Speakers discuss the etymology of jihad

Historian William Dalrymple and academic and author-academician Ayesha Jalal from Pakistan discussed the etymology and origins of the term Holy War (jihad) in Islamic scholarship in the session “Holy Wars”.

Jalal described jihad as “one of the most complex and elusive terms” in the Islamic lexicon, saying it is a highly relevant concept for today. She said the etymological root of the word jihad meant “to strive, to struggle, to endeavor in a worthy cause” and is juxtaposed in the Koran to the word used for fighting or armed warfare.

As such, jihad is an ethical concept, whose fundamental meaning was “worthy effort in the way of god.” Jalal said Islam literally means submission, but its other meanings included faith and virtuous action.

Dalrymple questioned whet­her holy wars were not unlike early Christian Just wars, and took the audience on a fascinating chronological journey through Islamic scholarship and the history of jihad.

The two writers discussed the relationship between religion and politics, and Dalrymple talked of “the Frankenstein’s monster” of the possibility that jihadi groups may become a lot more powerful in the future. Jalal said when invoked as armed struggle for temporal purposes, the concept of jihad had not found agreement across Islamic cultures, but that it was universally accepted as an ethical idea, clarifying that jihad was not so much about armed struggle against non-Muslims but about the inner effort and striving of the individual.

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