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19th century Sudanese calligraphy of jihad

Jihad means "struggle" or "striving" not "holy war" and comes from the Koranic phrase “Jihad fi sabeel Allah” (“striving in the path of God”). It means much more than holy war. It refers to the obligation of individual Muslims and Muslim societies to strive for self-improvement and self-purification. Mohammed said that “jahad bil nafs” (“striving within the self”) is the "greatest “jihad”." It is based in the Koranic saying (9:125): “O you who believe, fight the unbelievers who are near to you.”

“Jihad fi sabeel Allah” refers the "unremitting war" against evil, corruption, injustice, tyranny and oppression. It refers to a struggle in all aspects of life, from learning in school to fighting a holy war for justice. This can take the form of writing articles, publishing books or speaking out against those who ignore Islamic principals. Force is to be used only as a last resort.

According to the BBC: Muslims use the word Jihad to describe three different kinds of struggle: 1) A believer's internal struggle to live out the Muslim faith as well as possible; 2) The struggle to build a good Muslim society; 3) Holy war: the struggle to defend Islam, with force if necessary. Many modern writers claim that the main meaning of Jihad is the internal spiritual struggle, and this is accepted by many Muslims. However there are so many references to Jihad as a military struggle in Islamic writings that it is incorrect to claim that the interpretation of Jihad as holy war is wrong. [Source: BBC, August 3, 2009 |::|]

Jihad is regarded as a duty of all Muslims: an obligation not a choice. Because Muslims aren’t supposed to fight other Muslims, “jihad” is sometimes directed at infidels, or those who have not accepted the will of god. Some extremists — both Muslim and non-Muslim ones — see the world as being shaped by a kind of perpetual war between Muslims and non-Muslims (infidels), with jihad defining the conflict until the whole world embraces Islam. One Taliban fighter said, “Jihad is like a cancer. Nobody can cure it, nobody can help you.”

Websites on Muslims Divisions Divisions in Islam archive.org ; Shi’a History and Identity shiism.wcfia.harvard.edu ; What is Shi'a Islam? iis.ac.uk ; Four Sunni Schools of Thought masud.co.uk ; History of Islam: An encyclopedia of Islamic history historyofislam.com ; Oxford Encyclopedia of the Islamic World oxfordislamicstudies.com ; Sacred Footsetps sacredfootsteps.com ; Internet Islamic History Sourcebook fordham.edu/halsall/islam/islamsbook ; Islam IslamOnline islamonline.net ; Institute for Social Policy and Understanding ispu.org; Islam.com islam.com ; BBC article bbc.co.uk/religion/religions/islam ; Islam at Project Gutenberg gutenberg.org

Interpretations of Jihad

Jihad has been interpreted in different ways at different times. Some of the basic principals were formed during Mohammed’s lifetime, when his community fought for survival in a hostile environment, and the early decades after Mohammed’s death, when a policy of expansion was declared that tapped into the warring tendencies of Arab tribesmen. This period also coincided with period in which sharia (Muslim law) was shaped and one of the consequences of this was to give jihad legal claims. David Van Beima wrote in Time, “the bellicosity of some Koranic passages owes much to the fact that were written at a time when Muslims were engaged in almost constant warfare to defend their religion.”

Dilip Hiro wrote in the Los Angeles Times: “An Arabic word, "jihad" has a broad range of meaning. It can refer to an individual Muslim's internal struggle to adhere more faithfully to the teachings of Islam or, at the other extreme, to a holy war waged against external forces threatening Islam. In modern times, jihad has most often meant using violence against the regimes of Muslim leaders considered un-Islamic; and it has been waged with the goal of establishing a state administered according to sharia law. The jihadist agenda until quite recently was usually local. This changed after the Soviet Union intervened in Afghanistan in 1979. Pakistani-based leaders of an anti-Soviet jihad in Afghanistan invited militant Muslims from around the world to join their campaign. At that point, with support from the United States, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, jihadism went global. [Source: Dilip Hiro, Los Angeles Times, May 29, 2012]

According to the BBC: “The five Pillars of Islam form an exercise of Jihad in this sense, since a Muslim gets closer to Allah by performing them. Other ways in which a Muslim engages in the 'greater Jihad' could include: 1) Learning the Qur'an by heart, or engage in other religious study. 2) Overcoming things such as anger, greed, hatred, pride, or malice. Giving up smoking. Cleaning the floor of the mosque. 3) Taking part in Muslim community activities. 4) Working for social justice. 5) Forgiving someone who has hurt them. |::|

Book: “the Just War in Islam” by John Kelsay (Harvard University Press,

Muhammad and Internal Jihad

Mohammed before
the Battle of Badr
According to the BBC: “The internal Jihad is the one that Prophet Muhammad is said to have called the greater Jihad.But the quotation in which the Prophet says this is regarded as coming from an unreliable source by some scholars. They regard the use of Jihad to mean holy war as the more important.” |::|

