John Brennan’s Polysemous Jihad

 John Brennan, chief counterterrorism advisor to President Barack Obama speaks about the beauty of Islam

This is sickening. He wears his multiculturalism like an elite badge of honor. Sounds like he’s on the verge of converting to Islam doesn’t it? I guess the Saudis never treated him to a public beheading. With all his education, surely he knows what muslims consider to be the definition of Jihad. Why would he try to tell us that Jihad only means inner struggle?


John Brennan’s Polysemous Jihad, June 2, 2010, by Mark Durie:

Today there are many debates about the meaning of the Arabic word jihad.  Most recently John Brennan, White House adviser on terrorism, has  reiterated views which he had previously presented at the Center for Strategic and International Studies:

Nor does President Obama see this challenge as a fight against jihadists. Describing terrorists in this way, using the legitimate term “jihad,” which means to purify oneself or to wage a holy struggle for a moral goal, risks giving these murderers the religious legitimacy they desperately seek but in no way deserve.

Brennan is correct when he implies that jihad is a prestigious term in Islam.  To a pious Muslim, calling someone a jihadi has positive connotations. It is rather like calling them a ‘freedom fighter’ in English.

But he is quite mistaken when he implies that jihad does not mean fighting and killing others.

Jihad is a polysemous term: it has more than one meaning.  Technically it is derived from the root j.h.d which means ‘to strive, do one’s utmost’, so one of jihad‘s meanings is to struggle against something unpleasant. Islamic scholars, in technical discussions about the nature of this struggle, sometimes have referred to the devil, a physical enemy, or oneself.  However the default meaning of jihad came to be  ‘fight for Allah against non-Muslims’.  Hans Wehr’s great dictionary of Arabic defined it simply as ‘fight, battle … against the infidels, as a religious duty’ (p.142). 

It is hardly news that words can have more than one meaning. For example here is part of the Compact Oxford English Dictionary’s entry for the word communion:

1. the sharing of intimate thoughts and feelings.
2. (also Holy Communion) the service of Christian worship at which bread and wine are consecrated and shared; the Eucharist.

Communion’s basic meaning has to do with sharing, but a secondary meaning exists which refers to the religious rite also known as the mass or the eucharist.

This is polysemy – the phenomenon that a word can have more than one meaning.  Anyone can easily think of other examples.  The existence of one meaning does not negate the other meanings.  For example, the Arabic word zakat means ‘purity’, but as a religious term it also is a name for an obligatory charitable tax. Paying this tax is one of the five pillars of Islam. It would be ridiculous to argue that zakat does not mean ‘tax’, just because it also means ‘purity’.

In Arabic, while it is true that jihad is derived from a root meaning ‘strive’, as a religious term,  it  came to have a meaning of warfare against infidels as early as the first decades of Islam. 

This sense is defined by Lane’s great dictionary of classical Arabic, quoting from Muslim lexicographers, as: ‘he fought, warred or waged war against the unbelievers’. The same meaning is given in the glossary of Muhammad Muhsin Khan’s English translation of Sahih al-Bukhari (the 2nd most sacred text in Islam after the Quran):

Jihad: Holy fighting in the cause of Allah or any other kind of effort to make Allah’s Word (Islam) superior, which is regarded as one of the principles of Islam.

Note that, according to Khan, jihad can mean ‘any other kind of effort’, but its primary meaning, given first, is ‘holy fighting in the cause of Allah’.  These are not the glosses of Westerners or ‘Orientalists’ but the explanations of capable, well-trained and pious Muslim scholarss.

Centuries ago, the meaning of jihad as ‘fighting infidels’ was established as the default  meaning of the word, so much so, that when a pious Muslim speaks of a jihad against the devil, or a jihad against him or herself, this is like an English speakers saying that they are ‘fighting evil’ or ‘making war against their own desires’. 

