Some notes on why jihad is good

Canadian journalists tend to flatten the concept of jihad, and this fits a larger pattern.

I think a lot of non-Muslim folks don’t understand that jihad has good meanings. When a Muslim person gives birth, for example, they strive in the path of god; they are committing jihad.1

When a Muslim decides to quit smoking, they are struggling against vice and sin. They are enacting jihad.2

When a Muslim commits themselves to being a better partner, or a better parent, they are striving in the way of peace and good living which means they are enacting jihad.3

Even in the context of war, jihad is the domain of just war and just war theory. Just war theory attempts to answer ethical questions, like, “when is it right to go to war?” and “when should you protect yourself or your community?” I’m no historian, but I suspect the tradition of just war theory came to Thomas Aquinas from Islam. Western philosophy so often credits St. Augustine with the seeds of just war theory, but Islam and Islamic thinkers meanwhile had an entire branch of theology and a more robust social and intellectual class dedicated to the topic.4

My point is that many Canadians don’t understand jihad. If you read Canadian journalists on the topic, you might not understand that jihad has some very nice meanings. Most Canadian journalists seem to commonly misrepresent the concept. It’s not just them, mind you. There’s lots of misrepresentation of jihad to go around.

I’m not Muslim. I’m an atheist. But I have some academic background in philosophy and religious studies.

Here’s an interesting story. When I was young and growing up in a small town in Northern Alberta I worked at a local fast food restaurant. My boss had travelled and lived in Egypt for a while and he told me one day about living there. Among the many things he told me, one thing stuck with me. He told me that “jihad means holy war.” He said it with a kind of snarl. Luckily, I had friends that were Muslim. And though I never really understood the conversations we had then, I could tell my boss had gotten something very wrong about the notion of jihad.

Years later I would study philosophy and religious studies at the University of Calgary. I had the privilege of studying Abrahamic religions with the late Dr. Andrew Rippin. I would meet him again years later at the University of Victoria where he became Dean of Humanities, and where I studied philosophy of science. In conversation with him I discovered that, as a scholar of Islam, he shared my concern that Islam was poorly understood and poorly represented.5

The challenge is that there are many meanings. And communities of Muslims can disagree on the meanings.6

But Canadian journalists tend to flatten, or totalize, jihad into a violent idea. This fits a larger pattern of media creating an “Islamic peril.”7

Jihad is a beautiful idea. So much so that it’s a name in Muslim families in the same way that Grace is a name in Christian families.8

I’m going to write some more about the misrepresentation of jihad in Canadian journalism, but for now, I’m just going to park these research notes here.9

Notes, further reading & listening

Islamic Supreme Council

Islamic Supreme Council on misunderstandings of the concept of jihad:

WHAT JIHAD IS NOT: Jihad is not a violent concept. Jihad is not a declaration of war against other religions. It is worth noting that the Koran specifically refers to Jews and Christians as “people of the book” who should be protected and respected. All three faiths worship the same God. Allah is just the Arabic word for God, and is used by Christian Arabs as well as Muslims. Military action in the name of Islam has not been common in the history of Islam. Scholars says most calls for violent jihad are not sanctioned by Islam. Warfare in the name of God is not unique to Islam. Other faiths throughout the world have waged wars with religious justifications – source

WHAT JIHAD IS: The Arabic word “jihad” is often translated as “holy war,” but in a purely linguistic sense, the word ” jihad” means struggling or striving. – source

It cannot be over-emphasized that Islam upholds the values of reason, balance and responsibility in the conduct of its worldly affairs. There is nothing arbitrary about its legal provisions relating to matters of war, peace, international relationships and the rule of law. In this area there is considerable agreement between Islamic law and the legal systems currently practiced throughout the world. In addition to the real possibility that these legal systems were profoundly influenced by the legal heritage of Islam, this commonality can be explained by the fact that the protection and endorsement of basic human rights form the cornerstone of Islamic legislation.