“The phrase internal Jihad or greater Jihad refers to the efforts of a believer to live their Muslim faith as well as possible. All religious people want to live their lives in the way that will please their God. So Muslims make a great effort to live as Allah has instructed them; following the rules of the faith, being devoted to Allah, doing everything they can to help other people. For most people, living God's way is quite a struggle. God sets high standards, and believers have to fight with their own selfish desires to live up to them, no matter how much they love God. |::|

“The Prophet is said to have called the internal Jihad the "greater Jihad". On his return from a battle, the Prophet said: "We are finished with the lesser jihad; now we are starting the greater jihad." He explained to his followers that fighting against an outer enemy is the lesser jihad and fighting against one's self is the greater jihad (holy war). This quotation is regarded as unreliable by some scholars. They regard the use of jihad as meaning 'holy war' as the more important. However the quotation has been very influential among some Muslims, particularly Sufis. |::|

Greater and Lesser Jihad

According to traditional understandings, there are two types of jihad: greater and lesser. After returning from a battle, Mohammed told his companions, “We are returning from the lesser jihad [the battle] to the greater jihad.”

"Greater Jihad" is thought to be a reference to the personal struggle within the soul of a person to become more virtuous and righteous (to struggle against the evil within). "Lesser Jihad" is viewed as a battle against the devil or a military struggle against those who subjugate Muslims. Most Muslims say that "Greater Jihad" is of greater important. "They don't call it 'Greater Jihad' for nothing."

Radicals in Pakistan and Afghanistan often say the two jihads are of equal importance. One Muslim extremist told the New York Times, "Jihad against the oppressor of Muslims is an absolute duty. Islam is a religion that defends itself."

Justification for Jihad

20120709-jihad Israel_Defense_Forces_-_Gaza_Kindergarten_Graduation_(2).jpg
Gaza Kindergarten Graduation
One of the basic understandings of the “holy war” meaning of jihad is the lives of innocent people are to be spared. A jihad is a war against combatants, not women and children. According to a passage from the Hadiths: "It is narrated by Ibn Umar that a woman was found killed in one of these battles, so the Messenger of Allah, may peace be upon him, forbade the killing of women and children."

The Koran states: "Permission is given to those who fight because they have been wronged and indeed God is able to give them victory: those who have been driven from their homes unjustly only because they said, 'Our Lord is God.' For had it not been for God's repelling some men by means of others, cloisters and churches and oratories and mosques, in which the name of God is often mentioned, would assuredly have been pulled down. And lo! God helps one who helps Him. For verily, God is strong. Powerful."

How people interpret jihad is where the problem lies. According to New York Times reporter Chris Hedges: "For militants [jihad] conveys carte blanche to kill, kidnap, hijack and bomb anyone they see as an infidel, including children and other Muslims...militant clerics, in their calls for fire and blood, cling only to select passages of their holy book, in the manner of zealots everywhere."

Many of the verses and lines like “fight and slay the Pagans where you find them, and seize them, beleaguer them and wait for them in every stratagem (of war)” that are used to justify “holy war” jihad and extremist acts come from the ninth chapter of the Koran, the Sura of Repentance, which describes Mohammed failed attempt to form a state in the Arabian peninsula. Many clerics say the lines and verse should only be seen in their original contexts and not extrapolated beyond that, especially to the modern world.

Holy War

According to the BBC: “When Muslims, or their faith or territory are under attack, Islam permits (some say directs) the believer to wage military war to protect them. However Islamic (shariah) law sets very strict rules for the conduct of such a war. In recent years the most common meaning of Jihad has been Holy War. [Source: BBC, August 3, 2009 |::|]

“And there is a long tradition of Jihad being used to mean a military struggle to benefit Islam. What can justify Jihad? There are a number of reasons, but the Qur'an is clear that self-defence is always the underlying cause. |::|

“Permissable reasons for military Jihad: 1) Self-defence; 2) Strengthening Islam; 3) Protecting the freedom of Muslims to practise their faith; 4) Protecting Muslims against oppression, which could include overthrowing a tyrannical ruler; 5) Punishing an enemy who breaks an oath; 6) Putting right a wrong |::|

Rules of Jihad and What Jihad Is Not

Battle of Badr

According to the BBC: “A military Jihad has to obey very strict rules in order to be legitimate. 1) The opponent must always have started the fighting. 2) It must not be fought to gain territory. 3) It must be launched by a religious leader. 4) It must be fought to bring about good - something that Allah will approve of. 5) Every other way of solving the problem must be tried before resorting to war. 6) Innocent people should not be killed. ) Women, children, or old people should not be killed or hurt. 7) Women must not be raped. 8) Enemies must be treated with justice. 9) Wounded enemy soldiers must be treated in exactly the same way as one's own soldiers. 10) The war must stop as soon as the enemy asks for peace. 11) Property must not be damaged. 12) Poisoning wells is forbidden. The modern analogy would be chemical or biological warfare. [Source: BBC, August 3, 2009 |::|]

According to the BBC: “A war is not a Jihad if the intention is to: 1) Force people to convert to Islam; 2) Conquer other nations to colonise them; 3) Take territory for economic gain; 4) Settle disputes; 5) Demonstrate a leader's power |Although the Prophet engaged in military action on a number of occasions, these were battles to survive, rather than conquest, and took place at a time when fighting between tribes was common. |::|

In Baghdad in the mid 2000s, several falafel vendors were killed by Islamists because falafels didn’t exist in the 7th century.

