The term Jihad has been subject to much controversy and misunderstandings in recent years. While some people are genuinely unaware of what it really means, others have deliberately misrepresented and manipulated this term to achieve their ulterior motives. It is thus important to understand the concept of Jihad in the light of the Quran and Sunnah (Prophetic way of life) – the two sources of knowledge in Islam.
The word jihad literally means struggle or effort. It implies striving and exerting one’s efforts for a worthy cause. In Islamic terminology, Jihad is frequently used to convey the meaning of “striving in the path of Allah,” and this can take many different forms. Let us consider some forms of Jihad from the Quran and Sunnah, starting with the one most commonly referred to, yet most often misunderstood.
Striving with the sword in self-defense is Jihad
Striving through military means to protect the Islamic faith is a form of Jihad, traditionally known as Jihad bil Sayf – striving with the sword. It sometimes entails the greatest form of sacrifice – in the form of one’s life – and is hence the most difficult one to make. It is important to understand the context in which the Quran was revealed to grasp the true spirit of this form of Jihad.
As God revealed His word to Muhammad ﷺ, and he shared it with others, the staunchly pagan society at Mecca viewed the attempt to revive true monotheism as a rebellion against its culture and ancestral tradition. Therefore, when all else failed to convince Muhammad ﷺ to give up his message of serving one God alone, the Meccan tribal chiefs resorted to violence, subjecting those who responded positively to Muhammad ﷺ to much abuse and torture, and even brutally killing the weak and poor ones among his followers. The Muslims, therefore, migrated from Mecca to save their lives – first to Abyssinia (Ethiopia), and then to the town of Medina (Yathrib) where a small Muslim community was established. When the Meccans and their allies sought to attack the Muslims and annihilate Medina, God commanded them to fight back with all their strength, and to be firm against the disbelievers who waged war against the Muslims and usurped the properties they were forced to leave behind in Mecca.
It is important to note that the command to fight was only against those who had persecuted the Muslims or wanted to destroy the faith of Islam. This is clearly stated by various Quranic verses, such as the following: “Allah does not forbid you from being kind and just toward those who do not fight you because of religion and do not expel you from your homes. Indeed, Allah loves those who act justly. Allah only forbids you from those who fight you because of religion and expel you from your homes and aid in your expulsion that you make allies of them. And whoever makes allies of them, then it is those who are the wrongdoers.” (60:8-9)
Let us now see some other forms of Jihad as explained by Prophet Muhammad ﷺ.
Striving against false temptations is Jihad
A person’s soul or inner-self often tempts him or her to commit what is wrong, or indulge in falsehood. Striving against such temptations is a form of Jihad, as the Prophet ﷺ said, “The mujahid (one performing Jihad) is the one who strives against his own soul.” (Reported by Tirmidhi) This is known in the traditional literature as Jihad bil Nafs – striving against the soul.
Speaking justly to an oppressive ruler is Jihad
Striving for justice and fairness is one of the most commendable deeds in Islam. The Prophet ﷺ has described speaking truthfully and fearlessly in front of an oppressive ruler as among the best forms of Jihad. He said, “The best Jihad in the path of Allah is [to speak] a word of justice to an oppressive ruler.” (Reported by Abu Dawud) Similar courageous and daring deeds have collectively been referred to, in the traditional literature, as Jihad bil Aamal – striving through deeds.
Serving old-age parents is Jihad
A man once came to the Prophet ﷺ for permission to take part in a battle. The Prophet ﷺ usually permitted anyone of age who wanted to participate in a battle or military expeditions, as Muslims were often heavily outnumbered in such encounters. However, when the Prophet ﷺ learned that this man’s parents were alive, and possibly in need of him, he told him, “Then make Jihad in their service.” (Reported by Bukhari) This is another example of striving through one’s deeds (Jihad bil Aamal).
Looking after a widow or needy person is Jihad
While caring for the poor is one of the most emphasized themes of the Quran, there is also great regard in Islam for supporting widows and orphans – financially or otherwise – and looking after their various needs. The Prophet ﷺ said, “The one who looks after a widow or a poor person is like a striver [mujahid] who fights for Allah’s cause, or like him who performs prayers all night and fasts all day.” (Reported by Bukhari) Looking after the financial needs of others is traditionally classified as Jihad bil Maal – striving through wealth.
Exerting oneself in teaching or learning is Jihad
Seeking knowledge of the word of God is among the worthiest deeds, but Islam does not restrict its followers to acquiring religious knowledge alone. The great love of learning among Muslims, and the resulting scientific advancements, in the early centuries of Islam, were inspired by such sayings of the Prophet ﷺ as this: “Whoever comes to this mosque of mine, and only comes for a good purpose, such as to learn or to teach, his status is like that of one who strives [physically] in the path of Allah.” (Reported by Ibn Majah) This is traditionally known as Jihad bil Ilm – striving for knowledge.
What Jihad is not
Despite such detailed clarification by the Quran and the Prophet ﷺ on the concept of Jihad, some people falsely translate the word Jihad as “holy war.” Such a translation is blatantly incorrect, and stems from an ignorance of the basic teachings of Islam, and unfamiliarity with the Arabic language. In fact, the word “holy” is totally unfamiliar to authentic Islamic literature – even the word “Quran” is preceded by “noble” or “blessed” as an honorific in Islamic sources, rather than “holy” – while “war” is translated as harb in Arabic.
To sum up, Jihad is a very broad term that implies exerting one’s abilities for a worthy cause intended to please Allah. While fighting to protect Islam is one form of Jihad, it can only be undertaken against those involved in violence against the Muslims. It is unjust and incorrect to restrict this vast term to only one or another of its many forms. As pointed out earlier, Jihad is strongly associated with growing spiritually, acquiring and spreading knowledge, being good to one’s parents, upholding justice and fairness, and serving the community at large. Jihad is, in fact, a means to spread goodness and making the world a more desirable place to live in.