Evidence that warfare is the default meaning of jihad is that other meanings normally require a qualification, e.g. ‘jihad of the tongue’ is speaking out against evil.  As Firestone put it: “When the term is used without qualifiers … it is universally understood as war on behalf of Islam.” (Jihad: the origin of holy war in Islam, p.17)  The difference between jihad and jihad of the tongue is like the difference in English between warfare and psychological warfare.

It is indisputable that in Islamic jurisprudence the technical religious meaning of jihad is warfare against non-Muslims.  This is why the Book of Jihad in the Sahih al-Bukhari is all about fighting and killing non-believers. The same is true of any of the other canonical hadith collections. The jihad of the hadiths – the traditions of Muhammad – is not a struggle with oneself or to speak well.   Sahih al-Buhari‘s Book of Jihad is headed by a famous passage from Sura 9:111 of the Quran:

Verily Allah has purchased of the believers their lives and their properties; for theirs [in return for their lives] is Paradise. They fight in his cause, so they kill others and are killed.

Another hadith in the Book of Jihad of Al-Bukhari states ‘If you are called for fighting, go forth immediately.’

Countless orthodox Muslims writings have stated that jihad means warfare against non-Muslims to extend Islam and make it dominant.  Many Muslims are very aware of this meaning, and this is of course one reason why the terrorists have had a measure of success in recruiting volunteers.  Far from being ‘desperate’ for respectability, as Brennan claims Bin Ladin to be, Al Qa’ida  can count upon the great prestige of the military meaning of jihad.  This is one reason why Islamic terrorism is so hard to eradicate: the prestige of the concept of jihad gives fighting against infidels credibility.

When John Brennan declared recently that jihad is a ‘legitimate tenet of Islam’, he made a gross tactical error.  Purporting to protect the sensibilities of Muslims, he was in fact declaring the moral validity of religious warfare in Islam, for to say that jihad is legitimate it to endorse the right of Muslims to fight and kill to make Islam dominant in the world. This is, after all, what jihad means, according to the usage of so great Muslim scholars of past centuries, the plain teachings of Islam’s canonical texts, and the Islamic knowledge of many, if not all, Muslims today.

As I was preparing this, an Arabic-speaking friend suggested, by way of an experiment, to a few Muslim friends that jihad means purifying oneself, as Brennan claimed. One of the Muslims thought my friend had lost his mind; another thought he was joking; and a third declared that this a Western strategy to weaken Islam and disarm Muslims.

It is understandable that the American government wishes to avoid using terms which appear to give legitimacy to terrorists. But that does not mean they should be instructing the American people to respect the legitimacy of Islamic jihad, as Brennan appears to have done. 

One must ask whose interests it serves to deny the traditional religious and militaristic meaning of the word jihad

Read the rest…

9 thoughts on “John Brennan’s Polysemous Jihad

  1. “Warmth”? Oh, yes, as they set you on fire.

    Peace and tolerance? Chopping off the heads and burning Christians alive?

    This man makes me sick — and he is representing this LIE for Obama to the American People.

  2. doofus don’t have to convert he already a muslim islamic fool and doubt very seriously if he would balk at cutting off someones head when it came to it. Think that is why he is such a hurry to convert this country to a third world country to take over the US along with his brotherhood.

  3. Is this guy for real? Seriously what is Obumma playing at? American people have never been in such danger as they are now! God Bless America and keep her safe from the Whitehouses’ muslim in chief, who knew there would ever be a prayer rug facing east in the WhiteHouse, who knew?

  4. Maybe the warmth he felt was a fire burning around him because he didn’t belong there. He was talking about the things we all want education, worship freely (now that’s the joke). If they want everyone to worship freely, why are they burning the Christians churches & demanding they convert to islam???? They was a fat lie and he knows it!!!! What in God’s name do they take us for ???? Idiots????

  5. ALL WORDS are Feminine – ALL DEEDS are Masculine – ALL GUNS are Absolute POWER!


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