As witnessed by an article published last weekend (22-23 November 2014) in the front-page of the International New York Times (“ISIS brand catches on for militants in Pakistan – Jihadists are beginning to take the group’s name and to pledge allegiance”) as well as by the name of the hotline recently set-up on the website of the French Ministry of Interior, “Fight against the djihadist networks” (“Lutte contre les filières djihadistes”), the erroneous use of the concepts of “jihad” and “jihadists” in relation to the hainous and barbarous acts perpetrated in Syria and Iraq by the so-called ISIL is unfortunately still very common; the Geneva Centre therefore deems it useful, if not necessary, to devote again an editorial (the previous one was authored by Idriss Jazaïry) intending to restore the true meaning of “Jihad”.






Dr. Zidane Meriboute


Since the attacks of 11 September 2001, and especially in the wake of the emergence of the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (known as Da’ish, Isis, or Isil), the semantic range denoted by the word Jihad (in Arabic: jihad) has been diverted away from the true meaning with which it is endowed by the majority of Muslims. According to the Prophet Muhammad, the sole significance of the word jihad (from the Arabic root j.h.d[1] is that of “effort” in the way of God [2]. As we understand it, such an idea can hardly be reconciled with terrorism or the murder of innocent civilians such as is practised by Da’ish or by its allies in the Maghreb, who currently designate themselves as Jund al-Khilafa [3]. More precisely, the concept of jihad is linked to the conception that has been developed of the Muslim State and in particular to the acceptance or rejection of separation between the political and the spiritual spheres in the management of public affairs. In other words, two interpretations of jihad exist, according to whether a secular and liberal view of the Muslim State is taken or if on the contrary the extremist and exclusively religious Salafist interpretation of the Muslim State is preferred.

In the light of these considerations, we shall look first at the secular and liberal approach of the majority of the Muslim States and its consequences for the concept of jihad. Second, we shall look at the interpretation of jihad by the millenarian Salafist groups, frequently non-State actors who tend to cloak their terrorist activities in the legitimising guise of jihad.


1) The significance of jihad for the Muslim majority and from the perspective of the secular States Members of the Organisation of the Islamic Cooperation and the United Nations

  1. i) Secularism and the new direction of Muslim liberal thought

The majority of the Muslim countries, members of the United Nations and the Organisation of the Islamic Cooperation, have undergone their own local appropriate processes of secularisation. Such countries have taken an attitude to governance predicated on a prudent and gradual separation between the political and the spiritual spheres. In the event, they have achieved the desacralisation of their countries, uncoupling religious institutions from the strictly political functions of a modern State while at the same time continuing to stress the symbolic significance of the values of Islam.

The movement towards the separation of religious activity from the exigencies of politics was given a significant impetus in 1924 with the decision of the Turkish leader Kemal Atatürk to abolish the Caliphate. In the same era, a former cleric from Al-Azhar, Ali Abderaziq, argued that nothing in Islam excluded secularisation: a thesis he expounded in his short book, “Islam and the Foundations of Governance”, published in 1925 [4]. In this work, he rejects the traditional theory that the Caliphate had always been the mode of government in Islam, and consequently maintains that the Prophet Muhammad was never the “king” of the Muslims: the Prophet’s functions, Abderaziq contends, were entirely concerned with religion (din) and not at all with the government of the State (dawla). Through these audacious theses, Ali Abderraziq invited Muslims at least to give consideration to a key question, namely: “How can we imagine States whose political systems should henceforth affirm the predominance of the people and the supremacy of popular sovereignty rather than that of mythical, or mythologised, figures such as the Caliph, the Sultan, the Emir, the Sheikh and the Imam? How shall we make the transition from the theological model of the mass (‘amma) subservient to the representative of God on earth (the Caliph, or khalifa), to a government that emerges from will of the majority?”[5]

The response to these questions has come primarily from Muslim nationalists, who have since the beginning of the 20th century been at pains to throw off the shackles of religion and to adopt new institutional mechanisms, including the secularisation of constitutional law. Today, both of the two most populous Muslim countries, including Indonesia with its 252 million inhabitants and Pakistan, with a population of some 188 million, as well as the majority of the countries of the Maghreb and the Middle East, adhere to a liberal and humanist conception of Islam in both the institutional and spiritual spheres. Such a perception of Islam necessarily has an impact on social life in these countries and on their understanding of religious injunctions, among which jihad takes its place.

