A decade ago, I wrote about the evolution of the concept of jihad and how a plastic signifier grew harder over time and assumed a status that became almost canonical. Ten years on, it seems that the contestation over the meaning of that signifier remains with us, and my suspicion is that it always will. This has less to do with the concept itself than with how signifiers mean what they do in public-language use, and understanding how public-language words mean anything entails appreciating the complexity of the community that uses such terms.

That the Muslim world and expressions of Muslim religiosity are complex and plural is well known by now: if there is one thing that the world has learned since September 11, it is that Muslim society is complex—indeed, so complex that it exceeds any attempt to compartmentalize it into a neat, monolithic bloc.

Perhaps at no point in recent history have Muslims come under so much scrutiny as they have today. Half a century after the end of empire, Muslims are once again under the microscope and have been analyzed in detail. Over the past decade, countless books have been written, papers delivered, and theses submitted, and much debate has taken place as to what Islam means to Muslims the world over. As expected, this laborious process has led us to a simple conclusion: that Muslims and Muslim society cannot be summarily contained by a singular, static signifier or reduced to anything that resembles an “essence” of Muslim-ness. Muslim society remains complex and dynamic, as it has always been.

Scholars and analysts alike are thus dumbfounded at times by the complexity (some would say richness) of Muslim society today. And the same question is asked time and again: How is it that Islam—which has a core foundational text with its own sacred narrative and sacred signs and symbols—has given birth to so plural and multifaceted a society? After all, don’t all Muslims agree on the same foundational principles? And don’t all Muslims refer to the same sacred scripture and use the same religious vocabulary in the expression of their religious identity?

I would suggest that one way for us to address, and possibly answer, this question can be found via a detour of sorts, away from religious studies as conventionally understood and taught and instead into the domain of philosophy and linguistics. Perhaps the answer lies in the later work of the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, summed up in his book Philosophical Investigations.

Wittgenstein was obviously less concerned with the meaning of the word “jihad” than he was with trying to account for how words like “goodness” and “beauty” can have meaning in the context of a public language even if and when there are no ostensible referents to them. The problem he was trying to overcome then was how we make sense of general words, such as “beauty,” that may not have an empirical referent. (One can talk about a painting being beautiful, but to speak of beauty in itself as if it were an object was seen as problematic by philosophers of language.)

Wittgenstein’s big leap in Investigations was to note that the meanings of words are never privately determined; rather, they are determined in a public context, for language use is a rule-governed exercise. Wittgenstein then forwards the notion that language use can be understood in terms of “language games,” whereby learning a language is not merely learning the words and grammar but also, more importantly, the rules that determine specific modes of language use. For instance, a newborn baby does not simply learn words in order to learn how to use a language. He or she first learns words like “Mama” and “Papa.” But to master a language, the child has to learn the rules that govern the use of such terms. In time, as mastery of the language evolves, the child finds that the same words can have different meanings depending on the different contexts in which they are used and learns that the word “cat” refers to a furry, fuzzy animal that goes “meow, meow.” The adolescent then learns expressions like “you’re a cool cat, man”—which obviously does not literally mean that someone has turned into a cat with low body temperature.

What has happened here? The language user has learned that there are actually many different rules that govern language use in different contexts. The same English vocabulary with the same English words can be made to communicate different things according to context: the word “power” means one thing when we use it in politics and something else when we use it in physics or chemistry.

As with “cat” and “power,” so is it with the vocabulary of religions. The word “jihad” when used by Sufi mystics refers to the great internal battle against the ego and the struggle to overcome one’s pride in order to step closer to God. In the hands of political Islamists, on the other hand, the same signifier may refer to a political struggle to win control of the state apparatus. In the hands of others, it may refer to holy war. Note that all of them are using the same signifier—jihad—to communicate things that are rather different.

One may ask then: Is there no proper, precise, final definition of “jihad” that can be fixed? Not according to some philosophers of language, such as Wittgenstein. This is simply due to the fact that all terms—be they religious or non-religious—are subject to the rules of signification and language use and, as such, cannot escape the conditions of signification that imply change over time and according to context. Trying to permanently fix the meaning of “jihad” on one, and only one, signifier would be as futile as trying to permanently fix the meaning of “cat” or “power.” And this is not a weakness of religious language per se but, rather, a condition for the possibility of meaning in all languages.

Since 9/11, a debate over the meaning of the word “jihad” has ensued, and this debate will probably continue in the years and decades to come. Scholars who seek precise and final meanings for terms may be frustrated by this, but it is not necessarily a bad thing. For what it shows is that Muslim discourse and debate are ongoing, alive, and dynamic as Muslim society is constantly changing as well. In the process, more research is being done on Islam and Muslims, and the world understands by now that Muslim society is not as simple and monolithic as some make it out to be. And, surely, that cannot be a bad thing.

Farish A. Noor is senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University, where he is a member of the research cluster Transnational Religion in Southeast Asia. He is co-editor of The Madrasa in Asia: Political Activism and Transnational Linkages (2009) and author of Islam Embedded: The Historical Development of the Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party PAS: 1951–2003 (2004).