The meaning of ‘jihad’ in the Qur’an

Reflections on the Quran,

Five groups of verses about fighting in Gods cause[1]

on 6 September 2014 at the Janssen Spirituality Centre, Boronia.

 The Mela Interfaith Association (MIA) seeks to promote the bonds of friendship between members of different faith traditions in order to learn from each other’s spiritual experience and to journey together in peace and harmony.

Among its purposes is to learn from each other’s sacred texts; and link our reflections to Christian texts. In keeping with this purpose, we have embarked on a series of discussions on verses of the Quran. Our procedure is to discuss the text, and produce audiotapes as well as written summaries which will be available on the Mela Interfaith Association website (

In attendance.

Rev. Dr John Dupuche (Senior Lecturer, MCD University of Divinity / Catholic Theological College; Honorary Fellow, Australian Catholic University; member of the Ecumenical and Interfaith Commission; President, Mela Interfaith Association); Dr Stewart Sharlow (Public officer and Board Member, Mela Interfaith Association); Dr Herman Roborgh (Honorary Fellow, Australian Catholic University; Board Member, Mela Interfaith Association); Rev. Nick de Groot svd, (Director, Janssen Spirituality Centre; Board Member, Mela Interfaith Association);


In preparation for this discussion we had read five groups of verses about fighting in God’s cause: Surah 2 (The Heifer/Cow) verses: 216-218 read in conjunction with Surah 2 verses: 190-193. Surah 3 (The Family of ‘Imran ) verses: 13 and 142-143. Surah 4 (Women) verses: 74-77 and 84-85 and 94-96. Surah 8 (The Spoils of War) verses: 5-26.

The discussion was wide ranging and what follows does not summarise all that was said.

The context:

We began by reviewing the context of these verses. During the 10 years of his teaching in Mecca, the Prophet Muhammad was opposed, attacked sometimes even physically, because when the Arabian tribes came to Mecca for the festival he would criticise their greed, immorality, and constant warfare. These things are told in the Hadith and in biographical works, called siri, about the Prophet’s life.

The situation eventually became intolerable and the Prophet with his companions made the journey, which is called the Hijra, to Medina in 622, about one night’s journey from Mecca. He had prepared for this eventuality and he knew that he would be accepted as a important and just man, someone who could be their leader.

The Meccans still opposed him for his threat to their ways, and began to attack him in Medina with armies and mounted camels and weapons. The Muslims in Medina, under the leadership of Muhammad felt that they needed to protect themselves.

There were three major battles. The first is the Battle of Badr, CE 624, in which the Meccans were superior to the Muslims in terms of numbers of men and weapons, but the Muslims were victorious. This gave them confidence and confirmed them in their belief that they were favoured by God. This same attitude is found the Old Testament. The Meccans came back after about a year and there was another battle, the Engagement at Uhud, CE 625, which was indecisive and was draw followed by a truce; and then the Battle of the Trench, CE 627, named after the ditch which the the Muslims had dug around Medina. The Muslims won convincingly.

Under the leadership of Muhammad, the Muslims made the pilgrimage to Mecca, as had been done for centuries. The Meccans came out to discuss matters with Muhammad; the Muslims were told to go back to Medina and return the following year. Muhammad did so. It was an act of statesmanship. The Hudaibiya peace treaty was made with the Meccans in 629. The following year, Muhammad, without opposition, returned in triumph to Mecca together with a large following of Muslims and many Meccans became Muslim. He proclaimed victory and incorporated Mecca into his nascent empire. The following year, in 632, Muhammad died in Medina.


We broached the subject of jihad which based on the three consonants JHD (jim, ha, dal) and is found in other words such as mujahadeen. These three consonants make up many different words related to the meaning of “to strive, to take pains, to endeavour etc.” Many studies have done on this term. Rev. Dr John Dalton holds that the term has strong parallels with the Syrian Christian concept of struggle.

The term applies to the interior moral struggle against one’s ‘nafs’. During the Meccan period, before the migration, the term jihad had a personal sense of steadfastly enduring mockery and verbal attack.