  1. ii) The notion of jihad in the liberal and tolerant Muslim model

From the outset, it may be said that in contrast to the Salafists, who will be considered below, Muslims accustomed to the ways of liberal modern thought do not place jihad on a par with the five “pillars” (obligations) which make up the basis of their way of life [6]. In their view, jihad does not refer to “holy war” against unbelievers but rather to the struggle which the believer conducts within himself against his individual passions. This interpretation finds its justification in a hadith attributed to the Prophet Muhammad, who is reported to have spoken as follows to his followers following an episode of military operations: “We have returned from the lesser jihad (al-jihad al-asghar) to undertake the greater jihad (al-jihad al-akbar).” In general, for most Muslims, the lesser jihad is seen as a strictly defensive conflict that should in addition only be undertaken in exceptional circumstances; while the greater jihad, which is vastly more meritorious according to the Prophet of Islam, has the sense of an interior struggle for self-control and virtue.

In this context the great reformist mufti of the Al-Azhar mosque, Mohammed Abduh, made the following statement: “In the literal sense, jihad is nothing other than a “struggle”, and does not signify a mere external struggle against those who do not believe, but also the interior struggle against evil passions, in the interest of moral disciple and victory over oneself”[7]. In this respect, he averred, Islam forbade all conversion or “religious constraint” other than by persuasion.[8] Further, for Mohammed Abduh,  jihad in the sense of holy war against the non-Muslims could not be considered a religious duty since, taken in this sense, it contradicted the humanist aspirations that lay at the heart of of Islam. He recalled that “the Muslims did not draw their swords, save to defend themselves against their enemies and to counter aggression” [9]. In all, as he saw it, jihad could not be more than a defensive war against those who sought to propagate other religions, when their forces were “strong and numerous”. [10]

To sum up, the religious moderates and the neo-Sufis, such as Abduh was himself, no longer regarded the armed jihad  to be a duty for Muslims in modern times. In practice, Al-Azhar, after Abduh’s reforms, no longer laid down in its prescribed texts that armed jihad (al-jihad al-musallah)  formed part of the obligations incumbent upon Muslims in the modern era [11]. On this point, Bassam Tibi remarks that a respected Al-Azhar textbook by Jad al-Haqq, “does not treat the armed jihad (jihad al-musallah) as a duty for Muslims in the modern age. It downgrades the status of fighting (qital) while it upgrades the non-military jihad against such evils as ignorance, poverty, and disease”[12]. Overall, in the eyes of the Sufis and of moderate Muslims, the true jihad of modern times is an unrelenting struggle against ignorance, hunger, poverty, ill health and injustice. Such Muslims wholly exclude the idea of violence except in the case where Muslims have been the victims of unjust aggression.

We turn now to an examination of the interpretation of jihad by the Salafist movements, in whose view Muslims owe no obedience to a State unless it is exclusively based on the commandments of God (hakimiyya) and is ruled by a Caliphate (khilafa).

2) The idea of jihad within the Salafist and millenarian movement and the justification for basing policy exclusively on theology

  1. i) Religion and the State in the Salafist world

The Salafist movements and the “civil society” that underpins them are often non-State actors that are active in the social context, whose goal is to establish “Islamic states” governed entirely on the basis of the religious law (shari’a). As they see it, knowledge and political power lie exclusively in the gift of God and are not to be exercised other than as aspects of religion. In the same way, they reject the concepts of secularisation and laicity. Islam, in their view, is both “religion and State” (din wa dawla).  Thus, in Salafist circles, the expressions “secularisation” and “laicity”[13] are consciously replaced in the Arabic language by “atheism” (ilhad): a procedure purposely intended to attach opprobrium to those who adopt secularism. This approach is also adopted by other Muslim groups. In the Urdu language, for instance, the word “laicity” is routinely translated by the expression la deniat, which signifies “without religion”: this again is meant to denigrate all forms of secularisation. Similarly, the radical Salafists have left nothing to chance in their chosen manner of conducting the Islamic State. It is to the thought of Ibn Taymiyya that they invariably refer for the regulation of warfare, finance, taxation, charity and justice [14]. And finally, within their array of new Islamic rules, they have accorded to jihad a basic position, in contrast to its original status.