Full article: “Jihad: A Misunderstood Concept from Islam”

Combative Jihad in the technical usage of Islamic law means “the declaration of war against belligerent and aggressive non-Muslim powers or against fellow Muslim transgressors”. It is not a haphazard decision to be taken by anyone. The principles of Islamic jurisprudence state that the actions of the leader must be guided by the interests of the people and that the interests of the collectivity has, in some cases, precedence over the interests of the individual. – source

The Complete Idiot’s Guide To Understanding Islam

The Complete Idiot’s Guide To Understanding Islam
Yahiya J.A. Emerick, A Pearson Education Company, 2002

Google book

The word jihad literally means to struggle or strive or to work for something with determination. Although English translations define it as holy war, that is not the Arabic meaning. The Arabic word for war is harb, and the word for fighting is qital. This is important to know because “making jihad” is any action done to further the cause of God. Providing missionary services in a tough place, going to a far land to study, or donating money when it’s a hardship can be a type of jihad. Even just trying to curb your desires for the life of this world is considered a type of jihad.

CIGUI: Appendix D Glossary

Jihad “To struggle, strive or exert.” Often mistranslated as holy war, this term can apply to any exertion in God’s cause. Examples range from going to school and a woman making the Hajj to fighting a war or giving up a bad habit.

CIGUI: Jihad defined as creating peace and justice

Part 3, Chapter 14, page 166:

However, the word jihad is most often associated with the act of physically confronting evil and wrongdoing; hence, it can be applied to the act of fighting as well. But the goal of a physical jihad is not to have a big war, gain riches, or kill people; it is to further the cause of Allah and to create justice on Earth. Then, when the evil is removed, or the other side wants peace, Muslims are to make peace as well…

Islam is not a society of vigilantes. It’s not up to anyone who feels like it to declare a jihad. Although it seems everyone and their uncle is waving this word around, only an Islamic government or a worldwide leader of Islam has the authority to declare a jihad. Neither one exists in the Muslim world right now.

Jihad is one of the most misused words in the world today. It means to struggle in God’s way. If someone does something in a way other than what God ordained, then it is a crime that the individual will have to answer for on the Day of Judgment.

CIGUI: Jihad as social activism

Part 3, Chapter 14, page 167:

There are many levels of jihad. An important part of our daily life as Muslims is to strive (or “make jihad”) to improve society. Judaism has its concept of Tikum Olam or perfecting the world, and many other religions have a similar idea. The key phrase for us comes from the Qur’an, which says that Muslims must “encourage good while forbidding evil.” Thus, Muslims must be active in the social affairs of any community they live in…

Islam is a proactive way of life, meaning we are taught to get involved and take action int eh defense and promotion of the truth. Why should Muslims try to get involved in the welfare of the society around them? Quite simply because God said, “You are the best community brought out of humanity. You encourage what is right and forbid what is wrong and you believe in Allah.” (Qur’an 3:110) That is quite a defining statement!

CIGUI: Jihad as just war, not “holy war”

The Complete Idiot’s Guide has a section called Islam on War, page 170.

Peace on Earth is the ideal that the world of Islam works toward, and war is abhorred as the last, worst option. However, there are times when there is no alternative but to fight. Every society has its own view about a just war.

Imam Syed Soharwardy

Imam Syed Soharwardy is President of the Islamic Supreme Council of Canada.

In March of 2015 he argued that Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s misuse of the term jihadists may be leading to more sympathy for Daesh. Soharwardy says jihad means to struggle and should not be used to describe terrorists. From video by The Canadian Press.

“In fact, jihad is a very honourable, holy concept of Islam. Jihad is not necessarily mean to pick up your sword and go and kill your enemy. It is not. But since our Prime Minister and our ministers of government keep saying “jihad, jihad, jihad, jihad…” Jihad is a holy word, in a sense, a struggle. It is a struggle against my own self, a struggle against my own temptation, a struggle against desires and wishes, bad desires and wishes. I call Mr. Stephen Harper the biggest jihadi. Why? Because he struggles every day. He struggles to secure and safeguard Canaada. He struggles everyday to improve the economy of Canada. He struggles everyday to safeguard Canada. That is a struggle. That is jihad.”

