Jihad And Other Essays On Leadership

The Evolution of ‘Jihad’ in Islamist Political Discourse: How a Plastic Concept Became Harder

Farish A. Noor

Islamist discourse, like any other political discourse, is full of plastic concepts and ideas that are meant to serve politically utilitarian and instrumental purposes. But what is important for us to remember is that the instrumental use of such plastic concepts (including ‘democracy’, ‘human rights’, ‘justice’, etc.) invariably leads to their contestation as well, as they come to serve as tools for political mobilisation.

The word ‘Jihad’ has now entered the space of international political and media discourse, along with those other well-known favourites, ‘Fatwa’, ‘Mullah’ and ‘Shariah’. Yet this entry has also been a disabling one that has robbed the word of some of its meaning while stretching the limits of its signification even further. ‘Fatwa’ for instance, has now come to mean ‘death penalty’ thanks to the fatwa against the British Muslim author Salman Rushdie. But those who have some knowledge of Islamic jurisprudence will tell you that ‘Fatwa’ really means ‘judicial ruling’- and these rulings can range from grave matters like the death penalty to mundane everyday concerns like the proper price of sheep in the market. The latest casualty in the war over meaning is the word ‘Jihad’.

That the term ‘Jihad’ has become such a plastic concept is hardly surprising. Plasticity is, after all, a normal feature of language and signifiers invariably lose their roots as they find themselves translated from one context to another.

But without falling into the trap of narrow essentialism, it is nonetheless useful for us to get to grips with the concept of Jihad itself and understand how it came into being – If only to see just how far the term has been abused of late.

‘Jihad’ can be loosely translated as ‘to struggle’ or ‘to expend effort’ towards a particular cause. The term was originally used to refer to one’s personal struggle against one’s own mortal failings and weaknesses, which would include battling against one’s pride, fears, anxieties and prejudices. The Prophet Muhammad himself was reported to have described this personal existential struggle as the ‘Jihad Akbar’ (Greater Jihad). Alongside this notion of the Jihad Akbar was the concept of ‘Jihad Asgar’ or ‘Lesser Jihad’. This refers to the struggle for self-preservation and self-defence – which has always been regulated by a host of ethical sanctions and prerogatives.

The Qur’an does stipulate clearly that Muslims have to engage in a Jihad when they are under attack, but the conditions for such a jihad are clearly laid out and are strictly defined within certain ethical prerogatives. Muslims cannot engage in conflict for the sake of mere territorial expansion for instance (which brings into question the legal status of the early Arab conquests which were motivated mainly by considerations of realpolitik). Muslims also cannot engage in acts of terror and indiscriminate violence where civilians are targeted. (In fact, numerous Muslim leaders like the early Caliphs even warned their troops not to burn the fields of their enemies or kill their livestock). A proper Jihad for the sake of self-defence was therefore a complicated and highly regulated matter – and the rulers had to consult the jurists as well as their own populations before such an enterprise was undertaken.

But Islam, it must be remembered, also happens to be a faith that does not possess a clerical class or a supreme leader like the Pope. On the positive side this lends the creed an egalitarian outlook which puts all Muslims on par with each other. But on the negative side the absence of a centralised hierarchy also means that the Muslim world is full of self-proclaimed ‘leaders of the faith’ like the Taliban and their unwanted guest, Osama bin Laden.

It is this absence of a clerical order and the plasticity of religious discourse that allows concepts like ‘Jihad’ to be hijacked by such self-appointed defenders of orthodoxy. Coupled with this is the predicament of a Muslim world that feels itself increasingly threatened and marginalised by the forces of globalisation, leading to the defensive posture being adopted by many Muslim leaders themselves.

‘Jihad’ has now been taken – by Muslims and non-Muslims alike – to refer to an aggressive attitude that is rooted in a reactionary discourse of authenticity and purity, giving it a militant edge that it did not possess. While it is true that the international media has done some damage to the understanding of ‘Jihad’, it is also important for Muslims to realise that the term itself has been used and abused by the very same people who have resorted to the use of violence in their name.

The task that lies before the Muslim community today is to reclaim the concept of ‘Jihad’ and to invest it with other meanings different to those imposed by the Mullahs and militants. Cognisant of the painful realities that stand before the Muslim world at present, Muslim intellectuals must jump into the fray and regain control of the discourse of Islam which has for too long been regarded as the exclusive purview of the dogmatic Mullahs. We have to break down the rigid pedagogical structures that have kept Islamic discourse in such a static mode by by-passing traditional institutions of learning and indoctrination. Everything – from the universities to the media – will have to be used as the new sites of Islamic thought and education, in order for us to spread our message across to the wider public.

Muslim intellectuals need to show that our struggle in the present-day has more to do with striving for economic development, modernisation and the creation of civil society. Rather than thinking of ‘Jihad’ in exclusive and defensive terms, we need to redefine the concept in proactive terms that link it to the actual economic, social and cultural needs of the Muslims of today. ‘Jihad’, we need to show, is useless unless it brings us closer to a more prosperous, liberal and tolerant society where Muslims are at ease with themselves and the Other. For liberal and progressive Muslims at least, this Jihad has only just begun.