  1. ii) How has the concept of jihad been distorted from its original sense by the radical Islamic movements?

Making reference to Ibn Taymiyya, the radical Salafist movements have established a hierarchy of the duties incumbent upon a Muslim. As they judge the issue, jihad that is intended to promote the triumph of the Word of God is located at the apex: the level of “the camel’s hump”. The metaphor of the camel was used by Ibn Taymiyya himself, who said that “… prior to everything is Islam; its pillar is prayer and its summit is jihad in God’s cause.”[15] Ibn Taymiyya’s ideas have been taken up and developed in modern times by four major Islamic thinkers, namely Muhammad Ibn Abd al-Wahhab (the originator of Wahhabism); Hassan al-Banna (the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood); Sayyid Qutb (whose ideas have become known as Qutbism); and Abdullah Azzam (the initiator of Jihadism) [16]. On the basis of Ibn Taymiyya’s ideas, the radical Salafists have taken it upon themselves to rearrange the Islamic rules laid down by the Prophet Muhammad, following what they take to be his model. This has led them to attribute to jihad a primordial significance that it had not originally possessed.

It should be noted that in the 1980s, following the upheaval of the Iranian revolution in 1979, a powerful wave of Islamic protest began to take shape. This tendency was first seen in the mosques and gradually spread out to the political scene in the majority of the Muslim countries. The resulting global Islamist movement had its effects on the interpretation of jihad. In the event, new preachers, such as Abdullah Azzam and Usama Ben Laden, emerged during the Afghan war against the Soviets, who were characterised as infidels (kuffar). It was at this time that a new approach to jihad was developed by Abdullah Azzam, Usama Ben Laden’s former theology teacher. From this point on, a distinction was drawn between jihad that was individual and defensive, which is a duty upon the individual Muslim  (fard ayn), in contrast to the collective duty of  jihad  that may be incumbent on a Muslim polity (described as fard kifaya). Fard ‘ayn, the individual jihad, is a sacred duty and an obligation on all Muslims to repel any attack by infidels (kuffar) against the Islamic countries. It is applicable in the following circumstances: when a Muslim country is invaded; when a recognised Imam calls for action; or when Muslims are captured or imprisoned by infidels. According to Abdullah Azzam, in a situation where the jihad that is a fard ‘ayn applies, certain shari’a laws are suspended. For instance, a woman may fight the jihad without the permission of her husband and a child may fight without the agreement of his or her parents [17]. Meanwhile the collective jihad, which is a fard kifaya, is a communal religious obligation, rarely invoked at the level of the umma (the Islamic nation). It is of a preventive nature and does not necessarily require an external threat from infidels to be enacted [18].

As Marcel Boisard pointed out: “the  exalted Youth from our regions or elsewhere, idealistic or sanguinaries, ignorant and morbid, [….] leaving their families to “do  their djihad”, are lost and victims of a vicious endoctrinment. They are terrorists to point out as such. The most respected Islamic Authorities should proclaim it loudly” [19].


We have seen that the majority of Muslims understand the jihad as a moral discipline with a humanist vocation, and that it must be distinguished from the concept of “holy war”. Similarly, jihad has nothing to do with acts of violence or rapine carried out against innocent populations by radical and extremist groups who falsely proclaim their allegiance to Islam. It is also regrettable to observe that the western media, and even sometimes media in the Arab and Muslim world, commit the semantic error of using the word jihad in place of terrorism to describe acts which do not differ from those committed by violent extremists worldwide. Owing to the indiscriminate use of the idea of jihad (whose essence is in fact peaceful), the concept has at last come to be used mistakenly to denote aggressive terrorism, with its criminal character and its violation of humanitarian principles.