“The word jihad literally means to “struggle or strive.” The Arabic root of the word is jahada “to strive for.” This is a struggle against evil and wrong. This struggle (Jihad) is the most integral part of Islam. In the holy Qur’an, the most frequently occurring orders from Allah are those for the establishment of prayer (Salat) and those for the struggle in His path (Jihad Fi Sabilillah). There are three levels of struggles in Islam… First Level: The struggle to acquire, sustain and foster the righteousness within ourselves. In other words, the struggle within a person to keep him/her away from sins and evil beliefs or actions… Second Level: A struggle by using one’s speaking or writing power to acquire, sustain and cultivate righteousness within a community. In other words, if a person sees or hears any wrong doing in the community, the righteous person stops that wrong by creating awareness about it through his/her speeches or writings… Third Level: The struggle against evil by using force. In other words, fighting a war against evil. A further explanation of this level of Jihad follows.” – Source

Campanini, Massimo

Campanini, Massimo. The Qur’an: The Basics. Translated by Oliver Leaman. New York: Routledge, 2016. Second Edition.

“Jihad and Ijtihad Terms that come from the verbal root jhd, which means “striving,” “struggle” (on the path of God. Jihad is often wrongly translated as “Holy War.”Theologians distinguish between the “great” jihad, which is a matter of striving to regulate and improve behaviour, and the “little” jihad, which is really warlike struggle.” Ijtihad means force in rational interpretation on the principles of law. P. 138, Appendix I. See also: Abu Hamid Muhammad al-Ghazzali (primary source)

Oxford Islamic Studies

From the Arabic root meaning “to strive,” “to exert,” “to fight”; exact meaning depends on context. May express a struggle against one’s evil inclinations, an exertion to convert unbelievers, or a struggle for the moral betterment of the Islamic community… – Source

Islam for Dummies

Islam for Dummies, A Reference for the Rest of US!, Malcolm Clark, Wiley Publishing 2003

Page 141: Go, team, go! What about jihad?

Jihad, typically translated as “holy war” in the West, is sometimes included as a sixth pillar in discussions of religious obligations (ibada means service or worship). Within Islam, you can find different explanations of jihad, often in conflict with one another. All agree that, whether it’s one of the pillars or not, jihad is required. All agree that the word itself means “striving” or “struggle” and is used in some places in the Qur’an without military connotation. But in other texts, jihad does include warfare, and certainly war on behalf of God is prominent in the Islamic tradition. You can out more about jihad in Chapter 17, where I look at some misconceptions about Islam.

RCMP report, “Words Make Worlds”

Words Make Worlds,” RCMP report 2010 (PDF)

Terms like “Islamic terrorism,” “Islamist terrorism,” “Jihadism” and “Islamofascism” succeed only in conflating terrorism with mainstream Islam, thereby casting all Muslims as terrorists or potential terrorists.

“By referring to extremists as jihadis we effectively recognize their actions as being in the path of God and, therefore, legitimate. And in opposing jihad and its practitioners, we risk characterizing ourselves as the enemies of Islam.


Jihad (English: /dʒɪˈhɑːd/; Arabic: جهاد‎ jihād [dʒɪˈhaːd]) is an Arabic word which literally means striving or struggling, especially with a praiseworthy aim.

National Council of Canadian Muslims

In a statement Wednesday, the National Council of Canadian Muslims said it was a crime to leave Canada to join a terrorist group and urged those with information about “the promotion of violent extremism” to contact the authorities.

“Further, our communities need to openly discuss misunderstood concepts such as jihad in order to demystify and deglamorize the message of those who would prey upon our youth and most vulnerable,” executive director Ihsaan Gardee said. – source

“For policy makers, the language of jihad is a moving target”
By Dylan Roberts, NCCM, 2015

Amira Elghawaby

“Canadian media sucks at representing Muslims in Canada”
Amira Elghawaby on the unflattering, unrelenting media spotlight on Muslims in Canada—and why journalists must do better.
2016 12 13

Study: The Changing Misrepresentation of Race and Crime on Network and Cable News

“The Changing Misrepresentation of Race and Crime on Network and Cable News”
Travis L. Dixon & Charlotte L. Williams

Islamophobia in the media

“Islamophobia persistent in the media, journalist says”, CBC
Al-Jazeera host Mehdi Hasan calls for more responsible coverage.
2017 April

Losing the Meaning of Jihad: Terrorism and the US Media

By Allie Kirchner, The Stimson Center, 2010

The word jihad literally means “strive” or “struggle.” Of the five dimensions of jihad discussed in the Quran, the most emphasized is an individual’s internal struggle for self-restraint and piety. The Quran also uses the word jihad in connection with charity and, to a lesser extent, academic achievement, societal reform and defensive war. In verse 15 of Surat al-Hujurat, the Quran reveals that true believers “strive hard in Allah’s cause with their possessions and their lives.” – source

Oprah Winfrey

This is a nice overview.

