What is the meaning of jihad?

"Jihad" is a term often misunderstood and associated with violent radical militants.  This Arabic word is frequently mistranslated as "holy war," although there is no such thing in Islam.  Holy war is something undertaken to forcibly subject others to certain religious doctrines.  As we have seen, this is expressly forbidden in Islam.

The Arabic word "jihad" actually means a struggle or striving, and applies to any great effort on the personal as well as the social level.  It is striving to do good and remove injustice and evil from oneself and from society.  This exertion of effort can be spiritual, social, economic or political.  For example, one of the highest levels of jihad is to stand before a tyrant and speak a word of truth.  Restraining the self from wrongdoing is also a form of jihad.  It is a broad Islamic concept that includes opposing evil inclinations within the self, opposing injustice by peaceful means, the exertion of effort to improve the quality of life in society, as well as the striving by military forces on a battlefield in defense of the community or of peoples oppressed.  Jihad is not synonymous with war, as that is only one possible aspect of the term, and it certainly does not include terrorism.

Indeed, the concept of jihad is one of life, and it is vast, not limited only to armed conflict.  One finds in the Qur’an mention of "jihad by means of the Qur’an,"  meaning invitation to truth using the best arguments, presentation of evidence and clarification.  And there is jihad of the soul, which means striving to purify the soul, to increase its faith, incline it toward good and keep it away from evil.  Then there is jihad through wealth, which means spending it in various beneficial ways, including charities and welfare projects.  And there is jihad through the self, which comprises all good works done by a believer.

It includes the protection of societies from oppression, foreign domination and dictatorships that usurp rights and freedom, that abolish just and moral rule, that prevent people from hearing the truth or following it, and that practice religious persecution.  Jihad endeavors to teach belief in the one supreme God and worship of Him, to spread good values, virtue and morality through wise and proper methods.  Jihad means striving for social reform and the elimination of ignorance, superstition, poverty, disease and racial discrimination.  Among its main objectives is securing rights for weaker members of society against the impositions of the powerful and influential.

Armed jihad is not an option for Muslim individuals or groups.  It can only be declared by the Muslim head of state and religious leadership.  Moreover, it must never be fought for worldly gain, conquest or revenge.  Muslims may only engage in battle to protect peoples' lives, properties and freedom.

Islam and War

Although jihad is a wider concept than war, it is also clear that Islam acknowledges armed struggle when there is no other option for the treatment of such problems as oppression and aggression and the defense of legitimate freedoms and rights.  Its purpose is not to convert people to the religion, nor is it to colonize or acquire land and wealth.  When Islam permits military engagement, it is as an integral part of a complete system of values inherent in the religion, behind which any equitable person can perceive reason and logic.

War becomes jihad only when it is waged for the acceptance of God and according to the laws of God.  Even self-defense will not be considered jihad if Muslims are striking back in revenge.  While Islam encourages oppressed people to strive for liberation and orders Muslims to help those who are oppressed, under no circumstance does it allow indiscriminate killing and terrorizing, destruction of homes, animals and crops, or the torture of prisoners.

Jihad has conditions of restraint that distinguish it from any other kind of warfare.  They can be summarized as follows:

•    Muslims may not begin hostilities.  They must strive for peace as much as possible.
•    All treaties and agreements must be observed as long as the enemy continues to observe them.
•    Muslims must fight only those who fight against them; non-combatants are not to be harmed.
•    Weapons of mass destruction must never be used, and collective punishment is strictly prohibited.
•    Hostilities should be ended as soon as the other party is inclined to peace

Throughout their history Muslims have entered battles and armed conflicts under these terms.  If the situation is different today, it is only because these Islamic principles are not being observed.

When all peaceful means such as dialogue, negotiations and agreements have failed and an Islamic government chooses the option of war, it must be confined to the divinely ordained system that is precise, just, teaches proper ethics in the situation of war, and provides opportunity for peace.  The conditions that indicate the kind of warfare lawful to Muslims as a form of jihad show clearly that Islam does not condone aggression against anyone.