Dr. Farish A. Noor is a Malaysian political scientist and human rights activist. He has taught at the Centre for Civilisational Dialogue, University of Malaya and the Institute for Islamic Studies, Frie University of Berlin. He is currently associate fellow at the Institute for Strategic and International Studies (ISIS), Malaysia.

Abdelkader Global Leadership Prize

Quotes From Students and Educators

“The Abdelkader Education Project offers much more than an essay contest. It offers students a chance to engage with a narrative of history not often discussed in Western classrooms, and one that is crucial to develop a comprehension of the many variegated ways that the “West” intersects with the “East” and vice-versa. Especially today – in a time where mistrust, ignorance, and violence abound – Abdelkader’s legacy provides a useful model for how global relationships might be rethought and restructured to better suit us all.” Brandon Jennings, Iowa City



Ben Bernatz, Northwestern University – “In Emir Abdelkader, I found a counter-example to many of the beliefs about Islam that are a part of the political and social discourse of our nation. Abdelkader was undeniably Muslim. However, his Islam was one where people were dedicated to their communities. It was one where people were charitable, hospitable, humble, and wise. For Abdelkader, jihad was a struggle to improve himself, and to improve, even perfect, his own character and his own faith. The Emir constantly put others, be it his family, his friends, or complete strangers, before himself.”

Bob Spielbauer, Elkader – “Abdelkader: Reforming the Muslim Image”
This essay advanced to Iowa’s 2012 National History Day competition. Bob stated, “The theme was “Revolution, Reaction, and Reform in History” so it worked quite well for Abdelkader. …Abdelkader is just such a good topic because it’s both local and national, and it’s both close to my heart and relevant worldwide.”



Brandon Jennings, University of Iowa – “Practicing Politics According to Abdelkader”
“Now more than ever, it is necessary that we curtail the violent, essentialist, and exclusionary rhetoric promulgated towards peoples of different faiths and backgrounds. Globalization and advance in technology have shrunk the world; cultural and religious differences are inescapable and ubiquitous. If we cannot reform our jingoistic attitudes towards ourselves and others, if we cannot articulate a new politics that recognizes and celebrates difference, we are certain to make the same mistakes our fathers and fore-fathers have made before us. Only by learning lessons from our shared history, from men like Abdelkader, can we hope to move towards a happier, more prosperous future.”

Carolina Streese, Decorah – “Acceptance Despite Adversity”
“Abdelkader was knowledgeable enough to see the differences between himself and people of other ethnicities, nationalities, and religions, but was also wise enough to look past those differences and see the similarities.”

Cole Crawford, Dubuque – “Assalamu ‘Alaikum (Peace be Upon You)”
“Even though he lost battles – indeed, even lost the war for freedom from French occupation – Abdelkader won a greater and more timeless war. He fought a struggle to capture the world’s hearts and minds, and emerged decisively victorious.”

Madi Johansen, Decorah – “Abdelkader: True Jihad”
“The Emir’s actions throughout his life showed the true religion of Islam; following the dictates of his faith made him a hero… Abdelkader’s life embodied the words of the Qur’an 5:7, “Let not your hatred of other men turn you away from Justice. Be just…that is closer to piety.”

Ben Bernatz, Decorah – “From Algeria to Iowa”
“I began to view his application of Islamic law in Algeria as a vehicle for establishing order and justice in his country. Abdelkader’s tolerance, understanding, patience, wisdom, and dedication to living a godly life are all attributes that I can emulate in my own life.”

Bob Spielbauer, Elkader – “Abdelkader: A Gift from the Desert”
“Abdelkader had the character of a leader and the morals of a saint. The strong moral guidance of his parents… taught him to be culturally tolerant very early in life. His character, especially strong humanitarian morals, has had the most effect on my life. Reading about his life has helped me come to see his people in a whole new light.”



Commander of the Faithful, as “Added Value for Educators,” offers more than a good story about Algeria’s “George Washington.” It is a book with rich multi-disciplinary pathways that could be used in many areas of study within the humanities—history, the social sciences, geography, political science, philosophy, religion, linguistics, and more.
Bonnie Bickel James, International Education Consultant, Maryland

“Reading Commander of the Faithful and writing the essay for the Abdelkader Essay Contest provided a unique opportunity for students in my AP Human Geography class to connect multiple continents, centuries, and cultures with course curriculum as well as a relevant local connection to the origin of a town’s name in Iowa.”
Mark Rhodes, Social Studies Teacher, Decorah High School, Iowa

As a judge for the high school Abdelkader Essay Contest, I know first-hand that this contest really has the desired effect of engaging students in the process of interfaith and intercultural conversation. What could be more relevant in the contemporary world?
Dr. Robert Shedinger, Associate Professor of Religion, Luther College, Decorah, IA

“Embodying Abraham Lincoln’s precepts of “malice toward none…charity for all; firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right,” Abdelkader’s life as depicted in John W. Kiser’s book is a continuous striving “to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace” with all faiths and all nations.”
Professor Ahmed Achrati, Academic Director for the School of Continuing Studies
Georgetown University, Washington DC


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