Introduction to Islam | Belief | Oprah Winfrey Network (Youtube)

Raheel Raza, understanding jihad

Their jihad– not my jihad : a Muslim Canadian woman speaks out
Ingersoll, Ont. : Basileia Books, c2005. (PDF)

Understanding jihad

There are five pillars of faith in Islam, which include belief in one God, fasting, prayer, going for the pilgrimage and giving charity. Some religious authorities claim a sixth pillar: Jihad. In the past decade, this word has become well known in English because of the contemporary world situation which has made it the focus of media, which have very often used it out of context… Interpreting the term jihad to mean “holy war” is misleading and usually inaccurate. The Qur’anic usage of the term jihad is much broader than the political use of term might imply. The basic meaning of jihad is “struggle” and this struggle is not necessarily an armed struggle. It can mean the struggle for truth and justice or good over evil. (Page 18)

One of most potent weapons used by media is the war of words. Violent and confrontational terminology is key propaganda. A sad example of media’s role in creating havoc is the disgusting remark made by American Baptist pastor Reverend Jerry Falwell during an interview conducted by CBS’s 60 Minutes on October 6, 2002. Falwell told reporter Bob Simon that he believed the Muslim who commits acts of violence in jihad does so with the approval of Mohammad. “I think Mohammad was a terrorist,” Falwell said. “He – I read enough of the history of his life written by both Muslims and – and – non-Muslims, that he was a – a violent man, a man of war.” … The remark itself was rude and repulsive enough to have been ignored, but media picked it up and it was on the newswire within hours. Adding insult to injury, 60 Minutes decided to air the issue on the weekend, making a sensitive Muslim community even more defensive. (Page 43)

Paul Bramadat

Paul Bramadat is the Director, Centre for Studies in Religion and Society, University of Victoria.
“They Were Always Such Nice Boys: Religion, Radicalization and Securitization in Canada and Beyond” (PDF)

Second, we should eschew all “essentialist” understandings of religion, and look with some suspicion at those who proffer either entirely positive or entirely negative accounts of what Islam, Hinduism, Christianity, etc., are “really” like. It is quite appropriate to argue that the group of people responsible for a particular violent act represents only a very small cohort within the larger tradition. It is, however, quite problematic to claim that the “authentic” version of [insert religion here] entirely rejects violence, and only a bastardized or “hijacked” version of the tradition would justify aggression, misogyny, etc. Like all cultural systems, religions include within them violent, misogynistic and aggressive—as well as charitable, egalitarian, peaceful—elements, and in each religious tradition, the relationship between these elements shifts over time as members of the tradition engage in the ongoing reinterpretation of religion in light of social changes.

It is entirely legitimate for religious insiders to make claims about which one of their tradition’s contemporary or historical expressions best captures their own appraisal of the broader tradition. However, essentialist claims about the authenticity of particular forms of any tradition are obstacles to any careful and accurate account of why a particular group of people might engage in a particular violent act at a particular time. (Page 54)

M. Amir Ali

Jihad: one of the most misunderstood concepts in Islam

Jihad: means “struggle” and “strive” against evil thoughts, evil action and aggression against a person, family, society or country. Jihad may be a “justifiable war”, borrowing the Christian term.

Hidden Brain podcast: “Is He Muslim?”

New research from Erin Kearns and colleagues at Georgia State University shows that the president is right — sort of. There is a systematic bias in the way terrorism is covered — just not in the way the president thinks. – source

Hidden Brain podcast: “The Psychology Of Modern Terrorism: What Drives Radicalization At Home”

Shankar talks to anthropologist Scott Atran. He’s spent years studying terrorist fighters. We also hear from Israeli psychologist Ariel Merari. He speaks about his work with would-be suicide bombers and the psychology of radicalization. – Source

Is it nihilism, or, as social scientists suggest, a perverse idealism? – Source

Code Switch: It’s bigger than the ban

This Code Switch episode does a good job tracing Islamophobia back to early American naturalization processes and connects anti-Islam movements to anti-blackness.

