Jihad means to ‘struggle’ or ‘strive’

Literally, the Arabic word ‘jihad’ means to ‘struggle’ or ‘strive’ and applies to any effort exerted by anyone. In this sense, a student strives to get an education to pass her exams. A businessman strives to make money and expand his business. An employee strives to do his job the best he can. A mother strives to bring up her children to be good citizens. An activist struggles to save the ecological environment. In other words, jihad means doing one’s best proactively to achieve a desired goal.

In the religious context, the word jihad is defined as the proactive endeavour against the inner and outer adverse circumstances. It is a spiritual struggle against evil in one’s self and in various forms outside the self. One of its many manifestations includes the defence of one’s life and country. Its practitioners (mujahidin) are those who devote themselves in this struggle against evil.

There is no ‘holy war’ in Islam

There is no concept of ‘holy war’ in Islam. The phrase ‘holy war’ is not used anywhere in the Qur’an or in the authentic sayings of the Prophet Muhammad, nor in early Islamic literature. The Arabic term for military war is qital, not jihad. According to Islamic teachings, it is unholy to instigate or start a war, while it is recognised that wars are sometimes inevitable and justifiable as a last resort.

The phrase ‘holy war’ has been used in European and Western literature in association with the Crusades. This may have influenced various Western translators of the Qur’an to use the phrase ‘holy war’ when they translated the word jihad into English. Today, it is to a large extent the same circles that keep using the phrase ‘holy war’ in association with conflicts involving Muslims.

The Qur’an sometimes talks about “fighting in the way of God”. The prophet Muhammad and Muslims throughout ages did not understand this as “to fight with people of other religions”, rather they have understood it as meaning to establish justice and ensure freedom of religion for all people irrespective of their religious backgrounds.

Greater and a lesser aspect of jihad

In the words of the Prophet Muhammad there are greater and lesser aspects of jihad. What makes this statement significant is that it was said returning from the first major battle that the fledging Muslim community had to fight. The Prophet said “we are returning from the lesser struggle (jihad) to a greater struggle.” Dismayed companions asked “What could be greater than this?” Muhammad replied “the struggle with the self (nafs).” The greater jihad comprises fighting superstition, wrong convictions, carnal desires and evil inclinations of the self in the pursuit of intellectual and spiritual enlightenment. This is the greater jihad as it is constant and has many invisible facets. The lesser jihad involves encouraging others to follow this path. While usually understood in a military sense, the lesser jihad is much more comprehensive. It consists of every action done by a believer or a believing community to advance the cause of Islam through lawful channels.

The Prophet combined these two aspects of jihad in a balanced manner. Testimonials to his unequalled courage and resolve in defending the emerging faith and the community of Muslims are found in numerous history books. We also find many accounts of his spiritual battles during nights and while fasting. When his wife A’isha questioned his persistence in prayer as being excessive, he replied “Shall I not be a servant grateful to God?” A’isha would often wake up to find him supplicating in prostration in the pitch darkness of the night.

All forms of striving that are classified as jihad

For Muslims, the word jihad is used in conjunction with all forms of striving and has developed various special meanings over time. Two of the most important sources in Islam, the Qur’an and the Hadith (sayings) of the Prophet Muhammad, use the term jihad in quite a few different contexts as listed below. All of the behaviours or actions listed below are included under the wide scope of jihad.

  • Recognising the Creator and loving Him the most (9:23-24).
  • Resisting the harmful influences of parents, peers and society (25:52).
  • Staying steadfastly on the straight path of faith and balance (22:78), (3:142).
  • Striving for righteous deeds (29:69). <
  • Having courage and steadfastness to convey the message of Islam (41:33).
  • Defending Islam and the community (22:39-40) as well as helping allied people who may not necessarily be Muslim.
  • Removing treacherous people from power (8:58).
  • Gaining freedom to inform, educate and convey the message of Islam in an open and free environment (2:217).
  • Freeing people from tyranny and oppression (4:75).

The Prophet Muhammad advised a man who was seeking to join the army to start his jihad (striving) by serving his parents (Sahih Al-Bukhari, 5972). On another occasion, to a man who wanted to know a better form of jihad, the Prophet responded “a word of truth in front of an oppressive ruler.” (Sunan Al-Nasa’i, 4209).

Strict limits apply when a military campaign becomes unavoidable A military jihad is a last resort set within the limits of the Qur’an (2:190) and the practice of the Prophet Muhammad. Peaceful solutions to disputes are preferred over military ones. Muslims should never be the aggressors. In the event of unavoidable war, every opportunity to end the war must be pursued. War is only justified in defence of the country and freedoms (22:39-40, 60:8). The Qur’an directs, “But if the enemy inclines towards peace, then you must also incline towards peaceā€¦” (8:61). The following rules must be adhered to in military warfare:

  • War can only be declared by nations, not by individuals.
  • Jihad cannot include offensive action or war for personal ambition or nationalistic or ethnic disputes.
  • Muslims cannot wage war on nations that have no hostility towards them.
  • They cannot engage in indiscriminate killing and pillage.
  • Women, children or the elderly cannot be deliberately killed in war.
  • Corpses cannot be mutilated in a battle.
  • Land and crops cannot be destroyed.

Today, the concept of jihad in Islam has been one of the most misused and misunderstood concepts. It is quite clear that the concept of jihad has a very wide scope in Islam and includes personal struggle, intellectual endeavour, social construction and, when necessary, military defence. Unfortunately, a few individuals willingly or unwillingly have reduced this very important concept in justification of their deplorable actions. Some political leaders in countries with prominent Muslim populations have wrongly exploited the word jihad to meet their political ends and to gain public support. The global media has jumped on this opportunity in order to sell ‘sensationalism’ and controversy ignoring the explanations and clarifications of Muslim intellectuals.