THE word jihad's literal meaning is to strive for anything good, including striving for peace and the welfare of humanity. If Quranic verses are read with the Quran's oft-repeated command that believers should enforce what is good and forbid what is evil the whole meaning of jihad assumes a new significance.
All those who are serving humanity in different ways by promoting a morally clean and non-corrupt society are mujahids. The word jihad has been variously interpreted by different sections of society. For the rulers and the political class it means the war effort and conquests to expand Islamic rule; for Sufis it means to conquer one's own desires and greed; and for the theological class it means an effort to enforce Sharia law and to mould one's behaviour in keeping with prescribed limits (hudood).
For the likes of Osama bin Laden jihad means a very different thing. They use it for retaliation against the US, and have given rise to what is the totally unacceptable phenomenon of terrorism. The political class in medieval ages used jihad for territorial conquests to expand its territory. Even Ibn Taymiyyah had some justification for issuing a fatwa for jihad after the Mongol hordes sacked Baghdad in the 13th century.
But what bin Laden has done is very different. It is neither an acceptable approach in the contemporary world nor does he belong to the political or the ruling class. No head of an Islamic state has approved of what bin Laden does, nor has any army of a Muslim country invaded a non-Muslim country at his behest. Bin Laden is neither the head of a country nor does he have the backing of any Muslim state's army. His misguided jihad has neither scriptural nor political backing (or that of the ulema).
Coming back to the root meaning of jihad — to strive for the good of society and for enhancing human welfare as a whole — one of the best ways of waging jihad today would be to strive to save the environment. This form of jihad has multiple levels of meaning. Firstly, it is a most maruf (desirable and most acceptable) activity; secondly, it is jihad in the Sufi sense of the word (controlling one's desires and greed and exercising self-restraint); and thirdly, it is also in keeping with the Holy Prophet's (PBUH) sunnah, as there are repeated commands of the Prophet to protect trees and crops and respect all of Allah's creation.
The very opening chapter of the Quran, Surah Fatihah, describes Allah as Rabb al-Alamin (Lord of the Universe) The word Rabb in Arabic means one who looks after carefully and takes something through to a stage of perfection. If Allah is the Rabb of the entire universe and we worship Him it is our duty to strive to look after our earth carefully and not destroy its resources. Our worship of the Lord has little meaning if we do not respect His creation.
Also, we must realise that global warming is the result of greedy consumption. We are plundering precious resources not only for our wants but also out of greed. It is time we realised the dangerous consequences of our reckless consumption and wage a jihad against greed. The political class has a greed for controlling more resources; it does not shy from shedding the blood of innocent people. We, as consumers in a modern capitalist society, are plundering scarce resources and do not care for the consequences. We are making the lives of future generations difficult.
As Muslims, surrendering to the will of Allah, and as momin (which means believing in the values enshrined in the Quran and respecting the creation of Allah), we must strive, that is wage jihad, against undue indulgence and needless consumption which can destroy our environment.
This jihad has to be both individual and collective individual in as much as we have to first struggle against our own greed and reduce our consumption to environmentally acceptable levels; and collectively in as much as we have to make efforts to bring down society's consumption to acceptable levels through constant awareness campaigns and by building pressure on the ruling classes, especially those of developed nations whose consumption of natural resources is far greater than is warranted by their population.
The writer is a scholar of Islam who also heads the Centre for Study of Society & Secularism, Mumbai.