This may be shocking to some readers, but the Bible has been translated into Arabic. In fact, if you open your Bible right now and peruse through all of the translations of John 3:16, “Allah” is the word used to refer to God in the Arabic version right at the top of your page. Therein lies the problem with the clash of civilizations that extremists of all sorts seek: There are many elements in the opposing civilization that are also part of yours. The hate machine however depends on making people and concepts as foreign as possible for the sake of demonizing them. This brings us to the discussion of the big scary J word. At a lecture at Tulane University a decade ago, I asked the audience what they thought jihad means. One woman shouted out at the top of her lungs, “Death And Destruction!” Her answer might be what many Americans have been led to believe about this word.
Muslim Americans often find themselves in an impossible place. Islamophobes define and impose their definitions of Islamic terms, such as jihad, in ways that are inauthentic and violent, and then demand that Muslims reject the terms and texts as they have portrayed them, or risk being deemed extremists for clarifying their meanings. The latest example of this is the controversy surrounding Linda Sarsour’s usage of the word to define opposition to Donald Trump in accordance with the saying of the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him): “The greatestjihad is a word of truth spoken in the face of a tyrant.” Of course right wing pundits quickly pounced on the opportunity to not only demonize Linda, but the forbidden word that she dared to invoke. It’s too late to rescue the true meaning of the word now, they insist. But if we’re going to ask Muslims to remove jihad from their dictionary, what about Arab Christians who read the Bible in Arabic?
In 1 Peter 4:18, the word jahada, the root of jihad, is used to describe one’s internal struggle. It reads, “If it is a jihad (struggle) for the righteous to be saved, what will become of the ungodly and the sinner?
إِنْ كَانَ الْبَارُّ بِالْجَهْدِ يَخْلُصُ، فَالْفَاجِرُ وَالْخَاطِئُ أَيْنَ يَظْهَرَانِ؟” (رسالة بطرس الرسول الأولى 4: 18)
In both I Timothy and II Timothy, we find two references to jihad in the Arabic Bible: “I have fought the good jihad (fight), I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.” (II Timothy 4:7)
جَاهَدْتُ الْجِهَادَ الْحَسَنَ، أَكْمَلْتُ السَّعْيَ، حَفِظْتُ الإِيمَانَ، وَأَخِيرًا قَدْ وُضِعَ لِي إِكْلِيلُ الْبِرِّ، الَّذِي يَهَبُهُ لِي فِي ذلِكَ الْيَوْمِ، الرَّبُّ الدَّيَّانُ الْعَادِلُ، وَلَيْسَ لِي فَقَطْ، بَلْ لِجَمِيعِ الَّذِينَ يُحِبُّونَ ظُهُورَهُ أَيْضًا” (رسالة بولس الرسول الثانية إلى تيموثاوس 4: 7، 7)
“Fight the good jihad (fight) of the faith. Take hold of the eternal life to which you were called when you made your good confession in the presence of many witnesses.” (I Timothy 6:12)
جَاهِدْ جِهَادَ الإِيمَانِ الْحَسَنَ، وَأَمْسِكْ بِالْحَيَاةِ الأَبَدِيَّةِ الَّتِي إِلَيْهَا دُعِيتَ أَيْضًا، وَاعْتَرَفْتَ الاعْتِرَافَ الْحَسَنَ أَمَامَ شُهُودٍ كَثِيرِينَ” (رسالة بولس الرسول الأولى إلى تيموثاوس 6: 12)
The fact of the matter is that Muslims use the term jihad similarly to how Christians use the term crusade. The Christian term can mean anything from a spiritual mission to evangelism to politics to military action, depending on context and the individual understanding of the person who uses it. Cru, or Campus Crusade for Christ, was founded in 1951 on the UCLA campus to “launch spiritual movements.” The evangelist Billy Graham led over 400 “crusades” throughout the world, by which he meant non-violent missionary activities. (Unlike his wayward son, Franklin, Billy Graham had a softer position vis-à-vis Muslims.) The late right-wing Congressman Alan Nunnelee characterized his political activities as “a crusade to save America.” And last but not least, President George W. Bush clearly used the term militarily when he referred to his war on Iraq. To characterize Sarsour’s clear use of the word jihad in a political context as a call to violence would be as misleading as saying all Christian uses of the term crusade are about violence.
In normal everyday usage, a jihad doesn’t mean killing Christians and a crusade doesn’t mean killing Muslims, even though extremists in our respective traditions may twist those terms that way for their own selfish ends.
Do terrorists and war mongers have scriptural justification for their actions in the Quran or the Bible? Either book could be read and interpreted in a way that justifies violence, but that’s true for pretty much any sacred book, religion, or philosophy. Violent interpretations say more about the reader than they do about the text itself. A violent person will find violence no matter what the words really intend, like one who “by peace shall destroy many.” But is the Quran a particularly violent scripture? This study here actually shows the Quran to contain less verses of violence than both the Old and New Testaments.
It would be far more helpful to focus on the sociological root causes of terror and violence, rather than let the extremists find validation in their unholy interpretations of scripture by affirming their ownership of terms like jihad.
Here are some resources from Yaqeen Institute to better help you navigate:
Imam Omar Suleiman is the Founder and President of the Yaqeen Institute for Islamic Research.
Disclaimer: The views, opinions, findings, and conclusions expressed in these papers and articles are strictly those of the authors. Furthermore, Yaqeen does not endorse any of the personal views of the authors on any platform. Our team is diverse on all fronts allowing for constant enriching dialogue that helps us produce only the finest research.