by Dr. M. Amir Ali, Ph.D.
In the linguistic sense, the Arabic word "jihad" means struggling or striving and applies to any effort exerted by anyone. In this sense a student struggles and strives to get an education and pass course work; an employee strives to fulfill his/her job and maintain good relations with his/her employer; a politician strives to maintain or increase his popularity with his constituents and so on. The term strive or struggle may be used for/by Muslims as well non-Muslims; for example, Allah, One and Only True God says in the Qur'an:
In the above two verses of the Qur'an, it is non-Muslim parents who strive (jahada) to convert their Muslim child back to their religion.
In the West, "jihad" is generally translated as "holy war", a usage the media has popularized. According to Islamic teachings, it is unholy to instigate or start war; however, some wars are inevitable and justifiable. If we translate the words "holy war" back into Arabic we find "harbun muqaddasatun", or for "the holy war", "al-harbu al-muqaddasatu". We challenge any researcher or scholar to find the meaning of "jihad" as holy war in the Qur'an or authentic Hadith collections or in early Islamic literature. Unfortunately, some Muslim writers and translators of the Qur'an, the Hadith and other Islamic literature translate the term "jihad" as "holy war", due to the influence of centuries-old Western propaganda. This could be a reflection of the Christian use of the term "Holy War" to refer to the Crusades of a thousand years ago. However, the Arabic words for "war" are "harb" or "qital", which are found in the Qur'an and Hadith.
For Muslims the term jihad is applied to all forms of striving and has developed some special meanings over time. The sources of this development are the Qur'an (the Word of God revealed to Prophet Muhammad(S)) and the Hadith (teachings of Prophet Muhammad(S) [(S) denotes Sall-Allahu 'alayhi wa sallam meaning peace and blessings of Allah be upon him). The Qur'an and the Hadith use the word "jihad" in several different contexts which are given below:
1. Recognizing the Creator and loving Him most
It is human nature to love what is seen with the eyes and felt with the senses more than the UNSEEN REALITY. The Creator of the Universe and the One God is Allah. He is the Unseen Reality which we tend to ignore and not recognize. The Qur'an addresses those who claim to be believers:
It is indeed a struggle to put Allah ahead of our loved ones, our wealth, our worldly ambitions and our own lives. Especially for a non-Muslim who embraces Islam, it may be a tough struggle due to the opposition of his family, peers and society.
2. Resisting pressure of parents, peers and society
Once a person has made up his mind to put the Creator of the Universe above all else, he often comes under intense pressures. It is not easy to resist such pressures and strive to maintain dedication and love of Allah over all else. A person who has turned to Islam from another religion may be subjected to pressures designed to turn him back to the religion of the family. We read in the Qur'an:
3. Staying on the straight path steadfastly
Allah says in the Qur'an:
As for those who strive and struggle to live as true Muslims whose lives are made difficult due to persecution by their opponents, they are advised to migrate to a more peaceful and tolerant land and continue with their struggle in the cause of Allah. Allah says in the Qur'an:
Allah tests the believers in their faith and their steadfastness:
We find that the Prophet Muhammad(S) and his clan were boycotted socially and economically for three years to force him to stop his message and compromise with the pagans but he resisted and realized a moral victory.
4. Striving for righteous deeds
Allah declares in the Qur'an:
When we are faced with two competing interests, it becomes jihad to choose the right one, as the following Hadith exemplify.
At another occasion a man asked the Prophet Muhammad(S):
Yet another man asked the Messenger of Allah:
The Messenger of Allah, Muhammad(S) said:
5. Having courage and steadfastness to convey the message of Islam
The Qur'an narrates the experiences of a large number of Prophets and good people who suffered a great deal trying to convey the message of Allah to mankind. For examples see the Qur'an 26:1-190, 36:13-32. In the Qur'an, Allah specifically praises those who strive to convey His message:
Under adverse conditions it takes great courage to remain a Muslim, declare oneself to be a Muslim and call others to Islam. We read in the Qur'an:
6. Defending Islam and the community
Allah declares in the Qur'an:
The Qur'an permits fighting to defend the religion of Islam and the Muslims. This permission includes fighting in self defense and for the protection of family and property. The early Muslims fought many battles against their enemies under the leadership of the Prophet Muhammad(S) or his representatives. For example, when the pagans of Quraysh brought armies against Prophet Muhammad(S), the Muslims fought to defend their faith and community. The Qur'an adds:
7. Helping allied people who may not be Muslim
In the late period of the Prophet Muhammad's(S) life the tribe of Banu Khuza'ah became his ally. They were living near Makkah which was under the rule of the pagan Quraysh, Prophet Muhammad's(S) own tribe. The tribe of Banu Bakr, an ally of Quraysh, with the help of some elements of Quraysh, attacked Banu Khuza'ah and inflicted heavy damage. Banu Khuza'ah invoked the treaty and demanded Prophet Muhammad(S) to come to their help and punish Quraysh. The Prophet Muhammad(S) organized a campaign against Quraysh of Makkah which resulted in the conquest of Makkah which occurred without any battle.