Qur'an on Jihad

“The Qur'an has many passages about fighting. Some of them advocate peace, while some are very warlike. The Bible, the Jewish and Christian scripture, shows a similar variety of attitudes to war. Fight in the way of Allah against those who fight against you, but begin not hostilities. Lo! Allah loveth not aggressors.” — Qur'an 2:190

“To those against whom war is made, permission is given (to fight), because they are wronged;- and verily, Allah is most powerful for their aid.” — Qur'an 22:39

“Therefore if they withdraw from you but fight you not, and (instead) send you (Guarantees of) peace, then Allah Hath opened no way for you (to war against them).” — Qur'an 4:90;

“But if the enemy incline towards peace, do thou (also) incline towards peace, and trust in Allah: for He is One that heareth and knoweth (all things).” — Qur'an 8:61

Sunnah on Fighting for the Faith

Flag of jihad
The Sunnahs are the practices and examples drawn from the Prophet Muhammad's life. Along with the Hadiths they are the most important texts in Islam after the Qur’an. They must adhere to a strict chain of narration that ensures their authenticity, taking into account factors such as the character of people in the chain and continuity in narration. Reports that fail to meet such criteria are disregarded.

The Sunnah reads: “We came out with the Prophet, with a part of the army, and a man passed by a cavern in which were water and verdure, and he said in his heart, "I shall stay here, and retire from the world." Then he asked the Prophet's permission to live in the cavern; but he said, "Verily I have not been sent on the Jewish religion, nor the Christian, to quit the delights of society; but I have been sent on the religion inclining to truth, and that which is easy, wherein is no difficulty or austerity. I swear by God, in whose hand is my life, that marching about morning and evening to fight for religion is better than the world and everything that is in it: and verily the standing of one of you in the line of battle is better than supererogatory prayers performed in your house for sixty years. [Source: Charles F. Horne, ed., The Sacred Books and Early Literature of the East, (New York: Parke, Austin, & Lipscomb, 1917), Vol. VI: Medieval Arabia, pp. 11-32]

“When the Prophet sent an army out to fight, he would say, March in the name of God and by his aid and on the religion of the Messenger of God. Kill not the old man who can not fight, nor young children nor women; and steal not the spoils of war, but put your spoils together; and quarrel not among yourselves, but be good to one another, for God loveth the doer of good.

Virgins and Paradise for Martyrs

Many Muslim believe that those who die fighting jihad become martyrs. Many of these believe that martyrdom is a righteous deed that will wash away their sins, earn them a shortcut to heaven, where they will enjoy a marriage to”72 dark-eyed virgins in paradise," and guarantee places in heaven for 70 of their relatives. They are told they will not feel any pain after the first drop of their blood has been shed, they will escape tortures of the grave, they will see the face of God and they will be reunited in heaven with loved ones killed by their enemies. Some say that because a martyr doesn't die he doesn't commit suicide.

On the pleasures waiting for martyrs in paradise, the Qur’an reads:
Spend eternity in gardens of tranquility
Youths of never-ending bloom will pass
around to them decanter, beakers full of
sparkling wine.".
And suck fruits as they fancy.
Bird meats as they relish.
And companions with big beautiful eyes
Like pearls within their shells.".

One Muslim man told Newsweek: “When a martyr dies, the body smells very sweet. And insects don't normally eat the body as they do in death. I've seen corpses where the heads were chopped off — not by man, but by angels." It is not clear where the number “72" came from. Scholars say it came from an unreliable source from the early Islamic period.

One hadith reads: “Paradise lies under the shade of swords." Almost universally, it has been said, suicide bombers and their families think the bombers go to paradise is they successfully complete their missions. When asked many young Muslim extremist say they would be willing to die in a jihad and their parents would be "very happy" too.

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: Internet Islamic History Sourcebook: sourcebooks.fordham.edu ; Arab News, Jeddah; “Islam, a Short History” by Karen Armstrong; “A History of the Arab Peoples” by Albert Hourani (Faber and Faber, 1991); “World Religions” edited by Geoffrey Parrinder (Facts on File Publications, New York); “Encyclopedia of the World’s Religions” edited by R.C. Zaehner (Barnes & Noble Books, 1959); Metropolitan Museum of Art, Encyclopedia.com, National Geographic, BBC, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Smithsonian magazine, The Guardian, Al Jazeera, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, Associated Press, AFP, Library of Congress and various books and other publications.

Last updated April 2024

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