We raised the question about New Testament parallels. Jesus does ‘battle’ with Satan in the desert. He speaks of entering by the narrow gate. St Paul speaks about “putting on the breastplate of faith” etc. and about “beating one’s own body”, “training for the contest”. The monks of the desert spoke about doing battle with the demons. The term ‘agony’ is derived from the Greek word for contest. “Being in agony he prayed the more earnestly. (Luke 22:44 ) The inner jihad is certainly present in Christianity.

There is also the greater jihad which means the duty to defend oneself against aggression.

Introduction to Surah 2:

The Arabian tribes were constantly at war. The battles between the Meccans and the Muslims in Medina were just another example of this warfare. Aggression and taking of booty, rabia, were part of this practice for it was a way of surviving in the harsh desert environment.

Muhammad has combined in himself two authorities, political and religious, which is reminiscent of the Old Testament. He had to deal with the questions of warfare and booty – the title of Surah 8 is ‘The Spoils of War’ – what was just, under what circumstances could war be undertaken, what was the proper conduct in times or war, how to deal with the defeated, the opponents.

We might also recall that theocracy has been found in the Catholic Church when Popes ruled territories and placed their armies in the field.

In the context of the Battles, Muhammad is trying to establish a just mode of conduct. One of us noted that a useful comparison might be made: the myths of Genesis were borrowed from Babylon and changed by the Hebrew writers. The divine revelation consists in the shift that occurs between the Babylonian and Hebrew accounts. So too, we need to look at the bellicose practices of Arabia and see how Muhammad changes them. The shift is the precise point of revelation.

 Surah 2.190 And fight in Gods cause against those who wage war against you, but do not commit aggression—for surely, God does not love aggressors. 191 Slay them wherever you find them [those who fight against you];a drive them out of the places from which they drove you, for [religious] persecution is worse than killing. Do not fight them at the Sacred Mosque unless they fight you there. If they do fight you, slay them— such is the reward for those who deny the truth—192 but if they desist, then surely God is most forgiving and merciful. 193 Fight them until there is no more fitna [religious persecution] and religion belongs to God alone. If they desist, then let there be no hostility, except towards aggressors.

We noted that this text strongly prohibits aggression but commands self-defence. It makes the point that religious persecution is worse than physical killing, for persecution attempts to destroy the soul while killing affects only the body. Persecution is therefore the justification for armed response in self-defence.

Some Muslims say that Jesus’s teaching is like that of Muhammad in Mecca. If he had lived longer, and if he had been in a different political situation, without the overwhelming power of the Roman empire; if he had acquired political power, he might have developed teaching in line with that given during the Medina period.

Jesus speaks about bringing not peace but the sword; but what is ‘peace’ here and what is ‘sword’? He himself violently cleanses the Temple, but he also speaks of ‘turning the other cheek’. He goes to Jerusalem with full knowledge that he will be killed. When Peter attacks Malchus in the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus rebukes him and says that those who live by the sword will die by the sword. Furthermore, in his conversation with Pilate he comments that if his kingdom were of this world, his men would be fighting for him; but his kingdom is not of that kind. When the Romans come to destroy the Temple, the Christians leave Jerusalem because they see no point in trying to preserve the city and the Temple. Their hopes were placed in the person of Christ Jesus. The just war theory will develop later in Christianity.

Stewart noted that the Sufi approach, which is perfectly in accord with Islam, does not involve fighting of any sort. The Sufis are focussed entirely on tackling the nafs. For them the exterior struggle is almost an aberration, just as today we have grave doubts about the continuing validity of just war theory. Sufis do not follow the path of war.

There is a balance between the interior and outer struggle, which modern extremist Muslims have ignored. Their actions have little to do with just war theory; they take a few verses of the Quran and misunderstand their import. The US and ISIS positions mirror each other to some degree: the present policy of the USA seems to be heavily fundamentalist, taking the just war theory to extremes.

Surah 2. 217:            Whoever of you turns back from his faith and dies as a denier of the truth will have his deeds come to nothing in this world and the Hereafter, and he will be an inhabitant of the Fire, to abide therein forever.

The text stresses both the beginning – faith – and the end – the Fire. The comment was made that the ‘last day’ gives tremendous motivation in Islam. with its reward or punishment.

