The original meaning of gihād and sabīli llāh

(Günter Lüling, A Challenge to Islam for Reformation…, Delhi 2003,
p. 354f. in connection with p. 242)

But there is one final aspect to consider before turning to the personal activities of the Prophet in Medina. This concerns the obvious and fundamental change in the meaning of two expressions to be met with in the Islamic Koran: The term gihād, which in the Islamic Koran predominantly means "holy war" and the phrase sabīli llāh "on the path of Allah" which in the Islamic Koran practically always has the meaning "on the warpath of Allah".

In our reconstruction of the hymnodic fragment Sura 25,48-52 (see above p. 242 with commentary) we have already shown that the reconstructed verse 25,52 has, according to its Christian context verses 48-52, clearly the biblical meaning as expressed in 1 Tim 6,12 and 2 Tim 4,7 "fight the good fight of faith" that is, the term gihād means not "war" or even "holy war" but intends the peaceful striving to win oneself as well as somebody else over to the good faith. This is most probably the only meaning of gihād to be met with in the Christian hymns contained in the Koran (see also Sura 38.17; 20.130; 50.39; 73.10 which phrases are obviously hymnodic); and this peaceful meaning of gihād is obviously also the only appropriate one if one regards its etymology, because the root g-h-d is immediately akin to the root g-w-d which means "to be good" (English "good" as well as German "gut" are quite certainly a bequest of the Semitic, legally inferior "unifiers" in neolithic and bronze age Europe).

A similar development from a religiously peaceful meaning to a martial one has taken place with the phrase sabīli llāh: The Arabic word sabīl means "path" as well as "(public) well". At first glance, one might think that these two meanings are quite unrelated. But the etymology shows that this is not the case: the root s-b-l is to be analysed as s+b-l where s is the augment to make the following biconsonantal root causative and b-l or b-w-l or b-y-l is the verbal root meaning "to piss" which is made causative "to make (someone or something) piss". A sabīl is therefore only that kind of well where a donkey or camel or even a person is employed to draw the bucket with a rope from the depth of the well to the surface, where a waiter or a technical device will make the bucket spill its content into an irrigation-channel, pipe or something else; and by going to and fro the animal creates a path. This is the sort of well and the sort of path which is called sabīl.[38] To go or to work sabīli llāh means therefore originally and literally "to work in the irrigation plant of God". There can hardly be a greater contrast to "going on the warpath of God". And it is possibly not by chance that the above-mentioned fragment of a pre-Islamic hymn Sura 25,48-52, where we have found the clearly biblical meaning of gihād as "the great fight of faith", begins:

Sura 25,48c-49 (reconstructed)


48c "and He (God) sent him (Jesus) down from heaven as immaculate water"

و أنزله من ١لسماء ماء طهورا

49a "that He may vivify by him dead soil"

ليحى به بلدة ميّتا

49b "and make him a fresh drink to His creature,"

و يسقيه ما خلقه

49c "many gentle and friendly people"

أنعاما و أناسيّا كثيرا


(see p. 242). The phrase sabīli llāh belongs originally into this context.

[38] See for the different kinds of wells in Arabia Erich Bräunlich, Der Brunnen im alten Arabien, in: Jahrbuch der Phil. Fak. Leipzig 1 (1921), 35-37 and in: Islamica 1 (1925), 41-76, 288-343 and 454-528.