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Concept of Jihad in Islam as Religious Nationalism

By Mallika Soni

Edited by Michelle Cherian, Associate Editor, The Indian Economist

In his book Imagined Communities, Anderson wonders, ‘what is it in the feeling of nationalism that makes people die for the country rather than kill others?’ The idea of Jihad as seen by the rest of the world is completely different from this.

On 23 February 1998, Osama bin Laden, at the “Declaration of the World Islamic Front for Jihad against the Jews and Crusaders,” said,“All these crimes and sins committed by the Americans are a clear declaration of war on God, his Messenger, and Muslims. . . . The jihad is an individual duty if the enemy destroys the Muslim countries. . . . As for the fighting to repulse [an enemy], it is aimed at defending sanctity and religion, and it is a duty. On that basis, and in compliance with God’s order, we issue the following fatwa to all Muslims: The ruling to kill the Americans and their allies—civilian and military—is an individual duty for every Muslim who can do it in any country in which it is possible to do it.”


The Muslims consider Islam as an ideology and a revolutionary programme rather than a religious one, whose aim is to rebuild the social order in the world by its tenets and ideals. Thus every Muslim is actually part of this revolutionary pedagogy. In this light, Jihad is the ‘struggle’ that the Muslims do to achieve their objectives. In this way Islam becomes a comprehensive system which focuses at the end of all evil systems prevailing in the world. So the tenets of Islam depict it as a programme which focus on the entire humanity rather than only a particular class, creed or group of people.

The tenets are taught to the Muslims in most of the nations by schooling done in Madrassa. It is estimated that more than one million young men from Pakistan, Afghanistan etc. attend Madrassas which are almost like private Islamic religious schools. The education given to them is only about the Quran; they are always rigorously indulged in the learning of Quran and interpreting it. So only theology is taught in the Madrassa system of education. The young men come from poor families and societies and are taught the radical message of Islam. They are taught everyday that their highest honour and duty is to wage Jihad to protect Islam (US being their chief enemy). This attitude of the young men ‘trained’ in these schools or rather camps is to sacrifice their life for the faith in Islam.

So this concludes that Jihad is like a religious duty of Muslims. In the past twenty years Jihad has been one of the most misunderstood words. Jihad in Arabic means struggle or rather a struggle against those who do not believe in Allah.

It can also mean ‘to exert one’s utmost endeavour in promoting a cause’ but the cause is the Cause of God; which is a fundamental condition in Jihad. Its literal meaning however is ‘in the way of God’. The idea of Jihad has two dimensions:

  1. The ‘greater jihad’ which is the inner struggle to fulfil his religious duties.
  2. The ‘lesser jihad’ which is a physical struggle against the enemies of Islam.

Jihad began by the words and actions of Muhammad and passages from the Quran. Muslim scholar Mahmoud Ayoub says that, “The goal of true Jihad is to attain a harmony between Islam(submission) , Imam(faith) and Ihsan(righteous living). Modern scholars used it to establish a moral-social order.But Quran never uses the term Jihad for fighting and to combat in the name of Allah. In such a situation ‘qital’ means fighting.

Till now we have seen what Jihad is. The flip side is what jihad is not. Jihad is not a violent concept. It is not a declaration of any kind of war against the other religions. Quran even says that Jews and Christians should be protected because all the faiths worship the same God. Jihad does not sanction any kind of violence, nor does the Quran do that. Warfare in the name of God happens in most of the religions according to Islamic Scholars. Thus they feel that they do not need to give justification in such a case.

The western world (esp. America) has always been sceptical about the word Jihad. They have treated it as a mania for religion and have even called jihadis, ‘religious fanatics’. They have also said that the jihadis fight to convert people to their faith, but in this way the necessity of Jihad cannot be defined.

To this the Muslim scholars respond by saying Jihad is not conversion by force as Quran states that, “there is no complusion in religion”. So maybe more than a religious ideology, Jihad is actually a political notion or drive to establish a single, unified Muslim realm proving Islam’s domination on the other faiths. Here quoting Quran becomes very important. The Holy Quran says: “Those who believe, fight in the way of God and the unbelievers fight in the way of Taghut(Devil).” But the Holy Prophet cleared this by saying, “Only he fights in the way of the Lord who holds no other purpose than the glorification of God.”

If this be the attitude of both the sides then why is Jihad called Religious Nationalism or even Religious Terrorism.

So the Western cult equates Islam with terrorism. The Wikipedia defines religious terrorism as a terrorism carried out based on motivations and goals that have a predominantly religious character or influence.

A Muslim scholar would define it as a type of political violence motivated by an absolute belief that another power (God) has sanctioned or rather commanded violence for the greater glory of the faith.

Former United States Secretary of State, Warren Christopher has said that terrorist acts in the name of religion and ethnic identity have become “one of the most important security challenges we face in the wake of the Cold War. There is, of course, no Muslim or Arab monopoly in the field of religious fanaticism; it exists and leads to acts of violence in the United States, India, Israel, and many other countries. But the frequency of Muslim- and Arab-inspired terrorism is still striking. A discussion of religion-inspired terrorism cannot possibly confine itself to radical Islam, but it has to take into account the Muslim countries’ preeminent position in this field.”

So after this view of the West one must not forget the central question: what is it that makes normal people following a religion, Jihadis? As applied by the Mujahideen, Jihad is a “defensive ideology which defends the faith against the unfaithful, death is martyrdom and through death Paradise is ensured. Any behaviour in the defence of this cause is considered not only justifiable but also blessed. Thus waging an Islamic Jihad shall be permissible and even a duty to defend the Islamic faith against other powers. This kind of ideology comes from the manipulation of the tenets of Quran. Furthermore, war is considered completely defensive and those who engage in Jihad are called Mujahideen or holy warriors. Most of this theory is the one given by Bin laden who often misquoted the Quran and used incomplete passages from the holy book to provoke the feelings of the jihadis (as the one quoted in the beginning). So some jihadis are motivated by faith and others by religion. But all of them are united by religious identity. As Michael G. Knapp elucidates it in The Concept and Practice of Jihad in Islam: “The goals of both primary and secondary religious terrorism are to construct a new society based on a religious or ethno-national identity. The terrorist behaviour of both tendencies is active and public. State-sponsored religious terrorism arises in governments that pursue international agendas by mentoring and encouraging religious proxies.”

On the other hand John Esposito explained, usually ‘political and economic grievances are primary causes or catalysts, and religion becomes a means to legitimate and mobilize’. In these cases violence plays what Samuel Peleg described as a ‘catharsis effect of being liberated as terrorism for terrorism’s sake’. As David Rosen pointed out, there can be a kind of ‘intoxication’ with violence. Esposito believes that groups may experience a ‘siege’ mentality. What Mark Juergensmeyer terms ‘cosmic war’ perspective can sometimes take on a reality in which violence is essential to demonstrate the existence of that ‘imagined’ war.

So the religious nationalism is very different from what Anderson claims to be the ‘American model’. According to Anderson, nationalism can be spread with the help of print capitalism and education, both of which are completely different in the Jihadi system of nationalism. Also the manipulation of religion and the commandments given by the Holy Scriptures makes these jihadis sacrifice their lives for their country. Though many scholars say that financial and other reasons are also the cause of such an inclination but mostly it is for their religion that they fight, thus getting the right term “religious nationalists”.