What is Jihad in Islam?
While Islam is generally misunderstood in the West, perhaps no other Islamic term evokes such strong reactions as “jihad”. The Arabic word “Jihad”, which is most always mistranslated as “holy war”, simply means “to struggle” or “to exert one’s utmost effort”. It is incorrect to imagine that jihad is synonymous only with fighting or war, for this is but one particular aspect of the term. Jihad is a struggle to do good and to remove injustice, oppression and evil from oneself and from society. This struggle is spiritual, social, economic and political.
Indeed, the concept of jihad is one of life, and it is vast, not limited only to armed conflict. For example, one finds in the Quran mention of “jihad by means of the Quran”, meaning invitation to the truth, evidence, clarification and presenting the best argument. There is also “jihad of the soul”, which means striving to purify the soul, to increase its faith and incline it toward good while keeping it from evil and from unlawful desires and temptations. 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, such as propagation, teaching and finally, lawful armed struggle against aggression and oppression.
In the name of jihad, Islam calls for 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. In the name of jihad, it endeavors to teach belief in Allah, the One supreme God, and worship of Him and to spread good values, virtue and morality through wise and proper methods. Allah has commanded:
Invite to the way of your Lord with wisdom and good instruction, and argue with them in a way that is best. (Quran 16:125)
In the name of jihad, Islam calls for social reform and the elimination of ignorance, superstition, poverty, disease and racial discrimination. Among its main goals is the protection of rights for weaker members of society against the impositions of the powerful and influential.
Islam prohibits injustice, even toward those who oppose the religion. Allah, the Exalted, says in the Quran:
And do not let the hatred of a people prevent you from being just. Be just; that is nearer to righteousness. (Quran 5:8)
And Allah told the believers regarding those who prevented their entry to the Sacred Mosque in Makkah:
And do not let the hatred of a people for having obstructed you from the Sacred Mosque lead you to transgress.(Quran 5:2)
Enmity toward any people or nation should not provoke Muslims to commit aggression against them, oppress them or disregard their rights.
One of the highest levels of jihad is to stand up to a tyrant and speak a word of truth. Restraining the self from wrongdoing is also a great form of jihad. Another form of jihad is to take up arms in defense of Islam or a Muslim country when Islam is attacked, but this has to be declared by the religious leadership or by a Muslim head of state.
Although Jihad is a wider concept than war, it is also clear that Islam acknowledges war when it becomes the last option for the treatment of such problems as oppression and aggression and for the defense of certain freedoms and rights. When Islam acknowledges 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 the reason and logic.
War is permissible in Islam only when all peaceful means such as dialogue, negotiations and treaties fail. War is a last resort and should be avoided as much as possible. The purpose of Jihad is not to convert people by force, or to colonize people or to acquire land or wealth or for self-glory. Its purpose is basically the defense of life, property, land, honor and freedom for oneself as well as defense of others from injustice and oppression.