Jihad: the concept of Holy War in Islam

The Quranic term Jihad means, “Holy fighting in the Cause of Allah or any other kind of effort to make Allah’s Word (i.e. Islam) superior. Jihad is regarded as one of the fundamentals of Islam.” 1

In Arabic the word jihad means to struggle or strive for something — to work for something with determination.

The word jihad literally means to struggle or strive or to work for something with determination. Although English translations define it as holy war, that is not the
Arabic meaning. The Arabic word for war is harb, and the word for fighting is qital. This is important to know because “making jihad” is any action done to further the cause of God. Providing missionary services in a tough place, going to a far land to study, or donating money when it’s a hardship can be a type of jihad. Even just trying to curb your desires for the life of this world is considered a type of jihad.

However, the word jihad is most often associated with the act of physically confronting evil and wrongdoing; hence, it can be applied to the act of fighting as well. But the goal of a physical jihad is not to have a big war, gain riches, or kill people; it is to further the cause of Allah and to create justice on Earth. Then, when the evil is removed, or the other side wants peace, Muslims are to make peace as well.
– Source: Yahiya Emerick, The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Understanding Islam, 1st edition, p. 166 2

A person who engages in jihad is called a mujadid, or struggler for God. Even the act of going to school, or going on the Hajj (pilgrimage to Mecca) can be seen as an exertion or struggle for God.

Lesser Jihad vs Greater Jihad

Muslims refer to a

  • greater Jihad‘ (the personal struggle against sin), and a
  • lesser Jihad‘ (holy warfare against the enemies of Allah and Islam).

This distinction is often lost in the media, in part because some Muslims deliberately misrepresent the concept of Jihad (example).

Muslims often claim that Muhammad said this about Jihad to a companion after battle: ‘You have left the lesser jihad, now you are coming to the greater jihad. The struggle
against yourself.’

That anecdote is reportedly based on one of the hadiths — collections of traditions about what Muhammad said.

However, Islam critic Peter Townsend — author of book, Questioning Islam — says:

The first thing to note is that the first time this hadith appears is in the 12th century. This is a full five centuries after Muhammad died! It is totally absent from the major hadith collections namely Sahih Bukhari, Sahih Muslim, Dawud, Tirmidhi etc.

The idea that ‘inner struggle’ is the primary form of Jihad also directly contradicts the Qur’an. In Qur’an 4:95 it is made clear what the most important form of Jihad is:

“Those believers who sit back are not equal to those who fight in the Path of Allah with their wealth and their selves. Allah has favored those who perform Jihad with their wealth and their selves by degrees over those who sit back. To both (groups) has Allah promised good, but Allah has favored the mujahideen with a great reward, by ranks from Him, and with Forgiveness, over those who sit back. And Allah is Oft-Forgiving, Most-Merciful.” Qur’an [4:95-96]
– Source: Peter Townsend, Is ‘Jihad Against the Self’ the Most Important Form of Jihad

This is shown in greater detail in the article, Jihad in the Hadith, which documents that “First and foremost, jihad meant combat on the battlefield, and specifically against non-Muslims.”

Perhaps this is one reason why Muslims disagree among each other as to what is or is not acceptable in ‘lesser Jihad.’ For instance, while many Muslims speak out against terrorist acts committed in the name of Islam, others approve of such acts under certain conditions (example).

Consider these various views and comments regarding ‘Jihad’:

There are two understandings of jihad. The basic meaning is ”to struggle” or ”to strive.” Greater jihad is the warfare against sin and all that is against God and the teachings of the Quran. It is the personal struggle each Muslim wages to be a true believer and follower. The Quran urges one to stay on the straight path and to strive in Allah’s cause. (22:78; 49:15).

Lesser jihad is the traditional holy war launched in the name of God against the enemies of God and Islam. Thus, jihad is both a personal and community commitment to defend and spread the religion of Islam.

Muslims popularly refer to four expressions of jihad:

  • Jihad of the Tongue: speaking about their faith
  • Jihad of the Hand: expressing their faith in good works
  • Jihad of the Heart: making their faith a force for good
  • Jihad of the SwordL defending their faith when under attack

Both non-Muslims and Muslim writers have used the phrase “holy war” with reference to jihad. Muslim scholars, however, write that Islam teaches it is unholy to start war although some wars are inevitable and justifiable.

The Quran urges those those fight for the cause of Allah and kill pagans wherever they are found. Whenever believers meet unbelievers, Muslims are encouraged to smite their neck and to fight those who believe not in Allah and the last day (2:244; 47:4; 9:5; 9:29).

Tradition approves of violence against infidels and those who leave Islam as their native or chosen religion. Fighting and killing are described as beloved activities. Apostacy is punished by death.