8. Removing treacherous people from power
Allah orders the Muslims in the Qur'an:
Prophet Muhammad(S) undertook a number of armed campaigns to remove treacherous people from power and their lodgings. He had entered into pacts with several tribes, however, some of them proved themselves treacherous. Prophet Muhammad(S) launched armed campaigns against these tribes, defeated and exiled them from Medina and its surroundings.
9. Defending through preemptive strikes
Indeed, it is difficult to mobilize people to fight when they see no invaders in their territory; however, those who are charged with responsibility see dangers ahead of time and must provide leadership. The Messenger of Allah, Muhammad(S), had the responsibility to protect his people and the religion he established in Arabia. Whenever he received intelligence reports about enemies gathering near his borders he carried out preemptive strikes, broke their power and dispersed them. Allah ordered Muslims in the Qur'an:
10. Gaining freedom to inform, educate and convey the message of Islam in an open and free environment
Allah declares in the Qur'an:
To gain this freedom, Prophet Muhammad(S) said:
The life of the Prophet Muhammad(S) was full of striving to gain the freedom to inform and convey the message of Islam. During his stay in Makkah he used non-violent methods and after the establishment of his government in Madinah, by the permission of Allah, he used armed struggle against his enemies whenever he found it inevitable.
11. Freeing people from tyranny
Allah admonishes Muslims in the Qur'an:
The mission of the Prophet Muhammad(S) was to free people from tyranny and exploitation by oppressive systems. Once free, individuals in the society were then free to chose Islam or not. Prophet Muhammad's(S) successors continued in his footsteps and went to help oppressed people. For example, after the repeated call by the oppressed people of Spain to the Muslims for help, Spain was liberated by Muslim forces and the tyrant rulers removed. After the conquest of Syria and Iraq by the Muslims, the Christian population of Hims reportedly said to the Muslims:
The defeated rulers of Syria were Roman Christians and Iraq was ruled by Zoarastrian Persians.
What should Muslims do when they are victorious?
Muslims should remove tyranny, treachery, bigotry, and ignorance and replace them with justice and equity. We should provide truthful knowledge and free people from the bondage of associationism (shirk or multiple gods), prejudice, superstition and mythology. Muslims remove immorality, fear, crime, exploitation and replace them with divine morality, peace and education. The Qur'an declares:
Did Islam spread by force, swords or guns?
The unequivocal and emphatic answer is NO! The Qur'an declares:
Here is a good study of the question of the spread of Islam by a Christian missionary, T.W. Arnold:
Islam does not teach nor do Muslims desire conversion of any people for fear, greed, marriage or any other form of coercion.
In conclusion, jihad in Islam is striving in the way of Allah by pen, tongue, hand, media and, if inevitable, with arms. However, jihad in Islam does not include striving for individual or national power, dominance, glory, wealth, prestige or pride.
1. For the sake of simplicity and easy reading, masculine pronouns have been used throughout this brochure. No exclusion of females is intended.
2. Haykal, M.H., THE LIFE OF MUHAMMAD, Tr. Ismail R. Faruqi, American Trust Publications, 1976, p. 132.
3. Haykal, pp. 216, 242, 299 and 414 for the Battles of Badr, Uhud, Al-Khandaq and Hunayn, respectively.
4. Haykal, p. 395 for the Conquest of Makkah.
5. Haykal, pp. 245, 277, 311 and 326 for campaigns against the tribes of Banu Qaynuqa', Banu Al-Nadir, Banu Qurayzah and Banu Lihyan, respectively. Also, see p. 283 for the Battle of Dhat Al-Riqa'.
6. Haykal, pp. 284, 327, 366, 387, 393, 443 and 515 for the Battles of Dawmat Al-Jandal, Banu Al-Mustaliq, Khayber, Mu'tah, Dhat Al-Salasil, Tabuk and the Campaign of Usama Ibn Zayd, respectively.
7. Hitti, Philip K., HISTORY OF THE ARABS, St. Martin's Press, New York, 1970, p. 153.
8. Arnold, Sir Thomas W., THE PREACHING OF ISLAM, A HISTORY OF THE PROPAGATION OF THE MUSLIM FAITH, Westminister A. Constable & Co., London, 1896, p. 80.