Listen on

BEYDOUN: So in – one of the first pieces I worked on as a scholar was an article that examined this era called the Naturalization Act – or naturalization era. I’m sorry. From 1790 to 1952, there was a policy in place that mandated whiteness as a prerequisite for citizenship. So in order to become a naturalized citizen or a naturalized American, you had to prove to a civil court judge that you were in fact white or, you know, persuade somebody at a checkpoint – Ellis Island, Baltimore, Los Angeles and so on – that you were in fact white. The idea, however, with regard to Islam – there was a system in place called Orientalism. It’s this theory that was, you know, constructed by Palestinian-American scholar Edward Said. – Source

Canadaland Commons: “Paris: Backlash Against Canadian Muslims?”

Following the tragedy in Paris, Desmond talks to Imam Syed Soharwardy, founder of the Islamic Supreme Council of Canada, and Amira Elghawaby, communications director for the National Council of Canadian Muslims, about the backlash Canadian Muslims face when terrorist attacks carried out in the name of Islam. – Source

Islam for Journalists, report

The “actual” meaning of jihad is “Various forms of struggle for the good of the faith”. When it’s used in reporting on Islam in the West, the effect is: “Makes violence inherent to Islam.” – Chapter Seven, Page 142, Islam for Journalists, 2013

Definition of jihad, page 260

Jihad — Its meaning in Arabic is struggle or effort. The Qur’an calls on Muslims to struggle to improve their lives. It can also mean the military struggle in a battle linked to Islam. Fighters in a religious struggle are called mujahedeen. The Qur’an talks of a Greater Jihad, which refers to each individual’s struggle to follow the teachings of Islam and to submit to the God’s will. The Lesser Jihad refers to Muslims’ struggle to defend Islam.

Religion Link

Definition of jihad:

jihad: An Arabic word that translates as “struggle” or “striving.” It is most commonly used to describe an inward, spiritual struggle for holiness, though traditionally it has also been used to describe defensive military action against non-Muslims. Today militant Muslims use it to call for aggressive armed strikes against non-Muslims, including civilians, and against other Muslims whom they consider impure – all acts condemned by mainstream Islam. Although many in the media translate jihad as “holy war,” it does not mean that literally, and the majority of Muslims do not use it that way. – Source

Edward Said, interviewed on Orientalism

On Orientalism: an interview with Sut Jhally (PDF)

Reshma Memon Yaqub, on media and jihad

Chapter Eleven, Islam for Journalists (PDF), 2013 page 231-237:

Because I’ve written about Islam from time to time, I’ve been asked many times to be one of those talking heads on TV news shows. I remember one news program where the questions and assumptions coming out of the host’s mouth were so blatantly anti-Muslim that I just started laughing. Full body laughing. Live. On air. The host looked so shocked. The situation grew more absurd. I laughed until tears fell from my eyes, and we went to a commercial.

As a Muslim, it pains me — really truly, it’s just not just an expression here — to see how Islam and Muslims are portrayed in the media.

It pains me what is written, and it pains me what is not written. It pains me what is said. And what is left unsaid. It pains me that, as a direct result of the views Americans have absorbed about Islam from the media, my son would prefer that his middle school classmates not know that he is Muslim.

It pains to me to the point that, three years ago, I threw out my television and canceled my newspaper subscription. I could no longer allow what passes as news (“Well, there’s no word yet on whether this missing ice cream cone is the work of Islamic extremists, but we can’t rule it out!”) to seep into the pores of my home.

What is an Islamic extremist anyway? Someone who practices Islam extremely? Like fasting two months out of the year instead of the prescribed one? Or praying more than five times a day? Or donating more than the required 2.5 percent of her savings to the poor every year? Is a Muslim fundamentalist one who practices the fundamentals of Islam — like worshipping the same God that Jews and Christians worship, and believing in the same line of prophets that they believe in?

