Lost in mistranslation
The presence of a skewed and unjust version of jihad during 9/11 has put a bitter taste for Muslims in many citizens’ hearts; however, the act of terrorism that day was not anything permissible by Islam, and the “holy war” the terrorists acted on behalf of was not by the book.
Not to get too deep into semantics, but jihad doesn’t even translate to “holy war.” It’s direct translation is “struggle” or “striving.”
There are different levels or versions of jihad described in the Quran, the most prevalent being jihad of the heart/soul. In this case, it describes an internal struggle to fight unholy urges, or just the general struggle of deciphering good versus evil.
The way I understand it is if a person has a question or any doubt about Islam, then the act of doing more within one’s religion to explain or understand these concepts is how a person experiences jihad of the heart and soul. This includes questioning whether he or she qualifies to go to heaven, if there even truly could be a heaven or questioning what is right from wrong and why things are that way.
Jihad is also often said to be a struggle of the tongue and hands. It is not simply about what you feel internally, but how you choose to present yourself to the world. Jihad of the hands and tongue is not just about what you feel — it’s about what you say and do. Jihad of the tongue is struggling to break your habit of cursing, and jihad of the hands is refraining from punching that jerk that just called you a cow.
There are various references about this in the Quran and in the teachings of the Prophet Mohammed (peace be upon him). Some that I find most powerful are in Surah 2:268, “Satan threatens you with poverty and orders you to immorality” and Surah 79:40-41, “But as for he who feared the standing before his lord and restrained the soul from his desire, then indeed, in paradise he will refuge.” Essentially, these two Surahs describe either the ends or consequences of the heart and soul’s jihad. Everyone is in a constant struggle between submitting to and restraining from temptation.
That being said, there is also jihad of the sword. Anyone who looks through a historical spectrum will see that every religion has, at some point, fought battles to further their righteous kingdoms and benefit their people; for example: the crusades, the Islamic caliphate, the 30 year war and countless civil wars in countless countries where there is a division in faith.
But that is not what Jihad of the sword is. It is not the unjustified slaughter of innocent people for selfish gains.
This form of jihad is not one of attacking, but one of defending. It is only permissible in Islam if it is an act of self-defense: “Permission to fight has been given to those who are being fought, because they were wronged. And indeed, Allah is competent to give them victory” (22:39). The scripture here references Muslims in that community who are being denied their freedom to worship under the name of Islam or an opposing community that is preparing an army to fight against Muslims.
But just because an Islamic community is acting under jihad of the sword does not mean that senseless murder is condoned by any means. “Whosoever kills an innocent human being, it shall be as if he has killed all mankind, and whosoever saves the life of one, it shall be as if he had saved the life of all mankind,” (5:32).
All lives are important and cherished in the Quran, be it a fellow Muslim or not, because all lives were given breath by God. The heart of Islam is one of peace and kindness, even in jihad of the sword. If the opposing force surrenders or does not want to fight, it is not permissible in Islam to continue fighting: “If they withdraw from you and fight you not, but instead send you guarantees of peace, then God allows no way for you to war against them” (4:90); “if the enemy inclines towards peace, also incline towards peace and trust in God” (8:61).
The act of a select few has tarnished the name of millions of Muslims, particularly the ones living in the U.S. But no matter what a handful of terrorists acting under Islam may try to convince U.S. citizens to believe, Islam is not a violent or hateful religion — it is one of peace.