What is the meaning of Jihad

The term ‘Jihad’ means to exert, to struggle or to strive in any undertaking. When it comes to Islam and the Muslims, it does refer to struggling in the path of God – especially in physical combat (not just striving against oneself).

However, “Jihad” does not mean “a holy war” in the sense of the Catholic Church’s Crusades against the Muslims and Jews in Jerusalem eight hundred years ago. ‘Holy war’ was a term associated with the Christian Crusades which seeped into medieval European literature as it maligned and vilified Islam. There is no concept of a “holy war” in Islam, as much as there is going into combat against those who are actively engaging in combat against the Islamic state.

It is true that from the early days of Islam, striving or struggling against an aggressor or oppressor on the battlefield was regarded as Jihad. However, the actual word in the Quran related to retaliation against combatants is actually “Qital”. It is important to note “Qital” refers more to fighting, combating, war and battles, whereas, “Jihad” covers a much wider range of meanings and is constantly referred to as striving against one’s “Nafs” or inner desires and lust while trying to live in accordance with the Commandments of Almighty God.

Thus, the struggle of a human being to lead an honest life would be a Jihad just as a government’s endeavor to eradicate corruption would be a Jihad.

 Seen in this light it is understandable why the Prophet Muhammad described striving against one’s own lust as “the greater Jihad” compared to victory in war which to him was “the lesser Jihad”.
This clarification of the meaning of Jihad tells us something about Islam’s attitude towards violence. War is permissible only if the purpose is to repel aggression or to and oppression. There is an oft-quoted verse in the Qur’an which states, “Fight in the cause of God those who fight you, but do not commit aggression, for God loves not aggressors” Quran 2:190.

There are other verses which convey a similar meaning that one fights only if one has been expelled from one’s home or if one has been persecuted. It is partly because of Qur’anic sanction that there is tremendous solidarity among Muslims everywhere with Palestinians and Arabs who are resisting Israeli occupation of their land.

While defending oneself in the face of aggression and oppression is legitimate from a Qur’anic perspective, the religion is also clear about the limits that one should observe in war. The Prophet Muhammad had commanded that those who are not combatants in a battle should not be harmed in any way. Children, women, the old and the infirm should be spared in a war, however just the cause may be. Even animals and plants and any house of worship should be protected.

It is a shame that some Muslims in the name of fighting oppression deliberately target civilians. It is in this context that some of the so-called ‘suicide bombers’ have brought disrepute to Islam. They have tarnished the moral integrity of their cause.