[1] See also the account offered by the orientalist Jacques Berque in “Quel Islam?”, Le Temps Stratégique, no. 64, June 1995 (Geneva), available at,1638.

[2] In Arabic: “jihad fi sabil allah”.

[3] Jund al-Khilafa (The “Soldiers of the Caliphate”) is presently led by a former poultry merchant named Abdelmalek Gouri who calls himself Khaled Abu Salman and is a former deputy of the head of Al-Qa’ida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), Abdelmalek Droukdel. Jund al-Khilafa split off from AQIM in order to declare its allegiance to Da’ish. It should be noted that Abdelmalek Gouri was responsible for the deaths of many Algerian civilians before his disgraceful murder of the French hostage Hervé Gourdel.

[4] Abdel Raziq, Ali: Al-Islam wa usul al-hukm:bahth fi-l-khilafa wa-l hukuma fi-l-islam, Cairo: 1925. This has been translated as Abdel Raziq, Ali, Islam and the Foundations of Governance: Research on the Caliphate and Governance in Islam, (with a critical commentary by Mamduh Haqqi), Beirut: 1978; and as Ali Abderraziq,  L’islam et les fondements du pouvoir, Paris: La Découverte, 1994.

[5] This formulation is to be found in the preliminary statement drafted by Réda Benkirane and Riccardo Bocco for the colloquium “Religion & Etat. Sécularisation & citoyenneté en islam” held in 6 -8 June 2013 in Geneva at the Institut des Hautes Etudes Internationales et du Developpement (IHEID).

[6] The first pillar is the profession of faith, (shahada); the second is prayer (salat); the third is alms (zakat); the fourth fasting (sawm); and the fifth the pilgrimage (hajj).

[7] Muhammad Abduh, Risalat al-tawhid, trans. By B. Michel and M. Abdel Razik, Paris: Editions Geithner, 1925, p. lxxx and p.116. An English translation is Abduh, Muhammad,.The Theology of Unity, translated by lshaq Musa’ad and Kenneth Cragg. London: Allen and Unwin, 1966.

[8] Ibid., p.116 and p. 125.

[9] Ibid., p. 129.

[10] Ibid., p. 129.

[11] See Bassam Tibi, “War and Peace in Islam”, in Nardin, Terry, ed., The Ethics of War and Peace: Religious and Secular Perspectives, Princeton NJ: Princeton University Press, 1996, pp. 128-145.

[12] Ibid., p.138.

[13] See Rapport du Groupe de travail sur la laïcité à l’attention du Conseil d’Etat genevois, présidé par Jean Noël Cuenod, novembre 2014, in

[14] For an account of the thought of Ibn Taymiyya, see Ibn Taymiyya’s own text, Siyasa Shari’iyya, presented with a commentary by Henri Laoust in Essai sur les doctrines sociales et politiques de Taqi Eddine Ahmad b. Taymiyya, Cairo: Institut français d’archéologie orientale, 1939. [14] A full French translation is provided by Henri Laoust under the title Le traité de droit public d’Ibn Taymiyya,  Damascus: Institut français de Damas, 1948,  A complete English translation is to be found in Omar A. Farrukh, Ibn Taimiyya on public and private law in Islam, Beirut: Khayats, 1966. A brief but informative account is given in Anne K. S. Lambton, State and Government in Medieval Islam, Oxford University Press, 1981.

[15] Ibn Taymiyya, Siyasa shar’iyya, full text translated by Henri Laoust under the title Le traité de droit public d’Ibn Taymiyya,  Damascus: Institut français de Damas, 1948, pp. 125-126.

[16] For a discussion of these ideas, see Zidane Meriboute, La fracture islamique: demain le soufisme?, Paris: 2004; translated as Islam’s Fateful Path, London: I.B.Tauris, 2008.

[17] See Abdullah Azzam, Fi-l-jihad adab wa ahkam, [Morality and wisdom in jihad], Beirut: Dar Ibn Hazm, 1992.

[18] Abdullah Azzam, ibid.

[19] See Marcel Boisard, Le Temps, edition of 23 May 2014 (translation from French by the author).

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