The Quran and the traditions present jihad as coercive and violent. Muslims understand it to be an effort or struggle to bring righteousness and peace on the earth.
– Source: What You Need to Know About Islam & Muslims, George W. Braswell, Jr., Broadman & Holman Publishers, Nashville, TN. 2000. P. 38

The word Jihad means striving. In its primary sense it is an inner thing, within self, to rid it from debased actions or inclinations, and exercise constancy and perseverance in achieving a higher moral standard. Since Islam is not confined to the boundaries of the individual but extends to the welfare of society and humanity in general, an individual cannot keep improving himself/herself in isolation from what happens in their community or in the world at large, hence the Quranic injunction to the Islamic nation to take as a duty ”to enjoin good and forbid evil.” (3:104) It is a duty which is not exclusive to Muslims but applies to the human race who are, according to the Quran, God’s vicegerent on earth. Muslims, however, cannot shirk it even if others do. The means to fulfil it are varied, and in our modern world encompass all legal, diplomatic, arbitrative, economic, and political instruments. But Islam does not exclude the use of force to curb evil, if there is no other workable alternative. A forerunner of the collective security principle and collective intervention to stop aggression, at least in theory, as manifested in the United Nations Charter, is the Quranic reference ”..make peace between them (the two fighting groups), but if one of the two persists in aggression against the other, fight the aggressors until they revert to God’s commandment.” (49:9)

Military action is therefore a subgroup of the Jihad and not its totality. That was what prophet Mohammad emphasized to his companions when returning from a military campaign, he told them: ”This day we have returned from the minor jihad (war) to the major jihad (self-control and betterment).”
– Source: Jihad, About Islam and Muslims

JIHAD ( ) . Lit. ”An effort, or a striving.” A religious war with those who are unbelievers in the mission of Muhammad.. It is an incumbent religious duty, established in the Qur’an and in the Traditions as a divine institution, and enjoined specially for the purpose of advancing Islam and of repelling evil from Muslims.

When an infidel’s country is conquered by a Muslim ruler, its inhabitants are offered three alternatives:–

(1) The reception of Islam , in which case the conquered become enfranchised citizens of the Muslim state.

(2) The Payment of a poll-tax (Jizyah) , by which unbelievers in Islam obtain protection, and become Zimmis , provided they are not the idolaters of Arabia.

(3) Death by the sword , to those who will not pay the poll tax.

Sufi writers say that there are two Jihads: al-Jihadu ‘l-Akbar , or ”the greater warfare,” which is against one’s own lusts; and al-Jihadu ‘l-asghar , or ”the lesser warfare,” against infidels.
– Source: Jihad Entry in T.P. Hughes Dictionary of Islam

Abdul-Moti Bayoumi, of the Islamic Research Center at Cairo’s al-Azhar University, mainstream Islam’s top seat of learning, says for jihad to be legal, it must fulfill several conditions.

Among them: a Muslim should not provoke the aggression; a Muslim should only fight the one who fights him; and children, women, and the elderly should be spared.

"There is no terrorism in jihad or a threat to civilians," Bayoumi said.

Based on that interpretation, Bayoumi said the suicide attacks in the United States were unjustified and therefore considered by Islam as "terror acts."

But he said the attacks against Israelis are acceptable because Palestinians don’t have the high-tech weapons like Israel’s. […]

The grand mufti of Saudi Arabia, Sheik Abdulaziz al-Sheik, sharply disagrees. He declared in April it is "strictly forbidden in Islam" and that "the one who blows himself up in the midst of the enemies is also performing an act contrary to Islamic teachings."

Suicide bombers, the theologian added, should be buried without Islamic ritual and away from other Muslims.

The opposite view is taken by Sheik Youssef al-Qaradawi, an Egyptian clergyman highly respected among the world’s 1.2 billion Muslims. While condemning the attacks in the United States, he said rulings against suicide bombings were issued by "people who are alien to Sharia (Islamic laws) and religion."

Sheik Ikrema Sabri, Jerusalem’s top Muslim cleric and an appointee of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, took a similar line – bombings in Israel yes, elsewhere no.
– Source: Muslim Scholars Debate Suicide Tact, AP, Sep. 16, 2001

Jihad, routinely translated as holy war, often makes headlines. For example, Yasir Arafat’s May 1994 call in Johannesburg for a ”jihad to liberate Jerusalem”[1] was a turning point in the peace process; Israelis heard him speak about using violence to gain political ends, and questioned his peaceable intentions. Both Arafat himself [2] and his aides[3] then clarified that he was speaking about a ”peaceful jihad” for Jerusalem.

