Islamist discourse, like any other political discourse, is full of plastic concepts and ideas that are meant to serve politically utilitarian and instrumental purposes. But what is important for us to remember is that the instrumental use of such plastic concepts (including ‘democracy’, ‘human rights’, ‘justice’, etc.) invariably leads to their contestation as well, as they come to serve as tools for political mobilization.

The word ‘Jihad’ has now entered the space of international political and media discourse, along with those other well-known favorites, ‘Fatwa’, ‘Mullah’ and ‘Shariah’. Yet this entry has also been a disabling one that has robbed the word of some of its meaning while stretching the limits of its signification even further. ‘Fatwa’ for instance, has now come to mean ‘death penalty’ thanks to the fatwa against the British Muslim author Salman Rushdie. But those who have some knowledge of Islamic jurisprudence will tell you that ‘Fatwa’ really means ‘judicial ruling’—and these rulings can range from grave matters like the death penalty to mundane everyday concerns like the proper price of sheep in the market. The latest casualty in the war over meaning is the word ‘Jihad’.

That the term ‘Jihad’ has become such a plastic concept is hardly surprising. Plasticity is, after all, a normal feature of language and signifiers invariably lose their roots as they find themselves translated from one context to another.

But without falling into the trap of narrow essentialism, it is nonetheless useful for us to get to grips with the concept of Jihad itself and understand how it came into being—If only to see just how far the term has been abused of late.

‘Jihad’ can be loosely translated as ‘to struggle’ or ‘to expend effort’ towards a particular cause. The term was originally used to refer to one’s personal struggle against one’s own moral failings and weaknesses, which would include battling against one’s pride, fears, anxieties, and prejudices. The Prophet Muhammad himself was reported to have described this personal existential struggle as the ‘Jihad Akbar’ (Greater Jihad). Alongside this notion of the Jihad Akbar was the concept of ‘Jihad Asgar’ or ‘Lesser Jihad’. This refers to the struggle for self-preservation and self-defense—which has always been regulated by a host of ethical sanctions and prerogatives.

The Qur’an does stipulate clearly that Muslims have to engage in a Jihad when they are under attack, but the conditions for such a jihad are clearly laid out and are strictly defined within certain ethical prerogatives. Muslims cannot engage in conflict for the sake of mere territorial expansion for instance (which brings into question the legal status of the early Arab conquests which were motivated mainly by considerations of realpolitik). Muslims also cannot engage in acts of terror and indiscriminate violence where civilians are targeted. (In fact, numerous Muslim leaders like the early Caliphs even warned their troops not to burn the fields of their enemies or kill their livestock). A proper Jihad for the sake of self-defense was therefore a complicated and highly regulated matter—and the rulers had to consult the jurists as well as their own populations before such an enterprise was undertaken.

But Islam, it must be remembered, also happens to be a faith that does not possess a clerical class or a supreme leader like the Pope. On the positive side, this lends the creed an egalitarian outlook which puts all Muslims on par with each other. But on the negative side, the absence of a centralized hierarchy also means that the Muslim world is full of self-proclaimed ‘leaders of the faith’ like the Taliban and their unwanted guest, Osama bin Laden.

It is this absence of a clerical order and the plasticity of religious discourse that allows concepts like ‘Jihad’ to be hijacked by such self-appointed defenders of orthodoxy. Coupled with this is the predicament of a Muslim world that feels itself increasingly threatened and marginalized by the forces of globalization, leading to the defensive posture being adopted by many Muslim leaders themselves.

‘Jihad’ has now been taken—by Muslims and non-Muslims alike—to refer to an aggressive attitude that is rooted in a reactionary discourse of authenticity and purity, giving it a militant edge that it did not possess. While it is true that the international media has done some damage to the understanding of ‘Jihad’, it is also important for Muslims to realize that the term itself has been used and abused by the very same people who have resorted to the use of violence in their name.

The task that lies before the Muslim community today is to reclaim the concept of ‘Jihad’ and to invest it with other meanings different to those imposed by the Mullahs and militants. Cognisant of the painful realities that stand before the Muslim world at present, Muslim intellectuals must jump into the fray and regain control of the discourse of Islam which has for too long been regarded as the exclusive purview of the dogmatic Mullahs. We have to break down the rigid pedagogical structures that have kept Islamic discourse in such a static mode by bypassing traditional institutions of learning and indoctrination. Everything—from the universities to the media—will have to be used as the new sites of Islamic thought and education, in order for us to spread our message across to the wider public.

Muslim intellectuals need to show that our struggle in the present day has more to do with striving for economic development, modernization, and the creation of civil society. Rather than thinking of ‘Jihad’ in exclusive and defensive terms, we need to redefine the concept in proactive terms that link it to the actual economic, social, and cultural needs of the Muslims of today. ‘Jihad’, we need to show, is useless unless it brings us closer to a more prosperous, liberal, and tolerant society where Muslims are at ease with themselves and the Other. For liberal and progressive Muslims at least, this Jihad has only just begun.

Dr. Farish A. Noor is a Malaysian political scientist and human rights activist. He has taught at the Centre for Civilisational Dialogue, University of Malaya, and the Institute for Islamic Studies, Frie University of Berlin. He is currently an associate fellow at the Institute for Strategic and International Studies (ISIS), Malaysia.