The literal meaning of Jihad is struggle or effort, and it means much more than holy war.
Muslims use the word Jihad to describe three different kinds of struggle:
- A believer's internal struggle to live out the Muslim faith as well as possible
- The struggle to build a good Muslim society
- 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.
Jihad and the Prophet
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 internal Jihad
The internal Jihad
The phrase internal Jihad orgreater 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 five Pillars of Islam as Jihad
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:
- Learning the Qur'an by heart, or engage in other religious study.
- Overcoming things such as anger, greed, hatred, pride, or malice.
- Giving up smoking.
- Cleaning the floor of the mosque.
- Taking part in Muslim community activities.
- Working for social justice.
- Forgiving someone who has hurt them.
The Greater Jihad controversy
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.
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.
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:
- Strengthening Islam
- Protecting the freedom of Muslims to practise their faith
- Protecting Muslims against oppression, which could include overthrowing a tyrannical ruler
- Punishing an enemy who breaks an oath
- Putting right a wrong
What a Jihad is not
A war is not a Jihad if the intention is to:
- Force people to convert to Islam
- Conquer other nations to colonise them
- Take territory for economic gain
- Settle disputes
- 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.
The rules of Jihad
The rules of Jihad
A military Jihad has to obey very strict rules in order to be legitimate.
- The opponent must always have started the fighting.
- It must not be fought to gain territory.
- It must be launched by a religious leader.
- It must be fought to bring about good - something that Allah will approve of.
- Every other way of solving the problem must be tried before resorting to war.
- Innocent people should not be killed.
- Women, children, or old people should not be killed or hurt.
- Women must not be raped.
- Enemies must be treated with justice.
- Wounded enemy soldiers must be treated in exactly the same way as one's own soldiers.
- The war must stop as soon as the enemy asks for peace.
- Property must not be damaged.
- Poisoning wells is forbidden. The modern analogy would be chemical or biological warfare.
The 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