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Jihad: What Is It and What Is It Not?
Nov 1, 2013

Islam is the name of a religion – it is not a political ideology, nor is it an economic doctrine. However, as a religion, it does embrace a variety of universal principles concerning the fields of politics, economics, and jurisprudence. These universal principles were applied in practical life in many different forms beginning with Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, and continuing with the Rightly Guided Caliphs. Throughout history, from the time of the Prophet to the present time, Muslims have established a number of different states. Although these states did not always have the structures to call themselves religious states, they gave a dominant role to religious values. And what established these values were the contents of the verses of the Qur’an and their interpretations and practices by God’s Messenger.

Undoubtedly, throughout history these states engaged in war with other states. A crucial point to understand is that war has always been a form of engagement between states caused by political, economic, or militaristic reasons. Therefore, in a hostile relationship where long-term dominance and its benefits play a major role, it would be wrong to call such conflicts religious wars solely because the opponents have differing religious identities. Such conflicts are embarked not for religious dominance but for political dominance. Additionally, it is possible for Muslims to be attacked solely for religious differences (this still happens today). In this case, it is natural to react to the attack by defending oneself and one’s religion, for, in fact, it actually becomes an obligation for Muslims to defend their religious freedom (22:39-41), themselves (2:190), and those being oppressed (Haleem 65).

Jihad, a crucially controversial concept in Islam, is often misunderstood by many Westerners, and even some Muslims. Whenever the word comes up, what comes to mind is an armed struggle by Muslims against non-Muslims, such as fights, clashes, and holy war. Jihad is a very comprehensive and dynamic term that can take on different forms, depending on historical circumstances and the needs of Muslims (Heck 95).

The word jihad comes from the Arabic root “j-h-d” and its dictionary meaning denotes doing one’s best, struggling against every kind of difficulty. In a religious context, it refers to the struggles one faces for the sake of God. In the words of Gülen “Jihad is … the inner struggle of a believer against all that stands between the believer and God” (Gülen 191). As Campanini clarifies through al-Ghazali’s teachings, there are two meanings for jihad. “The ‘great’ jihad is the struggle for self-purification, in order to conquer the evil inclinations of character and behavior, while the ‘small’ jihad corresponds to war” (Campanini 54). Delving deeper into the former category for purposes of clarification, the great jihad refers to a person’s struggle to overcome destructive obstacles within the carnal self such as feelings of resentment, hatred, envy, arrogance, and haughtiness – feelings that Islam orders followers not to harbor.

The following explanation for why jihad is confused with terrorism can be made: for the Muslim world, the 20th century was one that was full of oppression and colonialism. Dating back further, to the 19th century, a majority of Muslim lands were struggling for independence. In these battles and wars, Islam was conceived as a means to unite and mobilize people. During these wars, jihad was naturally the most frequently used concept. The war was against these invaders and colonizers, and the people were fighting to protect their country, their people, and their religion. Religious concepts – Qur’anic verses and the sayings and practices of the Prophet – were the main motivational factors driving Muslims during their hard struggle. Muslims called these wars, which were carried out in legitimate self-defense, jihad; however, there is a barrier between war and jihad in Islam that needs to be clarified.

The primary source of information in Islam must be the Qur’an; thus, I will refer to the Qur’an and its usage of the word jihad. Jihad is used in three verses in the Qur’an in the imperative form, as “jahid” and “jahidu,” to mean fighting against non-Muslims.

The other verses that contain jihad refer to its greater meaning, the personal struggle against feelings raised by the carnal self. Actually, the Qur’anic verses concerning war are mostly expressed by the word qital (fighting) rather than jihad (Haleem 64). In terms of the etymological meaning of qital, the relative context of the verses in which it is used and the events on which these were revealed support the fact that this word was mostly used in expressing war in the Qur’an. To give a few examples[1]:

Fight in God’s cause against those who fight against you, but do not exceed the bounds (set by God), for surely God loves not those who exceed the bounds (Baqara 2:190). But if they break their pledges after their treaty (with you) and assail your religion, then fight with those leaders of unbelief – surely they have no trustworthy pledges – so that they may desist (from aggression) (Tawba 9:12-13).

Reading these verses raises an important question: would it be wrong to identify jihad with war, or to give an emphasis to the aspect of war? The simple answer is no, for almost all of the verses related to jihad and qital were revealed in a situation of warfare. Furthermore, it would not be possible to interpret other verses in the Qur’an referring to the great jihad, such as striving with wealth (4:95, 8:72), without these terms’ relation to the aspect of war. This is the very point where the concepts of jihad and qital intersect.

When people devoid of the necessary knowledge of history and Qur’anic commentary methods interpret Qur’anic verses concerning war, they often take it out of context, ignoring the previous verse and subsequent ones, thereby presenting Islam as a religion that gives no value to non-Muslims. This is absolutely wrong. I shall support my argument with a few Qur’anic verses that are commonly misinterpreted:

… kill them wherever you come upon them, and drive them out from where they drove you out. Disorder (rooted in rebellion against God and recognizing no laws) is worse than killing. Do not fight against them in the vicinities of the Sacred Mosque unless they fight against you there; but if they fight against you (there), kill them – such is the recompense of the (rebellious) unbelievers. (Baqara 2:191)

To understand a Qur’anic verse correctly, two essential things need to be kept in mind. First, the verse needs to be considered both independently and within its context. Second, the event for which the verse was revealed needs to be considered. If we consider the above verse with its previous and subsequent verses, we understand that there is an armed group that does not want to let the Muslims live. Thus, God allows the Muslims to put up a legitimate defense, and particularly commands them not be on the side that starts the fight. Furthermore, God reminds them that they should accept any possible offers of peace from the other side, no matter the stage of war.

This verse refers to the idolaters of Mecca, who tortured every Muslim they could, declared a boycott on all relations with Muslims, sent them into exile, drove them out of their homes, tried to force them back to paganism, and when Muslims began to gain power after settling in Medina, the idolaters constantly violated their peace treaties. When the verse is considered in this light, one may even ask the question: why did the Muslims even wait for a revelation to defend themselves – isn’t it common sense to strive to survive?

Let’s take a look at another commonly misinterpreted verse: “…seize them and kill them wherever you find them; and do not take to yourselves any of them as confident, nor as helper” (Nisa 4:88). This verse is often known to be quoted separately to detach it from its context. When one reads this verse as I have presented it, one sees the image of a ruthless and aggressive Muslim, sword in hand, ready to fight. However, as we experienced with the previous verse, reading the context (Nisa 4:88-91) alone will suffice in giving us a better idea behind this verse. After reading the context of the verse, we see that the people mentioned here are the hypocrites of Mecca and Medina. They pretended to be on the sides of the Muslims, but they were not sincere in their faith. Moreover, these hypocrites took every opportunity to act against the Muslims. An additional point to emphasize with this passage is not the command to kill, but the command by God to accept peace if it is offered. Thus, Muslims are not to be on the side that starts a war, but if they are attacked by an enemy, they are allowed to defend themselves.

These were just two examples of verses that are often misinterpreted when stripped from their contexts. These misinterpretations lead to the misinterpretation of Islam and obfuscate the true meaning of jihad. We can also give examples that clarify the meaning of jihad from secondary sources, such as the Prophet’s sayings, or hadiths. God’s Messenger was the conveyor of the Qur’an; therefore it is impossible for his words or practices to contradict the Qur’an in any way. When we look at the Prophet’s sayings on the topic of jihad, we see the same truth behind it.  

One example that often comes up when jihad is mentioned is as follows: on returning to Medina after a battle, God’s Messenger told his companions: “We are returning from the lesser jihad to the greater one.” After having fought a battle in which many Muslims had lost their lives, the Companions were surprised to hear this statement from God’s Messenger. When they asked what the greater jihad was, he explained that it was fighting the carnal self (Ajluni, Kashf al-Khafa, 1:424).

An additional example is what the Prophet told a Companion who asked for permission if he could join a military campaign. The Prophet asked the man whether his parents were alive, upon which the man replied affirmatively. The Prophet said in return: “You perform jihad by serving them” (Bukhari, Jihad, 138). God’s Messenger had a plethora of other cases in which he used the word jihad in a wider non-militaristic sense. Two more of these sayings are: “The most virtuous jihad is speaking up for truth in the face of injustice,” (Abu Dawud, Tirmidhi, 13) and, “The most virtuous jihad is speaking up for the truth before an unjust and cruel ruler” Abu Dawud, Malahim, 17). More importantly, the gravity of this form of jihad is strengthened when looking at one of the statements of the Prophet: “Whoever dies trying to protect his property from a usurper dies a martyr” (Abou El Fadl, 123).

Hitherto, we have looked at jihad in a theoretical sense, using definitions interpreted from the Qur’an and the Prophet’s sayings to reveal its true nature. It is not unreasonable for the reader to wonder how the Prophet acted in times of warfare to further dispel notions of jihad being considered a “holy war”; after all, there were wars and battles in which the Prophet was present. To give a brief account of the Prophet’s example in this light, let’s consider the Battle of Badr. The enemies of the Muslims in the Battle of Badr were the Meccan pagans, who were afraid that the Prophet was amassing enough supporters to pose a strong threat to the Meccans. Consequently, the Meccans sent a letter of ultimatum to their allies in Medina, appealing for the exile and the execution of the Prophet and his followers.[2] These harsh letters caused great upheaval in Medina; however, the actions that the Prophet took quickly eliminated the anxiety of the people of Medina.

The first of the Prophet’s actions was to sign a pact of truce with nearby tribes. The essential elements that he signed with the neighboring tribes were aimed at preventing the neighbors from assisting the Meccans against the Muslims. The Meccans proved to be determined, and despite all of the Prophet’s actions aimed at holding peace, the Meccans wanted to fight. When everyone knew that the battle was inevitable, the Prophet made a last attempt by sending Umar with an offer of peace[3], which was refused and provided the spark for the Battle of Badr. Similarly, when looking at accounts of the other battles of the Prophet – Uhud, Khandaq, and Khaybar – one sees that God’s Messenger always strived to maintain peace and worked to avoid engaging in the Western, ill-defined “jihad” - the spread of Islam, the taking of lives of non-Muslims, and the acquisition of new lands.

Now that the true definition of jihad has been clarified using the Qur’an and accurate interpretations as a primary source and the Prophet’s sayings and actions during warfare as a second source, we have to consider some broader questions. When is jihad complete? How can we accept one interpretation as the proper one? Why is jihad so misunderstood by some Muslims? Does it play to their advantage to intentionally misrepresent it? Lastly, does violent jihad justify terrorism?

Jihad, as mentioned earlier, has two meanings: the “great” jihad – corresponding to self-purification in the path of God, comparable to the Christians’ miles Christi (Peters 206) – and the “small” jihad – corresponding to war. The former type of jihad is essentially never complete; it is everlasting throughout one’s life, for situations that necessitate “great” jihad emerge everyday in a Muslim’s life. In example, if we look at the citizens of Syria today who are opposed to the ruthless oppression of their dictatorial leader, we see that they experience jihad everyday, for the Prophet has stated that, “The most virtuous jihad is speaking up for the truth before an unjust and cruel ruler.”[4] And the tens of thousands of Syrians who have already lost their lives in the face of injustice in Syria’s conflict have died martyrs, for the Prophet has stated that “whoever dies trying to protect his property from a usurper dies a martyr” (Abou El Fadl, 123). If we consider the “small” jihad in this question, we can say that it is intermittent, experienced by Muslims whenever they need to engage in warfare for self-defense to protect their country and their religious freedom.

When faced with the question of the accuracy of interpretations, one cannot bluntly state that one interpretation is more accurate than the other. When presented with a similar question, John Esposito, a Professor of Religion at Georgetown, pointed to a Surah from the Qur’an, which recalls how “God made humankind into nations and tribes for you to get to know one another not that you may despise one another.”[5] These words support a language of religious plurality, a concept that is contrary to religious extremism. Esposito further argued that there is no central authority in Islam or Christianity who can speak for all Muslims or for all Christians. Although the Pope is the central authority for Roman Catholicism, he does not speak for the Orthodoxy or for Protestantism. Every denomination has its own individual religious authority. Islam, similarly, supports the idea of ijtihad, the individual interpretation of the Qur’an. The important point in this question behind interpretations is the broadening of the base of religious authorities. Esposito argues that although this diversification may lead to more chaotic situations, it also serves as a check for religious authorities who legitimize illegitimate wars. Therefore, this system of checking can prove beneficial in stopping wars, though it may pose more problems in other aspects of interpretation. 

Earlier in the paper, I gave an example as to why Westerners might misunderstand jihad; this poses the inevitable question: why is it misunderstood by Muslims? More specifically, does it play to their advantage to intentionally misunderstand it? Rahman describes the true meaning behind the propaganda slogan “Islam was spread by the sword” in his book Major Themes of the Qur’an. He writes: “What was spread by the sword was not the religion of Islam, but the political domain of Islam, so that Islam could work to produce the order on the earth that the Qur’an seeks” (Rahman 63). However, Rahman also points out that armed jihad was often used by later Muslims whose primary aim was territorial expansion and not the worldview they were asked to establish by God. This, unfortunately, answers the question posed above with a yes; it does play to some Muslims’ advantage to intentionally misinterpret jihad for selfish reasons: territorial expansion, political power, and economic benefits, all under the pretext of “religious duty.” These kinds of interpretations of Qur’anic verses and hadiths outside of their more important contexts render the practice of religion astray, allowing selfish extremists to justify their illegal behaviors. However, it is important to note that their justifications behind their actions are largely unaccepted by the greater Muslim community around the world, those who know the distinction between the two jihads and how to apply them in their lives.[6] This brings us to the final question: does violent jihad justify terrorism?

In the Muslim world, there is and always have been radical thoughts and political ideologies; the same is true in Christianity, Judaism, and other religions. However, it is wrong to identify the thoughts and the beliefs of radical groups with religion. One of the focuses of this paper was to emphasize the importance of using the Qur’an and the statements of the Prophet to seek answers in Islam, and the aforementioned radical thoughts are not found in either. Nonetheless, there are still those who commit terrorist acts “for God” or “in the name of religion.” These terrorists also believe in Islam. This leads to a paradox: on one hand, we have Muslims who commit terrorist acts, and on the other hand, we have a religion that forbids these acts. If we view this paradox from the lens of Muslims, we do not see a paradox at all; it is merely a situation that is generated by a wrong perspective. If we take a look at all perspectives – the political, economic, historic, cultural, moral, and humanistic – we see that there is a perceptible dichotomy between religion and terrorism, and are able to consequently establish that terrorism does not stem from religion, but that it has other political, economic, and cultural roots. Therefore, jihad does not justify terrorism; nothing in Islam does, for terrorism is essentially forbidden in Islam.

In conclusion, jihad is a crucial concept in Islam due to the wide misunderstanding it causes amongst people around the world and the concept’s import in Islam on a global scale.  While the term Islamic Terrorism – an oxymoron within itself – is inaccurate in all aspects, its existence is not the issue; its degradingly common usage, especially in the media, advertises a negative Muslim image to non-Muslims, imbuing a subconscious belief that all Muslims are terrorists. The reverse of this scenario often happens in the Muslim world as well, especially after the Iraq War and the War in Afghanistan. These wrongful representations of both sides do nothing but aggravate tensions between the two sides, which leads to further conflict and a discordant world. Instead, if books or news reports that clarify the true meaning of jihad and other misunderstood concepts of various religions and their applications were broadcasted for the world to hear, we would not witness as much religious conflict around the world as we witness today. What a beauty that sight would be: a harmonious society of people living with a plurality of religious beliefs.


  • Abdel Haleem, Muhammad. 2011. Understanding the Qur'an: Themes and Style. I.B. Tauris.
  • Abou El Fadl, Khaled. 2001. Rebellion and Violence in Islamic Law. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Campanini, Massimo. 2011. The Qur'an: Modern Muslim Interpretations. London: Routledge.
  • Gülen. M. Fethullah. 2012. Toward a Global Civilization of Love and Tolerance, NJ: Tughra Books, p. 191.
  • Hamidullah, Muhammed. 2011. Islam Peygamberi. Beyan Yayinlari.
  • Heck, Paul L. 2013. “Jihad Revisited.” The Journal of Religious Ethics 32.1 (2004): 95-128. JSTOR. Web. 22 February.
  • Peters, F. E. 2003. Islam: A Guide for Jews and Christians. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
  • Rahman, Fazlur. 2009. Major Themes of the Qurʼan. University of Chicago Press.
  • Ünal, Ali. 2006. The Qur'an with Annotated Interpretation in Modern English. NJ: Tughra Books.

[1] The reader may also refer to (Tawba 9:36) and (Tawba 9:5) for additional examples on the usage of qital that were omitted due to their length.

[2] Hamidullah, Muhammad, Islam Peygamberi, I, p. 217.

[3] Hamidullah, Hz. Peygamber’in Savaslari (Wars of the Prophet), p. 55–92.

[4] Abu Dawud, Tirmidhi 13.

[5] “Who Speaks for Islam and for Christianity?” Voice of America News, 2008.

[6] This is also true in other non-religious cases. When Timothy McVeigh caused the Oklahoma City Bombing and resulted in the death of 168 people, he thought he had legitimate reasons to do so; however, a majority of the people did not accept his thoughts as sound justification behind his actions.