ISIS fighters Medyan Dairieh/ZumaPress

The Islamic State’s Perversion of Hijra

The Arabic word jihad – once used to describe the duty of all Muslims to act according to their faith – has long had a more malign connotation: the waging of holy war. With the rise of the Islamic State, another term has been refashioned for inclusion in the lexicon of extremist violence.

LONDON – In recent decades, the Arabic word jihad – once used to describe the duty of all Muslims to act according to their faith – has become overwhelmingly associated with the waging of violent war against non-believers. With the rise of the Islamic State, another term has been refashioned for inclusion in the lexicon of extremist violence: hijra.

As with jihad, this is no mere semantic hijacking. The real-world implications are all too alarming. By militarizing the concept of hijra, which traditionally referred to Muslims’ peaceful migration to lands where they would be free from persecution, they have created a powerful tool for radicalizing and recruiting Muslims far and wide, including in the United States and Europe.

Hijra’s association with Islam has its origins in the Prophet Mohammed’s escape from Mecca to Medina in 622, to avoid assassination and preserve his community. He and his followers knew that as long as they remained in Mecca, they would be despised by non-Muslims; their very lives were in danger. And so, in an act of hijra – or migration – the prophet left the city of his birth. Islam would have a stable base, because Muslims in Medina would be free to worship according to the dictates of their faith.

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