you're reading...

What is Islamism? What is jihad?

The appellations “Islamist” and “Islamism” are, like so much terminology used in theorizing Islamic thought in the modern world, difficult to identify and describe in a discrete and succinct manner. They are variously applied and their meanings shift over time due to their contextual connotation. This type of terminology is particularly subject to semantic drift because it is often applied in discussions which are means to induce a specific vision of Muslims, characterizing them as extreme in belief and quick to react violently with regard to challenges to said belief.

Jihād is another such term, though it is not imposed, as in the case of “Islamist.” Jihād means “struggle” or “endeavor” and is derived from the same Arabic root as ijtihād (إجتهاد) or “independent judgement,” which is understood in the sense that it is an endeavor. The root jahada (جهد), deals with striving and laboring. This root word appears extensively in Islamic literature and popular discourse. Words derived from this word appear in the Qur‘ān and the word jihād itself appears several times in the Qur‘ān, in reference to “jihād fī sabīl Allāh” (جهاد في سيبل الله) or “striving in the path of God.” This concept is characterized as striving against the disbelievers, rather than obeying them or doing what they do.1 The concept, thus framed, becomes a religious or spiritual obligation.

The sense in which we presently understand jihād relates to the above characterization of Islamists as “extreme in belief” as it is related to the historical/political connotation of the word. This is a word upon which we wish to hang all of the fear of violent extremism. Whenever the word is mentioned in the media, it is not in the sense discussed above, but rather in the sense that it is an obligation to commit violence against infidels or wage “holy war” against apostates or non-believers.2 Marshall Hodgson, the late scholar of Islamic history and the development of Islamic civilization, identifies this aspect of jihād as “sanctioned in certain circumstances by religion.”3 This is not, however, a position of scholarly consensus. Historian Bernard Lewis, perhaps most famous in recent years as advisor to the second Bush administration in the United States, describes jihād as unlimited, as a religious obligation that would continue until all the world had either adopted the Muslim faith or submitted to Muslim rule.”4

The position which is best described by the current media discussion of jihād as it relates to Islamism is perhaps that of Sayyid Qutb. He argued for the importance of jihād in the modern world as a “permanent condition, not an occasional concern.”5 Sherman Jackson poses that this exposition of jihād in the modern world is based on the very early Islamic worldview that the world was in a state of war at the advent of Islam in the Arabian peninsula: “The assumed relationship, in other words, among nations and peoples in both the Qur‘ān and pre-modern Islamdom was one of hostility.6 He regards the basis for this judgment as an aspect of the dynamic, rather than static, Islamic legal intellectual tradition. This synopsis of the Sunnī system of Islamic legal scholarship is succinct and fair. Jackson attempts, early after the destruction of the World Trade Center in New York City in 2001, to disabuse us of the notion that Islamic law is somehow static or medieval in its focus. Rather, he poses it as a dynamic legal system based in tradition not very different than that of legal precedent in the United States.7 This interpretation allows for the more nuanced, above proposed understanding of jihād as well. Jackson treat’s Qutb’s position on jihād not as that of a “fundamentalist” or “traditionalist,” but as that of a revivalist.8 Jackson’s identification of the modern “Islamists” as “revivalists” rather than “fundamentalists” is interesting and aptly descriptive.9 Many of the modern crop of “Islamists” actually operate well outside of the schools of Islamic thought, or madhāhib (sin., madhhab), choosing to disregard previous legal scholarship and return to the sources of the Qur‘ān and the ḥadīth, Sayyid Qutb being but one such example.

Given the above confusions, is it possible to use the term jihād in the way that is arguably used in the Qur‘ān, or has it undergone semantic change to the point that it only refers to a “holy war?” Jackson was arguing for a more nuanced understanding of the word at a time when it was being bandied by both Muslims and American and European media commentators and scholars carrying the connotation of a form of “holy war.” This would appear to be the meaning that has won out, despite efforts on the part of both Muslim scholars and scholars of Islam to gloss or reframe the concept as a form of internal struggle. The same cannot be said of others identified as “Islamists,” who cannot really be considered scholars, though they might be considered as such by their followers. This is certainly true in the case of the late Osama bin Laden. Even his second in command, Ayman al-Zawahiri – arguably the brains behind the operation of al-Qaida, who is a literate and purportedly pious Muslim and a trained surgeon – is no “scholar,” despite claims to the contrary. In an age of semantic and intellectual confusion, it is difficult to discuss any aspect of this topic without first conducting an exhaustive exposition of the semantic drift of its terminology cause by years and years of shrill media coverage and intellectual fear-mongering.


  1. Qur‘ān, 25 (al-Furqān):52; 9 (al-Tawba):24; 22 (al-Ḥajj):78; 60 (al-Mumtaḥina):1.
  2. Roxanne L. Euben and Muhammad Qasim Zaman, “Introduction,” Chapter 1, Princeton Readings in Islamist Thought: Texts and Contexts from al-Banna to Bin Laden (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2009), 40-41.
  3. Marshall Hodgson, The Venture of Islam: Conscience and History in a World Civilization, vol. 1, The Classical Age of Islam (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1974), 75.
  4. Bernard Lewis, The Middle East: A Brief History of the Last 2,000 Years (New York: Scribner, 1995), 233.
  5. Quoted in: Euben and Zaman, Princeton Readings in Islamist Thought, 41.
  6. Sherman Jackson, “Jihad and the Modern World,” Journal of Islamic Law and Culture 7, no. 1 (2002): 18.
  7. Jackson, 7-8.
  8. “Revivalist” might be rendered in Arabic as mujaddid (مجدّد), which means “renewer.” This term holds special significance in popular Muslim tradition as describing someone who will, in every century arrive to revive the religion. In a ḥadīth – a Prophetic tradition – narrated by Abū Hurayra, the Prophet Muḥammad is reported as having said: “Allah shall raise for this Ummah at the head of every century a man who shall renew (or revive) for it its religion” (Sunan Abū Dawūd, no. 4278). Qutb has indeed been referred to by some as a mujaddid.
  9. Jackson, 5 n. 6.


Comments are closed.

Enter your email address to follow this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Join 14 other followers

%d bloggers like this: