in no way injure God: but their works shall He bring to naught.” (47:25, 31, 32).

“Do you think that ye could enter Paradise without God’s taking knowledge of those among you who have striven (exerted yourselves, jahadu) and have been patient?” (3:142).

“Believe in God and His Apostle, and strive (exert yourselves, mujahidina) in the way of God with your property and your persons.” (61:11).

“Those believers who sit at home free from trouble and those who strive (exert themselves, mujahidina) in the way of God with their property and their persons, are not equal. God has assigned to those who strive (exert themselves, mujahidina) with their property and their persons a rank above those who sit at homes. Goodly promises hath God made to all: but God hath assigned to those who strive (exert themselves, mujahidina) a rich recompense above those who sit at home.” (4:95).

“And they swore by God with their most strenuous (jahda) oath.” (24:53).

“O you who believe! bow down and prostrate yourselves and serve your Lord, and do good that you may succeed.

And strive in the Lord (exert yourselves — jihdu in God), as it behoveth you to do for Him. He hath elected you, and hath not laid on you any hardship in religion, the faith of your father Abraham.” (22:77-78).


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“O Prophet! strive hard (jahidi) against the unbelievers and the hypocrites, and be strict towards them; and their abode is hell; and evil is the resort.” (66:9).

As Muhammad never fought with the munafiqun or hypocrites, we cannot translate jihad as “making war”: the feeling that guided his conduct towards them is rather indicated in 33:48;

“Obey not the infidels and hypocrites and take no heed of their evil entreating, and put thy trust in God, for God is a sufficient guardian.”

Accordingly the verse (66:9) is taken to mean:

“Exert thyself in preaching to, and remonstrating with, the unbelievers, and hypocrites, and be strict towards them, — i.e., be not smooth with them or be beguiled by them).”[1]

“O you who believe! do not take My enemy and your enemy for friends: would you offer them love while they deny what has come to you of the truth, driving out the Messenger and yourselves because you believe in God, your Lord? If you go forth struggling hard in My path (jihadan) and seeking My pleasure, would you manifest love to them? And I know what you conceal and what you manifest; and whoever of you does this, he indeed has gone astray from the straight path.” (60:1).

“The believers are only those who believe in God and His Messenger then they doubt not and strive (jahadu) with their property and their persons in the way of God; they are the truthful ones.” (49:15).

“Think ye that ye shall be forsaken, and that God doth not yet know those among you who strive (exert themselves, jahadu) and take none for their intimate friends besides God and His Apostle and the faithful?’ (9:16).

“Do ye make the giving of drink to pilgrims, or the maintenance of the Sacred Mosque, equal to (the pious service of) those who believe in God and the Last Day, and striveth (jahada) in the path of God? They are not equal before God: and God guideth not the unjust.

Those who believed and fled (their homes), and strove (jahadu) in God’s way with their property and their persons, are much higher in rank with God; and those are they who are the achievers (of their objects).” (9:19?20).

    [1] Chiragh Ali, p. 186

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“Say: If your fathers and your sons and your brethren and your mates and your kinsfolk and property which you have acquired, and the slackness of trade which you fear and dwellings which you like, are dearer to you than God and His Messenger and striving (jih?din) in His path, then wait till God brings about His command: and God does not guide the transgressing people.” (9:24).

“March ye forth, the light and heavy armed, and strive (jahadu) with your property and your persons on the path of God? (9:41)

“Those who believe in God and the Last Day will not ask leave of thee to be excused from striving (yujahidu) with their property and their persons? (9:44)

“They who were left in their homes were delighted (to stay) behind God’s Apostle and were averse from striving (yujahidu) with their property and their persons in the path of God and said, ‘March not out in the heat.'” (9:81)

“Moreover when a Surah is sent down with “Believe in God and strive (exert yourselves, `jahidu‘) in company with His Apostle,” those of them who are possessed of riches demanded exemption and said, “Allow us to be with those who sit at home.”” (9:86)

“But the Apostle, and those who believe with him, strove (exerted themselves, `jihadu‘) with their property and persons: for them are (all) good things: and it is they who will prosper.” (9:88)

The 9th Surah, from which the last nine verses have been quoted, was revealed at the end of the ninth year of the Hijrah when the Meccans had violated the truce of Hudaybiyah and attacked the Banu Khuza`ah, who were in alliance with Muhammad:

“Will ye not do battle with a people who have broken their covenant and aimed to expel your Apostle and attacked you first?” (9:13)

The timely submission of Mecca however removed the necessity of this retaliation, which was to have been made after the expiration of the four sacred months (9:5).

In this case, fighting in defense of their aggrieved allies would naturally be implied in jih?d, though forming no essential part of its meaning; and we can thus


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understand how jihad came in later times to be interpreted as meaning: ‘Fighting against unbelievers.’)

“O ye who believe! Fear God, desire union with Him, and strive (exert yourselves, jahidu) in His path, it may be that you will attain happiness.” (5:35).

“And the faithful will say, ‘Are these they who swore by God their most strenuous (jahada) oath, that they were surely on your side?'” (5:53)

“O ye who believe! if any from among you turn back from his Faith, then God will produce a people whom He will love as they will love Him, lowly with the believers, grievous to the rejecters, they will strive (exert themselves, ‘yujahiduna‘) in the path of God, and will not fear the blame of the blamer.” (5:54)

It is due to the Muhammadan legalists and commentators that jihad came to be interpreted as a religious war waged against unbelievers, who might be attacked even though they were not the aggressors; but such a doctrine is wholly unauthorized by the Qur’an and can only be extracted there-from by quoting isolated portions of different verses, considered apart from the context and the special circumstances under which they were delivered and to which alone they were held to refer, being in no way intended as positive injunctions for future observance or religious precepts for coming generations.

But though some Muhammadan legalists have maintained the rightfulness of unprovoked war against unbelievers, none (as far as I am aware) have ventured to justify compulsory conversion but have always vindicated for the conquered the right of retaining their own faith on payment of jizyah.

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