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Jihad – Does it Really Mean “Holy War?”

Updated on January 20, 2015

The Literal Meaning

English dictionaries generally define Jihad as either:

(a) A war by Muslims against unbelievers, or:

(b) The spiritual struggle within one's self against sin

But do either of these definitions truly capture the meaning of what Jihad really means in its native tongue? Perhaps a more definitive answer can be gleaned from the definition given by the Islamic Supreme Council of America (ISCA).

The first line of The Mission Statement of the ISCA reads: “The Islamic Supreme Council of America is a non-profit, non-governmental religious organization dedicated to educating Muslims and non-Muslims alike, and developing good citizenry through the teaching of moral excellence. Like any other religious organization, they believe that the ills of society can only be truly remedied if individuals practice the teachings and principles of God and his prophets, in this case, Allah and Mohammad. The obvious question then is: “So how does the Islamic tenet of jihad help Muslims to be better citizens of the world?”

To answer that question in the most honest, accurate, and unprejudiced way, one needs to understand the meaning of the word. The ISCA is happy to oblige stating: “The Arabic word "jihad" is often translated as "holy war," but in a purely linguistic sense, the word " jihad" means struggling or striving.” They go on to further distinguish between jihad and war by providing us with the Arabic word for war - "al-harb".

An unbiased clarification can be found in an article written by John Heit from the Jesuit institution of Santa Clara University in Silicon Valley, California. He states, quoting the Qur'an:

Jihad is the Arabic word for "struggle" or "effort". In the context of the Holy Qur'an, jihad is a struggle or effort to strive "in the path of God" (22:78).

James Turner Johnson, a Professor of Religion at Rutgers University explains it this way:

"the concept of jihad…fundamentally denotes striving or effort expended by the individual Muslim to walk in the path of God"

An example of the above usage of this interpretation of jihad can be found in the Qur'an itself:

The true believers are those who believe in God and His messenger, then attain the status of having no doubt whatsoever, and strive (jahadu) with their money and their lives in the cause of God. These are the truthful ones.” 49:15

Clearly the word in one sense is intended to denote a personal struggle, the fight to cleanse oneself morally and spiritually, to rid oneself of selfish desires. But is there another meaning, one that extremists use to justify their actions? The answer is yes, and it is easy to see how it can be interpreted to condone the use of violence against non-believers.

The Greater and Lesser Jihads

The Hadith, or “prophetic traditions”, meaning the teachings and sayings of the prophet Mohammad refer to two different types of jihad – the “lesser jihad,” and the “greater jihad.” Mohammad, in speaking with his followers, tells them after returning from battle hat they have “left the 'lesser jihad' (battle) and must turn to the 'greater jihad' (inner struggle for true submission to God)."[1] This is the first distinction between the two types of jihad, the lesser combative type, and the greater personal struggle towards spiritual cleanliness. The greater jihad is further divided into three separate types:

  • Jihad of the Heart – the fight to develop morality and faith

  • Jihad of the Tongue – the fight to preach and speak purely

  • Jihad of the Hand – the fight to do good works

The ISCA admits that the concept of military jihad exists, and that it is referred to in the Qur'an by the prophet Mohammad, as do other Islamic organizations and individuals. In explaining the tenets of military jihad the ISCA clearly states that; “Innocents - such as women, children, or invalids - must never be harmed, and any peaceful overtures from the enemy must be accepted.” But is that what the Qur'an says?

[1] The legitimacy of this quote from Mohammad is disputed by some authorities who consider it a spurious forgery.


The Qur'an and Jihad

Context is critical in determining the both the meaning and usage of the word jihad, in the Qur'an and otherwise. But there are passages in the Qur'an that clearly advise the “lesser jihad” as a means of spreading both the word of Islam and extending Islamic rule. There can be no doubt however that the word is used in the Qur'an to specify physical combat. One example is:

Fight in the cause of Allah those who fight you, but do not transgress limits; for Allah loveth not transgressors. And slay them wherever ye catch them, and turn them out from where they have turned you out; for tumult and oppression are worse than slaughter; but fight them not at the Sacred Mosque, unless they (first) fight you there; but if they fight you, slay them. Such is the reward of those who suppress faith. But if they cease, Allah is Oft-forgiving, Most Merciful.” (2:190-192)

Many use this passage to argue that the Qur'an only prescribes a self-defensive form of jihad, but other verses seem to suggest an aggressive action as in the verses below.

O Prophet! rouse the Believers to the fight. If there are twenty amongst you, patient and persevering, they will vanquish two hundred: if a hundred, they will vanquish a thousand of the Unbelievers: for these are a people without understanding. For the present, Allah hath lightened your (task), for He knoweth that there is a weak spot in you: But (even so), if there are a hundred of you, patient and persevering, they will vanquish two hundred, and if a thousand, they will vanquish two thousand, with the leave of Allah: for Allah is with those who patiently persevere. It is not fitting for a prophet that he should have prisoners of war until he hath thoroughly subdued the land [Pickthal: "until he hath made slaughter in the land"]. Ye look for the temporal goods of this world; but Allah looketh to the Hereafter: And Allah is Exalted in might, Wise. (8:65-67) [2]

But when the forbidden months are past, then fight and slay the Pagans wherever ye find them, and seize them, beleaguer them, and lie in wait for them in every stratagem (of war); but if they repent, and establish regular prayers and practice regular charity, then open the way for them: for Allah is Oft-forgiving, Most Merciful.” (9:5 [often called the "sword verse"]) [2]

Muhammad was himself a warrior, so it can be no surprise that military action is recommended in certain situations. The above verses are in fact two of the favorites of extremists to defend their actions. An important point regarding the implementation of military jihad or Holy war is made by the ISCA. On their website they write:

In case military action appears necessary, not everyone can declare jihad. The religious military campaign has to be declared by a proper authority, advised by scholars, who say the religion and people are under threat and violence is imperative to defend them. The concept of "just war" is very important.”