This incident points to the problem with the word jihad: what exactly does it mean? Two examples from leading American Muslim organizations, both fundamentalist, show the extent of disagreement this issue inspires. The Council on American-Islamic Relations, a Washington-based group, flatly states that jihad ”does not mean `holy war.”’ Rather, it refers to ”a central and broad Islamic concept that includes the struggle to improve the quality of life in society, struggle in the battlefield for self-defense . . . or fighting against tyranny or oppression.” CAIR even asserts that Islam knows no such concept as ”holy war.”[4] In abrupt contrast, the Muslim Students Association recently distributed an item with a Kashmir dateline, ”Diary of a Mujahid.” The editor of this document understands jihad very much to mean armed conflict:

While we dream of jihad and some deny it, while others explain it away, and yet others frown on it to hide their own weakness and reluctance towards it, here is a snapshot from the diary of a mujahid who had fulfilled his dream to be on the battlefield.[5]

Does jihad mean a form of moral self-improvement or war in accord with Islamic precepts? There is no simple answer to this question, for Muslims for at least a millennium have disagreed about the meaning of jihad. […]

Muslims today can mean many things by jihad—the jurists’ warfare bounded by specific conditions, Ibn Taymiya’s revolt against an impious ruler, the Sufi’s moral self-improvement, or the modernist’s notion of political and social reform. The disagreement among Muslims over the interpretation of jihad is genuine and deeply rooted in the diversity of Islamic thought. The unmistakable predominance of jihad as warfare in Shar`i writing does not mean that Muslims today must view jihad as the jurists did a millennium ago. Classical texts speak only to, not for, contemporary Muslims. A non-Muslim cannot assert that jihad always means violence or that all Muslims believe in jihad as warfare.

Conversely, the discord over the meaning of jihad permits deliberate deception, such as the CAIR statement cited above. A Muslim can honestly dismiss jihad as warfare, but he cannot deny the existence of this concept. As the editor of the ”Diary of a Mujahid” writes, ”some deny it, while others explain it away, yet others frown on it to hide their own weakness.”

The term jihad should cause little confusion, for context almost always indicates what a speaker intends. The variant interpretations are so deeply embedded in Islamic intellectual traditions that the usage of jihad is unlikely to be ambiguous. An advocate of jihad as warfare indicates so through his goals. A Sufi uses the term mujahada or specifies the greater jihad.

Bourguiba clearly did not advocate violence to improve education and development in Tunisia. When ambiguity does exist, it may well be deliberate. In the case of Arafat’s statement about a ”jihad for Jerusalem,” he intended his Muslim audience to hear a call to arms while falling back on the peaceful definition to allay concerns in Israel and the West. Only his later actions reveal whether he was coopting Islamists by adopting their rhetoric or duping Israelis by hiding his violent intentions.
– Source: What does Jihad mean? Douglas E. Streusand, International Policy Institute for Counter-Terrorism

Collected sayings of Mohammed, called hadiths, and other writings may reconcile some of the apparent conflicts. One says: "If people do good to you, do good to them; and if they mistreat you, still refrain from being unjust." Another story tells of Mohammed ordering his soldiers not to mistreat women and children, even during a battle. Both the Quran and hadiths offer examples of respect given to Christians and Jews – both considered along with Muslims as "people of the Book."

But Mr. bin Laden and some other terrorists say the less militant parts of Muslim teachings simply don’t apply to their war with the West. This belief can be traced to a few well-known figures of relatively recent Muslim history.

Muhammad ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhab was a contemporary of George Washington. His supporters say he was a religious reformer who cleaned up a corrupted version of Islam practiced in his part of Arabia. Opponents call him a political opportunist who used religion as a weapon. In either case, he declared that Islam had been corrupted a generation or so after the death of Mohammed, and he condemned any theology, customs or practices developed after that.

It was as if a Christian suggested that Augustine and Aquinas and every later Christian theologian were heretics. Or as if an Orthodox Jewish scholar challenged the validity of the Talmud.

Mr. al-Wahhab and his supporters took over what is now Saudi Arabia. Their descendents still control the area and are among the most influential religious leaders in much of the Middle East.– Source: Muslims concerned about image, Dallas Morning News, Sep. 16, 2001



  • Jihad: The Origin of Holy War in Islam, by Reuven Firestone, Professor of Judaism and Islam and Director of the Graduate School of Judaic Studies at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion.

    While there exists no evidence to date that the indigenous inhabitants of Arabia knew of holy war prior to Islam, holy war ideas and behaviors appear already among Muslims during the first generation. This book focuses on why and how such a seemingly radical development took place. Basing his hypothesis on evidence from the Qur’an and early Islamic literary sources, Firestone locates the origin of Islamic holy war and traces its evolution as a response to the changes affecting the new community of Muslims in its transition from ancient Arabian culture to the religious civilization of Islam.

  • Questioning Islam: Tough Questions & Honest Answers About the Muslim Religion by Peter Townsend


  1. Glossary of Quranic Terms
  2. The quote comes from the first edition of the book. The link leads to the 3rd edition as show at Amazon.com. The book is now titled, The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Islam. Note that this book is written by an American convert to Islam, and that the text has some significant flaws (see the customer reviews at the link provided)
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This post was last updated: Nov. 23, 2015