When poorly informed commentators in the media increasingly use the term jihadi or jihad to describe the violent and often murderous actions of certain muslims; it compels a reasoned and polite response from those who understand the applicability of the term. Indeed, the verbal noun jihād, derived from the root jahada – has a general meaning of “to toil” or “to exert (oneself) strenuously”. It is important for media commentators to realise that jihād has not only been defined as a struggle which appropriates physical force against an invader (self-defense), but it also reflects a greater (personal and spiritual) struggle against the evils of one’s soul and an intellectual struggle against the forces of ignorance. The Quran makes it clear that the term jihād can be used not only as part of a physical struggle against an evil oppressor or invader, but it can also clearly be used in non-violent contexts. Indeed, there are many ways to “strive” or “to toil” on the path of God. For example, in verse 25:52 we read, “Therefore listen not to the Unbelievers, but strive (jāhidu) against them with the utmost strenuousness (jihād) with the (Quran) …”. This verse originates from the early Meccan period and was revealed several years before military action against the enemies of the Prophet was even a feasible option. The verse commands the Believers to use the message of monotheism illustrated in the Quran to try to turn the minds of the unbelievers. Another early Meccan verse, 29:6 reads, “And if any strive (jāhada) (with might and main), they do so for their own souls: for Allah is free of all needs from all creation”. Again, this was revealed before any battles took place and thus the context of the “striving” cannot be reduced to armed conflict.
It is important to realise that while the term jihād is used quite clearly in verses that talk about armed conflict and force against the Meccans – there is also a second term that is explicitly used in such contexts. This second term, or word – is qitāl, which means “to fight” or “to wage war”. Thus the Quran does not simply define a Jihad as a physical conflict. There are clear contexts and the usage of extra terms and words that ensure the reader about what sort of struggle is going on.
Having outlined this important fact, it is important to refer to the words of the great Muslim thinker Said Nursi which can be found in his magnum opus work – The Risale-i Nur. Among many meditations on the meanings and implications of Quranic verses; Nursi also stated that military jihād was no longer applicable in the contemporary age. Even as he suffered from persecution at the hands of a militantly secular Turkish state; he urged his followers and students to use the power of the pen and the spoken word in response. His remedy for those persecuted for openly promoting religious social values was not to wage war within the country with physical weapons, but to strive and struggle to reinforce the weak spiritual faith amongst the masses. In 1909, Nursi wrote:-
“All believers are charged with upholding the Word of God, and at this time the most effective means of doing this is material progress. For the Europeans are crushing us under their tyranny with the weapons of science and industry. We shall therefore wage jihād with the weapons of science and industry on ignorance, poverty and conflicting ideas, the worst enemies of upholding the Word of God.”
It is important to state that Nursi was no pacifist. Indeed, he fought valiantly to defend his nation during the First World War and was awarded with a War Medal in return for his brave efforts in combating the Russian threat. A good few years of his youth was devoted to this physical jihād. Even during this period of combat, Said Nursi continued a personal jihād of the pen through his extensive religious writings. By the end of the First World War, and during the decline of the Ottoman Empire; Nursi increasingly emphasised a non-physical form of jihād which promoted the development of critical thinking, science, and material development. However, with the rise of an increasingly westernized and secularized Republic in Turkey, Nursi focussed more efforts on the importance of Belief. His “mânevî jihad”, which can be translated as “positive action;” – was very influential in restoring a sense of enthusiasm and conviction in core Islamic principles in a nation which was waning under the desire to copy western secularism and materialist philosophy. His approach of encouraging “belief” through the process of intellectual inquiry was a key part of his approach. He’d prefer people think and reflect, rather than simply emulate or copy.
For Said Nursi, the contemporary age is one where most people are civilized enough to be “conquered” via means of persuasion rather than force. Even in the past history of Islamic civilizations, there was no clear overall trend of aggressive expansionism. Many of the conflicts were in response to attack from aggressive kingdoms that surrounded the Muslims and posed an existential threat. This is not to sugar-coat the actions of all previous Muslim leaders and dynasties of course. Said Nursi observed the beginnings of the Second World War with a distinct lack of enthusiasm for engaging in the inevitable bloodshed and mass destruction that would follow. He urged his students to avoid taking sides, stating that the wars were simply a contest between opposing tyrants and the evils of petty political partisanship.
Importantly, Nursi understood the particular nature of contemporary warfare and the degree of innocent lives that can be lost in the process. Nursi strongly believed that the innocent should not have to suffer harm as a result of others that are guilty. He often quoted the verse from the Quran that supported this belief, “No bearer of burdens can bear the burden of another” (6:164, etc.) and stated that non-Islamic civilizations had continually violated this important moral principle. Interestingly, throughout his Risale-i Nur; Nursi mentioned the “bearer of burdens” quote more than any other quote from the Quran.
In essence, Said Nursi was focussed on a “jihad” of the soul and of the pen and of the spoken word against the illnesses of the soul and the three main evils of conflict, poverty, and ignorance. Nursi’s jihād incorporates the practice of education, the promotion of unity, industriousness, and brotherhood as an antidode to these three central evils. Thus, in such an age of increasing misunderstandings, anger, tensions and wealth inequalities – the message of Islamic sages such as Said Nursi is of paramount importance.
For further reading on Said Nursi’s understanding of the concept of “Jihad”, please read the following paper by Sukran Vahide:-