The concept of “just war” is obviously not the case in the vast majority of terrorist attacks. The greater leaders of Islam condemn violence against innocents. They clearly demonstrated their condemnation of terrorism following the September 11, 2001 attacks on the World Trade Centers when Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi [Grand Islamic Scholar and Chairman of the Sunna and Sira Council, Qatar], Judge Tariq al-Bishri [First Deputy President of the Council d’etat, Ret., Egypt], Dr. Muhammad S. al-Awa [Professor of Comparative Law and Shari’a, Egypt], Dr. Haytham al-Khayyat [Islamic Scholar, Syria], Mr. Fahmi Houaydi [Islamic Author and Columnist, Egypt], and Sheikh Taha Jabir al-Alwani [Chairman of the North America Fiqh Council, Sterling, Va.] made the following statement:

All Muslims ought to be united against all those who terrorize the innocents, and those who permit the killing of non-combatants without a justifiable reason. Islam has declared the spilling of blood and the destruction of property as absolute prohibitions until the Day of Judgment. … [It is] necessary to apprehend the true perpetrators of these crimes, as well as those who aid and abet them through incitement, financing or other support. They must be brought to justice in an impartial court of law and [punished] appropriately. … [It is] a duty of Muslims to participate in this effort with all possible means.”

Many more leaders of Islam also condemned the actions of the 9/11 attacks; their statements can be read at Charles Kuzman's Website.

[2[Translations and notes courtesy of


The Cause of God

You may be surprised that nowhere in the Qur'an is the term “Holy War” mentioned. What is mentioned in the Qur'an is “jihad in the cause of God.” The extremists who coin the phrase “Holy War” translate the saying the “cause of God” into the word “holy.” But is that an accurate translation? Many students and followers of Islam say no.

When the Qur'an speaks of jihad in the cause of God, it is always in the sense of using all of one's resources, including material wealth, to further God's laws and way of life. The laws of the God of the Qur'an clearly condemn the taking of innocent life. It is not, according to the Qur'an, the “cause of god” to kill innocent people. This is clearly seen in the following verses:

"...... You shall not kill - God has made life sacred - except in the course of justice. These are His commandments to you, that you may understand." 6:151

"You shall not kill any person - for God has made life sacred - except in the course of justice. ....." 17:33

As far as the promotion of Islam and the conversion of non-believers, the Qur'an is clear that religious conversion to Islam be voluntary, decidedly stated in the verses below.

"There shall be no compulsion in religion ..." 2:256

"Had your Lord willed, all the people on earth would have believed. Do you want to force the people to become believers?" 10:99

It should be made especially clear that jihad is not a deceleration of war against other religions. Both Christians and Jews are referred to as "people of the book" by the Qur'an, people who should be respected, and more importantly, protected. The Qur'an nor Islam are perfect however, and like any religion, the laws of Islam are open to interpretation; its followers to manipulation. There is no doubt there are verses in the Qur'an that are hostile to non-believers, that encourage true believers to engage in physical combat against their oppressors. The tenets of any religious doctrine can be overcome by a loving heart though, and it is up to us as individuals to expose the darkness in any belief system, and to show that love for one another is the true “cause of God.”

Fanaticism the Real Problem

The root problem of terrorism is fanaticism. Not just of the religious nature, but of a personal and social sort also. Religion is used by fantasists to justify acts of terrorism, just as it was during the Inquisition and the Crusades. And just as Bible verses are twisted to justify the actions of individuals such as Jim Jones, David Koresh, or John Brown Christian, so can other religious texts be misrepresented to condone terrorist acts. The problem lies not in Islam or its faithful, but in self-proclaimed Imams, fanatics, and fractious sects whose sole aim is self-promotion or simple violence. Rebel factions who seek political power, financial gain, and self-glory are mostly the progenitors of acts of terror, without regard for human life, or the true meaning of the Qur'an, Islam, or the word jihad.

The Danger of Religious Fanaticism

Which Do You Think is the Greatest Danger to Society?

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    • glmorrisbda profile imageAUTHOR

      Gary L. Morris 

      3 years ago from Frankfurt, Germany

      Thanks Kevin

    • profile image

      Kevin Goodwin 

      3 years ago

      I believe that jihad is an internal struggle for all Muslims to stay on the straight path of Islam. Very good hub and informative.

    • glmorrisbda profile imageAUTHOR

      Gary L. Morris 

      3 years ago from Frankfurt, Germany

      Thanks musing!

    • musing randoms profile image


      3 years ago from In the mist that exists between sanity and having completely lost it

      good article, very informative

    • glmorrisbda profile imageAUTHOR

      Gary L. Morris 

      3 years ago from Frankfurt, Germany

      Thanks Kathleen, that's the very reason I wrote it.

    • Kathleen Cochran profile image

      Kathleen Cochran 

      3 years ago from Atlanta, Georgia

      Very interesting, especially in light of how often this term is used by people who are probably unaware of the information you provide in this hub. Sharing


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