Would it concern you to know that I have personally committed jihad? Twice? (Childbirth is one of the many “struggles in the way of god,” that are the true definition of that word.) And dying in childbirth, which I fortunately did not do (though my grandmother did), is one of the ways a person can be martyred in Islam.

National Council of Canadian Muslims

National Council of Canadian Muslims

“No elected or public official should misuse terms like ‘jihad’ that are already widely misunderstood and which further promote stereotypes about Canadian Muslims…” NCCM executive director Ihsaan Gardee, 2014

TED talk by Bobby Ghosh

This TED Talk by Bobby Ghosh is helpful to understand some of the messy history of the idea of jihad.

Some resources by Qasim Rashid

Books by Rashid

Quick note on Twitter, what is jihad?

‘Jihad’ is not a dirty word, Washington Post

Alliance of Civilizations

Alliance of Civilizations Secretariat, United Nations, New York
“Alliance of Civilizations: Research Base for the High-level Group Report Analysis on Media” (PDF)

Fighting Words, How Arab and American Journalists can break through to better coverage

By Lisa Schnellinger and Mohannad Khatib
Produced by the International Center for Journalists

“Fighting Words, How Arab and American Journalists can break through to better coverage” (PDF)

Guidelines for journalists

Reporting and Radicalisation and how it’s relevant to you (PDF)

Words not used frequently in your native language sometimes have connotations you may not be aware of. Also avoid using terms that the audience may have little or no knowledge of or that can easily be misinterpreted. In case they cannot be avoided, clarify. The word “jihad”, for example, is often mistranslated as “holy war” and connected to terms like wrong, dangerous, sinister, etc. Even though some militant groups use the term in that way, the concept has a totally different connotation for mainstream Muslims.

Discourses of Domination

Henry, Frances and Carol Tator. Discourses of Domination: Racial Bias in the Canadian English-language Press. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2002.

“In this book we hope to shows [sic] how some members of the Canadian press give voice to racism, and how the media marginalize, denigrate, and silence ethnoracial minorities.” P. 4.

“We share the view of van Dijk (1988a) who contends that discourse is not just a symptom of the problem of racism. Essentially, it reinforces policies and programs, organizational planning processes, practices, and decision making. Discourse is language put to social use, and it is often invisible to those who use it.” Pp. 12-13.

  1. “Report: Islam for Journalists (PDF)”, Chapter 11, Reshma Memon Yaqub: As a Muslim, it pains me — really truly, it’s just not just an expression here — to see how Islam and Muslims are portrayed in the media…It pains to me to the point that, three years ago, I threw out my television and canceled my newspaper subscription. I could no longer allow what passes as news (“Well, there’s no word yet on whether this missing ice cream cone is the work of Islamic extremists, but we can’t rule it out!”) to seep into the pores of my home… Would it concern you to know that I have personally committed jihad? Twice? (Childbirth is one of the many “struggles in the way of god,” that are the true definition of that word.).
  2. See “Words Make Worlds,” RCMP report 2010 (PDF): “By referring to extremists as jihadis we effectively recognize their actions as being in the path of God and, therefore, legitimate. And in opposing jihad and its practitioners, we risk characterizing ourselves as the enemies of Islam.”
  3. See, for example Raheel Raza, Their jihad– not my jihad : a Muslim Canadian woman speaks out, Ingersoll, Ont: Basileia Books, c2005 (PDF)
  4. Anyway. That part about Aquinas is speculative. Partly. St. Augustine, as far as I can tell, said remarkably little about just war theory.
  5. I have also spoken with Dr. Paul Bramadat, at the University of Victoria. He is the Director of the Centre for Studies in Religion and Society. He told me that one common mistake that journalists make is in totalizing and simplifying Islam, and religion generally.
  6. A central question I will come back to in a later post, is which communities should we agree with?
  7. Islamic Peril: Media and Global Violence, Karim Haiderali Karim, Black Rose Books, 2003,
  8. I have a friend who, to this day, lives as a Canadian but uses a shortened anglicized version of his name to avoid awkward questions and conversations. See this TED Talk by Bobby Ghosh about naming children within faith communities.
  9. Big thank you to Rebecca Cory and Baylee Woodley and countles others who have both contributed significantly to my research and analysis. All errors remain my own.