Surah 9.5       When the forbidden months have passed, kill the polytheists [who are at war with you] wherever you find them.   Take them captive, and besiege them, and lie in wait for them at every place of ambush.

We were of the opinion, in our discussion, that this referred to the pagan tribes of Arabia, perhaps indeed the Meccans, who were attacking the Muslims of Medina. Muhammad is encouraging his followers in the context of war. It does not apply to the Jews and Christians. It does not apply outside of Arabia. Indeed, Muslim practice was not to force conversion.

Surah 9.5 cont.          But if they repent, and take to prayer regularly and pay the alms, then let them go their way. God is forgiving and merciful.

 Surah 9.5 cont.          ‘take to prayer regularly’

There was a lengthy discussion about this phrase. There was some uncertainty. It does seems to refer to the polytheists and seems to imply forced conversion, which did not apply to Jews and Christians either in Arabia our outside Arabia.

Surah 9.5 cont.          pay the alms:

Discussion then continued on the question of the tax. The point was made that all Muslim men had to join the army and fight when necessary; this requirement was not made of Christians or Jews. Instead they had to pay a special tax. The Muslims had also to pay a tax, called zakkat. In this way a sense of equality established in the community, and the notion of the community is paramount in Islam. All had to contribute to the security of the community. Without this tax, the Christians would not be making a contribution, and his would create unrest. The fact that the tax requirement was abused is not an argument against it.The same primacy of the community is found in Christianity in doctrinal terms: heresy was altogether unacceptable, for it destroyed the unity of the community.

Surah 9.5 cont.          Let them go their way:

This means ‘let them be different’. The tolerance is notable.

Surah 9.6       If any one of the polytheists seeks asylum with you, grant him asylum so that he may hear the word of God; then convey him to a place of safety. That is because they are a people who have no knowledge.

It appears that all that was required was to desist from opposing the Muslim armies. There is no talk about conversion. The Muslim must grant asylum once the opponent desists from attacking, undertakes to become an obedient citizen and ceases to be a threat to the state. Indeed, he must be taken to a safe place. It is an obligation. Ignorance is accepted as a fact in the community and as a reason for polytheism. Asylum is an opportunity to instruct the ignorant about the true nature of God and religion. All that is required is that the polytheist desist from aggression against Islam.

The word sharia:

The word sharia means ‘the path of life’. It was noted that jurisprudence which examines sharia law is the highest form of study of Islam, in contrast to Christianity where dogmatic theology is the highest branch, moral theology is lesser and canon law is mainly concerned with good administrative order in the Church.

Once we understand the importance of community life and the sharia as the path of life, we understand more clearly why son or daughter must be so severely punished in Islam. By their conduct they threaten to break the unity of the community. This is comparable to the severe measures taken in Christianity against heresy, where doctrinal error is seen as totally destructive of community. The word ‘heresy’ means ‘rupture’.

Our discussion of the Qur’an is necessarily limited since our group does not comprise an expert in sharia. We noted, on the other hand, that we were able to take part in this fruitful discussion precisely because we are not experts and can cast a fresh look at the text, and feel free unwittingly to make errors as we explore this subject. An expert might not feel so free to ‘go outside the square’.

[1] Wahiddudin Khan The Quran. New Delhi, India: Goodword Books, 2011, Copy of this English version of the Qur’an may be downloaded at Other translations used during the discussion: Muhammad Asad: The Message of the Qur’an, Bristol, England: the Book Foundation, 2003. Ali Unal, The Qur’an, New Jersey: Tughra Books, 2012.

About interfaithashram

Rev. Dr. John Dupuche is a Roman Catholic Priest, a senior lecturer at MCD University of Divinity, and Honorary Fellow at Australian Catholic University. His doctorate is in Sanskrit in the field of Kashmir Shaivism. He is chair of the Catholic Interfaith Committee of the Archdiocese of Melbourne and has established a pastoral relationship with the parishes of Lilydale and Healesville. He is the author of 'Abhinavagupta: the Kula Ritual as elaborated in chapter 29 of the Tantraloka', 2003; 'Jesus, the Mantra of God', 2005; 'Vers un tantra chrétien' in 2009; translated as 'Towards a Christian Tantra' in 2009. He has written many articles. He travels to India each year. He lives in an interfaith ashram.
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